Reflecting on Character Complexity in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Things have come a long way with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, especially with the plethora of DLC characters providing some very unique play styles. However, this also makes me think back to the first couple years of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, where I used to see the game get criticized for lacking depth pretty regularly. The argument commonly went (and to some extent still goes) that the characters are too simplistically designed, thus making many of them too similar in feel and results in less interesting gameplay. While I never shared this opinion and feel that it doesn’t track with my experience, I think it gets at one of the core challenges facing any fighting game: how do you get a diverse range of players to feel like their character choice is special enough for them to keep playing? Personally, I think Ultimate succeeds in this regard, but I think those who feel otherwise are used to games that more heavily reward them and their attitudes towards improvement.

One of my favorite characters to use is Mewtwo, and it’s because I have a fondness for the character, as opposed to viewing it from a purely competitive perspective. Even so, I’ve been trying to get better at the technical aspects of Mewtwo, and I have been overwhelmed not only by how much there is to learn, but how to incorporate them all naturally into my gameplay. Whenever I’ve seen criticisms like the ones above, I’ve thought to myself, how could anyone pick up Mewtwo and claim that you can learn everything about them in a relatively short time? How could anyone claim that Mewtwo’s play style is somehow too reminiscent of other characters?

The answer is that they’re not talking about Mewtwo at all, because Mewtwo isn’t considered a great character, generally speaking. On tier lists even after all the buffs they’ve received, you’ll often see Mewtwo placed somewhere from low to mid tier, with the occasional high-tier spot with the caveat that it would only apply if Mewtwo is mastered to the fullest extent. When choosing Mewtwo from an “I want to win” perspective, the question is simply: Is it worthwhile to learn an extremely complex and difficult character if all that effort fails to net you a top-tier character? 

Adam “Keits” Heart, who worked on Killer Instinct (2013), doesn’t think so—or rather, he doesn’t believe most players who gravitate towards complex characters would be satisfied with such a deal. In the interview above, he talks about how Iron Galaxy Studios purposely strengthened or weakened characters for the overall health of the game. A character with a much higher learning curve (Aria) was made to be relatively strong to reward the players who put in the time and effort.  Another character designed to frustrate (Aganos) was made weaker in order to avoid having players quit the game after going up against him, but with the knowledge that the character would appeal to someone. According to Keits, what’s important is not balance in the traditional sense of having an equal likelihood of winning, but rather the degree to which different characters allow different personalities to shine through. In other words, diversity in competitive play happens when characters are special enough for people to want to devote themselves.

The potential problem with Ultimate, then, was that its top echelon of characters somehow wasn’t giving certain types of players the characters or gameplay they want, and this is why certain characters have sometimes been perceived as being “shallow” in design. Lucina, for example, is a fairly straightforward character, and the absolute standard for the swordsman archetype. She can do a lot, but none of it is especially fancy. She rewards good fundamentals, but players don’t necessarily want to just hone the basics; they want to win in an exciting fashion. It’s also why defensive characters like Sonic and Pac-Man who have verifiable tournament success don’t exactly attract swathes of players eager to use them. They’re complex, but not in the “proper,” i.e. “exciting” way—unless wielded by specific players (see KEN and Tea). That excitement factor is also what creates an exception of sorts to the “complex characters are only good if they’re top-tiers” rule because whether or not the complexities or quirks result in highly transformative gameplay alters how one perceives a character.

Ultimate is often compared to its prequels, and while players of Melee and Brawl consider the differences between the two to be night and day, one thing they have in common is how often veterans of both will praise the “advanced techniques” of each game. In Melee, these are mainly in the form of universal gameplay quirks like wavedashing, dash dancing, and wavelanding, which help make the gameplay fast, frenetic, and smooth. In Brawl, it’s the character-specific advanced techniques that players love. Lucas is considered to be competitively compromised because Marth can kill him from 0% off of a single chain grab due to a strange exploit. Having a weakness this severe should theoretically scare off everyone from using him, but Lucas has extremely loyal players because the character is jam-packed with unique things only he can do, like “Zap Jump.”

That still doesn’t make Lucas a top-tier. At best, he’s considered a mid-tier. In principle, this shouldn’t be all that far from Mewtwo’s situation in Ultimate, but there’s one major difference: it gives something more concrete for players to feel like they’re taking the character so far beyond the perceptions of a Day 1 Lucas that it almost feels like a different character. In a similar vein, Luigi in Melee is not considered a top-tier, but any Luigi player will tell you that one of the reasons they use him is because he has the longest wavedash in the game. He goes from having some of the worst mobility in the game to some of the best, and it fundamentally changes how the character functions.

