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. 

Sephiroth and Villainous Presence in Smash Bros.

Sephiroth has been announced as the latest DLC guest character in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate to great fanfare. I certainly didn’t expect him because I figured they would want to spread their 3rd party characters among as many companies and franchises as possible for the widest marketing reach—let alone having a second Final Fantasy VII character, even if there is a big remake currently.  Why Sephiroth?

The answer, I surmise, is that he fulfills an ongoing theme of having villains to contrast some of the biggest heroes in Ultimate. This is the game that added Ridley and King K. Rool to the roster, and K. Rool’s trailer even emphasizes the different rival pairings that exist in Smash. There’s a special place for the One-Winged Angel in the pantheon of video game villains, and he more than deserves a place among the other all-stars in Smash. Sephiroth is the first third-party villain in the game, and the first villain DLC.

But Sephiroth’s appearance makes me realize something: much to my chagrin, it’s highly unlikely that any antagonist or boss can get into Smash as a playable character without there first being a protagonist to contrast them. I would wager that, in another universe where Cloud had not managed to debut in Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U, he would have been the one to appear now instead of Sephiroth. It’s understandable why they would go for heroes before villains, given that the bad guys are usually not the most prominent mascots of their video games, and the good guys are usually the player characters. Even a generic hero like, well, Hero, takes precedence over Zoma or Dragonlord from the Dragon Quest series. 

There is a game that has leaned more toward villainy when it comes to its guest characters, though. Tekken 7 has Geese Howard but not Terry Bogard, Akuma but not Ryu, and Neegan but not whoever the protagonist of The Walking Dead is. That’s a very different sort of environment, of course, given that Tekken is a standalone world and not inherently a crossover like Smash is. Again, I see why Smash would not want standalone bosses to take up too much of the roster, but I’ve just always thought it would be a nice way to add some diversity without taking up two slots instead of one.

Of course, nothing is ever set in stone with Smash in terms of how or why new characters are chosen, but I think “villains second” just makes sense, even if I wish it didn’t. The only possible exception I could see is if said antagonist all but defines a certain video game’s identity. Which is to say, maybe Carmen Sandiego still has a shot…?

In any case, I’m looking forward to the Sephiroth gameplay reveal.

Mind Craft: Steve in Smash Bros. Ultimate Impressions

The impossible has happened once again as Steve (and Alex) from Minecraft joins an increasingly unthinkable roster in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. While I’ve never touched Minecraft, I appreciate its creativity and the joy it has provided so many people young, old, and virtual. Having now played (and played against) him for the past few days, I would say that in both visual style and gameplay, Steve from Minecraft is likely the most bizarre character in franchise history. 

Where most characters end up having their appearances updated or at least rendered in finer detail, Steve joins Mr. Game & Watch in having a look deliberately hyper-faithful to his source material to the point of incongruity with the rest of Smash. In terms of his skill set, Steve moves differently, attacks differently, and his block-formation + resource-mining mechanics only have the loosest similarities to other fighters. He’s a little bit Olimar (gathering resources), a little bit Robin (resource management), and some degree of Mega Man (movement while attacking), but also far beyond being a simple chimera of those three. His blocks also kind of resemble what Kragg in Rivals of Aether and Olaf Tyson in Brawlout are capable of, but Steve’s version exists as more than just an unusual recovery move. 

I have quickly come to the conclusion that I’m not a good Steve player (and likely never will be), so I can’t offer any tips or hints as to how to best play the character. I can, however, talk about how it feels to struggle with and against Steve.

With Steve, moving around feels counterintuitive to what I’m accustomed to in Smash. For example, in Ultimate, one common way to avoid attacks is to jump. Unlike in previous games, all characters take the same amount of time to leap, so you can go above a lot of things, especially grabs. Steve, however, has one of the worst first jumps in the roster, and so he can actually get grabbed in situations where others wouldn’t. Steve needs to burn his second jump instead, which would be a bad idea for most other characters—except unlike everyone else, he can create a block underneath and restore his jumps instantly. You have to literally approach concepts like being grounded and being airborne in a new way compared to everyone else, and for me, it is taking a lot of time to get used to. 

In addition to not having any ups, Steve has some of the worst mobility stats in the game—roughly bottom 10 in nearly everything. He feels sluggish when I’m in control of him, but when I play against him, he somehow feels incredibly squirrely. I believe this is because of a combination of qualities Steve possesses. 

