Max Yield: Captain Falcon
Captain Falcon is arguably the most explosive character in Melee. He is a bit unwieldy for most newcomers, but many are drawn to his highly satisfying combo game. In fact, Falcon might be the only character to consistently garner cheers from fans even if the combo he performs is exactly the same every time (see: Dair -> Fair).
Although Falcon has long been a staple of high tier play, he has never been considered a “top tier.” Conventional wisdom dictates that Falcon is disadvantaged against Sheik, Fox, and Falco. Despite this, however, we consistently see Falcon in top 8 of big tournaments. And unlike Peach, Falcon has not one, but three consistent representatives propelling him into top 8s: Wizzrobe, S2J, and n0ne. And the likes of Captain Smuckers and Gahtzu are not too far behind.
Not only is Falcon debatably overrepresented given his place on a “tier list”, but the manner in which he is represented varies greatly between the three top Falcons. This makes him an especially interesting subject for analysis. How is it that a non-top-tier character can see such success and look so different depending on who is behind the wheel?
For those of you new to the Max Yield series, I’m going to break down the skills I see as necessary to finding efficient success with Falcon. There are many skills one must master in order to improve in Melee, but these are the ones I’ve selected that will maximize your results for the effort. The other Max Yield articles can be found here: Falco and Peach.
Threatening All Angles: Where to Attack
Falcon is fast, has good range, and has multiple combo-starters, but he lacks direct approach options. In order to maximize on his strengths and compensate for his weaknesses, Falcon must be able to attack from all angles. He has horizontal combo starters from mid-range, combo starters from above, from below, a couple of solid mixups on shield, and the ability to barrel in from long-distance using his crazy horizontal aerial drift. The ability to constantly threaten multiple angles of attack at once will force Falcon’s opponents to stay on their toes as they try to defend - after all, Falcon only needs a handful of openings to land a kill.
I would first recommend checking out my previous articles on pivots and aerial drift. Both of these articles will help construct a more comprehensive toolkit of attacks with Falcon. Let’s take aerial drift, for example.
Falcon can actually threaten with every single aerial using a short-hop in neutral, especially when throwing in aerial drift and changing up aerial timings. Nair is his bread-and-butter with its long range and ability to start combos. Knee can be used on shield and followed up with either Gentleman or grab or a movement callout. Stomp will beat out crouch-cancel attempts - it's basically an overhead - and start a combo. Uair is an anti-air or combo-starter, or both - take your pick. Bair is a more defensive pick but can still combo on DI in, or can hit opponents offstage. With a wide array of hitboxes and timings, Falcon has access to several angles of attack just from a short-hop.
Out of a full-hop, Falcon’s Dair, Uair, and Bair are especially strong. Dair, as I have mentioned, beats crouch-cancel, which is a hugely valuable tool in this meta. Uair is largely strong as a mixup to tomahawk-grab (empty land → grab). And Bair can be used as a zoning tool - you can use multiple Bairs safely in one full-hop. I will harp on aerial drift once again (because it really is that important) - mixing up all of these options with fast-fall and instant-double-jumps will take you far. Take note of how evasive S2J can be just by changing the way he jumps. If you pay close attention, you’ll see how he mixes up his aerial drift and aerial choice to find openings that may otherwise appear random.
Here are a couple of examples on how you can utilize a couple of aerials to threaten multiple angles by changing your jump patterns and drift:
When faced down with this healthy array of mix-ups, Falcon’s opponents often begin overusing shield or trying to retreat. It is at this point that veterans like S2J will smell blood in the water. Although Falcon has great ground speed, his grounded options are relatively limited. But once you’ve conditioned opponents to shield, you can use his ground speed to find grabs. And if your opponent finds themselves choosing panic movement options out-of-shield, you can start getting huge openings thanks to Falcon’s wide array of combo-starters. It’s a cycle, and it’s the Falcon player’s job to be able to stay in control of the mixup cycle using these tools.
Stage position is important to consider with regards to angles of approach and should be an integral part of your decision-making. As a rule of thumb, center-stage is a good place to be. From center, you have the ability to threaten your opponent in the corner, you can dash-dance with as much space to retreat as you like, you can shark under platforms with Uair, you can retreat to platforms if necessary, and so forth. I would break your options from any position down into three categories:
1. Angles of attack
2. Angles of counterattack
3. Repositioning possibilities
If you’re in the corner, your options are limited, and your ability to reposition to find new angles of attack is limited basically to the ledge, the platform that might be above you, and possibly stealing center from your opponent if you call out their movement. Relative positioning is also important to consider - what angles of attack and defense does Falcon’s opponent have in any given scenario? I won’t get into the nitty-gritty here, as the possibilities are countless, but I recommend pausing Falcon matches and examining the various angles of approach.
Repositioning in order to open up more or different approach angles can also aid Falcon in avoiding getting locked down or stuck in defensive options, which are two terrible spots for Falcon to be in. His slow tech-roll and few out-of-shield options are glaring weaknesses, so trying to position yourself in such a way that you minimize those outcomes is ideal.
Exercising Patience: When to Attack
Falcon’s long initial dash is one of his strongest tools in neutral. By dash-dancing, Falcon can always threaten to grab any moves his opponent whiffs. But running toward the opponent in “true neutral” is generally not very good - as mentioned earlier, Falcon is limited in his grounded approach options.
But how does a Falcon player like Wizzrobe land so many grabs?
Being mindful of when to attack and when to choose safer options like in-place or retreating aerials is a key part of Falcon’s gameplan. It’s not enough to just mix up the angles from which you attack - you must also fend off the opponent’s approach options, many of which beat out Falcon’s approaches. For example, if Falcon and Fox run toward each other and Nair, Fox is favored. Even if the moves trade, Falcon’s first hit of Nair is not enough to hurt Fox, whereas Fox’s Nair may net a knockdown or start a combo on Falcon.
