Super Smash Bros. is not a traditional fighting series. There are no health bars, no walled-in arenas, and no fatalities. But there are millions of fans. And while dozens of fighting franchises have a fanbase, there's none quite like the competitive Smash community.
Super Smash Bros. Melee has long been the first choice of competitive Smash Bros. players. To this day, there are those who outright refuse to play any of the other titles in the series, on a competitive or friendly level. It has a fierce following.
When Super Smash Bros. Brawl surfaced in 2008, many thought it would be the second coming of Melee. Those people were sorely disappointed. Brawl was a phenomenal game, but many of the aspects that made Melee so enticing had been dialed back so the title would feel more accessible to the average gamer. Many competitive Smash fans just shook their heads and turned back to their GameCube messiah.
Flash forward to the fall of 2014 when two new titles in the Smash Bros. series were set to release just months apart. Unlike the last release, folks now feared that Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U would be the second coming of Brawl, a game riddled with tripping, laggy online play and ungodly Meta Knight domination. Low and behold, the new games were neither Brawl 2.0, nor Melee 2.0. Nintendo had somehow managed to create titles that fell strategically between their two predecessors in terms of pacing and accessibility.
Many Melee fans took to the air waves to say, "Hey, this game is alright. I mean it's not Melee, but it's solid." Which is a bigger deal than it seems considering the reception Brawl received.
Unsurprisingly, the Wii U version of the newest Smash Bros. titles (which I will henceforth refer to as Smash 4) has already become a new addition to the world's biggest Smash competitions.
And yet Melee hangs on. Most tournaments are settling on these two titles as the main event and Melee is usually in the spotlight. While I'm not one to say Melee should be cut out of competitive play (it shouldn't) I'm starting to believe that Smash 4 is the superior title for those involved and should become the main focus of the competitive Smash community.
But why would I speak such blasphemy? I assure you I have my reasons.
Let's start out with the one factor where Smash 4 has an undeniably unfair advantage. The newest Smash Bros. title is much more accessible due to a number factors, the first and foremost being that it's, well, new. The reason most fighting tournaments feature the newest iterations of fighting franchises is that these games represent easily accessible titles that current players have purchased and practiced with.
As sad as I am to admit it, there hasn't been a new copy of Super Smash Bros. Melee produced for years. If I asked you to pick me up a copy on your trip to Target, you'd have to sit me down and have a serious talk about the limitations of time travel. Being on store shelves does not make Smash 4 a better game per se, but it does make it one that more folks who want to join the Smash Bros. scene are going to prefer. Melee is great, but Melee is out of print. While it was the best-selling GameCube game of all time, it doesn't mean that every Joe Smash Bro is willing to hunt down a copy, not to mention the system itself. It's not impossible, it's just not ideal.
Unlike Smash 4, Melee has to be played with a GameCube controller. Of course, if you ask most competitive Smash Bros. players what their controller of choice is you are more than likely going to find it is indeed the Cube controller. And while Smash 4 can use the cube controller as well (assuming you can find one of those darn converters), it also offers up a whole slew of other set-ups. The Gamepad, Wiimote, Wiimote and Nunchuk, Pro Controller, and more can all be used. There are so many more options that it's not hard to see why some folks, of Melee or Brawl descent, would prefer the ability to choose over being saddled with only a Cube controller. I've seen all sorts of controller set-ups in tournament play, and the ability to incorporate different play styles is a must.
Not only is the game easy to acquire and features multiple control set-ups, it also can hook up to both CRT and HDTV sets. You wouldn't think this would be a big deal, but as someone who has organised his share of tournaments I can assure you it is. HDTVs tend to cause serious lag in Melee, something that most high-level Smash players will not tolerate. CRT TV sets, much like Melee, are becoming more and more scarce as time goes on, not to mention the fact that they usually weigh a ton look and less than stellar in a live stream.
Does being more accessible make Smash 4 an inherently better game? Of course not. Candy Crush is much more accessible than both of these titles, but we all know that doesn't make it superior. What makes Smash 4's accessibility an important factor is that it provides more of a reach to players and fans who might otherwise overlook the series.
Healthy competition can be hard to find. Chances are you've run into a friend or peer who says, "You play _______? I play _______! We should play sometime." And you get excited because here's someone who shares your passion for a game on a potentially serious and competitive level and they want to play with you.
Then one of two things usually happens -- you find out that they're terrible and stand no chance against you, or vice versa. If you're lucky, and I mean really lucky, you'll find some who has a nearly identical or slightly higher skill set than you. This means you can push each other to become better. It's not that being much better or worse at a game doesn't make it fun, but if you're wanting to practice for competitive play, it can certainly lead to boring or frustrating matches.
Remember the online play in Melee? Neither do I. That's because there wasn't any. Remember the online play in Brawl? Let's pretend like we don't, because it was godawful. Smash 4 (and to a lesser extent Smash 3DS) are the first titles in the series that have a solid handle on the world of online play. Not every match is lag free, but with the right connection you can be playing matches like your buddy was right there on the couch next to you. It's good enough that you actually want to pit yourself against strangers and friends from all over the globe.
This is a huge concept in the world of Smash Bros. No longer will you be forced to play against your seven-year-old brother and two level nine computers for practice. You can play anyone from anywhere with a decent internet connection. You can find people online whose skills are nearly identical to yours and relish in the thrill of a close match. Practicing for competitive play online is an aspect of Smash Bros. that players have wanted from the start and have really wanted since Brawl mucked it all up. While it's still not perfect, it's darn sure the best thing we've seen so far.
