Ultimax is a great arena to cut your teeth in, but there’s no master here to show you the ropes. That’s not really a complain about Ultimax specifically, it’s something all fighting games need to work on, but it feels like this game, with its cross-genre appeal and a story mode that’s ripe for teaching and guaranteed to be played by beginners, would be the perfect place for a real tutorial. Ultimax is a great game for fighting game fans and people who want to put in the effort to learn the game. It’s not a compromise, and anyone who’s only in it for the Persona elements is in for a nasty ultra suplex.
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Smash Bros. is a weird beast. On one hand, it’s an outsider game, part of Nintendo’s initiative to take genres they aren’t comfortable with and Nintendo-ize them. Smash Bros. is an action-platform-brawler, sure, but it’s also Nintendo’s more intuitive, easy to understand take on the fighting game genre (see also: Splatoon for shooters, Fire Emblem for RPGs, Luigi’s Mansion for point-and-click adventure games). On the other hand though, it’s the insider game, combining pretty much every Nintendo franchise that matters (and some that really, really don’t) into one fan-pandering package.
That fighting game part of the equation is really relevant these days, with the sudden surge of popularity Super Smash Bros Melee, the 2001 Gamecube incarnation of the series, has been seeing in the fighting game community. Nintendo, in response, made sure that Gamecube controllers, the Smash Bros. standard would be compatible with the WiiU game through some sort of Frankenstein's monster of a switching box. It takes up two USB ports, and I’m not really sure how. Then, they held a tournament, inviting the world’s top Smash Bros. players to show off the game in a livestreamed event in the Nokia Theatre. Nintendo is pinning all its WiiU hopes and dreams on Smash, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s consistently a multi-million seller, but unlike Mario Kart, its more popular older brother, it draws in a fairly stable crowd of Nintendo, and specifically, Smash Bros. diehards.
So, getting Super Smash Bros. for WiiU and 3DS (seriously, that's the full name) right is a Big Deal for Nintendo. Such a big deal that they’ve dedicated multiple Nintendo Directs to it, post daily updates on the games development to Miiverse, and commission original, usually super clever art every time a new character is revealed. Smash Bros. is an event game. It’s a once a generation game. But enough context, let’s talk video games.
To prepare for the demo, I played enough of Melee and Brawl to get a feel for the differences between the two games, and to remind myself exactly how they felt to move around in. I found that Melee was a lot slipperier than I remembered, while also being a very stiff game overall. Brawl, meanwhile, had a lot more traction on the ground, and moved more smoothly, but had a lot of floatiness and looseness in the air. Smash Bros. for WiiU feels tighter, in a good way though. Melee’s stiffness made hit and run tactics the order of the day giving defensive players really big opportunities, while Brawl’s floatiness made matches one long air battle, eventually culminating in a single strong ground hit for a kill. Overall, characters feel like they have less airtime now, as well as more responsive hits on the ground. The overall feel is snappier, tighter. Characters have real weight to them again, but not so much that they feel cumbersome to combo with.
For example, I got my hands on Punch Out’s Little Mac, one of the game’s newcomers. Mac is a boxer, not exactly skilled at air fighting. His jumps are low and heavy, and his off-screen recovery options either move straight up, or straight to the side, no precise recovery here. But, his ground game is unmatched. He’s lightning quick, hits like a tank, and most of his specials and smash attacks combo out of his jab attack. Mac also builds up a power meter as he takes and deals damage. Once it fills up, you get a single use, instant-KO uppercut. It comes out slow, but hitting it stops the action and zooms in on you crushing your opponents jaw with the might of a thousand elephants. It’s crazy satisfying. The rebalancing of the air and ground game still makes Mac a less viable character overall, Smash Bros. is an action-platformer after all, and what good is a platforming character who jumps like a turtle? But, more of the action takes place on the ground, and playing to your strengths (and the center of the stage) makes Mac a really solid, entertaining character to use.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Rosalina. The Mario Galaxy princess is light, and floats around pretty much like she’s right out of Brawl. Her shtick is that she has a Luma following her around, sort of like the Ice Climbers tandem system from previous games. Unlike Nana though, Rosalina is in full control of her Luma, and can use it to create devastating (and really cool looking) set ups and combos. In the time I used her, she seemed really tricky to get a hold of, but definitely showed potential for serious damage. Between the Luma and Little Mac’s power meter, it’s easy to see that Smash Bros. new direction isn’t so much about refining the engine and core feel of the game, as it has been before, but about refining the characters, and making each feel more unique.
