Divekick – Two Moves and Numerous Reasons to Play
“DEATH FROM ABOVE” sounds throughout the arena. The two combatants move quickly, but one of them doesn’t move quickly enough. A boot to the knee from his airborne opponent ends the match almost as quickly as it starts. As they dust themselves off and the next round is called, something different happens. As the timer begins counting, neither man moves an inch. Hands shoved firmly in their pockets, they eye each other from across the center line. A full five seconds tick down, both men daring the other to make the first move, and trying to guess what those moves will be. And suddenly, something changes yet again, and a flurry of movement breaks out, the men hopping furiously back and forth near the line, looking for just the right angle of attack. It isn’t until five seconds remain on the timer that the man in black, the winner of the first round, sees it. Down he comes from on high, faster than any of the kicks thus far have been. Too fast for almost anyone to react.
But who said anything about reacting? Before his counterpart even begins his kick, he’s already moving, up and back, to line up the perfect shot as his enemy zips helplessly into just the right position. It was a perfect read, and Dive (the man in blue) takes this round. And the next rounds, because now he’s in Kick’s (the man in black’s) head, he can tell where Kick is going before Kick himself does. 5-1, Dive takes the match.
This, readers, is Divekick. It’s a game I have a complicated relationship with. It’s not a gorgeous game to look at, at all. Its voice-overs are, frankly, not the quality most gamers expect. The music is, well, there. The character designs range from sort of bland to scene inside jokes to borderline offensive caricature. It’s lucky it’s just $10, because I’ve spent $10 on games with far, far better production values. And I just cannot stop playing it.
Divekick is the new fighting game from Iron Galaxy Studios, the developers of Wreckateer, a whole laundry list of console ports, and an outfit with deep roots in the fighting game community (referred to hereafter as the FGC). And there are about a dozen paragraphs I could write about various quirks, characteristics, and prominent people in that scene, and all the different ways that Divekick references them. But I imagine at this point the FGC has got to be tired of video game ‘journalists’ roaming around documenting their culture as though they were the Jane Goodall or Howard Carter of video games. I’d prefer to ditch the pith helmet and just say that it’s a fascinating scene that’s had millions of words written about it by more qualified people than I, and leave it there wherever possible.
I have to throw in that caveat at the end, though, because you practically can’t talk intelligibly about DiveKick without talking about the FGC. Because it’s really what Divekick is all about, both in the sense that Super Mario is about a plumber and the sense that Super Mario is about jumping. Divekick reflects the FGC in its setting and characters as well as its gameplay. The core idea of the game is to distill a whole genre (specifically, fighters) and its attendant culture down to its base elements. Not a small amount of ambition, but I’m always up for a good solid genre deconstruction, and I’m happy to say that Adam Heart and Iron Galaxy really nailed what the key elements to preserve were.
You see, if you watch enough competitive gaming you’ll quickly notice that up on the championship stage, they’re playing a very different game from the one you picked up at Gamestop. It’s as true in fighting games as it is anywhere else. The entry level of Street Fighter play tends to be controllers mashed furiously, while everyone gets extremely mad at the one friend who figured out how to reliably throw out a Hadoken or Cammy’s divekick. When you’re looking at the Evo 2013 Super Street Fighter IV Grand Finals, by contrast, you’re looking at a game about angles, spacing, careful use of resources, and competitive psychoanalysis. Go watch the thing on Youtube, if you don’t believe me. Or even better, watch Umehara Daigo “Unleash the Beast.” It’s fine, I’ll wait.
It’s an amazing game at that level, as is the entire genre, and the great pity of it is that it’s gameplay most of us never see. The person who doesn’t own fightsticks and pops the fighters into the tray once a week or once a month when buddies come over isn’t playing the zoning and psychology games, because he can’t even pull off special moves reliably. And for a lot of games in the genre it’s gotten more and more difficult in recent generations, with new systems piled on top of the old, three different types of cancels, unforgiving frame tolerance, and bread-and-butter combos that go on for 40 hits. If that sentence just now didn’t make sense to you, then consider that more or less the point: there are a whole host of things that many people don’t even understand, currently standing between you and the mindgames at the heart of practically every fighting game in existence.