Mewtwo can do a lot of interesting advanced things, like abruptly change directions in the middle of charging Shadow Ball (“wavebouncing”), or cancel Shadow Ball upon landing and immediately transition into other actions, but they’re still basically the same character, with the same essential stats, strengths, and weaknesses as a Day 1 Mewtwo. The advanced techniques in Ultimate, whether they’re character-specific or universal, still stay within the boundaries of the game’s perceivable possibilities. The amount of reward I get for mastering Mewtwo’s wavebounce would be maybe a 5-10% improvement to the character overall. A Luigi wavedash, in turn, is like a 50-75% boost. It’s not even close.

Ultimate is successful at capturing a huge variety of players, and what we’ve seen are mainly specific types of players who aren’t being catered to. I think what frustrates those players of Ultimate who wish they could do more is that, in contrast to Melee with its game-altering discoveries or Brawl with its character-specific techniques, playing Ultimate is at its core about working within limitations that have very clear strengths and weaknesses. Incineroar cannot magically improve his poor ground speed the way a Melee Luigi can. You can do any move out of an initial dash, but moving in that fashion leaves you vulnerable, and the only way to mitigate it is to choose not to dash. You can have a character with millions of little intricacies and lots of undiscovered potential, but it’s likely not going to instantly turn any matchups around. Players are working within the intended system as opposed to circumventing it, and Smash as a franchise is full of veteran players who came from games that allowed them to be transformative on some level, or at least rewarded them mightily should they put effort into improving. Ultimate in competitive play is still a contest of skill, cleverness, and physical dexterity, but perhaps more satisfying for those who don’t mind moving feet instead of miles.

Sarah Kerrigan (Starcraft) for Super Smash Bros.

As E3 and the next Nintendo Direct get closer, I find that I want to see two things in Super Smash Bros.: even more villainous characters like Sephiroth and a representative of the influential real-time strategy genre. I’m attracted to the idea that Smash Bros. is a celebration of video game history, albeit one intentionally skewed towards Nintendo. The inclusion of Starcraft would not only bring in another country/demographic (older South Koreans who grew up with the game), but would implicitly call upon the game franchise as one of the biggest esports phenomenons of all time. League of Legends might have been the current big thing in Korea over the past ten years, but Starcraft is a foundational Korean esport.

Symbolizing All Three Starcraft Races

Much like Fire Emblem: Three Houses, there are three in-game playable factions in Starcraft, and it can be difficult to think of a character in Smash who can represent them all, and there really isn’t a primary “player character” like Three Houses’ Byleth. Jim Raynor is basically the protagonist of the Terran campaigns, and there are numerous Protoss characters who make significant impacts—Tassadar, Zeratul, Artanis—but I think it’s Sarah Kerrigan who would be best for Smash because she possesses elements of all three races.

Kerrigan begins Starcraft as a Terran before being captured by the Zerg and transformed with both Zerg attributes and Protoss-esque psychic abilities. It would be most plausible for her to incorporate attributes from each race into her attacks, such as non-permanent Cloaking from the Terrans, Psionic Storm from the Protoss, and Burrowing from the Zerg.

RTS Gameplay Mechanics

But if you’re going to have a Starcraft representative, it would be great if the character could incorporate aspects of the real-time strategy genre, and I could see Smash doing something really creative. Perhaps you could have the ability to summon different types of Zerg units to accompany you Luma-style depending on certain conditions met. Perhaps it could be like how Villager plants trees, except Kerrigan could spawn a single Hatchery which produces Zerglings. Maybe she could also induce it to upgrade into a Lair and then a Hive, allowing for stronger and stronger units, e.g. Mutalisks and Ultralisks. It might be overly complicated this way, but that also feels in line with the Starcraft spirit. Like Villager’s Tree, Hatcheries would be vulnerable to damage and could be eliminated. Essentially, think Jack-O’ from Guilty Gear Xrd, but with the amount of room to maneuver that a platform fighter provides.

If there was a way to give an advantage to players with high APM, that would also be true to the RTS genre, but that might be a little excessive.

While the intense demand of the original Starcraft games on players to excel can be somewhat incongruous with Smash, I think there could be a happy middle ground. Kerrigan (or any Starcraft character) would have both the gameplay potential and the notoriety to make Smash Bros. proud. 

Goro (Mortal Kombat) for Super Smash Bros.

In discussions of Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC characters, the question is often “what character do you want?” rather than “what kind of character do you want?” But pro Ultimate player Tweek has professed on his podcast his desire to see a genuine heavy-style character to be one of the last two DLC characters—someone who embodies, in his words,  the “heavy lifestyle.”

