Top Tier History: Captain Falcon

Frequently described as the “hype” character of Super Smash Bros. Melee, Captain Falcon is one of its most recognizable figures, from competitive players to casuals. Known for his trademark “Falcon Punch!” along with a plethora of other flashy moves and his comically masculine aesthetic, Captain Falcon has many innate qualities that make him a fan favorite.

Although his original franchise F-Zero is all but wiped out from the mainstream gaming culture, Captain Falcon remains a popular character because of his inclusion in all the smash games. In the first one, he was one of its four unlockable characters.

One of Captain Falcon’s most noticeable strengths is his combination of power and speed. Boasting strong aerials and powerful ground moves, the original Nintendo 64 version of Captain Falcon also converts off grabs extremely well, with his upairs leading into more upairs and his downair being a strong edgeguarding tool or combo finisher. His fast ground speed also gave him yet another advantage on the ground over slower characters.

Falcon didn’t come without flaws. While he certainly thrived in a game where combos off grabs seemed to rule over every other part of the game, his neutral game tools were limited. He also had a bad recovery game, laggy moves and could be comboed pretty easily by other characters.

Nonetheless, he was one of the best characters in the original Super Smash Bros. You might be wondering why I’m talking about Captain Falcon from the original Super Smash Bros. Similar to Fox and Jigglypuff, understanding Captain Falcon’s role from Melee’s predecessor will give insight into what kind of a character he became in Melee.

Falcon is Bad (late 2001 to mid 2003)
Notable players: Isai, Darkrain, Ken, MikeMonkey

In the first game, Captain Falcon is considered by most to be a top tier. This is because of his deadly conversions off grab, along with his ground speed and heavy weight. However, in Melee, the speed racer looked to initially be nerfed.

Though some of his moves were more powerful (the addition of a forward air in knee gave Falcon an amazing aerial), his Falcon Punch was slower and many of his moves were even laggier. Since grabs were heavily nerfed from 64 and the movement engine of Melee was more technical than 64, Captain Falcon was initially seen as too hard to play.

With smash attacks, shield grabs and dash attack as a cornerstone of competitive play, Falcon struggled. Look at any major tournament in this era and you’ll find a shared general lack of Falcon players outside of Isai, who also played secondaries in tournament and used Fox against top players in bracket as well.

Even as Isai represented him well, there were not really other Falcon players that gave strong national representation. From the game’s first tier list to its fourth in July 2003, Falcon consistently ranked under tenth on the NTSC tier list. For a long time, people even thought of someone as bad as Kirby to be a Captain Falcon counter, due to his ability to duck under Captain Falcon.

The Last Hero and his disciples (late 2003 to early 2007)
Notable players: Isai, Darkrain, SilentSpectre, Azen, Jiano, NES n00b, G-Reg

However, as more people kept playing Melee and the scene began to grow within the MLG era, the game’s technical limits were being pushed. What was initially thought of as impractical or unlikely to do was now becoming a very normal part of the game, like wavedashing, short hopping, fast falling and L-canceling.

The widespread use of these techniques, particularly by Isai, showed that Captain Falcon wasn’t too far off from his skill cap in 64. They contributed to show that when used correctly and with the proper technical proficiency, Captain Falcon had one of the most devastating combo games in Melee.

Isai was way better than every other Falcon and, as shown from the clip above, could pull off moves that people previously scoffed at being able to consistently do in tournament. Keep in mind that at this point, Captain Falcon had slowly risen to being considered the seventh best character in the game or so – and that the Sheik in the clip above was Captain Jack: someone who by all means was a contender for being the greatest smasher in the world.

Even if Captain Falcon wasn’t necessarily at the top tier the same way someone like Sheik was, he also was thought to have had really good matchups. After losing the Marth ditto to Azen at Game Over, Ken picked Captain Falcon to success, due to the perception of the time as the character soft countering or going close with Marth. Similarly, with Chu Dat showing that the Ice Climbers were better than others initially thought, Captain Falcon was seen as a counter to them, with Azen often dominating Chu Dat in their head to head while playing Captain Falcon.

If smashers at the time thought Isai vs. Captain Jack was impressive, they were in for a surprise just a few months later at MOAST 3. Not many remember it now, but at the time, it was unarguably the greatest set in Melee history. To this day, you could argue that the tournament’s grand finals, featuring both a Marth and its victorious Captain Falcon, set the path for what would be the future of Melee.

