There’s no hotter hot button topic in the FGC than tiers. Who’s low, high or on top? Who’s ass, who’s God, who’s secret, who’s overrated or underrated? Who’s one patch away from a breakout or a collapse? Who requires the right hands to make them shine even though the tools where there the entire time & no one gave them the time of day? Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the most intriguing topics in fighters for me, but common dialogue is so shallow. Here we’re going to, as always… go way deeper as to why a character is good from scratch.
You know something is good because it works consistently without a hitch, even the untrained eye can see the effectiveness of a fireball over someone who doesn’t have one. You see afterimage/puppet characters automatically granted top 10 & a one-way ticket to the danger zone of potentially being busted. I’ll get into cheapness at another time, the point I'm looking to make here is that certain characters pass the eyeball test even though you don’t have an idea of where exactly they fall on the tier list. You know who they are: Ryu, Jax, Liu Kang, Sol Badguy, Jago, Iori, Kazuya just to name a few. This isn’t limited to the basic character/jack-of-all-trades archetype because you have characters -- rushdown specialists like Wolverine & Kim while Guile fairs better with keep away -- that have seen constant success. We’ve seen "who", but what about "why"? Do we really know the real reason beyond a general character breakdown of what makes these characters solid?
See my philosophy to building a good character concept is a skill set that has an answer to most, if not all, situations. They don’t have to be proficient in everything, just a reliable move to avoid exploitation from the enemy. Take Johnny Cage, pretty simple design with little difficulty to pick up. All around good speed, power & reach on his normals/attack strings. Couple that with anti air options, high & low fireball to zone any situation and a fast moving special to close the gap quickly. You pack that up & drop it into any game and you provide the player with the leeway to do damage/handle any challenge thrown at them. Sure enough, historically speaking, Johnny boy’s been middle to high tier in MK. If you go one step further and make a stronger package, you get a high tier dweller with a shot at top tier (think Jax).
The inverse is also true, albeit rare to pull off unintentionally these days in fighters. A bad character concept is distinctly weak from the foundation. These kinds of characters aren’t the same as struggling characters that can be remedied by a favorable patch; that implies the tools to work with were there and/or were supplemented. These concepts can receive a slew of buffs, but won’t fix their inherent problems. I look to T.Hawk as a prime example of this since his checkered past dates all the way back to the early 90s. Despite his concept of being an enormous threat up close with high damaging command grabs, he suffers heavily from being a big body. He’s also slow with predictable mobility options; his normals have good reach, but smaller hitboxes than you’d expect from a guy his size and hardly has an answer to zoning. To remedy this, he needs more moves to directly address the issues or to go extreme… a redesign. Not a massive one, mind you, just think of the revamp Symmetra got in Overwatch a few months back. Of course, this isn’t to say that no player can have fun or enjoy success with a poor concept, but in this day & age with patches, lag & dealing with bad match-ups… you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.
I’ve mentioned a lot of changes & tier stretches without another major influence… the games themselves. Yet another transcendent debate, which game was good or bad? Is it really don’t hate the player (or, rather, the player’s character), hate the game? Some of you may be screaming on the inside about the laundry list of complaints you have about ‘X’ game, which brings us to the real question here: Do the games we play give some characters freedom to flourish or are they just built that way… is this all an exercise in nature vs. nurture? For those stating their case on both sides of the argument… you’re not wrong. The truth isn’t so cut & dry, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.
“It’s proven that the game’s mechanics make the rules, have you seen what-“ Yes, Randolph, you’re right. To clarify, both the mechanics and build of the character determine how viable they are. Arakune from Blazblue rode the tier rollercoaster wherever the strength of his Curse mechanic took him. We all know what Morrigan’s about, even without Doctor Doom to back her up. She’s nowhere remotely as strong in any of the Darkstalkers games because there’s no flight, her Soul Fist is the EX (ES for my Vampire heads) version, she can unfly in ONE FRAME… the list goes on & on. While we’re in the same decade, how about the wonders A-Groove did for Blanka in CVS2? Or heck, since everyone wants to talk about throw loops, what about multi-hitting grabs from Super Turbo being a legit strategy? Jump Jab cancelled into Tatsu into Knee Bash was business as usual for anyone going up against ST Ken. It made Honda that much more deadly & Dhalsim arguably the best character. Both are a painful far cry from their USF4 counterparts.
What happened here? The fall from grace was a quite a tumble, but any old SF vet can tell you exactly what happened. The Focus system of SF4 changed the neutral game and made its presence felt once the meta took hold & ran through it. Your footsie game of fireballs & pokes is changed to fishing with a focus dash cancel or armor breaking move. Look at the best characters from ST in Dhalsim & Vega and where they ended up. Both were masters of pokes and dominating the neutral, but never mind that when you can armor through it for a full punish. Honda’s case is different because although the benefits of multi-hit grabs and storing an oicho throw are gone, he fared well until the nerfs came to his move set. Patches & omitting moves in a new entry for a character are intervention by the developers which change the situation sometimes drastically. Such alterations can change the identity of a franchise or character, in other words, a clean slate of debate.
“This dude Parappa is buggin’, talkin’ about the game when he knows damn well he brought up afterimage-“ Yes, Mortimer, you’re correct. Characters like Zero, Miss Fortune, Ice Climbers, etc. are real tricky to balance for these devs. The archetype of the ‘shadow/afterimage/puppet’ fighters draw a fine line between unstable character concept & abusing mechanics (which I’ll elaborate on in a bit). A solid character design is a solid character design… be it the basic dude or the swordsman that somehow gets the job done. Comparisons to the overpowered or top tier doesn’t discourage that fact; that’s an unfortunate occurrence for various reasons when characters like Captain America in UMVC3 or Green Arrow in Injustice 1 are damn near playing a different game.
So what exactly do I mean by a ‘fine line’? It’s an important distinction in the "nature vs. nurture" argument because a character abusing mechanics determines the balance of a game more so than a character being really great. You know what both look like… who abuses X-Factor more than Vergil? X-Factor is the poster child of a universal mechanic that took a select few and skyrocketed them to the top… then you see the state of parity in UMVC3. On the flip side, think back to Season 1 Chun-Li in SF5. Widely agreed upon that she’s in a class of her own, but she was tolerable… a royal pain in the ass, yes, but tolerable.
So let’s review, Winthorpe. The rules of the game both giveth & taketh. While Hwa Jai gets to rock out with the HD system, F.A.N.G. loses out because even with good zoning, long limbs and poison gimmick, he gets the one SF game that changes the way chip KOs work. Of course, you can chuck all that aside by going with Mr. Karate & Urien from the start. This topic will keep going for years because, well, no one wants to admit valid points from the other side... especially in the FGC.
Till next time, lookin’ good Billy Ray!