It is true that we haven’t seen any Bowser-esque characters among any Smash DLC since even Smash 4, and so I started to think about who would fit well while still bringing something to the table in terms of significance and/or interesting gameplay. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that Goro from Mortal Kombat would be a great idea for a heavy DLC character. While 2D fighting games have their fair share of representatives now (between Ryu, Ken, and Terry Bogard), I think Goro gives us a new villain character (though arguably more of a tweener like Mewtwo) who represents another long-standing series with cultural influence.

I haven’t played any Mortal Kombat games for the past…twenty years…so I’m not terribly familiar with how Goro’s play style has changed or evolved as the games themselves have gone through multiple directions. But the image of Goro is ever-present as a big, nasty, four-armed bruiser who can grab you with two hands and pummel you with the other two. He can shoot fireballs, leap high into the air and land with a stomp (perfect for a Smash-style recovery move), and just has an imposing aura that would bring a lot of personality. I feel like I can easily picture Goro’s gameplay in my mind, and it looks cool: you think you can escape him, but his surprising speed and even his powerful projectile would make it feel like you only run for so long.

In terms of appearance, I think it’d be awesome if Goro’s original stop-motion, clay-model aesthetic could be maintained for his entry into Smash. It would make him visually pop in a way no other character does. That said, I’d understand if they went for something more current-looking, as that’s the direction Mortal Kombat has gone in general. With eight costumes per character, both could be possible, but I still wonder which would be the default. My preference would be old-school.

There’s also the question of Mortal Kombat’s signature selling point: blood-and-guts gore. That simply would not pass muster in Smash, but I think Goro could still make it through intact. He can come across as hyper-violent and nasty, but I think that could be conveyed without needing to portray actual viscera flying and bone-breaking attacks. Fatalities would still be a must, but they’d be more exaggerated and extreme than brutal. 

I have no close attachment to Goro as a character, but I just think he would successfully capture the “heavy character” feel in a way few others could, while also fitting well into Smash Bros. gameplay. And i mean, don’t you want someone to say “EXCELLENT” every time he uppercuts his opponents?

The “Essence vs. Fill” Priorities Tier List in Smash Bros. Ultimate and Beyond

Tier lists are a staple part of discussions in any competitive gaming community. No matter the approach or philosophy, they’re an attempt to make sense of a game’s elements, and a well thought out tier list can be an opportunity for fruitful discussion. A few months back, I watched a video by Super Smash Bros. Melee player/commentator Toph, in which he goes over a Melee “tier” list by another player named Ginger. Much like how it blew Toph’s mind, I found it really fascinating myself. 

Ginger ranks the characters not by how strong they are, how likely they are to win a tournament, overall matchup spread, or any of the standard conceptions of tier lists. Instead, it’s about where characters fall on a spectrum between what he calls “essence” and “fill.” The video mostly explains what those terms mean, but they’re not obvious upfront. Actually, they’re pretty obtuse, but I’m sticking with them so as not to further introduce new vocabulary. 

Basically, “essence” means characters who mainly play by aiming towards certain central win conditions or moves, whereas “fill” means sort of “throw the kitchen sink at ’em” characters who try to use smoke and mirrors to win the day. In the context of Melee, Ice Climbers are considered a “pure essence” character because chain grabs (be they infinite or otherwise) are so fundamental to their play. Falco is considered “all fill” at the highest levels of play because he really has to rely on his entire kit to win, but at lower level is considered an “essence” character because his fundamental tools (his power short hop laser and his down b being a combo starter) are so difficult for less skilled and experienced players to deal with. Other terms used to describe this difference used in this video (as well as a follow-up) are essence = meat and potatoes, and filler = smoke and mirrors.

It’s also worth noting that just because a character is more “essence” or more “fill” doesn’t mean they’re only good at one or the other. Fox can do well in both (which is probably why he’s arguably the best character there), but he’s simply even better at “fill” stuff. It also doesn’t say which characters are stronger overall, with top and bottom tiers being strewn throughout each category.

With that in mind, I made a quick chart for how I think characters fall in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, roughly in order within tiers. Due to fundamental differences in the games, I think there’s a higher percentage of “essence” characters in Ultimate than Melee, but I will be the first to admit that I don’t have the experience to speak for most characters. These are built on my perceptions playing against them here and there, as well as watching many tournaments.

Framing characters along this spectrum has helped me think about why certain characters might appeal to certain types of players regardless of competitive viability. A player who finds more satisfaction out of forcing their opponents to play around a specifically potent and efficient attacks of an essence-based character may not enjoy the constant mix-ups and obfuscations that fill-based characters thrive on. Different match-ups might become more frustrating for some people than others because it might require switching from fill to essence-based play or vice versa. In a way, it could potentially be less of a tier list and more of a psychology test.

