As with most Last Life users, I’ve found myself going back to Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U fairly often. A combination of factors (not the least of which are an actually functional online service and a renewed dedication toward balance) could make these products the best Smash Bros. games yet to be made. We’re already seeing memetic terminology thrown around, with the “Settle it in Smash” campaign, “For Glory”, and other such shorthands joining oft-overused sayings like “No Items. Fox Only. Final Destination” and “Tripping!”. One of the characters to emerge ahead of the crowd from evaluations of the game’s balance and sheer memetic popularity is Little Mac, who has already garnered a bit of infamy in both regards. It’s not that the character is overpowered, like previous Smash Bros. pariah Meta Knight – on the contrary, Mac has incredibly obvious and well documented flaws. The issue is that he’s gaining a reputation as a sort of ‘scrub character’; that is to say, a character with a very low skill requirement for entry to play at a higher level. This is true, to a certain extent – Mac feels like a beginner’s character to the higher-level play of Smash, meant to introduce and highlight elements of Smash’s deeper metagame. Unfortunately, Little Mac does this very poorly. Little Mac may be one of the worst examples of a ‘beginner character’ that has been seen in some time, and if left as is, will end up being detrimental to the entire competitive Smash Bros. scene and its players.
Little Mac is the main character of Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! series, a boxing game that emphasizes fast reflexes, pattern recognition, and simple controls. Mac himself has no supernatural powers, and his mechanics in these games essentially amount to ‘block, dodge, punch, and punch harder’. To keep faithful with the source material, this limits Mac in Smash Bros. to a moveset of punches, a counter, and a single headbutt. With such a limited movepool to draw from, Little Mac is given many special properties. For one, he can rack up damage impressively quickly, hitting as hard or harder than series powerhouses like Bowser and Donkey Kong with basic combos that amount to ‘mash the A button really fast.’ His ground attacks have a great deal of knockback as well, making it easier to defeat opponents quickly with a single, powerful strike. To balance this, all of Little Mac’s moves that are performed while he is in the air deal minimal damage, hit very small areas, and are generally terrible options compared to the rest of the cast. Additionally, he has poor recovery, or the ability to get back to the stage, essentially making him a ground specialist who relies on getting a kill quickly and early. This would be fine, if not for the fact that a lot of his attacks also have ‘Super Armor’. This means that while Mac is using specific attacks, he will take damage, but he will not flinch if opponents hit him during that animation. Essentially, if Mac is punched in the face while punching someone else, he will punch them back, and it will almost certainly hit harder than what is dealt to him.
The combination of these factors makes Mac particularly potent in the game’s “For Glory” mode. In this mode, all platforms are removed, creating a flat surface perfect for a ground-based character like Little Mac. Thus, in the game’s only dedicated ‘competitive’ online mode, Little Mac pops up as an opponent at an alarming and sometimes overwhelming frequency. In a roster of 49 characters, for one to show up so often and impart such a universal feeling of ‘ugh, THIS guy again’ is truly unfortunate. Indeed, Mac sets off an alarming trend by being the ‘beginner character,’ so to speak, for so many. Though Mac’s inordinate strengths on the ground speak to an intentionally designed niche character, he ends up developing poor habits in many a Smash Bros. player.
“The road from a basic to a competitive Mac is very murky, one difficult to traverse, and, odds are, something not a lot of players will be willing to go down.”To compare, many fighting games have a character or technique that is easier to use for newcomers of the series to get used to. Such examples would include E. Honda (of Street Fighter fame) and his 100-Hand Slap, Pikachu’s Thunder from the Smash Bros. series, and Dr. Doom’s Hidden Missiles in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. These are techniques that are very easy to use and, in most instances, will remain ‘good’ and ‘useful’ in both beginning and advanced play. However, these techniques on their own will only win matches at the most rudimentary level of play. Each technique has a great deal of practical use: 100-Hand Slap deals multiple hits; Thunder has a huge vertical range; Doom’s Hidden Missiles are easy to combo and difficult to dodge. However, all three of these moves share a common, glaring vulnerability: They leave the user stationary and open to counter-attack, especially if the original attack is dodged. The player may be able to win a few games solely off of these techniques, but she will eventually need to adapt and grow from them in order to play at higher levels, especially against players who know how to exploit these attacks’ vulnerabilities. She will have to explore the other mechanics of the game in order to make her play better.
