Super Smash Bros.’ recent release on 3DS and impending release on Wii U has got me thinking about an old pet peeve of mine: super moves in fighting games. I hate them. They are the worst innovation in the history of the genre and today I’m going to show you why.
Let me start by asking you this: why do people play fighting games? I guess you could say some people play for the violence. The Mortal Kombat crowd certainly seems to enjoy watching two muscle bound weirdos pummel the blood out of each other. I guess you could also say that some people play for the characters. Games like Smash Bros., Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, and Injustice basically exist so that nerds can settle the age old argument of who would win in a fight: Batman or Superman? (The correct answer is Batman.) While these things are certainly part of the appeal of fighting games, they’re not the real reason people play them. People play fighting games for the same reason they play chess: to defeat another person in a test of skill.
The thing that makes chess so popular is that it’s fair. It provides a completely level playing field where the only thing that determines the victor is player skill. Both players share the same board. Both players have access to the same moves. Both players achieve victory in the same manner. See where I’m going with this? Now imagine that a new version of chess comes out where it’s possible to obliterate one-third of your opponent’s pieces at any time. Does that not seem absurd? Yet it’s exactly what fighting games have done!
Super moves throw off the entire formula of fighters by removing the emphasis on player skill. You used to win by practicing the dance of offense and defense and outwitting your opponent with a flurry of skillful combos. Now you win by pushing one button. Super moves wouldn’t be such a problem if they actually required some skill to use, but they don’t. They are handed out for free over the course of a fight and are activated with a single button, or sometimes a simple stick movement and a button. It’s blatantly inferior game design.
Now if you’re still pondering that chess metaphor you might be thinking that even if chess had a super move the game would still technically be fair since both players would have access to it. While that may be true, the presence of a super move would still undermine every other game mechanic in chess. Setting up your board and making careful trades with your opponent wouldn’t be near as important as hammering him with your super when the time came. The same thing applies to fighters.
No matter how refined your game mechanics are or how balanced the character roster is, the entire system is undermined as soon as you add super moves into the mix. The only thing that matters is hitting your opponent with your super. The entire fight becomes structured around this one element at the expense of all the other game mechanics. Why then do developers include them in every single modern fighter? Part of that comes down to the old issue of style over substance. Super moves may undermine the game design, but they sure look cool.
When Brawl introduced super moves to the Smash Bros formula back in 2008 I went nuts over things like Samus’ Zero Laser and the Giga Bowser transformation. When Soul Calibur V introduced Critical Edge I admit I had a little too much fun cleaving three quarters of my opponent’s health away with Nightmare’s super move. Supers just look and feel awesome. They feed into the power fantasy of being a badass, and give the marketing department something cool to show off on the game’s trailers. This helps rope in new players, and if there’s one group of players that supers are made for, its new ones.
Supers are easy to use so that new players can sit down with a game they know nothing about and get instant gratification from winning. By devaluing mastery of the game’s other mechanics, the game becomes more approachable and more appealing to new players. Fighters without supers require a good deal of dedication before you can really have fun with them. You have to spend quite a while getting your face rearranged by better players before you get good enough to start winning. Games with supers narrow the skill gap by giving you an easy way to deal massive amounts of damage and feel cool while doing it. There’s just one problem: once you get good enough that you no longer need super moves as a crutch, you start to resent their presence.
Yeah they do a lot of damage, but once you understand the game’s mechanics, its way more fun to do damage by mastering long combos rather than by hitting one button and watching the same move unfold for the 150th time. Yeah they look cool, but not after you’ve seen them over and over again. Eventually you just don’t care anymore. You realize that the meat of the game is in the other mechanics and that the super move just gets in the way. “Yeah yeah yeah, Superman just punched me into the upper stratosphere. Can we get back to the fight now? I’m bored.”