Note: This is the script for what I hope will be made into a video-essay style format, which is still in progress!
Character and Playstyle in Smash
For many games, being able to customize and choose your character is a huge selling point – games let you be anything from buff spaceguy to two headed dog, and these offer new and novel experiences for players. In competitive games though, character choice often dictates how the player will end up approaching the game itself – the difference between playing with or without a particular hat in Fortnite is not the same as the difference between playing as a healer and playing as a tank in World of Warcraft. Smash Ultimate is one example where a ton of different character choices are provided to the player – it’s got a massive roster of 89 fighters, all sporting unique characteristics and charm. Part of the experience of the game is picking up that character that you truly enjoy. But of course, character choice comes with assumptions of character – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=it8bvHhqvwo – but how true is this really? How do people’s personality and playstyles get expressed when they pick a character? What if they pick the same character? Am I really a filthy degenerate for playing King Dedede?
Let’s go back in time. Released in 2001 for the Nintendo Gamecube, Super Smash Brothers Melee is the 2nd entry in the Smash series, and 2 decades after release, has continued to maintain a cult following of dedicated competitive players .
While Melee has a fairly sized roster compared to the contemporaries of its time, at competitive levels of play, it exhibits a scarcity of characters played – for many of the characters in the game, the playstyle that they are attempting to execute is done strictly better by other characters in the cast. Marth is simply, in nearly 95% of cases, a more powerful version of Roy – his fall speed makes him more difficult to combo, his moves are generally faster, and while Roy’s moves hit hardest when his opponent is right next to him, Marth’s moves hit hardest right at the tip of his sword, meaning he can wall out opponents far more easily. Kirby is in essentially 100% of cases a weaker version of Jigglypuff: he has slower mobility in the air, attacks with far less range, power, and combo potential. You could play these characters, and some do, but for the wide majority of players there simply isn’t much point.
Depending on who you ask, the number of characters capable of winning it big might be anywhere from just 5 to 13 or 14, but not the entire cast. Character selection is highly centralized around a few of its strongest characters – and yet, Melee still sees diverse playstyles, even if they are on the exact same character. Players and commentators swear by the fact that they can watch two different players of the exact same character and tell them apart from each other – and they seem to be fairly successful in doing so.
The Same Tool, Different Uses
Let’s look at two of Melee’s most notable players – Mango and PPMD, who both play Falco. Although they operate with the same tools, these players end up utilizing the tools of the character for two highly distinguishable gameplans.
Falco’s kit centers primarily around the laser™, a full screen horizontal projectile that deals a small amount of stun when it hits. When Falco shoots the laser in the air and lands, he can quickly do anything else, meaning that he can shoot them in quick succession while also remaining highly mobile.
Both players use lasers often, but the scenarios and ways in which the laser gets used differ between the two players. PPMD uses lasers as a method of controlling space, using grounded movement and well-placed lasers to prevent his opponent from reaching him on their own terms. On the other hand, Mang0 uses lasers as a way to get in closer to his opponents. He lasers as he is jumping in so that opponents attempting to retreat or attempting to throw out a preemptive strike get interrupted, giving him opportunities to close the distance. These differing use cases result in wildly different gameplans: Mango’s Falco is highly aggressive and centered around close-quarters scrapping, whereas PPMD’s Falco focuses on an overwhelming defense, walling out his opponent’s approaches and maneuvering them into unfavorable positions.
Even outside of its most notable players, different playstyles can clearly emerge. You can have Falcos doing things like this:
Or something like this:
This breadth of choices combined with a less focused character identity means that almost all of Melee’s strongest characters feature players who pilot them in dramatically different ways. Captain Falcon is a character that in all his iterations has been a crowd favorite – he’s the fastest character in the game, and he often strings together huge combos that end in exciting finishes. But if you examine the top Captain Falcon players, you’ll see a dichotomy of players. One group is made of players like S2J, who push a flashier playstyle centered around using Falcon’s speed and powerful hits to take risky guesses on their opponent’s movements, with a high payoff if those guesses are correct. Another group takes Falcon in the complete opposite direction – his speed is used to move away from the opponent rather than towards them, and a flashy, varied combo game is replaced by optimized, guaranteed setups. You can see these differences also in how these two players might construct a PB&J. [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHUp2vaHSf0 ]
Barrier to Entry
There is a caveat here though, and it is that these playstyles and techniques are largely the byproduct of Melee’s unique game mechanics and systems, and have only arisen after years of player optimization and honing. Techniques like wavedashing, wavelanding, dashdancing, L-cancelling provide players with far more tools to execute on their intended gameplans, but as a result the skill floor required to execute a playstyle successfully or for an individual player to form their own unique gameplan is one that is far less accessible. Melee is a more technically demanding game than its predecessor and its eventual sequels – a design decision that Masahiro Sakurai, director of Melee, would later voice his dissatisfaction on. “Melee fans who played deep into the game without any problems might have trouble understanding this, but Melee was just too difficult”.
