This was a scene inside of Nintendo's busy, loud E3 booth:
I'm standing beyond a velvet rope in line to play Smash Brothers for Wii U, when one of the Smash Invitational contestants is walked past the line and placed directly behind me.
I immediately recognize him as "MacD", Greninja representative and professional Peach player in Super Smash Brothers Melee. Of course, I instantly ask him his impressions of the new Smash game, having just seen him on the big stage the day previous. MacD glares back at me with a completely compromised look, the beginnings of a sentence abandoned in favor of a barely audible smirk. I wait a moment before trying to break the silence, but my question is further ignored. He turns away to look at his phone.
Now I had to know, was this actually how the players up on that Nokia Theater stage privately felt about Smash Brothers 4? Was this an accurate representation of the pro-smash community's expectations? Did I smell bad?
Smash Brothers for 3DS has now been out for several weeks around the world. Both Melee and Brawl (and even occasionally Smash 64) have benefited from strong tournament scenes over the years. And while there is often division among them, there are plenty of reasons to believe the hardcore community had been awaiting the arrival of Super Smash Bros. 4, albeit with a more critical eye.
So now that it's been out, what do they think?
"I'm addicted to it!"
"Marth and Lucina's range are pretty bad."
Okay, wait a second, let's focus on the basics first.
"Smash 4 is a Smash Brothers game without some of the more popular, advanced techniques that Melee has, such as wavedashing, L-cancelling, dash dancing (among others). It's a faster version of Brawl…" begins Gonzalo Barrios, AKA "CT_ZeRo", winner of the 2014 E3 Super Smash Bros. Invitational and professional Smash player.
"There's also a ton of discrepancy with how the game should be played, as far as custom moves and stages go. It's not my personal favorite in the series, but I certainly enjoy it greatly and play it quite a bit."
Alright, fair enough. But what exactly are these discrepancies in how the game should be played by professionals?
A quick rundown: Typically, a tournament organizer ("TO") will decide on certain "house rules", let's call them, regarding how any given tournament will be run. For the previous three games (and one popular mod), these rules have evolved slowly over the years but have generally remained static: Stock battle, no items, limited stage selections, and 8 minute time limit. No character has ever been banned, with exception of nuanced, character-specific techniques and a trial period which saw Metaknight banned for roughly six months.
So keeping that in mind, I asked a few Smash players of significance some questions in an informal survey. I wanted to know what they thought the most important changes to the game were. Here's what they said:
"The single best change has to be the new ledge game, where players can bump opponents off ledges and no longer gain invincibility for repeat ledge grabs. It promotes an aggressive off-stage game that favors the guy defending the stage." said pro modder and smash player Kyle Brockman ("Thinkaman"). I found this sentiment oft repeated, here again by William Wettingfeld ("Bwett"), professional Brawler and creator of TourneyLocator:
"(In) Brawl, the ledge is safe. In Melee and (Project Melee), when you are forced on the ledge, if you haven't decided what option you wish to choose, you can drop and regrab to delay your decision…With Smash 4, you have to make a decision right then and there."
"You have about a second, otherwise you get punished."
In Smash games previous, only one character could occupy a ledge at a given time. Thus, grabbing the ledge not only granted that player the side benefit of invincibility frames, but more crucially could disallow recovering players from saving themselves by virtue of having nowhere to grapple. The idea of knocking off your opponent and taking the edge is understood as an essential part of "edgeguarding", and has been a pillar of the Smash Brothers metagame since the series' inception back on the Nintendo 64.
Now, if a player grabs onto a ledge occupied by another character, they simply take over while the previous owner is popped up into the air. And re-grabbing doesn't trigger invincibility.
"I like the new ledge mechanics. They balanced a lot of character's recoveries with it…before characters like Link and Mario just got destroyed trying to recover because their up-b's were too linear. Now all that matters, really, is just the ability to actually make it to the ledge." answered pro smasher Dustin Carlson ("TLOC Denti").
It may not have been the flashiest change to the game, but it's no wonder why pro smashers are quick to cite ledge sharing as perhaps the most important change.
The next biggest change to the game is an area of a bit more controversy.
Smash Brothers 4 allows for the player to customize every single character's "special" moves. To clarify, these are moves activated by pressing "B", or a combination of pressing "B" and holding the analog stick up, down, or to the side.
Right now, there are 49 characters (plus the three Mii combinations). So excluding the Mii variants, that means there are 392 additional special attacks in Smash 4.
Oh, and by the way, you have to collect each one of them individually.
Samuel Robert Buzby ("Dabuz"), winner of the Nintendo of America National Open Tournament in New York City and pro Brawl player is one of the many custom move supporters. "I like how much they can change and improve the characters, I would like to see them used in competitive play and definitely in non-competitive play. I use at least one on every character I use."