The spectrum vs. fill contrast can also help explain how characters may have changed in the transition between games. For example, I consider Mewtwo to be a “mostly fill” character in Ultimate because while it has certain kill confirms and reliable go-to attacks (Shadow Ball), Mewtwo generally has to focus on trying to slowly build up its wins using the full range of its tools. However, I think Smash 4 Mewtwo is more of a “mostly essence” character because its down tilt could combo more easily (thus making it the de facto tool in neutral), the nair into footstool into disable could net KOs so easily, and its powerful air dodge made reversing situations fairly simple.

This way of thinking about characters and players can extend beyond Smash into other competitive games, and even beyond gaming into other areas. For example, I find it to be a great way to categorize different professional wrestlers in terms of their in-ring styles. Who is more “essence” than Hulk Hogan, who famously won most of his matches with a combo of Hulk Up into Big Boot into Leg Drop? On the flipside, AJ Styles is the definition of “fill” because while he has no one devastating move that all but guarantees victory, his character is portrayed as someone who has developed a variety of finishers that can be adapted to virtually any situation.

You can also apply it to the differences between visual artists. A “pure essence” artist would be one who can fully imagine the finished product and then work towards that image, while an “all fill” artist would be one who doesn’t have it fully formed in their mind’s eye but slowly builds up towards something. It doesn’t say anything about skill, talent, or hard work—it’s a difference in how one perceives and interacts with the world on a creative level.

So whether it’s Smash or something else entirely, I think the essence vs. fill spectrum is a useful thought exercise. It’s something I might come back to in the future.

How Incineroar in Smash Bros. Embodies Japanese Pro Wrestling

Incineroar is one of my favorite characters to play in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. He’s the first truly traditional grappler character in the franchise, and his entire moveset directly reflects the Pokémon’s pro wrestling background. However, what I think is really fascinating about Incineroar’s implementation in Smash is that the character draws most directly from an old-school Japanese professional wrestling aesthetic and history.

To start off, a major part of Incineroar’s Japan-inspired wrestling design is a part of its identity as a Pokémon. It clearly takes a lot of influence from the beloved fictional wrestling character turned actual flesh-and-blood wrestler Tiger Mask—both are cat-themed athletes who are ostensibly heels but have a soft spot for children. But if you take a look at the relative strength of Incineroar’s attacks, you’ll find that it’s based on Japan’s cultural understanding of pro wrestling.

Incineroar’s forward smash is an Enzuigiri, and it has immense damage and KO potential. To a viewer mainly familiar with American promotions, the Enzuigiri is mostly used as a transitional move to something stronger or a counter to an opponent’s offense. However, the technique has a greater legacy in Japan, where it is the finisher of Antonio Inoki, one of the three most famous Japanese wrestlers of all time. Inoki is a legend as both a champion and the founder of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and was even used as the model for the character Fighter Hayabusa in the NES game Pro Wrestling, where the Enzuigiri is known as the “Back Brain Kick.”

If you look at what Incineroar can do off a grab, you’ll find a similar phenomenon. Of the character’s four basic throws, the deadliest one is the German Suplex. Again, you have a move that, outside of Japan, is seen as kind of generic; maybe at most, people might associate it with Kurt Angle or Brock Lesnar. But the German Suplex is also the defining hold of Karl Gotch, the man known as the “god of wrestling” in Japan. Gotch had an enormous influence on the Japanese pro wrestling style, and even today whenever a wrestler pulls off a German Suplex in Japan, it’s seen as a big deal that can potentially end a match right then and there.

Another powerful throw Incineroar uses is the Argentine Backbreaker. While this move is seen in the US as more impactful than the Enzuigiri or German Suplex thanks to wrestlers like Lex Luger and the man who originally popularized it, Antonino Rocca, its footprint is even more prevalent in Japan. Not only did Rocca wrestle in Japan later in his career and is possibly the namesake of Antonio Inoki, but the Argentine Backbreaker also gained notoriety in the pages of the manga Kinnikuman. There, the character Robin Mask (a wrestler dressed like an English knight) uses it as a finishing move, calling it the Tower Bridge. Moreover, it’s clear that at least Sakurai Masahiro (the director of the Smash Bros. franchise) knows Kinnikuman: he posted to Twitter an image of Smash characters mimicking the Muscle Docking technique from the series:

Moving on, Incineroar’s best attack is arguably its side special, the Alolan Whip. While the name itself is a parody of the Irish Whip, the more important part is the follow-up: a vicious Lariat. 

