When I am not working, writing, reading, politicking, or sleeping; my preferred activity to pass the time is gaming. It’s always been a passion of mine, and for the over a month that passion has been directed towards one game in particular. Super Smash Bros Ultimate, the crossover fighter of Nintendo legacy characters, is that obsession; and out of all the addictions for me and others to have, the high the games give is, what I would argue, the best. The series is not starved for success by any means, being financially lucrative and repeatedly praised for it’s ability to deliver engaging gameplay via simple inputs and mechanics. While as a fan of the series I certainly appreciate any praise thrown it’s way, I believe the perception that Smash is simple is false to a large extent, born out of a focus on technical inputs rather than the miniutia of gameplay.
It’s fair to say that grasping the basics of Smash isn’t too hard of a task. Repeatedly pressing A performs the character’s jab combos, tilting the control stick in any cardinal direction followed by a press by the A preforms a tilt attack, the same principle for ground attacks hold true for aerials and special moves, and simply flicking the right stick will preform a smash attack. Grabs can be preformed by pressing one of the top triggers, shielding is done by pressing one of the lower triggers, etc. Comparing Smash to other fighting games with the same surface level glance, it’s understandable to conclude that Smash was simple. For instance, a game like Street fighter has special moves being preformed with more demanding quarter-circle, half-circle, full-circle, z-motion, or holding inputs followed by one of the 6 attack buttons. Combos are rarely preformed by simply mashing one button, but often require a more technical series of inputs such as Ryu’s standing medium punch-crouching medium kick-hadoken combo. The basics are harder to execute in a game like Street fighter than a game like Smash, and that lends the latter to being perceived as simple.
But as I said before, such an analysis is deceptive and lacks the context of the mechanical details of Smash that separates it from other fighting games. Ryu’s standing medium punch-crouching medium kick-hadoken combo might have a greater difficulty in it’s execution, but at least he has the benefit of it always working through-out a match. Smash operates under a unique knock-back health system. As a fighter accumulates blows, their knock back percentage increases along with the ease to knock them to blast zone resulting in a stock loss. This unique take on a health system affects the gameplay in multiple aspects, one of them being combos. For example, assuming low percentage, the character Link can follow his down-throw with consecutive up-tilts for a combo. However as percentage accumulates on the opponent the effectiveness of the combo diminishes and after a certain threshold the combo doesn’t work at all. But the percentage does open up new combo possibilities for the fighter, such as down-tilt-full hop-forward aerial only working at higher percents.
The opponent being damaged isn’t entirely powerless in that moment either. When being knocked back by a move, the player can input a direction that will affect the trajectory of their ascent. This mechanic changes a great deal in the reliability of certain combos. To give a personal anecdote, when I was exploring the fighter Zelda I was excited to discover a kill combo that worked when the opponent was between 70%-85% where I preformed an up-throw followed by an up-special. However this combo didn’t work if the opponent D.I., making it less reliable than my initial impression; requiring me to use other follow-ups in order to train my opponent not to D.I. in order to use my discovery.
I could go on, but given the mechanical complexity of Smash I feel that to discuss it in full would require a dissertation, not a simple blog post. So in summary I would say what makes Smash unique isn’t it’s simplicity but it’s continuous design space. The player has a lot more leeway in how they preform combos, play neutral, respond to edge-guarding, etc. For instance, when a player is in the air, they can alter their ascent and descent with simple taps of the control stick rather than being committed to any sort of trajectory. When juggling an opponent, the player has multiple vectors of attack to choose between, none of them necessarily being the clear superior option in all circumstances. What this does is lower the skill floor, as the player is given much more freedom to respond to circumstances that pop up during a match, but raises the skill ceiling due to an increased amount of nuances and complexities the player needs to be aware of at all times in order to be successful when playing at a high-level. Smash is a more analog type of fighting game, not a simpler one.