“Smash Ultimate” came out on Dec. 7, 2018. Predictably, the game has gotten off to a very fast start, as players worldwide rush to their favorite character, many eager to represent them on the game’s biggest stage: the tournament bracket. For my end, it has been compelling to juxtapose my pre-launch predictions and assertions, what we as a community expected, with what has actually developed. Combining post-launch with the recent Patch 2.0, which buffed and nerfed various characters to better balance the game, and this article is dedicated to covering what has been surprising, disappointing, all too expected, and a general analysis of where the metagame of today stands.
The Pleasant Surprises:
Bowser has been a force to be reckoned with in the early going of this game. It didn’t look very good for the Koopa King when Nintendo took away his immensely threatening grab game from Smash 4. However, what they took in Bowser’s grab game, they replaced, and then some, in virtually every other aspect. Bowser is significantly faster, hits significantly harder, takes hits much better, and is, in general, a much greater offensive threat than ever before. He exerts so much pressure on shield and against defensive play that it’s insane. Hailed by many to be a legitimate contender for the top 20 in the game, and as perhaps the best heavy character in the game, Bowser has made enormous splashes in the metagame, and the sky seems to be the limit for the Koopa King.
It took a little while for the Rosalina metagame to get going, but Patch 2.0 was just what the doctor ordered. It delivered a massive series of buffs which have served to invigorate Rosalina, making her a surefire bet to land amongst the top 20 in the game. Rosalina isn’t as dominant in Smash 4, but in general, her game in Smash Ultimate is just more redeeming; she isn’t forced to rely on cheesy, janky stuff like killing off the top at 10% with an up air or trying to just juggle the opponent to death with Luma-powered attacks. Rosalina, like Bowser, lost a centralizing aspect of her core in exchange for just having a more refined, better all around moveset.
Samus was thought by many to be in contention for the worst character in the game. While Samus has plenty of flaws and probably won’t threaten to win a major tournament, she is definitely at least a middle of the pack character. Much like Bowser and Rosalina, Samus’ braindead dash attack setups are gone, but the rest of her character has become much better as a result. Unlike the aforementioned two, though, Samus faces heavy competition in the role of a projectile heavy, campy zoning character. The Belmonts, the Links and Olimar compete heavily with Samus. Samus can boast a safer, less volatile game than the Belmonts, who seem to lose the moment someone breaks their wall. Samus still has a zair and more offensive potential than adult Link, and is heavier with more survivability than the two small Links, and Samus is significantly easier to learn than Olimar is, so she isn’t completely outclassed, which really helps in a zoning heavy metagame. Ultimately, Samus’ shortcomings on offense, being a tall floaty character with little in the manner of resisting offensive pressure is her undoing, but this is a lot more optimistic of an outlook than when it initially seemed like Samus would be a totally hopeless, terrible character.
Largely thought to be a middle of the pack character before the game’s launch, Wolf has been making major waves in this game’s meta. He is an incredibly well rounded character with an amazing neutral game. His recovery isn’t amazing, which stops him from being a no-doubt top 10 character, but he is probably the best Star Fox representative in the game, and he is by far the most underrated character in the game as well. Wolf is also incredibly versatile; he can be played as a rushdown, in-your-face challenge, and he can also utilize his fast aerials and amazing blaster, best projectile in the game, to take a more defensive, patient approach to the game. Make no mistake, Wolf is going to be a major threat to make some noise in future, huge tournaments.
Bayonetta, thought to be a contender for the top five and possibly returning to being the best character in the game, has largely flopped hard since the game’s launch. Captain Zach, Salem and Mistake, who were the best Bayonettas in Smash 4, completely want nothing to do with the character at all in Ultimate, leaving Pink Fresh standing alone as Bayonetta’s top level representation. When top level players who won hardware, money and acclimation in tournaments decide you aren’t worth time anymore, that’s a bad thing. However, Bayonetta is still usable in this game; a middle of the pack character through and through out. This is still immensely disappointing, though, because she was largely thought to be a metagame defining force again, and that has simply not transpired. Nintendo went the extra mile to ensure that the Umbra Witch wouldn’t be atop the metagame again.
