Earlier this month, Nintendo caused a stir in the Smash Bros. community when the series' creator, Masahiro Sakurai, said in an interview that he was all but done balancing the game. Amidst the grumblings of fans, I kept seeing one joke about what this meant: that Diddy Kong was "here to stay."
I'd see it in the early comments on articles and forum posts about the Sakurai interview. On the popular Smash Bros. forum Smashboards:
On Gamespot's article:
On Twitter, where people would make similar cracks about how Diddy Kong will "reign supreme."
Alongside other comments about how Diddy Kong needed to be "nerfed," or removed from the game entirely:
At this point, Diddy's place in the new Smash Bros. has been chattered about enough that it's become something of an inside joke that players will bring up in ostensibly unrelated discussions. Such as in the comments of this exceedingly basic tutorial video that I just posted yesterday morning:
Something's going on with the younger of the two Kongs in this game. What is Diddy doing that's stirring the pot?
The short answer that many Smash players have tried to give is that Diddy Kong is "overpowered" in the new game, or "OP" for short. He's just too good a fighter, this line of reasoning goes—he moves too quickly, deals too much damage, and shrugs off too many opposing moves. He unsettles the delicate balance that's required to keep any great fighting game satisfyingly fun and competitive.
Once I started to dig into the criticisms against Diddy, however, I noticed that the claims that he's OP don't totally hold water. Fans familiar with his debut in Brawl, the 2008 Smash game for the Wii, agree that his once-formidable banana peel-throwing attack has been "nerfed to hell," as one player put it on Reddit in September. He was also considered a top tier character for competitive players in the Brawl era (thanks in part to that banana attack), so the fact that he's a powerful fighter once again isn't surprising. But still: if one of his best moves from Brawl was weakened in the new game, how has he ascended the ranks to become not "one of the best" characters, but the best character by many people's standards?
Debates about what, if anything, is overpowered about Diddy Kong in the new Smash Bros. are very granular. There are also staunch defenders of Diddy who insist that nothing's broken about him, people just think so because nobody's figured out an airtight method of besting the younger Kong.
In addition to watching many matches and tutorial videos and reading through forum threads on places like Reddit and the influential Smash hub Smashboards, I spoke to six competitive Smash players about Diddy Kong for this story. All these sources pointed to one thing about Diddy that makes him a devastating fighter: his aerial combo attacks. There are variations on it, but the basic form of the combos involves Diddy grabbing an opponent and throwing him or her to the ground, which launches them into the air. Diddy completes the combos by jumping up to meet his airborne enemy and pummelling them in a few different ways.
Aleksandr Fritz, a competitive Smash player who plays under the handle Hon Si Zi, explained to me that the most devastating finish of Diddy's aerial attacks comes from his "really nasty down-throw up-air combo," adding that "he especially gets a lot of hate for that." It's an incredibly powerful combo because it's difficult for opponents to escape, and since it ends with both characters in the air, it can easily be chained to other attacks. In this early tutorial video for the 3DS version of Smash by YouTuber and pro player Jtails, for instance, he adds a grab and two up-air attacks to the base combo. That single sequence of attacks is enough to make his opponent's damage jump from 0 to 50 percent.
The Smash players all generally agreed that criticisms of Diddy stem from these sorts of attacks. Rich King, a pro Smasher who plays under the handle Keitaro, told me that that Diddy's aerial combo is particularly devastating because it "works on everyone, can combo almost at any percent, and can even KO your opponent around 100+%."
The ferocity of Diddy's aerial combos is further compounded by the fact that he's a remarkably fast character. He exhibits very little lag after executing his most powerful attacks—"lag" being a short cool-down period that most fighters in Smash have, which leaves them vulnerable to counter-attacks. In Smash terms, hitting an opponent during these choice moments is referred to as a "punishment." And since Diddy never seems to slow down, it's very hard to ever punish him.
Max Ketchum, a Smash player who goes by the handle "Doom" in the competitive gaming collective Juice Gaming, had a slightly different take—but only because it was more specific. He began his email to me with this proclamation:
Let me preface this by saying that, in my opinion, IF DIDDY KONG'S UP AIR (up + A in the air) HAD ABOUT 25% LESS KO POWER, NOTHING ABOUT HIM WOULD BE UNBALANCED. He would still be a very powerful character, but powerful characters are hype and great to watch/play—overpowered ones quickly grow tiresome and become degenerative to the game's competitive value.