Take a look at Mega Man. He doesn’t have his own special subsystem, but the way he operates is entirely different from the rest of the cast. His jab combo fires three pellets (and only three, just like NES sprite restrictions demand), and each of his moves are individual, distinct hits, often with charge up time, poor recovery, or slow start-up. Mega Man doesn’t combo. At all. But, just like he does in his games, he has a ton of options available to him. The (ironically sort of useless) Metal Blade can go off in any direction, the Leaf Shield lets you run right through projectiles, Hard Knuckle demolishes any enemy beneath you, Air Shooter lets you chase enemies right off top of the screen in an aerial battle. Mega Man has an option for any situation, and they hit hard. Mega Man requires you to understand the game and predict your opponents, not react, then pick the right tool for any job. No other character plays like that.
Even older characters have gotten tweaks. Pikachu’s thunder attack is no longer nearly as useful, and his “breakdancing” down-smash has a bit of a vortex applied to it, letting him suck enemies into his whirling death tail. Overall, it forces Pikachu players to play more aggressively, having to rely far less on well placed thunders to carry enemies off screen for them. Meanwhile, perennial bottom-tier bench sitter Link has a stronger downwards stab in the air, as well as far batter range on his boomerang. Maybe it’s not enough to take him out of the D-List, but he certainly feels more viable.
It all makes Smash Bros. feel much more like what I think it was intended to be. A collection of Nintendo's unique characters, each recognizable because they play just like they’re supposed to in their original games. They’re more different than they ever were before. It diversifies the gameplay in a way that Smash Bros. hasn’t tried since the very first game. Greninja plays hit and run like a melee character, Wii Fit Trainer is floatier, but hits hard and plays a strong fundamentals game. The Villager is unpredictable, much like Mr. Game and Watch, but with a heavier focus on set ups and traps. It’s the first Smash Bros. game where I feel like I really need to sit down and learn some of the characters, and that’s a really good thing. It’s making me very excited to clean up with Little Mac in Super Smash Bros for WiiU and 3DS.
Boy, it really needs a better name.
Sidebar: Smash Bros for 3DS Update-
Did you hear? Smash Bros. is also on 3DS this time around!Presumably because the WiiU isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, and a 3DS version is a pretty sure sales bet for a good few million copies. But handheld fighters are never the best idea. Sure, they can function, but it often comes at a serious cost. Either the engine suffers, or the controls aren’t right, or frames get dropped. 3DS Smash Bros. is a pretty unique case in that it is literally the exact same game as it’s console big brother. Sure, it has a different set of stages and a few special modes, but it uses the same characters, the same assets (scaled down significantly for the smaller screen) and the same engine. It plays identically, smooth as silk. I’ll take the thick black outlines over dropped frames any day of the week.
The game’s big draw right now is the Smash Run mode, which lets up to four players run around a floating island dungeon for five minutes, killing various Nintendo enemies for power ups. These power ups then get applied for a set of multiplayer matches once the time limit is up. The mode is entertaining, but playing against CPUs really only hammered across the fact that Smash Bros. is built on local multiplayer. The controls work (the timing for smash attacks feels a little more lenient on the handheld), and the screen size isn’t really an issue. Online multiplayer is solid enough on 3DS, but it’ll never replace the local, punch-your-friend-in-the-shoulder-for-using-a-cheap-move multiplayer that made the series so popular. This game needs tons and tons of single player content, but I have to imagine all of that will find its way to the WiiU version anyway, considering it comes out a few months later. No matter what Smash 3DS does, it’s always going to be the inferior version, and that’s not a great place to start from.
Evolution, or Evo, is an annual fighting game tournament held in Las Vegas. It’s sort of like the Super Bowl or Stanley Cup finals of fighting games, except instead of a selection of teams competing, every single fighting game player who flies out to Vegas is taking a shot at the grand prize. During the event, on-stream commentators continuously referred to the tournament as a mountain, and compared victory to scaling it. You don’t just have to beat the best at Evo, you have to beat everyone.
Evo’s traditional games are Capcom fighters. The Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom series make annual appearances, but other games shift in and out of the roster. SNK’s King of Fighters games, Namco-Bandai’s Tekken series, and this year, even Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Melee made its first appearance since 2007 as an official tournament game.
But that’s not really what Evo is about. No, Evo’s about something bigger. Well, a few things that are bigger. Evo 2013 had three matches in three games that perfectly exemplified was Evo is really about, and here they are.
Justin Wong vs. Chris G
"Going into Evo 2013, there was one name on everyone’s hitlist: Christopher “NY Chris G” Gonzalez."
