Icons: Combat Arena and the Social Establishment of Character Archetypes

The desire to create competitive games in the vein of Smash Bros. often comes with the intent to court the existing player base for Smash Bros. Melee—the hyper-fast entry of the popular Nintendo franchise with the most storied tournament history. This is evident in the recently named Icons: Combat Arena. With its EVO 2017 gameplay trailer showing off attack animations and characters a little more than reminiscent of Smash Bros., the comparisons are more than inevitable. One of the consequences of this courtship is that, not only is the intended character roster inspired by high-level Melee play, but there is also a clear assumption from the creators of Icons that how the strongest characters have emerged from within Melee‘s environment have shaped the very foundation of the genre of the platform fighter subgenre.

The name of the studio behind Icons, Wavedash games, is by itself sufficient evidence for the team’s reverence for Smash and Melee. It’s named after the most well-known of the “hidden techniques” of Melee. The developers have even released videos over the past year detailing their design philosophy and inspirations. However, the fact that the Melee top tier is virtually replicated in the Icons roster revealed thus far is the biggest indicator of Melee‘s influence.

Take, for example, the character known as Kidd, an anthropomorphic goat character who’s also an homage to Joseph “Mang0” Marquez. One of the “five gods” of Melee, Mang0’s nicknames include “The Kid” and “The GOAT” (in reference to his numerous achievements). According to the creators themselves, Kidd is purposely patterned after the characters Fox and Falco from Star Fox, two of the top tiers. More than simply taking cues from these two, Icons considers the “space animal” to be a mainstay character archetype for platform fighters, the way that the “shoto” (a balanced character with fireball, anti-air uppercut, and horizontal movement special move) or the “grappler” are in traditional fighting games.

The positioning of the space animal as an archetype is very telling because, while there are shared qualities between Fox and Falco (the latter being a “clone” built directly from the template of the former), what really defines the significance of “spacies” to the platform fighter is their dominance in Melee and the reputation of superiority that precedes them. No character embodies competitive Melee more than Fox—his speed, incredibly good tools, difficult technical requirements, and overall role as “master of all trades” helps to define that high-pace action Melee is famous for. In other words, the reason the space animal is an archetype is because they’re so absurdly strong in that environment, a notion which extends to many of their archetypes listed by Wavedash Games in one their development vlogs:

The eight archetypes are: space animal, swordsman, speedy brawler, floaty, duo, projectile master, alternate weapon, and grappler. Of these, the first four can be found directly in Melee‘s upper echelons. The fifth, the projectile master, is arguably best seen with Solid Snake in Smash Bros. Brawl.

From 1 through 8: Space Animal, Space Animal, Swordsman, Speedy Brawler, Floaty, Floaty, Duo, Speedy Brawler

To be clear, this is not accusing Wavedash Games of lacking creativity. While certain attacks shown so far are quite obviously taking cues from Smash Bros. and especially Melee, there’s also a clear intent to innovate. Ashani the speedy brawler is supposed to be “30% familiar, 70% new.” Even so, Ashani is clearly assembled from the building blocks of Captain Falcon in Melee. This makes sense, given that Captain Falcon is arguably the most beloved Melee character due to his flashy, up-close combos, and the fact that he’s good, but not so overwhelming as to be stigmatized for it. Another Icons character, Zhurong, is a sword wielder clearly modeled after Marth (another Melee top tier).

If not for how competitive Melee turned out, it’s highly likely any of these categories wouldn’t even be thought of as archetypes in the first place.

That might seem like an obvious point. After all, why wouldn’t a genre grow based on the successes of past releases? However, I still think there’s a vital difference between how Icons defines its archetypes and how other games, including other competitive ones, have gone about it.

Look at Street Fighter, for instance. In Super Street Fighter II Turbo, the Spanish ninja known as Vega/Balrog/Claw is one of the best characters while also possessing a unique fighting style. Yet later fighting games inspired by Street Fighter didn’t consider “Claw” to be a foundational character style. They were more likely to go with archetypes that, while based on Street Fighter‘s success, aren’t necessarily based on tier lists—the Zangief-esque grappler, for example, fluctuates up and down the tier lists from one game to the next, and wasn’t especially strong in Street Fighter II. At this point in Icons, there seems to be no indication of a “Mewtwo”-esque character, possibly because Mewtwo is a low tier in Melee.

The archetypes established for Icons: Combat Arena do not come from the success of Smash Bros. and especially Melee as competitively viable games alone. They also derive from the collective Melee community’s perception of what is assumed or expected of a game that is trying to exist within not just the same world, but practically on the same city block. If Melee didn’t have the space animal or the swordsman, its history would’ve been far different, but the lopsidedness of its tier list also means that many of the characters who could’ve been archetypes are perceived as otherwise due to their ineffectiveness. For a competitive scene so firmly built on the top being home to only a handful of characters, it is arguably the best way for Icons to say, “I am familiar territory, don’t be afraid to try me.”

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