Top Tier History: How Fox McCloud Became the Face of Melee

Anyone with a basic understanding of competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee knows that Fox is one of the game’s best characters – and its most played. His overwhelming speed, power, recovery, combo game and tools within the neutral game make him a formidable threat for both casual players and the best players in the world.

In a new series focused around how each character in Melee has developed throughout its meta, I’ll start with Fox.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Although my basis behind much of what I’ve written below is fact, please don’t take my analysis as complete truth. As someone who isn’t a top-level player, I wouldn’t claim to know more about what PC Chris specifically contributed to the meta than a ranked Fox player – therefore, some of what’s written below is slightly embellished! 

The Post-64 Ages (late 2001- early 2004):
Notable Fox players: JR Castillo, Matt Deezie,  KishSquared, Masashi

As I’ve written before, the original Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 had a huge impact on how its sequel was played – but it’s also important to understand its influence on Melee Fox.

For example, in the first game, Fox had a powerful upsmash, uair, combo-starting tilts, aerials, a quick dash attack, formidable lasers, speed and a useful semi-spike in his down-B, which also acted as a reflector. Sound familiar?

When you combine Fox’s popularity in 64 with his own acclaimed series at the time, it’s obvious why even a casual Melee player back in 2001 could be thrilled at the prospect of playing as Fox.

Although his lasers no longer had hitstun, the addition of up and down throws led to strong mixups for Fox, as well as options to efficiently kill most characters. Along with also having a much better recovery, Fox was also complemented by Melee’s movement mechanics, which seemed to enhance his already loaded tool set. Take a look at the video below.

Isai isn’t known for his Fox, but this is one of the earliest recorded tournament videos of top-level Fox play. Notice how Fox’s full hop, speed and relative safeness of his aerials give Fox not only an advantage in his ability to interact with other characters. There’s not much of it in this match, but Fox’s laser also gave him a valuable camping tool, which players like Masashi and Matt Deezie frequently used.

Because grabs were not initially seen as lethal as they were in 64 (kill moves), Melee’s meta back then was centered around simple mixups – shield grabbing attacks from opponents, crossing up attacks on shield and going for strong hits (smash attacks, stronger aerials) as reads. Even on this basic level, Fox saw success across many regions, with players like JR Castillo, KishSquared and Masashi all being top-level players in their areas

Though Fox was still considered a strong character, he had his fair share of skeptics. Along with being a fast-faller, he was also technically demanding. If you played him, you could easily take a lot of percent or get KO’d ridiculously early. You’ve probably seen this post before, which had players like Mew2King and UmbreonMow arguing about Fox vs. Sheik.

In early 2004, Chillin became the first person ever to take a tournament set off Ken, defeating him in winners quarters of the first strong East Coast national tournament in Game Over. Ironically, the match was on Final Destination – later seen as an extremely valuable counterpick for Marth against Fox. If you’re familiar with the smash documentary, you’ll know this as a set where Chillin uses up-throw to up-air as a potent combo against Marth to success.

While Chillin’s success here showed that Fox had potential , for the most part, Fox remained inconsistent, if not worse than before. For example, at Smash 4 Cash in New York, no Fox mains finished in the top eight – and the same went for Tournament Go 6, the biggest tourney of 2004.

The only consistent Fox main might have been Masashi – and almost no one knew about how good he was back then, save for Captain Jack and other Japanese smashers. Outside of Ken sometimes bringing out a janky, dash-attacking, short-hop in place and dash dancing Fox to moderate success, the character suffered. Along with being combo food once hit, Fox also suffered from a Marth-heavy meta, in which he could get randomly forward smashed and die at early percents.

The Tech Skill Revolution (mid 2004-mid 2007)
Notable Fox players: Chillin, Zelgadis, PC Chris, Mew2King, KoreanDJ, Javi

Yet it wasn’t all doom and gloom. At some point in 2004, a man by the tag of Zelgadis, part of a crew called DBR, set the course for Fox’s meta with arguably the most influential combo video of all-time.

It looks basic now, but think about how revolutionary it was at the time. Zelgadis was doing things with Fox that had never before been scene. Almost no one back in 2004 could waveshine opponents (albeit with bad DI) consistently. Shined Blind had its fair share of skepticism, with many saying the video was faked, staged or done on weak opponents, but it also inspired Fox players to push their character to never-before seen limits.

At MLG San Francisco 2005, Zelgadis defeated Isai in losers quarters, proving that his skills weren’t just a gimmick. By mid-2006, Fox dominated the North American scene. Along with Ken winning MLG Atlanta 2005 while going practically all-Fox through his losers bracket, players like PC Chris, Mew2King and KoreanDJ were also giving the character much needed top-level representation.

