Melee Is an “Accident”? I Disagree
Well, I did my good deed with a non contentious article, I think that’s about enough of that for now. Since I’m full of opinions (and myself), I felt I couldn’t wait to get back into the swing of stirring up discussion with more of the thoughts that go in in my head. Now there’s this notion among the Smash community that Melee’s nature as a competitive game was a case of sheer dumb luck, a coincidence of many mechanics conveniently fitting together to make, as was described in the very famous documentary, a “beautiful accident”. I’m here to refute that idea, because in my view at least, there are far too many breadcrumbs of evidence leading in the opposite direction.
Now am I saying that Melee was built to be the tournament behemoth it is today? That I doubt, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the extent to which Melee has been pushed as a competitive game was unforeseeable even to the developers, but at the same time to assert that the mechanics and character design had no real depth of consideration, and that serious 1v1 style play had no impact in design choices is to me, a flawed statement. Now you’re going to ask for the evidence to back up this claim, so I’m going to start the story at the most appropriate point: the very first game.
Smash 64, during its original conception, wasn’t actually the Smash that we know and love today, that being a Nintendo All Star based fighting game, but rather just a plain fighting game with the novel and now iconic % mechanics. The boys at HAL decided a bit later that maybe it would be more fun to put the Nintendo spin on it, which Nintendo actually thought wasn’t all that compelling, but allowed them to go ahead and see what they could make of it. Not too long after, some Nintendo figures ended up getting some hands on time with the game, and found that they couldn’t put it down, accompanied with all the shouting and hollering that we’re all too familiar with. Obviously this helped the game gain a lot traction with the top brass, pushing it towards continued development (still small scale) and eventual release. When the release did finally happen, it was, of course, a massive commercial success. This prompted the budget and scale of development for Melee to eclipse that of Smash 64, which led to Smash becoming the monster IP it is today. Okay, so much of this hasn’t been entirely relevant so far, but I think the genesis of Smash is a pretty interesting story that every fan should be somewhat aware of.
To understand the design aspects that pertain to competitive play, it’s a very good idea to study retrospectively. If Melee had happened without 64 existing, it would be easier to make the case for its accidental status, but Melee is such a natural progression of 64 design wise that’s it really hard to maintain that assertion. So enough storytelling, let’s get into it the differences between the games and the evolution of the mechanics.
A Defensive Evolution
Despite Melee being renowned for its unrelenting pace and offensive style, the vast majority of the engine changes actually add or improve defensive options. Ironically, by giving players more defensive tools, the inherent risk of aggressive play is actually reduced, yielding a more overtly offensive style of play.
The shield in Smash 64, while having a lower depletion rate and greater size (than Melee hard shield), has far more shieldstun, leaving you much more vulnerable when your shield is struck, to the point of even being at the mercy of inescapable shield breaking combos. Of course, having a super safe and powerful shield can lead to issues of hyper defensive tactics revolving around out of shield play, but having a shield that is essentially unsafe can also be somewhat problematic.
The Melee solution to this issue is truly one of the most elegantly put together I have ever seen in a videogame. The fact that it so perfectly remedies every aspect of the issues with shielding shows that HAL must have known exactly what they were doing. More importantly, the importance of these changes are pretty much unnoticeable to a casual player, so for them to implement these changes shows a clear focus towards the balance of mechanics. So here’s why Melee shields are awesome.
There are three types of shield as opposed to Smash 64’s (and sadly, later iterations’) one. These are hard shield, light shield, and power shield. Each of these shields, with their unique properties, offer benefits and drawbacks making all of them useful options depending on the circumstance.
Hard shields have significantly lower shieldstun than 64’s shields and light shields (but they still sustain a decent amount), facilitating effective out of shield punishments for poorly spaced aerials, meaning characters not named Fox or Falco can’t just dive deep into your shield without expecting some form of punishment. The drawback to hard shields is that they are very small even at full size, and deplete very quickly. Add on top of this Melee’s hugely reduced shield regeneration rate, and you suddenly have to start considering how often you put yourself in a position where you need to raise your shield. This makes them excellent for mindful counterattacking play, but pretty much renders turtling impossible. Taking one too many well spaced aerials on your hard shield leaves you prone to being shield stabbed if you don’t angle it correctly, not to mention it won’t last very long anyway. So while the hard shield is a useful counterattacking tool, it has significant weaknesses that can be exploited if it is employed poorly.
