Indiewatch: Icons Combat Arena is an homage to Super Smash Bros Melee

Recently, a number of indie studios have been developing games in the relatively new “platform fighter” genre. For anyone unfamiliar, this is the genre that Smash Brothers pioneered, featuring a focus on maneuverability and a goal of knocking the opponent off the stage rather than traditional life bars and combos.

Each new platform fighter brings its own twist to the formula. We have seen games that use sprites, games that offer adjustable equipment loadouts, even games that feature more complex control sets than the original Smash. However, I think the most successful platform fighter just may be Icons: Combat Arena, which just went into closed beta. Why? Because Icons isn’t just inspired by Smash. It’s a practical copy, and that’s a good thing.

For the most part, Icons is modeled after Smash Bros. Melee. You’d think as much considering its being developed by Wavedash games. Yes, this means that pro maneuvers like the wavedash are still present in Icon though problematic mechanics like chain grabs and needless execution barriers like l-canceling have been taken out. Otherwise, I kid you not, Icons plays almost exactly like Melee does, and it’s a breath of fresh air.

The controls are exactly what you would expect. You have a button for normals, a button for specials, a button for shields and throws, and a variety of tilts. Just about anyone can pick up and learn Icons in just a few minutes, but getting good at Icons will take a lot of practice.

Fast movement and special moves

Characters move absurdly fast and for good reason. This is the sort of game when you’ll want to work on short hop approaches, spike bounces, juggle combos and more. If none of that makes sense to you, you might be a little overwhelmed. Unfortunately, the current beta version of Icons includes no tutorials, although that may be changed in the final release.

However, if you have some Smash Bros. skill it will immediately transfer over into Icons. This is because all of Icons characters are based off the original Melee roster. For example, Zhurong: The Empress plays almost exactly like Marth. All of her tils, smashes, and aerials are almost exactly the same. She even has the renowned “ken combos” that Marth is known for. Her main differences are her special moves.

While she still has counter and dolphin slash, her forward B is actually Ike’s forward B and her neutral B is actually Zero Suit Samus’s neutral B. For those of you who aren’t keyed in to the Smash scene, this means her forward B is a dashing attack and her neutral B is a stunning projectile. This is incredibly useful because you can stun opponents in midair and then spike them to their death.

All Icons characters are designed in this way, i.e., taking a move-set from Smash and fiddling with it a bit. Kidd, for example, plays like a fusion of Fox and Falco, right down to a shine reflector and directional recovery. Ashani is a combination of Captain Falcon and Sheik, focusing on quick movement and high priority normals. Xana is a take on Gannondorf, skewed closer to the grappler archetype.

Though her normals and dashing grab are similar, she has also been given tools such as armored moves and an invincible lariat to be used as “get off me” tools. Raymer is one of the more unique characters, taking in elements of Pit, Samus, and every other zoner to create a unique keep-away fighting style that we really haven’t seen in Smash before.

Finally there is Afi and Galu, who are kind of a combination of Pokemon Trainer, Ness, Lucas and Ice Climbers. They are certainly the most unique character in the game, comprised of a team of elementally possessed idols. When one is fighting, the other one is resting and a flower blooms from their black. When the flower has completely bloomed you can switch from one to another.

While Afi and Galu have pretty much the same move-set, they are geared toward slightly different playstyles. One has the power over fire and focuses on horizontal knockback. The other uses water and focuses on vertical knockback. The slight differences in their normals and projectiles are neat, but the switching mechanic is actually the most interesting thing about them, as it kind of acts like a “get out of jail free” card.

For example, say one of them is being juggled toward the top of the screen and is in danger of a vertical knockout. They can switch to the other, which is on the ground, in order to get out of pressure. This turns the active character into an invincible totem, while the other character (likely on the ground) can now attack the aerial opponent. Shenanigans like this are what make Icons characters interesting and I certainly hope to see more characters like this in the final build.

A lot like Smash

I think the reason that Icons feels so good is because it feels so familiar. Wavedash Studios isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. Rather, they are trying to follow in the footsteps of Smash mods like Project M, only in a more official context.

Think of all those times you said “wouldn’t it be cool if Smash had…” and then rattled off some bizarre gameplay change? Well Wavedash Studios is putting all those ideas into Icons. For example, pushblocking has been integrated into the game in the form of the “shield gust.” This pushes attacking characters away from you at the expense of about half of your shield.

Similar improvements have been made to mechanics such as ledge grabbing. You are invincible when grabbing a ledge but you get less and less invulnerability each time you grab unless you manage to put your feet on the floor. This prevents people from stalling on the ledge for too long.

Overall, I’m really excited for how Icons is shaping up. For a free to play indie game, it’s really looking like it can seriously contend with Smash. Granted, it’s still rough around the edges. Graphics, sound and the general “feel” of how attacks connect have to be seriously overhauled and some single-player modes are an absolute must, but for a proof of concept, the Icons beta impressed me, and will definitely impress any other Smash veteran.