Posted by: Munomario777 | December 1, 2017

The Verbs of Smash Bros. – Beyond the Inputs

Think back to your favorite classic games. Mario, Sonic, Mega Man, Zelda. Whatever they may be, chances are,you’ll probably remember a game or two with really simple controls. But at the same time, a lot of these games also have a lot of freedom in how you play. Mario’s jump, for example, is simple, but his games also have a lot of room for skill, finesse, and expression, especially in 3D. Through simple rules and actions, these games manage to create something truly engaging. But we can dig deeper and see what really makes that tick.

The word of the day is “verbs.” A verb is any action the character onscreen can perform. Super Mario’s jump is a verb, and so are Mega Man’s buster, the sword slash in Zelda, and curling Sonic the Hedgehog into a ball. These verbs are tied to button presses, and are therefore the first link between the player and the game. So while this might seem like an obvious concept, we definitely should consider this initial step in the input-output cycle of how a game works. In fact, thinking about verbs has great applications when designing games, making a game’s controls intuitive, deep, and holistic. Smash itself uses verbs to great effect, and so can our movesets.

 

One of the best things about verbs is that they can make games intuitive if done well, with instant pick-up-and-play appeal. By tying verbs directly to buttons, a designer can make the actions involved more universal and thus more natural to use. If the A button always jumps, for example, players will be able to use them incredibly naturally. So in Castlevania, Simon Belmont always jumps in one of three fixed arcs – left, right, or straight upward – with a tap of the A button. This can also make a game feel satisfying to control. Since Mega Man has a dedicated shoot button, the force of your button press will always translate directly into a damaging shot – further strengthened when you hammer the button to get rapid-fire lemon shots.

More interesting, however, are what Mark Brown calls “versatile verbs” in his series “Game Maker’s Toolkit” (which you should all check out, by the by). Versatile verbs are verbs which can vary depending on how the player uses them. Unlike Simon Belmont, Super Mario can control his leap in many different ways. He can vary the height of his jump by tapping or holding the button, move freely in midair, and get a run-up ahead of time to bound over greater distances. By giving the player a degree of control beyond the Castlevania leap, Mario allows players to be expressive, both in skill and a bit of “personality.”

 

Versatility in verbs extends beyond just that one verb, however. Combining multiple verbs together can bring forth new actions, adding depth while still being intuitive to control. Classic Sonic games, famously, have incredibly simple controls: a directional pad and a single button to jump. Sonic’s basic verbs in this game are running (left / right), jumping (A), and crouching (down). So to curl into a ball, you just crouch in the middle of run, which is basically what would happen if you were to crouch (i.e. enter a curled-up position) while moving at speed. And, that is, if you were a hedgehog with Sonic’s unrealistic abilities. It makes logical sense, though. Point is, Sonic’s roll works because the emergent verb (rolling) feels like the natural result of the two component verbs (running and crouching). So simply sticking any action there would not work.

Many other games use this kind of principle too. In many of the Zelda games, you can spin around and then swing your sword to perform an instant Spin Attack, which is a pretty obvious connection. In Kirby, normally one of the buttons causes him to inhale things. But if you do that while flying, which means you already have air in your cheeks, you’ll spit it out instead, which still involves Kirby’s mouth (and is an awful lot like spitting foes out as stars after inhaling them). Super Mario himself has his fair share of this, since in the 3D games, he gains access to a plethora of jumps when he combines his jump with a crouch or with other actions. In this way, games can introduce a lot of different techniques or moves without overcomplicating the controls, since every action feels completely natural to use if you have the basics down.

 

On the subject of adding a bit of depth to a game, what if you tied multiple outcomes to the exact same verb? Luftrausers, a 2D dogfighting game, may have an answer. This retro indie is all about flying about a big 2D airspace, shooting down enemy planes with an automatic-fire weapon and dodging fire with skilled flight. You will get hit eventually, so luckily, the game lets you regenerate your health. The catch? Firing your guns stops you from healing, so you need to let go of the shoot button in order to recover from damage. This prevents control complications, presents an interesting choice to the player, and adds to a feisty, back-and-forth gameplay feel, as the player is just itching to get back into the action during one of these healing periods. If there were a separate heal button, not only would the controls be more complicated, but this dynamic would also be lost.