First, he can attack while walking in a fashion akin to Mega Man and Min Min, so he can retreat and advance with ease, even if he’s slow.

Second, he has a deceptively thin hurtbox that makes spacing moves against him difficult. “Hitting” his arms doesn’t do any damage, and often attacks that seem like they hit will whiff easily when combined with his ability to move back and forth easily.

Third, it’s very hard to tell what he’s doing based on his animations because so many of them overlap or look extremely similar. His walk, dash, run, roll, jump, and even his getting-hit animations all have the same ramrod-straight stance with arms and legs flailing, and his other actions aren’t far off. The fact that he remains “standing” while getting hit in the air also means he sometimes lands on platforms where others wouldn’t.

Fourth, his actual attacks are surprisingly fast, and the ability to rapidly throw out simple moves means it’s hard to tell when he’s vulnerable and when he isn’t.

When Steve is at full strength—plenty of resources to burn and diamond tools for early kills—he seems very strong. He lets a player be as creative as they want, and already, people are discovering unique combos, techniques, and glitches (that will likely get patched out). What he lacks in movement, he makes up for in fast, strong, and useful attacks, somewhat like Luigi. The Minecart looks like one of the best moves in the game at the moment, as it protects Steve from attacks, and the ability to stay in the cart (for an attack) or jump out (turning the cart into a grab) is a scary mixup. It’s basically Diddy Kong’s Monkey Flip on steroids, and I’m unsure of whether it’s the online setting that makes the move frustratingly difficult to react to, or if it’ll be just as potent online. I do feel that the character benefits a lot from lag, but it’s very possible that his quicker properties would be of greater benefit offline.

I’ve still yet to fully decide which characters I think do especially bad against Steve, but Little Mac’s reliance on ground movement means that blocks mess him up pretty easily, and his recovery is rife for exploitation by Steve’s crafting blocks and down-tilt (a descending fire attack). Big-body characters get comboed to hell and back by him, but I can see certain ones doing better or worse. I can’t quite figure out if Mewtwo does well against Steve or not, but I think the online environment plus the strength of Minecart is skewing my perceptions. 

As for which characters seem to demolish Steve, it’s likely characters who can either outcamp him, or who can quickly get close and overcome his attacks with better range. Zelda’s Din’s Fire can be a pain for Steve because its properties let it circumvent block placement. Marth and Lucina have the speed, strength, and long pointy swords to make life difficult. Shulk’s Monados may be hard to contend with as well. Also, the rigid hurtbox of Steve comes with a potential drawback: it looks strangely easy to hit him with sweetspot attacks, like Zelda’s lightning kicks and Marth’s tipper sword attacks. 

Of course, that’s all speculation on my part. Steve is such a decidedly non-cookie-cutter character that it’s going to be months or even years before he’s even halfway understood. If Smash Bros. is about bringing together all these different video game legends and showing off their unique qualities, then Steve feels like they imported an entirely new game engine into that universe. He’s both fun and annoying at the same time, and I suspect we’re going to be seeing a whole lot of him for a long while.

Refreshing Noodles: Min Min in Smash Bros. Ultimate

A lot has happened in the Smash Bros. community over the past two weeks, with multiple instances of sexual abuse and assault among its competitive scene coming to light. This is a serious problem, and its exposure is ultimately for the better, especially for the victims and those who would have been potential victims.

This has also overshadowed some of the happier Smash news—namely the reveal of Min Min as the new DLC character—so I want to focus on that. Hopefully, we can embrace the good without looking away in willful ignorance as to what needs to change.

Min Min

When an ARMS character was announced as DLC for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate two months ago, the online reaction felt less than enthusiastic. Although ARMS is a fairly successful Switch game, the previous DLC pack had hardcore fans craving for more outlandish choices in the vein of Hero and Banjo-Kazooie. Amazingly, I think the developers and Nintendo have managed to turn opinion around with their reveal of Min Min as the winner, and it’s thanks to a combination of factors. 

First, ARMS just has fantastic character designs that ooze personality, and Min Min is one of its best. Second, she brings a unique fighting style that gives players something new and different to try out. Third, she happens to be associated with the Etika, the gaming Youtuber who tragically died by suicide almost one year ago. All three worked together to make a perfect storm.

Character Design

Min Min looks cool when she probably should look ridiculous. She is a ramen shop owner with noodles for hair, a ramen bowl hat, a dragon for an arm, a somewhat stereotypical Chinese outfit, and she does kung fu. Yet, somehow, it all works together. She comes across as fun and lighthearted, yet serious and strong. Her martial arts animations are impressive, and they lend her a lot of flavor.

