500 “Easy” Steps: Rivals of Aether

Rivals of Aether is a success story. Its creator, Dan Fornace, made a Gameboy-style Smash Bros. game called Super Smash Land back in 2011, before eventually turning his attention toward designing his own original platform fighter in 2014. Since then, Rivals of Aether has grown a loyal fanbase and an enduring competitive scene, and now has ended up on the Nintendo Switch—the current flagship console of the very game that inspired Fornace in the first place. This port has also been my opportunity to finally try Rivals firsthand.

The game is fun and oozes personality. Its premise—various animal-based fighters living in a world of strife between neighboring nations—is sparse yet elegant. Its characters, rendered in 2D sprites instead of 3D models, are memorable both in terms of visual design and animation. In this respect, it’s a lot more impressive than its genre cousin Brawlhalla, whose animations are pretty much universally recycled from one fighter to the next. Rivals of Aether has built up a compelling world that’s as simple or complex as it needs to be, and leaves room for more story characters should a sequel ever be made (like the behind-the-scenes antagonist, Emperor Loxodont).

But gameplay is the selling point of Rivals, and from that perspective, it very clearly uses tournament-level Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Nintendo Gamecube as its foundation. It’s not just that it includes more forgiving forms of dash dancing and wavedashing, two staple skills of high-level Melee. Nor is it that the lack of shield and grab mechanics is meant to encourage more aggressive play akin to Melee. Rather, it also features a number of characters whose fighting styles are largely amalgamations or remixes of Melee characters. Absa, an electric goat, is like a mix of Pikachu, Ness, and Zelda between the thunder attacks and darting recovery, peculiar double jumps, and powerful sweetspot-centric lightning kicks. The main character, a lion named Zetterburn, is clearly cut from the same cloth as Fox and Falco, between his combo-starting Reflector-esque move, his quick projectile, and his trade-off between a strong onstage presence and a relatively weak but maneuverable recovery. It’s very telling that the flagship character is based on the most popular archetype (the “space animal”) in competitive Melee.

That said, there are a lot of innovative ideas among the fighters. Wrastor is a bird who is unable to perform “strong attacks” (the Rivals term for smash attacks) on the ground, but unlike the others can use them in the air. Sylvanos grows grass wherever he walks, enhancing his moves in different ways. If you’re looking for a complex and/or unorthodox character, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into.

On the flip-side, however, one issue I’ve encountered is that there’s really no such thing as a “simple” character in Rivals. Absa is not only Pikachu+Ness+Zelda, but also summons clouds that stay on screen capable of chaining lightning, and if you kick the clouds with your special lightning kick, they explode. Forsburn can generate smokescreen that obscures his movement, but he can also inhale the smokescreen to increase his damage or ignite the smokescreen, in addition to creating an illusory doppelganger. Guest character Shovel Knight gains gems from hitting opponents, which he can then use at an item shop he summons to buy armor modifications, but also he can go fishing offstage to bring up objects as well. Even Zetterburn bucks the general trend of main characters being beginner-friendly: his own tutorial says he’s good for players already familiar with other platform fighters, but he’s patterned after two of the most physically challenging characters in Smash Bros. Melee. On top of that, Zetterburn has a “burn” mechanic, where opponents he sets on fire take extra damage from his attacks. 

It’s not that complex characters are bad—quite the opposite, in fact. They add great variety to fighting games and appeal to those looking for characters that require a lot of work to master. Even the Smash Bros. franchise just recently released the extremely involved Minecraft Steve character. But most of the time, fighting games try to at least appeal to players who don’t want too many bells and whistles. For every Steve in Smash, Venom in Guilty Gear, or even Akira in Virtua Fighter, there’s a Mario, Sol Badguy, or Lau Chan. The fact that Rivals of Aether doesn’t even bother to make this concession speaks volumes to its tournament Melee influence. Having watched some tournaments, I understand that there is great reward for those who dedicate the time and effort to really mastering their characters, but it does feel like there’s an intentionally high “skill mezzanine”—i.e. the minimum skill required to start to play a game at a decent level.

Rivals of Aether is solid in presentation and gameplay with a decent singleplayer and a robust multiplayer, but it’s laser-focused on drawing in a certain kind of player. If you love the general pace and feel of Smash Bros. Melee but want something that offers a meaningful difference, it’s a fine title. If not, Rivals is still pretty good.

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