If you talk to Smash Bros. players right now, they will tell you there's a war going on over the Wii U game's custom moves. The next front will be waged this weekend at EVO, because it's the first major fighting game tournament that's made them legal.
Custom moves are a new feature Nintendo added to 2014's 3DS and Wii U versions of Super Smash Bros.. As the name implies, they allow players to customise a fighter, specifically by swapping out one or more of their special abilities with a variation of it.
Take Mario, for example. His standard special move allows him to chuck a fireball at a target, much like he was able to in all the previous Smash games. Now, thanks to custom moves, players can equip him with two variations of the fireball move. "Fast fireball" shoots a projectile that moves faster and travels farther than the standard one, but also deals less damage. "Fire orb," meanwhile, conjures a massive ball of flame that moves very slowly, but hits a target repeatedly and deals a ton of extra damage.
Customisation is usually a good thing, so you might be wondering why something like three different versions of a fireball attack has brought the Smash community to the brink of "the customs civil war," as avid Smash player and YouTuber The Dandy Keef described it in a video spoofing the whole kerfuffle:
Nobody is trying to argue that customs are inherently a bad feature for Smash itself. The debate focuses on the game's high-level competitive play. EVO became a provocative front in the customs civil war simply because it's the first tournament to allow them. The other two major Smash tournaments that took place in 2015, APEX and CEO, didn't make customs legal. And since EVO is the biggest fighting game event there is, many Smash players feel that the future of the game's competitive life is at stake.
Smash YouTuber The Dandy Keef reiterated this sentiment to me in an email. "The success or failure of it will pretty much dictate whether or not customs should be legal."
What makes custom moves so bad in the eyes of their detractors? I spoke to a number of hardcore Smash fans and three top-level professional players who don't like custom moves, and found that their criticisms boiled down to a few common issues.
First, the anti-customs Smashers feel that the moves undermine Smash's delicate balance as a fighting game, making certain choice characters who benefit from their customs overpowered in comparison to the rest of the competition.
Gonzalez "Zero" Barrio, a Smash pro who's widely considered to be the best in the world right now, offered Pikachu as an example of imbalanced custom moves. One of his special moves, "skull bash," allows the Pokémon to zap quickly to the left or right after a short charge-up period.
Normally, this move only really works as a technique to recover if, say, an opponent has knocked him off the side of a stage.
"This is meant from a design standpoint to give pikachu a powerful recovery and the ability to recover from almost anywhere," Zero explained. "The weakness to the move is that it's simply a recovery move. It has no threat as a kill option."
Smash is unique among fighting games because of how it handles damage and knockouts. While Mortal Kombat matches are decided by whoever beats their opponent down to 0 health first, the only way to kill an enemy fighter in Smash is by making them fall off the stage. Damage, meanwhile, is measured in percentages. As a character absorbs more damage, they become bouncier and bouncier. By the time they crack 100% (damage goes up to 200%, though it's rare to stay alive that long, especially in tournament games), the weakest enemy punch can easily send you flying.
Even though Pikachu's normal skull bash doesn't do much damage, then, the added mobility is a powerful asset in its own right. Being able to blink long horizontal distances means he can keep coming back into the fight when others might fall to their deaths. It comes with a tradeoff (the lack of damage), but that's the whole point: every powerful move in a balanced fighting game is expected to have a strong counter-move or downside. But with the introduction of custom moves, skull bash can give Pikachu a ton of mobility and damage-dealing potential at the same exact time.
"If you apply customs here, you get 'heavy skull bash,'" Zero told me. You get the same recovery benefits, but it also gives Pikachu one of the most powerful moves in the game — a move that can kill opponents around 40-50% [damage]."
"Players usually die around 110-130%," he continued. "Imagine dying at 40. Three times as early."
For Zero, going against a super-powered Pikachu with the heavy skull bash special isn't just unfair, it's also not very fun. There's no way to legitimately counter such a powerful strike, so Zero thinks the custom Pikachu forces players to simply spend an entire match trying not to die while the Pikachu player will just keep trying to pull their most powerful move off.
