Smash 4 is an incredibly balanced game, especially in comparison to previous entries in the series. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any room for improvement. Throughout the first eighteen months of the game’s life, Smash 4 saw numerous balance patches that buffed and nerfed various characters. However, these balance patches stagnated shortly after the release of Bayonetta. This has slowed down the conversations about balancing the roster to some extent. The rumors regarding a Nintendo Switch port of Smash 4 have been circulating for quite some time. Most people can agree that it’s fun to imagine and speculate on what an enhanced port can offer. Among the many things that are fun to speculate on include balance readjustments. I’d like to talk about what a balance readjustment would look like for Shulk.
Shulk is a mechanically unique character thanks to his Monado arts. How players use Shulk’s Monado arts is part of what makes him such an entertaining character to watch in competitive play. It’s simply exciting to see how players use certain Monado arts in certain situations. This mechanic gives Shulk’s play style an identity of its own. It is also one of few areas of Shulk’s move set that doesn’t need to be adjusted. The amount of time allowed for each Monado art in addition to their advantages and disadvantages feel perfect as they are now. With that out of the way, let’s talk more about what needs to (or doesn’t need to) be changed for Shulk’s move set.
Shulk Shouldn’t Hold the Monado
One of the most common suggestions that I’ve heard on how to improve Shulk is to make him actually wield the Monado when fighting, instead of having it holstered on his back. While I see and understand that perspective, especially when considering every other sword-user in the game wields their sword, I think it’s integral to Shulk’s design that he keeps the Monado holstered.
The game Shulk derives from, Xenoblade Chronicles, is one primarily focused on wonder and exploration. Combat is a supplement to the game’s emphasis on exploration. Most of the time in Xenoblade, the player is looking at Shulk (or other characters) running across the world with their weapons holstered. With this in mind, I think it only makes sense for Shulk to keep his weapon holstered. It represents both the game he comes from and who he is as a character. Design-wise, it’s only fitting.
I understand that most people want Shulk to wield the Monado since that would inherently make his attacks come out faster, thus giving him better frame data. However, I trust that Shulk having his weapon holstered was incorporated into his design in order to properly represent Shulk’s original game. Because of that, I feel that we shouldn’t consider Shulk holding the Monado when thinking about improving his move set, particularly with his frame data. Instead, I think a more optimal solution should be to improve the speed at which Shulk pulls the Monado off of his back.
Jab and Tilts
With his stance out of the way, let’s talk in more detail about Shulk’s actual move set. In terms of his options on the ground, Shulk is quite middle of the road. He has a frame-5 jab, which isn’t the best in the game, but far from the worst. The move itself does a decent twelve percent of damage. As far as jabs go, Shulk’s is serviceable as is, and I don’t feel it needs any particular improvement from how it is now.
Shulk’s tilts, on the other hand, need some refinement in regards to their frame data. Shulk’s fastest tilt is his down tilt, which has its hitbox active on frame 10 and 11. The down tilt itself is great for comboing into aerials, so I feel that this tilt is the only one of the three that can be left alone.
Shulk’s forward tilt has an active hitbox on frame 12 and 13 and deals a solid 13.5 percent of damage and a rather meager knockback. I would prefer this forward tilt to come out at the same speed as Shulk’s down tilt. The forward tilt could go out as fast as frame 9 or 10, with the damage output being lowered to 11-12 percent of damage. This would help make forward tilt safer and thus more reliable as an option. As is, Shulk’s forward tilt feels a bit stronger than necessary. Aesthetically, it appears to be an attack that should come out quicker than it actually does.
Lastly, Shulk’s up tilt currently has its hitbox active on frame 11 and 12. It deals the least amount of damage of all the tilts at 8.5 percent, but deals the greatest amount of knockback. Aside from possibly making the move come out a frame or two faster, I think this up tilt needs to cover a slightly wider area to be more effective at intimidating opponents.
Dash Attack and Smash Attacks
Shulk’s dash attack suffers from having quite a bit of ending lag, making it far from optimal to use in most situations. To make this attack has an active hitbox on frame 15 and 16. While this dash attack has been buffed before, I think it still needs a bit of improvement. Similar to Shulk’s foward tilt, I would gladly take the active hitbox to come out sooner, by about 4 or 5 frames ideally, and a reduction to ending lag, in exchange for a reduction in a two or even three percent reduction in percent damage. Dash attacks across Smash 4’s roster are best when they’re quick and effective at setting up additional moves, neither of which can be currently be accomplished with Shulk’s dash attack.