Little Mac, by contrast, provides no such imperative when it comes to learning deeper aspects of the game. There are certain things Mac can teach someone – roll dodging becomes very important when playing as Mac due to his speed, and, in line with his games being largely about dodging, he is very good at it. However, Little Mac is a specialization-based character; he is meant to be played on the ground and on the ground only. A player will never be able to develop a solid air game or recovery game with Little Mac, simply because his options for both are incredibly limited. This would be okay if Mac’s ground tools weren’t so incredibly alluring as to take focus from other characters who could teach players about these important elements. Instead, Mac has many different techniques that serve the same two purposes – hit the opponent hard and keep Mac on the ground. Characters’ “smash” attacks are usually diverse in their utility. A character will typically have one smash attack for launching, one to repel opponents, and one to serve a kind of an anti-air function. However, aside from where they hit, each of Little Mac’s smash attacks can essentially be used interchangeably from one another. When one also factors in Little Mac’s short range, these normally diverse attacks are effectively molded into one, and, due to the armor on these moves, new players can throw them out pretty much without fear. Mac’s dashing attack also covers a lot of the screen and comes out quickly, as does his Jolt Haymaker. Though there are ways to punish these attacks, Mac recovers quickly from them, so much so that another beginning or low intermediate player will probably find it difficult to effectively respond, even if Mac is just running around blindly throwing punches everywhere.
The mentality Little Mac sets up is one of relentless offense, which is close to the button-mashing mentality that’s prevalent in the beginning levels of traditional fighting games. While playing as Mac, the player never has any incentive to grow past his ground game. Why bother learning other elements when it’s faster and easier to just keep hitting people as Mac? This leads to stagnation, which leads to overuse of a character, which leads to a lot of dropped games when Little Mac is involved, because who wants to keep playing the same fighter throwing out the same kinds of techniques again and again? Whether you can beat it or not, repetition is good for no one, and odds are, those Mac players will get bored and frustrated. Some might move to another character, but a lot might just take out that anger in online forums and chatrooms, giving up on embracing the competitive scene altogether due to the ire their character choice might invite. Speaking as someone who really likes the Punch-Out series, as well as the faithfulness of Mac’s design to that series, this is pretty disheartening. This is particularly disappointing considering the challenge inherent to translating the simplicity of Punch-Out to the complexity of Smash. But this is something that could have been fixed, and can still be fixed with patching.
How would we ‘fix’ Little Mac; retaining his ‘ground-based fighter with poor air technique’ playstyle, but making him a more technically proficient character? Simple: give him more properties. If, for example, his Up Smash attack was immune to projectiles or passed through non-physical hitboxes, like Ness’s psychic powers or Pikachu’s electricity, and his Forward Smash did the opposite, one could see a lot of practical value and variation in Mac’s techniques and application. Instead of having his jab deal a ton of damage, increase the hitstun for successive jab combos landed. This would set up for his smash attacks, keeping the jab as a solid option but not making it something that could just be thrown out blindly. Make his dash attack invincible after the hit, but such that he can still be interrupted while punching. Heck, make it so that if a player actually connects with one of Little Mac’s air moves, he instantly gains a boost on his power meter – a mechanic which gives him a one-hit KO punch. This would assuredly result in more players jumping in the air to get a quick pot shot off as Mac, and that number help disrupt the repetitive kind of feel that comes from Little Mac at this point in time.
“In a roster of 49 characters, for one to show up so often and impart such a universal feeling of ‘ugh, THIS guy again’ is truly unfortunate.”For players to learn a deeper level of Smash Bros, Little Mac is the wrong kind of accessible. His weaknesses deal less with player input and more with the inherent shortcomings in recovery and air game that lie within the character. One can appreciate the effort given to make him very similar to the franchise he originates from, and there certainly can be a competitive, well thought-out Little Mac. It’s that the road from a basic to a competitive Mac is very murky one, difficult to traverse, and, odds are, something not a lot of players will be willing to go down.
Instead of Little Mac, if you’re a Smash Bros. player who wants to start exploring the deeper mechanics of the game, try Lucina. She’s a character well balanced in power and range that lacks the sort of ‘tip of the sword’-type mechanic that makes Marth less accessible. This allows her to either rush down with sword attacks or keep an opponent away with the length of the sword, as opposed to Marth, who is biased toward the latter. Her tilts and smash attacks hit at specific arcs to function at all angles, and are just specialized enough to be different from one another. With middle-of-the-road power for scoring KO’s, it’s simple for a player to adjust their playstyle with Lucina on the fly, allowing her to adopt multiple different roles. However, she lacks the immediate accessibility of Little Mac, boasting a steeper learning curve that may turn off players that could benefit from a ‘beginner move’ like the 100-Hand Slap.
Little Mac can be made into a good character. At this point in the competitive Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS scene, no character looks to be impossibly far behind the rest of the cast. However, Mac presents an enormous number of issues when trying to use his moveset as a teaching tool to new players, and is acting as a detrimental force against expanding a more competitive Smash community. If we see new players going to Mac after they’ve learned the more fundamental rules of the game, looking into playing and innovating with the character, then that will make landing his KO Uppercuts as sweet and satisfying as they were intended to be.