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Competitive Depth and Exploitation in ‘Super Smash Bros. Melee’

Error and exploitation have made Super Smash Bros. a success.

Chances are that if you call yourself a gamer, you have played Super Smash Bros. in one form or another. Like Mario Kart, Mario Party, and Wii Sports, this is a game almost exclusively made for multiplayer and competitive play. Unlike those games, though, a thriving competitive community has actually developed around Super Smash Bros., a scene that consists of tournaments, crews, rivalries, prize money, and even a documentary, none of which is sanctioned by Nintendo. It’s also not played in the way that the developers envisioned it, and the learning curve for competitive play is complicated by physics exploits and glitches.

In a lot of ways, though, Super Smash Bros. is unlike other fighting games. In most traditional fighting games, the player has a set amount of hit points at the beginning of a match, and if those hit points reach zero, the character faints or dies and the round is over. Instead of starting with a certain amount of hit points and losing them, in Super Smash Bros. you start at 0% and work your way up. The higher your “%” is(which doesn’t correlate to any real percentage and goes up to 999%), the further you can get knocked back when hit by attacks, which will eventually send you off the stage and hurtling toward your doom if you cannot recover. Falling off the stage removes a stock from your character and if you run out of stocks you lose.

Because stages feature ledges and one can fall off of them, the entire dynamic of Super Smash Bros. is different than other fighting games. Like other fighting games, there is a neutral game (when the player is setting up combos and attacks) and a combo game(a series of consecutive hits that cannot be avoided or are difficult to avoid), but there is also the ledge game, in which players try to prevent their opponent from reaching the ledge after being knocked off the stage. Because of this third phase of the game, a much larger emphasis is placed on jumping, juggling, or continually hitting your opponent up in the air, and on gimping, taking someone’s stock at a low percentage.

There are also no “secret combos” in Super Smash Bros. or the ability to press a combination of buttons like down, left, A, B, B, A to pull off a special attack. Therefore, the game seems a lot simpler than other fighting games because every attack is easily performed by even the newest of players. The game is much less based on combos and rather based on the physics and the ledges that makes it unique, but this also leads to a lot of physics exploits that when used properly can wreck someone not aware of ho w to exploit them.

The most common competitive version of Super Smash Bros. is Super Smash Bros. Melee, the version for the Gamecube, which has the fastest pace and most depth of the games. While the latest version, 2008’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl also made its way into the competitive scene for some time, its popularity has waned while Melee has somehow grown more popular in the past thirteen years since its release. Part of the reason for that continued popularity is related to two exploits that are used by nearly every professional Melee player that are difficult to perform and require hours of training just to be able to pull off, let alone use effectively in combat.

The first of these is “wavedashing” which is performed by air dodging or temporarily becoming invincible in the air (with the cost of being made completely vulnerable and unable to move afterward) until one touches the ground again, moving into the ground and thus “sliding” in a neutral stance. While sliding may initially seem pretty useless when one can just walk or run, it becomes incredibly crucial at high levels of play because one is much less vulnerable and more evasive when sliding in a standing stance, and thus able to use the full range of their character’s attacks, as compared to running, in which options are more limited and predictable.

The second main exploit used by Melee players is L-canceling, which I believe the developers intentionally placed in the game, but nonetheless is incredibly important in upper level play. When a character performs an aerial attack and hits the ground before their attack has finished they suffer “ending lag, their character seems to catch themselves for a moment and is unable to do anything. If one presses the shield button(L or R) a few frames before hitting the ground, their ending lag time will be cut in half. Most ending lag is less than a second long, but if one becomes proficient enough at L-Canceling, that player can string together combos that players not as proficient could never perform and thus have a huge advantage over those other player.

Other exploits that have been discovered long since the game was released include directional influence, which is the ability to control to a slight degree how far you fly when hit by an attack and desynching the two characters from Ice Climber (who compose a fighting duo) to set up unique opportunities and combos. Most characters in the game have many minor glitches that they can utilize in combat, and over time, the players that master these perform the best in tournaments.

These exploits, though hard to master, are loved by the Smash community, so much so that a group of programmers have created a mod for Brawl to reinstate the exploits that were removed in the new game. This mod, Project M, is already more popular than Brawl is in the competitive scene, despite the fact that it is just a mod that makes the game more like Melee(and attempts to balance the characters better than those two games).

It’s interesting that even though the Melee community has been forgotten and sometimes combated by Nintendo, the metagame still continues to evolve thirteen years later with no developer involvement. In fact, the series director Masahiro Sakurai has on multiple occasions said that the competitive scene is “playing the game wrong,” that it isn’t “interesting or fun,” and that he would rather have the game serve casual players than become the interest of a small group of fanatic fans. Last year Nintendo sent a cease and desist letter to one of the largest fighting game tournaments, EVO, telling them not to stream the game, but the negative response from the community was so great that they reversed their decision.

Melee isn’t the only game in which glitches are used in competitive play. In the speed running scene, glitches are often used to get the best times. For instance, in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and in Dark Souls glitches have improved speeds so that these normally 30+ hour games can be completed in less than thirty minutes. It seems that when it comes to competitive video games, glitches can help balance and enhance a community and bring players together. While this is a far cry from heavily patched games like League of Legends and Starcraft II whose gameplay seems to change slightly every week, it is just the other side of the coin when it comes to developer involvement.

So we have to conclude that Melee is not played in the way its developers imagined it would be played, but that is exactly the reason that Melee has been so successful. The game has a lot of depth without wavedashing, directional influence, L-Canceling, or a lot of the “advanced” techniques and that is why the game was initially popular, but now, thirteen years later it is the new tricks, the exploits, and the glitches that have made the game so successful. Error and exploitation have made the game what it is.