The Emperor’s Abdication: ZeRo’s Retirement from Smash 4 and the Fate of the Tier List

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From the looks of things, an age of competitive Smash 4 has come to an end. With a new Smashboards Smash 4 Tier List, seen below, the reveal of the Top 50 PGR-ranked players, and the announced retirement of ZeRo—far and away the greatest Smash 4 player to date—the likely dawn of a new age is filled with questions. The ones most on my mind are “Can anyone ascend to ZeRO’s empty throne?” and “How will Diddy Kong be perceived by players in the years to come?”

ZeRo hasn’t just been the best Smash 4 player; it’s just so indisputable that no one who knows anything will disagree. In the early days of the game, he went on a tear that looks nigh-impossible to match, winning 53 tournaments in a row before finally falling to one of the other Smash 4 elites in Nairo. Since then, ZeRo has looked increasingly mortal as the other players have continually improved, but his ability to claw and scratch his way back to the top is rare. He even won the very first Nintendo invitational before the game was released!

ZeRo has an enormous influence on the meta. In fact, we saw a mini-version of this planned retirement a couple of years ago. In 2016, ZeRo ran into a medical issue that forced him into a small hiatus. During that period, many challengers rose to the occasion, such as the Japanese player Abadango. It was during this period that Abadango won his first major tournament, Shine 2016, off the back of his surprising and enchanting Mewtwo play. But then ZeRo returned, and he and his trusty Diddy Kong became a thorn in Abadango’s side. This elite Japanese player has never been able to take a set off of ZeRo, and he’s not alone. In fact, only 34 players have ever been able to accomplish that feat. Now, imagine how much this affects tournament brackets and placings.

ZeRo is a phenomenon. To take his place means not just being #1, it means holding onto that placement with an iron grip. And in a game with plenty of viable characters and a huge pool of skilled players, we might just be entering the Warring States period of Smash 4. I think it’s possible for a new king to emerge, but it certainly won’t be easy.

Now, let’s look at the newest Smash 4 Backroom Tier List:

The categories might seem excessive, but as the explanatory post mentions, the different letter rankings can also be broken down as: S-A = Top Tier, B = High Tier, C = Upper Tier, D-E = Mid Tier F-G= Low Tier. If we define mid tier as characters that can, on occasion, make it fairly far (top 16 or so) at major events, then that’s a whopping 44 characters (out of 54 listed) that can do damage at tournaments. A Japanese Link player named T got 3rd at one of the biggest tournaments of the year in 2GG Civil War. Mii Fighters were not ranked due to lack of input from judges (which is a shame, but I digress).

It’s notable to me how just much tier lists in general, as well as audience perception, can be affected by top player results, as opposed to being judging the characters by their abilities alone. This is especially the case in the Smash communities, where top player reverence can border on worship. According to this tier list, Diddy Kong is the third best character in the game. Obviously, it’s not just about results, as that would make every tier list place Diddy Kong as #1 due to ZeRo. At the same time, there’s no way ZeRo isn’t the biggest argument in favor of Diddy being a top-3 character. After all, it’s happened before with other characters. When Kameme got 2nd at EVO, Mega Man was instant high tier. Ranai is by far the greatest Villager in Smash 4, but him attending fewer tournaments and doing somewhat worse drops Ranai from high to upper tier.

The next best-ranked Diddy Kong player is Panda Global’s MVD, a very strong competitor in his own right…but nowhere near the caliber of ZeRo. Over the next six months, I see people still remembering what Diddy Kong is capable of, but memories will fade. The world of eSports often has an incredibly short memory, with even one year being perceived by fans as a lifetime and a half, and I predict that Diddy Kong’s position will slowly recede as people only read of ZeRo’s accomplishments instead of experiencing them. As the meta shifts, fans might even say, “Sure, ZeRo did all that back when people didn’t know how to play the game as well, but now players know how to deal with Diddy.” It happens to virtually every other top tier in Smash 4, and it’ll happen here.