"There's no 'counter' to that strategy," Zero said of Pikachu's skull bash move. "It's not like it's possible to find a weak spot to it. It's generally used out of combos or when opponents lands, [so] it turns into a situation where you're scared of dying extremely early."
Like other fighting games, Smash tournament matches are played best two out of three — the first person to kill their opponent twice wins. Getting a massive boost in low-damage kill potential means that Pikachu players "get a huge lead" if they manage to pull his heavy skull bash move off just once or twice, Zero argued.
EVO 2015 is only just getting started, but the tournament's rule set for Smash was officially announced at the end of March. Smaller, less formal local tournaments and competitions across the country have increasingly picked up custom moves since then thanks to EVO's influence. Pikachu's Heavy Skull Bash quickly began to develop a...reputation for itself. In the most notorious example, it led pro player MVD to rage-quit a match against PG ESAM, known as the best Pikachu player out there right now. after Pikachu landed a killing blow on MVD's Diddy Kong when the ape was only at 44% damage. It was all the more surprising because ESAM pulled this off against Diddy Kong — long assumed to be the most unfairly overpowered fighter in the game by hardcore Smash-ers until Nintendo finally nerfed him in mid-April.
A gif of MVD standing up and walking away from the fight in frustration after ESAM demolished his Diddy Kong took off on the Smash subreddit and SmashBoards forums.
The episode was intensely symbolic, striking fear in players who now thought one overpowered character had been replaced by another, even more overpowered one. As one poster on Reddit put it: "well, Pikachu with customs will be all the rage at Evo then... yikes."
PG ESAM, whose real name is Eric Lew, continues to play with the tricked-out Pokémon, and plans to do so at EVO this weekend. But even he agrees with Zero that customs are bad for competitive Smash Bros.
"I don't like them because they start changing the way the game is played in a fundamental way," ESAM told me over instant messenger yesterday. "A lot of moves make characters forego the general things that fighting games typically require, such as spacing, move variety, and timing. Many custom moves devolve the game into 'can you beat this one move' instead of 'can you beat my character.'"
Lew even admits that the custom Pikachu he now plays with is "busted." And yet he still plays with the guy because doing so gives him the best chance of winning.
"I use them because using customs when they are legal is like using the best character in the game," Lew said. "Why not use the best version of your character? There is no point in handicapping myself in the current format because of something as silly as pride."
Gameplay balance might be the biggest concern that Smash players like Zero and ESAM have with custom moves, but it's not their only problem with it. Custom moves need to be unlocked on an individual Wii U by completing specific challenges in Smash, and a single console can only store a finite amount of player-made custom move sets at any given time. These two factors pose serious logistical challenges to actually playing Smash at the pace required in a successful tournament. And since custom moves are often slight (but impactful) variations on a character's default moves, it isn't always super easy to tell when someone is using a custom move or not. Zero and ESAM feel this makes the game more confusing and therefore less enjoyable for spectators, which defeats the whole purpose of hosting a fighting game tournament.
As for the pro-custom move side of the debate? The short answer is that they disagree with all the highlighted criticisms. For a more detailed explanation, I spoke to the man most directly responsible for getting custom moves accepted into EVO this year.
Chris Immele is better known to the Smash community by his online handle, "Amazing Ampharos," which is what he goes by on the game's influential forum SmashBoards. He started communicating with Joey Cueller, the founder and organiser of EVO who puts together the rule sets for each game, back in February to try and convince him that custom moves could work — even at an event as large as EVO. Cueller's main concerns were logistical: how to account for all the different variations of custom moves people might want, and how to cut down on time for importing custom moves to the Wii U consoles at the tournament.
Working with other SmashBoards members, Immele came up with efficient solutions to Cueller's issues, aggregating player opinions on different characters to come up with a list of the ten most popular custom move sets for each character. As for the matter of transmitting these sets between different Wii U consoles, the customs advocates discovered that you can export specific data stored on a single 3DS to multiple Wii Us. Immele even polled SmashBoard members to see how many of them were pro and anti-customs, and then used the results to convince the EVO rulemakers that they were a good idea.