"I was originally against custom moves until I saw them; now I'm definitely in favor. What custom moves do is bridge the gap between different play patterns - they let you take a character like Ike or Ganondorf designed for free-for-alls, and re-optimize them to compete in a 1v1 environment." said Thinkaman.
"Currently custom moves are polling at 90% support on Smashboards, so it seems inevitable that they will be accepted in the long-term."
Others, however, aren't so hot on custom moves.
"…we are unsure if it will be as easy to implement them in tournament without a time constraint on the Wii-U version." says Tyrell Coleman ("Nakat"). "There are no "broken" custom moves yet, but definitely some that are very strong and strengthen already capable characters, making them even more dangerous (than other characters)."
"I'm not a fan of them at all currently." said ZeRo. "It seems like a hassle, really. I'd think differently if they were all unlocked from the start."
At least there is little doubt regarding the item-esque attachments you can also earn within the game. "Equipment will remain banned in competitive play." affirmed Nakat.
Okay, let's move on to what all of us really want to know.
Just tell us guys.
Which characters are the best?
"It hasn't been decided at all."
"Things are subject to change due to the meta-game being new and fresh."
"I really just don't want to influence the opinion of players too early before there is enough time for players to figure stuff out on their own."
OH COME ON. TELL US WHO THE BEST IS!
"…if you put a gun to my head, I'd have to guess that Yoshi, Rosalina, Zero-Suit Samus, Sheik, and Sonic look promising (In no particular order.)" says Thinkaman.
"It's generally said among the top level players that Rosalina, Diddy Kong and Lucario are the top 3." says ZeRo.
Pro Brawl player Ramin Delshad ("Mr-R") thinks, "In no order, I think right now the top 3 are Sheik, Rosalina, and Diddy."
Other characters commonly name dropped? For what it's worth: Ness, Greninja, and Bowser.
Alright, onward to the flip side of the same coin. Don't hold back the juicy stuff...
Tell us who totally blows!
"It takes time for that sort of thing to emerge; if we look back at the discussion 6 years ago, our predictions for Brawl two weeks after release were still immature. Additionally, our current experience is only with 3DS controls, and mostly with online lag. Local play with precise Gamecube controllers may change a lot of early opinions…What's more interesting is how none of the characters currently seem outright bad." insists Thinkaman.
In fact, of the seven professional smashers that I interviewed and well over a dozen that I spoke to, none were willing to proclaim any one character outright "bad". "I feel like most of the characters in Smash 4 are pretty balanced overall." said Bwett. "There's nothing Pichu related, like in Melee."
Although that didn't mean a few players didn't let slip the names of characters they were still working out.
"Ganon…Kirby, Falco, and Luigi…winning with them is a lot harder." admitted Nakat. Denti thinks identically. "Those characters are going to run into a ton of problems in this metagame."
Luigi, why does this always happen?
Finally, a few tidbits from all the interviews. Many of the Smashers shared affinity for Smash 3DS, but several suggested its professional days are numbered. "Honestly we will all move on to the Wii-U version. However the 3DS version will serve as a good practice tool while on the go" stated Nakat.
Also, comments like these were frequently shared:
"…I wish I could invite a friend online from my friends list and then we would queue up together and search for doubles matches. Unfortunately, online does not allow for that, and the rules for doubles online are with team attack off and timer, which are very different from standard tournament rules…I'd personally love a 'For Glory' version of doubles!" suggested ZeRo.
Issues with friend codes consistently came up as an inhibitor to the game play.
And finally, it should be noted that while there is a popular perception that pro Smash players are insufferably unsatisfied with Nintendo's efforts, every single person I spoke to offered genuine approval of the game thus far. In fact, Nakat really wants you all to know this:
"I would like to give a large thank you to Masahiro Sakurai, Nintendo, and Namco-Bandai for the amazing work and opportunities you have given me due to Smash. This game has changed my life in so many ways...I can type this, but one day I would love to thank all of you face to face for everything you have done."
See? However Smash 4 evolves in its rule sets, within the Wii U version, and through "balance patches", it will still likely have a long, adored life ahead of itself.
Oh, and everybody is ecstatic tripping is gone.
Alan is a grad student studying the psychology of creativity in southern California. He played Smash Brothers Melee professionally starting in 2005, but eventually slowed down because he became a grad student studying the psychology of creativity in southern California.
Smash Tournament Photo Credit: Visit "Mass Madness" in Framingham, MA! Photo credit to MattDotZeb
Alan would like to thank these very talented Smash players for contributing their thoughts:
Bwett - http://www.tourneylocator.com/
Dabuz - https://twitter.com/BuzSensei
Denti - http://www.twitch.tv/DentiSSBB
Nakat - http://www.twitch.tv/nakat973
Thinkaman - http://balancedbrawl.net/
ZeRo - http://www.twitch.tv/zero