Sunday, 12 October 2014

3DS National Open Tournament, October 2014: What When Down?

I just finished watching the VOD of the first official SSB4 open tournament hosted by Nintendo, in NYC, and it was a blast. I was surprised, delighted, and intrigued by several aspects of them, and I am super excited to see more tournament play in the future. I will discuss the characters used in the tournament, which were somewhat diverse. First, though, I will examine the rules of the tournament, crafted by Nintendo, which show design from the creators beyond just crafting the game. To be clear, I'm discussing solely the top 16 bracket shown on October 11 live from Nintendo World in NYC.

Thou Shalt Smash (Finally)

The first thing I noticed tuning into the starting matchup of Mario VS Kirby was that they were playing on the Paper Mario stage. Not the Omega Form one either - the moving, dynamic, and frankly dangerous one. Very much a This Is Not Evo kind of stage. It's really four or five stages, taking the players through an epic journey, winding up in Bowser's Castle, one of the most unforgiving play areas imaginable. Then a Smash Ball appeared and well... shit got real.

Turns out, the rules for the first two rounds (Top 16 and Top 8) of the tournament were as follows:

  • Single Elimination
  • Random Stage, No Omega Form
  • Character Customisation Allowed
    • All Special move variants
    • Limited Equipment (only stat boosts, no Start-With-Item stuff. They didn't say exactly what the limitations were)
  • No Items, Except Smash Ball.
  • 6 minutes per mach

These are not rules we'd see in a community-organised event like Evo or The Big House. Typically, Smash tournaments have striven to be as even as possible, making skill the deciding factor. No items, few if any stages with hazards of any kind, and character customisation is new to SSB4. This is a bold statement from Nintendo: our game, our rules. I respect that attitude. They built this game knowing there was going to be a competitive following. They are aware of the intense skill to be found among their fans. With these rules, they are challenging those players to learn everything about the game - not just For Glory mode.

Allowing character customisation was something that surprised me a bit, but I mean, why not? It's there, and it adds a lot of complexity to the game. Megaman becomes a much different character if his Side B is a freeze ray and his Neutral B explodes all but himself.

As a point of interest, the rules for the Top 4:
  • Single Elimination
  • Random Stage, No Omega Form
  • Character Customisation Allowed (same as top 16/8)
  • No Smash Ball
  • 6 minutes per match
And the finals:
  • Best 2 out of 3
  • Random Stage, ONLY Omega Form
  • Character Customisation
    • Same as before, and player can alter their customisation between games
  • No Items
  • No Time Limit
So, the rules do level out to something you'd expect from a high level Melee tournament, notwithstanding character customisation. Luck can carry you to the finals, but not to the prize. One (of three) Rosalina & Luma player, Dabuz, got Jungle Japes for his first two rounds, a stage which is advantageous for the character. If he didn't deserve those victories, we'd know it by the finals - but he 2-0'd his opponent to win, proving his worth.

This kind of rules design is something Nintendo has been doing with Pokémon for years. The Pokémon Championships have different rules each year, restricting Pokémon choice, item use, battle format (usually Doubles), and move selection, fostering creativity by limiting options. With Smash, the opposite is true: they're limiting dominant strategies by rewarding familiarity with all the game's elements. It's not enough to say "I'll play Little Mac because he's the best on Final D." If you aren't prepared for other stages, you won't make it through to the end.

New Tech For A New Era

The Top 16 character representation was a healthy mix of new and old characters, and each was unique (even among ostensibly identical picks).

The characters were:
  • Kirby
  • Captain Falcon
  • Ganondorf
  • Fox
  • Zelda
  • Robin
  • Little Mac
  • Samus
  • Yoshi x 2
  • Mario x 3
  • Rosalina & Luma x 3
The finals were, as statistics would dictate is the most likely outcome, Mario VS Rosalina. Notably missing from this array: Sonic, Duck Hunt, Pikachu, Meta Knight, Sheik, Marth, Link, Olimar, Pit, R.O.B., Villager, Pac-Man... all characters I've heard people call top-tier in past or present. "Top Tier" may be a thing of the past; with so many characters being viable, it will come down to which characters counter the most popular choices, and therefore, who has the bigger roster.