Light shields, on the other hand, are enormous, much larger than full shields in 64, and have a very low depletion rate. Naturally, this makes them excellent for blocking attacks, so obviously they need to be balanced out in a way that makes them difficult to abuse. Light shields sustain high amounts of shield stun, as well as pushback from attacks. This means that while you may be able to score a guaranteed block on attacks even with a highly damaged shield, you gain no retaliatory advantage, making light shields geared towards pure defence. By employing your light shield, you sacrifice counterattacking opportunities and stage position for a guaranteed block, a position you don’t really want to be in in the first place, but having an option to employ when you’re up the proverbial shit creek is always welcomed. This variable shield density creates an elegant balance that a single shield type can’t match. Shields have been more heavily criticised in the other Smash games for either being too weak or too strong, and the reason is that without the varying shield types, it’s far harder to balance out all the properties of the shield, making them either pretty weak or incredibly potent.
Powershields are a somewhat special entity in Melee. They essentially work like a traditional fighting game parry (not to be confused with Yoshi’s parry technique), allowing you to immediately retaliate after a perfectly timed block. It also reflects projectiles, making them an immensely powerful defensive and counterattacking tool. It’s often said that a technique that is only balanced by its difficulty of execution is a poor mechanic, but this isn’t quite the case with Melee’s powershield. The frame window for powershielding is very small, making consistent reactionary powershielding beyond the realms of human capability. It is, however, possible to learn how to powershield on prediction with consistency, making them an excellent countering punishment to predictable offensive play, such as an obvious laser rhythm as Falco.
In summation, all of the shield options rely on situational assessment, and in the case of powershielding, strong predictive skills, to employ effectively. All are useful, but none abusable, and unless you’re an unfinished character like poor Game and Watch (RIP), you have all the shielding tools you need. Such a nuanced system for shielding is not a result of chance, and hey, why even bother to craft such a detailed shield system if the game is solely geared towards 4 player FFAs with bob ombs and pokéballs flying everywhere? (FYI, still the best way to play, scrubs)
Smash 64 had three evasive options (good spacing doesn’t count), rolling, teching, and SDI. So, not really a whole lot to work with. Melee adds three more options to the mix: spotdodging, airdodging, and DI. The former two are quite situational in their defensive application (which for defensive options is generally a good thing), but a player will basically always apply DI if they can. By being able to change the trajectory of flight out of throws and moves, many combos that would be zero to deaths are now avoidable, as well as making most combos prediction reliant rather than being a guaranteed chain. Providing a defensive tool that allows you to possibly outwit the opponent to escape is an excellent addition, turning offensive/defensive interaction into a continued chain of nuanced prediction, due to the nature of multiple followup options and needing to input the corresponding DI correctly. The right DI will save you, the wrong DI will kill you. As the aggressor you’re evaluating all of the victim’s options to make your own choice, making most interactions inherently tense due to the dynamic nature.
Spotdodges and airdodges are good, but situational. They rely on predicting your opponent’s attack the pull off successfully, but they give you defensive options that never existed before without being abusable. Being above your opponent is still a terrible predicament, but having DI and the rare opportunity to airdodge successfully grants you a touch more survivability. They even improved techs so you can tech off walls, giving you the ability to survive certain edgeguards.
All in all, the defensive game is far more robust, giving the player far more tools to work with to counter offence and survive. Not only that, but Melee has a reduced hitstun multiplier, leaving the player less vulnerable to combos compared to 64. Smooth landing, known to the community as Z Cancelling in 64, grants the player complete removal of aerial landing lag, allowing for incredible aerial attack speed, whereas Melee only grants a halving of landing lag with the equivalent L Cancelling. Now you’re thinking “all you’ve pointed out is that Melee buffed defensive strategies and nerfed offensive options, surely that’s what many Melee players dislike about later games”, and you’d be right, but Melee adding a large selection of defensive options and refinimg ones that are carried over, on top of mildly nerfing some of the basic offensive ones, yields a more aggressive game. When you have a still potent offensive toolset COUPLED with many defensive options granting you greater safety in engagements and more leeway for survival in case of a mistake, you create an environment where the player is more willing to engage offensively, rather than playing a more cagey game of fencing. Being afraid that one mistake equals instant death doesn’t really accommodate for blistering back and forth the same way Melee’s more robust and dynamic engine allows. Later games removed options and consolidated properties of said options into one, which for many Melee players, wasn’t very appealing.