The trailer itself also did a great job of conveying her personality. As the other ARMS fighters battle to obtain a coveted Smash Bros. invitational letter, Min Min is at her shop watching Captain Falcon and Kirby eat ramen. It’s only after Captain Falcon has completely finished his bowl with utter satisfaction that Min Min leaves to fight for the Smash spot. This shows how important her restaurant and customers are to her, that she would on some level prioritize them over what is arguably the ultimate prize. Min Min just comes across as charming and powerful in the best ways, even to those who have zero familiarity with ARMS.

Min Min is also the first playable Chinese character in Smash Bros. history, giving her a unique factor. Because she speaks Mandarin Chinese in the trailer, I was curious as to who her actor is. It turns out the voice behind Min Min is Takutsu Haruna, a Japanese performer who studies Chinese as a hobby. I appreciate the fact that they chose someone who has put in that much effort, even if all she’s saying is, “I love ramen!”

Fighting Style

Min Min might very well become the bane of online play with her long reach and dual-arm game mechanic. Zoners and projectile specialists are the bane of many Smash players, and it seems like Min Min is only adding fuel to the fire. But Sakurai’s video demonstration makes her look more exciting than one might have expected, notably because she controls differently from pretty much every Smash character before her. Whereas most characters have a clear delineation between their normal “A-button” moves and their special “B-button moves,” for Min Min, they control her left and right ARMS respectively. Moreover, she can move while her attacks are coming out. Thus, she’s able to deliver long-range one-two combinations at a player’s chosen timing or send them in different directions to cover a wider area. 

The closest comparable character is Mega Man, who’s able to move and attack in a similar way thanks to his pellets, but even that doesn’t fully prepare players for the Min Min experience. Just from using her for a few days, it feels like you’re playing a completely different game—my fingers stop knowing what to do with other characters when I try to switch back. She’s someone who will take time and dedication to use at even a functional level, which also means she’s offering something you won’t find in other characters. It’s unclear as to how strong she actually is, but it will take time to figure out regardless.

As an aside, while not related to ARMS, this left-right setup could also be the perfect way to add a Tekken character to the roster. Heihachi is probably out given the Mii costume they just announced, but who knows? Maybe we’ll get Kazuya MIshima or Jin Kazama instead.

Etika’s Legacy

The late Etika was one of the most visible figures in online Smash fandom, and was probably the very face of “Smash reaction videos” thanks to his genuine passion towards character reveals. While he would invite controversy constantly, it became sadly clear in the end that he suffered from mental illness, and every one of his fans wishes that things turned out differently.

Etika also happened to be a big fan of Min Min, though not always for the purest of reasons, as his LEGS t-shirt above makes clear. Regardless, when Min Min was first shown in that trailer, those who followed and knew Etika probably all had the same thought: the man would have loved this. It’s even possible to imagine how he would have reacted—with an expressiveness few can ever match.

In the End, Nothing’s Wrong with First-Party Characters

Min Min’s announcement had it all: a strong character aesthetic that can make new fans instantly, a showcase of interesting gameplay brought by her, and an online presence that goes beyond the familiar borders of Nintendo in the form of Etika. What’s just as important is that it showed how you don’t need an off-the-wall unpredictable pick to create excitement and hype. “An ARMS character” is something probably anyone could have predicted, but what they perhaps couldn’t account for is having the whole package executed so well. My hope, however futile it might be, is that fans can appreciate the characters that are coming, even if it’s not necessarily the ones they want. They might be able to win us over, just like Min Min.

The Charisma of Terry Bogard in Smash Bros.

Terry Bogard has arrived in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate on the heels of a 45-minute love letter from Masahiro Sakurai to SNK. I feel that it gave Terry the appropriate level of hype, but it’s his charismatic presence, both in personality and playstyle, that can turn even the sourest doubters into fans.

Without even getting into little story details, Terry’s general presentation just screams “cool guy with a fun attitude who knows how to get serious.” His look might be straight from the 1990s, but he somehow doesn’t feel dated. All of his little Engrishy quips, his cool-looking moves, and even his general standing pose all work together to make him the center of attention. As expected of an SNK character—even after the Neo Geo started being inferior hardware, the developers of The King of Fighters would put in some of their best sprite animation work. Ultimate captures that sentiment.