You might not see what Captain Falcon has to do with any of this, but look at how Isai punishes Ken in the above video, along with other parts of his tech skill. Perhaps part of Captain Falcon’s appeal and popularity comes from how he highlights the beauty of Melee’s movement and combo game. This set is obviously not as impressive by modern standards, but keep in mind that consistently being able to edgeguard and hit followups like stomp into knee showcased far more control of a character than what had been seen previously.

Though Ken dominated most of 2005, the MOAST 3 grand finals is considered Isai’s crowning moment. Later in the year, the NorCal Captain Falcon won MLG Los Angeles 2005. Since then, no Captain Falcon has won a national tournament featuring three or more top five players. As a result, Isai is unquestionably his character’s greatest player.

As Isai began to play Melee less, sandbagging when the opportunity arose and never practicing the game any more, new Captain Falcon players started to take his place. In the Midwest, the rise of Darkrain – possibly the region’s greatest player ever and certainly its most beloved – gave way for yet another Captain Falcon player to become elite. Later on, Darkrain took sets off the likes of PC Chris and even Hungrybox, also winning Tipped Off 4.

Meanwhile, another NorCal Falcon began to follow in Isai’s footsteps, as the former great began to host “bootcamp” sessions for fellow Falcon players in his regions. Known for his DBR combo videos, SilentSpectre had crowd-pleasing combos, creative recoveries and a wacky style that messed with his opponents. Years after his rise, SilentSpectre defeated Armada at Pound 4, becoming the only Falcon player to ever do so.

Another notable Falcon run at a national was Jiano’s at Pound 2, where he defeated the likes of Cort and Chillin en route to a third place performance. This was especially notable as the tournament also featured Chu Dat, Mew2King and Drephen, giving it many top ten players that Jiano ended up outplacing. His Pound 2 run is still one of the most impressive underdog runs at a tournament ever.

The Golden Age (mid 2007 to late 2013)
Notable players: Hax, Darkrain, SilentSpectre, Scar, Mango, S2J, Gucci, Lord

Though Melee’s decline took a toll on its competitive population, with old school legends like Ken, Isai, Azen, Chu Dat, PC Chris and KoreanDJ playing less, the meta continued developing. Through most of the post-Brawl era, every relevant American region had its Falcon representative. Yet even as Darkrain won the Pound 4 Falcon round robin, many wondered which Falcon could be the true successor to Isai’s throne.

From NYC came Hax, a young, cocky, but brilliant Falcon player known for his incredible game near the ledge (coining the term “Haxdashing”), patient dash dance game and commitment to using Falcon’s speed to whiff and punish his opponents. This was a different style of Captain Falcon play than most were used to, as it was methodical, calculated, risk averse and patient. Hax quickly gained a reputation as a floaty slayer, often being considered an auto-loss to play against in bracket if you were a Marth or Sheik (that wasn’t Mew2King).

While Hax’s Falcon is slightly overrated in comparison to the later part of his career, it’s hard to deny how consistently strong his results were at nationals. Though he never defeated a god at a national (outside of a forfeiting Mew2King at SNES in 2009 and Apex 2012), Hax placed eighth at GENESIS, fourth at Revival of Melee 2, 13th at Pound 4, 13th at Revival of Melee 3, seventh at Apex 2012, fifth at Zenith 2012 and fifth at Revival of Melee 5.

By the end of 2013, Hax had risen to being considered No. 6 in the world, with top eight placings at Apex 2013, Zenith 2013 and The Big House 3 (and ninth place at EVO 2013). At this point in time, he was the closest thing Captain Falcon players had to Isai.

South of Hax in Philadelphia was another Falcon player named Scar. But unlike Hax, Scar was known for his flashy and read-heavy playstyle, often opting to for hard DI mixups and risky off-stage player over Hax’s reserved and conservative approach. The term “Scar jumping” came from Scar’s use of consistent wall jumps on Yoshi’s Story, both to extend combos and recover.

Scar wasn’t just a fan favorite either – in addition to placing sixth at GENESIS, he also was a forefather for the character’s metagame, commonly posting on Smashboards with Hax and also being an elite player of his own within the East Coast.

In the West Coast, both NorCal and SoCal had its own Falcon representatives. With Mango often opting to go Captain Falcon at tournaments to swag out on his opponents, players like SilentSpectre and S2J gave the character more representation at tournaments, but with different styles than their East Coast counterparts.

