The Unbalanced Design of Super Smash Brothers: Part 3
December 9, 2014
Welcome to the third and final post on the balance of Super Smash Brothers. At long last I’m going to talk about tiers. If you’re a new reader then you may way to play catch up by reading the first two posts. If you’ve been following along then carry on.
Part One and Part Two are available for your reading pleasure.
For readers new and old, here’s a quick recap of what’s been covered so far.
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.
Power rankings are when every character is ranked from first place to last place. Here is an interactive chart showing the power rankings for every character in Super Smash Brothers Melee (SSBM) over time.
Super Smash Brothers Melee (2002–2014)
I give an in-depth analysis on these rankings in part one. Then in part two I give the same level of analysis for Super Smash Brothers Brawl (SSBB).
Tiers are a layer on top of power rankings. A tier is a group of characters that are considered roughly equal in terms of strength. A tier list simply an ordered power ranking list where all characters are also categorized into a tier. Here’s what a single tier list looks like.
SSBM — Tier List — June 2003
This is a single tier list for Super Smash Brothers Melee from June 2003. Characters are ranked #1 to #26 from top to bottom. Within this list we can also see four distinct tiers — top, upper, middle, and bottom.
For example Sheik is #1 overall and is still considered better than Peach. However Sheik and Peach are both in the top most tier so you can expect to see both characters winning tournaments or placing well. Mario is the ‘Upper’ tier. So he’s considered good, but not necessarily great. Mario probably sees some tournament play, but rarely wins. Bowser and Kirby are both bottom tier. Not only do they never win tournaments they aren’t even played competitively.
Now that we’ve seen a single tier list let’s look at how they evolved over time. The chart you’re about to see is dense and overwhelming. Don’t worry, I’ll break it down.
Super Smash Brothers Melee — 2005 to 2013
This is every tier list for Super Smash Brothers Melee. Lists ordered chronologically left to right. Characters ordered best to worst from top to bottom. If you look closely you’ll see it’s remarkably similar to the Power Rankings chart above!
Take a moment to look it over. See what jumps out at you. The chart is mildly interactive. If you mouse over or tap a character name it’ll focus on them.
The most interesting bits about this chart to me don’t involve individual characters. Instead it’s about the overall organization. The way tiers evolve and change.
Focus on the “Upper” tier for a moment. It starts off quite large then narrows and lifts over time. “Bottom” shrinks at first before suddenly doubling in July ’06. Later a new super bottom “Neglible” tier is added. The “High” tier doesn’t exist at first, is created, destroyed, then created again.
Examining the “Top” tier is also interesting. It fluctuates in size quite a bit. I like that the Oct ’03 and March ’05 “Top” Top tiers both have only two characters, but they’re completely different! The top tier changed relatively quickly from Sheik/Marth to Fox/Falco.
If you looked at two last columns you’ll see the naming scheme changes completely. It moves to a more school letter grade system plus ‘S’ at the top. The Dec ’10 list has an eye popping eight distinct tiers.
Building this visualization required mild creative license. I attempted to match colors to tiers for their intended meaning but in some cases that’s tricky. It doesn’t help that the official lists completely flipped Upper/High part way through. In the early lists Upper is above High, but in Sept ’10 they changed it such that High is above Upper! Why? It is a mystery. For clarity and sanity I decided to keep the tier titles consistent.
For seven years there is a trend of increasingly distinct tiers. The final tier list from July ’13 reverses course with a major simplification. It has a mere four categories. Here is the description of what they mean from the wikipedia.
“The S tier consists of characters who are generally always tournament viable and can consistently place high in significant tournaments. The A tier consists of semi-viable characters who can place high in very competent hands, but have significant disadvantages that keep them from consistently placing high in significant tournaments. The B tier consists of characters who may have situational use, but are generally not viable for tournament use and will probably never place high when used alone, even in minor tournaments. Lastly, the F tier consists of characters who are never viable in tournament play.”
Now what do we make of all this? What does it mean? Before answering what it is I think it’s helpful to say what it isn’t.
Tier lists are not an objective statement on what the game is. They can’t be. The lists continuously change even though the game stays the same! Quite surprisingly they aren’t even a subjective statement on what the game is. That’s what I assumed they were all along, but it’s not quite right.
Tier lists are an objective review of how the game was played. They’re a reflection of the past!
I think the community finally nailed down what they were doing with the July ’13 list. That’s why I gave the full community description of what it means. S tier characters regularly win tournaments. A tier don’t quite consistently place high in major tournaments. B tier don’t even place well in minor tournaments. And F tier never consistently place anywhere.
In a sense these lists are the same thing as standings in any professional sports league. They’re merely a system for rating how well characters have done in tournament play since the last list. They don’t define objective truth on game balance nor are they a predictor for the future.
I don’t think this is a bad thing. It’s just important to recognize what tier lists and power rankings actually mean. They’re a reflection of past tournament results. Nothing less and nothing more. I love them.
I don’t want to do a full analysis on Brawl. I will however put up the massive, absurdly long tier list and comment on a few things.
Super Smash Brothers Brawl — 2005 to 2013
Holy crap that’s a tall list. Sorry to folks on small monitors or small phones. There’s not a whole lot I can do. As usual take a moment and look it over.
Meta Knight is clearly special and unique. Not only is he #1 start to finish but most of the time he’s in a tier all by himself. The final April ’13 list even has him as ‘SS’.
The other obvious thing is the sheer number of tiers. The final list has eleven. Eleven! I personally think it’s exceptionally silly that there is a “C-” tier with only two characters in it. Is the difference really all that great? I think the community figured it out with the final Melee chart. It had a mere four tiers. I hope Brawl follows suit if it gets updated.
Once again the organization of the lists change each time. Naming convention, number of tiers, size of tier, meaning of tier, etc. I almost called out the community as having no idea what they were doing. To be honest I do think there’s more than a little truth to such a statement. If I were a betting man I’d say there’s delightful behind the scenes drama in who gets to vote and how votes are weighted or averaged.
But it honestly doesn’t matter. Tier lists are fun! I love them. Treat them as a reflection of the past rather than objective definition of reality and it’s fine. Play whoever you want and don’t let a silly online list influence your enjoyment of a game.
This wraps up my series on the Unbalanced Design of Super Smash Brothers. I had a lot of fun writing it and I’m super happy a lot of people have enjoyed reading it. Here’s my final summary.
- Smash Brothers isn’t balanced.
- The game is never patched so balance never changes.
- The perception of balance changes over time.
- Power rankings and tier lists are reflections of past tournament results.
- Smash Brothers is super fun and you should go play a round or three.
Thanks for reading!
Code for rendering charts and all data used can be found on GitHub.