The Quest for Control

Why the Melee scene cares so much about its controllers

NOV 30, 2017

For countless childhood weekends, my brothers and I would rise at the crack of dawn to play Melee. We’d take turns using our two controllers, one black and one platinum silver. The silver was our favorite—its metallic sheen made it the obvious choice. My brothers’ interest in the game has waned since then, but we all look fondly upon our time basking in the glow of a crackling CRT. And that silver controller, the one we’d fight over every Saturday? It’s still in good condition, smooth-worn control stick and sticky right trigger notwithstanding. I don’t use it in tournament, though. It’s got pretty bad dashback.

Smash players love their controllers. They put them on T-shirts, customize them, award them to tournament champions. At Smash events, competitors hang controllers on their necks like oversized pendants. Connoisseurs can tell the differences between each production run at a glance, from broken-in originals to the highly coveted 2008 JP whites. This community-wide infatuation is no surprise; the Super Smash Bros. franchise is inextricably tied to the GameCube controller.

McCain “MacD” LaVelle has released a comprehesive controller necklace tutorial.

Unfortunately, there’s a dark side to this connection: the GameCube controller is inherently flawed. Variation in the production of GameCube controllers has caused some to perform better than others, leading to a scarcity of high-performing controllers (I’ll expand on this later). On top of this, the GameCube controller, like any other gaming controller, places stresses upon the wrist that the human hand is simply not designed to experience. Without a loose grip or proper care, years of grinding tech skill can cause a player to experience significant injury. Hand injuries have infamously threatened the careers of many top players, including Aziz “Hax$” Al-Yami, Otto “Silent Wolf” Bisno, and Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman. It’s lamentable that an object as beloved as the GameCube controller is also the cause of these serious problems, but the GameCube controller is central to the Smash player’s experience—it’s certainly not going anywhere.

The GameCube controller is overwhelmingly the most popular controller in the Melee, Brawl, and Wii U competitive scenes. The more recent Smash games do offer some alternatives: Smash 4 lets the player pick between seven different controllers, including the Wii U Pro Controller, Wiimote/Nunchuk, and 3DS. Furthermore, newer Smash titles allow players to remap their controllers’ inputs in the Controls menu, creating a multitude of potential button layouts. In contrast to this smorgasbord of choices, Melee officially supports only one control option: the GameCube controller, with a standardized button layout. Most players would scoff at the idea of playing Melee with anything else.

That isn’t to say there are no other options. For years, third-party controllers produced by companies like GameStop, Hori, and Mad Catz have been tournament legal. Competitive players generally disregard these off-brand controllers due to their ergonomic and qualitative inferiority to Nintendo products. Nevertheless, the use of alternative controllers has been condoned by many Melee rulesets; one notable example is the Apex 2015 rulebook. For most of Melee’s competitive lifespan, players with alternative controllers have gone under the radar, tolerated or ignored as an eccentric minority. In recent years, this attitude has shifted, in part due to the development of high-quality “box-style” controllers, third-party GameCube controllers modeled after the arcade sticks used by the fighting game community. Unlike alternative controller users of years past, box players can risk punishment simply for using their controller in public.

The controller clause in the Apex 2015 rulebook.

This October, Jadon “Jagerbombsoldier” Maloney attended The Big House 7 as both a competitor and volunteer staff member. Maloney, a three-year veteran of Michigan’s Melee scene, had brought a box-style controller so he could play despite debilitating hand problems. “I use it because I can’t use a GameCube controller,” said the Ice Climbers main. Maloney, a player formerly power ranked in Michigan, was confident that he’d be allowed to use his custom-made controller at The Big House due to the tournament organizers’ familiarity with his situation. When he arrived at the venue, Maloney was informed that he wouldn’t be allowed to use his box controller for tournament play or even remove it from his bag. Maloney was flabbergasted by the ban: “Honestly, I thought they were joking.”

Hit Box’s Smash Box is a notable example of a box-style controller.

