The Super Smash Bros. series has had a very rocky history when it comes to balancing, an important aspect of all video games, but especially ones in the fighting genre.
The director of the series, Sakurai-san, has often insisted on fine-tuning each character personally. As such a critical task, he really only trusts himself (and holds himself responsible) for how the game ships.
And as the cartridges or discs were produced and transported to the retailer, that’s exactly how the balance remains to this day. It wasn’t until Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U when patches were enabled.
If you go back and play the first three iterations of Super Smash Bros., you won’t find balanced games. Many characters are completely inviable, and certain ones can be selected for their exploits; Ice Climbers and Meta Knight are a few prime examples. These characters were so off-balance that a handful of techniques had to be regulated by tournament organizers, and Meta Knight wasn’t allowed in many competitive Brawl events!
Thankfully, Nintendo finally created an online infrastructure for their 2012 Wii U console (only a decade late, give them a break) to allow for patches. The result? One of the most balanced fighting games ever: Smash 4!
What made Super Smash Bros. 4 so balanced? A huge change was made to the ledge mechanics; getting rid of ledgehogging and introducing trumping. This effectively allowed the entire roster to reliably make it back to the stage. And the aforementioned patches, which constantly tweaked stats in order to level the playing-field, ensured that no character was too overpowered.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is increasing the character count by 28%. Is it possible that Sakurai can maintain such minute balance when adding an extra quarter of the cast?
I don’t think the game will be balanced at launch. I remember fondly my Smash 4 pre-patch Sheik, who could kill with forward-air, back-air, up-air, down-B, and jab. (I’m joking about that last one.) But over the coming months, Sheik was nerfed to an appropriate level. I think you’ll see a similar pattern in the 5th Smash title; some characters will launch OP and others will be UP, but we’ll have to wait for a few tournaments to take place to discover which characters are the most abusable by professionals.
Non-pros will also have an influence on the game’s balance, as the development team has already gone on record to say that Elite players’ results will be monitored! So if a certain attack is killing way too often, or a specific set-up is impossible to avoid, those things are going to get expedited into a patch.
Ultimate will be the biggest Smash game yet, but also has the potential to be the most balanced.
If not, I guess that’s one good reason to go back and play 4!