Super Smash Bros. Melee is one of the most popular esports in the world right now, despite being a game released almost 17 years ago. The fast-paced 1v1 action is incredibly entertaining to even viewers who don’t have a clue what they’re really watching. Unfortunately, subsequent Super Smash Bros. titles play nothing like Melee, and with the outdated hardware required to play this game, that same fast-paced Smash Bros. style action has an uncertain future in esports.
Cue – Icons: Combat Arena
Icons is an independent platform fighter made by WaveDash Games, featuring developers who made Project: M, a gameplay mod that makes Super Smash Bros. Brawl play more like Melee. The mod was incredibly popular, drawing more attendants at some major tournaments than the traditional Brawl game, but was shut down by Nintendo after a couple of years. WaveDash Games hopes to combine the same high-octane gameplay they brought with Project: M with a seemingly Overwatch-inspired artstyle to lay the foundations of a platform fighting esports title that’s freed from Nintendo’s grasp.
Icons: Combat Arena features seven playable characters, some heavily drawing on Project: M playstyles, along with five stages. The stages are all different in layout, but with no major hazards that interrupt gameplay. The focus is on 1v1 combat, with the stages’ layouts simply adding another layer to it.
The game is free to play on Steam, with certain characters being unlockable as you play more and more. You can also buy a package online that unlocks all the characters + any future characters they release.
The gameplay is relatively smooth and the characters have very distinct playstyles, so almost anybody can find a character that fits how they choose to approach the game. So long as you and your opponent have quality Internet, as well as a decent PC, you should have lagless, seamless matches that are full of fun.
Unfortunately, Icons: Combat Arena is in a weird spot as a title. While it certainly has the art-style of a promising esports game, and the free-to-play model encourages any to have a crack, the gameplay is closed off to almost anyone who doesn’t have prior experience in either Melee or Project: M. It’s emphasis on competitive play means that if you didn’t even touch a Smash Bros. game as a child, you’re gonna have a terrible time playing Icons where people will run you over in record-breaking time. While the competitive crowd may get some kicks out of it, catering to an already pretty niche market makes it hard to build any momentum for any future updates or titles.
Part of what gets people into the competitive side of fighting or platform fighting games is the entry-level fun you still get out of the game. Button-mashing and looking like a buffoon in Mortal Kombat still has layers of fun, whereas Icons requires quite a bit of background work and research just to play with everyone else who’s playing. A few rounds will leave newbies confused and agitated rather than inspired.
Icons: Combat Arena is a great effort in the realm of indie-platform fighters, but it still leaves this major question unanswered: How do you create an esports platform fighter that has wide appeal? With Melee’s playerbase dwindling in terms of tournament attendance, an answer better be found soon, and it doesn’t seem like Icons is the one.