In this 6-part series we will be looking at the history of 2v2 teams play in the Super Smash Bros series and how this format has been the subject of numerous highs and lows through the game’s history. This week will be a double-header, featuring parts 1 and 2 of the series.
Part 1 is a retrospective on the evolution of teams play in fighting games. We will examine why Smash has been an outlier in successfully employing 2v2 play and how it changes the game on a fundamental level.
Part 2 explores the history of the doubles in Smash tournaments and the trends which have dictated the modern competitive doubles format.
Part 1: The Miracle of Doubles
Super Smash Bros is unique in the world of fighting games. Whereas many are derivative of Capcom’s 1991 mega hit Street Fighter II, Smash Bros aimed to distance itself from Street Fighter rather than replicate it. Smash Bros creator Masahiro Sakurai was once an avid fighting game player, a good one at that who wasn’t afraid to show it. In an interview with The Guardian Sakurai recalled the incident which opened his eyes to how intimidating video games could be.
“I was playing King of Fighters once – and the way arcades are set up in Japan, you can’t really see the person you’re playing against, because you’re on opposite sides of the cabinet. I was feeling pleased with myself because I was winning, and it turned out to be a total beginner with their partner, just trying to have fun, and I thought, ‘Oh no, I shouldn’t have beaten them so badly. Now they’re going to feel like they never want to play it again!” – Masahiro Sakurai
This would form the foundation of Smash Bros, a fighting game accessible to anyone regardless of skill. It was a new kind of game where 4-players battled to knock each other off the stage until there was one left standing. It is easy to take what Smash Bros does for granted. It’s only when we explore the history of fighting games that we can really begin to appreciate just how amazing the multiplayer nature of Smash Bros truly is.
History of team play in fighting games.
In early fighting games team modes were a novelty that saw players tag out characters whenever they lost a round. This concept would be popularised by The King of Fighters’ 94. While players would fight using three-man teams, the characters would never fight together. Team synergy would come down to diversity, match-ups and the ability to master multiple play styles.
X-Men vs Street Fighter saw team members became actively involved in bouts, jumping in to assist or tag out when you were on the ropes. Even then, characters could not fight side-by-side, it was not simultaneous teamwork. Marvel vs Capcom would trial simultaneous play with the Variable Cross mechanic allowing players to control two characters simultaneously. Variable cross was a step forward, but its limited use would only serve to hide its flaws.
Street Fighter Alpha 3 introduced the 2v1 Dramatic Battle mode where players could either fight alongside a partner or be handicapped. It would be in handicapped bouts where the flaws would become apparent. Players cannot control which direction their characters face. In a 1v1 bout this is a non-issue as the player will always face their opponent. In a 2v1 the player defaults to facing whichever opponent is closest. With Street Fighter being designed around 1v1 there are few options for back attacks. From these handicapped bouts we can see the issues which arise when attempting simultaneous team play in a fighting games.
Guilty Gear Isuka proposed a novel solution to the turnaround issue by giving control to the player. Dedicating turning to a button allowed 4-player battles to work as intended but this approach was merely patchwork. It was awkward and added an unnecessary extra step to play.
Capcom would finally commit to simultaneous 2v2 play with Street Fighter X Tekken’s Scramble mode. Scramble would be an appropriate name; the mode was chaotic and unsuited to competitive play. The Tag Team mode on the other hand would attract competitive interest and feature at Evo 2012. Traditional fighting games can only implement teams play when players take turns, they are yet to develop a functional form of simultaneous play.
Taking this into account, it would be an incredible feat if someone designed a fighter which allowed for fully implemented multi-character play without the issues present in the likes of Street Fighter X Tekken’s scramble mode.
This is the miracle of Smash Bros design. It was the first fighting game where simultaneous 2v2 worked as a competitive format. Tekken director Katsuhiro Harada could not help but mention it when discussing the series.
If nothing else, Smash should be celebrated for overcoming a design obstacle which has plagued fighting games for decades – it allows players to play 2v2 without making fundamental changes to rules. The game is not being modified outside intended design. More importantly, these 2v2 tournaments are not being held for novelty’s sake. To understand why doubles is played we must examine how the format changes the game.
The Design of Doubles
Doubles is a natural expansion of Smash Bros with the series having been designed around 4-players from its inception. While the rules remain unchanged, the same cannot be said of playing Smash itself.