As for gameplay, Terry feels more fitting for Smash than Ryu and Ken. His burst-mobility specials all work in a platform fighter format, and you can practically picture Terry coolly accepting that he’s in this crazy crossover situation. In a way, he feels like a mix between Ryu and Captain Falcon: a traditional fighter who can suddenly close large distances and make opponents regret frivolous decisions, but who’s balanced out by a less than stellar air game. His ability to access Power Geyser and Buster Wolf after 100% is sure to be controversial, but Terry overall doesn’t feel overpowered.

Welcome to Smash, Terry Bogard. I hope to see you make one hell of a splash.

 

Banjo & Kazooie: The Ultimate Beginner Character

Banjo & Kazooie have been out for about a month as a playable character for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. In looking at how they play and thinking about the purpose of their moves, I’ve come to the conclusion that Banjo & Kazooie are perhaps the best beginner’s character that Smash has ever seen.

Super Smash Bros. is a franchise that emphasizes an “easy to learn, hard to master” approach to fighting games. To this end, the games often have more beginner-friendly characters who are more forgiving to the unaccustomed—Kirby with his multiple jumps to help new players survive offstage is a key example. But it can be hard to balance a beginner character such that their easy-to-use tools are effective at more advanced levels of play without making them too powerful in the hands of an expert. Cloud in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is an arguable instance of being too strong in this respect. He was designed with large, generous hitboxes and a Limit Break system to power him up, all to help fans more familiar with role-playing games than fighting games, but those things ended up being absurd in mid to top competitive play.

Banjo & Kazooie have a lot of things that make them fairly simple to understand for new players. They have three jumps, which makes getting to the stage easier. They’re fairly heavy and fast, making for a durable and mobile character. But the key to their ability to help players of all levels is their special move Wonderwing.

Wonderwing is a versatile forward charge that works as a panic button, a recovery, and a kill move. Newbies don’t need to understand about hitboxes; Wonderwing beats or ties with everything in a direct confrontation. If Banjo & Kazooie are offstage, it lets them recover horizontally and defeat virtually any challenge. It also does over 27% damage, and can close out stocks reliably. While the move is extremely good, however, it comes with a couple of weaknesses that keep Wonderwing in check while giving room for players to learn, optimize their play, and for more experienced players to really use their brains.

The first flaw is that Wonderwing leaves Banjo & Kazooie vulnerable if the attack is blocked. It’s not a huge window, but it’s enough that an opponent who can predict Wonderwing’s usage from being rewarded well benefit from doing so. The move is still a Swiss army knife, and can do a lot for new players, but this flaw should theoretically teach caution.

The second and more significant flaw is that Wonderwing only has five uses per stock, and can only be recharged by losing a stock. This is extremely smart from the developers for a number of reasons. First, it prevents players from spamming the move to no end. They can do it for a short while, but then they have to deal with the consequences. Second, rather than a comeback mechanic, which can teach new players the wrong lessons, it’s a resource that comes at a cost. Every time they use the move, regardless of effectiveness or efficiency, it means they’ll have less of a chance to rely on Wonderwing when they need it most. In other words, it becomes a built-in lesson on resource management and looking at the long-term.

At higher levels of play, Banjo & Kazooie players basically have to know when to utilize Wonderwing and when to keep it in their back pocket. It’s a ridiculously good move that would be the envy of any character, but the fact that its depletion affects so much (disadvantage, neutral, recovery, kill power) means there’s an interesting back and forth that can occur between two players where good usage is immensely rewarding and good counterplay against Wonderwing similarly so.

Through Wonderwing, Banjo & Kazooie give inexperienced players a tool that can help them out in nearly any situation in a fun and rewarding manner. But at the same time, the caveats on the attack, namely the limited uses, encourages players to be smart about its use, thus fostering improvement. More than any other character, I expect Banjo & Kazooie players to grow.

C’mon, Get SERIOUS About Terry Bogard in Smash Bros Ultimate

The fourth Super Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC character has been announced, and it’s SNK posterboy and fighting game icon Terry Bogard from the Fatal Fury franchise. The overall response was mixed, from die-hard SNK fans cheering at his arrival to comments to the effect of “I’ve never even heard of Terry Bogard.”

While I understand that not everyone has had exposure to Terry’s games or even the three Fatal Fury anime that came out in the 1990s, a part of me still feels perplexed at the latter reaction. It’s as if I unconsciously consider awareness of Terry Bogard to be the most common and natural thing, like hearing the name “Frank Sinatra” and at least knowing vaguely that he was a famous singer. The logical side of me gets that Terry isn’t a household name, especially for the younger generations of gamers, but the emotional side of me asks, “But why not?”

