Iron Galaxy Studios

Ben and Sophie play Divekick: How a two-button fighter became the toast of PAX East

Ben and Sophie play Divekick: How a two-button fighter became the toast of PAX East

Much to the surprise of everyone who had not yet heard of it - but not to the surprise of anyone who played it - indie fighting game Divekick became one of the most-talked about games of PAX East 2013. “Did you play Divekick yet?” “Make sure you go play Divekick!” The game even got a shout-out in the middle of the Johann Sebastian Joust tournament Saturday night.

So enticing was this game, so viral was its word-of-mouth, that both Ben and I ventured to the Indie Megabooth area of the PAX East exhibit hall to check it out. Here's what we think.

Sophie's thoughts: Dive!

First, a little background: Divekick was originally made as a joke, parodying everything Shoryuken.com EiC Adam Heart thought deserved mockery in fighting games and the fighting game community. The game's title and characters are inspired by the “divekick” move, where a combatant leaps into the air and charges down, foot-first, into their opponent. Some notable examples include Rufus from Street Fighter, Wolverine in Marvel vs. Capcom, and Dr. Doom in the same series. Their respective counterparts in Divekick are Mr. N, a pudgy pajama-wearing grown man, Redacted, a cigar-smoking humanoid skunk-bear, and Dr. Shoals, a pink-haired nurse with jetpack boots. There are plenty other homages and easter eggs for fighting game community fans throughout, as well. This game may be a parody, but it's one made out of love.

Divekick also had a successful Kickstarter campaign that was scrapped when Heart partnered with Iron Galaxy, the development studio behind games like Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, Marvel vs. Capcom Origins, and Darkstalkers Resurrection. Iron Galaxy CEO Dave Lang made it clear to me in an interview that the game was still Heart's property and his baby, but Iron Galaxy has been able to improve things like the quality of art, as well as the creation of extra characters and introduction of special moves. (Yes, although there are only two buttons and the game is called Divekick, you can actually do more than dive and kick!)

But the biggest treat of all has to be that beautiful, lovely controller.

Like the game itself, the controller is insanely simple. Two buttons, clearly labeled: dive, and kick. Who'd have thought? Pressing kick while on the ground will cause your character to hop backwards, and the only way to move forward is to jump up - you jump using dive, even though by definition that doesn't make sense - and kick forward. Every combatant has one thousand health, and every divekick attack does one million damage. Battles are a button slapfest, and in my dreams, I swear I can still hear the sound of plastic on skin, being depressed rapidly, frantically, as people try to divekick one another. It sounds like Heaven.

Enough introduction. Ben, what did you think when you first saw Divekick?

Ben's thoughts: Kick!

There was definitely a sense from some members of the press that the game was a gimmick, or that people were into it ironically. But this isn't hipster bullshit, I was able to play a few rounds at both PAX East and now the Game Developers Conference, and it was fun every time. The game is actually very well designed, and there is a large amount of strategy. The team behind the game told me that it's not a matter of mashing buttons; they were able to hang out on the floor and win almost every match. Practice, and technique, matter.

The game is also deeply silly though, and pokes fun at the fighting game community in a light-hearted way. The best humor comes from understanding and loving something and then pointing out where it fails, and it's clear everyone behind Divekick loves fighting games. It's the same way Spaceballs does such a wonderful job of lampooning Star Wars, you can tell Mel Brooks had great respect for the source material. This isn't a hit and run release; the art, design, and jokes were labored over, and it shows.

The whole idea is to stay out of harm's way. You get a sense for the distances between characters, and how far up someone can jump before a kick would allow them to connect with your character. It's about managing the space between you, and knowing when to attack without leaving yourself vulnerable. These are all strategies that are important in every fighting game, but Divekick boils down the complex fighting moves and vocabulary of modern fighting games to allow even young players who can understand the two button controls to begin to think tactically.

Calling it the derpiest game of chess would not be far off. Sophie, do you think this game is going to have legs, or will it fizzle out once it leaves a show environment?

Sophie's response: Headshot!

I see what you did there. I think this is a game people want and are excited about, which is something you don't usually see happen outside of a fighting game community's own fanbase. Tekken players will be pumped for a new TekkenStreet Fighter players for a new Street Fighter, and so on, but Divekick's reach extends so far beyond that due to its simple nature, I can see it making a big name for itself. “If I can't explain this game to my mother, then we've failed,” Lang told me.

Yet, as you said, the game is actually quite strong in terms of depth, complexity, and strategy. Each character I played with felt unique, both in visual flair and game play. We don't need to guess whether the fighting game community will appreciate it - its popularity at shows like EVO is what inspired Heart to take the game to Kickstarter in the first place. Now it's just a matter of marketing, and everyone I've talked to has fallen in love with the game.

The game will also be a digital download, which makes it easy to become an impulse buy. If Iron Galaxy and Sony can extend their reach into the world's current social networks - which we've already seen Sony show an interest in with the PlayStation 4 - then I can easily picture someone posting a quick blurb about the game on Facebook or Twitter, and some friend or follower can easily follow a link to get it themselves. Word of mouth served the game well at tournaments and PAX East, and I think you'll see that kind of viral marketing continue.

The game touches so many right notes: the simple controls mean it's instantly accessible, the deadly divekick move means games are fast, the parodic tone means it's not intimidating, and the controller - which to be fair, is only a prototype and may not be available for players come release time (Lang said each prototype cost around $150, and in order to mass produce them, they need to be created in batches of five thousand) - made me feel like I was walking up to an arcade cabinet. Those are all good things, and feelings I can easily describe to friends.

I'm curious Ben, how did you feel playing the game?

Ben's response: Fraud detection warning!

I felt like I wanted one of those damned two-button controllers. The Vita version of the game can be played with two players on the same system, which is a nice touch, but nothing beats those big, beautiful arcade sticks and the two large buttons. I was told that they had eight of the controllers made for the show, but that no one wanted to make them in large quantities for the general product. I was told that they're going to try again now that the game has become the toast of the show, though.

It's hard to really get across how big the game become at PAX East. Not only was every member of the press talking about it, but the booth was constantly mobbed by players. It was hard to walk past the booth due to the crush of people. Everyone hung around just to watch matches on the televisions and cheer the winners. It was a smallish booth, and I don't think anyone expected it to blow up this quickly, or to such an extent. You couldn't walk five steps without hearing about Divekick.

It takes skill to take something special from a genre like fighting games and make it this accessible for such a wide variety of players. You'll be able to play this with your four year-old kids, but also with your buddies over a few beers. This is the sort of weird, offbeat game that you love to see at shows like PAX (Disclosure: I'm biased towards how great PAX is), and the fact that it found a home on the Vita and PlayStation 3 makes me very happy. The fact that it caught on so quickly is also amazing.

I can't wait until the game's release.

Note: Our reporting contained an image from this story, on Ars Technica.