Wizzy is the master of countering his opponent’s approaches, especially against spacies. Watch how he throws out safe aerials in neutral - all of which are strong openers if Fox picks the wrong approach option - and then suddenly calls out a defensive option with grab. And if you have seen Wizzy play, you know that he has a high kill rate off grabs.
Here are two of my favorite examples I’ve picked up from Wizzy:
Note that Fox's sequence of inputs is exactly the same in the scenarios presented in each gif - only Falcon's actions change. In both cases, he lands a very strong opener. In the first case he calls out an overshoot with a Dair, and in the second case he calls out the running shine with an approaching grab (a trick you might see ICs players use).
In essence, we’re talking about baiting and punishing here. But Falcon can play in such a way that some of the options he picks are safe if he calls something out wrong (sometimes it looks like Wizzy is just trying to attack the air). By discouraging certain approaches, you start to tease out mixup minigames.
In the previous section, I mentioned that stage position informs how many alternative positions Falcon can access. This is where that really comes into play - if you don’t feel that it’s the right time to throw out a move, or your opponent is poised in such a way to beat all of your attack angles, then perhaps you should consider repositioning. Repositioning is generally easier when fighting slower opponents such as Peach and Samus, and this is part of the reason floaty players may feel so oppressed by Falcon. By bearing down with your strong combo openers and utilizing your speed to reposition, Falcon can heavily control the pace of a match.
One of Falcon’s weaknesses is his out-of-shield game, which makes it difficult for him to deal with rushdown pressure. Here, too, Falcon must carefully choose the right moment to strike. You’ll notice the top Falcons use an approaching Nair OoS to catch an opponent retreating after pressuring a shield, if they didn’t grab. Exercise patience when you get caught in your shield and try to get a sense of when your opponent ends their pressure so you can try to call out their movement afterwards. Falcon can also call out a delayed hit on shield with the instant Uair OoS, which covers a large swath in front of and above him.
If this all sounds like a lot to keep track of, that’s because it is. Melee is hard. But this is part of the learning process. The more you intentionally try to apply these techniques, the more you internalize it. Eventually, the actual application of tools becomes second-nature and lives solely in your muscle memory, allowing you to focus on actually learning your opponent and developing your instincts.
Flipping a Coin: How to Attack
We’ve talked a lot about how to land a hit with Falcon, but not much about what to do once you’ve found that opening. Thanks to the trajectory and knockback of Falcon’s moves, it is possible to string together a huge variety of his aerials into the same combo - in fact, Falcon is probably the easiest character with which to string every aerial into one combo. You can actually start and finish a combo with any of Falcon’s aerials, which is crazy to think about.
When you think “crazy Falcon combo,” most people think of n0ne first. His punishes are unorthodox, utilizing weak hits like single-hit Nair and Ftilt to trip up his opponent’s DI in order to extend the combo long beyond its expiration date.
The simplest way to approach Falcon combo mix-ups is: are they DI-ing in, or out? DI-ing in is generally to aid in survival but will extend the combo depending on Falcon’s move choice. DI out is to prevent further combo strings but replacing an Uair with Knee could catch the DI out and lead to an early death. Essentially you have a series of 50/50s.
Take this example:
Sheik is DI-ing to the left. This prevents the traditional Uair from combo-ing, but allows Falcon to combo off of reverse Uair instead. The 50/50 could even continue past the reverse Uair - if Sheik were at lower % and in a position to live the Knee, Falcon could try to extend the combo even further with another Uair.
Sometimes you don’t even want to go for the true hit if you feel you’ve got a read on your opponent’s movement. Allowing your opponent to pick an option after getting hit, such as shielding or tech-ing, could potentially lead to an even stronger opening for Falcon than the “guaranteed follow-up.” Falcon’s combo tree is quite extensive, and quite punishing.
There are many ways to approach his punish game. As I mentioned, n0ne is absolutely insane with his mixups and ability to extend combos… but Wizzy is probably the most consistent. Duck once said to me, “When do you think Wizzy last thought about his punish game?” He was implying that Wizzy’s punish game is essentially robotic, and it certainly appears that way.
This has to do with the way Falcon plays neutral. The opening you find will inform the subsequent punishes, and Wizzy’s openings either lead into knockdowns/grabs that go into tech-chase, or they simply hit the opponents offstage. S2J and n0ne will go for more traditional combo starters, and their punishes look more like what we’re used to from traditional Falcon. You cannot always control neutral, so it’s important to fully explore the depths of Falcon’s punish game.
There is so, so much more to say about Falcon, and there are numerous micro-interactions to learn in order to fully optimize your gameplay. But these three aspects of his play will be a good place from which to analyze. In short:
1. Learn every angle of attack based on relative positioning
2. Be mindful of when to attack and when to safely control your space or reposition to open up new angles
3. Experiment with different mix-ups within your punish tree - look at both the guaranteed punishes as well as opportunities to extend the punish into a possible kill
The first two items on the list are what I find most Falcons will struggle with: finding good hits in neutral and avoiding getting locked down. The last seems like a no-brainer, but really getting a solid hold on Falcon’s punish-game mixups will bring you closer to that coveted 1:1 opening-to-kill ratio - there is, in fact, more to Falcon’s punish game than Dair to Fair.
As always, thanks for reading! All feedback is appreciated. Let me know what other topics you’d like me to cover, or if you’d like me to go even more in-depth on the characters I’ve already covered (which I am seriously considering… there is much to discuss).
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