What Does Unbalanced Mean?
Derisive words like “unbalanced,” “overpowered,” and “broken” get thrown around so much these days, you’d think every fighting game was expected to have a 90% competitive roster ratio. It’s true that modern game developers can benefit from studying a long history of tournament-tested titles, but the fundamental problem remains the same: character diversity naturally fosters imbalance. There’s no escaping it.
How are designers supposed to tackle this issue? Every experienced player will tell you that concrete strategy is all about matchups. If you start with two characters, you’ll want to give them a complex array of options with the ultimate goal of staging dynamic battles while ensuring that the most skillful player wins consistently. Whenever you upgrade one move, you’ll have to match it with the appropriate adjustment on the opposite side.
When you introduce a third character, the number of matchups triples. Now when you institute an upgrade, you have to cautiously strengthen two potential rivals to that exact same degree, then compare them with each other to make sure their matchup doesn’t suffer. Every minor tweak can snowball into a series of adjustments echoing back and forth. We’re still talking about three characters here. Well, if you have a cast of 56 diverse characters to balance, you’re basically screwed. Nobody’s that smart.
Clearly, demanding 20+ evenly matched characters is an unrealistic expectation. What would be considered a reasonable number? Looking through the Classics, i’d say any “good” fighting game with a legitimate top tier of four or more characters is perfectly acceptable.
The real question is, at what point do tier rankings factor into the perceived value of a game? Certainly they don’t matter in the beginning, because early impressions almost always turn out laughably inaccurate. It takes everyone three to six months to grasp the game’s true nature. Is it offensive? Defensive? Structured? Chaotic? Technical? Intuitive? Tactical? Instinctive?
If we’re lucky enough to find a deep, rewarding game on our hands, the next step is running it through the tournament gauntlet to ensure it doesn’t degenerate into a one- or two-character affair. As long as its top tier holds steady at four or more characters and the game itself doesn’t break down into abusing one narrow tactic, it can survive indefinitely as a competitive mainstay. This is a proven fact, because numerous such games have thrived for nearly a decade in the tournament circuit, until a sequel or upgrade was released.
Even with four evenly matched fighters, we’re looking at ten possible matchups, including mirror matches. That’s plenty! Five viable characters give us fifteen potential matchups. When we’re talking about classic-caliber games, each of these matchups can stay interesting for years on end. How long have people been playing Ryu vs Guile in SF2: Hyper Fighting?
To be clear, it doesn’t matter how many squares there are on the character select screen. Who cares whether five useless portraits remain in the game or fifty? Percentage-based breakdowns are meaningless. Only two factors count when considering balance: whether there are four or more characters in top tier, and whether the matchups between them measure up to our high standards. When either of these criteria ceases to be true, that’s when we should stop playing the game.
Until then, there’s nothing to complain about. You simply can’t expect much more than this. Yes, you may have to switch characters to accomodate the realization that your original choice can’t compete against top tier. However, if you enjoy the core game and you have four diverse characters to choose from, just pick one and continue enjoying it.
Real examples of broken and overpowered characters are ST Akuma and CvS Nakoruru. They single-handedly shut down over 90% of their respective rosters and have no unfavorable matchups to speak of. There’s literally no reason not to pick them, which forces players to choose between banning them or retiring those games. That’s what unbalanced really means. Someone like SF4 Sagat is nowhere near this dominant. The term simply doesn’t fit.
Furthermore, convincing others to boycott powerful-but-not-overpowered characters is a disservice to your local community. It’s one thing to play obscure characters because you honestly feel they give you the best chance to win. However, strictly avoiding a strong character simply because he’s strong not only weakens your game, but also any friends who rely on you for competition. This is how Japan almost lost in ST at the first USA vs Japan invitational team tournament and how SoCal became a non-factor in CvS2.