I don’t really love sporting events. I’ve never been a big fan of sports, I don’t have much national pride, and think it’s sort of silly to cheer for a team because they have the name of my city on the back of their shirts. What I can get behind is a story, a rivalry, a heel and a face.
In baseball, everyone hates the New York Yankees. In hockey, Toronto and Ottawa have a long history of rivalry. In basketball, the Miami Heat might as well be the Yankees at this point. Going into Evo 2013's Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournament, there was one name on everyone’s hitlist: Christopher “NY Chris G” Gonzalez.
Chris G plays Morrigan/Dr. Doom/Vergil, a team focused on covering the screen in Morrigan’s fireballs and Doom’s missles, juggling players between them, or just chipping away at them until they die. It’s a slightly boring strategy to watch in action, but it’s by far the most dominant team in the history of the game. Not only that, but he has a bit of an emotional streak. Chris lashed out at Evo founder Joey Cuellar over twitter a few weeks ago, referring to Cuellar as a “faggot.” Going in to the tournament, Chris wasn’t only the player to beat to prove your worth at the game, he was also the player everyone wanted to see knocked down a peg.
But back in the days of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, there was a different villain. Justin Wong. Justin won every single MvC2 tournament out there, he was legendary. His win streak in the game holds the record for the player to have won the most Evo tournaments for a single game ever. Justin and Chris have faced off before, recently even, but this one was for all the marbles. Whoever lost went home, and didn’t get a shot at the grand finals.
Chris, the favourite, took Justin down two matches in a best of three set. And then, the comeback happened. Watching the video still makes my heart beat faster, and I was close to ripping my hair out while I was watching it live. It’s some of the most incredible Marvel play I’ve ever seen. In case you haven’t seen that part of the video, Justin won. He won three games in a row, one from about as close to death as you can get in a game as fast paced as Marvel.
The crowd was cheering Justin’s name as he played, jumping up and down and shaking the stage every time he took back a round from Chris. A few years ago, the crown would have booed him and resigned themselves to his inevitable victory, but now, he was up against the one man they all wanted to see go down. Even commentator Michael “IFC Yipes’ Mendoza, a fellow New Yorker who trained with Chris, was rooting for Justin by the end.
Chris probably isn’t a bad guy by any means, and one can only imagine how hard it must be to be part of a community that is so out for your blood, and hates seeing you succeed, but for a few minutes there, all that was put aside. For that whole comeback, it wasn’t about Justing Wong and Chris Gonzalez. It wasn’t even about the classic MvC2 east coast vs. west coast rivalry. It was about two giants of the game, two players renowned as the best, clashing with absolutely perfect play. It was about the hype of watching the good guys triumph over the bad guys. It was about watching an underdog win, even if that underdog is one of the best in the world.
Sometimes, Evo’s about the hype, and the legends behind the big matches.
Infiltration vs. PR Balrog
But sometimes, I don’t need a rivalry, I need personal stories. I need stories like Eduardo “PR Balrog” Perez’s. A player that came out of nowhere just a few years ago to become one of the best in the world, the last American player left standing in the top eight of Street Fighter this year. Or a story like Sun Woo “Infiltration” Lee’s, last year’s champion, playing for his tournament life after eliminating not only Daigo Umehara, the “god of Street Fighter” but also his best friend, sparring partner, and coach, Ryan “Laugh” Ahn in the most intense game of Street Fighter that’s ever been played.
"Lee had to win because he had to make sure beating his friend was worth it. Perez had the hopes of a nation on his back."
After Lee beat Ahn, the two players turned away from each other in respect. They went into the match knowing that the loser would be going home empty handed, not even making it into top eight, and they played with every ounce of their skill. It was a slow, almost painful match to watch, with commentator and former Capcom employee Seth Killian pointing out that they were running down the clock just to avoid having to fight each other.
Lee had to win because he had to make sure beating his
friend was worth it. Perez had the hopes of a nation on his back. Both are two
of the best players in the game. Lee took one match from Perez. Then Perez
fought back and took two. It was looking to be Perez’s game until Lee used his privilege
as the loser of the last match to switch his character. Lee is known for his
dominant Akuma, widely considered to be one of the best characters in the game.
He switched to Hakan, who looks like this:
He’s not that great. Hakan is a Turkish oil wrestler who can oil himself up during battle to make himself a significantly more dangerous opponent, and when I say significantly, I mean that it turns him from one of the most worthless characters in the game into a top-tier threat. The only issue is that oiling up leaves Hakan open, and if the oil wears off in the middle of a combo, your damage output is shot. Needless to say, he’s not very popular in tournaments.
