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Steam Fighting Game Takes Risks That Super Smash Bros Won't

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Confession: despite being mostly a PC guy, I adore Super Smash Bros. Now my lack of a Nintendo console isn’t much of an issue.

Rivals of Aetherwhich just launched on Steam and rocketed straight into the service’s top ten best sellers—is not shy about its primary influence. It may not be wearing Mario’s trademark hat and overalls (everyone is NAKED; also, animals), but everything from the feel to the aesthetic screams Smash Bros.

I mean, let’s start at the character and map selection screens:


Look familiar?

Combat, meanwhile, brings with it a buffet of smash attacks, specials, directional attack inputs, and light platforming—just like grandma Sakurai used to make. Observe:

And yet, Rivals of Aether is not quite a clone. After an hour with it, I would call it more of a new entry in whatever fighting/party game sub-genre Smash Bros birthed all those years ago, in that singing summer field of good vibes and better violence. It takes some risks with the established formula by upping the speed and adding a completely new set of defensive mechanics, then topping it all off with characters that were created, first and foremost, for a fighting game. Basically, Rivals of Aether feels like a solid foundation for a more competitive-focused Smash-style game. It’s not there yet, but given the direction its development is pointed, it could get there someday.


The short version? It’s solid! The longer version? Well, there’s a reason I called you here today, atop this pile of shattered holy grails, to listen to me talk; some things in Rivals of Aether are different. For instance:

  • Ledge-grabbing has been replaced with a wall-jump mechanic (that can only be engaged after you’re out of post-special fall mode). So, in theory, edge-hogging is out, or at least very different.
  • There’s no shield. You can still dodge roll, but the stationary shield has been replaced by a timing-based parry maneuver. Time it right, and you’ll slow your opponent’s attack and briefly render yourself invulnerable (but still able to move).
  • There’s no grabbing whatsoever. For many players, that’s A HUGE DEAL. I’m expecting a greater focus on position, attack timing, and parries, especially for range-y characters.
  • For better or worse, levels are small and Final-Destination-y. Again, the focus here seems to be more on competition than partying it up. Maybe this is sacrilege, but I kinda miss the variety. A larger, more elaborate level or two wouldn’t hurt.
  • The characters (of which there are only six at the moment) are all impressively unique—at least, to play. So far, I can’t find any Smash Bros analogues outside of really basic stuff like, “Rock Dude is big and slow while Raccoon Girl is fast but more vulnerable.”
  • Characters’ fighting styles are built around elemental themes. So, for example, the aforementioned Rock Dude can make massive stone pillars that he can crash through by rolling around like a Goron from The Legend of Zelda (or Sonic The Hedgehog or Regular The Armadillo). Other characters, meanwhile, have a harder time breaking them. Also, he can make them in thin air, taking other players by surprise and throwing off their timing. Based on what I’ve played so far, it’s a cool, focused approach to character building.

  • If, however, you’re here for Nintendo-caliber personality, you’re probably gonna be disappointed.
  • No L-canceling. I didn’t notice this because I was never a particularly advanced Super Smash Bros Melee player, but Steam user Cirby helpfully pointed it out. The long and short of it is that recovery after landing in Rivals of Aether is super fast—no convoluted technique required. You just hit the ground and go.
  • It’s a pretty fast game in general, which I’m sure Melee fans will appreciate.

Basically, Rivals is streamlined in places where it makes sense, but the new mechanics seem like they open up a large possibility space for strategy—and they do this intentionally, rather than on accident like the Smash Bros series sometimes seems to. So far I don’t love the feel or, frankly, any of the characters as much as Smash so far, but I haven’t even spent a fraction of the time with it yet.


What does all of this mean for people who’ve never played Super Smash Bros in any form in their entire lives? You now have access to a speedy, high-flying brawler where you try to knock people off the screen instead of emptying their health bars. The controls are, on their face, very simple, but high level play is all about mastery of surprisingly intricate techniques involving timing, movement, and positioning.

Also would you check out this whale?


That is one hell of a whale.

Now the big downside: Rivals of Aether is, at the moment, in Early Access, so it doesn’t have its full character roster, level total, or mode selection. Online you can only play 1v1, and if you’re playing alone there’s no story mode yet. I’ve had decent fun with free-for-all four-person matches against the CPU (and also getting my ass handed to me online, but let’s not talk about that), but I could see the fun being kinda short-lived. Compared to any iteration of Smash, Rivals is extremely barebones.


Then again, much like Smash, Rivals of Aether feels like the sort of game that’s best played against your flesh-and-blood rivals (or friends, if you have any of those). Here’s hoping it gets a nice coat of polish and a more well-rounded feature set, and—eventually—evolves the same kind of staying power.

Update: For those interested, here’s how to play Rivals with a Gamecube controller.


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