Sanity’s Other Side: Smashing Success

All aboard…

Smash Bros Wii U logo

With the clock ticking down to one of the most anticipated games of the year, Masahiro Sakurai gave some very interesting insights into his designs for Super Smash Bros for 3DS and Wii U, and they’re not what one would usually expect from your average fighting gave designer. What’s his rationale? And what does the Inverseman think? Find out!

In an interview with EDGE Online, Sakurai gave his thoughts about not making the newest Smash Bros. explicitly for the tournament scene. Here’s his quote from the interview:

I think the popularity of Melee rested fundamentally on the game’s speed. The dazzling exchange of skills was the game’s most exhilarating aspect and the rough edges in terms of the game’s balance went mostly unnoticed. Even though the dynamic range of the characters was limited, the game somehow made its mark, even with hardcore fans of the genre.

Melee’s controls were, however, quite complicated and very tiring if the player really got into it in a serious way. This made the game less accessible for novice players and it basically ended up becoming a Smash Bros. game for hardcore fighting fans. I personally regret that, because I originally intended the Smash Bros. series to be for players who couldn’t handle such highly skilled games.

If tournament popularity was the most important consideration, then I think we would create a Smash Bros. game that included a multitude of fast moves with complicated controls. However, I believe this is actually the greatest shortcoming of fighting games at present, and that is the reason why I don’t do it.

Games aimed at casual users, such as Wii Sports and Wii Fit, reinvigorated the market and their success lay behind Wii’s popularity, [so] we had to make sure that Brawl would also be fun for first-time players. We also had to make sure that everyone could use the controls, such as holding the Wii Remote sideways. As a result of these considerations, overall Brawl is rather tame game; this had its advantages, but it also took away some of the excitement.

While there’s a lot of enthusiasm for tournaments on the one hand, there are also users who just give up on these sorts of games because they can’t handle the complexity and speed. While other fighting games continue to work on honing this tournament aspect, I think that we need to move in a direction where there is more of a focus on inexperienced gamers. Companies that release products that target a very vocal, visible group of gamers tend to receive good reactions and they may feel good about it, but I think that we have to pay special attention to the less vocal, not so visible group of players, or else games will just fade away.

There are so many other games out there which are geared to tournaments. It is important for us, however, to maintain the game’s status as a kind of ‘rough’ party game in which anyone can play without feeling too much pressure over winning or losing. We therefore want to keep a nice balance in which a wide variety of events can occur in the game, some of them quite outrageous. With this, Smash Bros. isn’t just a fighting game, it is an opponent-based action game.

The most important thing is that the game have breadth and depth, since we would like them to be popular with both novices and hardcore gamers. We think that people who aren’t so good at turning the tables and coming back from behind can still get enjoyment out of the [new] game, even if they turn off items and Smash Balls.

Although the pace of the game had to be lowered compared to Melee in order to achieve this balance, we have managed to keep the dynamism because we didn’t have to gear towards novice players like we did with Brawl. In fact, we recreated all characters almost from scratch. Also, I feel on a personal level that this game is more interesting than the three previous games in the series.

Perhaps the gut reaction from a reactionary mindset would be to declare, “Sakurai hau cud u?!1!one!? y u no kare 4 HARDCORE gaemur?” But I think, in spite of pie-in-the-sky dreams of seeing Smash Bros 4 at the next EVO, there’s a method to Sakurai’s madness.

The Strange Case of Melee

SSBM full cast

Melee was not originally intended to be the most tournament-worthy Smash Bros game, it has very arcane and secret systems, and wave-dashing is only the beginning. To fighting game buffs like myself, this was a blessing in disguise, but it was an expectation Hal didn’t see coming. Perhaps both the greatest asset and curse to the fighter genre is the execution. It’s ironic because you can tell from the design, Sakurai never intended for execution to be part of the series learning curve; no quarter-circle motions, just cardinal directions and single-button presses.  In contrast to this ideal, the level of technical skill is very great for your typical fighter and Melee is no exception. Coming from a world where the likes of Force Roman Cancels from Guilty Gear exist, you need that kind of dedication to get better at Melee. Even for a person used to more traditional fighters, casually picking up the old Gamecube controller makes me all thumbs again. The entry barrier to Melee was high and Sakurai did not find that desirable.

SSBM at EVO

If you pit someone just starting on a new fighting game against a more experienced player, it’s no doubt the latter will win. Knowing range, frame data, matchups,  and the general options proves a definitive advantage, and we fighting game players expect no less. “May the better player win” is not just a courtesy, it’s an expectation. Fighting game players expect to not do so well with an unfamiliar character and expect to be destroyed by seasoned vets at games they are only just beginning. It’s part of the package along with complicated execution, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If you wanna start seeing those wins, that means another hour in Practice Mode spent perfecting techniques and another gauntlet of guaranteed losses against better players online, but the thing is we think that’s part of the experience, an integral part of the fun.