Characters aren’t just avatars, they are the points of interaction which allow Smash Bros to function as a game. All fighting game characters have what is known as a threat bubble, or sphere of influence. This bubble represents the full extent of a character’s ability to interact with the play space.
Here are two visual examples of a typical threat bubble:
Threat bubbles represent the area a character can cover with their attacks. Although unseen, these bubbles always exist. The ideal play is to keep the opponent within your bubble while staying out of theirs. The full choice of actions only exists when the character is stationary. In the case of Ike, we can see that he is committed to the bubble of his neutral air once he executes the move. In this moment he has a static threat bubble which cannot be changed or withdrawn until the attack ends or is cancelled.
Threat bubbles are key in stage control with the areas not occupied by threat bubbles being safe zones. If a player sends their opponent to the ledge or launches them above the stage, then they have a greater choice of safe zones to move around. Their opponent cannot retreat; they are at the mercy of the threat bubble and must escape. This is known as the disadvantage state, the moment where one player has control over another.
These fundamental rules of positioning are how we understand character utility. We play to our bubble while avoiding the opponents to influence the match outcome in our favour. This is where doubles has the most impact. Additional characters change how we play around threat bubbles.
The safest way to avoid an opponent’s threat bubble it to land attacks and trap them in hitstun. In doubles this rule is thrown out the window; you are still susceptible to the threat bubble of the opponent’s partner. You must avoid threat bubbles even while enforcing your own. The presence of allied bubbles also allows for combos which would otherwise be impossible to do as team members launch opponents back and forth between them.
Threat bubbles drastically change how Smash functions in doubles. Added action-zones and interactions encourages stronger offensive play at the cost of fewer ways to attack safely. Offense becomes a powerful defense as players make the save for their partners by blindsiding opponents.
While doubles allows Smash to retain its core fundamentals of play there is one rule which must always be altered for the sake of less degenerate play. Doubles is played with team attack on, making it possible for players to hit their partners. Without team attack we risk introducing undesirable strategies to the game. Team attack helps invalidate combinations and infinite’s which would otherwise overwhelm opponents. Take away these restrictions and you risk exacerbating Smash’s worst aspects.
Much of what has been said also applies to 3v3 and 4v4. However, we don’t see those formats often; they require more players to team and Smash is balanced around 4-players. They are undoubtedly fun formats to play, but they are also less structured than doubles, leading to slack and unfocused design. With a vast selection of alternative formats such as squad strike and crew battles there is little incentive for events to run 3v3 or 4v4.
Doubles is a strong alternative to the 1v1 metagame as it expands the possible actions players can make in-game. It has given us examples of exclusive tactics such as team healing (using PK Magnet to absorb partners projectiles) and team super attacks (filling partners Game & Watch bucket). With over 70 characters, Super Smash Bros Ultimate offers an unfathomable number of possible match-up combinations for players to experiment with. Offering ample opportunity to keep the game fresh.
We should if nothing else appreciate the designer’s accomplishment.
Part 2: A Brief History of Doubles
The Super Smash Bros. Melee doubles metagame has built a respectable legacy as an alternative format with many specialists. The earliest known specialist can be found in the legendary Captain Falcon player Isai. While his inconsistent singles placements would be a talking point throughout his career, Isai’s excellent doubles performances between 2003 and 2007 would cement his legacy as he dominated in his partnership with Ken, winning 14 of their 16 Major League Gaming doubles tournaments.
The MLG circuit would be a golden age for the format with the esports org treating both singles and doubles as equals. The large prize pools alongside the points system gave players incentive to choose their partners based on availability as every MLG event counted towards the season finale.
This focus on teams would cast a spotlight on players who rarely saw glory in singles. Chillindude and Manacloud would find regular success as they teamed with top singles players such as Azen and Chu Dat. Others would see their dedication to teams pay off as the combined efforts of Rob$ & Caveman, Taj & Forward, and Husband & Wife saw them rewarded with respectable placings over the course of the season.
The 2006 circuit would conclude with MLG Las Vegas, an invitational for those who had qualified over that seasons pro tour. Of the 17 players who attended, 9 of them were ineligible for singles. Holding doubles to the same standard allowed players who would have never seen success compete for what was until recently the largest prize pool in the game’s history.
A decade on from MLG dedicated teams are thriving. PewPewU and SFAT continue to prosper at the top of the doubles metagame, winning Genesis 6, The Big House 8 and Super Smash Con 2018.
