Learning To Walk: An Introductory Guide To Competitive Melee
Fri 11th Sep 2020 - 10:33pm
I’m just going to come right out and say it, Super Smash Brothers Melee for the Nintendo Gamecube is a challenging game to get into in this day and age. The competitive scene has a seventeen-year legacy, the tech skill requirements are up there with games like Starcraft, and the amount of practice required to see noticeable results is insane. It’s difficult to imagine anyone looking at all that and going, “Oh yeah! Sign me up!” Yet people flock to this game in droves, and I mean, I get it, I’ve been playing the game on and off competitively since 2006. There is just something about Melee that checks all right boxes for the competitive mindset, but that still doesn’t make it any easier to start playing competitively. There have been several guides about getting into Melee in today’s world, including this one posted on Dignitas’ site earlier this year by Nick “thenickbros” Todaro. Still, I wanted to put my own spin on how people should try learning the ropes of competitive Melee.
I titled this article “Learning to Walk” because I believe that despite all the great tools and information available to the masses in 2020, a lot of people get stuck trying to hop directly into the competitive world of Melee. They end up skipping some core aspects learning how-to-play the game; it's as if they’ve gone from crawling straight to trying to driving a car.
Familiarize yourself with the game
Today there is a ton of information on how to break into competitive Melee, which is a good thing, but the sheer volume of it is enough to paralyze anyone and leave them left with the feeling of “where do I begin?” When I started my competitive journey, I didn’t have access to the plethora of resources available today; most of my learning was thanks to playing through a fresh copy of Melee, unlocking everything, and watching three 480p videos on youtube about advanced techniques. Honestly, as much as I wished for more information starting out, it ended up being perfect. I’ve found that the typical incoming player base comes from a couple of different groups:
- Players from newer Smash games looking to try Melee out
- Spectators of high-level Melee events
- Competitors with a traditional fighting game background
Regardless of which group a new player comes from, I have typically found that they don’t have a good grasp on how Melee feels, whether it be that they haven’t played Melee since the Gamecube was Nintendo’s central console, or they haven’t touched the game, period. The fact that so many people are interested in playing Melee competitively without even touching the game is something essential to consider since it feels different from any other game in the Smash series. For instance, did you know Melee doesn’t have a frame buffer on most inputs? This is often a shock for most people as newer Smash entries and other traditional fighting games have some amount of frame buffer to smooth out movements. What this means is that when someone picks up Melee for the first time, they feel like they’re unable to do anything as the very simple act of moving around is akin to swimming through Jell-o.
The best way to overcome this barrier is to keep it simple and remember that Melee is more than a competitive esport and that it is an actual video game. I usually suggest new players spend some time playing Classic mode, Adventure mode, and any of the other mini-game mode when starting out as this will help you develop a feel for the game in a low stakes environment. Break the Targets and Home Run Contest helps you build up your movement and inputs. By just playing the game, you become more familiar with the characters, their moves, what spacing and timing you need for attacks, and what characters you enjoy playing.
The basics of competitive Melee
Now that you have a good understanding of what the game feels like, I feel like I have to address an obvious boogie man in the room, picking a main. In a perfect world, I would be able to tell you that all characters are perfectly viable, and you can see results with any character, unfortunately, that isn’t the case...
Melee is a pretty unforgiving game when it comes to character selection. Fox and Falco have a lot of favorable frame data that allows them to put a ton of pressure on a lot of characters, Puff's air mobility invalidates anyone that can't chase her around, Marth's disjoined hitboxes and grab range allow him to trade favorably with a lot of moves, and the list goes on and on. As someone that has played a low tier character for most of my smash career, I can tell you it's not easy keeping up with all the advantages some characters have, but, I would still say my rule of thumb is to tell people to play a character that feels comfortable and fun for them, regardless of tier. Melee has anywhere between seven and fourteen tournament viable characters depending on who you ask. Out of twenty-six characters, there is a good chance you'll find one you enjoy playing that is tournament viable. If you happen to land on one that isn't, there's a good chance they're similar enough to one of those other characters so making the transition will be more comfortable, regardless of what character you pick you should spend time doing research. Find out where they are on the tier list and try to understand what put them there and start watching combo videos and tournament VODs from high-level players to get a better feel for what that character can do and how enjoyable they can be.