In terms of what Terry Bogard brings to Super Smash Bros., he’s clearly not the most iconic fighting game character ever. That would be Street Fighter’s Ryu, who’s already been in the game since Smash 4. Still, Terry matters a lot. He represents SNK, the company behind the Neo-Geo. He represents both the Fatal Fury games and the King of Fighters games, and unlike Street Fighter’s relationship with its offshoot franchises, FF and KoF are both majorly important, with the latter reaching heights of popularity in Latin America and Asia in ways few series ever did. Terry Bogard is a symbol of a company, a console, and two connected video game franchises. He’s like Sonic and Ryu rolled into one.

Terry is one of the coolest, most charismatic fighting game–and video game–characters ever. Even if you don’t know his backstory, he just exudes a kind of charm and attitude that make him hard to forget once you’ve seen him in action. Even his signature victory pose, where he turns his back to the screen and tosses his cap in the air while exclaiming, “OK!” screams personality, whether it’s 1990 or 2019. When you learn about his quest to avenge his dead father by defeating evil corporate tycoon/martial arts master Geese Howard, who’s equally amazing as a character, it just makes everything better.

My image of Terry is also no doubt shaped by the Fatal Fury anime I watched as a kid. In a time when the golden rule was “all video game anime are terrible,” the Fatal Fury 2 OVA was a stark exception. Watching it on fansub repeatedly back in the 1990s (shout-outs to S.Baldric), Terry’s story of hitting rock bottom after losing to the mysterious German warrior Wolfgang Krauser only to crawl his way back up by rediscovering his love of fighting is simple yet memorable.

Even in terms of meme culture, Terry Engrishy quotes are a staple of old fighting game forums. “Pawaa Wave!” “Pawaa Geezer!” [Geyser] “Are you OK? BUSTAA WOLF!” “Hey, c’mon, c’mon!”

As for how Terry will play in Smash, I assume he’s going to be like Ryu and use command inputs, but he’s also perfect for Smash in that his special attacks map perfectly to B moves. Neutral B has to be Power Wave, Side B Burn Knuckle, Up B Rising Tackle, and Down B Crack Shoot. He’s already a very mobile character, and that fits in well with a platform-fighting game in ways that Ryu and Ken never could.

November isn’t that far away, but it still seems like forever. I’m looking forward to Terry Bogard balance debates and all they entail. Also, I saw someone on Twitter suggest an Obari Masami-style costume for Terry based on his look from the anime, which I’m all for. Between that and Mark of the Wolves bomber jacket Terry, and we have a heck of a presentation.

My Favorite Switch Games

Whether it’s me getting older or my priorities shifting, I don’t play quite as many video games as I used to. So when I’m asked by Johnny, a Patreon sponsor, about what my favorite Nintendo Switch games are, I actually don’t have a lot to choose from. The other side of this is that I’ve played the few games I do own fairly extensively, speaking to their longevity.

The first game I have to mention is Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The single-player story mode, World of Light, drags a little at the start, but by the time I reached the endgame, I fell in love with it. The multiplayer successfully finds a balance between the pace of Melee and the desire to make even more complex areas of the game accessible. With all of the new characters announced and the clear love and care that goes into them, Smash in a way transcends the act of gaming itself and enters a realm of shared memory, interacting with nostalgia and the thrill of discovery (learning about new characters you never knew about) to become a phenomenon.

Splatoon 2 is pretty much what I expected—a refinement of the first Splatoon—and it makes for a fun and diverse game where I’m eager to try out whatever the game tosses at me. The simple idea of weapons that both attack and claim territory makes Splatoon as a whole always refreshing, and the weakening of the special moves to put more emphasis on the basics is smart. I recently beat the single-player mode as well as the Octo Expansion DLC, and it provided some of the most engaging (but also frustrating) boss battles ever.

The last game I want to mention is Super Robot Wars T, the first SRW game for the Switch. It’s not especially different from previous entries that I’ve played, but the thrill of seeing my favorite characters from anime working together, as well as the challenge provided as the story grows on a cosmic scale, makes it hard to get tired of. Having Magic Knight Rayearth in an SRW game is like a dream come true, and I’m hyped that they’re actually bringing SRW V and SRW X to the Switch as well. Who knows? I might end up liking this more.

