Can Super Smash Bros. Ultimate get its community back together?

The latest edition of Nintendo’s smash hit fighting game (no pun intended) will bring all of the franchise’s characters back together, but can the game also reunite its fractured community?

Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. franchise is one of the most storied titles in esports, with a history going as far back as 1999, when the first game was released. While most game franchises would already fit in better in a museum by the time it turns 20 years old, Smash is still kicking like it’s still in the prime of its life.

But despite the game’s impressive longevity, its community arguably has the deepest rifts within itself, almost unheard of in other esports titles. While other titles like Dota 2 and League of Legends, for example, are united in their mutual hated of each other, the Super Smash Bros. franchise has a family feud that rivals, if not surpasses, even that.

On one side of the table are the fans of the 17-year old Super Smash Melee, the franchise’s second release in 2001 that is known for its intense and breakneck gameplay.

Smash Melee gameplay. Image courtesy of Nintendo.

Opposite them are the advocates for 2014’s Super Smash Bros. or Smash 4, released on the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS, with a slower pace that calls for more strategic play.

Smash 4 gameplay. Image courtesy of Nintendo.

There’s also that estranged part of the community backing Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii, but no one listens to them because they like the worst entry in the franchise. Oh, and then there are those who think Smash is better treated as a casual party game. They’re the ones who always say, “Why don’t we all just get along?” that no one even knows actually exists.

For years, Nintendo has practically steered clear of the bickering about one of its most successful franchises, for better or worse. Masahiro Sakurai, the creator of Smash Bros., even said in a 2015 column in Famitsu that his goal for the franchise was for it to become “an enjoyable party game.”

“If you want to enjoy thrilling tactical gameplay, you might be better suited for other 2D fighting games,” Sakurai added. One point for the casual players.

The Melee vs Smash 4 debate seemed like it would go on forever after that. But then Nintendo decided to flip the table and settle the argument itself with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

Set for a December 7 release, Smash Ultimate seems to be Nintendo’s attempt to bridge the gap between the classic gameplay in Melee that most players love and the more esports-attuned mechanics of Smash 4.

A close examination of the demos shown in E3 reveal that some mechanics from Melee are included, Perfect Shielding (a perfectly timed block that gives you an advantage to counter-attack) and directional air-dodges (a useful evasive maneuver in Melee that was removed in later games), while also introducing quality-of-life improvements like toggleable stage hazards (which makes more stages viable for competitive play).

Such changes are perfect for competitive play, as a faster pace encourages aggressive play and punishes turtle and stalling tactics. Attacks are also more powerful, which makes it easier to take advantage of an opponent’s mistakes and knock them off the stage. Smash is setting up to be more spectator-friendly as the amped-up action, alongside score displays and cinematic close-ups on the winning hits, make matches more enticing and easier to follow for viewers.

While Sakurai might have envisioned a fun party game in the past, the future of Smash seems to be intertwined with competitive play. In an interview with Forbes, Reggie Fils-Aimé, President and COO of Nintendo of America, emphasized the importance of the Smash franchise’s esports community.

“We want to first obviously provide a game that really is well-suited for the competitive activity. Certainly Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, we believe, will deliver on that regard […] We believe that letting the communities grow around [Smash] as a competitive experience is good for Nintendo and it’s good for the [Smash pros],” said Fils-Aimé.

Ol’ Reggie could not have said it better, as Smash has remained, despite its age, one of the most popular esports titles in the west, especially in the USA. According to the marketing firm Newzoo, Melee was the eighth most-watched esports game on Twitch, with 1.6 million hours viewed in total in October last year. Meanwhile, Smash 4 had the largest number of entrants of any Smash game at the Evo tournament in 2016.

The Super Smash Bros. tournament in EVO 2017, one of the biggest competitions in the history of the franchise. Image courtesy of EVO.

With that said, bridging the gap between Melee and Smash 4 would only stabilize the community. If Smash wants to live on for another 20 years (because why not), then it also needs to grow as a casual game. After all, esports is still just a part of the greater gaming community. 

“The unique thing about Smash Bros. is that it’s a great couch co-op game for consumers who aren’t all that familiar with the game. They can very much pick up and start smashing right away,” added Fils-Aimé.

Wait a minute, maybe the game’s creator actually knows a thing or two about this stuff…

Kidding aside, Nintendo is making the right moves, for what it’s worth. Joseph “Mango” Marquez, one of the world’s top Melee pros, has even noted Nintendo’s efforts in making Smash Ultimate a more competitive than its predecessors.

While it remains to be seen whether Smash Ultimate can reunite the franchise’s fractured community, it’s safe to say that it has at the very least turned the bickering into more amiable discussions.

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