Of course, this is all provided ZeRo has actually retired (until the next Smash game). The pull of competition can be irresistible.

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What’s in a List? Thoughts on the Smash 4 Backroom Tier List v3

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Recently, the granddaddy of all competitive Super Smash Bros. sites, Smashboards, released their third Smash 4 tier list. The significance of this version is that it’s the first tier list that did not come in the middle of patches or DLC, so it provides our first big look at the status of Smash 4 in a stable environment.

Overall, I have no major qualms with the tier list, and my go-to characters—Mewtwo and Mega Man—are right where I think they should be. Some characters might be a little too high or a little too low, but I don’t have any horses in that race. However, I’d like to talk about two topics: theory vs. results, and the most controversial characters among the tier list voters.

Theory vs. Results

One of the frequent struggles when it comes to bringing together tier lists is the balance between theory and results. A character can look great on paper, but actually using them and winning with them is another matter entirely. On the flip side, even if a character is winning consistently versus everyone else, this could be simply due to a gap in knowledge.

For likely a multitude of reasons, the Smash 4 community at large seems to have a hard time marrying theory with results to the extent of other fighting games. For example, the tier list above has Bayonetta at #1, but it wasn’t long after the list was announced that people were commenting that the results don’t support the position. This isn’t to say that they’re necessarily wrong, but always get the impression when looking at and joining in on discussions about character viability that people either overshoot or undersell the influence of a character’s theory with respect to what they’re capable of.

Some of the reasons I think it’s hard for Smashers to get the right balance of theory and results are as follows.

  • The game is full of Nintendo icons, so there’s often the desire to argue in favor of your beloved character
  • As a result of the above, players will often theorycraft from a biased perspective. This is difficult to avoid, and is not inherently bad because of how it can motivate people, but leads to a lot of broad leaps and assumptions.
  • People become distrustful of theorycrafting and instead lean towards results, which have defined parameters (wins, losses, championships).

This leads to people taking extreme stances about the importance of results vs. theory, where one is touted as significantly more important than the other. However, I believe that the ideal tier list is one that uses results to theorize further beyond what results currently show us. They should be less a snapshot of what the actual current metagame is like, and more an image of what we think the game will become given the information we have.

Disagreements on Character Viability

In the Smashboards post about the tier list, it’s possible to order the tier list in order to see which characters garnered the most disagreement in terms of placement. The top 5 (not counting Miis) are Samus, Bowser Jr., Pac-Man, Olimar, and Wario. According to the tier list, these characters are supposedly mid-tier at best, but it’s still worth noting that there were some who thought highly of them nevertheless.

One of the reasons for this might just be that the voters come from all over the world. Different regions are known for having strong players for characters that one might not find elsewhere. For example, Duck Hunt was considered a pretty bad character until three Japanese Duck Hunts made their way to the US and took some big names. In the case of the five characters above, Olimar is a major influence in California, Florida, New York, and especially Japan; the ranked fourth best Japanese player in their region is an Olimar named Shuton. Similarly, Wario is a major presence in Europe thanks to France’s Glutonny, with a lesser but still significant mark being made by Wario player TheReflexWonder.

Pac-Man and Bowser Jr. have been on a progressive downward slide because their most prominent players, Abadango from Japan and Tweek from New Jersey respectively, have long since put them on the backburner. I believe that there must still be those holding out hope that Pac and BowJow have what it takes to cause the occasional upset (and they still do sometimes!).

Samus is the major enigma. She has never been considered strong in Smash 4, especially compared to her armor-less counterpart, but even after a number of significant buffs she received through patches there’s still not the sense that she’s any good. And yet, enough players voted her as being at least mid-tier that there has to be some strong belief in her potential. I think what causes such disagreement as to her character is that her toolkit is actually very diverse and her physical properties all appear to be strong but dysfunctional, and how much a player can overcome that dysfunction (as they have with Shulk) remains to be seen.

The Future!

