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.

Mind Craft: Steve in Smash Bros. Ultimate Impressions

The impossible has happened once again as Steve (and Alex) from Minecraft joins an increasingly unthinkable roster in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. While I’ve never touched Minecraft, I appreciate its creativity and the joy it has provided so many people young, old, and virtual. Having now played (and played against) him for the past few days, I would say that in both visual style and gameplay, Steve from Minecraft is likely the most bizarre character in franchise history. 

Where most characters end up having their appearances updated or at least rendered in finer detail, Steve joins Mr. Game & Watch in having a look deliberately hyper-faithful to his source material to the point of incongruity with the rest of Smash. In terms of his skill set, Steve moves differently, attacks differently, and his block-formation + resource-mining mechanics only have the loosest similarities to other fighters. He’s a little bit Olimar (gathering resources), a little bit Robin (resource management), and some degree of Mega Man (movement while attacking), but also far beyond being a simple chimera of those three. His blocks also kind of resemble what Kragg in Rivals of Aether and Olaf Tyson in Brawlout are capable of, but Steve’s version exists as more than just an unusual recovery move. 

I have quickly come to the conclusion that I’m not a good Steve player (and likely never will be), so I can’t offer any tips or hints as to how to best play the character. I can, however, talk about how it feels to struggle with and against Steve.

With Steve, moving around feels counterintuitive to what I’m accustomed to in Smash. For example, in Ultimate, one common way to avoid attacks is to jump. Unlike in previous games, all characters take the same amount of time to leap, so you can go above a lot of things, especially grabs. Steve, however, has one of the worst first jumps in the roster, and so he can actually get grabbed in situations where others wouldn’t. Steve needs to burn his second jump instead, which would be a bad idea for most other characters—except unlike everyone else, he can create a block underneath and restore his jumps instantly. You have to literally approach concepts like being grounded and being airborne in a new way compared to everyone else, and for me, it is taking a lot of time to get used to. 

In addition to not having any ups, Steve has some of the worst mobility stats in the game—roughly bottom 10 in nearly everything. He feels sluggish when I’m in control of him, but when I play against him, he somehow feels incredibly squirrely. I believe this is because of a combination of qualities Steve possesses. 

First, he can attack while walking in a fashion akin to Mega Man and Min Min, so he can retreat and advance with ease, even if he’s slow.

Second, he has a deceptively thin hurtbox that makes spacing moves against him difficult. “Hitting” his arms doesn’t do any damage, and often attacks that seem like they hit will whiff easily when combined with his ability to move back and forth easily.

Third, it’s very hard to tell what he’s doing based on his animations because so many of them overlap or look extremely similar. His walk, dash, run, roll, jump, and even his getting-hit animations all have the same ramrod-straight stance with arms and legs flailing, and his other actions aren’t far off. The fact that he remains “standing” while getting hit in the air also means he sometimes lands on platforms where others wouldn’t.

Fourth, his actual attacks are surprisingly fast, and the ability to rapidly throw out simple moves means it’s hard to tell when he’s vulnerable and when he isn’t.

When Steve is at full strength—plenty of resources to burn and diamond tools for early kills—he seems very strong. He lets a player be as creative as they want, and already, people are discovering unique combos, techniques, and glitches (that will likely get patched out). What he lacks in movement, he makes up for in fast, strong, and useful attacks, somewhat like Luigi. The Minecart looks like one of the best moves in the game at the moment, as it protects Steve from attacks, and the ability to stay in the cart (for an attack) or jump out (turning the cart into a grab) is a scary mixup. It’s basically Diddy Kong’s Monkey Flip on steroids, and I’m unsure of whether it’s the online setting that makes the move frustratingly difficult to react to, or if it’ll be just as potent online. I do feel that the character benefits a lot from lag, but it’s very possible that his quicker properties would be of greater benefit offline.

I’ve still yet to fully decide which characters I think do especially bad against Steve, but Little Mac’s reliance on ground movement means that blocks mess him up pretty easily, and his recovery is rife for exploitation by Steve’s crafting blocks and down-tilt (a descending fire attack). Big-body characters get comboed to hell and back by him, but I can see certain ones doing better or worse. I can’t quite figure out if Mewtwo does well against Steve or not, but I think the online environment plus the strength of Minecart is skewing my perceptions. 

As for which characters seem to demolish Steve, it’s likely characters who can either outcamp him, or who can quickly get close and overcome his attacks with better range. Zelda’s Din’s Fire can be a pain for Steve because its properties let it circumvent block placement. Marth and Lucina have the speed, strength, and long pointy swords to make life difficult. Shulk’s Monados may be hard to contend with as well. Also, the rigid hurtbox of Steve comes with a potential drawback: it looks strangely easy to hit him with sweetspot attacks, like Zelda’s lightning kicks and Marth’s tipper sword attacks. 