One of the most famous American wrestlers to ever entertain fans in Japan is Stan Hansen, whose Western Lariat became downright iconic everywhere he fought. On the Japanese Wikipedia page for “Lariat,” the history section literally begins with a mention of Hansen, and in current times, the Japanese wrestler Okada Kazuchika is famed for his “Rainmaker” Lariat. Incidentally, Incineroar also has another related move taken from the Pokémon games—Darkest Lariat—but that’s closer to Zangief from Street Fighter II’s Double Lariat.

Generally speaking, I find that pro wrestling has a lot more of a longstanding influence on Japanese pop culture than it does American pop culture, despite the fact that pro wrestling as we know it has its origins in the United States. Even today, manga and anime wholly unrelated to wrestling or hand-to-hand combat (like Laid-Back Camp) will throw in a few references, as if to assume a common understanding among readers. So while having a wrestling cat for a Pokémon is not altogether that unusual regardless of culture, I find the execution of such a concept in Smash Bros. Ultimate to be very reflective of that enduring legacy. The fact that Incineroar so embodies the values of Japanese pro wrestling makes it all the more fun to play, win or lose.

Aesthetic and Gameplay Thoughts on Pyra and Mythra in Smash Ultimate

The newest DLC characters for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate are Pyra and Mythra (also known as Homura and Hikari in Japanese) from Xenoblade Chronicles 2. I’ve never played any Xenoblade games (or, for that matter, any games beginning with the prefix “Xeno”), so my impressions of these two characters are purely from an aesthetic and Smash gameplay standpoint.

Aesthetics

In terms of visual designs, Pyra and Mythra are probably the most “anime” of all characters thus far in the Smash Bros. franchise. Now, I fully understand that anime as a style is extremely diverse and that saying something is “anime” doesn’t reveal much on its own. Here, however, what I specifically mean is that their aesthetic is the kind that appeals to otaku primarily in the same vein that something like BlazBlue does—and at the possible expense of appealing to a wider and unfamiliar audience. 

Speaking personally as someone who devotes numerous hours per week to anime and manga, I don’t mind their look, but I fully understand why others would turn their noses at these two. There’s no mystery that these designs are pretty thirsty, and that they traffic heavily in anime tropes. If you listen to the Japanese in the video “Mr. Sakurai Presents Pyra/Mythra,” the Smash Bros. series director summarizes their respective demeanors as dere and tsun—what the official subtitles translate as “sweet” and “headstrong.” 

Ultimate also gives the ability to listen to the characters’ voices in Japanese and English, and the differences in performance have convinced me that there’s an aspect of many Japanese characters that gets lost between characters. Namely, when performing special attacks, I think the differences in Pyra’s and Mythra’s personalities aren’t as prominent in English as they are in Japanese. There’s a certain lack of aggressiveness I sense in Pyra even in her more passionate lines in Japanese that isn’t quite there in English.

Gameplay

Much like Zelda and Sheik prior to Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii, Pyra and Mythra are two characters in one, with players being able to swap between the two of them as a special move. The basic breakdown (as explained by series director Sakurai) is that Pyra has power and Mythra has speed, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how fast Mythra is. 

Just moving around with Mythra reminds me of my earliest days playing Super Smash Bros. Melee and trying out Fox McCloud. Throughout the Smash Bros. franchise, Fox is known for being extremely nimble on the ground, and also dropping like a rock when falling. It’s not uncommon for new players unfamiliar with Fox to just fall off accidentally and die. Mythra sports a similar combination along with a somewhat limited ability to get back to the stage that makes self-destructs likely, and in a game like Ultimate where recoveries are generally strong, it’s quite a glaring weakness. 

That being said, Mythra by herself easily feels like one of the best characters in the game because that level of agility never goes out of style in Smash. She’s fast on the ground, fast in the air, and she has attacks that either start up quickly or cover a lot of space instantly. Her side special, Photon Edge, reminds me a bit of Sonic’s game plan in general. If you’re caught slacking from even half a stage away, Mythra can punish even an empty hop—the drawback being that some of her more damaging attacks like Photon Edge are easy to punish themselves.

In contrast, Pyra is markedly slower in every way and her recovery is even worse, but her reach and kill power easily outdo Mythra’s. Traditionally, Smash has favored speed over strength, and that’s still likely the case here, but Pyra’s ability to net KOs is actually kind of frightening. Many of her attacks are actually relatively fast for how early they can take stocks, and her superior reach compared to Mythra means that you can mess up an opponent’s spacing and neutral by switching between the two characters. Playing against Pyra, there were many occasions where I assumed I was at a safe distance, only to get forward smashed and lose the game. So while Pyra is likely the weaker of the two, her upsides complement Mythra quite well and actually appear to shore up each others’ flaws, unlike how Sheik is far and away a better character in Melee and Brawl to the point that Zelda only ever comes out in extremely niche situations.

