With the rise of the notorious, coin-eating arcade machines of the 90s, fighting games became a cornerstone of competitive gaming years before the word “eSports” was ever dreamed of. Games like Street Fighter and Tekken rose to the top as far as fighting games go. In 1998 with the release of the original Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64 in 1998, and later Super Smash Bros. Melee on the Gamecube, the idea of what makes a 2D fighting game were shook on its head. Melee was a game that was never made to be competitive. It was a beautiful accident, but is the physics-based nature of such an sandbox fighter something that you can engineer and create? A young, Seattle-based programmer named Dan Fornace set out to do just that with Rivals of Aether, a promising platform fighting game that was built from the ground up with high level play in mind.
I picked up Rivals of Aether shortly after it debuted on Steam’s Early Access program, due to my heavy interest in Super Smash Bros. and began playing it regularly with friends. Developed in Game Maker Studios, it combines high-speed gameplay and momentum in a way unlike anything you would ever see in those classic arcades. Similar to Smash, there is no health bar and it’s impossible to defeat your enemy by simply punching them into submission. Instead it’s all about the physics, and knowing how they work is essential; as your opponent take more damage from an onslaught of both ground-based and aerial attacks, your blows begin to send them flying. Blast your adversary off-screen or prevent them from returning to the stage, and that’s a knockout. Having the foresight to hurl your opponent into the perfect spot for a satisfying followup is the kind of creativity exclusive to this genre. This affords players a creativity to Rivals of Aether that is unseen in the vast majority of fighting games, and something this unique sub-genre is looking to emphasize upon.
Moving from Philadelphia to the Seattle area, Dan Fornace began working for Microsoft Studios, working on titles such as Killer Instinct. From his first day on the job he began to save up, as he knew when it came to game development he wanted to go independent. In April of 2014 he did just that, and began development on Rivals of Aether. Initially just a solo project, the team has since grown to around seven people by its release on Early Access in September of 2015. Finding out that the University of Washington’s Smash Bros. scene was doing a special Rivals of Aether event with the creator of the game himself in attendance, I grabbed my pen and my Gamecube controller to show up and hear from the man himself.
“I’ve always kind of wanted to tap into that magic, and recreate Smash. I tried it so many times, in high school I would go home and mess around and program together an engine as close as I could.” Dan has a passion for the series, and deeply understands what makes these games so intuitive. In college he developed a small fan-game titled “Super Smash Land” a what-if there had been a Smash game on the original Game Boy. This was just a side-project for fun, though Dan admits that its popularity and success likely led to his being hired at Microsoft. The Smash Bros. competitive scene is surprisingly complex, with an astounding degree of technical aptitude and speed required to play at the level of the masters. “A lot of people tend not to think of these platform fighters as fighting games, and that’s something that we did right from the beginning with Rivals. Even though when you look at the game from a video, and you see pixel art and characters that kind of resemble Pokémon, and you wouldn’t think that out of the games that are like Smash, this one is the most ‘fighter.'”
“At the core, Rivals was designed to be easier than Super Smash Bros. Melee. Easier to get into, less technical barriers to get to the competitive levels. Get people competitive faster, get people to do combos faster, that’s the big thing that I wanted.” Dan elaborated to me about his design philosophy going into the project. “As it’s been on Early Access, we’ve gotten feedback from top level players that maybe the best strategy is the easiest one, and the things that do require that tech skill and practice time in the lab aren’t as important. We’re trying to look at the movesets and find ways to reward the players who do put in that extra time. At the end of the day we’re not going to go against the core idea of having it be easier to get into, that lower skill floor.”
This focus on building Rivals of Aether from the ground-up with high level play in mind creates a system where anyone can practice and break into the scene by rising through the ranks. In the Twitch livestreaming communities there are already regular tournaments where top players will test their mettle against one another in bracket. “Ranked is going to be about finding people from the same skill level and rewarding players for their improvement. Going by a pure ELO system will give players an in-game way to rise the ranks and also doesn’t get in the people doing their own ladders, rankings, and tournaments.”
With such strong response from the pre-established competitive Smash Bros. community, and a small but dedicated scene developing around the game, the future of Rivals of Aether looks to be incredibly promising, and will be coming to Xbox One after it’s full release. Dan Fornace and his team recently wrapped up development on Etalus, the eight and final member of Rivals’ core roster, with the potential for more DLC characters down the pipeline. Etalus and the new stage, Tower of Heaven, will be releasing on March 14th through Steam’s Early Access.