The Unbalanced Design of Super Smash Brothers: Part 2
December 9, 2014
Welcome to the second installment of The Unbalanced Design of Super Smash Brothers. The first part was, dare I say it, a smashing success.
With almost 600,000 views it has been read more times than everything else I’ve ever written combined. There was also fantastic discussion on r/smashbros, r/dataisbeautiful, Shacknews, Hacker News, and Polygon. I’d like to extend a huge, huge thank you to everyone who clicked and shared.
Part One and Part Three for your reading pleasure.
If you missed Part One you can read it here: The Unbalanced Design of Super Smash Brothers.
The summary is that Super Smash Brothers can be played as a hardcore 1v1 no-items fighting game like Street Fighter. Players on the internet vote to rank game characters from best to worst. These lists are updated and evolve over time. What’s interesting is that Smash Brothers has never been patched. The balance of the game has never changed. The only thing that actually changes is player perception of that balance.
Here is an interactive chart showing the rankings for every character in Super Smash Brothers Melee over time.
Super Smash Brothers Melee (2002–2014)
Now that we’ve recapped, let’s move on. There were over 1000 comments spread across a half dozen sites for Part 1. The single most common question was why. Why did the rankings change over time? Why did Ice Climbers get popular after 5 years? Why did Jigglypuff rise from #17 to as high as #3?
The answer in many cases seems to be: because of one player.
The rankings for Smash Brothers are heavily, heavily influenced by tournament results. Characters that regularly win big tournaments get placed at the top. Characters that get deep into the bracket but can’t win are ranked higher. And characters that place lower, if they are even played, are ranked lower.
When a character sees a sharp rise in the rankings that can often be attributed to a single player who performed consistently well with that character in tournament play. The fine details of who and when are beyond my expertise. Here are some names that were given to me by commenters.
Captain Falcon — Isai
Donkey Kong — ???
Ice Climbers — ChuDat
Jigglypuff — Mango
Mewtwo — Taj
Peach — Armada
Pikachu — Axe
Yoshi — aMSa
The rise of Mewtwo is neat because it can be traced not just to one player but practically to one moment. Taj was known within the community as a top Mewtwo player, but a single video released on YouTube in 2006 showed the world what could be done. (Video here.)
In my last post, I put Yoshi in the bust category. Dozens of people chimed in saying Yoshi was on the rise thanks to aMSa. If a new list gets released next year Yoshi is expected to see a big bump up. It’s taken 12 years for someone to elevate Yoshi to the higher tiers of play. I think that’s absolutely incredible.
Now I’m sure folks will debate on who made what popular when. That’s kind of missing the point. The key takeaway here is that tournament results are what matter. All that’s required is for one single player to start kicking ass with a low tier character and the suddenly the perception of the entire community can change.
The idea that a single player can change community wide perception is not unprecedented.
I’m a pretty big fan of Blizzard’s Hearthstone. It’s a deck building game similar to Magic: The Gathering. I’m also a big fan of streaming video and Twitch.tv. Hearthstone launched about a year ago and it’s been popular on Twitch since day 1. On any given night there are probably 30,000 viewers. This has some interesting consequences.
Back in beta, Hearthstone was new and undiscovered. Every a week or two a popular streamer would come up with a new deck strategy that worked really well. With tens of thousands of viewers these deck builds don’t stay secret. They spread like wildfire. Two days after a big discovery it felt like every damn player on the ladder used the same cookie cutter netdeck.
The most famous example is probably Reynad’s Warlock “Zoo” deck back in beta. In the summer Chakki’s Shaman Double Doomhammer rose to fame overnight. The first major expansion hit yesterday and for the next month or two the meta will evolve at the speed of light.
Twitch and streaming video is relatively new. Hell, Smash Brothers Melee launched four years before YouTube even existed! My gut says characters like Jigglypuff and Mewtwo would have seen their rises a whole lot sooner if Twitch was around back then. There’s a huge difference in a few dozen people watching a local tournament vs 30,000 in an online stream. It’s gonna be super fun to watch how things unfold for Smash Brothers WiiU.
The second most common question was if I could do a breakdown for Brawl (Wii) like I did for Melee (Gamecube). It would be my pleasure.
Super Smash Brothers Brawl (2008–2014)
Diamonds in the Rough
This is still the most fun category. These are the characters that saw significant increases in rank over time.
Ice Climbers. Like in Super Smash Brothers Melee, the Ice Climbers once again start low but this time soared to even higher heights. From #13, down to #15, and then steadily all the way to #2.
Olimar. An even more impressive ascent. From #18 all the way to #2 before finishing at #3.
Zelda/Sheik. This one is pretty cool. For those unaware Zelda is a character that can transform into Sheik. At first players would play a match exclusively either as Zelda or Sheik. Several years after launch players found new strategies where they alternated between Zelda and Sheik within a single match. That’s why the Zelda/Sheik entry appears out of no where.
A Tale of Two Kongs
I almost titled this King of Kongs. It was a tough decision.
I’d like to note that the first rankings came out about six months after launch. At that time Donkey Kong was considered ever so slightly superior to Diddy Kong. From that point forward their paths couldn’t have been more divergent. Diddy Kong rose as high as #2 and became a staple top tier character. Poor Donkey Kong fell to a life of mediocrity and obscurity.
I hope all the people who voted Donkey higher than Diddy in the initial list feel deep shame and embarassment. Just look at how wrong you were!
Hall of Fame
The best of the best from beginning to end.
Meta Knight. A lot of readers asked what was up with Meta Knight. In the full chart it looks like a bug. Let there be no mistake, Meta Knight has been ranked #1 in each and every list. Sometimes a characters really is just too good.
Snake. I almost considered Snake a bust, but that’d be too cruel. Snake was #2 five times in a row before having a late career drop.
One of the fun parts about doing this Brawl analysis has been the increased character count. With more characters there has been a more clear display of how player perception can change over time.
King Dedede. More like King Bust! On one hand ranking #12 out of #38 isn’t too shameful. But dropping from #3 to #12 is a harsh fall from grace.
R.O.B. Poor robot. A high of #6 and a low of #20 is rough for Nintendo’s little known robot pal. At least the original toy is pretty badass.
Zelda. Ouch. I actually had to double check to make sure this was correct. It is. Perhaps the real princess is in another castle?
Nothing remarkable here. Lots of characters didn’t change too much. If you think it looks a little sparse at the top that’s because four characters are in the hall of fame list. Otherwise it’s a relatively even distribution. It might be fair to call it a little bottom heavy.
Despite the number of characters in the game only 6 really seemed to swing both up and down.
In my last post, I said I didn’t post the the N64 chart because it was boring. More than a few folks asked to see it anyways.
Sadly tier lists were not made for the original Smash Brothers starting from it’s release. There are only three lists and the first came out a whopping nine years after launch. ☹️
Super Smash Brothers is still super fun. It’s not balanced but that seems to be part of the magic. Online streaming can make a huge difference in how, or at least how fast, player perception of balance evolves over time.
Two posts are on my immediate agenda. There will be a third and final post on Smash Brothers. I’ve shown off power rankings but not the actual tier lists. I also want to write a “Getting Started with D3.js” post about making the interactive charts.
After that I’m not sure. I’ve got some cool ideas brewing but they’ll take some time to bring together. In the meantime, I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season and I’ll see you next year.