Given the inherently advantageous properties of Mythra combined with having Pyra as a wild card, I feel like the chances of this character being top tier are very high. There’s just so much they have that classically works well in Smash that it’s hard to imagine them having any weaknesses that could truly limit them.

Overall

I don’t know Pyra and Mythra, but I think they’re welcome additions to Smash Bros. Their characters don’t bring any wild or unorthodox new mechanics to the table, but they ooze personality in everything they do. While I’m expecting the two of them to be very popular competitively, and I suspect that there might be a backlash against them coming,I think it’s a good idea to enjoy the ride for now, whether you’re a fan of them already or you’re just discovering them for the first time.

Sun Guts: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for March 2021

Here we are: roughly a year since coronavirus basically forced the world to change course. I seriously could not have imagined all that has happened since, and it feels like ten years have passed in the span of one. I’m losing my grip on time a bit, but this makes me wonder if doing these monthly blog updates actually helps in some way. I can see the days and weeks go by.

In happier news, the Blocker Corps IV Machine Blaster crowdfund to digitally archive the series was successful! I talked about it in a post to drum up support, and it actually didn’t make it until literally the 11th hour by crossing the finish line with only 11 minutes left in the all-or-nothing campaign. It’s not going to be on anyone’s list of best anime ever, but knowing I helped to keep an anime alive makes me feel good.

After all, I know what it’s like to have the support of others. Thank you to March’s Patreon sponsors:

General:

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Alex

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

Blog highlights from February:

God Mars and the Legacy of BL Fan Shipping

A look at the giant robot anime that is foundational to the fujoshi fandom in Japan. Gundam Wing before Gundam Wing, you might say.

That’s Ruff, Buddy—Nichijou: My Ordinary Life

My long overdue review of one of the funniest manga ever.

Otakon Needs Our Help

My favorite anime convention might not survive another year due to the Coronavirus. Consider supporting them!

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 37 has the most intense musical performance yet.

Closing

The 2021 New York International Children’s Film Festival starts this Friday! Unlike previous years, it’s a virtual festival this time around, and the $40 two-week all-acesss pass is an incredibly good deal. If you live in the US, it might be worth checking out.

Also, how about that Pyra and Mythra in Smash Bros. Ultimate, huh? I’m thinking about writing something in regards to fanservice in character designs, hopefully providing a nuanced perspective.

Stay safe, get vaccinated. I wish you good health.

Epsilon-Eagle (Alien Soldier) for Super Smash Bros.

Today’s a Nintendo Direct, so why not get excited with some Smash Bros. Ultimate character speculation?!

Treasure is a great video company that has a reputation for making games that cater to a more hardcore audience looking for difficult yet rewarding gameplay. As fond as I am of Treasure, however, I only recently got to learn about what is arguably their most difficult title ever: Alien Soldier. A largely one-man labor of love, it’s basically a gigantic boss rush, and as someone who adores boss fights, it’s in many ways the perfect game for me. It’s also mindbendingly unforgiving on a level that is all but unmatched—a combination of difficult controls and giant enemies designed to exploit the awkwardness that results from cumbersome movement. It’s fun, but cruel.

The peculiar nature of Alien Soldier’s gameplay kind of reminds me of the precision required to play Smash Bros. Melee at a high level. That thought then led to the obvious one: what if Epsilon-Eagle, the protagonist of Alien Soldier, was in a Smash Bros. game? Granted, there’s nothing that would automatically make him more deserving than even other Treasure heroes like Red and Blue from Gunstar Heroes, Marina Liteyears in Mischief Makers, or Serena in Guardian Heroes—except maybe that hardcore legend status. Still, I want to entertain the notion.

The key thing about translating Epison-Eagle to Smash Bros. is that the character’s game philosophy stands in philosophical opposition to the Kirby franchise. Where Kirby is all about gentle, beginner-friendly learning curves, Alien Soldier is punishing to the unfamiliar. Everything about controlling Epsilon-Eagle is supposed to feel like a chore at first. He should have awkward acceleration while running, jumps that are kind of a pain in the ass for the user, and weapons that both have limited ammo and get worse the more you use them. He should also be feared at low percents thanks to the ridiculous might of Phoenix Force.

