A Spectator's Guide to Super Smash Bros. Melee
Fri 2nd Aug 2019 - 2:35pm
Super Smash Bros. Melee is a platform fighting game with a robust competitive scene equipped with long-term stories, a constantly evolving metagame, and, most importantly, a fervent fan base whose loyalty and passion for it have made Melee a mainstay of esports even as the Nintendo GameCube and CRT TV become relics of the past. With Melee’s history being so extraordinarily rich and the strategy and skill involved with competing being so intensely difficult, it would be impossible to fully explain every facet of the game. However, for those who are thinking about investing time into viewing and playing, or even those who simply want to understand better what is going on if they ever happen to be watching, here is a basic spectator’s guide to the world of competitive Melee.
Competitive one-on-one Melee is usually played as a best of three or best of five set. A player must win either two out of three or three out of five games to win a set and advance in the tournament. To win a game, a player must beat their opponent in a fight in which both of their characters start off with four lives, more commonly known as stocks. A victory would then be defined as when the player’s character still has at least one of their stocks remaining and the opponent’s character has zero. When one character loses their last stock, the game automatically ends. In very rare cases, a game will be played until the eight minutes on the timer runs out, where the winner is then decided by who has more stocks, or if the stock count is even, who has a lower percent.
When watching a game of competitive Melee, there will be many things going on, but at its core, each player is attacking the other to build percent, and eventually, take away their opponent’s stocks. As a character’s percent goes higher, each attack they are hit with will send them farther and farther away. Once at a high enough percent, an attack can hit a character so hard that they will either immediately lose a stock as the character flies completely off the screen or lose a stock because they are far enough away from the stage that they cannot make it back on. With these bare-bones essentials of the game laid out, we can dive a bit deeper.
Characters and Stages
Of the 26 playable characters from a variety of different Nintendo video games, about one third of them are considered to be tournament viable. Every character has a unique set of moves and, while a skilled player can do incredible things with any of them, from a competitive standpoint, most of them simply do not have the tools to win major tournaments. So, when watching a tournament match, the overwhelming majority of them will feature the following characters: Fox, Marth, Falco, Jigglypuff, Peach, Captain Falcon, Sheik, Ice Climbers, Samus, Luigi and possibly Pikachu, Yoshi or Doctor Mario. Each of these characters have advantages and disadvantages, but what they all have in common is that the tools they can make it a possibility to win a high level.
There are six tournament legal stages from which players can choose from. Each of them have differences in overall size, makeup, and look. These stages are Yoshi’s Story, Dreamland, Battlefield, Pokémon Stadium, Final Destination and Fountain of Dreams. Each of the stages can be more or less advantageous to certain characters and playstyles leading to much strategy going into the picking and counter-picking of them. This idea of picking characters or stages to disadvantage the opponent is a good transition into understanding the essential pieces of strategy in the scene.
Strategy and Matchups
Of those tournament viable characters, the head to head matchups between them are often unbalanced in one character’s favor. For instance, while Falco is considered a bad matchup for Captain Falcon, Marth would be equally bad if not worse for Falco. So, if a player mains a character with one or two especially bad matchups, they might also play a secondary character to deal with it. Many top players have multiple characters in their arsenal for this very reason. The other option for this is to practice bad matchups more heavily in order to offset the natural character imbalance.
As for stage selection, after losing a game, the player who has just lost gets to then choose the stage for the next game. So, if a Fox player loses a game against a Peach or Jigglypuff on Dreamland (a stage that favors those characters), the player can then choose a stage like Yoshi’s Story that lends itself more to Fox’s set of moves. Many top players will choose stages that naturally favor their character; however, some will choose stages that favor the way they play the game or a stage that they simply like more. While it can sometimes not work out, this way of counter-picking stages can lead to a player dominating one stage even if it is not necessarily the best pick for their character.
Neutral and Punish
Playing Melee can be broken down into two distinct categories: Neutral and Punish. Neutral is when neither character is hitting one another and are looking for openings. Players who are talented in neutral can get hits in with ease and will often come out on the better half when the two characters interact. Winning neutral can lead into punishing.
Punishing is essentially making the most out of winning a neutral exchange with follow up attacks that build percent or lead to taking a stock. Players who are talented at punishing, can often take stocks starting from a single grab or mistake by their opponent. Players who are talented in neutral and when punishing are elite level and will always be in the conversation for winning a tournament.
Recovery and Edgeguarding
A massive difference between Melee and later installations in the Smash franchise is the prevalence of edgeguarding and the strategy involved in recovery. Edgeguarding takes place when one player has been hit or thrown offstage. When this happens, the other player will try to keep them offstage in an attempt to take a stock. This is done through taking the ledge or putting out attacks that would prevent the player from making it back on the stage. In many situations, the player edgeguarding will even go far offstage as well in order to attack their opponent and guarantee they will not recover.
Recovery is simply the act of a player trying to return to stage and save their stock. This also has a fair amount of strategy in it. Every character has different jump heights and a variety of moves that help them to do this. How they choose to recover is based on the tools at their disposal as well as strategies that try to neutralize their opponents attempts to edgeguard.
Styles of Play
While obviously every person plays the game differently, when watching Melee, most players will utilize two types of play: aggressive or defensive. When aggressive, a player will constantly be pushing the pace of the game, attacking often and trying to overwhelm their opponent with heavy pressure and fast movement. Characters that lend themselves to this kind of play are Fox, Falco and Captain Falcon, though every character can be aggressive regardless.
When defensive, a player will be trying to space themselves outside of their opponent’s attacks and focus on taking advantage of mistakes. This type of play is slower and more methodical which can sap momentum from an aggressive player while punishing the openings they get heavily. Characters that lend themselves to this style of play are Marth, Peach and Jigglypuff, however, again every character can play defensively as these three characters can be played aggressively.
Within the current world of competition, a major part of success at a high level is being able to seamlessly utilize both aggressive and defensive play. The ability to integrate both allows for players to mix-up their approaches and choices effectively, making sure that their style is unpredictable and flexible enough to play any kind of opponent.
The Current Competitive Scene
While Melee continues to age, the field of competition has never been more open. Now, more than ever before, players without historical dominance or top-level characters have been making deep tournament runs, oftentimes coming out with a win. Of the current top ten players in the world, only two main the same character.
As for storylines, we have watched Pikachu and Captain Falcon win Major Tournaments, a feat thought to be impossible in the modern age before it happened. We have watched the rise of new exciting players and the fall of the old guard’s tight grip on the top tournament placings. At the same time, we have watched redemption for players who were thought to have passed their prime. Melee is a game with dynamic, compelling play and an ever-shifting view of what we know and what is still left to be discovered. It is a game that I deeply love, and one worth every moment I have given it. So, for those who are watching for the first time, understanding these basic facets can at the very least make for more interesting viewing and perhaps a lifelong obsession as Melee is for so many people.
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