But hey, maybe Melee’s advancements were just a case of dumb luck, right? New console, huge budget, more tools. Developers play around and just chance upon gold. If you still believe that, let’s forget 64 > Melee, let’s talk Melee balance patching!
Yes, Melee Had Balance Patching
Pretty much everyone who plays Smash remotely seriously is aware that the NTSC and PAL versions have differences which have a significant impact on the characters they are applied to. The more telling feature of these changes is that the most significant ones are applied to the top tier characters, weakening some of the immensely powerful options that some even deem broken. So before the days of “OP pls nerf” message bombardment, the good boys at HAL, through continued playtesting and evaluation of an already released game, made changes that strove towards further balance.
So let’s evaluate some of the most significant changes made in the PAL version.
Usmash is weaker
UpB travels a shorter distance
People complain that Fox’s usmash is absurdly powerful in NTSC, as well as his upB recovery being annoyingly good for a character with such offensive prowess. Well, HAL seemed to agree, weakening Fox’s fabled usmash, nerfing his recovery, and making him lighter to boot. The best character in the game was made… a little weaker all round. What an interesting coincidence.
Dair no longer spikes during the second half of the animation, sending the opponent up and away on a low knockback trajectory.
Take one of the best moves in the game and make it slightly less abusable, wow HAL how do you just accidentally keep doing stuff like this?
Can no longer chaingrab
Uair is weaker
The first one doesn’t even need an explanation as to why it was done, but the fact that they noticed and patched it shows an inherent mindfulness towards how the game might be played, and an effort to balance out such a powerful tactic. The uair nerf just serves to weaken her kill power a bit, which I suppose they thought was warranted considering they didn’t want Sheik to be an all out killing machine by design. When you look at how Sheik is mostly reviled for her chaingrab invalidating a large portion of the cast, it’s nice to see that it was actually removed, with Sheik never really suffering in the PAL metgame because of it (she has always been an S tier character). Guess it’s too bad Zelda still sucks.
Is very slightly lighter
Has lower aerial mobility
Dair is a meteor not a spike
I don’t really agree with some of these changes, but when you look at how Marth dominated the the first half of Melee’s life, and the developers only used their early playtesting impressions, you can’t really blame them for thinking that he might possibly be a little too good. Surprisingly, despite these nerfs, I’d say Marth actually benefits from PAL, although I won’t be naïve enough to assume the developers foresaw why. The tiny drop in weight causes Marth to trip on Fox’s shine, meaning he can’t be shine combo’d. With Fox’s usmash nerf and lighter weight, Marth’s minimal drop in weight is definitely offset by the advantages gained. If anything, I’d say this is a case for Marth being a theoretical Fox counter, but this isn’t the place for that, although it’s definitely an interesting topic in my opinion. PS. Dear PAL players, please pick up Marth.
Other interesting changes include Bowser, Kirby, and Yoshi being heavier, with Kirby even getting some lag removed from his fair. Sadly, the former two still suck, but hey at least they tried. Yoshi’s fsmash was buffed too, and aMSa has shown us that Yoshi certainly isn’t a terrible character, but now even more capable in the realm of PAL. Of course, there are questionable changes to other characters such as Ganon’s fair being nerfed into oblivion, and Link losing his semi spike upB, but the thing that is more important here is that they tried to balance the game more, in ways that don’t really seem relevant to a casual setting.
You’re still not convinced though, I understand, so instead of game mechanics, let’s take a look at the trophies, which surprisingly seem to hint at things that only competitive players really use.
The Game Helps You Play Competitively
Today’s lecture is about…
So let’s go through a bunch of trophy descriptions that end up dispelling the notion that Melee wasn’t mindfully crafted.
“Mario is a character without any glaring weaknesses and plenty of strong attacks: he’s even equipped with a Meteor Smash. He’s a straightforward character who’ll reflect the actual skills of the player…”
Well considering Mario is as mid tier as it gets, being a purely fundamental and basic character, seems like they crafted him just right.
“Being the strongest simian around, DK has the upper hand once he grabs an opponent. He can even lift his opponent up and make him or her an unwilling travel companion; if DK grabs you, shake your Control Stick as fast as you can to break his grip…”
Well DK’s game does pretty much revolve around his fthrow (and bairs). Thanks for the tip!
