© @Kadano on Twitter
Controller Mods: What They Are, and Who Uses Them
In modern Melee, players are demanding more of the GameCube controller than was ever intended of it.
Super Smash Brothers Melee is a game that defies time, yet is firmly rooted in old technologies. The further Melee moves along, the more we are reminded. While the more obvious visual component of the past are the bulky CRT televisions used to display the game, the other ancient remnant lies in the hands of the player — the controller.
This is the year 2016. Buying a fresh controller for the 2001 Nintendo GameCube just isn’t possible anymore — well, it is — but the newly released Smash 4 edition has a different feel compared to controllers from earlier in the GameCube’s lifecycle. Unlike more traditional fighting games such as Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom, Melee does not have a fightstick specifically made to play the game, or one that is built with the intention of open customization. The image of a GameCube controller might be synonymous with Melee for some, but the only job of a GameCube controller is to play GameCube games.
Over the years, this fact has resulted in small internal hardware changes of the controller which on the surface provide the same GameCube experience, but certainly affect the Melee experience. Not only are there generational differences between controllers, but veterans of the game can even detect differences within new controllers chosen from the same manufacturing cycle due to manufacturing defects.
As the pinnacle of Melee has become punishingly precise, controller performance is now a major focal point.
A Controversial Question
While most sports like basketball and football have a standard sized ball, other sports like baseball and tennis have a general regulation for their bats and tennis racquets, giving the players some wiggle room in customizing their equipment. Melee falls into this second category, albeit rather unintentionally. The line is clearly drawn concerning features that are banned in competitive play such as having macros or a turbo button, but when it comes to features a player is allowed to have on their controller, the standard is not defined. Modifications such as button feel and control stick gate modification fall into a grey area which haven’t been adequately addressed as of yet.
In the past (around the 2005 Melee era), former best Melee player in the world Ken Hoang’s brother Mike 'Manacloud' Hoang offered such modifications. Professional Melee player David 'Kira' Kim recalls his hands-on experience with the modification.
“I don’t know how he did it, but the control stick was depressed. This allowed you to dash dance farther and slightly changed Up-B angles. The L-button had no spring so it would only full shield, allowing it to click immediately which helped with powershielding. He also removed the rumble to make the unit lighter and swapped colors just for aesthetics.”
The game was still in its early stages, and already its players sought out ways to make the controller more responsive to Melee’s nuances. Looking back on it now, some of these modifications may have not been the most optimal, but they inspired a dialogue which proved to be somewhat controversial: Are modified controllers legal for tournament play? For the most part these modifications were not policed, but national Melee tournament Genesis 2 banned any controller which contained anything more than a cosmetic modification.
Since then, the discussion has been nothing more than rumblings here and there in different corners of the internet, and tournament rules by and large stick to the default banning of macros and turbo for competitive play. But one man has appeared with innovations which reinvigorate that discussion.
An Innovator Appears
In the last few years alone, Melee has grown progressively more technical, most notably with the inclusion of shield dropping in high-level play. Most who are unable to perform these maneuvers simply chalk it up to not having the ability to consistently perform the required inputs, but one man looked past the player’s technical shortcomings and explored the hardware attached to the game.
The ability to access this controller data opened up a whole new world for customization, specifically in modifying the notches of the control stick gate. While Kadano had already been modifying controllers for the last three-and-a-half years, these controller values allowed him to specifically pinpoint the activation point on the control stick gate for various techniques, and some of these modifications are absolutely wild.
The more conservative of these (and arguably his most popular mod), are his notches for shield dropping. To shield drop, one must hold horizontally left/right before pushing the stick into the southeast/southwest notch of a standard controller, but newer controllers are notorious for consistently shield dropping only on the southwest side because of the way they are manufactured. Kadano slightly alters the notches to make sure the physical controller accurately represents where a player must aim to shield drop.
Besides shield drop notches, Kadano also offers notches for minimum/maximum wavedashes, all of the firefox angles, pivot forward-tilt notches, and even notches on the c-stick specifically for desynched Ice Climbers movement and attacks. These notches on their own don’t automatically allow a player to perform these moves, but the tactile response of the control stick locking into the notch allows for more precision.
The other major customization category Kadano specializes in are button modifications. In this category, the most sought after modification is the lubrication of the L and R-button trigger tubes (the Smash 4 controller triggers have a tendency to get stuck). Button resistance and button height round out the majority of Kadano’s mods, but the list in its entirety can be found here, though it requires a Smashboards account to access.
Where Does the Community Stand?
All of the different modifications in Kadano’s thread are certainly interesting, but more intriguing still is the list of over 100 unique players at the bottom of the thread who currently use his modifications. Along with their gamertag, the exact mod specifications on each controller are public information. Top players such as Armada, Mew2King, Axe, Plup, and Ice are some of his customers, while other top professionals such as Mang0 and PPMD are noticeably absent.
Then, there are also professionals like Hugo 'HugS' Gonzales who use a regular controller, but are considering making the jump to a modded controller.
“I would use certain modifications from Kadano, like the one that lowers the height of the triggers because I naturally hold the controller in a way where I accidentally touch the triggers a lot. . . . The majority of my mods [would] make it like a normal perfect controller. The problem with GameCube controllers is that some come perfect from the box, others don’t. There are inconsistencies that Kadano mods take care of."
Not everyone is happy about these modifications though, seeing some of the notches as an unfair advantage — the “perfect wavedash” notch being one of them. The issue of fairness and having access to unfair resources compared to other contenders competing with a standard setup is another concern. If certain types of modifications are allowed, where is the line drawn?
As for the current state of affairs? The landscape has not yet reached this feared level of extreme modification. The majority of the top professionals previously listed as using modifications only use the shield drop mod which is almost impossible to detect due to the minimal nature of the procedure. With the next big tournament series Pound 2016 coming up in April, the official rule set for all three Smash games have been released. While the Super Smash Brothers 64 and Smash 4 rule sets specifically have a section for legal controllers, the category is nonexistent for Melee.
The lengths to which Melee has evolved without any sort of software patch is an anomaly in a world where patches are now the norm. Even if Melee was designed around the GameCube controller, 15 years of in-game experience and the discovery of various unexpected techniques have transcended the 2001 controller standard. Like a professional tennis player who arrives to a big tournament with multiple rackets tuned the exact same way for maximum comfort and performance, it seems as if the Melee scene can potentially go in the same direction. But as it stands, such a world may be met with resistance without adequately defining acceptable mod boundaries for a standard controller.
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