Earlier this month, Super Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai revealed the latest fighter for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. It wasn’t Crash Bandicoot, as rumours suggested. It wasn’t Master Chief, as hopes and dreams did. It certainly wasn’t the long-clamored-for Waluigi. It was Steve, from Minecraft. Last night, Steve officially joined the Ultimate roster as the second character included in the second batch of downloadable content. I played several dozen rounds as or against him (and other Minecraft characters) and have just one takeaway: What the actual fuck?
I’ve poured hundreds if not thousands of hours into Smash Bros. and can say, with certainty, that Steve is the strangest character I’ve ever played. For starters, when Steve wins a match, there’s a chance you’ll get a nakedly suggestive victory screen, in which he holds a sizable piece of meat at waist level. As one user quipped on Twitter, barely an hour after Steve came out, “How did this get approved lol.”
This NSFW blunder is a microcosm of how Steve fits into Smash. One moment, everything seems like business as usual. The next, you’re blindsided by something so unexpected you don’t know what to make of it.
Steve isn’t the only Minecraft character who joined Super Smash Bros. Ultimate last night — by using the outfit selection options, you can also play as Alex, Enderman, or Zombie, though they all have the same moveset — but, for the sake of clarity, we’ll just refer to the batch as a singular Steve. Fundamentally, Steve plays like any of the other 76 characters in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. As with any other Smash fighter, you can perform basic attacks and powered-up smash attacks. You can jump, albeit slightly lower than most other fighters. You can perform four different special moves, dictated by the direction you point the left thumbstick.
The specials are where things go off the rails. By performing the standard special move (holding down the B button with no directional input) on the ground, you whip out a pickaxe and mine from the ground to fill up a resource metre. Those resources then dictate what other moves you can do, most of which take the form of crafting things. By performing the side-special, you’ll jump into a mining cart and careen across the stage, not unlike Wario with his chopper or Bowser Jr. with his clown car. Do the up-special, and you’ll pop into the air with a hang-glider. The down-special drops an impractical but nonetheless hilarious box of dynamite. If you do the standard special in the air, you’ll place a block.
This might all sound standard on paper, but none of these moves work exactly how you’d expect. Take that mining cart, for instance. You can use it to crash into unassuming opponents with a powerful attack that will likely send most fighters flying. You can also jump out of the cart as it’s moving. The cart will carry on and, if it passes over another player, they’ll get picked up. Escaping the cart isn’t easy, so anyone caught in it will likely get carried right off the stage. It’s a nefarious move for scoring a kill. Smash players, of course, are no strangers to cheap tricks, but this one is so out of left field, so unlike any other move from any other character, that it’ll likely catch even series veterans off guard. (That said, it’s good for eliciting a laugh, if only as a result of the sheer ridiculousness that comes with seeing a helpless Bowser speed into the blast zone.)
Then there’s the hang-glider. Usually, in Smash Bros., the up-special is used to help you get back on the stage. With Steve, it’s more often no help at all. There’s an initial updraft that gives you some lift and can save you if you’re close to the edge. But right after you hit the apex, Steve dives down at a steep angle. What’s more, once you strap it on, you can’t take it off. You can futz with the angle somewhat, but there’s no fighting gravity. Even worse, you can only head in the direction you’re facing. In one battle, I accidentally killed myself three times in a row by using the up-special while facing away from the stage. Even weirder, if you’re using it on a flatground stage with no edges or bottom-screen blast zones, you can use it to belly-slide across the stage.
Getting back on stage, then, is usually a matter of using the block-building standard special. If you’ve mined enough resources, you can create floating blocks in the air and use them as stepping stones to get back on the course. You can also strategically place blocks to screw over other players, usually by creating a wall (to shield against their attacks) or a ceiling (to stop them from jumping or performing an upward smash attack). One high-level trick involves placing a block in front of a fighter trying to return to the stage, which will send them plummeting into the abyss. In all the matches I played last night, this only happened once. (No comment on whether or not I was the one who performed this highly technical manoeuvre or the one who suffered it.)
The act of mining is also unpredictable. As you dig, there’s a chance of turning up rare resources, like gold or diamonds. Steve always spawns with a box, which is planted at some place on the stage. If you uncover a rare resource, which seemingly happens at random, you can return to the box and tap the B button to power up Steve’s arsenal. Gold weapons are more powerful than what you start with. Diamond weapons are the most powerful. A Steve with a diamond weapon should be avoided at all costs. These resources are indicated by a small marker next to Steve’s damage metre. If you’re paying close attention to your fellow fighters, you might be able to see what’s coming your way. But Smash is, if nothing else, a hectic melee. Who has the time to pay attention to all the numbers and symbols on the screen? (Once Steve equips a higher-tiered weapon, that gemstone indicator disappears.)
Steve’s Minecraft toolkit feels jarringly out of place in Smash. At its core, Smash is a fighting game calibrated for mind-reading. Steve, in contrast, is tough to read. Who knows where he’s going with that hang-glider? Does he have the resources required to create a mining cart? Will he crash into me or jump out? What weapon tier does he currently have, and how far are those smash attacks going to send me? Maybe I’ll get launched halfway across the stage. Maybe I’ll get a one-way ticket to the stratosphere.
Steve, no matter your thoughts on the character’s source material or how he plays in Smash, is a swerve in comparison to the game’s other characters, particularly the downloadable ones. Every fighter who’s joined the roster post-launch makes some sort of sense for the game. Piranha Plant is, of course, a Mario mainstay. Persona’s Joker rocks a move set along the lines of many other fighters. Terry Bogard is, with apologies to Fatal Fury fans, take-it-or-leave-it as a fighter, but his stage, King of Fighters Stadium, is among the best in series history. Byleth is a simple fighter, but tipped the Smash roster to the point where it’s basically a Fire Emblem fighting game. (Crack all the jokes you want, but the Fire Emblem fighters are the best.) Even Rare’s iconic Banjo-Kazooie makes sense, thanks to the long history between Nintendo and Rare.
But, while playing around with Steve, I was repeatedly struck by an unshakeable thought: Who is this for? Do Smash fans really want to play as a pixelated miner? His volatile moveset shakes things up more so than any other fighter. He’s even visually dissonant. When you look at the Smash roster, in whole, all of the six dozen characters have been artistically tweaked to fit with Smash’s visual style, no matter what art direction their source material took. Steve is still a bunch of blocks.
But Minecraft is one of the most popular games in the world, with a reported 126 million monthly players across more than a dozen platforms. The game’s reach is undeniable. Meanwhile, Nintendo has sold 20 million copies of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Mathematically, there’s bound to be some overlap of fans for the two games. Steve might not click for me, a longtime Smash fan and an utter Minecraft novice, but those players who exist in the centre of that venn diagram might get a kick out of the crossover. I’ll say this, though: Steve sure brings something new to the table. “Don’t they know what kind of game Minecraft is?” Sakurai said, with palpable exhaustion, during Nintendo’s announcement video for Steve. “The wizardry required to make it work… It’s impossible!”
Following June’s release of Min-Min and this week’s release of Steve, there are four to-be-revealed characters remaining in the second Fighters Pass, which sells for $US30 ($42). (You can buy individual character packs for $US6 ($8).) Now that Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is out, released around the same time Steve was revealed, the illustrious marsupial probably won’t be among the final roster. That Master Chief thing is nothing more than a silly meme. So will Waluigi get his due after years of exclusion? Stranger things — for example, a Minecraft character showing up in Smash Bros. — have happened.
Correction, 3:30 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misstated the number of characters yet to be announced for the second Fighters Pass. Kotaku regrets the error.
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