Dark Souls has a similar idea, since in order to regain your stamina more quickly, you must lower your shield and take a risk in combat. In the first-person game Devil Daggers, you must let go of your rapid-fire shoot button in order to collect gems dropped by killed enemies. Some platformers also take this idea and run with it in perhaps less obvious ways. Mega Man X can either rapid-fire his shots like his 8-bit counterpart, or he can charge up a shot by holding the button and then letting go. So you can choose to deal immediate chip damage, or wait a little bit to deliver a more damaging blast at the risk of taking damage during the charge time. Tails in Sonic 3 can fly huge distances to bypass some challenges, but he uncurls from his spinning ball jump when he takes flight. Because of this, he cannot attack enemies below or to the side of him and risks taking touch damage. His tails have a hitbox directly above them, though. Tying verbs like this to multiple outcomes can introduce depth and decisions without sacrificing intuitive controls, or even unlock depth that would otherwise not be present.

 

In addition to adding depth, giving verbs various different effects often gives games a sense of holism, or feeling like a cohesive whole. Some modern games give your character dozens of actions depending on the button pressed and the context, leading to those tutorial screens with a picture of a controller and a hundred different move names. In these games, one is hard pressed to find the “focus” of the gameplay. With only a handful of verbs, however, a game can much more easily be “about” one or a handful of these verbs.

Take Super Mario Odyssey’s hat throw, where you press a button and Mario flings his hat forward like a boomerang. Hold the button to extend the amount of time it hovers at its maximum range. The hat throw is a simple mechanic which binds the whole game together. In fact, the cap throw is one of the first things the developers created, and then the whole game was built around this core idea.

So what all can the cap throw do? First off, it serves as Mario’s way to attack and capture enemies, the latter of which is already a big game changer. However, the designers over at Nintendo are never ones to leave a game’s core mechanic at something as simple as that, so the cap throw also has lots of other uses. That exact same verb and button press creates a trampoline for Mario to bounce off of, augmenting his signature platforming. By throwing his hat and then jumping or diving onto it, Mario allows even more player expression than the springy leaps of past titles, and increases the depth and skill ceiling while retaining simple controls.

Mario also throws his cap to activate switches, open certain doors, and interact with little “toys” that Nintendo sprinkles throughout the world to encourage you to fling your hat once every five seconds. That could be Cap Kingdom’s lights, which turn on or off when you throw your cat at them, or the flower formations that you’ll need to time hat throws to complete for a reward like a life-restoring heart. Super Mario Odyssey’s hat throw binds the entire game together, since everything – from combat and capturing to platforming and interacting with the world – feeds through this one verb.

 

The original Super Mario Bros. puts a similar spotlight on the jump, which was very new at the time. You dispatch enemies by stomping on them, hit bricks or power-up blocks with your head, and even have to jump over the block-high stump on the flagpole to complete a stage. Flagpoles further encourage mastery of the jump by rewarding skilled players with an extra life if they manage to reach the very tippy top. The game also, of course, focuses almost entirely on platforming challenges, but that goes without saying.

To achieve this, the designers at Nintendo decided on the jump as the single core action in the game, and then built everything around it. For example, Miyamoto once explained that stomping on enemies came about when they asked something along the lines of, “What is the most logical way to defeat an enemy in a game about jumping?” Note that jumping on enemies was a new concept at this point! Shoot-em-up sections were at one point considered for Super Mario Bros., but were scrapped because they took the focus away from the jump – a classic example of “design by subtraction.”

Comparing this game directly to Super Mario Odyssey, the differences in mechanical focus become clear. Nintendo shook up Mario’s gameplay in lots of subtle ways in order to shift the focus to this new hat throw ability. The first enemy players encounter in Odyssey are a little pack of tiny, yellow Goombas. You can stomp on them, but their small size encourages you to throw your cap instead, which is much easier. Compared to the original NES title, which had large enemies and simple 2D movement to encourage stomping on enemies’ heads, Odyssey’s very first enemy sets the cap-throwing tone for the rest of the game to come.