Early Smash 4 was an interesting beast because of how, for once, swordsmen weren’t dominant. This meant characters with lesser range could thrive. This has changed dramatically with the rise of Marth and the advent of Cloud (pun intended). Will there be another major shift, even without balance patches? I look forward to seeing players push their characters to their limits.

 

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The Smash 4 Tier List, and the Chaos of Viability

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Smashboards recently released its second ever Smash Bros. for Wii U tier list, which comes after a string of big summer tournaments. With movements throughout the rankings both big and small, Tier List 2.0 notably features the inclusion of Corrin and Bayonetta (both of whom were previously absent), and the dramatic rise of both Mewtwo and Marth thanks to a slew of patches as well as advancement in their development by the players themselves. It’s also worth mentioning Mega Man would find himself in high tier. As a character that has been rated both well and poorly throughout the game’s life, it’s quite interesting that Mega Man has barely had any direct buffs.

For the most part, I’m not here to argue placings of characters. If pressed, I’d say the only placings I’m unsure of are Mr. Game & Watch and Charizard.

One thing that this tier list brings to mind is just how balanced Smash 4 is, especially compared to its official predecessors in Smash Bros. Melee and Smash Bros. Brawl. Now, the roster is not perfectly balanced by any means. There are some characters who are clearly better than others. However, there are just as many where their placement is up for debate, and the fact that you’ll have multiple top players disagreeing greatly with the power level of any given character means we have a long way to go in understanding the game fully.

What makes Smash 4 so balanced? While Melee is often touted as the technically more complicated and advanced game because of its strict mechanical curve and plethora of options for constantly threatening the opponent, and I will disagree with anyone who says this makes Melee an inherently better game, the fact that there is no “sky’s the limit” character like Melee Fox or Brawl Meta Knight helps to restrict the possibility of such a dominant character running so roughshod over the weakest characters that you might as well put the controller down. Bad match-ups exist, but you know that Sheik or Diddy Kong are a couple levels below ridiculous.

Moreover, even when you look at some of the characters frequently cited as being terrible, you can often find that they can go toe-to-toe with some of the characters way above them. Take Shulk, who according to the 4BR tier list is the 12th worst character not counting Mii Fighters. Though his flaws are well-known (slow startup on attacks, dependence on Monado Arts that don’t ever fully solve that lackluster frame data), a number of top players on both sides of his match-ups place him as going even with Mewtwo and Cloud, ranked 10th and 2nd respectively. This is just because of how their tools interact, and how their strengths and weaknesses—again, none of which are ever to any utter extreme (no, not even Cloud)—play against each other. If you look at the lesser characters in Melee and Brawl, the best they can hope for is maybe one matchup against a top tier where they don’t get wrecked five ways from Sunday.

Smash 4 is currently seen as having a very volatile competitive scene, as players can be on top of the world one moment and then drown in the early stages of a tournament the next. While some argue that this is a sign of the game being competitively robust while others argue it being a flaw, I think that either argument is too simple and too rooted in whatever individuals value most as “fostering competition.” Rather, I think that a 58-character roster and a balance that’s good enough combines with the fact that not everyone goes to a tournament aiming for 1st to create an interesting formula that leads to volatility.

If everyone was purely dedicated to being the best, they would be pick the characters they believed to be the strongest. As more and more people play these characters and advance their development, the pool of “best characters” would likely narrow. For tournament-goers, it would become more and more necessary to study only a handful of matches to maximize your limited time for practice and study. However, because there are people who want to use their character for reasons other than pure victory, and those characters aren’t abject failures, the top players’ attention is inevitably divided, leading to the greater potential for upsets.

Put differently, imagine a world where everyone maximizes their chances for winning in any given endeavor. Now, let’s say that, one day, a visitor comes whose goal is not to make himself win, but to create as much uncertainty as possible in others. It would end up disrupting the metagame between the original inhabitants, leading to more unpredictable results.

It’s a beautiful place to be.

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