Control Texture in Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Jake Spencer
12 April 2012

I was sharing an apartment with a couple of lads who fancied themselves tournament-level players when Super Smash Bros. Brawl was released. Super Smash Bros. Melee was their game, and they'd talk day and night about character tier lists and techniques of the world's top-ranked players. They would spend hours, noses pressed to the TV, doing hundreds of repetitions of L-cancelling, wave-dashing, and other exploitative tricks the average player will never see.

They were my roommates out of convenience rather than anything approaching friendship. The lead-up to Brawl's release didn't change that, but it did give us a mutual interest, and it got us talking. Every weeknight we'd sit at our computers and refresh the Smash Bros. Dojo!! site, eager to see what character, stage, or music would be announced next. We'd shout across the apartment in joyous disbelief upon learning that Sonic would join the brawl, or agony when faced with yet another delay.

We were all studying various disciplines of game development at the time, and half the college shared our enthusiasm for Brawl. The school's competitive Melee Club saw huge increases in membership, becoming nearly as large as all the school's other clubs combined. We spoke in phrases from Smash Bros. Dojo!!, using "Wow! A whale!" and "You must recover!" as shibboleths to suss out the true fans among us. I have never seen such insane hype for a game, or anything else, for that matter.

When I finally got the chance to play it, Brawl was everything I'd hoped it would be. Stupidly fun, unpredictable, and massive beyond belief. There were a few lame characters and stages, but they were far outweighed by how fantastic everything else was.

The more I played, the more I loved it. The more my roommates played, however, the more they noticed that Brawl was not Melee. As the honeymoon came to an end, the school collectively soured on this new imposter. Where was wave-dashing? Where was the speed?

"Brawl is a party game," they would say dismissively.

I guess to someone looking for a serious, competitive sport, this is negative trait. Why anyone would look for seriousness in a game where a plastic toy robot beats up Pikachu is beyond me, but that's what they wanted, and they always pointed to the same evidence that Brawl was "broken."

Occasionally while walking or running in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, yo ur character will trip. You trip, fall, and take half a second to recover. It occurs randomly, it affects all characters, and there is no way to stop it from happening, short of hacking the game. If you move - and of course you'll move - you might trip.

This is the bane of every competitive player. No matter how much effort you devote to counting frames of animation and mastering advanced techniques, you just might trip at an inopportune time and give your opponent the advantage.

Tripping was director Masahiro Sakurai's way of telling his audience to lighten up. It was a deliberate attempt to keep people from taking the game too seriously.

There's a degree of legitimacy to the complaint, even if I ultimately side with tripping. Maybe that type of statement is out of place in a game with such otherwise broad appeal. Few games match the fidelity of Brawl's options. Here's a game which encourages you to play however you like, as long as you're not playing competitively. Again, I'm all for taking vainglorious tournament players down a peg, but such boldness might be out of place in Super Smash Bros.

Regardless of how you feel about it, this is an ingenious bit of design, and a daring inclusion. Briefly losing control of your character is almost always the result of poor programming, yet here it's a conscious design choice. It allows amateurs to get lucky against skilled players, and adds constant tension to matches. Your character is no longer a clockwork, reliable avatar, but a fallible hero whose foibles extend beyond what you input on the controller. Who would ever think to randomly and without warning rob the player of control? For the competitive players I knew, this, more than anything else, defined the tone and feel of the game.

I have a name for this: "Control Texture."

In the early days of video games, graphics were limited by large pixels and repeating tile sets. Even once we entered the 3D era, limited graphical power forced artists to paint in broad strokes, with chunky, low-polygon models and low-resolution textures. It's only relatively recently that we've been able to add detail to our visuals, and its lead to an obsession with imperfection.

Surfaces are covered in bumps and scratches. Edges are worn. Dirt accumulates in cracks and crevices. For every major game you play with high-resolution graphics, thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars have been spent to make it look imperfect. Countless man-hours are devoted to disguising the mathematical precision inherent to computer graphics by giving each texture the appearance of a history.

As I see it, tripping in Super Smash Bros. Brawl is texture. It's deliberate imperfection. Shabby-chic. In most games, your character walks when you press the control stick in a direction, and he walks at the exact same predictable speed, acceleration, and animation every time. If he doesn't, it's a flaw.

Tripping is a flaw, but it's a flaw with a purpose. I can't help but wonder how games could grow if more developers would intentionally step back from the safety of untextured controls and take similar risks.