Of course, that’s all speculation on my part. Steve is such a decidedly non-cookie-cutter character that it’s going to be months or even years before he’s even halfway understood. If Smash Bros. is about bringing together all these different video game legends and showing off their unique qualities, then Steve feels like they imported an entirely new game engine into that universe. He’s both fun and annoying at the same time, and I suspect we’re going to be seeing a whole lot of him for a long while.

Smash Bros. and the Concept of Restrictive Consequences

When two games are of the same franchise, comparisons are inevitable, as is the case with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Super Smash Bros. Melee. Between Ultimate being the hottest new thing and in many ways the peak of Smash’s video game crossover premise, and Melee being the game that has stood the test of time after 20 years, the two understandably act as points of reference to each other. But one thing that has frustrated me when seeing people bring up the differences between Melee and Ultimate in terms of high-level competitive play is that there’s often a tacit assumption about Melee’s qualities being inherently better for the platform fighters. What’s worse is that Ultimate fans rarely come to the kind of spirited defense that Melee fans are willing to bring. 

However, after listening and reading to so many reviews, posts, and other sources that compare Melee and Ultimate on some level, I’ve come to realize a big reason why this happens. Essentially, Melee is such an outlier, not just in terms of Smash Bros. but fighting games in general, that it attracts a loyal audience whose main basis for what makes a game fun is heavily rooted in that love of Melee. Specifically, what Melee players and fans cherish is a heavy sense of physical freedom at all times—provided you have the skill, knowledge, and dexterity to earn it. In turn, games that emphasize heavily restricting movement (especially when in a disadvantageous position) are seen as a less enjoyable and skill-rewarding experience. 

A Love of “Jazz” Above All Else

There’s a popular moment from the 2010 documentary The Smash Brothers, where the ex-commentator Prog likens Melee to jazz. Contained within that analogy is the idea that what the two have in common is being freeform and improvisational in ways that value expressiveness and openness. While this sentiment is a little more abstract, you can see it conveyed in more concrete, if perhaps less poetic terms elsewhere. 

One example is a Reddit post titled “Does anyone else think Ultimate has a super obnoxious, uninteractive disadvantage state?” In it, user gajuby discusses what they believe are Ultimate’s weaknesses compared to Melee. Another example comes from a Youtube video titled “Is Melee a Good Game?” by AsumSaus, who emphasizes that freedom of movement in multiple scenarios is one of the things that makes him love Melee.

Here’s a quote from gajuby:

Easily my least favorite part of ultimate…is ledgetrapping. So many characters ledgetrap so effortlessly that it feels barely interactive. It never felt fun that against a lot of characters, it was a 50/50 between “jump” and “every other options”, especially against characters that could stay outside the range of ledge hopped aerials.

This is eventually followed by a comparison to Melee:

And finally, getting off of the ledge. I still often die when doing ledge dashes, but I absolutely love that they basically bypass the ledge trapping stage altogether. It takes away that whole obnoxious, tiresomely long stage of the game, the phase that honestly makes me dislike ultimate a lot of the time, despite its amazing roster and balance.

Similar to the Reddit post, AsumSaus’s review (which to be fair is more about looking at Melee as both a singleplayer and multiplayer experience), he laments the state of Ultimate’s platforms to Melee’s, with the former allowing for many more possibilities.

In Melee, platforms are mechanically versatile and extremely deep. Many players base their entire playstyles on platforms and how they use them to their advantage. It’s a reminder of how much more fun neutral and combos are when platforms are fun and easy to move around on. In Ultimate, however, the same platforms that make Smash Bros. as a series so unique represent how the developers have chosen to limit the number of options to move and interact. (23:42)

I want to highlight how indicative these statements are of the Melee mindset. For reference, a ledge dash—also known as an invincible ledge dash—is an advanced technique that allows a character to get off the ledge and move forward while invulnerable and able to execute a move. It is, as stated in the quote above, capable of completely negating the advantage of the opponent’s position, with  the only drawback being difficulty of execution. 

As for the matter of what roles platforms should serve in Smash, AsumSaus’s argument boils down to the idea that their purpose should be multifaceted and allow for enhancing offense and defense, depending on the situation. Platforms being more like “hazards” that put you in a bad position relative to an opponent standing below doesn’t sit well with him. So, what should be inherently bad positions can be easily dealt with in Melee through sheer technical skill, in essence allowing more educated fingers to reliably overcome the odds (Starcraft: Brood War gets similar praise from its players).

