I know that this post is going to get more than a bit from from my usual content here, but with the release of Super Smash Bros. 4 for the 3DS tomorrow, I wanted to talk about this game a bit. For anyone that’s not familiar with SSB, it’s a fighting game that incorporates many Nintendo characters (and some semi-related characters) that has up to 4 people in a fight, and winning a fight involves forcing opponents out of the stage. This simple win condition makes it much different to play than your standard fighter. The other big difference is how combos work. In a lot of fighting games, while setting up combos have their sequences and positioning, the big moves have their own complex button sequences. However, in Smash, the most complex button sequence is the “tilt attack”, where you simply move the joystick in a direction somewhat, and then attack. Between these, and moves continually moving your opponent, these things make combos feel a lot different than a standard fighting game.
However, these basics on the surface actually seem to make SSB less of a fighting game, and more of a party game. However, this is something I’m looking to disagree with. In a fighting game, there are typically 2 levels of play. There’s low level play, where people are attacking each other, somewhat flailing at getting opportunities. With the complicated combos, that can be a lot of fun, but the second one, where every move is about either setting up your position better, or restricting the opponents choices, and trying to predict what the opponent is going to do and how he’s going to react to you, that’s the part that defines high level play. I want to put forth that SSB gets people thinking at that level, without having to say it outright, place a tutorial for it, or anything else.
The First Lesson: Positioning
The stage that I have here is Final Destination, a very flat stage that used as a tournament standard stage. While every stage is more complex than this stage, this is enough to demonstrate what I want to demonstrate. Once a player is forced to the left or the right of the platform, he has to attempt to get back on the stage before he reaches the bottom of the screen, or he loses a point. Given such a simple stage, there’s 2 ways you’re going back on. Either you’re going above the platform and then landing, or you’re going for the ledge of the stage, which you can grab on. As a further aid to returning to the stage, a character has one or more moves that can be used as a recovery move (usually Up + B) which not only makes them travel distance, but often has a harmful attack through some or all parts of it.
What does this show to the new player? You can set up somewhere that has few entrances, you can try to attack them as they’re off the stage (usually at this point by using character projectiles or by items), but you need to be careful as they try to get back on the stage. In other words, a very crude version of position control. While this is very raw and unrefined, there’s now suddenly an area you want people to go, have the tools to keep them there, and it doesn’t require anything more complicated than a button press and a cardinal direction to start.
The Second Lesson: Spacing and Range
SSB has a lot of items, which I will talk about in a bit more detail, because they are their own lesson. As far as items go in teaching lessons without trying, though, the award has to go to the later iterations of the beam sword. When you pick up your beam sword, several of your attacks get replaced with a beam sword attack. The beam sword attack is interesting because it changes it’s range as part of it’s dash attack (A while running) and Smash Attack (Hard forward + A). One big problem is when you play one character over and over (as newer players are bound to do), it’s harder to get a sense of range differences other than a longer range character feeling like “OH GOD, HOW IS HE HITTING ME FROM OVER THERE?” The beam sword, though, not only somewhat standardizes range, it also changes it’s own range, even while the new player is playing his favorite character. After a few dash attacks with the beam sword, it’s almost second nature to start the attack earlier to use it’s extra range, even though they can’t see the full range at all times. This is exactly the reaction you want players to get to alternate range attacks, and you don’t have to have them play with every character to see this, you just have to let the beam sword drop.
The Third Lesson: Guard Break and blocking well
The first image is a character in SSB blocking. The second image is from Guilty Gear (which I understand to be a good game), and the important part is the small meter under the health bar, which roughly represents the penalties for over blocking. Now in SSB, the shield that spawns around you when you hit block (L or R) is what takes the hit. As the shield takes hits, or you spend time with the shield up, the shield grows smaller. If the shield ever completely disappears, there’s a crack, and then your character is completely stunned for a significant period of time. Between only showing the information when it’s relevant, having a very clear system of how much you can block, and not requiring you to pull attention away from the fight for that information, you get a system that very clearly tells the player “Do things other than block.” While throws exist, this system doesn’t require players to be able to figure out throws to keep the game moving, and not just have a player sitting blocking forever. Some may argue that forcing an attack around the block would do the trick, but you have to remember that new players will telegraph those movements, letting the blocker react and be “invincible”. While the player may not know the more complex ways of avoiding attacks, it plants the idea that you need to do something else to be safe from attacks.
The Fourth Lesson: Controlling space against mobile targets
This time around, this is about the items in general. Now, if you listen to the SSB community a little bit, items are the quickest way to make it non-competitive. However, I propose that items are actually a good way to start the development of the community. Now, items can spawn anywhere, and have any number of effects. I’ve already talked about the beam sword, and how it in itself very clearly teaches how to use range. Now, when an item spawns, and it spawns as one of the gamechanging items (like the Smash Ball, which allows you to use an equivalent of a super move, or the Pokeball or Assist Trophy (which spawns a partner that harasses the other opponents), 2 very quick thoughts come to mind. How do I safely get the item, and how do I keep others from getting the item? Both of these get a player to start (intuitively) thinking of how others might approach a point, and how they can approach that point. Quickly, the player learns not just how to defend/survive the edge, with one entrance, but stop a point with many possible entrances, which leads to being able to counter and play around with the high mobility SSB characters are offered as it’s used to better and better purposes.
Conclusion: SSB, designed as a party fighting game, ends up using it’s party tools (and it’s unique knockout mechanism) to introduce players to the concepts that pervade high level fighting game play, while requiring nothing more than block, move, and some basic attacks. By introducing it early in the game, it flows better into the player improving as compared to hitting a solid wall against an opponent who can use these tactics, and then hoping and messing to try to get it. Thus, this lets SSB players enjoy this as a fighting game sooner than a real fighting game.