But let's say you don't have a steady internet connection and you're back to scrounging around for local competition. Like all Smash games before it, Smash 4 has the ability to pit you against computer players with ranging levels of one through nine. Luckily, Smash 4 has also introduced a new way to practice against yourself -- amiibo. Before you fly off the handle about how amiibo are a scam, and you had to have Marth shipped over from Japan, take a minute to contemplate what amiibo actually do in Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS. They are personally trained fighters that can gain levels as they grow stronger. Now, the levels an amiibo attains and are not directly aligned with computer levels, but I can tell you for a fact that a level 50 amiibo (which is the cap) is going to be much better competition than any level nine CPU.
Practicing against an amiibo may seem a bit silly, but when there's no one else around and online play is unavailable, it's actually a decent way to keep your fighting game fresh. Who knew those silly little figures would actually come in handy? Now if I could just find Shulk...
A Larger and (More) Balanced Roster
Ho boy. This is a big one.
Ever heard the saying, "No Items, Fox Only, Final Destination"? It's a meme that's been around a long time in the Smash community and it alludes to the fact that hardcore Melee competitors always pick the same game set-up, character, and stage. It's only sort of true.
Melee has been around for over a decade and in that time many players have picked apart and perfected certain techniques and characters. The problem with this is that it has led to a very limited amount of characters being used in competitive play due to their high win rate. For example, the top 16 competitors at APEX 2015 (the current record holder for largest Smash Bros. tournament) used the following characters -- Fox (x5), Marth (x4), Sheik (x3), Falco (x2), Peach, Jigglypuff, Yoshi, Pikachu and Ice Climbers. Only nine characters from a roster of 26, with some players "maining" more than one.
At this same event, Smash 4's top 16 included 18 different characters. It isn't loads better percentage wise considering the roster of 50+, but when you examine the characters themselves you can see why it's a much more interesting and varied lineup. The tournament saw everything from Olimar to Mega Man to Rosalina to Duck Hunt. Smash 4 has a roster of characters with such a variety that it's hard to really pinpoint who holds a distinct advantage (though many feel it's Diddy Kong at the moment). Watching Melee still gets me hyped because the skill involved in phenomenal, but watching Smash 4 has me on the edge of my seat because it seems like something I could actually aspire to play.
While Melee's roster has been whittled down to a select few outliers, Smash 4's roster seems to boast a much more balanced selection. Obviously, as time goes on, certain characters will make themselves known as superior competitive opponents, but that's what makes this honeymoon phase all the more interesting and satisfying. In the end, I think players are going to come to the conclusion that not only does Smash 4 have a more balanced roster overall, but that the top characters are going to have vastly different play styles. Which, at least from a spectator's standpoint, is much more appealing.
Sometimes players find aspects of a character that are a little too good, and eventually are called "broken," which can lead to some unfair advantages in normal match play. For example, there is a way to infinitely grab and damage players with the Ice Climbers, leading to some untouchable killing combos. Many find this cheap and unfair. These aspects are part of Melee. Forever. They will never be fixed and will always be present in any competitive play. This is not the case with Smash 4, which can be patched (and has been) to make the characters advantages and disadvantages more even on the whole. It seems like another point that comes as a no-brainer, but it's one that will directly affect all competitive play as it evolves over the next few years.
But wait! There's more! Along with online play and balance patching, Nintendo has detailed some plans to include completely new characters to the roster. Most notably the Big N has brought back a Melee favourite, the psychic mastermind Mewtwo. Just like in any fighting title, a new character (or two) can add a whole new element of offence and defence to the forefront. The deeper the roster gets the more competitive variety we get. Win win.
One of the most interesting additions to the world of Smash Bros. is the addition of custom moves. Remember when I mentioned that the roster had now shot up past 50 fighters? Well, with custom moves you're looking at more like 4,000 and change.
That's a lot of different move combinations.
It's pretty easy to keep things fresh when you have 50 choices, but it's really easy to do so when you have over 4,000. If you thought it took folks a long time to dissect the gameplay possibilities in Melee (which they're still doing by the way), then you'll realise that Smash 4 should be still be under scrutiny for at least that long if not longer.
Half the fun (and stress) of facing an opponent is the meta game, and trying to get inside their head and know their next move. Knowing a player or character inside and out is key and makes it much easier to anticipate the next blow. It's extremely hard to wrap your head around the fact that each character could have 81 different move set-ups if custom moves are allowed. It's one aspect of Smash 4 that is staggering in its competitive possibilities and could bring a whole new level of mind games to the already thought-provoking gameplay of Smash Bros.
Smash 4 ultimately turned out to be the game Brawl should have been. It's more accessible to new players, but doesn't stray too far from what makes Melee the smash hit it has become over the years. Obviously not everyone will feel this way. I hope Smash fans never stop playing Melee. Heck, I hope they never stop playing any Smash title. They're all fantastic in their own ways. But at this moment in time, the world of competitive Smash needs to realise the potential of Smash 4. That isn't to say that many haven't already, but the overall focus on the hardcore scene is still leaning towards Melee.
Smash 4 is deserving of the admiration and dedication that players have put into Melee over the last 14 years.
It's the new kid's time to shine. We just have to pull the curtain back.
Ben Bertoli is an avid Smash Bros fan, games journalist and Donkey Kong enthusiast currently residing in Indianapolis. To yell at him or follow his gaming antics you can find him on Twitter or visit his personal site.