Hey, it’s Patrick. I’m trying out a short blog series about character design in competitive video games! Simple format — five things I like about a character, and one thing I’d like to fix. Check it out and let me know if it’s a thing you’d want to read more of! Also see: Pharah, Chipp, and Thresh.
One of the most compelling emotions available in fighting games is the feeling of growing your mastery over a character. This feeling can peak into something even more intense when you reach a point where you’re looking at others’ play for inspiration, not memorization; you look around and realize that no one else is doing quite what you’re doing with that character, and it’s up to you to use your experience to push her to ever higher heights.
For much of my early years playing Capcom vs. SNK 2, I had that experience with Athena Asamiya. Capcom vs. SNK 2 is an unusual fighting game in that it has a lot of pre-match decisions that change how you play it; you choose 1–3 characters at varying levels of power to form a team, as well one of six “Grooves” that give you access to certain offense/defense/mobility/meter management mechanics. There weren’t many Athena players then, and not many of them were playing with my preferred Groove (K-Groove, if you were wondering), so the job of figuring out how to win with her was up to me and me alone. And so those feelings of mastery were combined with a feeling of ownership; my Athena knowledge became rare expertise.
(GIFs in this post come from a video of me bodying some guy named Ram Jam at the UFGT CvS2 auction tournament, he paid $86 to get one-character-victoried by Athena.)
#1: Her visual + vocal flair rubs off on the player.
I’m gonna talk a whole bunch about gameplay stuff in the next few sections, but I wanted to point out something rad about her audio/visual design, first.
Athena Asamiya is a psychic magical girl pop star (who apparently designs websites and plays lacrosse in her free time, according to her SNK Wikia page). That’s a departure from the usual for both Capcom and SNK character designs; Street Fighter typically skews towards Serious Martial Artists, King of Fighters towards Angsty Teen Martial Artists, and for all the high school-aged characters between the two, no one looks or sounds quite like Athena. So she gets new outfits in every single game, and her voice actresses always sound like they’re channeling Usagi from Sailor Moon.
There’s no way you can play Athena and not take joy in hearing her scream “TELEPOOOOORT” and “PSYCHO BAAAAAAALL” or occasionally feel tempted to mimic her super-girly attack animations. She projects enthusiasm and joy in her performance, and some of that rubs off on the person who’s playing her, too. It adds to the fun in ways that don’t connect to wins and losses, and that’s a very hard thing to do in a fighting game.
#2: She has a lot of bad special moves.
Athena can do almost everything a fighting game character can do, but she’s not very good at it. She has:
- A fireball that is useful pretty much only at max range,
- A divekick that doesn’t really set anything up,
- A command grab with the worst range in the game,
- A teleport that she can be thrown out of,
- A Dragon Punch with very poor invincibility, and
- A projectile reflector that isn’t very good.
It’s not immediately apparent how bad these moves are until you take ’em for a spin and realize that you’re not going to get to play a fireball/DP game like Ryu or Ken, nor can you rush down with divekicks/teleports or mix up with command grabs. Also, her damage on all her special moves is awful.
By itself, I wouldn’t recommend taking this tack for a fighting game character, because it’s generally kind of frustrating for the person trying to play her. But in CvS2, it manages to work (likely out of sheer luck) because it pairs with the rest of her kit and game systems.
#3: She has two very good normal moves.
When you start playing Athena in CvS2, there’s basically two buttons you need to learn: crouching fierce punch beats or trades with practically every attack in the game, including some jumping attacks, and standing medium punch is a decent anti-air (though it only works against certain incoming attack angles).
Now, both of these moves are fairly reactive in nature; you’re not using these to create opportunities so much as shut down your opponent’s. So, the two of them work fairly well when combined with her slow fireball — you can put together a gameplan that consists of retreating to a safe distance, throwing a fireball, and using one of your two buttons to shut down their response to that fireball. Like so:
These three moves essentially combine into a simple play pattern. It’s not unbeatable, of course! But it gives you an easily repeatable test for your opponent to pass, and as they try different things to deal with it, you can start to find uses for your weaker moves as your opponent adapts to your pattern. Maybe they jump with a different timing to avoid the standing medium punch, and you can catch them with the tip of your DP. Maybe they block the fireball just a little too long, and you can walk up and land a command grab. Each of these uses might only work once, but she has enough weird moves that you might just pull it off.
#4: Lots of highly situational moves + CvS2’s systems = multi-dimensional, versatile character.
So even with all the stuff that I’ve described so far, Athena would still be pretty garbage if you plugged her into a random Street Fighter game. All of these weird tool combinations really only get cookin’ once you plug her into CvS2, because the groove system and the team format create some really cool interactions with her moveset.
Grooves give you additional sets of tools that let you change the way you play your character. Most CvS2 characters tend to have one or two groove pairings that are clearly an optimal fit for their moveset — M. Bison (Dictator) has an A-Groove custom combo that, if mastered, pretty much lets him kill a character, so if you’re gonna play Dictator, you’re best served playing him in A-Groove. Others, like Sagat, work in several grooves, simply because his basic tools are so good that the additional tools offered by your groove choice are nice but not essential.
Athena is a rare specimen because different grooves give her very different kinds of power. A-Groove makes her command grab an actual threat because she can use it to set up a damaging custom combo; S-Groove gives her access to unlimited Level 1 supers when she’s at low health, which transforms her Shining Crystal Bit super into an effective (and annoying) zoning tool; K-Groove buffs both her damage and defensive capabilities, and gives her ready access to Level 3 supers that she can use for obnoxious amounts of block damage against a cornered enemy. While her core toolset remains the same, the Athena player’s groove choice gives them almost radically different characters, and it’s possibly the best example of the combinatorial possibilities coming from move-groove interactions that I’ve found in CvS2.
#5: Her strength isn’t dependent on combos.
At no point do you have to master a combo in order to play an effective Athena, and this is something I come back to more and more as I get deeper into fighting games. Modern fighting games are generally built around combos to some degree. Athena barely has any. She wins by baiting and trapping and being frustrating and hitting lots of crouching fierces, but outside her A-Groove custom combo, she rarely strings more than two attacks together, and that’s usually a jumping roundhouse kick followed by a crouching fierce punch.
As silly as it looks to get pushed by a teenage girl over and over, I love that Athena’s power comes from spacing and timing her attacks; it’s something that’s just a little easier to grasp early on in a fighting game player’s learning curve than combos are. That is valuable for its own sake, I think.
Thing that needs fixing: Her stubby-ass normals.
Athena is tiny and her limbs are super short, even for a Street Fighter game. She gets every pixel of extension out of those arms and legs as she can, but it’s still not much, which means that she’s usually either in range to hit you with any of her buttons, or none of her buttons, with very little room for subtlety in the footsies dance. I’d love to give her a few moves where she moves forward/backward in the startup frames; she has one or two right now, but they’re not actually useful in footsies, and she’d be even more dynamic if she was able to operate at ranges besides Fireball Here and Fierce Here.