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.

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.