Retrospective Review: A look back on Smash 4 from a competitive gamer

With Nintendo having released the trailer for “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” and officially declaring a release date, the time of Smash 4 is coming to an end. The game has been out for a few years, but unlike its predecessors, it didn’t have a lot of time before being replaced by a newer Smash.

“Smash” 64 only lasted a couple years, but Melee came out in 2001 and was prominent until 2007, when Brawl came out (Though Melee had a weird second life on the competitive scene). Brawl would go until mid 2014, when Smash 4 came out, and Smash 4 will have only lasted three and a half years when Ultimate comes out, though in spite of that, Smash 4 had a good run and was, overall, a pretty good game.

Having a look at what was good about Smash 4 over the last few years:

1. There was a ton of stuff to do

Melee was, and frankly still is, thought of as being the best competitive Smash in the franchise’s history. This shows in the game’s prominence at the Evo gaming tournament. It’s truly remarkable that a game that came out in 2001 not only survives, but thrives, seventeen years later. However, Melee is not particularly friendly to casual players, neither mechanically in-game nor structurally with what the game offers. Flash forward to Brawl, which had the opposite problem; it was amazing for the casual player, but competitive players worldwide vehemently disliked Brawl because of how mechanically flawed the game was competitively. Coincidentally, Brawl’s death came before Smash 4 even came out, as Project M, a mod of the game, would take over and dominate the competitive scene for some time, while Melee would continue its reign in its own sector.

With Smash 4, there was no such divide amongst casual and competitive fans; there were plenty of features to keep casual players engaged while the game was much friendlier to competitive players, and with the plethora of game modes, stages, and new characters in addition to the new 8-player mode that there was hardly ever a shortage of things one could do in the game. All levels of play were welcomed, so a mod was never really necessary.

2. The roster was much, much more balanced than Brawl

In Brawl, everyone sucked.

No, I mean everyone except for Meta Knight sucked. A common misconception is that Meta Knight was absurdly powerful and dominated the roster. While Meta Knight was very, very, very good in Brawl, the true problem was that virtually everyone else on the roster was awful and, as a result, a microscopic amount of characters stood even a tiny chance fighting Meta Knight on the competitive scene. The list is narrowed to pretty much Zero Suit Samus, Snake, Wolf, and maaaayyyyybe Pikachu or Falco on a good day. If you didn’t play one of these characters, or simply play Meta Knight, you had virtually no chance of actually competing in serious tournaments, or even fighting a decent Meta Knight player competitively.

This put serious restrains on the game; though the roster was big on paper, in practice you ended up seeing a ton of Meta Knight vs Meta Knight at high play. This was not the case in Smash 4. The rest of the roster was made much better through key mechanical changes and updates to many of the game’s characters. While there inevitably was a select bunch that dominated the game’s meta, and a select bunch which ended up perennial cellar dwellers, it was nowhere near as tightly constrained as in Brawl. Though Bayonetta, Cloud, Rosalina and others were at the top of the game, they could be taken down by a skilled enough player even if you were unfortunate enough to be a Jigglypuff, Ganondorf, or King Dedede player. This made the competitive scene in Smash 4 a good deal more inclusive and friendly towards its competitive base.

3. The stage selection was much better than Brawl and debatably better than Melee

Of course, this is with regards to the competitive scene. For casual players, 9/10 would say that this isn’t debatable, and that the stage selection in Smash 4 was objectively better than in games past.

Looking at the competitive scene, there was simply a larger list of usable, decent competitive stages that made the process have decent color and unique flair, as opposed to Brawl and Melee. Brawl’s selection was okay, but it was small. Beyond Smashville, Town and City, Final Destination and Battlefield, the list of good, whole competitive stages dwindles.

Smash 4 had those four stages, but it had stages beyond them that were useful competitively. Dreamland 64 returned, Lylat Cruise was used to good effect (despite drawing the ire of some in the community) and others saw a decent run, such as Duck Hunt and Isle Delfino. The only gaffe made, competitively, was done with Dreamland 64. The aspect about Dreamland 64 that made it as endearing and usable as it was in Melee was the humungous blast zones, which afforded much more survivability and gave it more use as a counterpick. In Smash 4, these blast zones are done away with; the only difference between Battlefield and Dreamland 64 is Whispy Woods slightly interfering with battlers in DL64, which is not the practical value it saw in Melee. Beyond that, Smash 4 had a great competitive stage selection to choose from, and this contributed towards its ascension as a legitimate competitive game.

Smash 4 was a good game, and these three aspects contributed majorly in that distinction.

