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In Defence of Melee, or: The EVO-lution of Smash

By Mike O’Brien | 

Super Smash Bros is a beloved series of games about video game mascots, mostly Nintendo characters, duking it out in wacky locales and chucking each other off floating stages. You probably played it round a mate’s house, or as a score-settler for high-school trash-talk – but it’s actually one of the biggest competitive games around, and its community is the centre of a heated controversy. After six straight years of being a mainstage event, 2001’s Super Smash Bros Melee has been axed from EVO, the most prestigious fighting game tournament in the world. In its stead, Super Smash Bros Ultimate waves the franchise banner. The aftermath has been ugly, with vocal conflicts erupting between the Melee community, the fighting game community (FGC), and Nintendo itself. Why do so many stick by this old game? Are Melee players just arthritic curmudgeons who will never play anything else? Is Ultimate the solution? Discuss.

Competitive Smash Bros is often described as a beautiful accident. Super Smash Bros. Melee was only in development for just over a year, and with creator Masahiro Sakurai’s insatiable ambition, the process was hell. “I was living a really destructive lifestyle — I’d work for over 40 hours in a row, then go back home to sleep for four,” he told Famitsu. As a consequence, many dimensions of Melee’s engine escaped thorough testing, and whilst Melee did consciously cater to the hardcore audience, players took advantage of Melee’s precision in ways neither Nintendo nor Sakurai could have anticipated. Much to the umbrage of Sakurai, who built Smash Bros as an answer to the complicated command inputs of 2D fighters like Street Fighter, Melee developed a reputation as one of the most technically intricate games ever. It’s become a game with peerless control, where new knowledge is discovered eighteen years after the fact.

Some believe competitive Melee is an abominable exploitation of ‘glitches’ – but Melee players are using legitimate mechanics, albeit more quickly and intricately than intended. Besides, games are art, and to suggest that players are wrong for perceiving the game differently to its creator’s intent seems philistine; no one would say the same about different interpretations of music or film. Say what you like about the Melee community; when it was axed from EVO, the outcry from some of its top players was ignorant, embarrassing, and frankly disrespectful to the FGC, with bogus allegations of bribery and other inflammatory comments. I won’t entertain or defend the reactionary bollocks of a vocal minority, and I won’t make a case for Melee’s place at EVO. But they aren’t going through all this effort to play an old game out of spite and stubbornness. There are merits to Melee which should be considered in abstraction of the controversy; even Sakurai called it ‘the sharpest game in the series’.

There’s more to Melee than glitches and bah-humbugs. Sakurai used to wavedash himself!

The competitive crucible and grassroots gaming culture emerging from Smash didn’t align with Nintendo’s family image nor Sakurai’s vision of an accessible experience for all, and they had grown too large to ignore. Nintendo’s attempts to curb it have been controversial. In 2013, after the Melee community raised almost $100,000 to fight cancer and make the EVO lineup, Nintendo demanded that EVO staff refrain from broadcasting Melee at all. The resentment of competitive Smash even permeated the design of future games; 2008’s Super Smash Bros Brawl, and to a lesser extent 2014’s Smash 4 were consciously neutered to be slow, uncompetitive, comboless games, with Brawl going as far as forcing your character to randomly trip when moving.

The Smash community was cleft in two: diehard Melee players, and the wider community who play the latest release. Now, eighteen years and two games after Melee, many believe that Smash’s newest incarnation, Super Smash Bros Ultimate, is the dawn of a promising new chapter; Nintendo appears to be supporting the scene, and right now it’s sitting atop the entrants list for EVO 2019 – but is it enough to unite the Smash community and put an end to the ideological conflict between Nintendo and the competitive scene it unwittingly created?

Ultimate’s title is a mission statement – this is the Ultimate Smash game, chock-full of characters, stages, and gameplay mechanics from previous titles. Nintendo wants Ultimate to be the one Smash game in town, and at first glance it seems like they’re willing to play ball by embracing Melee’s defining properties. Directional air-dodging, low landing lag, weaker shields, punishable rolls, and versatile dashes… it sure sounds like Melee, and it even introduces brand new techniques – so why not jump ship?

The answer is that whilst these mechanics make Ultimate faster, they have very limited applications. There’s more to encouraging offensive play than buffing offensive options and nerfing defensive ones, especially since they can be used interchangeably. You can nerf shields and pat yourself on the back for making the game more offensive, but how you nerf them matters. In Ultimate, they can withstand less damage, which is fine, but now you can’t use them during a dash. Outside of feeling unresponsive and restrictive, this invalidates the offensive threat of dashing into shield, which only strengthens defensive playstyles like zoning. Directional air-dodging is back, but it’s stiff and laggy, rendering it useless as the positioning and movement tool it was in Melee. Platforms were once an apparatus for creative movement – you could slide onto them or off them or drop through them quite quickly. By making movement far stickier, they’ve become a disadvantageous space simply because they’re clunky to navigate, and a major facet of the game which is now barely interactive in contrast. Bringing back mechanics is great, but it doesn’t automatically restore the options they once created. Ultimate does introduce some fantastic features, such as macros for short-hops and easier run-cancelling, but it’s a shame these came at the expense of so many other techniques.

