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Super Smash Bros. has a long history of receiving ridicule from the fighting game community because Nintendo prioritizes casual players over competitive ones. Has the developer mindset changed with the release of Smash Ultimate?
Several prominent members of the Smash community think not. Those that are following Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios’s pre-patch complaints or Keith “MightyKeef” Ford’s post-patch complaints will know that these YouTubers worry that the Smash Ultimate developers are balancing the game for casual play, rather than competitive play.
Both of these content creators use a similar argument: Nintendo prioritizes casual, family-oriented gamers. Smash is designed to be a casual party game, most of its sales come from casual fans, and so the developers want to balance the game to satisfy the casual fans.
Unfortunately, balancing for casual players is very different than balancing for competition, because an overreliance on easily executable strategies like super armor, projectile spamming, and large hitboxes will be successful in casual play, but unsuccessful in tournament play. On the other hand, characters that have powerful but difficult-to-execute tools will not influence casual gameplay.
The end result is that Smash is balanced in a way that beginner-friendly characters are unviable in tournaments. Examples include characters with large, powerful hitboxes (Ganondorf, Ike, Bowser), characters that can abuse super armor (Little Mac, King K. Rool), and characters with powerful projectiles (Samus, Link, Wii Fit Trainer).
Both ZeRo and Keef used Super Smash Bros. for Wii U Little Mac as a prime example. Although Little Mac’s weaknesses are easily exploited by intelligent players, “For Glory” button-mashers will run headlong into his boxing mitts. As a result of the casual players’ opinion that Little Mac was overpowered, he was immediately nerfed in Smash Wii U. Little Mac is still bad in Smash Ultimate, and K. Rool, another character with a reputation for destroying casual players, received nerfs early in Smash Ultimate.
Of course, this common argument is completely wrong. Not only can balance patches satisfy both casual and competitive players, but I have every reason to believe the Smash developers are prioritizing competitive balance.
Let me list three reasons.
1. Easy-to-Abuse Moves are Finally Good
Aside from a few specific examples that Keef and ZeRo have mentioned (which I’ll be discussing further in point 3) noob-stomping characters are stronger than ever in this game. Ganondorf is fun to play, but his smashes are huge and he hits harder than any smash character in any other game. Ike is a contender for top tier. Projectiles are strong in this game--Samus may not have all her problems fixed, but her projectiles are better than ever. All the Links are viable at worst, and some of my Link-maining friends declare that he has no bad matchups. Even Ness had projectiles buffed to point of memery.
Looking at the way characters are designed, it’s obvious that Nintendo is trusting the casual players deal with potentially over-centralizing moves. They still added a damage modifier to distinguish between singles and free-for-alls, but that only furthers my point that the developers are intentionally trying to make characters good in a one-on-one match without being overpowered in a free-for-all. If you look at the latest patch, Little Mac even got buffs!
2. Tierlists Don't Exist in Casual Play
Smash Wii U’s problem was that the main online mode For Glory took casual players and made them play with a more-or-less competitive ruleset. Yes, if 90% of casual players experience Little Mac solely on his best stage, with no items, they’ll get demolished. The real problem is why casual players are even in that environment. I’ll admit that For Glory was great at getting casual players interested in the competitive scene, but there’s no arguing that Little Mac is a difficult to deal with in that specific scenario--even tournament players ban Final Destination against Mac!
However, with the new online matchmaking system, casual players usually play on tournament-illegal stages with hazards and items. No matter how strong Little Mac is, he’s no match for pokeballs, hammers, assist trophies, or Rainbow Cruise. Casual settings are the great equalizer, and we’re seeing Smash’s balance team do everything possible to separate casual and competitive play so that 1v1 complaints can be left to more competitive players.
3. The Developers are Issuing Fake Nerfs
Genius. Casual players complain about K. Rool’s gun windbox being overpowered, while competitive players think he’s generally underpowered? Solution: nerf the jank windbox while sneakily buffing the rest of the character!
We’re seeing the same decisions with Pichu. Don’t get me wrong, Pichu isn’t a beginner character, but it is a character that beginners may feel helpless against. A player who runs into the wrong arena will get obliterated by lightning loops and will think Pichu is overpowered. So what did the developers decide to do? They posted a huge list of patch notes listing every move where Pichu got nerfed. Only these nerfs barely matter. Taking more self-damage and having a larger hitbox means Pichu will die slightly earlier, which might make Pichu more manageable in casual play. For competitive play, however, any hit on Pichu should be a death sentence, regardless of a few extra percent damage. Likewise, tournament play is unlikely to be affected by the nerfs to Ftilt or Fsmash. Fsmash shouldn’t be spammed and while Ftilt might have been good enough to be spammed, I think we can all agree that once moves becomes a meme, it’s time for a nerf.
So again, these moves had their unintended (casual) use nerfed in such a way that Pichu’s tournament toolkit was unchanged. However, casual players are appeased by the long list of “nerfs.” Those nerfs were a message from the developers, saying, “Look, we can’t bite the hand that feeds us. Pichu isn’t a real problem, but they want nerfs so we’ll give nerfs. We’ll make sure these nerfs don’t impact tournament play too much.” This is amazing news for tournament players.
Balancing may never perfectly accommodate casual and competitive play, but the developers are doing their best to balance for competitive play while removing/appeasing the balances in casual play. If the developers appear to be prioritizing casual players, it’s only to pay lip service. Their true loyalties lie with us.
Author’s Note: Hey, this is my first article on the Smashboards! What did you think? Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below! Also, If you want a more detailed explanation of how to overcome simultaneous balancing challenges for a casual and competitive playerbase and how the devs are doing a great job of it, you can check out this video I made on the subject!