In Alien Soldier, Phoenix Force is an extremely powerful dashing attack that does a ton of damage, is invincible, and hurts the user. In Smash, it would be like a combination of Charizard’s Flare Blitz and Banjo-Kazooie’s Wonderwing on steroids, albeit with an even more serious downside than Wonderwing’s limited ammo. Much like Link’s sword projectile, Phoenix Force would only be available when Epsilon-Eagle is under a certain amount of damage (let’s say 0-25%). The recoil from Phoenix Force would itself inflict 26% damage on the user (while dealing 50% to the opponent), meaning that unless you heal, there’s no way to use it again.

The catch here is that Epsilon-Eagle would be the only character in Smash who can heal by parrying attacks, somewhat akin to a “Just Defend” from Garou: Mark of the Wolves. In Alien Soldier, there is a move called “Counter-Force” that effectively acts as a parry, but which also creates health drops to collect. In Smash, having parry bring down the damage percentage would be a rough replication of that. It also makes the character good at dealing with projectiles (aside from Epsilon-Eagle also being a ranged character) and overly safe and predictable gameplay, as you wouldn’t want to accidentally give him back enough health to gain access to Phoenix Force.

In terms of special moves, Phoenix Force would be the side-special. While it’s executed as “down + jump” in Alien Eagle, I think it would be okay to at least give players the luxury of more intuitive directional controls. When Phoenix Force isn’t usable, the attack would simply be Zero Teleport, a horizontally traveling no-damage invincible dash reminiscent of Fox Illusion mixed with a bit of Pichu’s Agility. While it would indeed be impossible to hit, it would also travel the exact same distance and direction every time, limiting how much it can be abused. 

Neutral special would be Shot, i.e. firing your currently selected projectile weapon (Buster Force, Flame Force, Lancer Force, etc). Up-special would be Hover, which like in Alien Soldier, freezes you in place in the air. In Smash, it would be more for temporary midair stalling to mess with the opponent’s timing, but this would also mean Epsilon-Eagle’s recovery is highly reliant on Zero Teleport. Down-special would be Weapon Select, and much like Min Min’s Arms Change would cycle through different projectiles to use for the neutral special. Special + Shield would switch him between stationary shooting and running-and-gunning modes, giving him the ability to do both a moving shot a la Mega Man/Min Min or the ability to change direction of fire while standing still, but not both at the same time. It’s another intentional execution barrier in Alien Solder, and it would be here as well.

As for normal attacks and throws, they would have to be mostly made up from whole cloth, with a few perhaps utilizing ammo, akin to how Robin’s can deplete his Wind or Fire tomes depending on what version of jab he throws out. Something cool and spacey would be nice, but the important thing would be to not have him utterly hosed by reflectors. 

A character like Epsilon-Eagle should probably be high-tier or top-tier to justify his absurdity, but having someone so finicky could likely land him in mid-tier or worse. Moreover, the sheer strength of Phoenix Force would be tricky to balance, as even the slightest tweaks to it could result in a busted and aggravating character to use or fight against (or both at the same time!). Even so, wouldn’t it be amazing to see Epsilon-Eagle be up two stocks through clever gameplay, and then devastate the opponent’s last stock with a well-timed Phoenix Force? 

Minecraft Steve Is the PC Gaming Mascot of Smash

Throughout the years on this blog, I’ve speculated who would be a proper mascot for Western PC gaming in Smash Bros. As that series has transitioned from being “Nintendo All Stars” to “Video Game All Stars,” I’ve thought about the kinds of characters who could do a field as wide as “gaming on computers” justice. Maybe it could be the Warcraft orc Thrall, who features prominently in the real-time strategy, MMORPG genres, and MOBA genres. Maybe it could be Turrican, who comes from the Commodore 64 and Amiga era. But what I failed to realize—even after I did an analysis!—is that Steve from Minecraft is that Western PC representative. 

Minecraft is currently owned by Microsoft and on nearly every platform available, but as one of only two characters to get his start on computers (the other being Solid Snake and his original MSX debut), Steve 100% counts as a PC gaming mascot. I think the reason it didn’t even occur to me until recently is the sheer degree of Minecraft’s success. It is literally the best selling video game ever, and its presence transcends gaming. Yet, it still has fairly humble origins as a side project for a programmer working at a browser-based game company, to the extent that you might even count Steve as also the first indie gaming rep in Smash Bros. even if it is technically no longer an indie game.

