Minimalism is the artistic style that sets out to expose the bare essence of a subject by eliminating all non-essential forms, features, and concepts. It’s about drilling down past all the accumulated rules and other associated matter that has built around an idea to understand what fundamentally makes a thing itself. If there could ever be a more fundamentally minimalist competitive fighting game than Divekick, I don’t know what it could be.
In Divekick you have two buttons: your Dive and your Kick. Dive is the jump button. The character will go up and then come down. At any point, you can press the Kick button, which will then initiate that titular move. Every hit, no matter where on the opponent’s body, is lethal. Pressing the Kick button by itself will cause the character to hop backwards, and, yes, you can kick while kicking to shift forward slightly in a mini divekick. For every divekick performed, some of your shoe meter fills up, which once full will give your character a temporary boost in jump height, speed, and also make them glow red.
And that is all you need to know to get into Divekick. Each character has a special move when both buttons are pressed simultaneously, but it only works in certain circumstances that are different for each character. But they aren’t necessary to master the character. They are in effect a small trick up one’s sleeve should the circumstance present itself. Also, each character in Divekick is different from mirror characters Dive and Kick (the Ken and Ryu of this game if you will) to Mr N., who possesses a super high jump and very little forward momentum to his kick, to Kung Pao (so many puns in that name), a character that can perform an almost horizontal divekick that can cross the arena.
The game is in effect a parody of fighting games and of the fighting game community. Not being apart of that community myself and having only a basic working knowledge of fighting games and their lineage I’m sure a vast majority of the humor and references are lost on me. Though I do recognize things like Downworld as an analog to Mortal Kombat’s Outerworld, the token martial artist animal character, and the game’s general desire to make fun of fighting game “storylines.” Pretty much every single plotline is ridiculous in premise and ends in a severe anti-climax, showing how pointless such things are. Plus, all of the Uncle Sensei tips shown as the matches load are hilarious simply because they are tips that have nothing to do with this game. And really, why would you need tips for a game that has two buttons and one attack?
But other seeming jokes, like that the character Steam being is based on real things said in the Twitch comments stream or that Jefailey is based on a real person in the fighting game community are utterly lost on me. Thankfully, the game does not commit a cardinal sin by relying on such insider knowledge to the detriment of its other aspects and is still a really solid fighting game in its own right.
Even without combos, complicated moves, or a block button (or most likely because of their absence), Divekick manages to be the most strategic fighting game that I have ever played. It’s probably appropriate that Dive is a math nerd, given that you will ultimately have to understand the specific geometry of each character’s moves. You will have to relate you character’s angle of attack to that of your opponent’s. The matches can end in a single move and the round timer is short, so the tension created and reliance on relational tactics is of the utmost importance. You can button mash Dive and Kick all you want, but an opponent who pauses even just a second at the right moment will win that encounter every time.
I may be speaking out of ignorance and I’m sure that an expert could correct me on this, but I don’t think any of the characters are out of balance either. None seem above the tier line or below it. Certainly every character has their positive and negative attributes. Even those like Stream or Jafailey, who seem terrible on the surface, can be pretty powerful in their own right once you understand that they play completely differently from the rest of the cast. They require buttons to be held down and rolled on and off instead of being simply pressed. The Bass seems easy enough until you start paying attention to the nuances of his attack —his strike is actually the lightning streak behind him and he can alter his kick angle during the dive—and to really maximize his use you have to change your fighting tempo.
I understand that before Divekick gained a whole lot of attention and donations on Kickstarter that the game featured just the two mirror characters Dive and Kick. Such a game would truly be an even more minimal fighting game, but it wouldn’t be competitive. The strategy would be limited and would not fully explore the form of using geometry itself as your weapon. It would narrow its focus and cover only certain parts of the form. The diverse cast of characters and their divekicks allow a complex metagame to emerge layered on top of the strategic one-on-one matches, matches in which there is only one attack. And that may be the game’s greatest joke.