Ken’s mind games were the best

A personal anecdote always comes to mind when thinking about Ken “Ken” Hoang, the original “King of Smash.” It started with a conversation in college with one of my best friends, Tom.

He was definitely one of the worst Call of Duty players we all knew, and one day he walked in the dorm while my brother and I were playing an online match. He quickly became stunned at something I pulled off in the middle of the game.

The map I was playing was set in a small town with two main buildings on the left and the right side of the map. Usually running in the middle of the street that separated these two buildings meant you were dead. There was no cover in the street, and everyone knew to always stick to the interior of the buildings. At a certain point in that match, however, I ran through the middle of the street. Not only did I survive, but I wasn’t even shot at. Tom was amazed.

“Wait, so how did you know that you could cross the street right there?” he asked.

I explained to him, based on multiple factors I observed in the game, such as my recent spawn point, my teammates’ spawn points, the red dots on the radar, etc. all signaled to me that it was clear.

“Tom, I’ve been in that situation a million times,” I told him. “It’s all about tendencies. I know that people will have the ‘tendency’ to not look at that street based on the position they are on the map.”

That explanation is probably not the best use of the word “tendency,” but the word became a inside joke whenever I would explain things to him relating it to video games. I was basically introducing my friend to the idea of game theory or “meta-gaming”, and how it can be applied to everyday activities, not just video games.

Ken was the best at knowing his opponent’s tendencies. It’s one of the most notable things that made him famous.

Knowing what you chose

Let’s take a simple concept: Rock, Paper, Scissors. There is no inherent advantage in what option to throw, but for the sake of the argument, let’s say people will throw rock first 50 percent of the time. Imagine being in a tournament and knowing that statistic. The strategy going into a match at that point is obvious: throw paper. You’re going to win half the time.

Now you go into the next tournament, but this time around everyone knows this statistic, and now the game has totally changed. You know your opponent’s not going to throw rock, but you know that he knows that you know that…well, you get the point.

Rock, Paper, Scissors is in incredibly simple game, but the basic idea applies to video games, especially fighters. If Option 1 has the least amount of frames where your character is vulnerable, then it should be the most optimal. But your opponent will know this and punish you accordingly. See the resemblance?

During the era of Ken’s dominance, no one ever said Ken was the flashiest or the most technical Marth. Nevertheless, Ken was not only the winningest Marth, he was the King of Smash, leagues better than any player in the world of Super Smash Bros Melee. “Mind Games” is the term Smashers always used for him. Ken was the master at mind games. He knew when you were going to do Option 1 or Option 2. He knew when you knew. Most importantly, he did it with Marth.

Look at the tier list at the time, and you will see that Fox only hit the No. 1 spot after the eighth iteration in 2006. Fox was always talked about as being “potentially the best” but never the best. You have to remember it was a time when so many things were thought of as impossible. Simple things like Fox’s up-throw to up-air was considered difficult, and waveshine to grab was almost never done.

So inevitably you had Sheik at the top for the majority of Melee’s early life. You didn’t need exact frame data to see how good Sheik was. In an era where the technical skill of the overall playerbase was considerably low, a character like Sheik was going to stand out. Her combos were easy and intuitive, which were important traits for that era.

But what about Marth? Why was the King of Smash not a Sheik main despite the general acceptance of Sheik’s superiority, especially in the Marth-Sheik match up? Because of mind games. Sheik is a character that has a lousy neutral game, and while ideas like “neutral game” were yet to be fleshed out at that time, the concept was there. Marth has an incredible neutral, even in today’s metagame where Foxes and Falcos run rampant, and Ken abused it.

Ken used Marth’s simple neutral game with a deep understanding and control of the Dash Dancing mechanic.

Because Ken had such a great sense of mind-games, he was able to play a unique style of Marth for its time. Most people believed that Marth was much more of a defensive character, abusing the extremely potent punish on his forward smash or grab.

But Ken played the opposite way. Christopher “PC Chris” Szygiel would say in a 2013 documentary:

“That’s the wierd part about Ken, he’s such an aggro Marth…[Marth players] are always trying to play the space game with you. With Ken, he would be all over you…There’s a reason why he was the most dominant Smasher.”

Because of Ken’s superiority in the understanding of the metagame, he was able to be a super aggressive Marth. This put pressure on his opponents that they could never handle.

He was throwing paper when you were throwing rock, 100 percent of the time.