“…Link is not a very mobile character. Nevertheless, he’s skilled with the blade, and his varied supply of missile weapons makes him a powerful fighter. To master Link, you must control the pace by balancing your long range attacks with head to head swordplay”
“Link’s Bow, Boomerang, and Bombs all take time to weird, so you may want to try drawing them in midair to prevent your foes from attacking you while you’re vulnerable…”
Well look at that, the Link meta for the past 13 years has pretty much been outlined by HAL in his trophies. It’s amazing how many scrubby Link mains could improve by actually reading the trophies huh?
“…Samus can also use her bombs to perform bomb jumps”
While the trophies also refer to her being a long range zoning character, I think this is more interesting. Mentioning the bomb jump and its implementation is, in my view, hinting at its utility in recovery, which we’re all very familiar with.
“To make up for his lack of powerful airborne attacks, Yoshi has a miraculous jumping ability and is resistant to damage while in the air.”
Well that sure is useful to know.
“Fox is among the quickest and nimblest of the Smash Bros. characters. His speed is offset by low firepower, however, and he’s better at one on one fights than melees with multiple foes.”
“Fox falls quickly, so he’s a tough target to strike from below; however, this advantage works against him when he goes flying sideways…
…On a side note, Fox is much lighter than he was in the N64 Super Smash Bros. game.”
Stop the fucking presses. I’m sorry did you just say Fox is more suited to 1v1? 1v1 is a way to play Smash? How suited is he to this 1v1 environment? Let’s have a look at the tier list…
Also, thanks for the fastfaller and new weight tips.
“The key to mastering Ness is controlling his unique midair jump, which makes up for what he lacks in speed.”
I can’t doublejump cancel, I heard that’s an advanced technique that only nerds use. I don’t want to be expected to have skill or mastery of a character. In any case, too bad the DJC doesn’t make up for his piss poor range and recovery, but hey really massive points for a great concept (which Sora decided to remove).
“Falcon’s style is a balanced combination of raw power and speed. His attacks are slow, but when combined with Falcon’s high mobility, he’s a formidable combat force…”
“The Knee Smash, used midair on foes in front of you, is slow and has short reach, but if it connects, it’ll send foes flying a long way on a low trajectory… ”
Looks more like a Smash Wiki entry than a trophy description. Interestingly again, we have a staple move of a character being mentioned in the description, it’s almost as if they’re saying “hey this move is good, you should try it!”
“Peach’s abiltiy to float is invaluable in Super Smash Bros. Melee, as she can return from incredible distances. Balancing this talent, though, is the fact that she’s quite light and can be sent flying with a single powerful attack. Her attacks attacks are fairly weak, so you’ll have to stick around to win.”
The word balance makes me feel dirty, accidents don’t need balance. Also last I remember, stitchfaces, bob ombs, and dsmash aren’t weak. I hate Peach.
“Zelda’s midair Lightning Kick centers immense magical power in the ball of her foot. If she strikes perfectly, the attack is as strong as can be, if her aim is slightly off, it’ll be exceedingly weak…”
Thanks for the heads up on Zelda’s only useful attack. In all seriousness, we again see how they highlight the central focus of a character’s arsenal.
“The best strategy to use when playing as Sheik is to let her flow from one powerful attack into another, like a river of quicksilver…”
“Sheik is such a nooby character with her autocombos and easy tech chases”
Almost sounds like they’re flowing from attack to attack… like a river of ftilt to fairs.
“Jigglypuff’s normal attacks are weak, and because of its light weight it’s easily sent flying. However, due to its incredible midair agility, it seems to dance when airborne.”
“…Rest puts Jigglypuff into a deep sleep, but at the instant it drops off, an intense energy force radiates out of the exact center of its body. If this force comes in contact with an enemy, look out! Rest is Jigglypuff’s wild card.”
Spam spaced aerials and kill with rest. It’s no secret where Hungrybox learned how to play the game.
“The tip of Marth’s blade causes the most damage, so you should try to create adequate distance between you and your energy to gracefully strike with that point…”
Well there’s a nice t-
I’d have to delete my blog if I go through with that travesty.
“Ganondorf’s slow speed works against him in single combat, but in melees, his crazy power lets him earn his keep with innumerable KOs.”
So you knew Ganondorf was bad at 1v1 and allowed him to be how he is? It’s almost as if you designed around multiple types of play and allowed characters to thrive in different environments. Still though, Ganondorf not being top tier 1v1 is unforgivable, but I guess it’s because Sakurai hates Zelda.