For example, without Mew2King pushing Fox’s technical ability and his immense knowledge of frame data, we wouldn’t have had technical whiff-punish Fox players like Hax. Meanwhile, KoreanDJ brought a new level of aggression, frequently proactively calling out his opponents and putting them in favorable “50/50” situations, though his technical contributions weren’t as notable as Mew2King’s.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Obviously, you can’t generalize these two players in completely contrasting playstyles, but nonetheless, they are forefathers for different kinds of Fox players – albeit not quite Wife’s explanation of “computer” and “hot ball of fire.” Moreover, KoreanDJ also played Sheik (his more well-known main) in tournament, along with Marth.

While those two certainly were key in pushing Fox’s metagame, PC Chris was probably the most important of the three for the character.  Frequently showing Fox players how to use their entire moveset in different situations and above all else, PC also consistently showed Fox players how to preemptively position themselves far enough to hold a advantage over their opponents, but close enough to threaten them. This sounds extremely basic, but for newer players, PC Chris was essentially the Leffen of his time in how he emphasized fundamentals, which could be seen in all of his characters.

Soon, it became clear: Fox was the best character in the game. This was especially boosted by a ruleset where stages like Green Greens, Corneria, Mute City and more were still allowed – blatantly Fox-favored stages. Around this time was when the famous “No Items, Fox Only, Final Destination,” joke popped up about what competitive Melee was like (even though players like Ken and KoreanDJ were successful with other characters).

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Along with seeing success in the United States, Fox saw an unlikely innovator in Mexico: Javi. Even with him never traveling outside of his country to play Melee, Javi showed another level of technicality that was years ahead of what most players saw as possible or practical. Along with consistently multishining, Javi’s fluid movement was rarely seen among even the top level.

It’s hard to say whether or not he was on the level of other world-class players back then, but judging by videos, he was certainly more technically refined, also playing with a semi-claw setup. To this day, many wonder how good Javi was in the golden age of Melee – with some even asking if he could have been the best player in the world. Not many knew at the time how truly good he was, even with his videos online.

Post-Brawl Struggles (late 2007- early 2010)
Notable Fox players: Mew2King, Jman, Lucky, Cactuar, Zgetto

Fox continued to be seen as the best character in the game, but he struggled to win big tournaments. Though he still did well, the Fox meta among top players initially stayed stagnant, mostly due to the release of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, which took the attention of many Melee players. This inevitably affected motivation from players like PC Chris and KoreanDJ to keep playing, given how the national scene was now splintered.

Moreover, the rise of Falco, as seen from players like Mango, Zhu, DaShizWiz and Dr. PeePee, gave Fox players another problem. Not only did they have few ways back then to get around lasers, but Fox was also at a perfect combo weight. If you missed a grab back then and got spot-dodged, you were almost guaranteed to eat 40 percent or lose your stock from a shine. Even if most still agreed that Fox was the best character, it was common to hear people talk about Falco as his counter.

With other character’s punish games (like Falco and Jigglypuff) being pushed against Fox, holding position became emphasized more, with players like Jman, Lucky and Cactuar becoming premier names for their character. Though stages like Green Greens and Corneria were still legal, Fox players instead usually opted to go places like Dreamland and Pokemon Stadium, stages where Fox could always run away, while still being able to KO his opponent.

The Tech Skill Revival (mid 2010- early 2014)
Notable Fox players: Mango, Lovage, Unknown522, Javi, Eggm, Leffen, Silent Wolf

Despite Fox’s struggles, his potential kept his mains hopeful. Soon, players like Lovage and Silent Wolf were not only among the best in their regions, but they pushed Fox’s technical skill in a way that hadn’t been seen since Mew2King in 2006. On the East Coast, Eggm had an out of shield game that was way ahead of his time.

New advancements in shield pressure, his punish game and his ability to scrap up close with his opponents gave Fox players more motivation to push their character. By the end of 2010, a Fox main in Jman finally won a significant tournament in Don’t Go Down There Jeff. Strangely enough, the grand finals of the tourney was a Fox ditto against Lucky.

Even if many players disagreed with each other on how to use Fox, he was once again slowly starting to rise up. In early 2011, Nicolas Ramirez posted a video that’s still looked at as one of the greatest highlight videos of all-time.

Dark wasn’t a top-level player, but he showcased things with Fox that looked tool-assisted. Similar to Shined Blind, Perfect Dark both invited acclaim and controversy in the quality of skill shown, but one thing for sure: the potential was there for Fox to become a whole new beast.

