Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Super Smash Bros and Fandom Betrayal

Head-to-Head uber alles?

            As a lifelong video game player, something I’ve become more familiar with than I hoped to is fandom betrayal.  Maybe that term sounds too pretentious to some readers, but I feel it is applicable enough sometimes.  Children, which most gamers started as, view video games as something made just for them, but as we age, we realize that they’re big business, and as the industry continues to grow, sometimes that means doing things the fans will regret.  “Fandom betrayal”, as I have termed it, refers to the times when a company decides that appealing to their core constituency is less important than branching out into greener pastures; to the point that alienating the former is apparently justified.

            Among the times I’ve felt the victim of fandom betrayal in the past was Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, which deliberately removed almost all of the characters Rareware had added to flesh out the iconic series during the days when they were an arm of Nintendo.  Then Rareware itself, now a subsidiary of Microsoft, released a new installment of its beloved Banjo-Kazooie series, which was, in fact, a completely different vehicle-based game reworked to contain Banjo characters.  The Sonic the Hedgehog series has gotten so diverse at times that it’s now a given that no group of its fans will be happy with everything it does, leaving Sonic Team to scramble to find an optimal playstyle for a time.  Finally, for many of Nintendo’s original fanbase, the Wii came off Nintendo abandoning them in favor of attracting an audience of non-gamers, though it later reconciled with its old base.  Now, I’m starting to get ominous vibes of this same effect from the new Smash Bros for the Wii U, and some people may not like what I have to say about why, but this point needs to be made.

           I have been an unashamed critic of the “Final-Destination-with-no-items” players of these games for quite a while now (some prefer the term, “competitive players”, but I do not accept this designation, for reasons I will get into soon), and I’ve mentioned my views once in a while, but I’ve mostly been easygoing about it.  We all have things we do and don’t enjoy, and so as long as these people and I avoid each other, we all have our own version of fun and everybody lives happily ever after.  The recent Nintendo Direct devoted to SmashBros, though, has me thinking these playstyles are coming to blows in a way that will fundamentally change the way the game plays—not necessarily for better and not necessarily for worse, but decisively change it nonetheless.

            The basic criticism I and many others have of the self-proclaimed “competitive” SSB players is that they are not playing the game as it was intended to be played.  From the very beginning, this was designed to be dissimilar to other fighting games; instead of just head-to-head bashes fueled by memorized button combinations, it was designed to incorporate platforming, and an item system based upon various parent series.  The attempts to play it as an ordinary fighting game, by taking out the items and platforming, are not in themselves offensive, but what is offensive is alleging that this makes the game more competitive.  That is essentially declaring a belief that the simple act of fighting is the only sort of competition that matters.  While I will be willing to grant that certain items; due to their random nature, break the ability to determine a victory by skill alone, the fact that items can all be individually turned on or off means there is no need to throw the diaper out with the baby.  As to the stages undermining competition, I can see no compelling arguments for that.  Learning to roll with the asymmetrical nature of items and terrain is supposed to be part of the competition; claiming the game is more competitive without those bits is akin to claiming that basketball would be more competitive if every player just stood in one place and tried to throw the ball into hoops; there’s nothing wrong with wanting to play that way and it certainly enhances certain skills, but the fact remains that it is not basketball as it was intended to be played; the skills that it tests and hones are not the only ones entailed in the actual sport.

           This oversight is a big part of why SSB characters are commonly seen by competitive players as unevenly distributed into “tiers”; ratings of how good or bad they are.  FDNI matches commonly feature many instances of the same few characters, while others don’t get much play at all.  While it’s likely that no game can be completely balanced, in large part the feeling of radical imbalance in SSB is because many characters were not designed to fight up close.  Somebody like Captain Falcon gets by pummeling and smashing his opponents hand-to-hand, but with run-and-gun characters like Fox and Pikachu, they’re supposed to be able to win by using their superior mobility to capture the better real estate.  That is in keeping with the inherently non-symmetrical intent of the game, and I’m glad practically everyone can have his or her unique moment in the limelight, whether or not the unintended misbehaving periphery demographic wants to see them.

            Until now.  I know some people will claim that the Nintendo Direct video demonstrates no preference for one demographic over the other, that it gives players two choices of online stranger games; “For Fun” Mode—Smash Bros as it was meant to be played—and “For Glory” Mode—FDNI games.  While that’s true, the fact that Sakurai is now addressing at all a crowd whose mindset is against the point of the series, is still annoying.  I understand he’s trying to recapture some of the support he lost when making too many changes to Brawl, but pendulums can swing too far between a rock and a hard place in either direction.  It’s not like he would have needed to do anything but maintain options screens and recreate Melee’s old mechanics with added characters to bring these guys back into the fold, but instead, he’s giving them an outright ego-pumping shout-out.  By separating quick online matches into two distinct styles, the new game is lending undue credence to the wretched myth that there is a specific type of stripped-down match that is competitive, and all others aren’t.  Now, at this point, some people may offer “don’t like; don’t play” or the like, and maybe this is all just superficial…but maybe it’s not, too.

