Can a jokey concept carry an entire game? That's the question postured by Divekick, an indie fighter that riffs on the idea that downward foot dives have become a staple of the fighting game genre. Divekick's claim to fame is its use of a mere two buttons for player input--a premise that sounds like the perfect recipe for the casual fighting fan, who wants to partake in mind games and battles of tense twitch reflexes, but doesn't want to memorize combos. Though the path to boot-stomping nirvana is fraught with flaws, Divekick succeeds at simplifying high-level concepts into a bite-sized experience that only gets better with time.
Matches looks like they're in line with your typical one-on-one 2D brawler, but there's a twist: jumping and kicking are your only methods of movement and attack. One hit is all it takes to KO your opponent; first to five wins. In theory, you'd think such a setup would be as straightforward as possible, but no--Divekick manages to make a two-button layout complicated. You'll need to keep track of kicking on the ground to backstep, pressing both buttons simultaneously on the ground or in the air to activate special abilities, and being able to double-jump and/or teleport, depending on your character selection. If you were expecting to master the game within seconds, you've got another thing coming.
Divekick's roster is full of paper-thin parodies: fighters who mimic the physics of famed divekickers, like Street Fighter's Rufus and Yun or Mortal Kombat's Kung Lao, done up as Flash-game-caliber, Western-style cartoons. Nearly half the cast is made up of references to running jokes in the fighting game community; the impish Stream is a mockery of Twitch.tv "stream monsters;" final boss S-Kill has a menacing cross-handed stance just like real-life fighting game guru Seth Killian. If you do get the jokes, they're worth a chuckle, before the realization sets in that much of the roster is visually uninteresting or just plain ugly.
By trying to appeal to two vastly different audiences--fighting game experts and genre newcomers--Divekick sometimes struggles to please either party. Divekick's relative simplicity seems inviting to fighting game novices, then yanks the rug out from under them with a complex control scheme and dozens of special abilities to keep track of. Veteran fighting fans will appreciate the attempts at humor, but are bound to uncover balance flaws that might elude beginners. Some characters will feel grossly overpowered for first-timers, and glitchy hitboxes--the bane of any fighting fan's existence--are far too prevalent. You'll be left scratching your head or screaming at your television when your foot appears to harmlessly sail directly through an opponent's body.
And yet, despite all those missteps, Divekick is deeply enjoyable for those who can stomach the occasional bug or cheap victory. Once you've found a character and kick trajectory you're comfortable with, player-vs-player matches really do achieve the same level of tense back-and-forth excitement found in more complex, big-budget fighters. Trying to guess your opponent's next move while keeping your own methods unpredictable is the name of the game in Divekick, just as in any tournament-level fighting action. If you don't have someone to spar with locally, player matches against an Internet stranger can be just as engaging, as you both feel out one another's strategy and exploit your opponent's weaknesses. Online matches are generally quite smooth, given that Divekick uses the GGPO netcode--the gold standard for online fighting, where every frame counts.
If you have more politically correct sensibilities, it's worth noting that casual racism rears its ugly head in Divekick. Two seemingly Asian characters in particular--the announcer and Kung Pao--are flagrant stereotypes, with the announcer rattling off lines like "Prease continue" and "Round-o sthree," while Kung Pao speaks in nothing but obnoxious, high-pitched squealing. The fighting game community is constantly accosted with accusations of insensitivity, so it seems ill-advised for Divekick to employ that kind of humor.
It may not look all that pretty or stay funny for long, but Divekick's gameplay saves it from being a lackluster $10 downloadable. Adjusting to the intricacies of the two-button controls actually takes some getting used to, and you'd do well to read up on the character's individual tricks and kick arc. But once you've found your fighter, facing off against like-minded foot-divers is, surprisingly, a lot of fun.