By comparison, being on the ledge in Smash is akin to being in the corner in other fighting games, where being above an opponent comes with a severe set of drawbacks as well. Generally speaking, in most games in the genre, there is really no such thing as an “invincible corner escape” that also grants the versatility of being able to attack simultaneously. And whereas Melee especially allows a player getting hit to “DI” an attack and influence the trajectory they fly as a way to try and escape combos, most fighting games feature combos that are mostly inescapable. What’s even more telling is that these frustrations over Ultimate don’t necessarily come from being in bad spots, but rather having one’s options severely limited by being in bad spots.

For someone like me who prefers Ultimate, the bones tossed at Ultimate players can feel almost condescending, even if that’s not the intention. Stating that “Ultimate is better balanced across the cast” typically comes with the caveat that the variety and balance at the top level of Melee is superior. “The game is easier for beginners to get into and do well in” is a backhanded compliment to Ultimate that highlights how difficult Melee can be to play. One thing that these opinions seem to fail to take into account is how the sheer versatility of movement in Melee is what imbalances the roster so heavily in the first place. A game where mobility is absolutely paramount basically invalidates slower, heavier characters who would have a much harder time in a Melee environment, unless severe changes were made. That being said, I can understand how, to someone whose primary (if not only) game is Melee, all other games can feel like having your wings clipped.

But as for what other approaches to competitive multiplayer can offer Melee players, commentator Toph relayed his own thoughts on the matter in an episode of the Scar & Toph Show Podcast. When Sajam (a commentator of more traditional fighting games) talks about a more conventional game game like Granblue Fantasy Versus having more reductive options compared to Melee, Toph responds as follows:

…That’s actually kinda what I’m liking about playing it, actually—the fact that I’ve never really played a game that’s a little more reductive in terms of the option set…. I’ve mostly been like a Melee player through my competitive life in my 20s…. With Melee, there’s always this sense that, like, you can find some new option, or you can find some new answer—the option space is so wide. I think, for me, it’s been good to play a game where the option set is a little smaller, and the game speed is a little bit toned down, because, like, now I have to be really careful…. 

In a game like Melee, I can jump, and if I realize it was a bad jump midway…I can hold back and I’m out of there, or I can waveland on the platform, or I can fuckin’ fastfall or not fastfall, or I can fastfall a little later, so that I fuck their timing up. Or I can fastfall a little later and drift back at the same time, or I can drift forward if they think I’m gonna drift back. In a game like Granblue, if I do a bad jump, I did a bad jump, and I’m gonna get fuckin’ anti-aired for 50% if I push a button…. It’s really been fun for me to experience the other side of things.

In summary, Super Smash Bros. Melee brings out an extremely loyal fan base who can find it hard to play other games with as much enthusiasm because of how unique Melee and its extreme emphasis on freedom of mobility are in the grand scheme of competitive offerings. However, this can result in Melee fans seeing things primarily in Melee terms, unable to see the merits of other Smash titles and other fighting games in general—particularly those where powerful limitations are a fundamental basis for both the fun and the competitive core of a title. It can benefit players to see these titles not as inferior but as providing a different interactive environment whose focused and pared down concepts of decision-making and reward/punishment offer another kind of fun.

Where in the World is the Next Smash Bros. Character?

I woke up one morning with an amazing idea: What if Carmen Sandiego became a Smash Bros. character?

Sure, there are a lot of things working against her. The Carmen Sandiego franchise is traditionally more about teaching kids geography than anything else, and there’s not much “gameplay” to speak of. There’s already a thief as a guest character in the form of Joker from Persona 5. She’s not even all that recognizable in this day and age, though people who grew up in the 1990s might know her through the various shows based on her that populated public and network television in the US. 

However, she would directly represent a genre of gaming that is only barely touched upon by other characters: edutainment. Sure, it’s not as exciting as RPG, FPS, or fighting games, but Carmen herself has enough style to give her a striking impression.

Also, I think I have a great moveset for her, and I really want to share it. 

As a virtually unparalleled thief and criminal mastermind, Carmen Sandiego would be a nimble and slippery character, light yet speedy in most respects. She would probably be similar to Joker in that respect, but unlike her fellow sticky-fingered compatriot, she would place less emphasis on building towards a powerful, combo-oriented office.

Carmen Sandiego is not just good at stealing—she makes off with the most absurd and improbable items possible. Among them are “the Trans-Siberian Railroad,” and “all the goulash,” and “the steps to the tango.” In other words, she can steal things of enormous scale, infinite quantity, and even concepts! That’s why her neutral-special move would be a command grab called Master Theft, and it would allow her to rob an opponent of their own neutral-special. 

