Thursday, June 5, 2014

Smash Up: How a Thirteen Year Old Game is Still Going Strong. by Mike Fatum

When I was growing up, I thought wavedashing was bullshit. I was a massive, massive fan of Super Smash Bros, and an even bigger fan of Melee, and I was beyond a shadow of a doubt the best player that I knew. I'd invite my friends over, and within two minutes the complaints would start. "Well, you're only this good because you own the game!" they'd complain, while desperately trying to avoid my unbeatable Marth tactics of dodge, dodge, smash them off the screen, wait for them to come back, and repeat. I was a living god of Smash, and there's no way anyone could be better than me unless they were cheating.

So wavedashing, L-cancelling, and all the other advanced Melee techniques that I saw glimpses of on grainy video from tiny tournaments around the country - well those were exploits performed by cheaters. No real Melee player would ever resort to such dirty tactics. I put it out of my mind and moved on with my life, blissfully aware that I was the greatest Marth player who ever lived.

Boy was I wrong.

I wrote about this in a previous article, but a month or so ago, I stumbled on the documentary The Smash Brothers, by East Point Pictures. The Smash Brothers follows the history of competitive Melee, with interviews and archival footage of the best players in history. People like Ken, Isai, and Mang0 - guys nobody would look twice at on the street, but Gods in their chosen world. Watching these guys, and the amount of skill and time it took for them to get as good as they are, changed my perspective. It took skill to do these tricks that I once saw as cheating. Where younger, casual me saw cheap tactics, I saw a legitimate chess game of mental acuity being played out at the speed of Fox. I had to know more.

So I made an Important Life Decision. I make many of these a year. Most recently, I decided I would respond to any question I can't answer with "I am Groot." It's working out well. This decision, however, was to become a Great Smash Bros. Player. I would practice every day, I would learn to wavedash, and I would kick ass at some upcoming tournament.

That didn't quite work out. But I did find a local tournament, so I enlisted my friend Mori, the best Smash player I know, and said, "Let's hang out at my place for a few hours, train up a bit, and then go check out this tournament." It was a thirteen year old game, so I figured we'd be in a pool of maybe 10 or 20 people at the most.

Sure, ten people.
We arrived at MacroMicro Gaming's Saturday Smash tournament to find ourselves surrounded by people of every age and ethnicity. (Although, sadly, not every gender. I think there were maybe 5-10 girls there.) There were four tournaments, Singles and Doubles for Melee and Project: M, a modification to Smash Bros Brawl that makes it play more like Melee. Each tournament had around fifty people, and while there was definitely overlap, I would guess there were around 100 people at least at the event. We began by sitting down to some friendlies with local competitors, and it was then that my cockiness from years ago was utterly destroyed.

I was bloody terrible.

Wanting to learn, I asked every single person who utterly destroyed me over those what I should do to get better. The answer was always the same. Learn how to move. Learn to wavedash. Learn to L cancel. Learn to dash dance. I would try and institute these techniques, but my old dodge-dodge-smash ability was muscle memory. It kept coming back. When you're facing someone good enough to dodge Marth's smash attack, they're going to murder you when you miss. And so, I was murdered. All three tournaments I participated in were double elimination, so I ended up being crushed six times in a row.

And as the gentlemen who had obviously worked hard and practiced harder shook my hand, they all told me the same thing. Learn. to. Move.

Because, truthfully, that's what sets Melee apart. Smash 64 is fun. Brawl is a fantastic party game. But Melee is the kind of deep, intricate game that allows for new strategies to be discovered even now, thirteen years after its release. The game is old enough that it only plays on modern TVs with lag, and players hoard old CRTs like buried treasure. But more than that, more than nostalgia, the game is still going strong because it is accidentally one of the deepest fighting games ever made. The true competitors of Melee have found the techniques the developers never meant to exist, and they've made a completely different, and completely awesome, game out of it. I'll leave you with two examples. Here's a casual match between some folks who don't know the tricks:

And here's the finals of last year's EVO:

Can you spot the difference?

Mike Fatum is the Editor in Chief of the Ace of Geeks, and the cohost of the Ace of Geeks Podcast. He enjoys Smash Bros, Godzilla, Power Rangers, He-man, Star Wars, Mass Effect, Firefly, Star Trek, Professional Wrestling...and that's just what he can remember right now.

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  1. Whoa! That's me and my doubles partner Muttnik in that bottom image. Did not expect to see that, like, at all.

    This was actually the first of these weekly tournaments I've been to, just trying to get into the Cali smash scene. Are you going again this Saturday? I'll try and find you and see you!

    1. Glad you liked seeing your pic! I took a couple at the event, but you guys just exemplified the focused look I needed for this article. :) I might show up Saturday, depends on how tired I am after rehearsal.