It’s been a hard year. I saw exactly one film in theaters, my favorite albums weren’t as phenomenal as my favorites in years past, and I can’t leave my phone in my pocket for one hour without the discourse shifting to the President’s tweets, another beloved celebrity being exposed as a sexual assailant, or some other Hell. So over the next twelve days, I’ll be counting down twelve pieces of entertainment that kept me sane in 2017.
Note: So this #4 entry has been long, and it was six stories split across three games. I’ve already done Smash 4 and Street Fighter V. Today, I’ll be finishing with the two biggest Super Smash Bros. Melee stories of 2017.
4. Competitive fighting games
Fighting games are simply unbelievable. And though ball is life, following fighting games has been far more rewarding as a hobby this past calendar. Perhaps best thought of as an advanced system of rock-paper-scissors mechanics rewarding you for being a yomi levelabove your opponent, what you are watching as you witness top players doing their dance becomes easy to understand even if you fail to grasp the more technical aspects of just what they’re doing. And the word that best encapsulates watching these people? Hype.
The tension of two people dueling, constantly trying to outguess each other, is insane, and the release of coming out on top is infectious, extending to the viewer. Though fighting games’ closest very popular analogy might honestly be tennis (regrettably, the team-based competitive video games that make the bigger bucks are actually boring as fuck), that’s obviously a slow burn. But like in tennis, the storylines that tie into one-on-one showdowns are legendary.
Super Smash Bros. Melee has existed since 2001, and a competitive scene around it has been around for almost as long. Usually, when a new game in a series comes out, the last one is abandoned competitively. It seemed for a minute like the same would happen to Melee.
Instead, it started coming back far stronger than ever before. And now Melee remains basically the lone exception to that rule. Something about its pace, its players, its mechanics…something makes it special even sixteen years later.
Here’s what made it special last year.
The Plup Club
Between 2009 and 2011, the concept of the Five Gods of Melee was conceived of and firmly established. Mew2King was the only player from the Major League Gaming era of competition to remain at the very top of the game. Mango established himself with huge wins at Pound 3, Revival of Melee, Genesis, and Pound 4. Hungrybox solidified his rising star with wins at Revival of Melee 2 and Apex 2010. PPMD (then Dr. Peepee (yeah)) took thrilling wins at Revival of Melee 3 and Pound V. Armada (of Sweden, the only of those players not from the US) finally captured his first North American title at Genesis 2.
Until 2014, only one player since Evo World 2007 had won a tournament at which at least two of these players were present: Jman, a player whose legacy doesn’t quite live up to that achievement, at Don’t Go Down There Jeff, a tournament whose obscurity doesn’t live up to the historical notoriety of its result.
As the game gained new life with its addition to Evo in the summer of 2013, Melee was a game with great rivalries and storylines among its top players but a gap between its top players and the field that rendered its predictable results sometimes frustrating. But not much later, a Swedish player named Leffen beat Hungrybox at Apex 2014 and then took B.E.A.S.T. 4 over a just-out-of-retirement Armada. He’d be ranked the sixth best player of the world on SSBMRank 2014 and he’d continue to collect heads until he beat the last name on the list, Mew2King, at Apex 2015, earning him the informal title “Godslayer.”
Though the Five Gods were still a mostly unchallenged concept and in its place was a clear top six, the foundations for a greater disruption had been laid just two weeks earlier at Paragon Orlando 2015 when Leffen’s ascension was temporarily interrupted.
Plup had cemented himself as the best Samus in the world the year before, but while the character was decent, the idea that it could do much to top level players felt like a stretch. So when Plup took a set off Leffen, it was hard to figure out how to take it. It was in line with Plup’s rapid improvement, but it felt like an aberration.
