After watching last year’s EVO 2011 fighting game tournament, I was amazed by the level of skill the players had and the amount of time they must have invested into learning video games. Having played fighting games casually for most of my life, I never even considered that games could be played so well and I was inspired to actually start to learn to play fighting games seriously and have been doing so ever since. By far, the fighting game I had played the most up to that point was Super Smash Bros. (all three) since I always found it very fun and did not really care about being the best so I embraced the notoriously random gameplay. As I started to learn more about fighting games in general, I noticed that the SSB community was somewhat looked down upon by players of traditional fighting games who called it a “party game” and dismissed the random gameplay and unbalanced characters as a game that was just for fun and not to be taken seriously. The SSB fans were undeterred, however, and continued running tournaments, always attempting to balance the gameplay and turn it into a more “serious” fighting game, by banning the random elements and essentially limiting the potential tournament entrants to a few high-tier characters. Despite this, the more I learned about fighting games, the more I realized how detrimental this is to the community and SSB as a potentially competitive fighting game.
To explain some backstory for this situation, as far back as 1991, when Street Fighter II first hit the arcades, people have been challenging each other in fighting games to determine who had better reflexes, who picked the better character, who had studied the game more, and who was just plain a better fighter. As Street Fighter gained more popularity, other fighting games entered the scene and started introducing many conventions that still existed in fighting games today. The community thus responded with what they believed was necessary to make the games competitive while still being fun. And here to ruin all this fun was the notorious Akuma character, introduced in Super Street Fighter II Turbo (an updated version of the classic). This character was so powerful that anyone who picked him had a drastically higher chance of defeating the opponent, regardless of each player’s skill level. The game became no longer a test of skill but a test of who picked Akuma and who didn’t. This eventually led to the Street fighter community banning Akuma from competitive play. While he may be a fun character to use sometimes, he had no business taking part in a tournament. It would be the equivalent of bringing a tank to a football game.
This led to concept of balancing in fighting games or the idea that every character in a competitive fighting game should be equally as viable: faster characters would deal less damage; stronger ones are slower, etc. While it is impossible to create a perfectly balanced fighting game due to the fact that no two different characters, no matter how carefully constructed, can be equally as good as one another (Street Fighter I was the most balanced fighting game ever because it featured only two characters that played exactly the same way), most fighting games that have tried to be competitive have embraced this idea in general. Super Smash Bros., however, from the beginning, completely ignored balancing its characters. The first game is hard to blame because of its low budget and weird development but Melee definitely had the opportunity to be a more balanced fighting game (except for Pichu). As Melee took off in popularity, the SSB community tried make it as competitive as possible, banning items and most stages, thus allowing SSBM to enter the competitive fighting game community as a serious, if somewhat unbalanced fighting game. In the end, it worked. The fighting system in Melee was fast enough and required enough skill on the part of the player to make it truly competitive instead of a competition of who could pick the best character. This all changed when Brawl came out.
With Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Nintendo decided to focus on more casual and “fun” gameplay, allowing even new players to win against very skilled players with a bit of luck. They added even more game-breaking items (akin to the blue shells from Mario Kart), made the combat slower, added more random mechanics such as tripping and removed more competitive mechanics such as wave dashing. On top of all this, because of the time spent on adding an extensive 1-player mode and tons of unlockable content, the characters wound up horribly unbalanced. Metaknight was actually officially banned from competitive play for being too powerful, something that rarely happens. Even Yun and Yang from the original Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition were designed to be over-powered characters but were not deemed to be strong enough to necessitate the ban. Brawl has actually been looked down upon even by SSB fans as a step down from Melee and Melee tournaments are just as, if not more, common than Brawl tournaments nowadays. While I do prefer the fighting engine from Melee and do believe that the Smash community gets a lot of flak as a whole for SSB being a casual party game, I think the blame rests just as much on the community as it does on the creators for why Super Smash Bros. Brawl is not considered a serious fighting game.
As I said previously, all items and most stages in Melee were banned in the name of balancing the gameplay, but while that might have worked in Melee, which, in itself, had many high-level and competitive mechanics, it does not work in the slower, more random Brawl. While, some items and stages give clear advantages to certain characters and players, the reason the game appears so unbalanced is because of their removal. Consider a character like Fox, who has a similar moveset to Falco, and yet is considered to be much lower tier. I believe one of the reasons for this is the fact that due to the lack of items, one of Fox’s most useful moves becomes extremely situational. In this case, I’m talking about his Reflector. This makes him essentially impervious to all projectiles (which items are) but very few characters have projectiles by themselves. While that is useful in some match-ups, many characters such as Metaknight, already a great character, don’t need to fear that at all. Falco, on the other hand, has a less safe, but more offensive Reflector, allowing it to be used in multiple scenarios. If items were used in SSBB, Fox’s usefulness would increase greatly since he would be able to protect himself from most items while other characters cannot. Another character that would benefit from a lift on the ban on items is Sonic, a character who is very fast but has a very hard time actually finishing opponents because of his low knockback moves. Items could give Sonic that extra knockback he needs to kill opponents. Similarly, items can make up for Ganondorf’s short-comings, something that applies to all low-tier characters. While top-tiers like Metaknight have many advantages over them and would probably never be caught by a character like Ganondorf, items can give the low-tiers the edge they need. A Ganondorf using items properly would be able to mount an assault on the enemy from afar and approach safely, creating tough situations for Metaknight. This by no means makes Ganondorf a better character than Metaknight but he would actually be able to fight back. A character like Ganondorf would be able to finish Metaknight quickly if he could get a few hits in and items would allow him to get those necessary hits that he would otherwise not have the chance to.
Now, I’m no professional nor do I believe I’m qualified to assemble any sort of tier or ban list, however, I think that’s the right way to go when deciding which items are appropriate for use in Brawl. Stages are a bit of a different story since some character that have trouble jumping will obviously fare better in certain stages in comparison to others, but items work equally well for both players so it comes down to how the player uses the item that makes it useful or not. Since it comes down mainly to player skill, I believe only powerful, game-changing items should be banned such as the Dragoon and the Final Smashes. Other items that I believe should be banned are the Golden Hammer (but not the regular one) and the Starman. Now, the argument could always be made for items spawning in certain locations or creating dangerous situations for certain players, but that’s why each player has several lives and has invincibility upon return.
With a new Super Smash Bros. game coming out sometime in the future, I hope the smash community reconsiders their stance on items. While they do provide a random element to the gameplay, a player that is truly taking advantage of the game’s mechanics will beat out luck 90% of the time. Introducing items to competitive play will help balance the characters, introduce new techniques, and make competitive play more fun, especially since it will help differentiate SSB from other fighting games where it just comes down to the characters and not the world around them. Certain games like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 are often criticized for including elements of randomness and yet are still played competitively with no bans. Furthermore, many elements that are considered broken early in a game’s life wind up becoming much less useful and cheap as people learn more about the game. A similar situation may occur with the gems in the upcoming Street Fighter x Tekken. If an element of the game gets banned, the players will never have a chance to find ways around it.
In a competitive fighting game, it’s the creator’s job to design a fun game, whatever that may mean. It’s the players that have to adapt to the rules of the game and try to exploit them as much as possible to win rather than try to bend the game to whatever their definition of fair is. As long as the game is fun, it’s worth playing and learning. In the long run, allowing the game to play out as it should lets players invent creative new strategies to counter their problems instead of just getting rid of whatever they think is unfair. If you can’t handle the game, then go play something else.