Essentially, it would be akin to Kirby’s Inhale mixed with a bit of Villager Pocket, except it would actually deny the target the use of their move! However, she wouldn’t be able to use the attack herself. Instead, she would store it in a briefcase that she uses for some of her attacks, and having a stolen special move would increase the damage and knockback, turning it into a potent KO move.

This special move would clearly be more potent against some characters. While Ganondorf losing Warlock Punch wouldn’t be the biggest deal, Shulk should be scared to not have Monado Arts.

From there, Carmen’s special moves would be as follows.

Jetpack would be her up-special, and would make for nimble recoveries, but limited offensive potential. 

Side-special would be Phantom Step, and would have her create an illusory clone that can stay still or move forward. The closest thing in Smash would be Greninja’s Shadow Sneak, but this is closer to the Adept’s Shade technique in Starcraft II.

And down-special would be V.I.L.E. Henchman, which would summon a random subordinate of Carmen’s, each with different properties. It would resemble Duck Hunt’s Wild Gunmen attack to a certain extent, but the effects would be much more varied than “different guys shooting.” 

Her Final Smash would be V.I.L.E. Assault, and would entail a full-on attack by all the Henchmen and Carmen at the same time As for which henchmen would be picked, I really am not sure. The game-show ones like Robocrook would be most recognizable, but that might stray too far off from Smash Bros. as a celebration of games.

That being said, it would still have to include the Rockapella theme. 

There are other edutainment games that could serve the role of representative, such as Oregon Trail or Math Blaster. But I think Carmen Sandiego has the cultural penetration and character charisma to make her a great addition to Smash Bros. I know the chances are slim, but it would be such a fantastic surprise for a future Nintendo Direct.

PS: I never get tired of this:

Refreshing Noodles: Min Min in Smash Bros. Ultimate

A lot has happened in the Smash Bros. community over the past two weeks, with multiple instances of sexual abuse and assault among its competitive scene coming to light. This is a serious problem, and its exposure is ultimately for the better, especially for the victims and those who would have been potential victims.

This has also overshadowed some of the happier Smash news—namely the reveal of Min Min as the new DLC character—so I want to focus on that. Hopefully, we can embrace the good without looking away in willful ignorance as to what needs to change.

Min Min

When an ARMS character was announced as DLC for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate two months ago, the online reaction felt less than enthusiastic. Although ARMS is a fairly successful Switch game, the previous DLC pack had hardcore fans craving for more outlandish choices in the vein of Hero and Banjo-Kazooie. Amazingly, I think the developers and Nintendo have managed to turn opinion around with their reveal of Min Min as the winner, and it’s thanks to a combination of factors. 

First, ARMS just has fantastic character designs that ooze personality, and Min Min is one of its best. Second, she brings a unique fighting style that gives players something new and different to try out. Third, she happens to be associated with the Etika, the gaming Youtuber who tragically died by suicide almost one year ago. All three worked together to make a perfect storm.

Character Design

Min Min looks cool when she probably should look ridiculous. She is a ramen shop owner with noodles for hair, a ramen bowl hat, a dragon for an arm, a somewhat stereotypical Chinese outfit, and she does kung fu. Yet, somehow, it all works together. She comes across as fun and lighthearted, yet serious and strong. Her martial arts animations are impressive, and they lend her a lot of flavor.

The trailer itself also did a great job of conveying her personality. As the other ARMS fighters battle to obtain a coveted Smash Bros. invitational letter, Min Min is at her shop watching Captain Falcon and Kirby eat ramen. It’s only after Captain Falcon has completely finished his bowl with utter satisfaction that Min Min leaves to fight for the Smash spot. This shows how important her restaurant and customers are to her, that she would on some level prioritize them over what is arguably the ultimate prize. Min Min just comes across as charming and powerful in the best ways, even to those who have zero familiarity with ARMS.

Min Min is also the first playable Chinese character in Smash Bros. history, giving her a unique factor. Because she speaks Mandarin Chinese in the trailer, I was curious as to who her actor is. It turns out the voice behind Min Min is Takutsu Haruna, a Japanese performer who studies Chinese as a hobby. I appreciate the fact that they chose someone who has put in that much effort, even if all she’s saying is, “I love ramen!”

Fighting Style

Min Min might very well become the bane of online play with her long reach and dual-arm game mechanic. Zoners and projectile specialists are the bane of many Smash players, and it seems like Min Min is only adding fuel to the fire. But Sakurai’s video demonstration makes her look more exciting than one might have expected, notably because she controls differently from pretty much every Smash character before her. Whereas most characters have a clear delineation between their normal “A-button” moves and their special “B-button moves,” for Min Min, they control her left and right ARMS respectively. Moreover, she can move while her attacks are coming out. Thus, she’s able to deliver long-range one-two combinations at a player’s chosen timing or send them in different directions to cover a wider area. 

