How movement defines fighting games and their characters

It can determine everything about what, and how, you play

Super Smash Bros. Melee, despite being two decades old, has consistently been one of the most played fighting games in the tournament scene. While other retro titles such as Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and Guilty Gear XX Accent Core +R also have robust communities that maintain their legacy, Melee is arguably one of the most prolific due to its ensemble crossover roster and ease of play. Even as other titles in the Smash franchise come and go, the Melee community continues to play the game through pandemics and a tumultuous history as an esport. The biggest reason by far that Melee remains compelling despite other modern Smash titles being prominently played at tournaments is the fact that the game’s unique movement options allow for character expression and creative gameplay unlike any other game. Indeed, Melee has not only outlasted other Smash titles, but also other platform fighters and even fanmade attempts to mod successor games.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that how you move in any game will define everything about the way it’s played. This obviously extends beyond fighting games, too: the ability to wall-jump in platformers such as Super Metroid and Mega Man X allows players to move quickly and creatively across large levels, and the ability to rocket jump in class-based shooters like Team Fortress 2 lets players traverse sprawling maps and flanks from unexpected angles. In Melee, wavedashing allows characters who are otherwise slow to keep up with characters who have naturally high walk or dash speeds. More importantly, it also lets characters move quickly and perform nearly any action with the momentum carried over from the airdodge, something that isn’t always possible with the default dash. In future Smash titles, the inability to wavedash is usually supplanted by features that allow characters to do their default dash and still perform a variety of actions, often by cancelling the dash itself.

Movement options also inform how certain fighting games are balanced, and even how individual characters in a roster are balanced against the rest. In Melee, for instance, wavedashing mainly benefited extremely aggressive play as well as characters who already had good frame data or powerful disjointed hitboxes, which is usually why you see Fox, Falco, and Marth dominate the top tiers. Characters who can play around that with unique aerial movement, such as Peach, Jigglypuff, or Sheik, likewise become strong since they can counter grounded rushdown with aerial spacing. (This is reductive, but if I tried to summarize the metagame history of a 20-year old GameCube game in a way that satisfied every “But what about…?” Redditor, we’d be here all day.)

In subsequent Smash games, the inability to wavedash meant that forward grounded movement became more committal and linear. Because of this, characters who had unique movement options built into their toolkits (Palutena’s Warp,) methods that let them move and attack at the same time (Zero Suit Samus’s Flip Jump Kick,) or the ability to cover their approach behind setplay or another attack (Diddy Kong’s Bananas and Monkey Flip) became stronger. Beyond specific character tools, any characters with moves that cancelled their landing recovery and were safe on block or difficult to anti-air were also viable, or at least easier to move with. Characters who could also enhance their movement passively (like Cloud’s Limit Break buff) or who could combo easily without additional movement tech (like Bayonetta) were also powerful. In fact, Pikachu is a character who has been strong in every single Smash game because he has basically everything you’d need: a projectile that covers your approach, a unique pseudo-teleport that can often be cancelled into other actions, the ability to approach with offense, and decent combo tools.

We can look beyond the platform fighter genre and individual entries to see how movement in fighting games affects how they’re played. The comparisons are endless. Street Fighter’s reputation as a slow, neutral oriented game comes from the fact that dashing and jumping are very highly committal or punishable actions with very few options out of them, so most of the cast spends their time shimmying back and forth waiting for a whiff punish. Characters with unique movement options like Rashid’s V-Skill airdash or M. Bison’s teleport are often the exception rather than the norm, and these tools often get used in specific mix-up situations. On the other hand, characters in the Marvel vs. Capcom series can jump multiple times, dash, hoverdash airdash, wavedash, triangle jump, fly, web-swing, teleport, you name it- this expands both the horizontal and vertical play space drastically.

Whereas Street Fighter neutral is (typically) a game of inches, neutral exchanges in Marvel are much more explosive and unpredictable, to the point where you aren’t really playing footsies anymore unless you main Doctor Doom. Since nearly every character in the game has access to the same wild movement, the emphasis becomes less about how situational each tool is and more about what the more specific options allow certain characters to do. Characters like Sentinel, Magneto, and Nova can open up additional overhead mix-ups than the rest of the cast due to their ability to fly, but their aerial gameplay will be different than that of characters like Chun-Li, who has multiple jumps and airdashes instead. Furthermore, since Morrigan has an automatic hoverdash on the ground, her grounded neutral game is completely different than the rest of the cast. Morrigan’s movement in Marvel and Vampire Savior is so unique to her that, if characters in other games have an upward-angle hoverdash on the ground, it’s called a Morrigan dash.

