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.

The Final Smash Ultimate Direct and the Cost of Following Leaks

For the past month or so, much of the online Smash Community was consumed by the so-called “Grinch Leak,” whose promises of revealing new characters dominated conversation. Then the November 1 Smash Bros Nintendo Direct revealed the last tidbits of information before launch (new playable characters, DLC on the way, a story mode, etc.), dashing the hopes of many of the leak’s believers. Given the sadness and rage expressed by those who trusted the leak, it makes me wonder about why people continue to set themselves up for disappointment through following Smash leaks, and the only answer I can think of is that they consider it worthwhile. In a way, researching leaks and getting invested in them is almost a form of emotional gambling.

I understand that people are different when it comes to spoilers—some even readily welcome them. But the Grinch Leak interacted with the Smash community in an odd way that goes beyond just knowing something in advance. First, it came at a time when some fans felt starved for information, despite Isabelle from Animal Crossing being announced less than two months ago. It was as if people were so desperate for news that they’d glom onto anything convincing, and to spice it up, the Grinch Leak dropped a bunch of “reveals” for characters with very vocal and loyal fanbases. It’s not just that people thought the leak to be believable—many clearly wanted to believe.

And then the Direct hit, and the characters shown were not what Grinch supporters were expecting. In came the comments. “How could the final Smash Direct be this anticlimactic? Ken? Incineroar?! PIRANHA PLANT??!!” The Smash community has always had problems with getting excessively overhyped, and this was no exception. But I also wonder about the way fans seem to actively trying to to hit these dramatic emotional highs at the possible risk of plummeting into equally drastic lows. After all, one doesn’t necessarily need to pay attention to these leaks, and one can simply hope for their favorite character to be added to the roster without the additional backup of some “inside scoop.” That’s what makes it feel akin to gambling, albeit a much safer, cost-free form. There’s a risk and a payoff for wanting to believe.

It also reminds me of how popular conspiracy theories can be. “Some employee leaked information about a game that’s not out yet” is nowhere close to “the United States government faked the moon landing,” but there is a similar idea at play here: there’s inside information they don’t want you to know about, and by having the real info, you have the edge over the others. And much like conspiracy theories, the fact that some leaks actually turn out to be true only adds fuel to the fire.

In a certain sense, following leaks and getting into arguments over them is another form of community interaction, and it’s largely harmless fun. Even so, because of how they monopolized the Smash community’s general consciousness, I do have to wonder if there might be a better use of people’s time and emotional energy.