The closest comparable character is Mega Man, who’s able to move and attack in a similar way thanks to his pellets, but even that doesn’t fully prepare players for the Min Min experience. Just from using her for a few days, it feels like you’re playing a completely different game—my fingers stop knowing what to do with other characters when I try to switch back. She’s someone who will take time and dedication to use at even a functional level, which also means she’s offering something you won’t find in other characters. It’s unclear as to how strong she actually is, but it will take time to figure out regardless.

As an aside, while not related to ARMS, this left-right setup could also be the perfect way to add a Tekken character to the roster. Heihachi is probably out given the Mii costume they just announced, but who knows? Maybe we’ll get Kazuya MIshima or Jin Kazama instead.

Etika’s Legacy

The late Etika was one of the most visible figures in online Smash fandom, and was probably the very face of “Smash reaction videos” thanks to his genuine passion towards character reveals. While he would invite controversy constantly, it became sadly clear in the end that he suffered from mental illness, and every one of his fans wishes that things turned out differently.

Etika also happened to be a big fan of Min Min, though not always for the purest of reasons, as his LEGS t-shirt above makes clear. Regardless, when Min Min was first shown in that trailer, those who followed and knew Etika probably all had the same thought: the man would have loved this. It’s even possible to imagine how he would have reacted—with an expressiveness few can ever match.

In the End, Nothing’s Wrong with First-Party Characters

Min Min’s announcement had it all: a strong character aesthetic that can make new fans instantly, a showcase of interesting gameplay brought by her, and an online presence that goes beyond the familiar borders of Nintendo in the form of Etika. What’s just as important is that it showed how you don’t need an off-the-wall unpredictable pick to create excitement and hype. “An ARMS character” is something probably anyone could have predicted, but what they perhaps couldn’t account for is having the whole package executed so well. My hope, however futile it might be, is that fans can appreciate the characters that are coming, even if it’s not necessarily the ones they want. They might be able to win us over, just like Min Min.

Wishing for Hope, Reaching to Help

I’m grateful to be in a position where I am mentally and emotionally well, even in this pandemic. It’s easy for me to assume that fear and concern over COVID-19 is what’s on people’s minds, but the recent deaths of so many people and figures in my social and fandom spheres just has me hyper-aware of the challenges many face that are likely exacerbated by current circumstances. 

In the world of anime, Zac Bertschy of Anime News Network died in his apartment on May 21, 2020. In wrestling, Shad Gaspard died at age 39 after helping save his son from a rip current on May 17. Another wrestler, Hana Kimura was 22 when she died by suicide on May 23 after online harassment due to her appearance on the reality show Terrace House. And while this isn’t recent, it’s been almost a year since the suicide of gaming youtuber Etika, who was 29. Death may be unpredictable and inevitable, but the fact that they all left so young makes me shake my head in disbelief.

I wasn’t close to any of the people I mentioned, so my perspective is not as a friend or peer, or even necessarily as a fan or follower. Yet, I feel something: sadness, anger, frustration, or maybe something else I can’t describe. In the case of Hana Kimura, I kept saying to myself, “I really need to check out Stardom because she seems like a star,” and now all I’ll have is past videos to reference. It makes me want to reach out to my friends, and those I’ve lost contact with over the years. It’s easy to just assume that the last image you had of them is roughly how they are today, but time passes and people face challenges both internal and external. I always worry about overstepping my boundaries or thinking I’m closer to someone than I actually am, and maybe I just need to find the tiny ounce of courage to get over that and maybe, just maybe, help someone turn away from a bad decision. 

I used to frequent a chat room that was named after the anime Maria-sama ga Miteru (aka Maria Watches Over Us). A few years since I last visited, I decided to stop by, and the chat topic included a person’s name: “So-and-so ga Miteru.” It turns out they had passed away. A couple more years passed, and I visited again. This time, more names had been added to the topic. It feels like I blinked, and more of the people I knew had vanished. As far as I know, none of those deaths were due to suicide, but they stung nevertheless. And while I never really interacted with them on any deeply personal level, it made my infrequent visits feel like “too little, too late.” When it’s related to physical health, there’s only so much any of us can do. When it’s not, it hits differently. 

I hope we can connect to our fellow human beings, those we love and even those with whom we have the barest connection, so that we can help lift up one another. If you’re feeling like life isn’t worth living, reach out to suicide prevention for professional help. If you’re hurting and just need someone to listen, feel free to even leave a comment below or contact me on Twitter

Remember: you’re worth something.

Kunio-kun and Double Dragon for Super Smash Bros.