Ramping up the speed is great, but so long as it insists on low hitstun and weak DI, Ultimate will never quite reach Melee’s creative and interactive possibilities

Also controversial is Ultimate’s buffering system. Whenever you perform an action, there’s a window of time near the end where you can queue the next move. Think of it as a little interpreter inside the game who takes the buttons you’re pressing and estimates what you actually meant to do and when you wanted it to happen. Most fighting games have one, but Ultimate’s is gratuitous and at times completely dysfunctional. With such an enormous buffering window, two different kinds of buffering occurring simultaneously, and the input lag inherent in the game, Ultimate can be a frustratingly imprecise experience that thinks it knows what you want to do better than you do. A simple option to disable this would suffice – but unlike Project M (a Melee-inspired fanmade conversion of Brawl), this buffer is compulsory.

Then there’s Ultimate’s online portion, which may be the worst in recent memory of any game this significant. There’s zero guarantee you’ll get the rules you select at all. Then there’s GSP, the game’s ranking system, which applies to every quickplay match and will penalise everyone involved when it inevitably goes tits up. You can opt to play a tournament-legal match only to end up in a one minute four-player free-for-all with items enabled on Wily’s Castle, then get demoted (or even banned) when someone else quits the game early. It’s exacerbated by awful netcode that’s somehow significantly worse than the free Melee netplay via Dolphin Emulator (a game which never had online play in the first place!). Since the latency also compounds the inherent input problems, Ultimate’s online is a hot mess indeed.

Ultimate clearly wants to be the unifying zenith of Smash, but it can’t expect to without outdoing its competing predecessors

Considering Nintendo’s track record, its vocal support for competitive Ultimate seems like a promising turnaround for the health of the scene. There’s Nintendo Versus, an official social media hub, and with events like the European Smash Ball Team Cup, Nintendo are even hosting their own circuits. But even these efforts are laced with Nintendo’s failure to understand its competitive community. The tournaments don’t even have a competitive ruleset, instead using time battles and randomly spawning items.  “Leagues, big paydays for winners, pro players […] are a bit less interesting to us”, says former CEO Reggie Fils-Aime.

In other words, nominal support in the form of Twitter shoutouts and wonky competitions where they lie about lag is as far as Nintendo will go.

‘The community themselves need to rally around a particular title’, Reggie tells ESPN. ‘As the Melee community gets their hands on Ultimate, and they see the speed […] we could see a consolidation of Smash play […] that would then enable us to standardize the rules of play’. Melee players are enjoying Ultimate, and it’s only a handful of changes from being a game many would migrate to – but if Nintendo wants everyone behind one banner, it has to listen. It can’t trivialise the appeal of Melee’s gameplay to ‘speed’ alone whilst ‘standardising the rules of play’ with item-laden tournaments that no competitive player would touch.

Merging separate groups towards one direction requires compromise and discourse – have Nintendo really listened?

These tournaments are symptomatic of the real problem: Nintendo doesn’t get it. Sakurai believes Melee was ‘too difficult’, that despite its fluidity, it was a contravention of the anyone-can-win philosophy behind Smash. Melee is hard to master – but it’s the best-selling GameCube game of all time, and its legacy is the duality of an intricate platform fighter and a hysterical party game. By releasing slower sequels with less room for advanced play, you’re not reducing the certainty of a match’s outcome – you’re just streamlining the ways that better players will inevitably dominate, as they always have and will.

Sakurai is right that Melee is too difficult in places, but his solution is needlessly divisive. If Smash is too difficult, don’t make it one-dimensional – make it easier! Add optional buffers and macros for technical manoeuvres like shield drops and wavedashes. Maybe even add some tutorials that aren’t tucked away behind five menus. Advanced players can enjoy mechanical depth, new players have an easier time learning, and casual players won’t even notice. Remove depth entirely and it’s no wonder Melee fans aren’t charmed by a game with much less freedom, far worse netplay and ranking systems than fanmade alternatives, and a mandatory buffer that impedes precision. Ultimate is a leap in the right direction, but it still feels like a lukewarm commitment to the game’s true potential and a functional disappointment for a AAA 2018 release.

It’s great that Ultimate is a different game to Melee, and nobody wants a carbon copy – but it’s possible to evolve and try something new without fixing what isn’t broken

Sakurai’s vision of a universally accessible fighting game is noble but paradoxical. In his obsession to create more inclusive games, he has made Smash less interactive, and the gap between winners and losers remains as wide as always. Just because you’re not doing quarter-circles on an arcade stick doesn’t mean Smash isn’t inherently difficult. It’s a fighting game with almost 80 unique characters and movesets, some of which feel like playing different games altogether. When you pass a controller to your casual friends, they’re probably too busy trying to avoid flinging themselves into the abyss to give a toss about whether someone is wavedashing – so why remove what made Melee the ‘sharpest game in the series’? It’s time to dispel the myth that high skill ceilings and low skill floors are mutually exclusive. Melee’s endless technical possibility didn’t stop anyone from having senseless fun with it eighteen years ago. It outlived two successors and continues to survive independently for a reason, so why not embrace its legacy to make a Smash game that’s truly ‘Ultimate’?