I could obviously go on and on. We could talk about how characters in King of Fighters have different types of jumps (short-hop, hyper-hop, super jump) that let them mix up their jump-in pressure in different ways than characters in Street Fighter normally have access to. We could talk about Tekken’s movement on a 3D plane and how jumping isn’t as common as movement like side-stepping and Korean backdashing. We could talk about how characters in Under Night In-Birth use Assault as a pseudo-airdash from the ground to create a varied approach. But since there’s a difference between discovered gameplay based on possible movement and balancing mechanics based on possible movement, we’re instead going to talk about characters designed with movement that runs counter to the norm. So let’s take a begrudging look at grapplers.

We’re specifically going to be looking at Potemkin in Guilty Gear for a few reasons. In other fighting games, grapplers tend to be playing the same game as the rest of the cast, simply being bigger and slower. Zangief, for instance, might be classically known to have problems with zoners, but his movement isn’t terribly different than the rest of the cast. Even in a game with minimal emphasis on throws like Dragon Ball FighterZ, Android 16 and the Brolys manage to be bulky grapplers who still have access to the movement of the rest of the cast, like airdashing, Super Dash, and Vanish. Potemkin is a stand-out example of a grappler because he doesn’t benefit from the movement options typical of a Guilty Gear character. While he has a double jump, he notably lacks a forward dash or any airdash, making his aerial approach difficult and his grounded approach a lumbering walk. This makes it extremely difficult for him to fend off mid-to-long-range offense or highly mobile close-range aggression, at least on paper.

In reality, what Potemkin lacks in innate movement, he makes up for with his special moves. Mega Fist is a grounded overhead that sends Potemkin into the air with lower body invulnerability, making it difficult to anti-air and a good alternative to jump-in normals. In lieu of a normal dash, Potemkin uses Hammer Fall and its Break variant, which lets him swing forward with a single hit of super armor. The Break version cancels the attack itself while retaining the momentum and armor- this lets him extend pressure or combos, or even just freely approach and then punish whatever he armored through. For zoning, Potemkin can use both the FDB finger-flick to reflect projectiles and Slide Head to force a knockdown against characters standing at full screen. In Xrd, Potemkin even has an anti-air special (Trishula) and can use his new ICPM to combo after Slide Head or as a pseudo airdash in tandem with Yellow Roman Cancelling. Thus, in exchange for the typical Guilty Gear movement, Potemkin gains specialized high-risk high-reward moves that supplant those functions. This makes Potemkin’s movement a bit more technical and deliberate than the rest of the roster, but it also grants him unique combos and explosive damage in addition to what he earns off command grabs like Potemkin Buster.

Potemkin may be a creative take on the grappler archetype, but the differences in his playstyle along with the typical nature of grapplers mean he’s not for everyone. Indeed, much like Melee players stick to that game because of how good the movement feels in comparison to other platform fighters, how certain characters move can be what makes or breaks your interest in them. Movement is one of the most important methods of player expression, and if you can’t control your character in a natural way or in the way you want to, your gameplay might feel constrained or clumsy. If a game doesn’t have characters or tools that let me move how I like, there’s a very real chance I might drop it entirely. I personally like playing fast rushdown characters that have the freedom to move across the screen space, which so far has attracted me to Jam, I-No, and Tianhuo in the games I’m playing currently. When learning new games, I usually investigate the roster to see if there’s characters that function similarly to what I’ve played in the past, or at least something close enough. One of my friends has been trying to get me to play Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, so I’ve been trying to learn a Nova/Morrigan shell and running Viewtiful Joe point (since I’m a fan.) It’s been slow-going because I don’t have the brain for tag fighters, but playing characters who move how I like helps keep me interested in the game.

Movement options in games inform how you interact with the world and express yourself against opponents. It can determine how the game is played, and mastery of movement often offers a well of depth that gets deeper the better you get at the technique in question. Different games are balanced based on what movement options are possible, and some characters can even be designed around their atypical movement. If something about a game’s movement feels even slightly off, it might feel ‘wrong’ and players might stay away from it entirely. A hypothetical version of a modern Smash title with Melee movement copy-pasted in would likely feel very freeing and expressive, especially for players who are fans of the legacy title. Such a project would likely need extensive re-balancing if it existed in the long run to ensure that already strong characters didn’t suffer from power creep with movement options they weren’t initially built to have. That being said, it would certainly be a spirited endeavor.

Nathan “Lite the Iron Man” Dhami can be found on Twitter (@LiteTheIronMan,) on Twitch (twitch.tv/litetheironman,) and at your local.

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