The UCF only applies to Melee games, which have this problem the worst. Controller responsiveness hasn’t been as much of an issue in Smash Wii U, since that game is more forgiving when it comes to registering precise inputs, whether from the GameCube controller or any other. This software mod for Melee aims to make the 16-year-old game similarly forgiving.

For the moment, the UCF only addresses dashbacks and shield dropping. Salvato says that future iterations of the mod could account for other moves that are hard to execute on an aging or substandard controller. The UCF aims to reduce the problem of the “controller lottery”—which is to say, the problem of players trying and failing to find controllers with the right kind of analog stickboxes.

Shine 2017, a tournament held in Boston last month, was the first major Melee tournament to incorporate the UCF into all competitive brackets. The tournament’s organizer was the one who commissioned the mod from Salvato in the first place, in response to competitors’ concerns about GameCube controllers, hardware mods, and questions of unfairness.

Unfortunately, the UCF’s debut had a hitch. Partway through Melee finals, Shine 2017’s organizers realized that the UCF hadn’t been turned on, although it had been on for all preliminary brackets. Because of this oversight, two competitors had to come back on stage for a controversial rematch that resulted in a different winner.

Melee fans speculated as to whether or not the mod made enough of a difference to justify the rematch. At any other Smash major, the initial matches would have counted, since the UCF had never been used before. However, Shine 2017’s organizers stood by their decision.

Compared to other controller-related mods for Smash games, the UCF is conservative. It only makes a couple of specific changes. Aside from the unpopular rematch at Shine 2017, few Melee fans have argued the mod seems unfair. GameTyrant Expo, hosts of the next Melee major, just announced that they will be using the mod. By contrast, hardware mods for Melee controllers have sparked serious debate among pros and tournament organizers.

Pain And Injury

The hottest debate in Melee now revolves around whether or not it should be possible to compete with anything other than the GameCube controller. That question has come up because of concerns that the GameCube controller has damaged the hands of people who’ve wielded it for many years. The topic is very important to Aziz “Hax” Al-Yami, a former Melee pro, who began experiencing hand pains in 2014. Hax stepped away from competing in Melee, went to see 10 hand surgeons, got surgery on his wrist, and returned to playing the game in 2016—only to step away again due to a severe flare-up in hand pain.

In a blog post about his injuries, Hax said the pain “did not gradually develop over time,” but instead seemed related to a specific Smash game: “There was a distinct moment on May 5th, 2014 where I was doing backwards waveshines against a Jigglypuff player in friendlies with my left hand extremely tensed. I felt an explosion (best way to describe it) in my left wrist… I’ll be honest at this point, there’s a chance I never make a full return. My left hand feels ruined beyond belief.” Since retiring from Melee, Hax has been able to play games that require a mouse and keyboard. He is currently a Diamond-ranked player in League of Legends.

Other Smash pros have also struggled with hand pain. Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman, one of the world’s top Melee players, mentioned concerns about hand pain and the possibility of retirement back in 2015. Unlike Hax, Mew2King’s problems appear to have been temporary. He has continued to compete and win at many Melee tournaments since then. (Mew2King did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

But does the GameCube controller cause more injuries than other gamepads? That would be hard to prove. Dr. Caitlin McGee, a physical therapist specialist who has worked with many pro gamers, told Compete: “I can’t say with any kind of certainty that the GameCube controller causes injuries, or even is correlated with more injuries than other types of controllers are. One of the things that confounds our ability to look at to what extent any one kind of controller impacts injury risk is what people are doing when they’re not using a controller.”

“There’s no ergonomically flawless controller,” she went on. “Just ones that make good ergonomic behaviors, good injury-preventing behaviors, easier or harder to follow.” Here’s one preventable bad habit that Dr. McGee has noticed in terms of how players put up their character’s shield, which is usually mapped to a shoulder button: “I’ve seen a lot of players who use the second phalanx (middle part) of their finger as opposed to their first phalanx (the tip) for shielding who then come in with pain at that particular joint.”

Another Controversial Solution

It’s important to prevent that damage, because for the moment, Melee tournaments do not allow the use of any other controller besides the GameCube controller. Players who have debilitating injuries seem to be out of luck.

Hax hasn’t been willing to accept that. He’s spent his Melee retirement seeking other controller options that don’t put the same stress on his hands and wrists. There are no Nintendo-produced alternatives to the GameCube controller when it comes to playing Melee, so Hax has looked into independently developed controllers, such as the SmashBox, a Melee controller that looks like an arcade stick... but without the stick. The SmashBox has all buttons and relies entirely on digital inputs.

