MerFight — Something fishy this way comes

This article is part of my ongoing “Indie Fighting Game Thursday” review/retrospective series, now on supercombo.gg! This week we talk about MerFight: Curse of the Arctic Prince, a 2.5D merfolk fighter with rollback netcode! This article was originally published on my Medium blog on 16th September, 2021, and has been ported to Supercombo.gg for preservation and sharing it with more people in the fighting game community!

When I think about mermaids, the first thing that comes to mind is a girl with a sea-shell bra and a fishtail, accompanied by an obnoxious red crab, who sings about the beauty of living under the sea. Well, thanks, uncle Walt, but today I’m not here to talk about THAT kind of mermaids. Today, we are here to discuss the ACTUAL merfolk, of the hybrid, semi-monstrous type, and about a fighting game roster exclusively made up of them!

So, with the blessing of Rikuo from Darkstalkers (who may or may not have been an inspiration for the game’s theme), let’s dive together into the world of “MerFight: Curse of the Arctic Prince, developed by Mattrified Games!

Rikuo, a merfolk character from Darkstalkers, in his victory pose, saying “You land beings are so weak! I’m disappointed.”

Yes, Rikuo, I would be disappointed too if I found out that, when people think about merfolk, the first one that comes to mind is Disney’s Little Mermaid. Well, at least MerFight is giving your people justice, I guess.

MerFight is a 1-vs-1 fighting game, set in a bizarre, fantasy world, where all land and sky creatures are gone for good, leaving the scene to the sea creatures alone — but forced to live outside of their natural element. The sea creatures evolved to adapt to their new environment, becoming something similar to human-fish hybrids. This premise enables the cast to be rather unique — human enough to feel familiar and not off-putting, but open to having some small additional details that can be used for giving their moveset some additional sauce, be it tentacles or bioluminescence.

King Rho vs Enjellique in an incredibly lively stage

Lush vegetation, water-like skies, and a pale moon shining lazily in the night sky. However, as a villain proper, King Rho isn’t pleased and will beat the living blobfish out of anyone who dares to challenge him for his throne.

The game is an interesting hybrid between a traditional 2D fighter and an air-dasher, leaning more on the first than on the second. The input system comprises four buttons: Light Punch (LP), Light Kick (LK), Heavy Punch (HP), Heavy Kick (HK). There are some universal combinations, like LP+LK for grabs, HP+HK for a universal overhead, LP+HP and LK+HK for unique attacks. These vary significantly between characters and can sometimes change the flow of the match in dramatic ways: For example, Gamma, the mercenary crustacean, can activate a skill that gives them super armor for a limited amount of time, while Gigi, the anglerfish adventurer, can fill the screen with light sparks that will actually hide her from the opponent, making her mixups more dangerous.

The game has a super meter that acts in the traditional way, with a twist: when a character is hit, they will release bubbles that slowly fall to the ground and fade away. If a character walks over them, the bubbles will give them a meter boon. This adds a layer to the decision-making process, as now one has to decide if to keep on the offense or pause it in order to fill their meter faster.

One thing that MerFight does well in terms of accessibility, is the way it handles special and super moves. Much like Granblue Fantasy Versus, you are allowed to activate special moves by either performing a motion followed by an attack button (e.g. quarter-circle forward LP) or by just pressing a direction plus the respective button. The “technical” inputs are slightly more cumbersome to do, but have the added bonus of either gaining more super meter or having some additional properties (e.g. being less negative on block).

Super moves work in a similar fashion: one can either press a direction plus two attack buttons or perform a motion before, with again some bonus damage or better frame data for the technical version.

A panel from MerFight's tutorial, showing the basic buttons for Gigi. In the picture, Gigi uses her Heavy Kick (tied to the B input button) against the training dummy.

Despite the game being still in an alpha state, it includes a hefty amount of tutorials, ranging from the basics to advanced stuff, like how to punish certain attacks.

Remember how I said that MerFight is a strange hybrid between a traditional 2D fighter and an air-dasher? Well, the reason for this statement is that each character has technically access to a four-way air dash (up, down, back, forward), in addition to the traditional ground dashes, but the twist is that they cost resources. In order to perform an air dash, one has to spend a “pop counter”. A character gains a pop counter for every bar of super meter gained, but cannot gain any more of them if the super bar is completely full.

What ups the ante in terms of gameplay, is that pop cancels can be used to interrupt any single moveon hit or block, dashing out of them in the desired direction and allowing the attacker to make things safe, to continue the offense, or even to extend combos in ways that wouldn’t be normally possible.

The way pop counters are tied to super meter usage makes it critical to keep a cool head and manage resources. Missing a pop counter due to having maxed out the super meter could be the difference between victory and defeat.

This picture shows the character selection screen of MerFight, with Gamma as the selected character.

The cast is rather varied and colorful. You have the eel rushdown, the female octopus bodybuilder grappler, the weird old lady who commands jellyfish, and a mercenary hermit crab that poses as if they were in a ’80s club.