The feeling wasn’t wrong. Plup has been able to beat Leffen with his Samus as recently as August 2017, but two weeks after what had been his greatest success, Plup stormed Apex 2015 – one of the biggest tournaments of all time, the same one where Leffen became the Godslayer – with an entire overhaul of his game. He had switched to Sheik, and in his first such tournament, he didn’t find much success, finishing 49th. But over 2015 he’d take sets from Hungrybox (he remains the only Sheik to beat Hungrybox outside of a KirbyKaze set in 2012) and Mew2King at weeklies. He’d place fourth at Evo 2015, then the biggest tournament of all time, by beating Mango and, again, Leffen. At the first Smash Summit invitational, he beat PPMD in what would be one of his final chances. He very solidly was ranked #7 by year’s end, standing uncontested as the best player outside of the top six.
But he remained on the outside, and his 2016 would be defined by that. His ascension from #7 in 2015 to #6 in 2016 wasn’t so much the mark of improvement – though there certainly was some – as it was a result of PPMD no longer attending tournaments for health reasons.
Still, he had some great moments, like finishing third on the big stage at Evo 2016, still the biggest Melee tournament of all time. But though he made winners finals, he lost to Armada pretty convincingly. More convincing still was their meeting at Smash Summit 3. Though Armada would be an especially important win for any player at all – though the other top players were certainly dominant, none of them came close to the fact that Armada had only lost to five different players since 2010 – Armada was his white whale, perhaps the defining achievement that separated him from those ranked higher than him, why in on one’s mind he hadn’t taken PPMD’s spot in the top six and it had instead shrunken to a top five.
It looked like his 2017 would be the same. He began with a long string of fifth place showings, which is pretty impressive considering he never once dipped lower, but frustrating considering he was trying to scrape the ceiling.
Most impressively, he honored a promise to play entirely as fan favorite Luigi, a character that makes Samus look pretty great by comparison, at CEO Dreamland. En route to another fifth place finish, he beat 2017’s #49 (Ginger), #35 (Nintendude), and #12 (DruggedFox) players.
(CEO Dreamland Melee Pools: Plup vs. Ginger)
(CEO Dreamland Melee Top 24: Plup vs. Nintendude)
(CEO Dreamland Melee Winners Quarters: Plup vs. DruggedFox)
The only interruptions on his fifth place journey were CEO 2017, at which the only player ranked higher than him was Hungrybox, and Bad Moon Rising 2, at which he honored PPMD by playing Falco (which I guess is somehow not as good as his Luigi).
He’d follow those two departures with fifth place at the big one, Evo 2017, before entering DreamHack Atlanta, the tournament that would change the conversation forever.
Attended by two top players, Hungrybox and Mew2King, Plup squeaked by in 3-2 wins over Axe and Mew2King, making his way to winners finals. At this time, murmurs of the achievement bubbled up, just as they had with SFAT at CEO Dreamland or Wizzrobe at Smash Rivalries, but it felt realer this time. Plup felt more legitimate, more ready than anyone else for such an undertaking. But there was a problem: even without Armada present, beating Hungrybox was really, really hard.
(DreamHack Atlanta Melee Winners Quarters: Plup vs. Axe)
(DreamHack Atalnta Melee Winners Semis: Plup vs. Mew2King)
In fact, Hungrybox had likely been the biggest impetus in the development of his Fox (he had a surprisingly good first run with the character at Shine 2016, beating Lucky, taking SFAT to last hit, and taking Mango to game five). While he stuck by his Sheik in most every other matchup, Fox came out against Jigglypuff.
But just the week prior, he had been scared back to Sheik for his set against Hungrybox after completely imploding against Prince Abu. Not a bad option, considering Plup has easily done more than anyone in Melee history to push the Sheik vs. Puff matchup forward, but Plup clearly no longer felt comfortable with this option.
So he came out swinging and went up 2-0 on Hungrybox. Excitement reached a fever pitch. Hungrybox clawing it back to even up the game count made the tension unbearable. The last game going to last stock, then last hit? It was too much.
(DreamHack Atlanta Melee Winners Finals: Plup vs. Hungrybox)
So Plup headed to winners side of grand finals, but it still felt like a small miracle that he was there in the first place. SFAT had been in a similar position months earlier before getting wrecked by Mew2King.