SSBM in-game SC

Even among your “hardcore gamers”, we fighting game players are a niche within something I can barely call a “niche.” Players who aren’t used to that sort of toughness fall out of favor unless they can constantly find other friends and newbies to challenge. Sakurai sees this package as a flaw. Instead Sakurai is clearly not solely prioritizing the tournament caliber of the game, but more the dynamic nature of the game, where a more inexperienced player won’t feel “DESTROYED!” against a stronger opponent even with the usual No-Items-Final-Destination setup we’ve come to know and love, but at the same time, we risk becoming Brawl.

Breaking Down Brawl

SSBB Tripping in a nutshell

Brawl had a different set of issues. Tripping, the random nature of Smash Balls, and the sluggish pace of the game was calling to be the anti-Melee. While it did grab more novice players in, it sorely disappointed the higher level players who had discovered and honed themselves on Melee’s technical depth. The lasting overall appeal from fans dwindled quickly into the Wii’s twilight years. Later on, players would rather modify the game to make it reflect the depth of Melee more with the advent of homebrew on the Wii. You would see more people playing Brawl for Project M than actually Brawl.

SSBB Yet another Landmaster

I think the problem is that there was poor communication from designers to fans. Whereas Street Fighter has a laser-guided focus to be a competitive and tournament-worthy game, Smash Bros, for better or worse, does not make that the priority but adds other elements into the mix, hence Sakurai’s “action-platformer” comments. Due to precedence, players were expecting the second coming of Melee, but with the early Wii days focused on easing in the new influx of gamers, it delivered the exact opposite, which is why Brawl received so much ire. Nobody “really knew” what Smash was “meant” to be and, in a way, you could say Sakurai and this team were possibly trying to force the game out of what it was organically developing into.

A Happy Medium

SSB4 Mario VS Megaman

With so many hats to wear, the next Smash Bros has so much to live up to in so many arenas. It wants to be a game that is accessible to all levels of competitors but at the same time have that dynamic layer of depth. It wants to essentially make everyone happy but not cater completely to one crowd, and I believe it takes a very special kind of game to be that.

SSB4 Male Robin vs Little Mac

While I understand Sakurai’s foremost decision to not prioritize the tournament scene, I find the next Smash Bros to tread somewhat dangerous water. Adding layers of depth and upping the pace of a game naturally gives an advantage to the players who have studied them, and that advantage will grow over time. The game will evolve competitively with the overall playerbase, making skill gaps wider as time goes on. On the contrary, removing interesting player choices and decisions (ignoring feats of technical execution) or installing more compensating elements (catchup mechanics, random events, etc.) cuts the longevity of the game. When players believe they’ve practiced a game to death and stop finding those “ah-ha” moments, they stop playing. While the skill gap is not as apparent in actual matches, the playerbase shrinks over time and the game gathers dust.

SSB4 swimsuit Shulk

As it stands now, the better player will win a game of Smash without items, on FD, etc. and that will be true for as long as the game is alive, but the problem is how long will it live? Will the tournament crowd retreat to Melee and will the casual crowd bow out because the remaining loyalists are too good? Without bowing to a purely competitive game or sacrificing its depth, I’m curious to see what Sakurai’s solution to this quandary is. What innovation could his team have that will make everyone feel fulfilled when they play this game? What will make it the go-to for any Wii U experience long after its release?

SSB4 FE Lords

Serving as Nintendo’s killer app and system-selling blockbuster, Smash Bros has big shoes to fill of all different sizes. While it started simple, Smash Bros has naturally turned into something slightly different from its original intention on the N64 and its halcyon days on the GCN. Even with my trepidation, I am still eagerly awaiting to board the hype train this fall. I still have faith that it’s at least going to be a good ride, but I really want it to be great. Join me next time when that ain’t Falco.

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Inverseman

The Inverseman is an evil overlord from an alternate dimension representing humanity's anti-existence who wound up becoming a modest civil servant.

Inverseman

The Inverseman is an evil overlord from an alternate dimension representing humanity's anti-existence who wound up becoming a modest civil servant.

2 Comments:

  1. *Shrug* I’ve always loved fighting games, but Smash always struck me as that one fun series–the one where you don’t have to crack your knuckles and just let it go with your faves :’) To be quite honest, I’m already loving it for all that glorious FE representation so it can do no wrong (for me) but who knows. The option to play just on the 3DS is also a boon (No need for that Wii U) but I have a sinking suspicion that people WILL migrate back to Melee, even with the promise of balance

  2. Pingback: Super Smash Bros for 3DS First Impressions | Moar Powah!

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