Rosalina & Luma were the grand winners of this tournament, and there were 3 in the top 16 (2 in the top 4!). The next step for you, O Community, is to come up with a counter to the puppet character, which is a new concept in Smash. So, the tech war begins....

This has made me more excited than I anticipated for future grand tournaments of Smash. Mew2King and ZeRo have been spending a lot of time in the game, analysing characters, practising. Armada has declared he wants to be the first world champion of the game. Dabuz, who won this tournament, was a big player in the Brawl scene. This game is taking players from all iterations of Smash, and who knows what will happen as a result?

Until next time...

Stay excited, Star-Shooter.

-mysteriosum(the deranged hermit)

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Reading Smash: Soft Combos vs. True Combos

"AUGH! How did he do that?! I didn't have time to move, even!"
-Noobs everywhere, on combos

Combos are the soul of any fighting game. In more conventional fighting games (looking at you, Street Fighter), combos are discovered and then memorised. You practice that 40% damage combo for weeks before the tournament, and then practice getting that opening. Then the time comes and you just have to go through the motions, if you manage to execute under the pressure. In this sense, it's much like classical music.

Combos in Smash (I believe it was Prog who said this) are more like jazz. You gotta improvise. You know the moves, but you never know what the other player is going to do so you gotta be able to keep up. Players are given more freedom of movement than in normal fighting games, and that makes for unpredictable, beautiful, astounding play.

The Platforming aspect of Smash is real, and it's what separates the Smashes from the MKs. Understanding the physics of platform games, and those of Smash in particular, is tantamount to victory. If you know how all the movement works, you know how your opponent can move, and you can capitalise on that knowledge to make combos.

I'll point out a few terms that you will need to know if you want to get serious about your smash game. This time I'll talk about the game mechanics and techniques for combos specifically. Next time I'll detail mechanics about the attacks that make the combos

  • DI: "Directional Influence"
    • DI means the influence a player has over its character's input when you are incapacitated. If you get punched by DK, you're going to go flying, this much is certain: how far you go, and how high, will alter slightly based on where you hold the control stick. Down throws usually involve slamming the throwee to the ground; they will bounce up, but whether they arc to the right, left, or straight up depends on the direction held by the throwee.
  • Tech: quick recovery (NOT to be confused with Technology)
    • Teching, or Ukemi (a Japanese tumbling technique) are a vital basic technique in Smash. When you get hid hard enough that you can't regain control of your character before you hit a wall, floor, or ceiling, you can hit the Shield button right before landing and quickly get up, offering a few frames of invulnerability, followed by a couple of frames of helplessness.
    • You can tech to the right, left, or in place, offering that versatility which rewards skilled play.
  • Reads: predicting your opponent's DI
    • A soft read is one which involves little risk. You know the 3 ways your opponent can go, so you move or make an attack that covers 2 or all of those possibilities. Typically, this results in sub-optimal punishment (but a successful read is a successful read)
    • A hard read is all-or-nothing: you predict your opponent is going to Tech to the left, so you begin charging a smash, and release just as they're vulnerable.
  • Tech chase: following the tech
    • Tech chase is akin to a soft read, but involves waiting to see what they do and reacting after. It is, of course, possible to jump the gun and tech chase in the wrong direction (which would be seen as a failed hard read)
  • Combos: the bread and butter
    • A True Combo leaves no chance for your opponent to escape them. They are incapacitated, and have few DI or Tech opportunities. In my reckoning, a True Combo can include soft reads, as long as they cover all escape possibilities.
    • A Soft Combo requires hard reads, or other mind games, to work. They are less reliable, but more impressive!