I’ve been thinking that it’s time for me to play more Switch games, and this might be the impetus for me to do so. I wonder if this list would change in any major way in a year’s time.

The Hero in Smash Bros. Ultimate and the Skill Found in Randomness

When the Hero from Dragon Quest was first revealed as a playable character in Smash Bros. Ultimate, there were hints as to how the character would function, but few were able to predict that the character would be so volatile. Because the Hero has not one but multiple random mechanics that can make him both inconsistent and unpredictable, part of the conversation surrounding the character has revolved around whether the character’s “luck” elements hurt competitive Smash Bros. There’s even talk, however small, about the possibility of banning the character outright.

The Hero has smash attacks that can randomly trigger critical hits (effectively double damage). He has a spell menu the contents of which are random every time you open it. He even has a spell inside the spell menu that gives random results. So the fear is somewhat understandable—especially given the scene’s general dislike toward and removal of spawning items (i.e. a major random element) from tournament play.

While there are many arguments to make for why banning the Hero is a bad idea—the character is simply too new to understand his impact on high-level play, for one—I want to make a different case about his merits. Specifically, I believe that the Hero and his special mechanics provide new and interesting tests of skill that revolve around managing randomness without the major downsides and stigma of items-on play.

Skill and Luck Are Not Opposites

Before this argument can move forward, it is necessary to try and dispel an idea that has plagued competitive Smash since the earliest days: the false dichotomy between skill and luck. On a surface level, randomness interfering with skill makes sense because a coin flip, for example, can’t be modified through talent and effort.

But competitive scenes exist for games with heavy elements of chance, and in these environments, the question of how to navigate, take advantage of, and cope with random chance is ongoing.

Magic: The Gathering

People complain that their opponent topdecked their only out the turn they needed it, but do not realise that often their own poor play either gave their opponent more turns to draw the out or overcommitted turning the eventual out into one in the first place. —“There’s No Such Thing as Luck.”

Japanese mahjong (plus poker)

Poker players think a lot about how to maintain a strong table image…. [I]t’s going to be a lot easier to get lucky if the other players aren’t gunning for you because they’re afraid you’re too strong for them. When I’ve played Mahjong with him, Sarukawa maintains a fierce table image and it definitely makes me think twice about declaring reach even with a strong hand, thus increasing his chances of getting lucky and decreasing mine. —Nagare, Luck, or whatever you want to call that crap

There’s even a very good video from Game Developer’s Conference 2017 by designer Skaff Elias all about the false dichotomy between skill and luck.

Those who think that they have unfairly lost a Smash Bros. match due to a Mr. Game & Watch Judge 9 would likely fall into a coma if confronted by some of the agonizing probability-based losses that Texas Hold ’em players have to go through. But whereas Smash players have historically shunned randomness, other games use randomness as an opportunity to test two things: how well you can take advantage of good luck and how well you can mitigate bad luck. While complete randomness with no opportunity to interact doesn’t provide much room for interaction, good games of chance give players plenty of opportunities to show how they can roll with the punches.

Although it’s early on, I feel that the Hero provides enough avenues for both the user and the opponent to manage the character’s random elements. This, in turn, is what makes him different from turning on items—which, for the record, I am also not against, but I’ve learned long ago that trying to convince Smashers to play with items is a losing battle. Still, I think there’s hope for the Hero.

Random Factor 1: Critical Hits

Let’s first look at the Hero’s smash attacks. They are quite strong in terms of sheer power; forward smash can kill a Pichu at the ledge at around 50%. But there’s also a 1 in 8 chance to land a critical hit, which turns a roughly 20% damage attack into a 40%+ monster capable of KOing opponents close to 0%. There is no way to prevent or induce a critical hit artificially once an attack lands, so neither the Hero or the opponent can control when they happen.

The only way to guarantee not getting blasted by a critical hit is to avoid getting hit at all. But while that sounds ridiculous at first, there are a couple of limiting factors: the Hero has to actively choose to use a smash attack, and the actual moves have numerous flaws that make landing hits easier said than done.

The Hero’s up smash is similar to Marth and Lucina’s—a vertical stab straight up into the air—but unlike theirs, the Hero cannot hit anyone standing next to him. In fact, the horizontal range of the smash attack is so narrow that the opponent has to be virtually right on top for it to connect. Down smash is fairly quick and hits both sides, but is the weakest and unlikely to KO without the power of a critical hit. Forward smash is the best one, but it’s relatively slow and doesn’t reach quite as far as one might expect. Outside of the critical hit factor, all three are lacking.