S2J wasn’t anywhere near as conservative as Hax was, but he also wasn’t as committal as Scar. Instead of throwing moves at his opponents or refusing to make the first commitment in the neutral game, S2J often positioned himself closely to add pressure to his opponents, both baiting them to make a mistake and also cornering them, while also not being afraid to attack. S2J (along with Mango) also was one of the first Falcons to manipulate his aerial drift in tricky ways and has been described by others, like HomeMadeWaffles, as a “spacie” playing Captain Falcon.

The Renaissance (early 2014 to now)
Notable players: Wizzrobe, S2J, n0ne, Gravy, Gahtzu, Captain Smuckers, Lord

Hax quitting Captain Falcon near the start of the year/end of 2013 temporarily rid the character of its best representative, as well as disappointed much of the community. But for those who were close to him, the move to start playing Fox came after quite a bit of deliberation, as Hax still hadn’t gotten a big god-level win at a national, even as he came close to defeating Dr. PeePee at EVO 2013.

Hax had several reasons for quitting Falcon. In addition to Falcon’s bad recovery, he was still easily comboed, had laggy commitments and overall worse frame data than other top tier characters. In his 2014 tier list, Hax claimed that Falcon was even worse than Samus and Pikachu: characters long thought to be a mid-tier.

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Yet it didn’t completely squash claims of the character being viable. Many, like S2J, still had faith in Falcon’s ability to compete at the top level, claiming that Hax still hadn’t optimized numerous aspects of Falcon.

Inspired by his own growth as a player and motivated to prove Hax and other doubters wrong, an upper-level player named Gravy set out on his journey to show that Captain Falcon was indeed a top tier character. Although Gravy’s accomplishments as a player were certainly impressive in their own right, his contribution to the Captain Falcon metagame is pretty self-explanatory: 20GX. If you don’t know what 20GX is, it’s a movement started by Gravy and other Captain Falcon players (like his Florida contemporaries in Wizzrobe and Gahtzu) to “optimize” the character to even further levels than Hax.

Of course, saying that 20GX “solved” Falcon (or “invented” as Gravy later stated) is an oversimplification. But even if his work didn’t prove Falcon as the best character (as he once claimed in the past), Gravy and his intense frame data work paved the way for revolutionary ideas about tech chasing. This showed Falcon’s potential to be at an even higher ceiling than Hax’s own play.

Gravy’s insight into what Falcon could reasonably do paved the way for other Falcons to “optimize” not just their punish games, but also how they approach neutral exchanges, incorporate shield dropping into their platform game, etc. Such innovations turned what were once considered bad or “unwinnable” matchups for Captain Falcon (Sheik on Fountain of Dreams) into ones where Falcon held notable advantages across different areas.

Even as Gravy quit playing Melee on a GameCube controller (a topic that I’ll fortunately not be opening a can of worms about) and switched to playing Fox, Falcons began to rise again in the absence of Hax. Though many were publicly “anti-20GX” or at least showing the appearance of being against it, players like n0ne and S2J still incorporate elements of 20GX strategies, like dashing out of crouch canceling a getup attack, regrabbing during a tech chase, etc.

Because of his extremely read-heavy and aggressive playstyle, n0ne is often thought of as an “anti-meta” counterpart to 20GX. But watch how he tech chases Mew2King, keeps him pinned in the corner, abuses crouch cancel and also SDI’s up out of jab reset. These are all 20GX-style ideas (though not exclusive to them) that are incorporated in different ways even by a player like n0ne: the first Captain Falcon to defeat Mew2King at a national in decades. As easy as it is to say some Falcons are 20GX and others aren’t, the reality is that “optimized” Falcon play incorporates 20GX with old school tricks, fundamentals and strong player v. player skill.

Even as Falcon mostly thrives today, there’s still a debate about how viable he really is. Yet as I’ve written before, it’s hard to define “viability.” If it’s by results, the only characters in the modern metagame that qualify to be viable on their own are Fox and Jigglypuff.

With Wizzrobe’s second places at Smash Conference LXIX and Smash Rivalries this year, along with other notable performances like his 3-0 over Mew2King and sets over Hungrybox, the Melee scene has its best Falcon not only since Hax, but since Isai. Nonetheless, one question remains: can Falcon win a championship?

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