I am ashamed to admit that I predicted Sheik would be the best character in the game. Sheik looks very, very bad in this game and (much like Bayonetta) has had many players who defined the Sheik metagame in Smash 4 dropping them in Smash ultimate. However, unlike Bayonetta, calling Sheik a middle of the pack character is generous—we are probably looking at a low tier character, bottom 20 if not bottom 10 in the game. The problem is that Sheik’s dynamic simply doesn’t fit this game’s engine; Sheik’s damage output is incredibly low, with the tradeoff being Sheik’s stellar speed and great frames. Well, there are tons of characters who have great frames, many who have good speed as well, and just about everybody’s damage output is greater than Sheik’s by a mile. Until this changes, there is no reason to use Sheik in the world of today.
Where we thought Ryu would be a step ahead of Ken, the reverse has happened and then some; Ken completely outclassed Ryu, and there is currently no reason to use Ryu over Ken at all. While it is still true that Ryu hits harder than Ken, Ken hits a lot faster and has multi hit attacks that actually cause Ken to do much more damage than Ryu in practice. What’s more, Ken’s Shoryuken is actually a lot deadlier than Ryu’s because it’s a multi hit attack, causing it to launch opponents farther as well. Ken’s Tatsumaki Senpakyu is also a multi hit attack which pressures shield and is much harder to punish than Ryu’s is. Ryu’s is still a single hit, which means you only need to block it once before attaining an incredibly easy punish. As such, there is no reason to use the now heavily outclassed Ryu in this game.
Nintendo administered the game’s first balance patch on Jan. 29, 2019. This patch was decent for the most part, but had some incredibly poor decisions which muddied it significantly. Chief among these was the decision to nerf King K. Rool’s recovery, down throw and neutral B. Reminiscent of when Nintendo decided to heavily nerf Little Mac in Smash 4, this was largely the product of a large amount of inexperienced, low level players who are content with having the gaming organization hold their hand through a challenge which has been heavily overstated and exaggerated rather than figure out how to deal with it, like most with any sort of resiliency or capacity for critical thinking would do. The truth is, before this patch, K. Rool was a fringe top 20 character. Now, he resides firmly in the middle of the pack. To offer some context, K. Rool is a heavy character with super armor, strong kill confirms and a decent recovery. However, he has plenty of shortcomings to suitably balance these strengths. He has a beyond abysmal ledge getup game, which severely drags down his decent recovery and overshadows it. He’s slow, has below-average frames, especially on his aerials, and his game entirely revolves around dealing with an opponent who cannot deal with his Crownerang + Blunderbuss projectile duo. A character with a reflector, pocket or Gravitational Pull will tear K. Rool to pieces, as he heavily relies on these tools to adequately contain his opponent in neutral. Of course, new players have a tendency to struggle with heavies, super armor and characters with decent recoveries. Nintendo decided to give in to this crowd rather than objectively balance their game, and has set an unruly precedent as a result.
Below is a tier list I created just before the game launched, attempting to predict what the metagame would look like:
Below is a tier list which more accurately reflects what the metagame is actually like:
Disclaimer: the latter is an attempt at generally reflecting where these characters stand in today’s metagame. What I mean is there is a significant difference between, say, Inkling or Peach and Pichu, Pikachu, and Wolf, but there is not a large enough difference between, say, Bayonetta and King K. Rool for me to rate them that specifically just yet. In a similar vein, there is a clear difference in viability between Snake and the Samuses, but is Snake better than DK or Bowser? Possibly, but it’s hard to say for certain. In other words, take these specific placings with a grain of salt, and try to view this list a bit more broadly.
To close off this article, here are the characters I’ve decided to play to represent myself at tournaments:
My main will be King K. Rool. Currently, Rosalina and Luma is a secondary who I will begin to main if Nintendo gives K. Rool the “Smash 4 Little Mac” treatment, and continues to nerf a middle of the pack character for no reason. Then, I also have Wolf and Samus as secondaries. All four of these characters are good in this game, and Wolf and Rosalina have potential to be really, really good barring a catastrophic, random nerf in a future patch. They’re fun to play as, I have personal connections to all four, and they’re who I’m most comfortable going to battle with.
Time to trailblaze their respective metagames.