There’s a family feud within the Super Smash Bros. franchise.
On one side are fans of the 17-year-old Super Smash Melee, which offers a fast-paced and intense experience. On the other is 2014’s Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS (also known as Smash 4), boasting a slower pace that lets you adapt to and outsmart your opponent.
While I enjoy both games, I tend to side with the older brother, having played Melee for the Gamecube for years. I played it through my high school gaming club, in college, and to this day, I’m still teaching my friends how to crouch-cancel.
So when Nintendo showed off Super Smash Bros. Ultimate at E3, it was probably the most passionate my colleagues have ever seen me about anything. My excitement convinced my editor to let me take the afternoon and demo Smash Ultimate.
Smash Ultimate feels like Nintendo’s biggest attempt to bring all the Smash Bros. fans together under one game, juggling both hardcore fans of esports competitive games, as well as the casual player who just wants to kick back on the couch with friends. By bringing every character from every game back, Nintendo is sending a message that all are welcome.
The Smash franchise is also easily Nintendo’s best shot at getting into esports, even as it pushes into competitive gaming with titles like Splatoon and Arms. Esports are expected to bring in $1.5 billion in revenue by 2020, but they’re dominated by games like Overwatch and League of Legends. Nintendo has a lot of catching up to do in this domain.
Are you a Melee or Smash 4 fan?
Last October, Melee was the eighth most-watched esports game on Twitch, with 1.6 million hours viewed in total, according to market intelligence group Newzoo. A large chunk of Smash fans prefer Melee.
But Smash 4 had the largest number of entrants of any Smash game at the tournament EVO in 2016.
There’s also Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii, but it’s so agreeably bad that most Smash fans don’t even include it in the debate.
I’m not saying Smash 4 or Melee is better, but Melee’s faster pace makes it a more exciting game for new audiences to watch. At the beginning of June, Ninja, the popular Twitch streamer who broke records playing Fortnite with Drake, streamed one of the biggest Melee tournaments on his channel, bringing thousands of new fans to watch the classic game.
For years, Nintendo has shied away from that scene, instead opting to create fun, popular party games where technical skill doesn’t always mean you win.
Melee was the opposite of that, with critics arguing that the game was severely unbalanced. People were so tired of seeing players winning tournaments with the same character that it spawned two memes: “No Items, Fox Only, Final Destination” and “20XX.”
Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai said in a 2015 column in Famitsu that his goal for the Smash franchise was to create “an enjoyable party game.”
“If you want to enjoy thrilling tactical gameplay, you might be better suited for other 2D fighting games,” Sakurai said four years ago.
But Smash Ultimate, which is set for a Dec. 7 release, already has shown many changes that are part of Nintendo’s attempt to bring Melee fans back. From the exhibition at E3, Nintendo added features like Perfect Shielding (perfectly timed blocking that gives you an advantage to counter-attack) and directional air-dodges (which was useful in Melee but removed in later games), and brought back dash dancing.
It got rid of a lot of annoying features that bothered Melee players too. Ice Climbers can’t wobble anymore (a tactic that was essentially a guaranteed win if you could pull it off), you can now toggle stage hazards off (making a lot more stages viable for tournaments) and the pacing is faster.
What Nintendo is looking for with Smash Ultimate is that sweet spot right between competitive esports and party game. It should be easy enough that anybody could pick it up and have fun, but still offer deep gameplay that high-level competition will be able to thrive on for more than a decade.
Joseph “Mango” Marquez, one of the Melee players from the E3 invitational tournament, said in a tweet that Nintendo was “making the right steps” with the new game, as it continues to add in features that make Smash more competitive than its predecessors.
I wanted to see for myself what these steps were, with hopes that Smash Ultimate could bring out the intensity that Melee provided.
So I headed over to Nintendo New York to try it out. While it’s not exactly Melee, it definitely felt more competitive. I chose Pikachu, who I’ve been playing in every Smash game since the Nintendo 64.
The demo gave me a pair of timed matches for 2 minutes and 30 seconds, and my opponent was a man named James who snuck off on a work break to play. He declined to be interviewed in the event his boss would find out.
While I was testing out the new physics and mechanics of Smash Ultimate, James had different plans. He just started fighting me and throwing items as I was running around trying to figure out just how much lag directional air-dodging had.
One of us was playing the demo like it was a party game, the other was testing it out like a wannabe esports player. He beat me in the first game. Then I promptly whooped him in the rematch after deciding I couldn’t walk out with two losses — research be damned.
It’s much easier to punish mistakes now, which is often crucial in fighting games. Bringing directional air-dodging back also gave more movement options. Even a slight gravity change means a lot, as characters don’t float in the air as long, which lends itself to a faster pace.
The most important thing for me though, was that the quick-paced tension is back. Smash Ultimate rewards aggressive play and punishes stalling and the long game. Getting hit means much more, with one mistake potentially costing you the match.
It even adds more changes to make it more of a spectator sport by displaying the score on the screen after each kill and doing cinematic close-ups on the winning hits.
After the game, a Nintendo Store staffer asked us for feedback, like what improvements it needed to be more competitive. After all, Nintendo is still working on the game, and it really wants to appeal to that competitive fanbase.
The No. 1 Melee player in the world, Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma, called Smash Ultimate “basically Smash 4.5” with his first impressions of the game. He later suggested some tweaks like less lag time when landing to better appeal to Melee players.
Nintendo has six months to finish its biggest push into esports yet. With the changes it’s already previewed, the company has shown that it’s listening.
E3 2018: Everything you need to know
E3 2018 coverage at CNET: All of our E3 2018 coverage in one place.
E3 2018 coverage at GameSpot: Wall-to-wall coverage of the show from our sister site, GameSpot.
E3 2018 coverage at Giant Bomb: Still more commentary and news from E3, from our colleagues at Giant Bomb.