As Smash Bros. Ultimate increasingly becomes a celebration of gaming history on a wider scale, I want more and more to see every video game genre represented in its character roster. Just like how Cloud and Hero represent RPGs, or how Ryu, Ken, and Terry are the poster boys for fighting games, I’d like to see someone represent the beat ’em up genre. In that respect, there are only two possible franchises that I think deserve this honor: Kunio-kun and Double Dragon.

Kunio-kun is the granddaddy of beat ’em ups, starting with the very first game in the genre’s history: Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun. Featuring the brash yet noble delinquent Kunio-kun, it would set the template for the entire genre—full range of movement, enemies on all sides, clever attacks, weapons, etc. It would later influence gaming further though sequels and spin-offs such as River City Ransom

The original Double Dragon arcade game was basically designed on the Kunio-kun engine except with more international appeal. Instead of the specifically Japanese context of gakuran-wearing yankii, it’s about two Chinese-American kung fu brothers named Billy and Jimmy Lee. Which one would be better for Smash comes down to that difference—do you want the very Japanese and explosive Kunio, or do you want the Lee brothers and their global recognition?

Either way, the movesets practically write themselves. In fact, one could say that they have too many moves to choose from. 

Kunio not only has his first game, but he’s also one of the stars of River City Ransom (where he was renamed “Alex” for the US) and is Mario-level in terms of dabbling in other genres. He could squat like a delinquent, Acro Circus though the air, punch people on the ground, and throw a ball straight out of Super Dodge Ball.

For Billy and Jimmy, you also have endless options. Do you base them more on their arcade moves or their console appearances? The Cyclone Spin Kick is obvious, but do you go with the arcade animation or the NES one? What about nunchaku from Double Dragon III or the Double Dragon for NES back elbow? What if they based the gameplay on Double Dragon II, where the B button always means “attack left” and the A button always means “attack right?” In terms of Smash, both the Double Dragons and Kunio can be as orthodox or as unusual as possible.

Given that the beat ’em up genre is long past its heyday, and Nintendo’s apparent desire to use Smash Bros. Ultimate as a promotional platform, it might not seem all that likely to see either Kunio or the Lees. However, Arc System Works (creators of BlazBlue and Guilty Gear) have the current rights, and there was a Kunio-kun Spirit Event in Ultimate. So here’s hoping that any of these brawling heroes have a chance to be newcomers.

Shields or No Shields? Platform Fighters and the Question of Defense

As a long-time fan of Super Smash Bros., I’ve been curious about the recent expansion of the “platform fighter” subgenre, especially in indie gaming. Over the past six years or so, more and more titles have been developed that follow the basic Smash formula. I’ve mostly watched tournament matches to try and get a sense of what each game is about, but more recently I’ve been able to try some out. Playing them made me aware of an odd trend: a lot of these games do not have shielding or anything akin to blocking as a sustained stationary defensive option.

The five indie platform fighters I’ve paid attention to are Rivals of Aether, Brawlout, Brawlhalla, Slap City, and Icons Combat Arena (which is being succeeded by Vortex Rising). Of these titles, only the last two have Smash shielding. The first three have, at most, workarounds. Rivals of Aether has parrying, Brawlout has a spot dodge and a Guilty Gear-esque burst system, and Brawlhalla has a spot dodge.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with removing shields from a game, but the decision stands out because of how fundamental blocking is to fighting games as a whole. It’s one thing to have weak shields like in Smash Bros. Melee or Smash Bros. Ultimate, but it’s another to eschew the mechanic wholesale—doing so removes the classic rock-paper-scissors balance of blocks > attacks > throws > blocks. Indeed, while Brawlout technically has grabs, they don’t really function all that differently from striking attacks. The fact that the posterboy for Brawlout, Paco, is a wrestler becomes largely a matter of aesthetics.

The big question is simply, why remove the most basic defensive technique there is? After all, while there are clear similarities between these Smash-inspired games, they’re also not necessarily going for the same exact gameplay. Moreover, as different as the actual Smash titles are, they all have shields. 

The answer, it seems, is to try and capture that ineffable quality called “hype” while keeping players from being overwhelmed by complexity.

In the case of Rivals of Aether, its creator describes the lack of shield as a product of both practical limitation and creative decision-making:

Grabs and Shields were removed from Rivals to decrease defensive options and to reduce animation scope by removing throws.

The aggressive focus on Rival’s engine reflects my style as a player. I gravitate toward rushdown and so does RoA’s middleground.

The RoA fans themselves seem to love this, arguing that it emphasizes aggressive gameplay, making things more thrilling overall. Meanwhile, the official Brawlout website has this to say:

Rather than slow-paced defensive battles, Brawlout goes all-out with the lightning-fast aerobatics which platform fighters are famous for.

