One of the things I pride myself on when it comes to this blog is that I’m honest. You’ll never hear me sugarcoat anything; I will always tell it like it is however I want to say it, regardless of what the consequences may be.
So, with that said, let me start off by saying that Icons: Combat Arena isn’t looking too hot right now.
I wrote a few months ago about Wavedash Games’ first big project, a platform fighter tailor-made for the competitive Super Smash Bros. scene. Well, they finally showed off the game to the public at Evo over the weekend, gameplay and all, and its initial reception has been…rather tepid. In general, people have commented on things like its presentation and gameplay, deriding them as, to put it mildly, subpar and generic. In an Evo weekend that was chock full of surprises, this was one of the few duds to come out of it.
Before I go any further, please keep in mind that this is coming from someone who has experience with Melee, both from playing the game casually and spectating competitive matches. If any of this seems foreign to you, I apologize and recommend researching the competitive Melee scene to get a better understanding of what I’m talking about. With that out of the way, let’s talk about Icons’ troubles.
We’ll start with the game’s presentation. In fairness, the look, sound and speed of the game as it stands is forgivable, albeit still hard to take in. It’s explicitly-stated to be in pre-alpha, so of course it’s going to be slower and rough around the edges. Given a little more time and TLC, it’ll hopefully look smoother, sound better, and play faster when it exits beta. So, for the moment, I’ll let them pass on presentation and game speed.
For gameplay, I will say that the Gust Shield (a mechanic similar to pushblocking in traditional fighting games) is a cool idea for a platform fighter, but other than that, it looks like Super Smash Bros. Melee all over again. I do want to see if there are more new ideas and concepts mixed in. As of now, gameplay barely squeaks by.
Where this game truly falters is the gameplay of its characters. Ashani, Kidd, Raymer, Xana, and a new sword-swinging character named Zhurong were all shown off in motion for the first time. Aside from Raymer, whose projectile zoning seems unique enough, you’d swear this game was a Chinese Super Smash Bros. Melee bootleg with all the similarities to Melee‘s beloved cast. Granted, that seems to be what a lot of people are saying, but it’s true.
Zhurong and Kidd are the biggest offenders here. The former has normal moves that are evocative to Fire Emblem’s Marth, right down to the ability to perform the “Ken Combo,” a short aerial sequence that spells certain doom for anyone caught by the blade.
Meanwhile, Kidd is a dead-ringer for Star Fox characters Fox McCloud and Falco Lombardi. This includes a laser pistol and a reflector for offensive and defensive purposes, often referred to as a “Shine.” The only things that are remotely unique are some of his horn attacks, but that’s about it.
To round out the rest of the knockoffs, Ashani moves and strikes much like F-Zero’s Captain Falcon, and even though she’s a rare true grappler in the platform fighter genre, Xana borrows a few tricks from the big bad of The Legend of Zelda, Ganondorf. It all adds up to a roster that looks fine visually, but feels painfully uninspired when it comes to the playstyles they convey.
Now, I understand the desire to retain the spirit of competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee. Even if most major Melee tournaments consist of some combination of the same five people, the mental and physical dexterity that’s shown off in competitive matches are in a league of their own. However, I believe that creativity is an important component in the development of any sort of medium, and as such, it should not be sacrificed in the name of preserving legacy. The last thing a team of creators should do when developing a spiritual successor is forgo creativity and bank on nostalgia being the lone driving force of a project; doing so hurts your bottom line more than helps it. Not to say that Wavedash Games is deliberately doing this, but with the nods to competitive Melee lore…don’t try and tell me Kidd isn’t a send-up to some of Melee‘s competitive gods…it almost feels like that’s what’s going on here.
(Video courtesy of Dan Fornace’s YouTube channel)
There are many instances where old and new concepts were successfully synthesized. In fact, let’s talk about another platform fighter that does this, and more importantly, does it well: Dan Fornace’s Rivals of Aether. Some of the game’s playable cast borrows from popular Melee gameplay archetypes, but uses classic natural elements like water and fire (as well as their respective offshoot elements like ice and smoke) to put creative spins on them.
One example of this concept in action is Wrastor, an avian wind-based battler who, much like Falco, prefers the air. On a base level, Wrastor’s moveset borrows from the likes of Falco and Captain Falcon, but what really sets him apart is his side special. It creates a slipstream that increases his aerial mobility, as well as his ability to perform air combos, making him a terror to face in the sky. And that’s before getting into the fact that he’s the only character in the game that can perform chargeable strong moves while in the air.
To be blunt, Rivals of Aether’s roster has more of a unique personality and creative ambition to it than Icons does at the moment. It strikes that fine balance between nostalgia and creativity, retaining the competitive aspects of Melee while blazing new trails at the same time. And it’s only going to get better with more new characters on the way, including the guest duo of Ori and Sein from the runaway hit Ori and the Blind Forest.
Meanwhile, Icons is being compared to a Chinese bootleg game. The platform fighter revolution we’ve been waiting for, am I right?
I wanted to see Wavedash Games do something unique with this game, and so far they’ve failed with regards to their characters’ gameplay. They may have said in a recent AMA that there’s more to these characters than what the trailer shows off, and I want to believe that. However, that just begs the question of why they didn’t show any of those unique character qualities off in the first place. Yes, it’s not feasible to show off every single difference these characters have, but showing at least one or two would’ve given people enough confidence that this wasn’t going to be another me-too Smash Bros. clone. First impressions mean everything in the long run, and the first glimpse of Icons, to me and several other people, did not give a good first impression.
And what’s worse is that this has less to do with the graphics, sound design and game speed, and more to do with how the characters play. If all you show off are one-to-one copies of Marth’s normal attacks or Fox’s Blaster and Reflector, you’re not instilling much faith in people who expect to see platform fighters taken to another level. As harsh as I may seem here, it’s only because I want to see these guys redefine what platform fighters are capable of.
Then again, there’s still time before they officially launch the game to show off more and tweak what they have. I’m willing to give Wavedash Games the benefit of the doubt for now, as Icons still has some promise to it. But until they show off more of their roster’s unique qualities, that first impression is going to stick.
‘Til we meet again,