And it looked like Plup was headed for a similar fate. After beating Mew2King, Hungrybox roared back to grand finals and took the first set 3-0.
It seemed like Hungrybox took his momentum from his win in the losers bracket and it was about to be lights out, but everything quickly changed. The interview afterward would confirm that Plup took advantage of having a set to lose and largely gave up the first one early on, preparing mentally for the next one.
So to follow being 3-0’d, Plup doled out a 3-0 himself to win the tournament.
(DreamHack Atlanta Melee Grand Finals: Plup vs. Hungrybox)
In his follow-up interview, asked if he had anything to say, Plup kept it lovably cocky: “I’m godlike at this game.” Godlike, yeah. He joined Leffen, becoming one of only two active players to ever win a tournament with two gods present.
But he wouldn’t have a chance to truly enter the pantheon until he met Armada again, and Armada wasn’t going to be back in America until GameTyrant Expo and The Big House 7.
Plup’s success at The Big House 7 is made more impressive by the difficulty of his bracket. Having to face Mew2King as early as winners quarters is tough, and when he beat him, people might have underestimated the achievement. Mew2King ended 2017 with a 5-2 record against Plup, with Plup only winning during his very best performances of the year. But maybe that win was a signal that Plup was on his game. Armada had easily marched through to winners semis. For the first time in nearly a year – their last meeting resulting in a demoralizing loss at Smash Summit 3 – Plup would have a shot at Armada.
To get an idea of the matchup to that point, the two had played seven sets before, Armada obviously with a record of 7-0. But if you break it down to the individual game score, the dominance seemed even starker. Armada’s individual game record against Plup was 19-1.
And that one game was a win on Battlefield. Plup’s first game against Armada’s Peach looked good, but it was a stage on which he had shown he can do it. Armada, in a decision that might cost him the set, decided to dig in his heels and demand that Plup more convincingly demonstrate his ability to beat his Peach, going to Dream Land. Plup won there, too.
Just as Armada had done against Shroomed’s Sheik with his back against the wall, he switched to Fox and quickly took a game, but despite an accidental transformation into Zelda (perhaps a foreshadowing of what was to come the following January?), Plup headed into the last stock with a solid lead.
(The Big House 7 Melee Winners Semis: Plup vs. Armada)
Plup had done it. He was the first new player to beat Armada since Leffen and Mew2King did in 2014, and the first aside from that select group of five to do it since 2010. He had broken the streak, and though Shroomed and S2J had come close earlier in 2017, it only felt right that Plup was the one to do it.
But suddenly, Plup had the potential to win one of the game’s most prestigious tournaments, winning at a level that even Leffen and Mew2King had never done. He followed his win over Armada with a quick 3-1 over Leffen to enter grand finals on the winners side.
(The Big House 7 Melee Winners Finals: Plup vs. Leffen)
But just as Hungrybox had done the week before in his huge win at GameTyrant Expo (more on that later), he had been taking names in losers.
It didn’t take much time before Hungrybox reset the bracket 3-1, finishing the set with an emphatic four stock.
But we’d been here before. Plup had turned the tables in the second set before.
But that wasn’t to be. Rather than a thrilling ascension story for a fan favorite, Hungrybox reestablished the power of the old order with another 3-1. It was an impressive win, but the disappointment among the crowd wasn’t hard to glean.
(The Big House 7 Melee Grand Finals: Hungrybox vs. Plup)
But even still, Plup finished the year solidly and surpassed Leffen on the rankings, going a spot higher.
And in January, he’d show us that The Big House 7 wasn’t his only chance.
Hungrybox & Armada
As recently as September, Armada’s dominance in Melee felt like a complete certainty.
He’d reigned as the #1 player for two years and was a shoo-in for a third. By a pretty sizable margin, he had the most impressive competitive resumé of anyone to ever play the game.