Playing Odyssey, you might also notice an abundance of bricks and question mark blocks lying on the ground instead of hovering above Mario’s head. To hit these, you will want to throw your cap, since you cannot get underneath them. Also, while Super Mario Bros.’s hovering coin trails sit at the perfect height to reach with a jump, Super Mario Odyssey places trails of coins over bottomless pits at ground level, asking you to throw your cap out to collect them. And instead of the original game’s flagpoles, which require a jump to access, Super Mario Odyssey has you deposit Power Moons into your ship by throwing your cap at the globe on its deck – “capping” off a play session with the game’s core verb.

Side Note: The one bit where Odyssey’s cap throw button kinda fails is in the inputs for diving, rolling, and swimming quickly, which are done by pressing crouch + cap throw. This does not feel like the natural result of the two combined verbs, so it feels a tiny bit odd.

 

Enough about Mario, though. Other games also deserve the spotlight with their core mechanics.

Kirby is all about his inhale, since it lets him suck up enemies to get their powers, spit things out as projectiles, suck up obstacles such as blocks, and even end his puffed-up flight like we talked about before.

Zelda: A Link Between Worlds uses its paint merging mechanic to great effect, as its puzzle and world design are both based around the mechanic. It uses the same magic meter as your other items, adding a bit of choice to how you spend the meter, and also sets the game’s aesthetic tone of paintings, e.g. Yuga as a painting-based villain.

Sonic’s claim to fame is his ability to curl into a ball, at least when it comes to gameplay in the classics. Sonic curls up to gain speed for his signature momentum-based platforming, he spins every time he jumps, he destroys badniks like a buzzsaw by spinning, and he even needs to use his ball form to break open monitors and get power-ups.

Splatoon wonderfully uses its ink mechanic as a central core. Ink is your main way of attacking enemies, traversing quickly by swimming through it, refilling your ammo, climbing walls, slowing down enemies, hiding from foes, and winning modes like Turf War (spray the most ink on the stage to win) and Splat Zones (control a certain area by covering it with ink). And since laying down ink is an awful lot like spraying graffiti, Splatoon was given its signature presentation and attitude we know it for today.

Super Mario Sunshine is about spraying water at things, from goop to enemies to Delfino residents to ground you can slide across at high speeds. If you more forcefully press in the GameCube’s analog R button so that it “clicks,” Mario can also plant his feet firmly into the ground and aim freely, making for a neat correlation. F.L.U.D.D. is also made into a character within the game’s world to further drive home the mechanic, and its water gun gameplay inspired a tropical setting.

Throughout all of these games, we can see examples of everything we’ve talked about so far. Also notice that some games, like Sunshine and Splatoon, even base their presentation around their core mechanics, and in the case of F.L.U.D.D., show that turning mechanics into characters or other similar things can ground them in the game’s world. Try looking at your favorite games and seeing what versatile verbs you can find.

 

How about Smash, though? Sakurai does know how to design a good video game, as we saw with a bit of Kirby’s mechanics earlier on, so Smash should have good stuff for us to learn from. And it does largely serve as a good example of how versatile verbs can make even fighting games intuitive. Using normal GameCube controls, the A button serves as your “attack” button. Press it normally to do a standard combo, tilt the stick to direct the force of the move in that direction, and smash the stick more powerfully to unleash a strong Smash Attack. Special Moves are a bit more varied than that, but they do generally correlate with direction at least a little bit. They also incorporate other elements we’ve talked about, such as changing when the button is held, repeatedly pressed, or smashed. Jumping works a lot like in a Mario game, including the ability to alter a jump’s height by tapping or holding the button, and the simple addition of a double jump adds a whole new option to combat situations.

Shield is the “defend” button or verb, and serves multiple purposes. Hold it down to hold up your shield and block against attacks, “defend sideways” to roll to the left or right, or “defend downwards” to almost duck under an attack by spotdodging. In the air, solid footing is hard to come by, so you cannot block against attacks with firm footing, instead simply evading to the side. Pressing L or R also has the distinction of using your index finger rather than your thumb, mirroring the divide between offense and defense in gameplay. And on the subject of those shoulder buttons, Melee’s light and heavy shielding uses the same “click” we saw earlier with F.L.U.D.D.’s over-the-shoulder aiming mode.

