Diners, Drive-Ins, and Divekicks

Maxwell McGee rolls out to Las Vegas where EVO attendees are lining up to try out a new twist on the classic fighting game recipe.

The first time you hear about Divekick, it sounds completely ridiculous. A two-button fighting game where one hit kills and all you can do is jump and kick? That sounds more like a gimmick than the basis for an entire game, and the fighting genre has certainly suffered its share of gimmicky fighters. Thankfully, Divekick, in spite of the game's simple controls--or, perhaps, because of them--doesn't feel shallow or single-minded in its execution. After playing a few dozen matches at EVO 2013, I was impressed by the complexity developer Iron Galaxy has pulled from this simple design…when I wasn't getting destroyed, that is.

After holding my own for a few matches, I faced off against a Kung Pao player and knew I was going to lose. Kung Pao wasn't even doing anything--she was just standing across from me, staring into my soul--but the moment I flinched, she reacted, and I ate a hardy sandal sandwich. If I jumped back, she'd pursue and push me into a corner. If I attacked, she'd jump back and attack when I landed. This was a mental battle, and somewhere between calculating kick trajectories and jump velocities, I had to accept that Pao's precision outclassed my own.

Divekick, in spite of the game's simple controls--or, perhaps, because of them--doesn't feel shallow or single-minded in its execution.

These are my favorite moments in fighting games. OK, wait, not the getting-mercilessly-beat-down part, but the mind games. The feeling you get when you've baited your opponent into making a mistake, or correctly predicted his or her next attack. And with its simple two-button setup, Divekick cuts right to the core of that enjoyment by lowering the execution bar, while attempting to maintain all the complexity of interaction you'd find in the genre's many long-running franchises.

Divekick is played with two buttons: dive (jump) and kick (attack). There aren't any fancy commands, such as quarter-circles, dragon punches, or even walking. Two buttons are all you need, but within this creative restraint there's plenty of diversity. Consider the dive kick. Each fighter kicks downward, sure, but some characters, such as Mr. N, strike at a more vertical angle, while others, such as my nemesis, Kung Pao, have a more horizontal kick. The interaction between these different attack angles gives each matchup its own distinct feel.

As in a more traditional fighting game, each character also has a few special abilities. When you press dive and kick together, your fighter will perform a different command depending on whether he or she is in the air or on the ground. Doing so costs some of your energy meter--of course this game has an energy meter, it is a fighting game, after all--which gradually refills with every kick. Markman, for example, can toss out different items while on the ground, such as glue or springs, to disrupt the opponent. In the air, he can cancel his kick mid-flight, which is a powerful tool for baiting your opponent.

After my Kung Pao beatdown, I caught up with Divekick's lead developer, Adam Heart, with a dozen questions on different ability interactions. When The Baz has kick factor, can he still be parried by S-Kill? Nope. Do Markman's items have different chances of being pulled? Yes. Does Stream's invisibility work against the AI? Maybe. Regarding that last question, by Heart's own admission, the AI simply isn't very good at its own game. That being said, the AI is fair.

Heart noted that in certain situations, an attack could happen so quickly that it's impossible for a human player to react in time. The AI has been programmed with those same restrictions. It has the same limits as a human player, but it lacks our capacity for subtle mind games. In hindsight, this explanation might have all been an exaggeration to bait me into taking the Divekick Story Mode Challenge: one shot to see how far I could get in the game's story mode.

According to the shouts from the crowd that instantly formed around us, Alex Jefailey was my destined fighter. Story mode opened with a quick preamble on why Jefailey wanted to enter the tournament--a mixture of his immense ego and wanting to support his own JEO tournament--and was presented using a hand-drawn, comic-book art style. After that, I was up against a gauntlet of randomized opponents, two unique rival battles, and the final battle against a superpowered version of S-Kill. But I wasn't worried. I had this.

In reality, I did not have this. I got whopped by AI-controlled Dr. Shoals in my second match. Luckily, the real Alex Jebailey--the inspiration for Jefailey--was ready to tag in and continue the challenge. He powered through both rival battles (in this case, Mr. N and Markman) before getting shut down by AI-controlled The Baz. After some coercion, Heart relented on the "one chance" rule, which meant the AI's domination using The Baz continued for a while. While not always tactically sound, the AI's oscillation between very basic and highly random fighting styles was effective in this instance.

After catching plenty of flack from the crowd, Jebailey eventually broke The Baz's winning streak, and went on to dominate the final boss, S-Kill, on his first attempt. This was no small feat considering that this version of S-Kill comes packed with an infinite energy meter and a perpetual kick factor! After a cameo-filled ending, including a riff on a certain all-American fighter, the lighthearted, humorous tale of Jefailey was over.

While Divekick has plenty of humor, the game still takes its core mechanics as seriously as any other fighter. It's a break from the ever-increasing complexity of the genre's legacy series, and could give a new wave of fighters their first taste of what makes fighting games so special. Divekick will be available for the PlayStation 3 and Vita on August 20, with the possibility for a Steam release through Greenlight.

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