But even before 2015, when Armada’s chief rival was Mango, Armada’s rivalry with Hungrybox was a little more compelling, even if it was mostly defined by Armada’s dominance and Hungrybox’s occasional interruptions.
Hungrybox’s two wins over Armada at Apex 2010 forced Armada off his main at subsequent meetings. In probably the strangest counterpick of all time, Armada brought out Young Link, a character who’d never had any use at the very top level of the game. But it worked, and Armada’s evasive play, though creating some of the least popular watching experiences in the history of the game when paired with Hungrybox’s already defensive style, would plague Hungrybox for over three years. Despite starting their career head to head with a 0-2 deficit, Armada answered back by going 7-1 with Young Link, forcing Hungrybox to try and fail to answer back with other characters (Fox, Falco, even Ness).
Until Evo 2014, when Hungrybox double eliminated Armada by finally figuring out the matchup with his Jigglypuff.
Only losing his next set because of some experimentation with Peach, Armada finally discovered that the most obvious answer to Hungrybox, Fox, was the correct one. So after losing three sets in a row – two at Evo 2014 with Young Link and one at Paragon Orlando 2015 where he partly played Peach and nearly won anyway – Armada went on another 7-1 run in their new era of pure Fox vs. Puff matchups.
But while things on Hungrybox’s end of the rivalry were brutal, a peculiar thing was happening. Despite years of never sniffing wins at premier events since the aforementioned Apex 2010, Hungrybox was suddenly the second best player in the game. Despite still being stopped, it was him meeting in Armada in grand finals at three straight events in which they were both in attendance: Evo 2015, The Big House 5, and DreamHack Winter.
The last of which came after the 7-1 string and would begin a period during which the two went an even 4-4, and during which Hungrybox might have been the best player in the world. After three sets at DreamHack Winter 2015, Hungrybox won and gave a teary interview with D1, emotional for a multitude of reasons, not least of which was that he’d finally come out on top against a player like Armada.
They’d go even into the next summer, when Hungrybox fell into the losers bracket but then crawled through and beat Armada in two straight five game sets to win Evo 2016, the biggest Melee tournament of all time in arguably the most memorable set of all time.
It felt like for 2016, Hungrybox would be ranked #1.
…but Hungrybox wouldn’t win another major all year, not entirely because of but largely thanks to Armada then initiating an 11-1 run in their rivalry, including ten set wins in a row. Hungrybox had to settle for #2, and soon his odds kept looking longer and longer for coming out on top in 2017.
To start 2017, Armada won Genesis 4 almost without incident (although the exception is notable), winning the extremely prestigious tournament for the third year in a row, but it wasn’t until winning his fourth consecutive Summit that he and Hungrybox would finally square off. Despite extremely different sets, with Hungrybox trying to dictate a slower pace in winners finals before coming back more aggressively in grand finals, Armada’s victories remained oppressive.
(Smash Summit Spring 2017 Winners Finals: Armada vs. Hungrybox)
(Smash Summit Spring 2017 Grand Finals: Armada vs. Hungrybox)
In May, at Royal Flush, Armada devastated Hungrybox in winners finals with a tidy 3-0, and he looked pretty invincible. He had just gotten his tenth consecutive win over Hungrybox. He hadn’t lost a set since December (in grand finals of UGC Smash Open), and he hadn’t last a tournament since October (barely falling short in grand finals at The Big House 6). He was experiencing the most terrifying set and tournament streaks in the extremely long history of the game.
(Royal Flush Winners Finals: Armada vs. Hungrybox)
But Hungrybox didn’t make it back for grand finals. Instead, it was Mango, the last person to take a tournament over Armada.
In the first set of grand finals, Armada went offstage for what looked like the end of the tournament. But Fox is a dumb character, and Armada not only lost his first set of the year, he finally lost a tournament in a thrilling ten game showdown.