As with every out-of-left-field fighter added to Smash, Steve opens up a world of possibilities in my mind. I want more than ever to just every aspect of video games from its earliest days somehow included. What about edutainment? Ryu, Ken, and Terry cover 2D fighting games, but 3D fighting games are substantially different. Reimu from Touhou could cover doujin games as well as shmups. Mobile and gacha games are such a huge part of the industry now—why not Angry Birds, or Dragalia Lost if they want to keep it in the Nintendo family? Imagine if Great Giana Sisters (which began as a Mario rip-off) made it in. Hell, why not bring in Computer Tennis

I’m aware that there are only three DLC slots left in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and that I’m wishing for the moon. Even so, it feels like we keep getting one ladder rung closer to that impossible dream, and it becomes ever so tempting to keep imagining. I realistically won’t be disappointed to see something less, and I respect all that the developers have accomplished, but nothing will stop me from looking toward the next sequel.

Sephiroth in Smash Is Uncharted Competitive Territory

Sephiroth has officially been released for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, though many people had already gotten their hands on him thanks to the Sephiroth Challenge: a special boss fight with the new DLC character where the reward was early access. Having tried out the One-Winged Angel for a few days myself, I’d like to give my initial impressions of the character, and how I think he’ll pan out in more competitive play.

During this preview period, I’ve seen assessments of Sephiroth go anywhere from disappointingly mediocre to potential top tier. Based on personal experience, I can see why. Sephiroth seems to have qualities that are often death sentences for viability (large body easily prone to getting hit, slow and laggy attacks) but also ones that make for powerful characters (extremely large sword, high mobility, versatility, a built-in comeback factor). In other words, while Sephiroth is nowhere near as unorthodox as Steve from Minecraft, he still possesses a combination of qualities that have never really existed in Smash Bros. before. As #1 player in the world MKLeo puts it, he’s like Byleth (a similarly range-focused character), except Sephiroth trades attack speed for better movement. And in Smash, movement is generally king. 

The sheer size of Sephiroth’s Masamune changes everything. It goes without saying, but the sword is loooong. Cases where an opponent would otherwise be safe rolling away can still get them caught by the end of a sword swipe, and not even because of a particularly impressive read. Spacing both as and against Sephiroth is just different, especially if you factor in his other special moves, which are designed to scare opponents into making bad decisions. The ability to fake out with a Flare charge cancel, to get people to panic with Shadow Flare, or even catch someone slipping with a deadly Octoslash means that it’s easy for Sephiroth to fight on his terms.

That’s not to say Sephiroth’s aforementioned weaknesses are trivial. Like Mewtwo, he’s both tall and light, meaning it’s easy for him to take damage and die early. Sephiroth has issues with being smothered by quick and agile characters who can bait out his attacks and punish their endlag. His frame data is objectively lackluster, and his closest reliable option out of shield is a dismal neutral air with a frame-9 startup (though its utility on offense is much greater). His faster attacks also require a lot more precision, as they tend to be long but thin stabbing motions that don’t cover much space to the sides of the sword. However, Sephiroth in neutral generally looks to have an answer for everything, and it’s a matter of finding what works. I was playing online and losing games to a Fox—exactly the kind of character who can get in your face and stay there—but I managed to eventually win just by using my attacks differently. Down smash’s heavy shield damage can make defensive play unreliable, Scintilla’s ability to push back aggression, and up tilt’s generous scooping hitbox made charging in less free once I realized what to do.

On top of all this is Sephiroth’s One-Winged mode, which improves his stats across the board, as well as giving him super armor on smash attacks and a third jump. Activated when Sephiroth takes a certain amount of damage, it makes him scary in a manner akin to Limit Cloud, because the enhanced mobility makes possible things that would have been out of the question otherwise. Luckily for anyone facing him, he’s still light to the point that it won’t take much to KO him and remove his enhancements temporarily, but it can be like fighting (and using) a different character.

Speaking of Cloud, in comparison to his fated rival, Sephiroth is definitely not meant to be a beginner’s character. Whereas Cloud has extremely good mobility and hitboxes that are both safe and generous, Sephiroth can’t just throw things out willy nilly and hope for the best. Cloud can be played intelligently, but Sephiroth needs brains to function well if your opponent knows what to expect. He just has so many attacks with so many particular uses, it’s going to take a long while before even the best players know how to fully utilize everything he can do.

As for where I think Sephiroth will end up in terms of viability, I’m bullish on his future performance, and can see him at least in high tier. Slow attack speed is never a good thing, but imagine if you took Ganondorf and just gave him a sword as big as Sephiroth’s. It wouldn’t necessarily make Ganondorf a top tier, but it would open up possibilities on offense and defense in a big way. Thus, while Sephiroth has his fair share of pronounced flaws, he also possesses a unique combination of laggy yet powerful ranged attacks along with tricky movement and specials such that the drawbacks of the former can be mitigated by the latter with smart spacing. The very fact that MKLeo is interested in using Sephiroth might also very well give him a huge boost in visibility early on.