“While his leader, Fox, has blinding speed, Falco has his own distinct skills and advantages. He has both a higher jump and a longer reach than Fox, and although his blaster lacks rapid fire capabilites, it strikes with shocking force. Unlike Fox, Falco can stop enemies in their tracks with his blaster fire.”
“Hit am opponent with Reflector, and he or she will fly straight up; this is Falco’s fastest attack”
Jump and laser are very important things to highlight, and so they do, but what’s truly surprising is how they explicitly mention the properties of Falco’s shine. Not only do they mention the unkque knockback angle, but they mention how fast it comes out. They actively designed it to be a staple of Falco’s offensive game, so shine was definitely intended to be the monster it is, I’m sorry to burst your bubble if you thought otherwise. Think of it this way, HAL were doing shine combos while you were still moving exclusively with rolls on Hyrule Temple. You mained Link, and you were very, very bad. Suddenly the air of competitive player smugness you had is absent.
“…and while his hookshot has less reach than older Link’s, you can still use it in midair as a last ditch attempt to grab a ledge.”
“With a youthful spring in his step, Young Link, can perform amazing wall-junps. Once he hits a wall, tap the Control Stick in the other direction to send him leaping upward; you can practice to your heart’s content in Target Test.”
Here are some unique and more advanced strategies for you to try out.
Of course I felt it was best to save the best for last, so…
“Super Smash Bros. Melee borrows settings from many different games to create its stages, but the Battlefield is an original creation. While its initial impression may strike some players as a bit ominous, the layout itself is fairly standard, lending it to serious, straightforward matches…”
“lending it to serious, straightforward matches”
You’re not supposed to have serious marches. Also, it’s interesting to note that Battlefield (not FD), is hinted at being the most balanced stage in the game for serious matches, and we see pretty much every competitive match strike to Battlefield game 1, with the stage overwhelmingly considered the most neutral by the community. At this point, the idea that there wasn’t some mindfulness in the design of the game just seems preposterous, but if you hold on just a little longer, I’ll give you one final gem.
“I had created Smash Bros. to be my response to how hardcore-exclusive the fighting game genre had become over the years. But why did I target it so squarely toward people well-versed in videogames, then?
If we want new people from this generation of gamers to come in, then we need it accessible, simple, and playable by anyone. You can’t let yourself get preoccupied with nothing but gameplay and balance details.”
– Masahiro Sakurai
So the lead director himself flat out states that the game was “squarely targeted”, at experienced gamers, and had a large focus on gameplay design and balance.
I could have just put that as the article and saved myself a lot of time, but many Smashers don’t really take things that Sakurai says seriously anymore, so I felt that the mountain of evidence against Melee accidentally being such a fantastic competitive game was warranted to really have that quote stick out. You might notice that I didn’t mention wavedashing in the article, because while it was an intentional way of resolving airdodge momentum, it’s hard to really make a case for the developers expecting its current application. Then again I’d be curious to ask one of the team members someday if they messed around with it in playtests.
In any case, you have a game which improved and expanded upon many of its predecessor’s defensive mechanics to balance out the style of play, and allow for greater depth of interaction. You had a team that continued to balance a console game even after release pre online era. You had a team that was mindful of the high level strategies that would emerge from the roster they created. You had a team that understood the inherent balance of its cast, and finally, you had a team that understood that there were multiple ways the game would be played, rather than trying to pigeonhole it into just a single style. With all the cool single player modes, ludicrous stages, and items, came a dedication to the balance of an engine and a roster of unique characters to be played in a serious 1v1 environment. Melee was designed to do both, and it succeeded, as my casual child self can attest to, it was my top GameCube game for the entire life cycle of the console, during which I had no clue about the competitive depth of the game.
Melee being what it is today is certainly beyond the realms of expectation, even for competitive players of yesteryear, but that’s just the emergent nature of a beautifully designed game. Rather than call it an accident, I feel we should give credit where it’s due, to the entire HAL Laboratory development team that put this game together. Interestingly, you change the entire team save for the director and you have a completely different design focus and end product, sounds like the George Lucas effect. These things are never the work of just a single person, nor are they freak accidents, but the realisation of a collective effort towards a shared vision.
So, in conclusion, Melee is NOT an accident, it’s just even better than intended.