Bayonetta

On Wednesday, Super Smash Bros. 4 legend Gonzalo Barrios (“ZeRo”) declared that Bayonetta is the best character in the game right now. Since early last year, Bayonetta has gone from a despised, over-powered monster to a big question mark and, now, apparently, a balanced but elite pick.

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Following her February, 2016 release, maining Bayonetta could get you some major hate and, for a while, tournament organizers heatedly discussed a ban. There were a few reasons why: Her D-tilt, Witch Twist and dive kick hit boxes were huge; her damage was significant; her unbeatable recoveries made attacking her mid-fall too risky; and her counter, which slows down time, was brutal. Most devastating were her combos. She could churn enemies through a nonstop barrage of attacks and counters that left them helpless, potentially K.O.’d at 0-10% damage.

Many players regarded her as a totally broken character. Bayonetta’s optics weren’t great, either. Nintendo released her after a “Smash Ballot” determining which Nintendo character would make it into the game. Several fans were confused why Bayonetta, over Banjo-Kazooie or King K. Rool, won the cameo. When she became available, Nintendo sold her for a pricey $5.99, a significant portion of the entire game’s cost, which, combined with her power, lent her a certain air of scumminess.

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For a while, top Bayonetta players regularly encountered harassment and hate at local tournaments. Bayonetta main Marcus Wilson (“Pink Fresh”) told PvP Live that he’d received death threats for playing her, adding that he felt “alone and hated at events.” He says that others discredited the wins he earned because of his character choice. In a competition last year, Smash player Osiris rage quit in the middle of a match against Wilson’s Bayonetta. Relatedly, Bayonetta main SaddSmasher said on Reddit that he too was bullied at a local tournament. He wrote, “Every time my match starts some guys behind me start shouting at me whenever I do witchtime [her counter] or combo somebody. Nobody ever cheers for me and people call me ‘the nobody that buyed [sic] his skills for 5.99.’”

“It was fun for me to play her but seems like nobody has fun fighting me,” he said.

Mid-2016, after months of outcry, the Smash team overhauled Bayonetta. Patch 1.1.6 was dedicated to trimming down her power, piece by piece. Nintendo decreased several of her moves’ range and hitboxes. The patch also stripped down her up-B attack, increasing its knockback and nerfing its range. It was no longer an invulnerable ingredient to an invulnerable combo. Bayonetta’s combos finally became escapable.

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The Smash community essentially declared her dead. Without her combos, her whole playstyle was jeopardized. Some people said the nerf was too much, since it would force Bayonetta mains to completely relearn her. Her component parts were still there, but players were baffled over how to piece together and optimize them. In a video, Smash commentator ESAM said, “Wow, they really bodied her. They did her dirty.”

Saleem Young (“Salem”), currently the best known Bayonetta player, actually welcomed her nerf. In an interview with TheMeta, he said, “The way she was at that time really wasn’t balanced. She could really just kill you from anywhere. Her being nerfed actually helped people understand the character better.” The result is that Bayonetta’s meta has fragmented. Top players approach her with a variety of different playstyles, one never too similar to another.

To re-master her, Young allegedly took a months-long Smash hiatus to workshop a new playstyle. Still, her bread-and-butter are in-air combos. Young’s Bayonetta pushes players off and above the stage with a string of tilts and neutrals, returning to safety with a Witch Twist. Bayonetta looks like she’s zig-zagging. And in enemies’ moments of weakness, Young slows down time with Witch Time for the kill. In smaller tournaments, he’s taken home several first prizes. At The Big House 6, he placed in ninth, and at Genesis 4, 25th (Wilson won 97th there). Last September, Salem double-eliminated Barrios, snatching first place at a tournament. “She technically doesn’t lose any match-ups,” Young told Barrios after a rematch. “If anything, it’s player-dependent.”

Barrios agrees that Bayonetta’s nerfs gave players a “bigger incentive to master every aspect of the character.” And, as a result, players like Young are starting to max her out, engineering unbeatable post-patch strategies. Barrios still thinks Bayonetta’s counter is “the ultimate comeback move.” “It comes out on frame 5 for a counter and makes you intangible for frames 5-16, he says.” She can still hit the counter out of a double-jump, meaning players still risk her fury when they approach her mid-fall. These moves have a small window for punishing, but aren’t invincible, Barrios says.

But though Young’s Bayonetta is the best right now, he hasn’t mastered aspects of her that other top Bayonetta players have, like her slow speed. It’s like Bayonetta’s soul was scattered across the top three Bayonetta mains, and, if the pieces came together, she would be invincible again. Last week, Panda Global’s tier list put Bayonetta on top.

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Without major Bayonetta showings at tournaments, an “ideal” playstyle won’t congeal for a while. But Barrios’ excitement that players are optimizing her is hopefully a step in the right direction. To master a broken character is dishonorable to many, but even on a more even playing field, those who main her may encounter some vestiges of fear.