(Royal Flush Grand Finals: Mango vs. Armada)
For many, it was the most exciting moment of the year. (I’d have tried to spin a yarn about it myself, but Mango’s 2017 against Armada was otherwise…pretty bleak.)
But most importantly, for this story, it was a reminder that Armada bleeds.
So for their next meeting, at Smash’N’Splash 3, Hungrybox pulled out an old trick of dictating the pace by camping the ledge. This drove spectators, not to mention the commentators, a little bonkers, but after over half an hour, Hungrybox snapped the ten set streak and reminded himself what it felt like to come out on top in that rivalry. Even more than for its slow play, the set is memorable for a classic Hungrybox popoff.
Why, yes, yes he did break his foot.
(Smash’N’Splash 3 Winners Finals: Hungrybox vs. Armada)
He took that tournament, but Armada topping the year-end rankings kept becoming more certain. Armada took Evo 2017 entirely without incident. The next week, Hungrybox dropped DreamHack Atlanta to Plup. He finished fourth at Super Smash Con 2017, for the first time spurring on conversation that not only should he be ranked behind Armada, but maybe behind Mango, which would snap his two year streak at #2.
The idea that he’d be #1 in the world by year’s end wasn’t even really thought about, because no one asked the following extremely dumb question: what if Hungrybox just didn’t lose any tournaments from there on out?
He breezed through to win Shine, an enormous tournament that plagued him the year prior, but though that reaffirmed his spot at #2, it felt unconvincing, partly because Mango experimented with Falco, Plup played Samus, and, of course, Armada wasn’t there.
The Swede wouldn’t return to the US until late September for GameTyrant Expo, played in the home of the Utah Jazz for the biggest open tournament prize money the game had ever seen: $12,000.
After Hungrybox lost to Mew2King in winners semis and Armada beat Mew2King to reach the winners side of grand finals, one could argue that this was maybe the closest Armada was to clinching the #1 spot for the year, though, again, in no one’s mind was there anything to be clinched. Anyone overcoming Armada’s track record in 2017 was so preposterous that no one was keeping track.
But Hungrybox went through losers, just as he had at Evo 2016, taking on the usual cast of Fox players. He beat Plup, SFAT, and got his revenge against Mew2King for a shot at Armada.
Also like Evo 2016, it was an incredible, ten game set that showed the game’s two best players dealing with the highest of stakes. Down three stocks to one in the final game of the tournament, it looked like another tournament for Armada. Hungrybox had made three stock comebacks happen at the top level before, but to decide a tournament?
But bringing the tournament to last stock sent the commentators into a fit of guttural nonsense.
(GameTyrant Expo 2017 Melee Grand Finals: Hungrybox vs. Armada)
Along with Royal Flush, GTX’s grand finals would be seen as one of 2017’s peaks, but it wasn’t until the very next week at the prestigious The Big House 7 that people would start openly asking if Hungrybox could do the unthinkable.
The same thing happened, more or less. After losing in winners semis (this time to Leffen), Hungrybox went through another gauntlet of top Fox players: Mew2King, Armada, Leffen, then Plup, although spoiling the excitement around Plup made for a bit of an anticlimax.
(The Big House 7 Melee Losers Semis: Hungrybox vs. Armada)
(The Big House 7 Melee Grand Finals: Hungrybox vs. Plup)
In a truly bizarre interview with HomeMadeWaffles, Hungrybox clearly felt that the universe was less than enthused by his win, and he decided to get a little dramatic: “Did you ever have everything you ever wanted, and then when you finally have it, you’re like, ‘now what?'”
But despite bursting everyone’s bubble, this was exciting! Suddenly there was competition for the #1 spot late in the year. It still felt unlikely: their last meeting for the year would be at Smash Summit 5, and Armada had won that event four times in a row. It remained an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it moment.
But after Armada was upset at Canada Cup by Mew2King and Hungrybox took DreamHack Denver over Mango and Too Hot To Handle over Plup, it was suddenly clear: if Hungrybox won Smash Summit 5, he was the #1 player of 2017.