And much like Mr. Game & Watch’s Judge hammer or Luigi’s Green Missile, the Hero’s smash attacks have to be deliberately chosen. They do not just happen randomly without anyone’s control, as if they were Bob-ombs spawning into a player’s attack. So the critical hits are random and they are extremely powerful, but they’re locked behind slow, somewhat unreliable moves that leave the Hero vulnerable.

Every smash attack is a roll of the dice, except those dice are cumbersome gigantic novelty ones and the table you’re rolling on is a toddler’s high chair. While they don’t have any random negative side effects like Judge, they’re inherently risky. Most importantly, the Hero player has to actively make the decision when and where to take those swings—they don’t just happen automatically.

Random Factor 2: Command Selection

Hero’s down B special is Command Selection, in which the Hero pulls up a menu of spells and special strikes, and it’s the other area of contention in regards to fairness because of how multiple layers of randomness are built into the move. First, only four spells can be displayed at a time, and it will change every time the menu is re-opened. Second, the order in which the spells show up is also inconsistent. Third, two of the spells—Whack and Thwack—have a probability of instantly KOing an opponent; the higher their damage, the more likely they’re toast. Fourth, the spell Hocus Pocus is literally a spell that randomly triggers either a move from the existing list of commands or additional modifiers both beneficial and detrimental. Although highly unlikely, it is actually possible for the Hero to hit down b, blindly pick Hocus Pocus, have Hocus Pocus trigger Thwack, and kill an opponent at 0%.

While there’s no doubt that getting destroyed by such an unusual chain of events could tilt just about anyone, I think focusing on those edge cases would be more a symptom of focusing too much on isolated results in the short term rather than consistency in the long term. Moreover, while the spell list is random, it doesn’t remove skill. Rather, it tests the players’ ability to assess what is worth using every time it opens, and to act accordingly.

Above, I mentioned games like Yu-Gi-Oh! as examples where players must randomness into account when strategizing. When it comes to Command Selection, this comparison is especially apt, because opening up the menu is not unlike drawing cards in a TCG. While there is an element of luck, it’s the responsibility of the player to be able to adjust their approach–to sometimes turn lemons into lemonade. There’s also a common mechanic in trading card games called a “mulligan,” where a hand that’s sufficiently terrible can be discarded and replaced in its entirety. The Hero essentially has the ability to mulligan his hand at any moment, but with the caveat that the opponent can see what the Hero’s options are, and that he can’t keep any of the “cards” he doesn’t use. A good Hero has to be able to build upon the tools available to him in a given moment, and just because it’s uncommon in competitive Smash doesn’t mean it’s not a skill worth testing and valuing. The ability to improvise on the fly and be effective at crisis management in the face of external forces somewhat beyond the players themselves is good.

Conclusion

Luck can bless the Hero, or it can curse him, but there are multiple caveats that make him a worthy character who should be welcomed in tournaments. First, he has to be in a position to test that luck in the first place, and most if not all of his random-outcome moves are telegraphed or announced in some way. Second, just because he gets a lucky or unlucky move doesn’t mean the match ends there—both Hero and opponent have to be able to make the best of a situation. The result is a character who works to find chances and has to adjust on the fly to external forces, and those who master this are the likeliest to find success built not on favorable fortune but the ability to seize opportunity.

Early Thoughts on Competitive Changes for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been playing a ton of Smash Bros. Ultimate, and throughout this time I’ve been mulling the multiplayer changes they’ve made. I have not played the game online, which I know has been a source of frustration and controversy for many, so I’m not going to go into that aspect of the game.

The game feels very well balanced, though that is naturally subject to change as patches come out and players get better. It’s not perfect, and I wouldn’t expect a game with 70+ characters to ever be 100% balanced, but Ultimate is in a good place for the time being. There are a number of factors that contribute to this feeling, but the overarching philosophy I sense from the game is based on three factors: 1) rounding out characters’ tool kits so no one option is too weak and no one option is too strong 2) providing universal mechanics that benefit all 3) making characters’ strengths on paper actual strengths.

Rounding Out Movesets

In Smash Bros. for Wii U (aka Smash 4), many characters ended up having a few extremely effective attacks that would render entire other parts of their movesets nearly obsolete. Think about Donkey Kong’s cargo up throw into up air (aka the Ding Dong) or Meta Knight’s dash attack/dash grab into up air strings. The game often focused on each character’s few powerful options, and it made you wonder why certain attacks even existed. In Ultimate, however, it feels like the craziest and most overwhelming attacks have been shaved down a bit while the neglected moves were given some love.

