Why are some Smash Bros. Ultimate fans disappointed by the Byleth presentation?
Back in December of 2018, following the announcement that Joker from Persona 5 would be the first DLC character for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Reggie Fils-Aime, the president of Nintendo of America at the time, said that Joker’s inclusion in the roster was “emblematic” of what was coming in the rest of the DLC. In the absence of any other official statement from Nintendo regarding what characters we could expect from the Fighters Pass, fans latched onto this statement as truth from above. We took his statement and ran with it, codified it into something it was never meant to be. We made it into a kind of heaven-sent rule. The rest of the characters would be third-party, unique, and unexpected. All your hopes for those far-fetched characters? Their chances to be in Smash were given new life. Sora, Banjo-Kazooie, maybe even Master Chief! They all had a chance, now.
And though we may have over-emphasized Reggie’s rule, the next DLC characters seemed to support our assumptions. Next came “The Hero” from Dragon Quest, Banjo-Kazooie himself, and Terry Bogard from Fatal Fury. There was no question that “the rule” was truth itself. The pattern had confirmed it. They were all third-party, unique, and at least somewhat unexpected (especially if you weren’t following any rumors or leaks). In the wake of each new announcement, you could feel the excitement growing. Who would the next character be? After the announcement of Terry Bogard, that excitement was at an all time high. It was the fifth and final fighter of the Fighters Pass, so it had to be a mind-blowing announcement.
Now, this is not to say everyone was universally content with the characters that were being inducted into Ultimate’s hall of fame. The West’s reaction to Hero’s inclusion was about as lukewarm as Japan’s reaction to Banjo-Kazooie’s. The name “Terry Bogard” left many (myself included) saying, “Terry? Who?” But Byleth was criticized far more than any of the other four DLC characters.
Last Thursday, Masahiro Sakurai, the creator of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, sat down to present Byleth from Fire Emblem: Three Houses to the world. And for a lot of Smash fans, the presentation wasn’t a homerun. The mixed response to Byleth is no doubt because of our expectations for third-party characters. It was odd that the fifth and final character went against the pattern that was set up by the previous four. But there’s more to it than that. The negativity is also due to a perceived overrepresentation of both Fire Emblem characters and sword-wielders in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Byleth was doomed to be labeled as a “Marth clone” or “just another sword dude” right from the get-go. The team behind Byleth’s presentation trailer knew this too, evidently, because they had Sothis give a version of that very same sentiment: “I see, too many swordsmen are there? And you, you wield the sword as well?”
The video goes on to reveal three more weapons: a bow, a spear, and an axe. They jet down, out of the darkness above Byleth, and impale themselves before her. It was at this point that some of my excitement was rekindled. My initial thought was that Byleth would have distinct movesets for the axe, spear, and sword. Maybe you would be able to select which weapon you wanted to equip at will, with a simple b-press. If we were going to have another Fire Emblem character, this would be a good way to represent the combat from the series more fully. After all, it’s not as if every Fire Emblem character is a sword-wielder. Now we could see what it would be like to have both an axe-wielder and a spear-wielder in Smash. In reality, we got the different weapon-types, but not full movesets for each. That was a little bit disappointing, but I think that Byleth’s moveset at least makes sure she’s not “just another sword character.” As far as it goes for Fire Emblem characters in Smash, she’s unique.
But most people who are disappointed by Byleth aren’t disappointed by her character design. The disappointment is due to the idea that many fans would have preferred if her spot went to a character from a video game franchise other than Fire Emblem. It’s not a distaste for Fire Emblem, it’s that fans feel that the roster has enough Fire Emblem representation already. Well, that’s a valid point. Let’s do some counting.
Fire Emblem is the third-most represented video game series in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, even before Byleth’s release as a DLC character. We will have Marth, Roy, Ike, Lucina, Chrom, Robin, Corrin, and Byleth, making eight. The Legend of Zelda is the fourth-most represented, with six characters (the three different Links, Zelda, Sheik, and Ganondorf). Pokémon is the second-most represented series with ten characters (if we split Pokémon Trainer up into individual pokémon): Pikachu, Jigglypuff, Pichu, Mewtwo, Squirtle, Venusaur, Charizard, Lucario, Greninja, and Incineroar. And, of course, characters from Mario games are the most represented in Smash. We’ve got Mario, DK*, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Yoshi*, Dr. Mario, Bowser, Bowser Jr., Wario*, Rosalina & Luma, and Piranha Plant. That makes twelve characters, depending on who you decide to include (Super Smash Bros. Ultimate doesn’t include DK, Yoshi, or Wario as part of the Super Mario Bros. franchise, but since they all share a universe with Mario, I’m putting them all in the same boat).