And after going through Mango and Leffen in winners, Armada made it back into grand finals for a winner-take-all finale.
How cool is it that the SSBMRank #1 spot came down to one last grand finals?
It went to a tense game five last stock situation, but he’d done it. Hungrybox was the #1 player of 2017.
(Smash Summit 5 Grand Finals: Hungrybox vs. Armada)
(He also took home almost $30,000, the biggest prize ever won playing any Smash title.)
Let’s get a little more clinical about the run, which spanned from Shine 2017 to Smash Summit 5.
First, I’d like to note that despite some fuss being made about midset coaching giving him an unfair advantage earlier in the year – Crunch is Hungrybox’s coach and best friend, and his support extends well beyond giving advice in the middle of sets and his benefits to Hungrybox’s play were the beginning of top level Melee’s interest in coaching – it was only when midset coaching finally was no longer an option that Hungrybox put in his best performances.
Hungrybox had to constantly run through a few Fox players to rack up these wins. Hungrybox took a bad matchup (Puff versus Fox), made it the only way to beat him, and then become the best player in the world simply by knowing and playing that matchup more than absolutely anybody else.
Let’s look at those Fox players.
In 2016, SFAT emerged as a threat from below, beating Hungrybox at Shine 2016 and then annihilating him at The Big House 6 in a convincing, demoralizing 3-0. A year later, that history was already gone, with Hungrybox disposing of SFAT at GTX, The Big House 7, and Smash Summit 5, all with commanding 3-0 victories.
Though Mew2King had arguably his best year ever against Hungrybox in 2017 – with Hungrybox ahead in sets but only at a 10-7 clip – and he did take one of the two sets Hungrybox dropped during the streak in winners semis at GTX, Hungrybox was still in command of the matchup, winning 3-1 at Shine 2017, in losers finals of GTX, and at The Big House 7.
Leffen was the other to take a set off Hungrybox during this period, winning a close one in winners semis at The Big House 7, but Hungrybox won right back in losers finals and then again at Smash Summit 5, evening up their set count for the year and preventing him from having losing set splits with anyone in the 2017 season.
Despite Plup having his moment at DreamHack Atlanta and then beating Hungrybox again at Super Smash Con 2017, the matchup looked hopeless for Plup afterward, losing 3-1 at GTX, infamously losing 3-1 twice at The Big House 7, and getting swept away 3-0 at Too Hot To Handle. Hungrybox effectively replaced Armada as Plup’s demon.
Mango historically has been an even worse demon for Hungrybox than Armada, jumping out to a 25-4 career set lead through CEO 2015 before Hungrybox began to compete more evenly. But after a 3-1 and 3-2 at Shine, a 3-2 and 3-1 at DreamHack Denver, and a 3-1 at Smash Summit 5, Hungrybox became the first player to ever beat Mango in five sets in a row in Mango’s decade-long career at the top level.
And he did the same to Armada. Though all five sets were 3-2, dating back to their set at Smash’N’Splash 3 and adding in their two sets at GTX and their meetings at The Big House 7 and Summit 5 gave Hungrybox a five set winning streak, about as fine an answer to a ten set losing streak that anyone could ever hope for, and the first time in Armada’s Smash career he’d lost to anyone five times in a row.
And the first time since 2014 that Armada wasn’t the #1 player in the world. If two particular moments had gone even slightly differently, he would still be on top.
Many of the greatest moments in Melee history involve beating Armada in two sets in a row, simply because it feels so unbelievable. Now Hungrybox took over that role of the game’s final boss.
Now there were stories to be made by overcoming Hungrybox.
This post is now property of the Plup Club.
#12: Doki Doki Literature Club
#9: The Young Pope
#8: Life Will See You Now
#7: Super Mario Odyssey
#6: Better Call Saul
#5: The Wicked + The Divine: “Imperial Phase”
#4: competitive fighting games (part 1: Smash 4), (part 2: Street Fighter V)