There is no reason in the universe to make fighting games more accessible, and no one who makes games has any honest intention of actually doing so. Aquapazza is a great case in point, because you either have no idea what it is or you have already bought it, and it is by far the most traditional fighting game released this year. Because this game is actually pretty dang good, I am not going to do what I normally do, which is complain about how fighting games are super awesome and rad while also completely awful at teaching anyone the first thing about how to play them. I will not promise to stop doing that in the future, but I will put that complaint on hold for just this review, in which I’ll explain why Aquapazza is so rad despite being the most obscure and context-free Japanese IP localized this year.
The game keeps things simple and deep at once, and it does basically everything I want a fighter to do while cutting out most all of the absolute garbage. If you already love fighters and have a favorite that’s not Aquapazza, you might say something like, “Aevee, you are as dumb as you are cute. This game is anime bullshit, and I’m going back to Marvel.” So, I’ll also tell you why this game is super good at what it is, and why I like that—and why you might too even if you are not very anime.
I am, as you may know, a person who is pretty anime, and even I do not understand any of the references in this game or even who any of the characters are. I still find them all really likable and charming. Aquapazza is one of the few games you will ever see get localized despite being a licensed game instead of because of that, as the license in this case is a small collection of visual novels made by the company Aquaplus, makers of the game To Heart and Utawarerumono. (I have been pronouncing that last one as something like “Underwater Ray Ramano,” so that’s how much I know about it.) What’s maybe especially amusing about it all is that while half of the characters are from PC games with a limited amount of RPG fighting, the other half are from games about high school dating. The contrast is (intentionally) amusing.
In some ways, it makes sense for crossover-licensed games to be fighting games, since fighting games put characters first. Fighting games rarely have good story, but they are fantastic at character, and the source material is pretty, colorful and cutely animated. As context-free as these characters are, they’re so full of personality that they immediately make a striking, likable impression. The game’s grappler is a red-haired schoolgirl who unexpectedly performs pile drivers and German suplexes of Zangief level quality; she also can glare so hard that it paralyzes opponents from across the screen. Other notable characters are Manaka, who throws piles of books and knocks over bookshelves (all completely by accident) as her attacks, and Multi, who dashes about with a mop and who will likely inspire literally every other reviewer of this game to make a “mop the floor with (etc.)” joke. (Please, fellow critics, resist this temptation.)
Good fighting game animation should not only be clear in the information it provides and pleasant to look at, but also full of personality—a quality that traditional animation is still very good at expressing. Aquapazza does well in this area. Take Manaka, for example: the player is ideally executing all of her moves on purpose. But her animations portray her as shy, clumsy, knocking over bookshelves on accident and dropping books left and right. When she stumbles, it communicates that she’s in a recovery state, but the particular way that’s shown tells you a lot about what kind of person she is. The animation is not of revolutionary quality, but the technique involved is strong enough to communicate the personalities of the characters without any further context necessary, while also conveying essential information about the state of the game.
But, real talk: no one is buying Aquapazza because it’s a licensed game. They are buying it because of who adapted it: Examu, who are pretty dang good at making video games.
Just as the game assumes you have more than the faintest idea of who all these characters are, so too does the game expect you to already know how to play Aquapazza and what its various systems are. Like I’ve said, I kind of am I sighing and giving up about getting games to include guides on how to play them. And maybe this is a silly desire of mine, seeing as there are plenty of extremely good guides on the internet. For this review, I read up on Mizuumi, which has the dirt on fighting games you have not heard of, and explains what the buttons do and why you should press them. Everything on there will make sense to people who already understand the basics of fighters—and here we come to the reason why there are no intermediate guides for fighters, because you either know that pressing buttons does something, or you are just pressing buttons.
By the way, I disagree with the common assumption that Street Fighter is a good intro to fighting games. That game has six buttons, and each of them produces a totally different attack—and there is a totally different set of attacks when you are crouching, when you are jumping, when you are close, and even sometimes when you are pressing another obscure direction. By contrast, in Aquapazza, there are three crouching, three standing, and three jumping attacks. The barrier to entry on Street Fighter is the understanding that only a few of those moves are generally useful, a bunch more are only useful in obscure situations, and the rest are only useful in ridiculously specific situations. That’s where everyone gets lost and just pushes buttons at random until they win. It’s because there are so many, and their uses are so unapparent. In Aquapazza, when you press a button, something awesome and hugely useful happens. Rather than have a ridiculous number of moves to clutter your memory, there are fewer than half as many moves, which are almost all strong and useful in ways that should become very obvious to the player very quickly.
Fighting games often look like they’re about punching, but much like real-life sports about punching, fighting games are actually about controlling space. All those punches and kicks—and, in the case of Aquapazza, mops and books and swords and magic—make parts of the screen uninhabitable, by filling that space with a sword or a fireball. In Aquapazza, attacks tend to be big and damaging and come out fast and control a lot of said space—but, they recover slowly and leave you vulnerable. If you are correctly guessing where your opponent will be, you’ll feel like a hawk catching a trout from the sea to catch them. If you are incorrectly guessing, you will be like an anime girl who falls on her butt and is comboed for half of her life bar.
This is great. This is the best. It is the best because this is all, everything, every single bit of what fighting games are—and yet Aquapazza keeps this controlling of space simple and clever. Aquapazza focuses on fundamentals, which is why, despite its lack of tutorials, it’s a fantastic game to learn them, and also why it’s a great game to watch because those fundamentals are so clear and present. Manaka controls space by throwing books across the screen and pushing opponents away with her super knock-every-bookshelf-in-the-library-over move. Tomoki stuns with her glare and then dashes in with a throw that can do half a life bar in damage. Rhiannon has projectiles as her normal moves and can fill the screen with garbage at every angle—until someone is in her face, and then she can’t do anything about it. Chizuru controls space by bypassing it completely and appearing behind her opponent, claws out … and that’s why she’s totally broken.
Chizuru aside, the game is fairly balanced, and part of that is because there’s one more button in Aquapazza that controls a separate assisting character with one or two moves. Rather than complicate things much, this allows players to fill in weaknesses the individual characters have, especially in specific match-ups. But for you, as a beginner, it allows you to have another character who can occasionally make an attack to fill in for your mistakes or help counter attacks you have trouble with. Not every character has a projectile, which is a powerful tool, but anyone can choose an assist that will give them one. More and more this sort of design seems important to me, though it’s kind of a staple of fighting games, but choosing a level of customization over just selecting a primary character helps to keep the game a lot more balanced and makes high level play a lot more creative and interesting to watch, as there are exponentially more interactions between the various characters to explore.
Aquapazza is the game for my level right now, which is really bad at fighters and way too lazy to start a game that is full of awesome but incomprehensible garbage. For example, Guilty Gear is an amazing fun time, and I will watch it all night long, but if you hand me a controller, I will fall on my face and you will combo me for all the damage. If you hand me an Aquapazza controller, I will probably be able to drop a bookshelf on you first. I fear no one will ever know about Aquapazza’s simplicity and deepness because it’s buried under an obscure anime license and zero tutorials … except for you, because I told you. I hope this sort of thing will work as a tutorial until fighting games start including them.
Aevee Bee is freelance writer who maintains a surreal video game terror blog at mammonmachine.com and a twitter account, @mammonmachine, which is both a popular resource for anime puns and flirtation advice.
Aquapazza was developed by Examu and published by Aquaplus and Atlus USA. It is available for the PlayStation 3.