Ostensibly, The Big House 7’s ban was due to fears that box controllers might give competitors an unfair advantage—a fair concern, since Maloney’s controller has a proprietary shield drop button. However, such a ban is also indicative of the discomfort that many community leaders experience when faced with the issue of alternative control devices that compete with the GameCube controller—and perhaps towards fears that such controllers could mar the sanctity of a beloved game. In August, a committee of community figureheads published a 2017 recommended tournament ruleset, which bans alternative controllers and states that “the use of a GC controller is somewhat intrinsic to what [they] consider ‘playing Melee.’” In his “Out of Focus” video discussing SmashBox legality, committee member Arian “The Crimson Blur” Fathieh explained this reasoning further, suggesting that the inherent flaws of the GameCube controller might actually be balancing the game: “The inconsistencies in controllers are a natural nerf to Fox, and maybe…the game is balanced around the inconsistencies of the GameCube controller because it’s the only one available to us.” According to Fathieh, the introduction of alternatives could upend the metagame by opening up a variety of previously unreliable options to Fox mains and other technical players. While this is a real possibility, neither Fathieh’s justification nor the committee’s official statement makes it clear where their definition of “the metagame” or authentic “Melee” comes from.

Is Melee’s limited controller selection truly intrinsic to its competitive gameplay? A glance at the Smash 64 scene shows that this doesn’t have to be the case. Smash 64, like Melee, officially supports only one control device: the Nintendo 64 controller. Despite this limitation, many competitive players compete using the Hori Mini Pad, a third-party controller widely considered equal or superior to the Nintendo 64 controller. Additionally, top players such as Abacus “LD” Zilch and Maxim “Star King” Korobskiy have used adapters to compete with Xbox 360 controllers or keyboards. These alternatives were not accepted entirely without debate. In the past, opponents of keyboard play have argued that keyboards allow players to input ridiculous SDI, citing the infamous “Killer DI” of top keyboard player Ezra “Killer” Lucien. Nonetheless, the Smash 64 community has welcomed keyboard play, and recent 64 majors such as Super Smash Con 2017 (where Melee players were not allowed to use alternative controllers) have allowed entrants to compete with any controller that doesn’t have macros or turbo functions. There are multiple explanations for the 64 scene’s easy acceptance of alternative controllers. Maybe it’s due to the fact that the scene is smaller and can’t afford to alienate players; perhaps it’s because Smash 64 players aren’t as enamored with the unwieldy Nintendo 64 controller as Melee players are with the GameCube controller. It might just be that tournament organizers are forced to accommodate top players who only use alternative controllers (keep this in mind). Either way, the 64 scene is proof that a game with only one official control option can embrace alternatives engineered or manufactured by third parties.

The 64 tournament Super Smash Con 2017 allowed alternative controllers that satisfied these requirements.

One benefit touted by proponents of box-style controllers is that they mitigate the dashback problem inherent to GameCube controllers. While some GameCube controllers are capable of registering frame-one backdash inputs, most are inconsistent and occasionally cause the player to get stuck in his or her tilt turn animation. This has led to the existence of a “controller lottery” that forces top players to comb through dozens of controllers in search of one with consistent backdashes. One solution to this problem is the Universal Controller Fix (UCF), a game modification that increases the dashback window from one frame to two frames, allowing all controllers to dash backwards consistently. The implementation of UCF was (and is) a controversial issue, with critics arguing that using a game code modification on a national scale could draw Nintendo’s ire. Regardless, UCF has quickly become standard at major tournaments since its introduction at Shine 2017. Since both UCF and box controllers claim to be a solution to Melee’s dashback problems, the quick acceptance of the former stands in stark contrast to the controversy surrounding the latter.

From box controllers to the Universal Controller Fix, the hot-button issues that have divided the Melee scene in 2017 converge upon a connecting theme: the GameCube controller. It makes sense that players take their controllers seriously. After all, the controller is the physical interface between the player and the game. A player’s controller can be a deeply personal object, and custom controllers are one way for players to make themselves stand out from the crowd. Ultimately, though, the form of a controller is secondary to its use: the translation of a player’s thoughts and reactions into in-game actions. Controllers are as integral to other esports as they are to Super Smash Bros, and most esports allow competitors to wield a variety of different control devices. So why is the Melee scene so preoccupied by the specific design of its controllers?