With character stuff out of the way, the next step is to get your foot in the door on the competitive basics. As I mentioned before, I learned everything about competitive Melee from three 480p videos on youtube, to this day, I feel they’re the best at demonstrating entry-level competitive mechanics.
I honestly suggest watching through all the videos if you have 30 minutes to spare, but if you don’t have the time right now, I’ll leave some cliff notes on what you should start out learning.
Wave Dashing/Wave Landing: This is the move that people think of when you say competitive Melee. This is done by air dodging into the ground. When done diagonally to the ground it has the effect of making your character slide across the ground (varies based on character traction). This is primarily used for quicker movement, adjusting spacing, moving one direction without changing the way your character is facing, and letting you do moves you normally couldn’t while moving.
Direction Influence (DI): I like to describe DI as the feeling you get when you’re playing a racing game and make a sharp turn. Almost instinctively, people will shift their body to the left or right, hoping that has some sort of impact. DI lets you influence the direction (whoa how about that!) you go after you’re hit by an attack. There are multiple applications of DI, but the primary application is using it after a big hit to live longer.
L-Canceling: if a character hits the ground during an aerial attack animation there is a fixed amount of lag before the character can act again. However, if you press L, R, or Z when you land the number of cooldown frames are reduced. L-Canceling is hard to notice at first but is one of the most impactful features of competitive play as it can be the difference between your move being safe on shield or not, or could be the deciding factor on if you’re able to continue your combo.
Friends, Rivals, and Mentors
This is a point I can’t stress enough; if I were trying to get into competitive Melee by myself in the year 2020, I would probably give up and move on to something else. While it’s definitely possible to pick up Melee on your own with the amount of information out there, it is exponentially more difficult. For starters, the game's been out nineteen years, and anyone that has a fair amount of time under their belt will likely be leagues ahead of you in skill. It’s hard to go to events or queue up for matchmaking just to get destroyed over and over again. By sharing the learning experience, you guarantee that you have at least one person around your level that you can go back and forth with and improve together, you give yourself a rival that will keep pushing you to improve. You also get to expand your net when doing research as your friends might catch something you missed or vise versa or help point out your bad habits before that big tournament next weekend.
In addition to bringing your friends along for the ride, I would also suggest finding a more experienced player that can help expedite your learning. By talking with more experienced players, they can share their experiences of what worked for them and help you develop a proper training regimen. There are services like Gamer Sensei where you can pay someone an hourly rate for coaching sessions, In a post COVID world, you can find people at events and ask questions as you’re playing, or you can hit me up on Twitter as I’m always looking to help new players improve.
Training Tools and Equipment
Outside of being bombarded with information, the future has been very kind to people trying to learn Melee. UnclePunch’s Training Mode is what Training Mode in Melee would look like if the game was developed by Capcom or any other mainstream fighting game developer. It’s designed to let people practice anything from L-Canceling to Shield Dropping, and it provides you with frame data so you can see tangible numbers with your improvement.
For the longest time, the only reliable way to play Melee has been with a Gamecube and a CRT TV, but in the modern era, we have access to netplay via Dolphin emulator, and just this year, rollback netcode with Project Slippi was released, giving players an even smoother online experience. This lets you play with almost anyone in the world with a smooth connection so you can get practice from a diverse player base in the comfort of your own home.
When it comes to playing the game, you have to have equipment that works for you, the simple solution is to just say buy a first-party Nintendo Gamecube controller, but I would suggest doing a little more research as not all Gamecube controllers are built equally, and some need a bit of tweaking to get them on the same level. I would look into buying refurbished controllers that have been modified to reduce snapback, as this will decrease the number of mistakes due to an unintentional turnaround. For people more familiar with playing games on keyboards or a fightstick, I would also suggest looking into B0XX as an alternative to a Gamecube controller. The B0xx controller is ergonomically designed to prevent hand and wrist injuries and has, in my experience, made it easier for people with a traditional fighting game background to get into Smash.
I’ve armed you with a basic starting point, so the next thing you can do is take action. Do research on what equipment works best for you, play the game as a game and not an esport so you can get a feeling for basic movement and inputs, find a character that you enjoy and research what they can do, get your friends involved and find a mentor, and start jamming some games.
The most important thing to remember is that getting into Melee is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It takes a long time to see improvement, and you’ll feel like you’re stuck at a lot of points, but if you keep pushing forwards, you’ll learn to walk, and eventually run.