Which is why Perez had no idea how to fight him. Hakan is already a tough match for Balrog. Hakan likes to grab characters at very close range while Balrog likes to run right up and punch people, but doesn’t really have any answers for a grab. All this was made worse for Perez because there are really no high level Hakans to practice against, especially because Lee is the world’s best Hakan.
Perez didn’t know what hit him. In an utterly dominant set of games, Lee’s Hakan climbed back up and won two rounds, taking the set. The crowd was screaming, Hakan became a worldwide trending topic on twitter, no one could believe that they just saw a Hakan not only be played at Evo top eight, but that he just knocked out PR Balrog, the great American hope.
Everyone was flipping out, unable to control themselves due to the hype when the match ended. But Perez and Lee were calm and collected. There was no anger, they knew that it was an incredible game they just played, maybe the best game of the tournament, and instead of the traditional post-game handshake, the two got up out of their chairs and gave each other a big hug.
Sometimes, Evo’s about the people and their love, not just for the game, but for each other.
Mango vs. Hungrybox
To continue the sports comparison, sometimes, there’s nothing that can get me into a sport. The stories aren’t good enough, the hype’s not great enough, and I go into it thinking I’ll be bored.
"To me, the people who broke down Smash Bros. and figured out how to remove all the randomness and understand the many, many hidden variables were developing an algorithm that churned out jazz."
Year ago, I used to play soccer with some kids from my tae kwon do class. None of us were “good” but we played as sort of a cooldown from the two hours of punching and kicking and pushups we just did. We weren’t playing it because it was a sport, we were playin it because it was a game. Soccer only needs a ball and something to mark off a goal, it’s the lingua franca of games, everyone gets it, and anyone can play it.
But whenever the World Cup is on TV, I always watch a game or two. Not because I love the sport of soccer, or I have any affiliation with a team, but because I have a respect for the game that anyone can play being played by the absolute best. Everyone plays hockey as a kid in Canada, but there are barriers there, you need to be able to afford the gear, it’s no cheap sport. Soccer is the cheapest sport in the world; literally everyone who can kick a ball has a shot at being the very best.
Street Fighter isn’t as simple as soccer, but it was born in the arcades, where one round cost 25 cents. It was the cheapest videogame to play, and it was all about who was the best. That’s might be a reason why the fighting game community is populated by so many visible minorities, who are very often, and very unfortunately, not given the same opportunities in this world as white people. Kids who couldn’t afford new games all the time, but could drop a few quarters on Street Fighter.
But Street Fighter is too complicated to be a lingua franca of videogames. Super Smash Bros. wasn’t cheap, but it just might be simple enough to be a contender. I’ve never enjoyed Smash Bros. as a tournament level game. It was designed with elements of randomness, with certain factors and variables deliberately hidden from the players. A game designer once told me you want your games to feel more like freeform jazz than math. To me, the people who broke down Smash Bros. and figured out how to remove all the randomness and understand the many, many hidden variables were developing an algorithm that churned out jazz. Sure, it was recognizable as the the thing I love, but it wasn’t the same.
After watching this video, and the whole Smash Bros. top eight, I still don’t like it as a tournament level game. I think matches take too long, characters aren’t distinct enough, strategies are boring, and positioning is pointless. I think playing on only a handful of stages without any items defeats the purpose of Smash Bros., a game all about randomness and goofy fun.
But, hearing the crowd cheer, and seeing two players that were obviously at the top of their game (check the moment at about 7:30 where Hungrybox’s Jigglypuff chases Mango’s fox all the way off screen, then expertly floats back to safety), made something click in my head. It’s not the tournament level game I want, but it’s the tournament game that thousands more do. Hell, the game made it in to Evo for the first time since 2007 this year because the fans won a charity drive; they love the game more than I could probably understand.
I might not care about the World Cup, or the Super Bowl, or even the Stanley Cup finals, which my country places unbelievable importance on, but I care about Evo; because sometimes it’s not about me. It’s about something bigger.
It’s about the hype, the legends going into each match, the people who love the game, the people who just want to bond over their shared love of a game, the people who watch three days of tournament just to see the one guy who knocked them out make it to the top. Evo is about respecting a game, and falling into the hype. Evo is about a community, the fighting game community, and even though they’ve had some problems in the past, the very best of them, the ones on stage at the end of the night, they’re what shows you the community is great. People who inspire the hype, people who don’t let it get to their heads, and hug after a match, people who will respect another game, and another person.
Evo is about inspiring the community to be the best it can be.