The combo system is very dependent on using resources in the right way. Hitting your opponent causes a purple bar with a whirl icon to slowly fill. When the bar is filled, the opponent will drop out of the combo, no matter what happens next. This will normally happen already after 4–5 hits, depending on the character. Super moves scale much better on this indicator and can be used at the end of a short combo relatively well, increasing the overall count by less than a meter-less special.

It is also possible to chain super moves, one after another, as long as a different super is used every time. Each character has access to three or more super moves and usually at least two of them can be chained together at any given time, for rather stratospheric damage — at the cost of burning through your super meter, that is.

A combo featuring all of King Rho’s supers, chained into each other.

Super into super into super. King Rho isn’t leaving that throne any time soon.

Another way to stop the wipeout indicator to fill is to use pop cancels during a combo. Pop cancels will indeed reduce the growth rate of the wipeout indicator, effectively allowing for creative combo extensions.

There are also ground bounces and wall bounces (once per combo max. each), further increasing the possibilities and — overall — creating a very unique combo system that requires some time to get attuned to but can deliver an impressive amount of satisfaction. Speaking of combos, here’s a MerFight combo video made by the game’s community and put together by Tom Goldrick, who is not only organizing weekly MerFight brackets but is also one of the developers behind the fighting-game-inspired board game Versus Tag Shuffle!

In its current state, the game features 12 playable characters, covering most possible archetypes: you have grapplers like Octonia, armored juggernauts like Gamma, jack of all trades like Gigi, rekka mixup monsters like Arctina, and setup nightmares like King Rho and Enjellique. Every character feels unique enough and the variety of gameplay styles is impressive.

Unique actions affect the way those characters are played greatly, adding tools and options that differentiate them even further.

Gamma, sporting an Evilobster skin from another indie game Schwarzerblitz, triggering his super armor unique trait, while fighting against Drargos in Training Mode

Yes, that is an official Evilobster skin for Gamma. And yes, I am obviously playing as him, why do you even ask?!

Rollback netcode is currently the holy grail of competitive fighting games. In 2021, if your fighting game doesn’t have it, despite GGPO being available and open-sourced under a VERY permissive license, you either need to: be small enough for it to be excused (e.g. solo devs, small teams); big enough to ignore the backlash (well, almost — cough, Samurai Shodown, amirite?); or to have a substantial single-player experience and plenty of local modes to make up for that.

Well, fear not, because under the sea, these merfolks can hit the living shell out of each other even between the U.S. and Japan! In fact, this was tested and streamed several times in the last few months, highlighting a surprisingly versatile netcode. Do you have a friend on the other side of the world? Now you can hit them with some Arctina 15-hit mixups live and without too much delay!

Version 0.19 got a cross-continental 6 hours long marathon stream by Japanese player KDOKBNZY. In this video, he fought against some US players, thanks to MerFight rollback netcode.

I would do a disservice to you readers if I forgot to mention this: MerFight is still currently in Early Access — as of September 2021, the current build is version 0.26.1.

While the gameplay feels refined enough and the game already sports many features (including training mode, tutorials, online lobbies, combo trials, and a punishment guide against each character), there is still a lot to be fixed.

Some stages are still using their temporary looks from the very early alphas, and there are plenty of missing sound effects during e.g. grabs, specials, and some supers. The game is overall lacking polish, but since it’s still in its early stages, I believe it’s completely acceptable.

There was a succesful Kickstarter starting September 14, 2021, to cover the costs for hiring voice actors for the project. The campaign was ultimately successful, and as I write, the developer Mattrified is working on implementing the voices inside the game proper!

Gigi blocking an overhead performed by Arctina in the game’s own “block punish” tutorial mode.

After blocking and punishing her 15-hit low/overhead mixup string, punishing this single move was actually piece of cake. Kudos to the game for including trials that teach how to deal with several common setups and moves.

The game is available for download, free of charge, on itch.io and runs on Windows operating systems. There is a Discord server for this game and other projects by Mattrified. The server organizes weekly brackets and has already a core group of players who are eager to welcome some fresh blood. You can also follow the developer Mattrified Games on Twitter.

A view on the lobby menu system, showing the menu UI and the character Odon as the one selected by the player.

The lobby system is very intuitive and easy to use. It’s currently powered by Photon, a service that provides servers for matchmaking and packet relay.

Name of the game: MerFight: Curse of the Arctic Prince
DeveloperMattrified Games (developer’s website)
Available on: PC (websiteitch.io)
Price: Free (donationware)
Year of release: in progress (version tested as of September 2021: 0.26.1)
Engine: Unity
Netcode: rollback netcode (using Photon as a server for packet exchange and matchmaking)
Status: early access
In one sentence: 2.5D merfolk hitting the living coral out of each other, with an intricate combo system, optional simple controls and serviceable rollback netcode.

Special thanks to Tom Goldrick for providing game footage and combo videos, proofreading this article, hosting weekly lobbies and — in general — for being the main face of the MerFight player community.

If you are interested in more coverage about indie fighting games, you can find me on Twitter at @AndreaDProjects

Other articles in the series

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