An Irritating Design Choice in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Having just unlocked Cloud, a personal favorite from the 3DS version, I was excited to play through classic mode with hero from Final Fantasy VII. I was even more excited to find that after beating that mode, I had a chance to unlock Ike from Fire Emblem.

Then, after swapping from Young Link to Dark Samus to Cloud, I realized how complicated the match up between Cloud and Ike can be. Two sword wielding power hitters, one with a counter attack that can punish a poorly timed full power smash attack; trading blows between Cloud and Ike requires a fine sense of how each character maneuvers. Despite having played with Cloud before, I didn’t have an opportunity to sit with Cloud and master his move set before engaging his fellow sword-wielder. As awesome as it is to hop into a new character with a fresh move set and specials, I picked up Smash at the beginning of December; for those in academia and education, that’s crunch time. Between grading and writing, I had to squeeze Smash into my breaks between work session as a way to blow of steam. Getting rocked by a formidable AI with a character I was still shaky with was counterproductive to that end.

Several times in the first 48 hours since I bought the game, I walked away from a session of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate feeling frustrated. And I HATE frustration.

The fifth iteration of the game has been met with fairly high praise, including a 9.4 from IGN. All in all, most of the additions to the game are welcome changes that either add to the core gameplay or introduce what IGN and others have called “quality of life” improvements (UI alterations, shortcuts to particular options, etc.). While credit for these aspects is well deserved, I’ve found my time with the game stymied by one baffling design decision: out of a roster of 74 characters, you start the game with only the eight from the original Nintendo 64 version (they don’t even give you Luigi, Ness, Captain Falcon, or Jigglypuff, each of whom had to be unlocked in the 64 version).

There are two justifications that I can imagine for this decision. First, I could see this as an attempt to add “content” to the gameplay experience. Rather than just playing the adventure mode or classic mode with the characters that you prefer, you now have an incentive to play those modes with every character in order to unlock the next character. Second, since competent levels of playing the Super Smash Bros. requires you to know the ins and outs of each character, the game now has a character cross training incentive structure: you play with each character in order to learn how to use them effectively and in turn learn the strengths and weaknesses of each character.

The first justification is the logic of achievements and trophies in sheep’s clothing. Even if Young Link has some charm and appeal in terms of his mechanics, I don’t really have an incentive to play with him beyond using him to unlock Dark Samus and in turn unlock Cloud. Young Link and Dark Samus were the vegetables I needed to eat before I could get to the “Cloud” dessert in this instance. I just got lucky that Young Link and Dark Samus felt more intuitive to me than Inky from Splatoon or the Ice Climbers.

I find some merit in the second justification. In a number of games, including sports, the best way to beat a strategy is to adopt that strategy, to gain a sense of how it functions and how to take it down from within. Learning the challenges of playing as Dark Samus might in the end help me to beat someone for whom Dark Samus is their dominant character. Something that I’ve spoken about in a number of episodes is that sense of comparative mechanics, where the differences between the “kinaesthetics” or “game feel” between two different characters–approached with the same set of obstacles and affordances–can invoke a difference in the level of both gameplay and narrative. The “story” of a fight between Mario and Luigi will likely differ from a fight between Pikachu and Pichu–assuming comparable levels of skill and competency for the players involved–and those differences might suggest something about the mechanics entailed in each of those characters, and those mechanics might in turn suggest something about the relationship between those characters in their respective canons.

The problem with this justification is that Super Smash Bros is a game of skill, period. Although beating Ike with Samus was significantly easier than trying to do so (and failing) with Cloud, most match ups within the game are purportedly a matter of skill (given that the game has been out for less than a week, it’s probably too soon for any reliable set of tiers or “rock-paper-scissors” order). Beyond even being competitive, it takes time to learn how to maneuver a character properly. Incineroar’s “Up + B” jump is frankly quite frightening to try without some sense of practice and familiarity. Without spending the time to become attuned to a particular character before having to use them at a fairly high level of skill, the result can be quite frustrating. This is a particular problem when the question of skill is very much tied up with “feel”–reading a strategy guide on the best moves for each character can never replace the feel of executing the optimal combinations and movements with those characters; the difference between the cognitive and the purely affective matters here.

In her post ” Tips For Playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate“, Cecilia D’Anastasio remarks:

We get it—you like playing Kirby. Why don’t you pick another fighter for once? It’s good and fine to know what character you’re good with. Yet being so hard-set on winning, or appearing 100 percent competent to people you’re trying to impress, means having less fun playing over a long period of time and people having less fun playing with you. There—I said it.

As much as I agree that the cult of Kirby has been in a problem in Super Smash Bros. for a while, I can’t help but think that it might be difficult to separate the larger culture of Super Smash Bros.–silently chanting the mantra, “Git Gud”–from the individual experience of playing the game. Becoming proficient in the games mechanics is part of the fun, and frankly, the game seems to spike in ways that make it necessary. Even beginning at extremely humble “2.0” intensity for the classic mode, and ending at a personal high of a round “5.5”, the challengers come out the gate with full force. The AI knows how to best maneuver a particular character and demands that the player respond similar prowess. It might be shameful (and given my distaste for the Kirby-ites, hypocritical), but in order to get to the particular characters I’ve been most excited to play with (Cloud and Richter), I’ve resorted to my old 64 habits, Using Samus’ range for an edge and using smash attacks to keep close quarters quarrels brief.

I knew that “gitting gud” with this iteration of Super Smash Bros. was going to be a commitment, that I’d have to spend time pushing myself to face harder and harder AI opponents, and crafting my own strategies with specific characters in order to be competitive (the fun of inventing names like “three piece with a biscuit” for such moves is a key part of the experience for me). But having to grind to get those characters in the first place really turns Super Smash Bros. into a project with regular homework assignments. As a grad student with a dissertation to write, lessons to plan, papers to grade, two very long lists entitled “things to read” and “things to write”, and various other projects connected to my studies and my career, it feels harder and harder to find the time to be both a gamer and an adult.