Super Smash Bros. is a good game. At this point, virtually no one even bothers to try denying that anymore. It’s Sakurai’s masterpiece. Drawing the perfect balance between whimsical mayhem and deep mechanics, Smash Bros. epitomizes the saying, “easy to learn, hard to master.” But there’s one facet of this great game which I think is really under-appreciated. Remember back a few days to the developer direct with Masahiro Sakurai where he explained the new Super Smash Bros. games for Wii U and 3DS in greater detail. Sakurai mentioned at about 1:50 that the new Super Smash Bros., at least the one on Wii U, has “added visual effects, as if attacks are cutting through the air, to further highlight the quick movements.”
Now, at a glance, that makes perfect sense to us: add some blue-streaked lines cutting behind Link’s sword and the attack will end up feeling like it has more momentum behind it. But wait; it’s a virtual attack on a virtual screen coming from a character who doesn’t exist. How does it feel like anything? Well, that’s an extremely interesting topic, and it’s the under-appreciated aspect of Smash Bros. I want to discuss.
So first, let’s get this out of the way: I have no idea what the science behind this is; I’m strictly writing in terms of its application in video games, not explaining the principles behind it. Good, now that’s out of the way, let’s get to it.
The concept of virtual sensation is not an idea I came up with. Steve Swink even wrote a book on it called Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation… which I unfortunately still have yet to buy a copy of. Personally though, the topic was first brought to my attention when I watched “Kinaesthetics,” an episode of Christopher Franklin’s awesome game review-game design web series Errant Signal. So here’s how Franklin describes the basic idea of kinaesthetics in his video:
“It’s the physical sensation of manipulating an input to play the game, but enhanced by all of the audio-visual feedback the game provides and a strong sense of firmness and rigidity from the game’s underlying collision and physics systems.” — Christopher Franklin
To put it another way, you’re probably familiar with the controls dichotomy of “tight vs. clunky.” Well, that’s exactly what kinaesthetics are, the sense we have of what “feels” good to play, even when, on a literal level, there’s some sort of input device between us and the game. Be that an NES controller or the Kinect, we aren’t literally causing our onscreen characters to act; we’re performing an action, that action is picked up by an input device, and then the input device communicates to the computer how to respond to the action we made.
Now, that’s a way over-simplified version of what actually happens, I’m sure, but somewhere within all of that observing, translating, and rendering, the connection made between our input and our TV screen’s output makes the game “feel” a certain way.
Now, what’s that got to do with Super Smash Bros? See, Smash Bros. is the only game resembling a fighter that I really like. For a while that had me a bit puzzled. I guess I assumed that it had to do with Smash Bros. being equal parts fighter, platformer, and party game, rather than strictly being a hardcore fighting game. And, while I’m sure there’s still something to be said for me specifically just not liking the hardcore fighting genre, after playing and disliking PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, I figure there has to be more to it. I mean, Battle Royale is in the same platforming, party style that Smash Bros. is, but I like one and not the other.
The difference? Kinaesthetics. Smash Bros. feels better to play than Battle Royale. I love the way it “feels” to pull off a meteor smash as Ganondorf and send my opponents plummeting to their demise, I love the way it “feels” when my enemy crashes into the edge of the screen and the game throws up a pillar of light to signify a K.O., and, perhaps above all else, I love the way it feels to sidestep my foe’s strike and counter with a swift jab to the gut. What I don’t love is the feeling of disconnect I sense when I’m sent flying in Battle Royale as opposed to the feeling of grasping for control I sense when I get kicked skyward in Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
If you still don’t quite get what I’m talking about, try this: set up a three-player match with two players and a singular level one CPUs. Make the players Samus (power suit on) and Ike; make the CPU whoever you feel like making them. Now, hit that CPU with Ike’s horizontal smash attack (jerk the joystick to the left or right and press “A” at the same time), then hit the CPU with Samus’ horizontal tilt attack (start walking, not running, to the left or right slowly and press “A”). Those two attacks each give you a different sensation. Ike’s is closer to smashing through a thin piece of wood with a hammer, while Samus’ is closer to softly hitting a counter-top with your finger. I know those aren’t perfect similes, but it gets the point across, right?
So, to tie this all back to something I mentioned way earlier, I actually think those new visual effects will noticeably improve the new Smash Bros. game, or games if that turns out to be the case. Ideally, those visual streaks will give you the sense that there’s a lot of wind coming off the attacks, and I’m expecting that to be especially apparent with strikes from the sword-wielding characters like Link. That “windy” perception should add a more satisfying feel to the impact of each attack you make and a more satisfying “swoosh” sensation when you manage to dodge one.
The sensation of playing Super Smash Bros. is a large part of what I love about it so much. My fingers flow over the controller, constantly inputting different combinations, and everything my favorite Smash Bros. characters can do, even just air-dodging, feels great. And I think that the added visual effects in the new Smash Bros. are actually going to make the game, or games, significantly more kinaesthetically pleasing.