Grab is kind of a weird verb in Smash, mapped to shield and attack (or Z). It fails to really come naturally from that combination of verbs. The grab state itself is natural, though. Pummel makes sense as a “grab attack,” and flicking the stick in a direction after grabbing is an intuitive way to throw someone. So despite a bit of perhaps unavoidable weirdness from fighting games, Smash manages to make the twenty-odd moves a character has all feel natural to use despite their huge diversity.

 

From all of this, we have a lot of applications when writing movesets. By making moves simple to use, we can then introduce new twists on top of that intuitive foundation, creating new strategies. So pressing B might do something simple, but then you can press A to do something else. As long as, that is, you understand the verbs of Smash (roll credits) and make that action something related to attacking, as we explored with intuitive compound verbs like Sonic’s running roll.

Giving the player freedom, such as analog control or multiple interactions / follow-up actions, can make for moves that feel expressive to use, like Mario’s analog jump and numerous different related techniques. Going further with that, focusing the set on one such expressive mechanic (or a couple of them) can give the moveset cohesion, just like Odyssey’s hat throw or Splatoon’s ink. In this way, a moveset can become distinctly “about” something, where everything feeds into this mechanic. This allows for focused playstyles too, and can lead to interesting decisions. For example, say you have a construct which you can break with an attack to give yourself a temporary buff, or you can choose to blow it up with a special move for a strong hitbox. Since both of these are tied to the same construct, you have a choice as to which feature to use depending on the situation, leading to depth and strategy.

This kind of focus also allows the set’s playstyle to easily extend to all aspects of gameplay. For example, you might ask, “What is the most logical way to recover back to the stage in a moveset about punching?” or, “How would a zoning-based character approach an opponent?” or, “What kind of combos should a character with this particular minion be able to pull off?” (That first quote might sound a bit familiar.)

 

These ideas all work for a wide variety of movesets, and are valuable lessons when designing. However, MYM also loves experimenting with new ways to control Smash, from stance-changers and tag-teams to MM9 Mega Man and Sonic & Tails. Those last two are a bit extreme, but for other slightly “awkward” things like duo characters, thinking about verbs and buttons can prove quite helpful. For example, the “Popo” of the duo could perform most actions, but the “Nana” could have the B button all to its own, with all of the specials involving Nana. This drives home the presence of two distinct characters, since their inputs are split into different buttons. Also, if you want Popo to lack Special Moves when separated from Nana (as a punishment for losing Nana, perhaps?), then this justifies that. B is “the Nana button,” so if Nana is nowhere to be found, then B has no effect!

Duo characters are far from the only ones to benefit, however. Consider a firebender, where B is “the fire button.” All of the character’s Special Moves are fire-based, and the moveset could also have a mechanic where pressing B mid-attack amps up any move with flames. By tying the button itself to the character’s fire abilities, the mechanic attached to it becomes more intuitive, and pressing B might also “feel” more special if you make the fire-based moves strong but risky. The same might go for a weapon like a gun, or any other range of concepts. If verbs are used in game design to build the foundations of control schemes, then for unorthodox movesets where we basically redesign the game’s controls almost from the ground up, verbs are very useful to think about!

 

Verbs are the gears that drive your favorite classic games and make them so fun despite their simplicity. They link buttons to actions, input to output, player to character. By focusing on a select few verbs, designers can tie the whole experience together, add depth, and make for gameplay that is fun, expressive, and deceptively simple. Often we think of inputs as simply slots for moves in a set, places for something to “fit.” But if we think about the verbs we include in movesets, then we can make inputs and buttons meaningful and integral to a moveset’s core design.

 

Thank you for reading! This article is three and a half thousand words long, and I composed it all today to post it here tonight. So please let me know if I overlooked anything.

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Responses

  1. I enjoyed this article quite a bit. It covered an arguably “obvious” concept in depth that you wouldn’t think about very much, and the value of emphasizing a pure, core idea, described as a verb here. I’m not necessarily fond of every game mentioned here(Splatoon and Kirby come to mind as games I don’t really think are all that good) but that doesn’t mean the basis they use as mentioned here isn’t a good one.

  2. Great article Muno. I was impressed how many games you managed to fit into this article to illustrate the usage of verbs and the design philosophy is definitely a big deal in Smash Bros. The way that interactions when they’re at their best stems from the design philosophy here, but where it gets really interesting is when you look at the deepest levels of what feels natural for the player.


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