An Examination of Skill pt.4
Friday, April 16, 2010 at 4:10PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Metagame, Skill, Super Smash Brothers

Video games are hard. Multiplayer games are harder. Winning a tournament can be more of a challenge than some are willing to admit. Harder than high school? I'd say so. College? Perhaps. Strictly in terms of knowledge skill, the experience of competing in a multiplayer game like Super Smash Brothers Brawl is like simultaneously studying for a test and taking it at the same time. In the heart of battle, you have to divide your brain power between acquiring knowledge and executing moves/tactics/strategies all while you're opponent is absolutely determined to make things as difficult as possible for you. Remember how emergence can increase a game's knowledge base to encyclopedic proportions? A fighting game like Brawl has so much data to crunch that players generally do 1 of 3 things to cope: Players either ignore information, are overloaded, or develop strategies and playstyles that reduce the amount of key information to a manageable minimum.

For me, I know too much about game design and Smash Brothers to ignore information. Before I hit my mental limits, I try to apply my core knowledge of Smash as I battle. Sure, a large memory span helps you hold more information about the battle in your head. Yeah, having multiple mental channels helps you think/strategize about multiple elements like the stage, the opponent, and perhaps your ally. Yes, muscle memory helps you accurately execute advanced techniques like wave sliding, L-canceling, wing stepping, and B reversing. And of course being able to identify and mark which of your habits get you into trouble so you can avoid making those mistakes twice are skills that help you play better. But, in my experience, devising creative solutions that make your moves more effective/safe is where the real power of knowledge is in Smash Brothers. 

Creating new strategies. Changing the paradigm. Converting nuance into power. All of these concepts revolve around this idea of creativity. I'm constantly working to reinvent myself as a Smasher by making my moves and strategies more effective and safe. I do this by keeping in mind two things. 1) The core game system. 2) The current metagame. My former piano teacher told me how world famous composers like Chopin were so immensely creative throughout their careers. Apparently, such composers would practice counterpoint daily. This is not the same counterpoint that I've coined on this blog. Rather, it's an exercise in developing creative, new melodies, progressions, and rhythms according to a very strict set of rules. The idea is, if you can continually come up with unique music despite how constricting you think the rules are, you'll discover more of the possibilities within the "box" defined by these rules. 

Without realizing it consciously, I routinely used a similar exercise when practicing Smash. From my N64 days to Brawl I executing my counterpoint like exercise against computers or another players. In it, I limited myself to using only a few moves. For example, sometimes I would play for extended periods of time only using Kirby's neutral air and forward tilt. Even when I felt such moves were far from the best choice in a given situation, I would attempt to use them anyway. By restricting my move options, I helped my mind recognize more situations where the moves are effective and where they fail. More importantly, I often discovered new applications of moves. 

Every time I acquired a new technique or a new way of thinking about Smash, I put my mind through this rigorous counterpoint exercise. It was this exercise that gave me the ability to continually advance the metagame for Super Smash Brothers Melee. 

I not only remember how the metagame evolved each year of Melee's life, but I have video of friendlies and tournament matches that show how my advancements were at the forefront of many of the sweeping changes to the Melee metagame. Keep in mind that the majority of Melee's competitive scene had to get by without youtube. This means that it was much harder to view and study others for improvement. Furthermore, this sharing limitation made new ideas and discoveries much slower to spread. 

Because many of the smashers in my community didn't play other competitive fighting games, or any other genre of game for that matter, we essentially had no model to adapt to smash. In other words, we couldn't just convert over knowledge of Street Fighter zoning or Killer Instincts combos to help us quickly get a footing in Smash Brothers. Considering that Smash is a fighter that sits far outside the Street Fighter mold, I sure knowledge from other games wouldn't have helped us much. To give a small bit of the history/evolution, read the following trends and watch the video for examples.


  1. Everyone used way too many Smashes and rolls. Smash was so new to us, that all of our strategies, tactics, and set ups had awkward pauses in between them.
  2. Use more tilt attacks! What a great idea. They're usually faster and safer than smash attacks.
  3. Shield grabbing. It stops a lot of nonsense from your opponent's offense.
  4. There's nothing wrong with repeating moves.
  5. L-canceling makes all of your air moves recover faster! Now we can combat shield grabbers with air attacks into ground smashes/tilts/and dodges. 
  6. Why don't we L-cancel air moves into more air moves? This'll give us even more maneuverability. 
  7. Why are we just letting opponents get back to the stage for free? Why don't we start going off the edge to make things hard for them. And by off the edge, I mean as far and as deep as possible while still being able to recover safely.
  8. Kill them with a KILL MOVE! Unlike other fighters, smash has a very dynamic ring out KO design. It's important to switch to moves that have a lot of knock back (Kill moves) when you need to kill. This seems like such a simple idea, but because the metagame started with smash attacks as the main offensive strategy, it's no wonder it took so long to evolve our smash sensibilities. 
  9. It's all about control! Using weak, safer moves to put the opponent in very tough situations that flow into tougher situations is more effective than going for straight up offensive, smash attack, power.


At each bullet point, Super Smash Brothers Melee was changed forever. Personally, throughout these years I didn't have anyone to exchange Kirby knowledge with. In the end, when I retired from Melee, my Kirby was roughly 98% my invention. In others words, I had created nearly all of the specific knowledge and techniques I used to make my Kirby #1 in the world.

Brawl is a completely different story. With youtube, live streaming, a smashboards that's larger than ever, and tournaments happening every week or so, the Brawl metagame has grown much faster than Melee's had. Also, considering that the core desgin of Brawl is roughly 80% the same as Melee, our Smash sensibilities carried over quite nicely.

So one question you might ask is, how much more important is Brawl knowledge skills compared to the other 4 types? That is the question that I've been trying to get to the bottom of for over a year and a half now. Currently, I love to go to Brawl tournaments, but I hardly practice and I'm barely connected to the growing community. What this essentially means is that not only are the neat Pit strategies I come up with less likely to surprise my opponents (seeing how they can watch vids/go to smash boards and study up), but I'm more and more likely to be overcome with new smash strategies and techniques I've never encountered before. So far my answer is, without tapping into the knowledge stream, you'll make each battle unecessarily and incredibly difficult for yourself.

I plan on creating more posts outlining the different types of skills and playstyles involved in competitive Brawl as soon as I get the time to do so. Coming up next, a way for you to test your own knowledge skills. Stay tuned.


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