Rivals of Aether Review: Carrying the torch of SSB Melee


In my opinion, Super Smash Bros Melee is one of the happiest accidents in the history of game design. While it functions as a fun party game on the surface, it’s still played by thousands of players at a competitive level. Although it was designed to be a crowd pleasing party game that simplified fighting game mechanics into a more consumable form, competitive Melee is defined by many advanced mechanics which set it apart from the other entries of the Smash series.

Despite being more than 16 years old, Melee boasts representation at the Evolution Champion Series (EVO), the biggest fighting game tournament in the world. Melee’s longevity comes from its unique mechanics, and how they combine to create a more improvisational style of fighting game. Combos aren’t always guaranteed, being match-up dependent and dependent on your opponent’s directional influence (DI). Directional influence allows for players to control the trajectory of their character after a hit, allowing them to escape combos, and to avoid being launched to their death. The player base discovered ways to manipulate the physics engine to give them better movement options, and found ways to take advantage of intentional but unmentioned mechanics to extend combos. This has morphed Melee into a unique fighting game, distinct even from the rest of the Smash series, with a blazing fast neutral game, improvised combos, and a cavalcade of advanced techniques.

There have been attempts at replicating the platform fighter outside of the Smash franchise, but very few have gained any traction or notable prestige. Even Nintendo has shied away from the competitive aspects of Melee, having always envisioned the series as meant for the widest audience possible, not weird people who practice wavedashing for hours in front of CRT TVs. Until recently the only easy comparison point for Melee’s specific style of gameplay was Project M, an unofficial mod for Super Smash Bros Brawl which completely changed characters and backwards engineered Melee’s physics into its sequel. However, the tournament scene for PM was slowly strangled, as Nintendo stopped supporting tournaments which featured the mod as Smash 4 was released.

After almost two decades, a notable challenger has finally reacted to SSB’s stranglehold on the genre it defined, Dan Fornace’s Rivals of Aether. A pixelated love letter to a very specific style of gameplay, Aether borrows not only the broad strokes of Smash, but many of the particulars of Melee. The game even explicitly uses Melee terminology for movement like wavedashing  and dash dancing, as well as the terminology for aerials and many other series specific moves.

Aether is almost entirely focus on delivering a small scale competitive experience, with a relatively diminutive roster of 8 characters which was expanded to 13 via DLC, and only a short single player campaign (lasting under an hour). However, the tutorial aspects of the game are fantastic, walking players through the basics of advanced tech. This is a great entry point and learning tool for people who are interested Melee, but put off by its impenetrable nature. Its tutorials highlights all of the important advanced techniques that it carried over to Melee, and highlight some important character-specific information. It also features a fairly beefy practice mode that allows the player to set enemy techs and DI, as well as see the hitboxes of attacks.

But none of this would be relevant if Aether wasn’t successful at creating a fun fighting game. Although the cast is small, each member sports enough unique mechanics and are generally balanced enough to hold their own. DLC newcomer Elliana has to manage an overheat meter for her specials, and can drop mines on enemies that combine with her missile attack to set up for combos. Forsburn uses a unique mechanic that allows him to cover the stage in smoke, which he can use to hide his attacks, or absorb to make himself stronger. Many characters have moves that will be familiar to Smash veterans, like (my new main <3) Zetteburn’s equivalent to Fox’s infamous shine in Melee, and many aerials that mimic Smash character’s moves. This makes the game familiar to SSB and Melee players, while also having its own distinct meta. Wrastor is a great example of this, sporting Falco and Marth’s aerials, but with multiple jumps and an ability to use heavy attacks in the air or in the middle of a string.

Like Melee, Aether is largely about the neutral game and using advanced movement techniques to juke out opponents to begin a combo. Like in Melee, the combo game is a back and forth battle due to DI and character matchups. Other concepts such as performing dash attacks into Up-Heavy (Gatling combos) and the ability to jab into tilts, add additional ways to begin a combo. The ebb and flow of controlling the neutral, comboing opponents, and reacting to their DI is largely as rewarding here as in its progenitor.

However, some of the new mechanics are somewhat underwhelming. Shielding has been replaced with a parry, that when landed stuns the opponent. Recovering back to the stage is also different, as there is no ledge on the lip of stages to grab onto, and a wall jump after using recovery mechanic replaces this. The lack of shielding strengthens tools like dash attacks, simplifying the neutral game at lower levels of play. The changes in recovery make getting back to the stage very frustrating with certain characters, limiting the off stage mind games. Aether also seems to lack some of the blazing speed that defines Melee’s more technical characters, and the combo game generally seems shorter due to slower fall speeds, (*disclaimer: this might be because of my own inexperience/scrubiness).

But despite this, Aether’s diverse roster combined with its reliable netplay and tutorials make it a great starting point for platform fighter newcomers, as well as a fun new challenge for series veterans. It’s mechanics feel intentional and balanced as a result of its reactionary game design. It’s scope may limit it, and the DLC characters are somewhat expensive given the up front cost, but overall it’s still well worth the price of admission.

Rating: 8.8/10

Image Credit: Medium

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