I’ve spent most of this afternoon reading about Balanced Brawl, an attempt to balance Super Smash Bros. Brawl for high-level play. I don’t have the skill or reflexes required to play Brawl (or any other game, really) at high levels, but it is fascinating to me to read about. I followed the Melee scene for a while back in the day, and understood the metagame well enough to use terminology like “L-canceling” and “wavedashing” at least semi-competently. I couldn’t actually do these things in the game, but I could talk about them.
Brawl is a great game and it absolutely should be played competitively. The problem with the scene is that players want it to be too much like Street Fighter. Anything that is even semi-random is banned outright; any feature outside of player movesets is turned off or ignored. And this is fine, if you want to play Brawl as Street Fighter; random elements in competitive games do create unfair losses sometimes.
But Brawl isn’t Street Fighter. The items and dynamic stages create some unfair situations, true, but spread out across the entire game they are fair. The game is designed to incorporate them. It’s my understanding that the reason Brawl isn’t taken seriously alongside other fighting games is less because of its cartoony nonsense and more because its community is so poisonous about it. I’ve heard that it apparently did make it into a big-deal tournament one year, only for a lot of players to raise a stink when they found out the tournament would be played with items turned on.
Well, items are the game. If you’re awesome at Brawl but can’t deal with items, well, you’re not really awesome at Brawl, are you? The metagame is certainly important, but when you play it to the exclusion of all other ideas that metagame can’t really develop. How do you know items are unfair if you decide unilaterally to ban them across the board?
So while I feel like the Balanced Brawl guys have their hearts in the right place, they’re fighting an uphill battle. The problems with Brawl as a competitive game are less about balance issues and more about ignoring certain aspects of the game in favor of others. The reason Street Fighter II has had such a lasting high-level scene for so many years is because 100% of the game can be played, not just the 60% most players can grudgingly agree on.
I note none of the balances these guys have issued have anything to do with items. I think it’s pretty clear what side of the fence they’re on.