Game director Masahiro Sakurai announced the fifth and final character in the first Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Fighters Pass, Byleth from Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The reception was less than glowing. While Smash character reveals are often highlights for fans, this one felt disappointing, and worse yet, dull. Why does this one feel like a letdown, especially for a game bursting with variety?
The commentary on Twitter was quick to name the perpetrator. It was too many Fire Emblem characters, some said, or too many sword wielders, as the reveal video itself cheekily referenced. And while those elements might play a part, I think the problem really comes down to expectation-setting, and the element of surprise.
The Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC was pitched as a series of surprising inclusions, and the characters offered have followed through on that promise, until now. As fond as I am of Byleth and their game–Fire Emblem: Three Houses was my personal Game of the Year–there’s simply no way to say that the latest Fire Emblem protagonist is unexpected. It is exactly expected. If Fire Emblem: Three Houses had been out when Smash Bros. Ultimate was first released, we’d fully expect them to be on the default roster alongside Corrin and Robin.
We can trace the origins of fan expectations back to the very first character reveal. When Persona 5’s Joker was revealed during the 2018 Game Awards, then-NoA President Reggie Fils-Aime took to the stage to explain how Joker was an example of what Nintendo was trying to accomplish with its choices of DLC characters.
“This gives you a flavor of how we’re approaching the DLC,” Fils-Aime said. “There’s going to be five characters–each character will come with a stage, it’ll come with a collection of music. These are going to be characters that are new to the series just like Joker from Persona 5, characters that you would not anticipate to be in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.”
The fighters who followed Joker–Dragon Quest’s Hero, Banjo and Kazooie, and Terry Bogard from Fatal Fury–have followed as part of a pattern. Each of them are characters from outside the Nintendo ecosystem, and because of that, they are surprising to varying degrees. Banjo and Kazooie are the closest to classic Nintendo characters, originally debuting on the N64, but now that they’re Microsoft-owned their inclusion may have been the biggest surprise of all.
Fils-Aime’s comments paired with a steady stream of wild, non-Nintendo picks set expectations, which is why Byleth landed with such a thud. The character looks good, and their abilities have the degree of flavor and homage that we’ve come to expect from Smash Bros. But after being told we’re in for surprises, and the rat-a-tat release of four unexpected picks in a row, this one broke the mold by being so utterly conventional.
Sakurai ended the presentation by announcing details on the next Fighters Pass, set to release another six characters by the end of 2021. It will go on sale at the end of January, right as Byleth releases. Once again, Sakurai said he would be grateful if fans would understand why the pass is going on sale without the identities of the new characters announced, and on that front, he’s earned some goodwill. The mix of additions in the first Fighters Pass was mostly eclectic and charming, and even the less exciting ones had the sheen of fine craftsmanship. Going forward, though, we may do well to remind ourselves to keep expectations in check. Not every announcement will be a delightful surprise. Some of them are just fine.