This is where the brilliance of Divekick comes out. What started as a joke trailer about divekicks (note the lowercase) being an obnoxious move in fighters became a real game where divekicks are the only move, and there are only two buttons, Dive (you leap into the air) and Kick (you, um, kick). Oh, and there are no combos, and health bars are present, but only as a joke, because one solid kick will end the round. And it works, it really, really does. I could spend another five hundred words explaining the whole system, like how movement works with no control stick, or way specials work, but I’ll spare you most of that and ask you to take my word: this system works very well.
Divekick is the platonic ideal of simple mechanics converging with depth in gameplay. On the face of it, most characters have precisely three options available to them from at any given moment during a round (to press dive, to press kick, or to activate their special). But the ways you can put these maneuvers together, especially for some characters (for reference, the cast all plays very differently from each other), mean that over the course of the match you have a wealth of options in where to position yourself, and when, how you will apply your meter, and how you will try to threaten your opponent into bad positions/decisions. Sitting down with friends over Divekick and trying to get a feel for how they approached zoning, and trying to outguess them was great fun. Few feelings in competitive games are as satisfying as taking a match based on nothing else but playing more cleverly than your opponent. And rather than needing to know an extensive movelist for every character in order to play this delightful guessing game, I only needed to know four-ish things about each one: how high they jump, what angle they kick at, and what their their two special moves are. That’s it!
That’s not to say that I have no complaints about the game, as I alluded to before. To say that this game is light on production values understates the case slightly. I’ve heard more than a few comments saying that Divekick “looks like a NewGrounds game” and it’s not hard to see what they mean. It hurts me to write this, because I love the game and what Iron Galaxy accomplished with it, but I don’t know how I can get away with describing the graphics as anything but “cheap.” And let’s be fair! This isn’t exactly a big-budget game, so to some degree a “budget” look is excusable. As rough around the edges as it is, there’s a lot of charm lurking in Divekick’s art and sound, and it’d be a shame to overlook it. I got a good hearty laugh at the obvious nod to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on Kick’s stage (Kick and his brother Dive, for reference, hail from West Philadelphia), among other references that lie thick on the ground in this game. But as much as the look and sound of the game might be intentionally cheesy, your mileage will definitely vary. I’ve heard from more than a few people who told me they just can’t get into Divekick because of the character design and graphics, which is a shame! It’s a shame because here we have the fighting game that, theoretically, everyone can enjoy, but people are being turned off by something that’s peripheral to the real core of the game.
Frankly though, the graphics, art and music design in the most recent generation of fighting games have spoiled us absolutely rotten. Is it really fair to compare Divekick to the games made by established titans of the genre backed by monstrous budgets?
Not really, but tough luck because I’m about to do it anyway. I can’t help but compare Divekick to King of Fighters 13, the latest entry in probably my favorite series of fighters. Shut up, I’m going somewhere with this. KoF has, in my humble opinion, some of the best character designs in the genre, and 13 had absolutely gorgeous sprites and great music. It’s a series that just oozes with a great sense of style. But I. Cannot. Play. Them. KoF has a notoriously high barrier to entry, with a huge cast of characters to learn, usually at least two different types each of supers and cancels, and absolutely unforgiving execution requirements. Delaying an input by a single frame can break the combo that would’ve killed your enemy. I buy every KoF that comes out, but I don’t have the time anymore (or don’t MAKE the time, anyway) to reach basic competency with them. KoF will never, ever love me back.
Divekick is that series’ polar opposite. Every area of my affection for KoF is an area where Divekick feels a bit lacking. But deep down, I’m being hard on the game because what it did is so important, in a way that makes me want it to be more. It’s yet another way that it’s KoF’s opposite: it’s a game that I can play, I mean really play. A real, actual, honest-to-god fighting game whose top-level gameplay is completely accessible to me. I don’t think that there are enough words to express my gratitude to Adam Heart and Iron Galaxy for giving me that opportunity.
I’ve given a fair amount of space here to Divekick’s flaws, because I do think it’s important to recognize them. But in the end, I don’t have it in me to hold them against the game. It gave me what no fighter developers have been willing to give me for such a long time: simplicity.