In regards to Smash attacks, I don’t feel like there’s too much to change. Shulk’s Up-Smash and Forward-Smash are a bit slow but are very strong to compensate. The only Smash attack with Shulk that I feel needs some revision is his Down-Smash. The damage and knockback are fair from this attack, but it’s far too slow to consistently rely on. Additionally, it has some brutal end lag after the attack has finished that goes on far longer than it needs to. This is one of the few instances in Shulk’s move set that I think the attack should only be tweaked through giving it quicker active frames and a reduction on end lag, with nothing in exchange for it.
Shulk is surprisingly very good in the air thanks to his effective aerials. Currently, his neutral air and forward air are his two best aerials. For his forward air, I think the move needs to be sped up a few frames. Ideally, I think this move would be optimal for having an active hitbox on frame 11 or 12. As for damage and knockback, I don’t feel that anything needs to be changed.
I feel that his neutral air comes out fast enough, given that the move’s hitbox stays active until frame 30. However, I feel that it needs one significant revision. Shulk’s neutral air is an effective attack, and great for spacing, however, the animation goes on for 30 frames, with no way to cancel out of it. Shulk’s neutral air would allow for a great variety of options if it allowed the player to jump-cancel the attack. I’ve had many instances, especially when in using the Jump Monado art, where the I have downward momentum, but I’m in the middle of the neutral air animation, and can’t end it. This has caused me to fall to my death numerous times. Moreover, I think it would help improve Shulk’s ability to space opponents and give him more effective approaching and movement options, something that he’s in need of.
To prevent this move from being overpowered if it were to allow a jump-cancel, I would suggest, once again, lowering the overall percent damage dealt from neutral air. In regards to Shulk’s back air, I think it’s another move the only needs to have a quicker active hitbox. Ideally, I would like to see it have its active hitbox on frame 16. This way, it stays strong but is still the slowest aerial option for Shulk.
Up air and down air are both good in terms of frame data and damage output. My only suggestion would be considering if the hitbox can be wider. As is, the hitbox for both up and down air are quite narrow. Outside of making the attack a little bit wider, I don’t feel that these attacks need to be touched very much.
Specials and throws
As far as suggesting changes for Shulk’s special moves, I’m pretty run of the mill. The only specials worth considering changing are Shulk’s up special and side special. Air Slash, his up special, is a good move, but it doesn’t grab onto the ledge like most up specials in the game. This adds an unnecessary layer of riskiness to Shulk’s recovery. Other than making the move grab onto ledges normally, I don’t think Air Slash needs any revision.
Shulk’s side-special, Back Slash, is one of the greatest moves in Shulk’s kit in regards to making mix-ups and reads against other players. But its poor frame data holds it back a bit too much. Currently, the active hitbox comes out at frame 22. While Back Slash’s frame data has been improved since launch, I still feel that it needs a bit more improvement. Optimally, I think the move would be great at frame 18, retaining its current knockback and damage power.
Lastly, I think Shulk’s throws are fine for the most part. His most effective throws are back throw, for comboing into aerials, and down throw, which can be a kill throw when in the Smash Monado art. I would only suggest revising Shulk’s forward throw’s angle, to be more conducive to following up into an aerial. Other than that, I think Shulk’s grabs are fine as is.
I’m of the mindset that games can be balanced through how you distribute options to characters. Weaker characters in Smash 4 simply have less options at any given moment than, say, top-tier characters do. Improving Shulk’s frame data and possibly giving him a jump-cancel out of his neutral air could give him greater options that could result in more players picking him up. So many people talk about the “potential” of Shulk being one of the best characters in Smash 4, but his frame data has always held him back from many players being able to reach his potential. Hopefully, these revisions could help make that potential more reachable for Shulk players.
But what do you think? When it comes to balancing characters, hearing other perspectives is always important. Do you disagree or agree with the revisions I’ve suggested? Join the conversation and let us know!
Featured Image courtesy of Nintendo.
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