One of the first tournaments I ever ran was for Smash Bros. Melee. The winner of the tournament, who we nicknamed “the toaster” due to him taking the tournament from someone with the tag “waffle,” brought his own custom Gamecube controller to the tournament. It had extra notched carved into the gate around his analog stick and it had the spring removed from one of his triggers.
For some reason, this enraged the tournament, sparking cries of “cheater!” We forced him to play with a fresh out of the box controller in the next tournament I ran and he won anyway. Also it was an easy way to get my college to buy a new Gamecube controller for me.
Several years later I moved on from Smash Bros. to join the fighting game community at large and with it the controller modding community. I met players that used controllers, arcade sticks, hit-boxes, computer keyboards, and all manner of other devices. Some were purchased at stores, others were cobbled together in a garage from solder, wood, and sheer force of will. There was something enamoring about how every player’s controller was as unique as their personality, and creativity in controller creation was encouraged. No one was called a cheater because their controller had a few extra notches on it. Rather, they were praised for coming up with new and interesting ways to make execution easier.
And now I find myself at a crossroads between the two communities with the release of the Smash Box. This new controller (which unfortunately shares a name with a cosmetics brand, making it hard to search for) does what the Hit-Box did for traditional fighting games for Smash Bros. It takes the uncertain analog inputs of the Gamecube controller and converts them into clean precise digital inputs using arcade quality buttons.
At the crossroads comes a conflict of opinion. Half the Smash community seems to want to ban the Smash Box while the other half wants to accept it with open arms, a clash of the same people who called playing with a modified Gamecube controller cheating and the people who solder together custom PCBs in their garages. To help me form an opinion, Hit-Box Arcade was nice enough to send us one of their brand new Smash Box controllers, fresh from their new line that was produced for the launch of Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Using the Smash Box
I need to make this clear, the Smash Box is not a miracle tool. You won’t get better at Smash Bros. just by using in. In fact, for a long time you’ll be far worse since you have to completely relearn the game for this new control scheme.
While each Smash Box comes with a button guide, the buttons are not labeled on the box itself meaning you have to frequently turn back to small pieces of paper to figure out what you are supposed to be pushing. You can remap some buttons and you can even connect a Wii nunchuck to it, if you prefer a traditional analog stick, but all of these options are too much for someone who is just beginning to learn.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when transitioning to the Smash Box, more so than you would be transitioning to stick or Hit-Box from a normal controller in any other fighting game. Aside from using the coupled software to map buttons, you also have to choose between button modes, make sure that the box is set for the right control mode for the Smash game you are playing, and in general get used to the idea that certain buttons jump, shield, and attack, and they are nowhere near where they were on a Gamecube controller.
But once you get it all figured out, I do have to admit that the Smash Box did make my Smash play cleaner. I first noticed it in fast falls. Having a digital input for “fall now” is way easier to control than slamming the control stick down after every jump. It became a rote muscle memory motion, like performing a quarter circle on an arcade stick.
From there I started trying all sorts of different high level techniques from pivot attacks to wave dashing on the original Melee and, yes, all of these techniques proved much easier to do on the Smash Box.
I still struggled with using the wrong inputs at times and, to be honest, the Smash Box can sometimes make your character feel too responsive. However, I eventually rewired my brain to use taps of forward and back to dash dance rather than holding the button which sent me into a run. I sectioned off the shield and jump buttons to not interfere with my attack buttons so that my brain could wrap its head around the concept more easily.
I think the greatest advantage the Smash Box gives you is the ability to separate out your tilts into discrete inputs. This way you’ll never accidentally get a dash attack or jump (but seriously turn tap jump off) when you are trying to get a forward tilt or side tilt. It essentially separates tilts and smashes out into their own individual buttons, more like a traditional fighting game.
The creators of the Smash Box claim that it is better for your hands, and I have no scientific evidence for that, but I can say that my hands hurt like hell after prolonged Gamecube controller use and they did not hurt nearly as much while using the Smashbox. Then again, there are plenty of stories of people using KBAM setups similar to the Smash Box while still screwing up their hairs. Just look at how taxing high level Starcraft 2 play is. I think, in general, it’s easier to not get hand cramps while playing on a Smash Box simply because your hands are spread out, but your mileage may vary.
Will I continue using the Smash Box? That’s a good question. To be honest it still feels a little uncomfortable for me. It’s just not as natural as a Gamecube controller. That being said, I have used the original Hit-Box to great effect in traditional fighting games and I can see the Smashbox being a fantastic replacement for the Gamecube controller, in time. For now, I tend to play with the Smash Box during the comfort of casuals, when nothing is really on the line and I’m getting better by the day. However, when things really count I still reach for the standard Gamecube controller.