Released 17 years after Melee, Ultimate’s roster nearly triples that of Melee, going from 26 to 89. A larger roster means more unique movesets to solve problems, and so playstyle and character choice end up being far more connected.
Characters in Ultimate generally fall into archetypes, and their movesets are designed in a way in which a singular playstyle is the most successful way to pilot that character. Unlike Melee where a single character can be essentially outclassed by another – almost every single character in Ultimate has a position or scenario in the game where they are the best character in the game, and so playing these characters often revolves around maximizing that one area of strength that the characters have. Stronger characters may have more scenarios in which they are strong, but they still largely revolve around pushing a singularly focused gameplan.
Duck Hunt is a ‘zoner’ and a ‘trap’ character – their movement speed is slower than average but their moveset features 3 unique projectiles that allow them to fight their opponent from across the stage. Duck Hunt with all 3 projectiles active can wall off huge chunks of the stage in a way that simply isn’t achievable by another character in the game, and so their game plan revolves around keeping and maintaining distance from the opponent. They appeal towards a particular player looking to keep space, stay away, and approach a fight on their own terms.
King Dedede is a ‘trap’ character – he is big and slow and therefore struggles to land hits while also being prone to eating combos from his opponents, but if he is able to find an opening and set up his Gordo projectile, he can simultaneously cover more options than any other character in the game. Thus, he may appeal to players who hate themselves, forced to watch their avatar get beat up repeatedly before finally eking out a crumb of dopamine.
Characters like Dedede and Duck Hunt are generally designed around viably accommodating a single game plan – playing either King Dedede or Duck Hunt outside of their intended archetype would yield middling results. You can’t play King Dedede as a rushdown character because he simply lacks the tools to do so – his movements and attacks are far too slow to allow him to get in, and even if he did, he doesn’t have any sort of fast combo strings that other rushdown characters might have. No matter how good you are, King Dedede won’t be able to do this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzvy5yOFVf0 . As much as I’d like him to.
A side effect of this is that many of the characters in Ultimate don’t actually have the tools to fit certain gameplans / playstyles, which is why you see top players like MkLeo and Tweek having like 3-4 characters that they play in tournament – a single character sometimes can’t accommodate all the potential gameplans that a player might want to execute. [How Good is Sephiroth? | Tweek Talks Episode 57] Secondaries and pocket characters thus are far more common in this game, with character matchups and counterpicking becoming a heavy part of the competitive scene.
Players will generally select the character(s) that best align with the playstyle that they intend to execute, or whichever characters end up “feeling best”. Even for newer players, character “feel” is highly important in deciding the character they end up playing. In talking to some of my own friends who played Smash Ultimate mostly for fun, they mentioned how a moveset “feeling right and natural” mattered heavily – or just the general vibes.
Character choice can also be a draw towards the aesthetics of the character itself – picking the character for, well, character. While this may seem less of a priority for players looking to win or to play a certain way, for Smash in particular, character playstyle and character visuals, animations, and backstory are generally linked. Most characters are designed to show off the elements of the games they come from. Bayonetta comes from a series of fast-paced hack n’ slash titles where she can string together moves in quick succession to wipe out hordes of enemies. Her playstyle in Smash is thus largely similar, built around long combos and moves that naturally lead into each other. Even many of her moves are lifted directly from her source game.
Character selection becomes more meaningful in determining a player’s identity and individuality when there are simply more characters to choose from – generally speaking less people will play the same character as each other, so choosing a particular character feels more unique. The number of top level players for any particular character is more limited, and thus the general playstyles exhibited in that character diverge far less. 46 unique characters of 89 total are represented in Ultimate’s Top 100 rankings, and at lower/mid-level play this becomes even more significant. Playing the same character as someone in your friend group or local circle is fairly unlikely, and gives you more of a chance to create a unique identity in that context based on your character.
The wider yet simplified roster seen in Ultimate represents a shift in how the designers approached accommodation of play styles. Melee’s heavily constricted roster of viable characters was still able to see a wide range of playstyles expressed, with the same character being able to exhibit and accommodate multiple unique and viable playstyles – but its barrier to entry was deemed too inaccessible. In Ultimate, individual differences between players of the same character are less emphasized, with a wider cast made to suit individual player tendencies and preferences. Modern games now lean towards accommodating a wide range of playstyles through giving the player the option to choose from a diverse roster of characters or builds focused around a single playstyle or idea. And while more characters can certainly lead to more flexibility, sometimes being too focused on providing a specific character for a specific player ultimately removes ways for a player to express themselves. So next time you call that Richter player a terrible person – you could be right, but maybe that’s not all there is to them.