The only box controller user at Melee’s top level is Aziz “Hax$” Al-Yami. Save for Erick “Lord” Lui’s netplay misadventures, no top Melee player is known for his keyboard play. In a scene in which professionals are loath to even make the switch from one GameCube controller to another, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see an exodus of top players from GameCube controllers to alternative controllers. Mike “HRCTypo” Bassett, a GameCube controller expert, explained top players’ exacting controller preferences: “You have to understand that when somebody learns how to play on a controller, they’re ingraining patterns and habits into their muscle memory, and so…if they lose that controller or that controller breaks and they have to go to another one that doesn’t have good dashback, everything changes.” While some top players, such as Leffen, have vocally criticized alternative controllers, most support box legalization or are apathetic about it—but that support doesn’t really accomplish much if we don’t actually see box-style controllers on stream.

On the other hand, top player opinions carry an inordinate amount of weight when it comes to UCF legalization. “It started becoming a top-down thing, where the top players can just say that they want it to be there,” said Bassett, referring to the spread of the game-fixing code modification. Armada and Leffen’s vocal support of the mod was instrumental in getting it implemented at majors such as Game Tyrant Expo, The Big House, and Smash Summit. Seeing top players use and support UCF makes the mod less foreign or disconcerting to those hesitant to adopt it. Of course, it helps that UCF doesn’t carry the hefty price tag of box-style controllers.

Here’s where I’m going with this: we, the normie busters who encompass the majority of Melee’s playerbase, base our perception of the game—our idealization of what Melee should be—on the way top competitors play. Many pot fillers say they lose interest in playing the game when they see major top 8s full of Fox vs. Puff, despite the fact that they rarely play that matchup themselves (a disproportionately small percentage of low-to-mid level players main Jigglypuff). Locals are often extremely progressive with their rulesets, and it’s rare to find a local TO who would seriously enforce a ban on box controllers. But as long as the top-level game is played conservatively, this doesn’t matter. When we plug in at our locals, we see ourselves as playing the same game that Hungrybox, Armada, and the rest of the gods play to earn their paychecks. We do what they do, and since no elite players use box controllers, we (perhaps subconsciously) reject the idea that they can be used to play “Melee” in its purest form. This isn’t conjecture; it’s straight out of the 2017 recommended ruleset. Considering one set of tools or objects “intrinsic” to playing Melee implicitly acknowledges that we should strive to play an idealized version of the game.

Jigglypuff appears in roughly 5% of ranked netplay matches, but dominates discussions about the state of Melee.

In 2017, this romanticized vision of Melee is set on a crash course with a strikingly different reality. Melee now is vastly dissimilar from how it was only two years ago, and far beyond the way things were eight or ten years ago, when today’s top professionals were getting started. If you wanted to play competitive Melee in 2009, you had no choice but to go to a tournament, fire up vanilla Melee on a ‘Cube, and plug in your GameCube controller. Nowadays, all of this has changed. Thanks to ranked netplay, you can experience competitive Melee without even having to put on pants. You don’t need a disc to play the game anymore—just download a 20XX ISO (now with UCF included!) and you’re good to go. With the advent of alternative controllers, even the GameCube controller is no longer a necessity. Individually, none of these changes have an earth-shattering effect on the game. Together, they transform it.

The Melee scene is at a crossroads. One path signals a continuation of the status quo, with controller orthodoxy, vanilla Melee, and CRTs. To represent this status quo, the Smash community has made symbols out of the objects once considered necessary to play the game. Of these totems, the most prominent is the GameCube controller—you’re hardly a Melee player without one. The deep association between the GameCube controller and the halcyon days of past Melee are one of the driving reasons for the GameCube controller’s prominence throughout the scene, both as an image and an artifact.

The other path represents a radical shift in competitive Melee, wherein controller requirements are less stringent and the community alters the game in order to make it more balanced or competitive. I’m not saying we’re going to be playing TAS correspondence chess, modifying toasters to input frame-perfect ledgedashes, or implementing frozen Stadium any time soon, but the fact remains that Melee is, perhaps inevitably, becoming something very different from what it once was. The question is whether we want to go there or not. The answer rests in the hands of our top players.