The point of all this counting is so that we can consider the facts when we ask the question, “Is Fire Emblem overrepresented in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate?” Well, what qualifies a video game series for representation? Cultural influence? If so, then we would have to admit that Fire Emblem is overrepresented. Super Mario Bros. and Pokémon have impossible-to-overstate cultural influence, becoming prevalent household names, spanning years of games with multiple, successful titles. The Legend of Zelda, if not as earth-shatteringly huge as Mario or Pokémon, is a beloved, widespread, extremely successful series, with multiple, top-charting, critically acclaimed titles. Fire Emblem is popular, acclaimed, and generally well-reviewed by critics, but one would be hard-pressed to say it deserves a seat at the table with the other behemoths.
All that said, the inclusion of Byleth in Ultimate’s roster still makes a lot of sense. Fire Emblem: Three Houses was an extremely successful game for the Nintendo Switch. It has sold over two million copies, more than any other entry in the Fire Emblem series. Not only that, but the game was critically successful too. Just take a look at the top-rated games for the Switch on Metacritic. If we exclude games that are not Nintendo-exclusive, Three Houses is among the top-rated games on the console, up there with other titles like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate itself, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Bayonetta + Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and Super Mario Maker 2. For fans of great Switch-exclusive games, it would come off as rather strange not to include a member from the Three Houses cast in Ultimate.
More than that, Fire Emblem is different from the other top-rated Nintendo-exclusive Switch games in that it doesn’t have a consistent titular character. Games in the Super Mario series will always feature Mario as the protagonist. We can say the same for Bayonetta. The Legend of Zelda, despite its title, is always about one of Link’s adventures. And they’re all in Smash: Mario, Bayonetta, Zelda, and Link. The difference is that games in the Fire Emblem series are known for their ensemble cast, a group of sometimes dozens of playable characters with distinct personalities. Across the series, there are 617 playable characters. It’s a game known for its emphasis on characters, story, and plot. People who have played the games are attached to the characters and their stories. So, does the main protagonist from Fire Emblem: Three Houses deserve a spot in Ultimate’s roster? If we had all thought about it, he/she would have been a shoo in.
At the same time, for Ultimate fans who aren’t huge fans of Fire Emblem, it sure feels like there are too many Fire Emblem characters in Smash. And I’d have to agree with that sentiment. But perhaps we shouldn’t be blaming Byleth for that. The problem already existed before Byleth came along. We already had seven characters from the series and three of them – Robin, Chrom, and Lucina – came from a single game: Fire Emblem Awakening.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has become more than just a fighting game. As Masahiro Sakurai himself has suggested, it’s turned into a celebration of video games. It’s the biggest crossover in video game history. But Sakurai’s grand celebration of games is perhaps suffering from an over-celebration of Fire Emblem. And that’s not because of Byleth. It’s because of his goal to make sure that “everyone is here,” which is an admirable goal despite the fact that it means he’s got to double-down on past characters that we might have been better without.
Byleth’s inclusion wasn’t necessarily meant to make Super Smash Bros. Ultimate players happy. But it was meant to make Fire Emblem: Three Houses fans happy. It was meant to make fans of the Nintendo Switch happy. It was meant to make people who play video games happy. Did it succeed? I guess that depends on who you are. Do you value a balanced roster with representation from many different games? Then, no, I suppose Byleth won’t necessarily float your boat. But if you value Byleth because she’s Byleth and you really enjoyed playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses, then, absolutely. It’s floating your boat. At the same time, there are many of us who aren’t quite sure whether our boat is floating or not – and that’s OK too.
Looking at the approval rating (the thumbs-up to thumbs-down ratio) for the Byleth presentation on YouTube, it’s clear that plenty of people are unhappy. Others, like me, have mixed feelings. But a good majority of people are quite excited by the announcement. And that’s great. We should let Byleth fans be Byleth fans. But you know what the best part about the Byleth presentation was? The announcement that Fighters Pass Vol. 2 is coming, with six new DLC characters. If you’re not excited for Byleth, get excited for that. Because the potential is as limitless as the first Fighters Pass. And no matter who is coming next, I feel pretty safe saying that it probably won’t be another Fire Emblem character.