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.

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.”