Being over the age of 30 and having a very fortunate job, I’m lucky in that I don’t have to miss out on games just because of the platform they’re on. But growing up, with a family that was relatively poor and not having much spare cash lying around, there was plenty of games I never grew up with.
Consoles of the ’90s were a good example. We had a family PC and some older PCs because the local bank branches didn’t know what to do with them. But TVs in every room was absolutely not something we could afford, and so those glorious early days of games like Smash passed me by.
It’s why I’ve been looking forward to Smash Ultimate so much, if only because it represents the last real opportunity I might have to get into Smash. It won’t be the last game in the series, but by the time the next one comes around, who knows what my gaming skills will be like. I might need glasses. I might be entirely sick of games with any level of competition. My reflexes might be shot entirely. And, hell, I might just be into other things.
Right now, I do still have a competitive bent. I’ve never been especially good at fighters, although I did have a stint where I practiced Mortal Kombat X hard so I could attend a local fighting game competition, where I happily made up the numbers and got knocked out in the second round.
But I do enjoy a good old grind – not necessarily the Fallout 76 or MMO-style grind. I’m talking about the one where, inch by inch, your command of a character becomes slightly tighter. In the case of Smash, that also means little things, like chaining combos for the first time, finding which one (or three) of the roster’s immense list actually suits my playstyle, not falling off the goddamn platform because I misjudged a down+B, and other things like that.
The Smash bug is probably best described by a clock.
I was celebrating a friend’s birthday the other week. I wasn’t sure I’d be at the party, because I’d been riddled with that horrifically gross kind of cough you get at the tail end of bronchitis. It’s the most aggravating kind of illness. It hangs around for weeks, and you absolutely don’t want to be sharing the company of other people.
But there was a promise of board games. It was scheduled for early in the day, and as these kinds of coughs are generally at their worst in the early morning and late at night, I figured I’d be OK.
I arrived around lunch, prepared to play some board games and just hang out with friends.
We didn’t play a single board game all day, save for some One Night Werewolf late in the evening. As people started to file out, Smash fired up on the Switch, the controllers rolled out, and the stocks started to fall.
I intended to stay for a few hours, mostly because I figured that was the furthest I could go without troubling anyone.
After almost four or five straight hours of 1v1v1 battles, coupled with swapping Switches over so we could continue unlocking characters on other consoles, the evening ended after 3:00am.
What’s amusing about all of this is that, in so many ways, Smash obfuscates an awful lot of essential information. Say you’ve just bought Smash on the Switch, don’t know any of the fighters, and are just getting to grips with the game.
You can pause proceedings and hit up the move list. Everything there is clearly spelled out. It’s a good description of the smash attacks.
But it’s not even in the same realm of useful as the Techniques page, which you can access from the Help page (something most users will probably completely avoid). It’s a page full of the kind of tips you’d expect from a YouTube tutorial.
This is essential stuff. Are your friends the kind of people who play Ganondorf and just charge down smash over and over, because they enjoy launching people into the next dimension at 70% damage? Then you’d probably like to know more about dashing, aerial control, and other techniques that let you close the gap within the 28 frames it takes Ganon to do his stuff.
World of Light teaches you none of this.
They’re the kind of advanced techniques that are essential not just for more advanced Smash play, but for little things like not getting juggled repeatedly, or staying on the stage a little better. It’s the kind of advice that makes you wonder: why wasn’t there, I don’t know, a super lengthy interactive tutorial covering this instead of music tracks 701 to 800?
Don’t get me wrong: I love the music. But this kind of stuff is super helpful in stopping new players from churning.
And if your first taste of Smash is coming through the World of Light singleplayer adventure, there’s a good chance you’ll hit a wall eventually. The design is almost deliberately erratic: you’ll be fighting a one or two star spirit, and then immediately behind, there’s a four-star spirit with an absurd power rating that knocks you past 60% with a single hit.
You don’t get any advance notice of the sudden ramp in difficulty. So either two things happen: you end up running back and forth across the map to fights that you’re more equipped to handle, or you just butt your head over and over against one particularly annoying fight until you find the right way to cheese through.
It’s a bit rubbish.
And yet, there’s this bizarre quality that keeps me coming back at least once or twice a day.
Maybe it’s because the World of Light mode is deliberately structured in a slightly unfair way. I know I could probably win, I just need to find the trick. There’s always a trick, my brain tells me.
It also reminds me of the parts I loved about competitive games of old. Take classic Counter-Strike 1.5. My favourite maps were the ones that were the most imbalanced: de_cbble and de_train, maps that were undoubtedly skewed towards the defenders. Winning rounds on attack was a genuine achievement. You always knew you could come back from a 12-3 or 11-4 deficit.
Just one more round. One more kill, and victory will be in sight.
Smash gives me a bit of that vibe. And even when I’m sitting there, suppressing a cough at the early hours of the morning, watching others’ movements and trying to calculate in my head the best option with the limited knowledge I have, there’s always this seeming possibility.
Maybe if I just back off a fraction, pick a different moment, wait for a good grab.
There’s a way to win somewhere.
It’d be nice if Smash Ultimate was more upfront and provided better tools for newer players. There’s always YouTube, tutorials from Smash professionals, and forums to learn for.
Ultimately, it probably doesn’t matter. Decades later, I’ve finally been bitten by the Smash bug.
I’ll work the rest out in due course.