Allow me to paint you a scene. You’re facing your opponent in the most recent Pokémon game. You’re each down to your last few Pokémon. However, you’ve thought ahead and gone and stacked a Dragon Dance or two on your current ‘mon. As a result, your current Pokémon is primed to crush the rest of your opponent’s team with its boosted speed and attacking power. The reward for your quick thinking in this key moment is within your grasp. Your opponent uses Scald—critical hit. You hold your breath, hoping that the numbers roll in your favor; after all, there’s only a 30 percent chance. You see, the red text flash under your life bar, and your heart sinks. Burn. The attacking stat the Pokémon that you spent two turns building up is sliced in half.
Your next attack — we’ll say you used the Fairy-type move Play Rough — misses. Off the heels of your spate of unlucky turns, your opponent proceeds to wipe the rest of your team. Face burning with salt concealed under the veneer of sportsmanship; you shake their hand. You both exit the stage, and the tournament organizers collapse the venue. Finally, they cut the lights and shutter the doors. Everyone goes home. Oh, and your opponent gets a few thousand wired to their bank account.
I Wanna Be the Very Best….Unless I Get a Crappy Roll?
By Google’s definition, competition is the practice of gaining or winning something by defeating or establishing superiority over others who are trying to do the same. But you just demonstrated your superiority in the art of stratagem against your opponent in Pokémon. So why the heck did they win? Welcome, my friends, to competitive Nintendo.
If there’s one thing that everyone knows about Nintendo games, it’s that they’re made with accessibility in mind first and foremost. The Kyoto-based company retains its death-grip on the casual market by releasing games that are easy to pick-up and play. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mesh well with the spirit of competitive gaming. Different mechanics, like the “accuracy” system and status effects in Pokémon, and the algorithm for “random” item selection in Mario Kart tend to favor luck just enough for it to be a significant factor in the outcome of a given match. Obviously, these “luck” systems are engineered to give an edge to players who are not as skilled. This approach, however, is a double-edged sword.
Take Mario Kart, for instance. Maintaining a First place lead feels great. Knowing that you have a command of the gliding, drifting, and trick systems better than those of your opponents is a satisfying feeling. However, the specter of luck lurks in the back of any good player’s mind. Knowing that one’s own skill is not the prime determining factor on the outcome of a race can take the wind out of one’s sails when a less-skilled player inevitably robs them of first place with a timely Blue Shell. After all, what’s the point of getting good if your opponents can cripple your progress with a generous helping of luck?
Accessibility Clashing With Competition
It is well known that Super Smash Bros. Melee is the most technical iteration of the iconic series. Many fighting game fans look to Melee as the pinnacle of the platform fighter formula. In addition to being an amazing sequel to its predecessor on the Nintendo 64, Melee is lauded for its awesome controls and nearly limitless skill ceiling. Seriously, to this day, professional Melee gladiators are still discovering new techniques for various characters. And almost 20 years later, Melee retains its relevance in the competitive scene where its contemporaries, Brawl and Super Smash Bros. for 3DS/Wii U, have flagged. Most companies would kill to have their titles retain this level of longevity. But Nintendo and series director Masahiro Sakurai have done everything — short of sending their ninjas to “get rid of” the top Melee competitors — to downplay or ignore the competitive side of Smash Bros.
In fact, Sakurai has gone on record multiple times as having said that he has built the Smash games primarily with newcomers to the genre in mind. This sentiment is a holdover from his days as a competitor in games like Fatal Fury and Street Fighter. As a result, Smash was developed to cater to casual gamers and newcomers who just want to see cool things happen without having the technical prowess necessary in other games. In an interview with The Washington Post, Sakurai stated: “I think a lot of players…gave up on Melee because it’s too technical because they can’t keep up with it.” The “too technical” part of Melee starkly clashes with Nintendo‘s approach to making family-friendly software that anyone can take part in.
So how did Sakurai remedy this in the follow up to Melee? By adding tripping, another random mechanic meant to level the field for casual players.
Nothing Will Change
A recent demonstration of Nintendo‘s apathy towards the competitive side of Smash came last year in the form Dragon Quest’s Hero being released as a DLC character for Ultimate. Hero is a character whose gimmick relies entirely on the player having good luck. Hero’s critical hit smash attacks and devastating spells appear at random. They can take a stock at absurdly low percents, or cause the player using him to lose a stock prematurely. Many have dubbed the character “anti-competitive” as a result of his quirky luck-based mechanic. Is it fun preventing your opponents from recovering back to the stage with a convenient, screen-nuking Magic Burst? Hell yes. However, the argument stands that luck should not be a quantifiable factor in competitions of skill. In a way, Hero’s inclusion in Smash Ultimate is analogous with Nintendo‘s own stance on competitive gameplay. Everyone should have a chance to win, regardless of whether or not they’ve worked for it. Communism.
Then Why Do We Tolerate It?
If Nintendo is so dead set on introducing mechanics in their games that actively curtail rewarding smart plays and strategic nuance, why do so many gamers — myself included — tolerate it? Well, the obvious answer is that they lace their games with virtual crack-cocaine. Just think about it for a second. The feeling of raw, unbridled power associated with setting up a Dragon Dance sweep against an equally-skilled opponent in Pokémon is quite unrivaled. Landing tippers with Marth in Smash Bros. makes one feel like a spacing God. And the intermittent spurts of dopamine from hitting multiple perfect drifts in Mario Kart should, quite frankly, be illegal. Nintendo‘s games are exceedingly well-made, and the skill barrier for entry is low. Throw in the fact that there’s nothing quite like them on the market, and you have a recipe for fiercely loyal player-bases across multiple franchises.
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How do you feel about Nintendo’s approach to competition? Do you feel that they are too lenient, creating over-reliance on luck over skill? Do you feel that their approach engages those who wouldn’t be able to find a competitive community otherwise? Let us know in the comments below!