Android has seen his greatest successes in doubles as part of team UGS with his brother Armada. Armada may be one of the Melee Gods but make no mistake Android is an integral part of the team and the ideal partner for the Swede as they can practice regularly. The success of their method cannot be denied with the brothers winning Genesis 4 and The Big House 7.
Players have also teamed under sponsorship. Armada and Mew2King teamed throughout 2014 as representatives of Clash Tournaments and Empire Arcadia. Ken would team with KoreanDJ in 2014 following the players recruitment by Team Liquid. Liquid’s Hungrybox teamed with his coach Crunch from 2016 to 2018 and now teams with Chu Dat following his acquisition by Liquid. Such alliances may become commonplace in the future if esports organisations continue to expand their rosters.
Melee doubles continues to hold its own. It is not a metagame where one can simply win by putting two strong players together. With the correct approach even weaker players can overcome the Gods. Doubles events remain newsworthy with Melee God PPMD’s last appearance being in 2017 to give his old partner, LoZR, a send-off before his retirement. Armada has also become a doubles specialist, having retired from singles last year.
Melee remains the game of choice for doubles enthusiasts. While it has seen a decline in interest among the Gods with Mango and Leffen entering infrequently the format continues to attract those who value shared glory over the dog eat dog world of singles.
The Great Divergence
The smash community has always been somewhat divided following the release of Super Smash Bros Brawl with crossover between the Melee and post-Brawl community being a rarity prior to the release of Ultimate. Players who are skilled in both Melee and the post-Brawl games are outliers, gaining kudos for their mastery of multiple games.
While the top melee players have enjoyed success in doubles, there has always been a place for players who have built their reputation through their double’s contributions first and foremost. In the post-brawl community this was a rarity as a formula to winning doubles emerged.
Mew2King’s dominance in Brawl would make him the only player to ever be ranked first in both games. The team of Mew2King and Ally, the then number two ranked player, would be an overwhelming force. The act of pairing the strongest players would continue to be popular in future Smash titles with the likes of ZeRo, Nairo, Ally, ANTi, Mr. R and MKLeo finding doubles success by teaming with a succession of strong players.
Dedicated team success would be a rarity. ESAM and MVD have teamed regularly for 9 years, even being co-signed to Panda Global from 2015 to 2018. Yet despite all this the two are yet to win an American major together. ESAM’s brother Nick Riddle would be known throughout Brawl for his long-time partnership with Shaky, the pair would place well but would also fail to win a big one. It would take the New Jersey duo of Nairo and ADHD for a dedicated team to see major doubles success in Brawl’s life.
Japan would prove more successful in regard to dedicated teams. Ranai and Komorikiri would find success teaming regularly, as would Kameme and Abadango. Whereas American players would rotate regularly, the Japanese pros favoured dedication to their partners.
Outliers would be found in the combination of Taiheita’s Lucas and Gomamugitya’s Lucario. While the two held respectable placings in Japanese tournaments, it would be in doubles where they thrived, famously winning Super Smash Con 2016 doubles in their only American appearance.
Javi remains one of the few Western players to find their glory in doubles, often being the first choice of his cousin MKLeo when available as the two would win numerous tournaments. Much like Armada, MKLeo found a reliable partner in a family member.
While we have seen players excel as doubles specialists in the post-Brawl community, the metagame has displayed a strong divergence from that of Melee. While Team UGS and PewFat continue to demonstrate the advantages of team speciality the same cannot be said for newer titles with the format being less rewarding for specialists as it is relegated to sideshow status in the eyes of many.
The scenes split into separate communities following Brawl’s release has seen attitudes to doubles also diverge. These reasons are a result of the games themselves, the community, and the time of each games release. For these reasons and more doubles remains a polarising subject among members of the post-Brawl Smash Bros Community.
Despite the split there is much to be said for modern doubles and the place it continues to hold in the smash community as a whole. Join us next time as we explore the communities love/hate relationship with doubles as the format continues to fall behind singles in viewership and popularity.
Writers Note: While the game supports the format Smash 64 doubles is rarely run. The game is known to lag in 4-player. Doubles tournaments are not run without access to overclocked N64 consoles. Console modification creates a barrier to making doubles an accessible format in the 64 community, leading to an underdeveloped metagame.