By Mike O’Brien
Lethal League Blaze is a 2D fighting game that isn’t about hitting each other. Instead, combatants face off in a rectangular arena where the objective is to smash a ball into each other as it ricochets off the walls at terminal velocity. Its gameplay is the offspring of a manic romp between Rocket League and Smash Bros, and if you’re not already sold, this bottled lightning is luminous with the cel-shaded rebel sheen of Jet Set Radio. To define Lethal League by its DNA, however, would be to rob this game of its indelible accomplishments. This title is a masterclass in fighting game design and the closest game to perfection since Valve’s Portal.
One goal that fighting games have striven for in recent years is accessibility, but most attempts to cultivate it prove either shallow or harmful for the game’s longevity. Arc System’s Dragon Ball FighterZ tried auto-combos and a universal combo system. On one hand, players could perform powerful combos by mashing a single button, but it was streamlined to the point that combos and characters were indistinguishable from one another, leading to a bland and waning competitive scene. Capcom’s Street Fighter V featured a controversially lenient input buffer to simplify difficult manoeuvres. Whilst it’s easier to get into, it trivialised otherwise astonishing moments and upsets because the execution barrier was too forgiving to afford any gravitas to the events. Seeing a pattern here? Fighters derive their meaning from the journey of growth, of amassing knowledge and building technical skill. This journey is impossible without depth, and depth, it seems, is diametric to accessibility. In all my years of playing fighting games, I’ve yet to see a game strike this paradoxical balance quite like Lethal League – so how are the multi-billion-dollar inventors of the genre stumped where an indie studio from the Netherlands has struck gold?
Part of the puzzle is that Lethal League is not a conventional fighting game and eschews the overall complexity of one. This isn’t a game about frame data and movesets, so a 1:1 comparison that concludes ‘Lethal League Blaze does it better than Street Fighter’ and shuts the book would be deeply unfair. It does, however, get to the fun instantly without compromising its depth. See, Street Fighter and Dragon Ball FighterZ are investments. It’s momentary fun when you put your shrapnel in the arcade and flail in mutual bemusement. But for players at home, a foray into these games can be a frustrating and disappointing experience. In marketing material and in videos online, we see Ken parry every single one of Chun-Li’s kicks and riposte with a flashy super combo. But it’s a tease; the technical skill of landing a parry and converting it into anything useful at all takes hours upon hours of practice for newcomers, and the anticipation required to do so in a match demands far more investment than most gamers are willing to commit. Booting up Street Fighter as an absolute beginner, where both players are awkwardly jumping and kicking and punching with little intention, eventually becomes stagnant and aimless. Getting bodied by superior players is exhausting and off-putting, and the realisation that competency requires discipline either inspires – or in most cases, demolishes – a player’s journey.
Lethal League’s answer: the ball. The basic act of interacting with the ball in any sense is gratifying. For one, it’s viscerally sensational. At higher speeds, sparks fly, the screen erupts with colour, and the enormous stun of high-velocity hits radiates with unmistakable power. At lower speeds, bunting the ball in the air and against walls is graceful, subtle, and rounds off with a satisfying ‘dink’ that never gets old. Hitting someone in Street Fighter is not intrinsically satisfying in most cases. Landing a single punch, or a hadouken, is not viscerally rewarding. At entry level, they are steppingstones toward the delayed gratification of winning. In entry-level Lethal League, winning is almost irrelevant. The raw joy of interacting with the ball in any way is so instantly gratifying in abstraction that play takes precedence over outcome. In low level play, Lethal League consists of utterly clueless players jumping into the air screaming as they try to hit (and avoid being hit) by an inconceivably fast ball – and it’s wonderful.
Not only is the ‘mindless flailing’ portion of the journey more fun because each interaction feels meaningful and rewarding, the ball-centric gameplay and 2D movement lay the foundations for the most natural skill progression I have experienced in a fighting game. Lethal League has an absurd skill ceiling; at high-level play, the mindgames and ball control are imperceptible to the human eye. When I watch Daigo parry Justin Wong on Street Fighter 3rd Strike, my immediate response is: there’s no way I’d ever be able to do that. It requires a knowledge of what each character could do at any moment, what their strongest options are in advantageous, disadvantageous, and neutral positions, and each of these factors change across the matchup spread of a large roster. But when I see two Lethal League players dealing with a 15000km/h ball like child’s play, I can visualise myself reaching that point. That’s because getting better at Lethal League is about developing familiarity and creativity with basic concepts. There are only four buttons – jump, hit, throw, and bunt. Each character sends the ball at different angles and has a unique special ability, but this is quickly learned through pure gameplay. Improvement stems from developing familiarity with your character’s movement, navigating the ball, and anticipating angles, and these skills develop almost subconsciously. You could play Street Fighter 2 for a few hours and see no improvement whatsoever. In Lethal League, a few hours are the difference between shrieking at an incoming ball to the excitement of seeing how far you can take it.
Lethal League’s journey is organic. The player grows not with study, but with play. It is a seemingly limitless suite of creative possibilities with only a handful of simple options. Lethal League feels closer to a physical sport than a game. Each skirmish sees the player grow subtly with every bunt and blast, overcoming their clumsiness, mastering control of the ball, and getting expressive with their performance. It declines the bleak mountain climb of learning a fighting game by forging a natural path that’s just plain fun. It reminds me why I love video games, how they afford us the thrill of exercising a second body. Above all, it takes me back to kickabouts with my brother in the park where, even though I was rubbish, I enjoyed the bruises and the screamers along the way.