Conversations like these get pretty heated, which makes sense, given how passionate players are about Smash. But dissecting every single aspect of a character is also standard fare for Smash players online. So what made Diddy Kong so controversial? Three things.
First, Ketchum explained to me that Diddy Kong took off in the pro Smash scene in an unexpected way once competitive players realized that the character was a quick ticket to victory.
"Since a few weeks into Smash 3DS's release," he wrote in an email, "people started noticing Diddy was a very powerful character." Top-level Smash pros such as "Leffen (Sweden), Jtails (New York), Edge (Japan), Cyve (Germany), and Zinoto (Michigan) [played as Diddy Kong and] were emerging with impressive tournament finishes and gaining recognition from people who had played with them online. By the time the Wii U version was released, many pro players attending a launch invitational tournament hosted by Sky Williams in Southern California decided Diddy Kong was the ticket to victory because of his low learning curve and devastating potential."
Second, while the over-reliance on Diddy Kong among pros led to grumblings that he was turning into a "crutch" that made high-level matches repetitive and uninteresting, it didn't spill over to the general Smash audience at first. Issues with the character grew into a full-blown controversy when the popular pro player Zero (sometimes stylized as ZeRo) tweeted a harsh rebuke of Diddy Kong in late November (just days after the Wii U version had been released to the general public), saying that the character was "killing the game."
Zero pulled back from this statement a few days later, posting an apology for "the Diddy drama" on Reddit in which he said, "This early in the game no character should be banned, and that's a fact." Regardless of his backtracking, Zero's original statement stirred anxiety about Diddy Kong.
Third, there was the developer's statement about having no further plans to balance or update the game. "Sakurai's comment could not have been more ill-timed," Ketchum told me, "as people were just beginning to accept Diddy's design with the hope of a future patch to weaken him."
Can't Live With Him, Can't Live Without Him
Part of what makes Zero a controversial Smash player now is that he continues to play with Diddy Kong in tournaments—even after deriding the character publicly, and even though he insists that Diddy isn't the best fighter in the game (he prefers Sheik). Some of his detractors cry hypocrisy. His explanation for continuing to use Diddy Kong? He explained in a recent post-game interview that while Sheik might be a better character, she's also one that requires a greater level of technical skill to use effectively. Diddy, on the other hand, is the easiest go-to character for pros to pick up if they're serious about winning.
Zero's justification for continuing to use Diddy was echoed by all the other competitive players I spoke to who use the character. They all seem to have a love-hate relationship with the younger Kong. Bringing him into a fight doesn't make for their proudest moments. And yet, he gets results like nobody else does. At least right now.
"Right now" is key, though. As with previous Smash titles, the nature of the game is determined in many ways by the community that forms around it. If people start to get upset about, say, the ubiquity of Little Mac in online matches, they'll start to come up with more effective means to take him down. The same goes for Diddy Kong. So that's what high-level Smash players are trying to figure out now: how to counter the Kong so effectively that his presence in the game will become less jarring.
Like any Smash character, Diddy has his weak spots. Competitive players have just found it difficult to exploit them so far. Pro Smash player and YouTuber Nakat explains in an "Anti-Diddy" guide, for instance, that the character actually has a relatively weak set of recovery moves that can be disabled if you, say, manage to hit him in a such a way that he loses his jetpack.
Remember: "recoveries" are the moves that Smash characters use to get back on the stage after they've been knocked off. Since knocking an opponent off the stage is the key to winning a Smash match, disabling a recovery move is the best way to force an opponent to fall to his or her death. Nakat explains that the tricky part about Diddy's, though, is that you have to strike him at just the right moment—either when he's charging his jetpack to launch in a particular direction, or right at the moment when he launches.
Zero demonstrated this in a video breakdown of one of his matches that explained how to beat Diddy with Sheik (another of his top characters). When the Kong's jetpack is disabled, an opponent can land a devastating blow:
With counters like that, perhaps Diddy won't be dominant much longer.
In talking to so many Smash players, I got the sense that they're all waiting for something to change about the game's current state. An update or the discovery of more effective anti-Diddy strategies could "solve" the Diddy Kong problem. For now, though, players will continue to play as the ape, with mixed emotions.
Smash gamer Rich King explained to me over instant messenger that he doesn't even like playing as the character that much anymore. But he still uses him between his attempts to switch to another main, because Diddy still gives him the best overall chance of winning.
"It's hard," King said when I mentioned that it sounded like he and other players were trying to wean themselves off Diddy Kong. "I want to main Falco, but my Diddy is better."