The folks at Smash have been nerfing the True Combo ever since SSB64, preferring to focus on the jazz-like gameplay that the mechanics want to encourage. If you learn how to read your opponents, get in their heads, and stay one step ahead of them, you'll prosper.

Check out my next article, which breaks down attack mechanics and how to know which ones to use when. 

Until then, stay mindful, skilled playa!

-mysteriosum(the deranged hermit)

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Super Smash Bros 4: Surface Impressions

I have been awaiting the release of Super Smash Bros 4 (henceforth: SSB4) for a long while. Melee was the only other Smash game I ever owned, and I played it extensively. I have also watched a fair amount of competitive play of all the series' games. I know much about the games, but not as much as I should like about the competitive scene and the techniques used therein.

That's why I'm starting this series of analyses. I love esports and have thought about chronicling one before. This is the perfect opportunity. I will post about my experiences, characters, tournaments, strategies, counter-strategies, and anything else that tickles my fancy.

For now: what's different?

The first thing I want to touch on is how SSB4 is different from Melee or Brawl. Perhaps the most vital aspect is combo potential. Combo potential has been nerfed with each iteration of Smash, for better or for worse.

In SSB64, or OG Smash, according to the Smash Bros Wiki, every character except Samus is capable of performing a combo that will "zero-to-death" an opponent. That doesn't make for a great metagame. You have players playing super cautiously until someone gets hit, at which point the match is over (at a high enough level of play). So, not a very high skill ceiling.

For Melee, the developers decided to speed things up a little. Players were able to move and react much more quickly than in OG Smash, allowing for lightning-fast matches between pros. The fast pace of the characters means you can still have "true combos" while allowing opponents to disrupt soft combos with a quick enough nair, dodge, counter, etc.

A quick little aside on the nature of combos. I consider combos in Smash to be in 2 categories:

  • True Combos mean your hits flow seamlessly from one to the next, allowing no chance for your opponent to break it. This is what most people are thinking of when they say things like "there are no combos in Brawl."
  • Soft Combos mean you must read your opponent for your combo to work. For instance: if Mario throws Marth straight up, the Marth player can control their trajectory somewhat (this is called DI, or Directional Influence). Mario will have to predict which way Marth will choose to go (left, right, or straight up) and attempt to follow up with a fair. If Mario succeeds, the soft combo is a success; otherwise, he can be punished. (See more on Prediction: Hard Read vs. Soft Read)

In Brawl, there are few (if any) True Combos. If you look at the Zero-To-Death article here, you'll see the largest section of any game, but read into it and you'll see that many of these require specific setups, opponents, or an extreme level of skill to execute. Effort was put into lowering the skill ceiling in Brawl: everyone was slower and had longer ending lag. This made the game less competitively viable, since the community revelled in Melee's pace and the challenge wrought by the high skill ceiling. They were also mad about tripping.

Enter SSB4. Impressions (including my own) have been very positive, with Melee pros declaring their support for it, and their intentions to compete. Nintendo is even organising tournaments, which is a welcome step away from their "please no competition" attitude they had for Brawl. It's quicker than Brawl, but not quite as quick as Melee; there are some true combos, but they're rare and tough to pull off (and may require opponents to land on platforms higher than where you hit them from).

A Roster to be Reckoned With

The most exciting thing, for me, is the roster: 48 competitively legal characters (I don't believe Mii fighters are allowed in tournaments), by far the largest cast of the series. The increase is not for nothing, either: each character plays differently, introducing unique mechanics, playstyles, and counter-strategies which the franchise has been wanting. Duck Hunt epitomises this, with an immense camp game and quality smashes which can counter close-quarters fighters that rely on closing gaps (which are the only types of fighters we see in Melee tournaments).

Show me your moves!

I am beyond excited to see what people come up with for the competitive scene. Next week I will post more about the new mechanics and balancing issues the developers have employed.

Stay smashing, super brother.

-mysetriosum(the deranged hermit)