By GENESIS 2, Mango had not only announced his return to competing, but the world was also hyped to see his new Fox, which he planned to debut at this tournament. After having his Falco sent to losers by Taj, Mango defeated Shroomed and Hungrybox, thoroughly dismantled Taj and played a close five-game set with Armada. Throughout this stretch of play, Mango showed a brand new rushdown Fox that wasn’t just for show – it had the potential to take sets from anyone in the world.

Of course, Mango wasn’t just any rushdown Fox. Similar to how his Jigglypuff and Falco played, his Fox illustrated how correctly manipulating aerial drift and movement could make opponents look silly. Even in grand finals, when he lost, Mango frequently mixed up his attack timings on Armada’s shield and do moves that were technically “unsafe” but meant to throw off his opponent’s rhythm. This was different than other aggressive Fox’s, who instead would usually just grab on shield or try to overwhelm their opponents with moves.

At the beginning of 2012, the Melee scene had one of its most legendary Cinderella-runs at Apex 2012: Javi’s first American tournament. After initially losing a close ditto to Lovage in winners, Javi tore through KoreanDJ, VanZ, Lovage in the runback, Hax and even Dr. PeePee, before losing to Hungrybox. Imagine that: a guy from Mexico holding a controller in a strange way defeating a god in tournament.

Other Fox players started to break out in 2012. Unknown522, a Canadian Fox whose play tafokints once said convinced him that he could never beat Fox as Sheik again, became a dominant name in the scene, taking Hungrybox to the brink at The Big House 2 and winning a set over Mew2King at Revival of Melee 5. While Mango still played Falco, his Fox replaced his Jigglypuff as his other most-played character. In Europe, Leffen also asserted himself as a name to watch.

In 2013, Fox saw yet another wave of success. Along with Mango winning EVO 2013, came a whole new wave of Fox players. As part of 2013’s SSBMRank, eight of the top 20 players listed Fox as one of their characters. This spawned something you could consider great or terrifying.

20XX…Hack Pack Era (mid 2014 – now)
Notable players: Leffen, Armada, Mango, Hax, SFAT, Ice

When people talk about “20XX,” they’re usually referring to a future when everybody mains Fox. This might seem like reality, given that players like Ice and Armada now play Fox.

However, you could also argue that our era is defined by a different kind of 20XX in the 20XX Hack Pack: a Melee mod created by Achilles. Helping people practice parts of Melee that they realistically couldn’t on a vanilla setup (tech chasing, escaping Falco shield pressure, powershielding, etc.), the hack pack – and the advent of Netplay, emulated Melee’s unofficial online mode –  has transformed Melee’s metagame far more than any single resource ever.

Because Fox is still seen as the best and most popular character, this has inevitably impacted him the most. Take a look at the Fox ditto below and then try to compare the two styles, “optimized” and deliberate, to Isai’s Fox from Snexus 2.

Forget 2003; the difference between this Fox ditto and even one played in 2014 is astronomical. Top level Fox play at this point has advanced to where as time goes by, watching Leffen, Armada, Mango or even SFAT and Ice play is leagues above watching Fox’s of the past.

Not only are conversions off hits far more brutal than ever before, but Fox’s game off the ledge has completely changed how people play against him. Being cornered against any character is bad, but in today’s era when Fox could win a last-stock situation with invincible ledgedash-upsmash, he is far more terrifying than ever before.

Does this mean that Hax’s prediction of “20XX” is true? It’s tough to say. While the results and quality of play show that he’s the best character, players like PPMD and Leffen have talked before about how the last two year’s of Melee’s meta have been “stale.” This is reference to aspects of Melee like consistency, execution and “optimization” being prioritized over new ideas. Some people still think that characters like Falco or Marth could be argued above him.

Fox’s success could just be a result of improvement resources, like the hack pack, being available for all players. It doesn’t definitively prove that other characters can’t “catch up” as much as it shows that more competitive players happen to play Fox.

At the top level at least, they both have a point: even with Fox’s widespread popularity, the current ranked No. 1 and No. 2 players (Armada and Hungrybox) primarily play two other characters (Peach and Jigglypuff). But what if this changes? What if Fox really that much better than everyone else?

Only time will tell what the future holds for competitive Melee’s most iconic character.

One thought on “Top Tier History: How Fox McCloud Became the Face of Melee

  1. Great article! Might want to make clear that Leffen specified in his tier list, that characters in the same “tier” are not better or worse than the others, I.E. he’s not implying that doc and samus are better than fox

    Like

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