By focusing on aggressive mechanics, new players will be able to easily nail impressive combos while not feeling overwhelmed by friends who’ve had a bit more practice.

Brawlhalla doesn’t have any specific mission statements, but its free-to-play nature and its overall mechanics also hew in this direction.

Generally speaking, strong defenses frustrate those eager to be rewarded for offense, and that goes double for less experienced players and viewers. Even titles with crazy combos and pressure like Dragonball FighterZ have people getting salty about players who “spam block.” But there’s also the specific context of when many of these platform fighters began development: during the rise and fall of Smash 4. A frequent criticism of the Wii U entry was that shields were too strong, and discouraged the kind of high-pace aggression Melee is known for. Ultimate itself responded to this feedback by weakening shields in certain ways. The shield-less indie games essentially took it one step further. 

It’s also notable that these games, as much as they want to emphasize an almost Melee-esque speed, also try to make competitive-level play more accessible than Melee—a desire to, as the old saying goes, be easy to learn and difficult to master. Brawlout, RoA, and Brawlhalla all try to streamline Smash and especially Melee mechanics to remove some of the execution barrier, whether that’s removing the need for “smash attacks” (Brawlhalla) or simplifying wavedashing (RoA).

However, it’s impossible to fully solve the “problem” of strong defense, blocking mechanic or no. Turtlers always seem to find a way, especially when their opponents want to attack without much forethought. Even Brawlhalla, with its flimsy spot dodge, has seen players frustrated by defensive styles. For example, one asked how to fight passive/defensive players, while another understood how to beat spot dodge (bait it out and punish), but hated playing passively.  

There’s another aspect to consider. Smash Bros. shield is a signature aspect of the franchise, and for a long time, it was unique among fighting games. A barrier that successfully guards against nearly everything at first, it shrinks over time, leaving the user more exposed and more prone to getting stunned into a dizzy state (shield breaking) . It’s one way to introduce weaknesses into blocking, which traditional fighting games usually go about through the concept of high/low mix-ups. But perhaps, because the Smash shield is so iconic, the games that do incorporate it seem even more like “clones.” An alternative form of blocking that’s simple and reasonably effective could be the answer to set future platform fighters further apart. In this respect, some games have been trying their own renditions of shielding. Vortex Rising is implementing one-way shields that are inherently vulnerable to cross-up attacks (i.e. attacks that can land behind your opponent where they aren’t protected), while a newcomer to the platform fighter genre, Slayers for Hire, is going for something more akin to a Street Fighter IV-style “focus attack” (for Smash players, that would be Ryu and Ken’s down special).

The shield-less platform fighters have thus far sought to discourage stationary defense and encourage more active movement, and the players who have gravitated towards these games have found them to be enjoyable. But I have to wonder if aggression can truly be considered as such if there isn’t enough to oppose it. In other words, is rushdown truly rushdown if there isn’t an equally strong defense it needs to crack? Whatever the answer may be, having games that remove blocking entirely may bring about interesting results.

Byleth and the “Fire Emblem” Tactical Spirit in “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate”

The new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate character announcement did not exactly hit with a great bang. Byleth, the player avatar from Fire Emblem: Three Houses, is arguably even the most predictable choice possible. However, in spite of hype-addicted fans not getting their fix and my own neutral feelings towards Byleth, I find their gameplay reveal to be an interesting look into the developers’ latest attempt at capturing Fire Emblem‘s tactical gameplay in Smash.

Fire Emblem is a turn-based, fantasy-themed strategy RPG series where you control different characters with unique strengths and weaknesses. It’s a game that discourages charging in headfirst and instead emphasizes positional advantages and careful advancements. Because the games are not as action-packed as Smash, it has required a greater degree of interpretation to translate the Fire Emblem representatives. Marth (and by extension Lucina) has the highest walking speed in the series, allowing him to swiftly move in and out of enemy range. Robin is one of the slowest characters in the game, but has a mix of long-range magic and close-range sword attacks to try and trap the opponent in a bad spot. As mentioned by Sakurai in the Byleth gameplay video above, most of the Fire Emblem characters in Smash have Counter attacks in order to replicate the retaliations that happen in the original game’s combat sequences.

Byleth comes equipped with a multitude of different weapons, each of which are tied to a particular general direction. Upward attacks are done with a chain-like sword, side attacks utilize a spear with long reach, downward attacks are performed with a slow but powerful axe, and neutral attacks use a bow and arrows for fighting from far away. This plays into the multitude of weapons in Fire Emblem: Three Houses and their properties, such as accuracy, effective range, etc.