            Remember my explanation of character imbalance, and why, to FDNI players, it seems worse than it really is?  So far throughout this series’ history, characters have been tweaked to excel in different niches and handle different problems in different ways, based on the assumption of SSB’s intended playstyle.  Now that they’re marketing at least partly to a new demographic with new tastes, it stands to reason that they will go in and rebalance the characters specifically so they have a more-or-less even aptitude for FDNI matches.  Unfortunately, because such matches are different from the more asymmetrical nature of the other sort, a balance in them could easily mean an imbalance in other places.  For example, a character judged to be great because in Final Destination, his or her projectile was harder to dodge, might stand as crap in some other places that give people more room to, where they didn’t think of giving her a way to compensate because they thought too much about forcing an alien playstyle to work.  The gist of this fear is that the original, intended fanbase, of which I’m a part, could get screwed over in favor of people who just barged in and were loud enough to convince Sakurai that Smash Bros was theirs for the judging.

            If this all sounds like nitpicking, I should mention that this is not the first gripe I have with this game.  Much earlier, Sakurai announced that he will not prioritize adding new characters as much this time around—when the characters were the original selling point of this series, that sounds incredibly dumb.  Sakurai speaks as if he thinks there is some ceiling to the enthusiasm people will have after a certain number of characters, but this just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.  This series has such an incredible engine that it can make all kinds of characters work, and it continues to show its versatility as more and more traditional taboos erode to let more and more characters in.  Once a series dedicated to Nintendo All-Stars known to be able to fight, they now have welcomed in more obscure Nintendo characters, third-party stars, and Nintendo characters whose fighting abilities are at least partially fudged out of non-combat ones.  It works; loads of people think it’s awesome they can finally see Mario fight or team up with Sonic (and now Mega Man joins those ranks, too), as do they to see a soft-spoken yoga instructor knocking game heroes flying.  Sakurai adding or revealing even a few new characters debunks his own thesis that fans will stop getting excited for characters; provided the most unanimously interesting get the highest priority. 

This is the same man who told us those aren't the actual characters fighting; despite such being the whole draw of the series.  And the one who thought random tripping was a good idea.
            Worse still, apparently Sakurai’s given rationale for having a character ceiling is that he is now making a game both for the Wii U and the 3DS, and wants them both to have the same amount of characters—because the 3DS has less capacity than the Wii U, this is problem.  I can’t help but wonder if part of his motive is that many players simply don’t own a Wii U, but I do, and so once again, my interest is getting subverted to cater to someone else in a way that is really overkill.  I understand I may not be the majority and 3DS owners are, but on their end, there isn’t any sting from a roster that is presumably extensive by 3DS standards; only the appeal of having a handheld Smash Bros game at all.  Is jealousy of Wii U owners really a huge factor for any of them; to the extreme that it justifies a communistic leveling of the console game?

            Sakurai has also decided not to give this game an Adventure Mode.  That has been a fixture since Melee, and refined to almost its own game in Brawl—questionable mechanically, sure, but since we already know he’s looking into improving the mechanics from their unpopular state in Brawl, why is that a concern?  For a reason just as dumbfounding as the roster limits: According to Sakurai, because all of the cutscenes were leaked online, there’s no need to have an extensive adventure mode with cutscenes this time.  This attitude I find cynical to almost crybaby levels.  First, not everyone played The Subspace Emissary for the cutscenes (I’m reasonably sure nobody did so exclusively for them); many of us loved it because it was a lone beat-em-up starring Nintendo characters, and just because the cutscenes were leaked online doesn’t mean that all of us watched them there.  I waited to play the Subspace Emissary to watch them, and I’m glad I did.  Furthermore, though, the fact that the cutscenes were leaked online alludes to a simple fact: People like them.  They want to see these things, and now because some of them can’t wait, he’s decided to deprive all of us of more such things; along with the connected mode that can’t be as easily leaked online. (But piracy of whole games does occur, which by Sakurai’s own logic means a new SSB shouldn’t exist at all; yet more evidence his logic is deeply flawed.)

            Those sorts of things shaped my attitude watching the Nintendo Direct video, which, sadly, just reinforced its negativity.  I can’t be the only one unhappy that we got only one new character revealed in a video that long (or, for that matter, that we need to wait for Nintendo videos to see any new characters at all this time), and in addition to the new emphasis on FDNI matches, they’ve gotten rid of multi-characters, an aspect that had been in the series since Melee and, so far as I know, nobody ever minded.

            I don’t think this game will be bad, but it’s not going to be my ideal Smash Bros game, from what I can see, and it’s quite possible that, should this new take on the series catch on, I will never get my ideal Smash Bros game in the future, either.  Almost everywhere I look in this new game’s publicity, it’s abandoning a lot of what appealed to me from the very beginning of this series, in favor of doing things that appeal to someone else.  No; this isn’t a new feeling of resentment, but that doesn’t make it ache any less.

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