It wasn’t perfect, however. Here’s the game’s not-so-fine points:

1. Though better than Brawl by leaps and bounds, the balancing wasn’t perfect

This is an aspect of the game heavily thought to be hammered down entirely in Ultimate. While Smash 4 was much, much more balanced than Brawl, and even Melee, in truth, at the game’s highest levels, there is still a relatively exclusive small list of characters who can truly place well. While events such as Civil War do occur once in a blue moon — Link and Captain Falcon players remember this tournament fondly, as their players finally saw a little bit of limelight after some huge upsets that saw their characters reach the Top 8 at a worldwide tournament — more often than not, a small list of eight characters dominate tournaments. This distinction is backed up by the fact that, of a 58 character roster, Bayonetta, Rosalina and Luma, Cloud, Zero Suit Samus, Fox, Sonic, Mewtwo, Marth and Ryu won a total of 93 percent of tournaments at the regional level or higher in all of North America. In Japan, where Smash is an even huger phenomenon, this number is even higher at 97 percent.

While this isn’t anywhere near as exclusive as Brawl, it does mean that players who want to compete at high levels usually have to pick one of these characters, at least as a secondary character they at least proficient with behind their “main,” in order to seriously compete. While it is true that none of the aforementioned nine characters are infallible, they tend to have enough useful assets and mechanical advantages where they will be in advantage against anyone outside of their trope simply by existing. Once again, Ultimate has promise in correcting this problem further, as those characters at the top have received noticeable reductions to their qualities, while characters who were completely unviable in Smash 4, such as Jigglypuff, Ganondorf and King Dedede, have received improvements competitively.

2. It lacked replay value

Losing the Subspace Emissary in Brawl (which will be addressed later in the list) hurt this exponentially, but it still could have been salvaged. While Smash 4 was quite expansive and had more depth than editions before it, one area Brawl had over Smash 4 was that it had a lot of replay value. Not to say Smash 4 had none whatsoever, but one can only take the concept of fighting the CPU for so long. After long enough, it becomes virtually meaningless to play the game unless you are playing a friend.

Poor AI hinders this further: level 9 CPUs are designed to be used as training dummies for the player, but function miserably in this role as they have since Smash’s inception in the late 90s. Meanwhile, level 8 CPUs and below are absolutely braindead compared to real people, and end up simply wasting a player’s time. The introduction of the Amiibo curbed this problem slightly, but once the Amiibo was trained to full level (which did not take long, maybe about two hours), it simply blended in with the wholespread problem. This did not affect the competitive scene at all, but the casual scene in the Smash franchise usually doesn’t last very long because of this, and Smash 4 was no exception.

3. Trying to make this game work on the 3DS was a terrible idea.

When one thinks of how much Smash 4 sacrificed by being included on the handheld system, it is an absolute travesty. The 3DS came stockpiled with limitations which led to the key removal of multiple features that made Brawl quite friendly to the casual player, and many of these removals hindered the competitive scene as well. For the former, a mode resembling the Subspace Emissary mode that holds near and dear to every Smasher’s heart was not included in Smash 4, as the 3DS could not support such a mode, and instead offered the significantly lesser Smash Run mode, a shell of the loved SSE mode.

In addition, the Ice Climbers were removed from the game, and shockingly did not return, as the 3DS could not handle eight sentient, intelligent characters being on the screen at once (which would happen if a four player game included four people using the Ice Climbers). Fortunately, Rosalina and Luma were added to the game to try to fill this void, but it just wasn’t the same, as the Ice Climbers were a key cog in the game for roughly thirteen years, and were missed. Nintendo’s policy on not adding or removing characters based solely on the console sentenced the Ice Climbers to banishment from the Wii U version as well, despite the fact that the Wii U could have easily handled as many Ice Climbers as could be conceived being on the screen at once. Ultimately, the 3DS version ended up being largely a waste of time, and, for those who purchased it, money; it functioned quite poorly mechanically compared to the Wii U version, had predictably poorer graphics and had a much smaller stage list than the Wii U version. With no discernible advantages or any actual reason to play it over the Wii U version, many Smashers flocked over to the Wii U version when it came out very shortly after the 3DS version did. This begs the question: was the 3DS edition of the game worth it? Just about any Smasher, casual or competitive, would firmly shoot down the thinking that it was.

Final grade: A

Many of the downfalls of the game, in truth, hardly effect the actual gameplay experience and the integrity of the game as a whole. The game was magnificent, a top-to-bottom upgrade from its predecessor, Brawl, and a game that truly left a mark in Smash history. The quality aspects of the game are aspects you would find in an award-winning game, and from a prestigious company such as Nintendo, they made Smash 4 a game to remember. Here’s to hoping Smash Ultimate can be even better.

Andrew Baillargeon is a competitive “Super Smash Bros.” player, and the former leader of the Mantle Servants gaming Clan. His gamertag is MSC Knightmare.

 

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