In turn, what I think Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is trying to capture by linking specific weapons to specific directions is the spirit of the positional and preparatory thinking that goes into playing Fire Emblem. Byleth is likely encouraged to fight at different distances depending on what the opponent’s priorities are. This applies to some extent with every Smash character, but with Byleth especially, it looks like there is no cure-all attack that can be used by default to cover multiple situations, such as Link’s neutral air or Mr. Game & Watch’s Fire trampoline.

Sakurai points out some of the examples of the weapons’ limitations. The spear has tremendous reach but is weak up close and has problems with vertical movement. The axe is cumbersome, but has many ways to foil evasive measures and low attacks. The bow has a point at which it must fire, forcing The long-range weapon into being a commitment if you want some serious power. He doesn’t say much about what the sword can’t do, but I imagine it will primarily function as an anti-air.

There are plenty of characters who have multiple weapons that are meant to attack at different angles, but in many of those cases, those moves are usually exclusively special moves. Because the directional theme is tied to Bayleth’s normals and specials, it highlights a different kind of tactical thinking. If you want your sword attacks to be effective, you have to be at a distance where the lance is a poor choice, for example. And you can’t make up for it like Mario could with a quick jab vs. a slower fireball because all of Bayleth’s forward-reaching attacks are lance-based. In other words, Bayleth’s vertical spacing is substantially different from their horizontal spacing, and the player has to adjust accordingly.

The more I delve into how Bayleth is designed, the more impressed I am with the thought and concept behind the character. The game could’ve given them a weapon-switching mechanic, for example, but associating a weapon with a direction means that understanding the right spacing for Bayleth also means understanding the right stage positioning as well. It hints at the same feeling as putting the right unit in the right spot in Fire Emblem and allowing the enemy to fall on your blade.

 

Creme de la Creme: Why Alcremie Should Be a Smash Bros. Character

With more Super Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC characters on the way (including but not limited to the last Fighters Pass entrant), I’m throwing my hat in the ring as to who I think would be the right Generation 8 Pokemon representative. While it’s a longshot for sure, I’m throwing my hat in the ring in favor of the Cream Pokemon, Alcremie.

There are three reasons I think Alcremie would be the ideal Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield character. First is Alcremie’s Gigantamax form. Second is that she already comes with a huge variety of colors to base costumes on. Third is the unique gameplay she would provide.

Gigantamax

The signature feature of the Galar region in Pokemon Sword and Shield is Dynamaxing, where Pokemon grow to massive size and gain all sorts of new abilities. A select few Pokemon have the ability to do a more advanced form of Dynamaxing called Gigantamaxing, and Alcremie is among those capable of the feat. Moreover, her Gigantamax form is visually striking, as she turns into a giant multi-tiered cake. It’s perfect for a Final Smash, especially with Gigantamax Alcremie’s signature move, G-Max Finale. It attacks and heals at the same time, and would likely be somewhat similar to Princess Peach’s Final Smash.

Color Palettes Galore

As of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, each Smash character has eight costumes. For other Pokemon, there haven’t been many canon options for colors, resulting in things like purple Charizard and yellow Mewtwo. For Alcremie, however, this is anything but a problem. In Sword and Shield, Alcremie actually has dozens of possible physical variations based on the specific way it evolves from its previous form, Milcery. Rather than the developers having to work towards picking colors and trying to get approval, they can just say “let’s pick Matcha Cream and Rainbow Swirl” and call it a day, confident that the Pokemon Company won’t take issue.

Gameplay

For the most part, the Pokemon that appear in Smash Bros. are kind of similar. They have very animal-like appearances and their animations translate that aesthetic to their moves. But Alcremie is living whip cream who’s slow but with high special stats, and who specializes in support moves and fairy-type attacks. The closest we get to that is Jigglypuff, who only became a Fairy type in Pokemon X and Y. Alcremie could be a low mobility but high range character, hitting opponents with Dazzling Gleam while also using Decorate to provide support. If they wanted to take this further, developers could even make it a team specialist.

An Alternative 

In all likelihood, Alcremie could be too left-field even for Smash Bros. In that case, I think an almost equally good choice would be Grimmsnarl, who also has a cool Gigantamax form but unlike Alcremie has a more conventional body type. On top of that, Grimmsnarl is used by the ever-popular Sword/Shield character Marnie, giving it potentially a built-in fanbase.

The Cream of the Crop Always Rises to the Top

The DLC character of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate have mostly been third-party guests, but Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield are absolutely big deals in the video game landscape. Alcremie would be a quirky but appropriate mascot for the Galar region, and I think it would have both general appeal and the opportunity for some creative game design.

Now, if only they’d go back and give Generation 3 a proper representative as well…