Take Mewtwo, for instance. In Smash 4, Mewtwo’s down tilt was one of the best moves in the game, period. It had long range, it was very fast for how much ground it covered, and it started combos and juggles with the greatest of ease. In contrast, Mewtwo’s forward tilt didn’t see much use. Almost anything forward tilt did, down tilt did better, except for maybe hitting opponents who are jumping.

In Ultimate, down tilt is still fast and with excellent range, but you can only reliably combo off of it if you hit with the base of Mewtwo’s tail, which means having to be closer to the opponent and thus being in a riskier position. The move is good, but it’s no longer a cure-all. Forward tilt, in turn, now has utility that down tilt doesn’t—namely better knockback, more kill power, and slightly more range. So players have reasons to use both. You might want to down tilt, but if the opponent’s at max range, forward tilt could be better for knocking them farther off the stage.

You’ll see this across multiple characters’ movesets. Players will need to master their characters’ entire set of moves to do well.

Equalizing Key Universal Mechanics

One of the biggest jokes of Smash 4 was that Jigglypuff, a character who specializes in aerial combat, took a much longer time to actually get off the ground than most other characters. Actually, the biggest joke was that Jigglypuff never got a single buff across the game’s many patches, but that’s a whole other rabbit hole.

In every Smash game, characters take a bit of time to leave the ground after a player hits jump: this is called a “jump squat.” In Smash 4, the fastest jump squats were 4 frames (1/15 of a second), the slowest (Bowser) was 8 frames (2/15 of a second), and Jigglypuff was in the middle at 6 frames (1/10 of a second). If you’re confused by all the numbers, just think about it like this: because characters like Jigglypuff and Bowser took longer to actually jump, it meant that they would fail to land attacks that other characters could get away with.

In Ultimate, every character has the same jump squat: 3 frames, or 1/20 of a second. This means that big, lumbering characters can’t just get trapped on the ground and be forced to eat hits because they’re busy trying to jump. This means Jigglypuff can take to the skies much more easily. Most importantly, it proportionally buffs characters who used to have bad jump squats much more than those who already had them. Going from 4 frames to 3 frames is a 25% improvement. Going from 8 frames to 4 frames is a 50% improvement.

Creating True Strengths

Big characters have for the most part been disadvantaged in the Smash games. Bad jump squats, as mentioned above, are one factor, but the supposed weight advantage that would let such characters survive longer compared to their lighter adversaries never actually panned out in practice. Instead, these super heavyweights often ended up as huge punching bags unable to properly deal with the speedy attacks of their foes.

Another supposed advantage that failed to live up to its potential is the tether grab. Instead of using hands, tether grabs utilized ranged weapons to grab from a distance—think Link’s hookshot or Samus’s grappling beam. The trade-off, on paper, is that these tether grabs are slower to make up for their longer range, but almost without fail they were simply worse than having regular, close-range grabs. Players could learn to use tether grabs effectively, but that was more about them making up for their characters’ flaws through intelligence and cunning.

Both the super heavyweight archetype and the tether grab have new purpose in Ultimate, and it has largely to do with making sure these aspects actually matter. Big characters are heavier than ever and hit harder than ever, and it makes a significant difference in terms of how long they survive. Now, a King Dedede or a Ganondorf can reliably live long enough to become scary, especially when factoring in the “rage” mechanic that allows characters to hit opponents harder when they themselves have taken more damage. Grabs are generally worse in Ultimate compared to Smash 4, as characters have shorter range and take longer to recover from missed grabs, but the big exception is that tether grabs have been improved all around. Even if they stayed the same as they were in Smash 4, the gap between non-tethers and tethers would have been closer, but a lot of those tethers have either improved startup time, improved recovery, or both.

The biggest winner here is actually Pac-Man, whose ranged grab in Smash 4 was literally the worst grab in Smash history due to its wonky collision detection and its poor overall speed.

To a Better Game!

I thought Smash 4 was a really good game, even in the last couple of years as Cloud and Bayonetta began their rise and their stuffing of the lower tiers. History could repeat itself, but based on the changes mentioned, I think there’s a strong chance they’ve learned from their mistakes. Balancing a competitive game is a tremendously difficult endeavor, but I think the Smash Bros. Ultimate development team is up to the task.