Immele did all of this work to guarantee custom moves a seat at the EVO Smash table because he's convinced they have the exact opposite effect to what critics like Zero and ESAM see. Custom moves don't make Smash unfairly imbalanced, he told me over Skype yesterday. If anything, they help make the game more fairly balanced because they give weaker characters a much-needed leg up.
Take Duck Hunt, for example. The default dog-and-duck combo has a move called "Zigzag" that summons a can that you can kick forward so it blows up in the face of an opponent. A Duck Hunt player with the right custom move set can juggle the can back and forth in the air before it hits an opponent, rather than just booting it in a single direction.
That makes it a trickier move to pull off, but also gives the player a better chance to hit an opponent who's trying to juke their way out of the attack. The added difficulty of successfully executing the move therefore balances out its added power, in Immele's view.
"Almost every custom move has some kind of drawback built in, and usually the default is the most user friendly," Immele argued.
"That's really the main thing about focusing on moves like Heavy Skull Bash that makes me sad," he continued, referring back to the OP Pikachu move that Zero and ESAM think is ridiculous. "Sure you do have moves like that, that just outclass the other options. But they're the minority. Usually it's more like: 'accept this downside for this upside and rethink how you handle certain things in exchange for an edge in some situations.'"
The real benefit of custom moves in Immele view is that they help give lower-tier characters like Duck Hunt a fighting chance, even in the big leagues of a tournament like EVO. They may make the game a tad more difficult to read for casual players and spectators alike, but they promise to offer something far greater in return: variety. Having more viable characters means that there'll be more of Smash Bros.' iconic cast on display at tournaments, which Immele thinks will help keep the game lively and interesting for players and viewers alike.
He has a point when it comes to variety. Before the Wii U version of Smash came out, there was a running joke about the game's entire competitive scene being dominated by Star Fox protagonist Fox McCloud since he was considered the best character in the game. And even when Smash Bros. did come out for the Wii U, fans were scared that the same thing would happen again, only with Diddy Kong.
Critics don't deny that custom moves help make some of Smash's weaker characters stronger. They just also feel that whatever boost customs give to a character like Duck Hunt are still far outweighed by the boosts given to fighters who were already powerful without them.
"Customs make more characters viable," the pro Smash player Samuel Buzby told me over Facebook this week, "but it comes at the cost of some great characters getting even stronger with them on (Sonic, Sheik, Pikachu), some customs are a bit too polarising and make the game very shallow (DK, Mii Brawler) and others make the game significantly less fun to watch and play (Villager, Rosalna). DLC characters also do not have access to custom moves, putting them at an extreme disadvantage."
Debates about the upsides and downsides of custom moves are endless. Pro-customs Immele argued to me that while Pikachu's heavy skull bash does have ridiculous killing power, it's only useful in a small handful of highly specific scenarios. Pikachu master ESAM, meanwhile, insists that his preferred character is "unfair" in the game's current customs-enabled climate. And on and on it can go.
Is there a right and wrong answer to the question of whether or not Smash Bros. custom moves are balanced? Honestly, it's impossible to say right now. On paper, one can make persuasive arguments about custom Pikachu's abilities and the numbers behind them that support either case. But accounting for human elements like player skill, experience, and individual play styles is much harder to do. Balancing a competitive game isn't an exact science. And it's particularly hard for hardcore Smash players to puzzle through the meta-game because Nintendo, famously private company that it is, almost never gives out information about characters or their aggregate performance.
Substantial amounts of data is the one major thing that's been missing from the Smash Bros. custom conversation right now. With almost 2000 people planning to step into the ring this weekend at EVO, the tournament looks to be the first place with a big enough player pool to help hardcore Smash players come to solid conclusions about the meta-game. Or maybe, just maybe, Nintendo will decide to nerf some of the more egregious custom moves as well.