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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate basics: The neutral game and your opponent

Read your enemies

Sora Ltd., Bandai Namco Studios/Nintendo

In this last section of our Super Smash Bros. Ultimate basics guides, we’re going to talk about the stage of the game that fighting game players call “the neutral game.” Think of neutral in the sense that nobody is attacking yet and nobody is defending yet. This is the stage where players run and jump back and forth, trying to put themselves into their best position while keeping the opponent from getting into theirs.

Neutral isn’t when one player is desperately trying to fly back toward the stage, and it’s not when one player is harassing the other in the air. It’s when both players are taking those first pokes at each other and working toward the big hit that shifts the momentum of the fight in their direction.

Game plan and positioning

Think of your character in terms of their game plan. What is your character good at? How can they deal damage and where do you need to put them to make it happen? When you hear “Go,” what’s the first move you’re going to make?

Isabelle packs a keep away tool set. She lays traps and makes you chase her, and when you chase her she ropes you in with her fishing rod or pokes at you with her slingshot. Her close-range moves are average: It’s this medium-long range where she excels. So, naturally, to get the best out of Isabelle you want to maintain a distance, repeatedly luring the opponent into your range and then striking. The fishing pole is very much a metaphor.

If you’re fighting against Isabelle, you’ll want to move around her ranged attacks and get in her face. By sticking close to Isabelle, you’re denying her the opportunity to use many of her best moves and putting her in a bad position to fight from.

The reverse case is Little Mac. The boxer has excellent close-range moves, crazy speed and crushing damage. His zone, so to speak, is a straight line right in front of him. However, keep your distance from Mac, and he can’t get in to hit you. Toss him up in the air, and he’s pretty helpless.

Neutral game is about finding your ground — your comfort zone — and maintaining it while trying to throw your opponent out of theirs. Look closely at all of your character’s attack ranges, their movement options. Think about what they can do, what they’re good at doing, and what they’re bad at doing. Don’t just hop around the stage: Play to those strengths. Remember that the other player is doing the same.

The other player

To avoid total chaos we’re going to talk about “the other player” as a 1-versus-1 concept. You may play Smash any way you like.

When you move from fighting a computer-controlled dummy to a real human being, a lot of things change. No matter how tough it is, an AI bot is ultimately playing a pattern. It can’t think outside the bounds of its own programming. Furthermore, in the interest of all the human customers having a good time, the lower AI settings in this game pretty much allow you to beat them up.

People are different. Your human opponent is playing their best. They probably know the things you know about the game — maybe more. They’re watching your moves and changing their game plan to adapt to your tendencies. Unlike the Lv.3 AI, they are trying to win.

You can determine a lot about your opponent’s game plan from their character, as we discussed above. Think of what you’d do in their situation, and then think about how you’d beat that plan of action. From there, try to observe your opponent’s tendencies directly. Does their movement follow a pattern? Do they use a move every single time at a certain range, or in a particular situation? Any move that you can read before it happens is a move that you can counter.

Like every human being, every player is a little bit different. Ultimately, you will win by taking advantage of an opening, or tricking them into the wrong choice. Much of a fighting game match is about getting to know a person as quickly as possible, and then using that knowledge to fool them.

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