The Argument Against Legality
Controller legality in the fighting game community has always come down to one simple question: can this controller do something that a normal human cannot do? Thus, things like turbo mode or button macros that automatically do complex motions for you are outlawed. Controllers must only change the way you make your inputs, not do your inputs for you.
If we go by that metric, the Smash Box is actually doing something that is tournament illegal. It is guaranteeing certain motions by changing them from analog to digital inputs. Now you don’t have to tilt the stick slightly to do tilt attacks. You won’t ever mess up your fast fall vectors. You can do techniques at the push of a button that previously required more complex and finicky inputs.
In addition the “toggle” buttons allow you to perfectly control how far one of your digital buttons “pushes the analog stick.” This is, essentially, analogous to a motion macro in another game. It removes any chance of user input error, and many Smash pros would argue that input accuracy is part of the game.
The designer button remapping software is also something that could be considered tournament illegal. Mapping button macros has always been illegal in fighting game tournaments and since the Smashbox essentially lets you do that (but in a limited “tournament legal” fashion) that could be a point against it. It could also be argued against from a sheer pragmatic standpoint, as it may be impossible to check that every Smash Box entered in a tournament is using it’s button remapping software in a legal way, especially if anyone reverse engineers it to allow you to do more than intended, but then again that is a pretty niche and unlikely scenario that can be handled on a per tournament basis.
The Argument for Legality
In the days of Melee, the argument against Smash Box legality was far stronger. However, recent Smash releases have done a lot to make inputs easier. You can now remap your buttons inside the game itself. You can set tilts and smashes to the c-stick to ensure that you won’t screw up their input. You can turn your input sensitivity up or down to make tilts easier. You can guarantee short-hops by inputting a short hop attack shortcut. It appears as if Nintendo is doing their best to take input complexity out of Smash. In that sense, there is actually very little that the Smash Box can do that can’t already be done by screwing with your options inside the game.
We also have to ask ourselves what we are testing when two Smash players go up against each other. Are we seeing who can make the best choices and out play the other? Or are we testing who can handle a controller better? The greater fighting game community seems to have decided on the latter since high-level players rarely make input mistakes and because input mistakes are still possible on Hit-Box style controllers. Will the Smash community follow suit?
You could argue that the Smash Box doesn’t actually allow you to do anything that a high level player couldn’t do in the first place. Yes, it lets you perfectly tilt, smash, and perform several other high level techniques, but pros are already doing that with a 99 percent rate. Not to mention, you can still make poor decisions and accidentally throw out moves you don’t mean to because of those decisions. For example, newbies will still throw out accidental dash attacks all the time on the Smash Box, simply because of the way that Smash parses inputs.
So even though the Smash Box gives you superhuman accuracy on your inputs, the Hit-Box does the same, allowing you to do things like minimal frame quarter circles. If you follow this line of thinking then the Smash Box isn’t actually allowing you to do anything that a human couldn’t do, it’s just making your inputs cleaner, like an arcade stick or Hit-Box do.
I used the Smash Box for several weeks and after considering both sides and giving it a thorough workout, I can confidently say that I have arrived back where I started. When I joined the greater fighting game community, my opinion on controllers and the people who used them changed. No controller can win a game for you. It’s skill that wins games and nothing can replace that skill, no matter how good your controller is. This is why fighting gamers allow for so many different kinds of controller setups.
For the longest time, Smash players wanted to be taken seriously as “real fighting game players” and I think it’s obvious that they are. Smash is a fighting game, like it or not. It takes real skill to play on par with any Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat or Tekken.
But if Smash is a real fighting game then it has to play by the rules that other fighting games play by. That is to say, this preconceived notion of controllers winning games has to go. It’s just not true. Nobody is going to buy a Smash Box and suddenly defeat Leffen or Zero or Ally or any other Smash pro. Rather, the Smashbox will just open up the pro scene to people who have problems using a Gamecube controller, whether by preference or by disability. Opening up the pro scene to new competitors is a good thing.
And for the Smash pros worried that the Smash Box will cause everyone to have to spend a ton of money on custom controllers, don’t be. That hasn’t happened in the greater FGC. Heck Sonicfox, the e-sports player of the year, still uses gamepads. Your precious Gamecube controller isn’t going anywhere.
Legalize the Smash Box and any other third party Smash controller for all tournaments, and if you are having issues with the complex inputs of professional Smash, then maybe give the Smash Box a shot.