Changing the game: Will Smash Box redefine Melee's limits?

The Smash Box looks to replace the GameCube controller by making movements as binary as possible. Provided by Hit Box

Super Smash Bros. has a lot of variability. As an arena fighter, movement options are nearly infinite, and the slightest degrees in angle can influence direction. Smash Bros. players have been relegated to using a GameCube controller for the past 15 years, and unlike most game controllers, the gate around the thumb stick is octagonal, not circular. This allows players to accurately hit up, down, left and right, but also top-right, bottom-left, etc. Not only that, there are other angles that players can hit, such as the space between top and top-right. It gives Smash Bros a free-form and improvisational feel, as if almost any movement were possible.

But there is a downside to this near-limitless movement option. The game is largely controlled by just your two thumbs, and as the game has continued to grow in speed and complexity, it has evolved to require absurd levels of precision. This is especially true for the second game in the series, Super Smash Bros. Melee. As competitive matches can have players hitting six inputs per second, accidental slipping of the thumb stick can mean a win or loss.

To get a better understanding, imagine trying to draw a six-sided star, one-second at a time, perfectly in succession for 10 seconds. Your hand will have to deal with the friction of the paper, the dulling of the pencil, the tiring of your wrist. Unless your hand is absolutely steady and perfect, not every star will look the same. And that's the kind of dilemma competitive Smash Bros. players find themselves in.

Not only that, but finding good-quality controllers is starting to become a problem. Most players agree that the best controllers were made in the early 2000s. As Smash Bros. has grown, these controllers have become far more scarce and sought-after.

That's not to say that the GameCube controller is the only option for Smash players, but it is the preferred one by far. The latest iteration, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, allows use of the Wii remote and nunchuck as well as the Wii U pro controller, which is closer to the controller found on the Xbox. But because of the GameCube controller's analogue buttons and octagonal gate, it has stayed.

That's where the Smash Box comes in. It breaks down Smash Bros. to only button presses, making movements as binary as possible and removing a controller's inconsistencies. To understand the philosophy behind the Smash Box, ESPN.com reached out to Hit Box's Dustin Huffer to get some insight.

"That's where the Smash Box comes in. It breaks down Smash Bros. to only button presses, making movements as binary as possible and removing a controller's inconsistencies. "

"Our goal is to evolve competitive gaming hardware for Smash and any other hard-core esport, one genre at a time," said Huffer. "It's exactly like having hockey gear for hockey players and baseball gear for baseball players. Each game has its own challenges and needs that separate itself from other games."

The current Smash Bros. metagame has evolved far past what the controllers were originally intended for. Some players will "claw" their controllers to allow the index finger to work in tandem with the thumb to move more precisely. Others will rest the joint of the thumb between two buttons to quickly pivot between presses. "The lack of controller diversity has served as both a physical learning barrier preventing newcomers from joining in as well as putting a cap on many players' competitive lifespan with carpal tunnel and other RSIs [repetitive stress injuries]," said Huffer.

Clearly, the most radical omission from the Smash Box is any sort of stick. Movement has been scaled back to just four buttons, kind of like the arrow keys on a keyboard. "We ditched stick for accuracy, speed, and ergonomics" said Huffer. "Smash execution is all about surgical analog precision at ridiculous rates of speed. Watching a Melee player's hands will baffle you at the gymnastics they perform."

There are some added benefits as well. "Dividing what's normally done with just one thumb across the entire hand gives unparalleled control over the game at high rates of APM [actions per minute], all while reducing hand strain," said Huffer.

Dr. Caitlin McGee, a physical therapist, corroborated these claims: "One of the biggest sources of repetitive stress injuries in Smash is the thumb motion required both for motion and for action inputs. This is significantly decreased with a more keyboard-style input system."

Flattening out a GameCube controller to allow all fingers access to buttons would definitely decrease stress. "Another common issue with traditional controllers is compression on the pinky side of the wrist when holding the controller while the wrists are in ulnar deviation," she said. "Rotating the forearm into pronation decreases this risk as well."

But having a flat, keyboard style input system isn't without its downside. McGee said there are ergonomic issues "related to the carpal tunnel/Guyon's canal, wrist extensors and general postural concerns," but overall it should be less stressful than a GameCube controller.

Even if the Smash Box turns out to be a competitive Smash controller, there are still legal concerns. Bassem "Bear" Dahdouh, a tournament organizer for Panda Global, explained: "For a local tournament, I think it would be fine. I think it's interesting to see how people will like it before considering it legal for events. But for a larger-scale tournament, third-party controllers for Smash Bros. tournaments need a bit of a testing phase to ensure there won't be any complications that could potentially delay a tournament."

There's also the matter of Nintendo, the makers of Super Smash Bros. The company has been notoriously protective of its intellectual property and has been known to shut down fan projects in the past. Chris Gallizzi, Hyperkin's head of design and product development, has a bit of experience making third-party peripherals for Nintendo hardware. Because the Smash Box will be wired, it will not require wireless protocol access from Nintendo, which is a major burden lifted. Gallizzi also explained that there are "enough third-party solutions out there to the point where no licensing is necessary with Nintendo."

The Smash Box has been in development for the past two years, and in that time, top players have been able to get their hands on it.

"The Smash Box is surprisingly intuitive in a lot of ways. The button layout itself isn't too difficult to get used to," said Twitch's Kristopher "Toph" Aldenderfer, a top player and commentator. "The trickiest thing has been acclimating to using the different tilt buttons in conjunction with each other to get, for example, perfect wave dashes or precise Firefox angles."

What Toph refers to are advanced techniques, requiring multiple successive button presses that manipulate the game's physics to allow for faster movements. "It isn't second nature at all, but learning techniques in a modular manner, i.e., thinking of the perfect wave dash as a single unit, rather than thinking about each individual button press, helps a lot," Toph said.

"It's definitely unique," said Team Liquid's Juan "Hungrybox" DeBiedma, a professional Super Smash Bros. Melee player and recent Evolution 2016 champion. Hungrybox said the "learning curve is very steep" but it "theoretically could make someone the most technical player of all time." But Hungrybox said it may be better-suited for Street Fighter V, while Toph offered "that it'd take a few months of serious play for a pro to feel confident using it at a tournament."

With a game as old as Melee, top players still jest that there's still a lot more to discover. In both Smash Wii U and Melee, we may start seeing matches more akin to tool-assisted super-play (TAS). TAS are demonstration videos in which the creator, using a game emulator on a computer, goes frame-by-frame to record a perfect match. Hit Box may have made it viable to create TAS videos for Smash, changing the metagame in the process. Characters that were thought to not have been viable in the meta might now be, if played at TAS levels of precision.

As of now, it's uncertain whether the Smash Box will even make a ripple in the Smash community, let alone change the metagame. And of course, it takes skill, and not just a new controller, to start making upsets.

"I think it's too much of a risk," said Hungrybox.

Toph said that top players wouldn't immediately make the switch. "It'll probably take a newcomer making waves with the Smash Box before pros look at seriously switching," he said.

The Smash Box brings a lot of potential, but with it a lot of uncertainties. Once the Kickstarter launches, it will be interesting to see if the community backs it. Regardless of its ambitions or concerns, one thing is certain: The community will continue to push Super Smash Bros. beyond anyone's imagination.