According to Dr. McGee, there’s a reason Hax can use this form of box controller, despite his injuries. This controller, she said, “spreads out the repetitive motions across more fingers; there’s less pressure on any one finger to do all of the work. It also removes the requirement of supporting a controller, gripping and grasping it, in order to have a stable playing surface.”

That’s also why Hax could get to Diamond rank in League of Legends, even though picking up a GameCube controller might be a mistake. In McGee’s words, “a keyboard is a little more analogous to a box in terms of ergonomic considerations.”

At first, Hax worked with the SmashBox team on their controller, and later stepped away to develop a similar box controller called the B0XX. When asked for comment about his hand pain and his retirement from Melee, Hax told Compete he is “extremely busy with B0XX stuff these days” and did not have time to provide any further details. Hax has asked tournament organizers, including those at Shine 2017, to allow players to compete using independently developed box controllers, like the B0XX and the SmashBox.

Last week, the tournament organizer(s) for Beyond The Summit agreed to accommodate Hax’s box controller at their Smash invitational this November, provided Hax secures a slot in the tournament via fan voting. However, Smash Summit is more of an exhibition of personalities; it’s not a major tournament with entry available to the general public. Other Melee tournaments have been much more hesitant about allowing the use of non-GameCube controllers due to concerns about fairness.

This past January, Smash tournament Genesis 4 did allow competitors to use box controllers on a trial basis. According to the tournament’s organizer, though, that concession was only made to accommodate competitors who had signed up without realizing their controllers would be banned.

The Melee community has not yet determined whether these box controllers are equivalent to GameCube controllers, or whether they make the game too easy, since these box controllers don’t have analog sticks at all. This means that all directional movements can be performed via digital button inputs, thereby evading the GameCube controller’s problem of unpredictability in analog joystick behavior. These questions of unfairness are ironic, given the controller discrepancies that already exist between different GameCube controllers, although the UCF does aim to correct for that problem.

A Question For The Rules Committee

Melee tournament organizers have been hesitant to throw yet another variable into the mix. Most Smash tournaments have instituted a ban on anything other than a GameCube controller, thanks to a new codified ruleset from a competition committee made up of Smash tournament organizers and pros.

This new ruleset aims to standardize practices across all Smash tournaments. Since the Super Smash Brothers competitive community operates without Nintendo’s support or resources, all of these initiatives are community-run. That’s also why it’s possible for the Smash community to seriously consider a standardized implementation of a software mod like the Universal Controller Fix—something that Nintendo would probably not allow, were they involved. And that’s why there’s still a community playing a 16-year-old game on very old controllers. The Smash scene doesn’t rely on corporate support to continue, unlike other fighting game communities, which tend to say goodbye to old fighting games once their sequels come out.

The Melee competition committee’s ruleset described the classic GameCube controller as “somewhat intrinsic to what we consider ‘playing Melee’ and the skills involved in doing so,” although the rules clarify that the ban on box controllers is “tentative,” pending further tests of what these controllers can do and whether they are fair.

The “Right” Way To Play Melee

As for whether the GameCube controller should always be the “right” way to play Melee, or any other Smash game? That’s still up for debate. Even a career GameCube controller modder like Mike “Typo” Bassett described himself as “fairly liberal when it comes to my position on non-GameCube controllers for Melee… as long as the playing field is even from a mechanic standpoint, the ‘right’ way to play the game is whatever feels comfortable and natural.”

UCF dev Dan Salvato took a more conservative and incrementalist view of the issue. “The ‘right’ way to play Melee is whatever the community decides is right,” he told Compete. “While everyone agrees that ergonomics and hand injuries are an issue, a lot of players don’t want the solution to cause a shockwave in the meta. If someone designs an ergonomic controller that is provably equal to, or worse than, a GC controller, then [tournament organizers] would likely welcome it with open arms. When your community is 15 years old, your changes need to be focused, steady, and conservative. That’s why UCF has seen more success than past controller mods have.”

Nintendo has yet to announce whether Smash Wii U, or any other Smash game, will become available on the Nintendo Switch. At this time, there isn’t a way to use a GameCube controller on the Switch. Typo speculates that, if Smash gets ported to the Switch, players will gravitate towards the Switch Pro Controller. Hori also has made a wired gamepad for the Switch that is similar in shape to the Pro Controller. So, even if the GameCube controller isn’t available, there are viable options.

The Smash community has been reluctant to move on from the GameCube controller, thanks to tradition and nostalgia, but the Pro Controllers for Nintendo consoles offer at least one potential alternative. For Melee players, though, there’s no option as good as the original thing… well, not too original. You wouldn’t want those first-generation stickboxes.