Yes, there are fish...
Our tour started in the game's fishing area, which had a tranquil atmosphere that was slightly unexpected given the game's focus on action. Even in Mini Fighter, we can't get away from the scourge of fishing minigames. The execution here was slightly interesting, as there were two modes of fishing available: automatic and interactive. In the normal fishing mode, there's the expected minigame (press Z at random intervals, wait for the bars to line up and press Z again to catch a fish), but the "auto fishing" mode simply plops your character down and starts them fishing. You don't have to do anything to catch fish, but the rate of catching them is much lower.
I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, the whole longstanding tradition of using a bot to fish is now fully realized, which any Final Fantasy XI player might feel instinctively unhappy about. On the other hand, it's nice to have an option for a less attentive form of fishing, such as when you'd rather be chatting with friends than focusing on playing the minigame. Depending on fine-tuning, this could either be a very positive feature or a bit of a downside.
A multitude of options
Moving on from fishing, we entered the main "town" area, which was filled with things to do. We stopped by a Quiz Room first, which was cute -- you were given a number of multiple-choice questions and had to stand on the platform that corresponded to the correct answer. The questions were fairly wide-ranging, moving from what declaration of war set off World War I to the 2000 Olympics to classic literature. More correct answers mean more rewards, while a wrong answer kicks you out of the running. A major attraction it isn't, but it's a fun diversion.
We stopped briefly by the Grand Arena, which is a multi-tiered elimination tournament of 16 players. As there were four of us, we were a bit shy. Those of you with a love of college basketball will probably have an instant understanding of how this matchup works, however. We also moved past the Theater, which shows off the background story of each character, but we declined to take a look inside.
One thing that should be noted is that there is a wide variety of different characters available, represented by "character cards" that you equip and switch between. Each fighter has their own set of moves and abilities, much like a normal fighting game. Switching seemed a bit fickle when out of combat, although I suspect it had more to do with my inexperience with the controls.
Here comes a new challenger!
Next stop, the Battle Room. While the game features an Arcade and Training Room for genuine and practice battles against NPCs, here's the heart of the game's PvP fighting game action. Players are divided between two teams, with up to 8 players on each side, and they then choose a play mode and a map, very similar in execution to Super Smash Bros. or its successors. You also get a choice between your various available characters for which one you want to bring into battle.
We started off with a simple tag-team match, which is where my aforementioned excellent skill at fighting games took over. There are two attack buttons, Z and X, and C as the guard/block button. Pressing any of the two buttons together produces a special move, and each button has different functions depending on whether your character is standing still, jumping, or dashing. I use the comparison to Super Smash Bros. for a reason -- our tour guide mentioned it right off the bat, and in terms of fighting engines the game is similar.
On the one hand, this means that the in-depth tactics you'd see in a game like Guilty Gear don't exist. The flip side to this is that the gameplay feels much more frenetic and straightforward, with fewer last-minute counters or saves. And it certainly feels fun, even from the perspective of someone who spends most of their time losing. You're given enough of a recovery period between being knocked down that you can retaliate instead of being stuck on the ground and helpless, and there aren't any real ranged traps that force you into a corner.
After the tag-team mode, we tried a couple of the alternate modes. Guardian Assault pits the two teams against one another to defend a large guardian at your side of the map while destroying the opposing team's guardian. It was fairly straightforward, however, and not nearly as interesting as Soccer, in which... you play soccer. Attacks move the ball toward one goal or the other, as well as smacking around your opponents, which means that the center becomes a savage brawl while both sides try and push one player out to carry the ball to the goal.
In other words, it's rugby.
The Soccer mode was uniquely fun, and one of the niftiest things I saw in the game. The general atmosphere of the battle room was enjoyable, and as a nice boost to the players, losing still grants you access to rewards. Lesser rewards, to be sure, but rewards just the same.
Dungeon diving in hand-to-hand
Our tour finished off with a trip through a wilderness area followed by the game's first dungeon. Fighting our way through enemies was significantly easier than the PvP matches -- as was explained to me, the alteration of stats via equipment and leveling has a split between your stats in a PvP battle and your stats in a dungeon area. The net result is that while a fully kitted-out character will have a big advantage in dungeons, they'll still be within a reasonable distance of someone starting out at Level 1 without equipment. It's a good nod to the split in most fighting games.
Each part of the dungeon is marked as a running fight between the players and a number of enemies, all of which have to be defeated in order for the group to advance to the next part. At the conclusion, we fought the first boss of the game, who was pretty brutal but manageable. We used brute force and numbers to take him down, but watching the fight made it clear that there were safe zones and ways to avoid taking damage if you wanted to do it solo or via skill. Dungeons do not scale based on the number of people in them, giving incentive to group-up for harder fights. Experience gains also seem relatively static, as I was gaining experience even in a low-level dungeon.
This is an MMO?
At first glance, Mini Fighter doesn't look much like an MMO except insofar as it's online. There are an awful lot of features that seem more like the sort of game you'd pick up and play with your friends, as if the online feature was more of a slight convenience for finding other players rather than a fully realized element of the game. Sprite-based graphics and the fighting engine only help reinforce this first impression.
When you get into actual play, however, things shake down differently. Yes, the game is built on the core of a fighting game -- which has been expanded, worked on, and built up until it manages to combine the pick-up nature of fighting games with the persistence of an MMO. You gain stats, you level up, you slap on equipment and refine your character. You have the time-honored MMO staple of fishing, there are quests, there are group dungeons and group PvP events. It's done in a format befitting a fighting game, but these features are all there.
And through that means, they address some problems that are traditional bugbears for MMOs, such as balancing PvP in the wake of characters with different equipment levels.
If anything, the game veers closest to games such as Maple Story and MAG -- games which fall well outside the traditional boundaries of MMOs but still belong to the field, eschewing some traditions and adding in some elements of other genres for variety. There's much to be said about having a game on that level, one where we see that yes, we can have an MMO that isn't yet another third-person RPG in which you play one of twelve varieties of elf.
When all is said and done, the game seemed like a fun trip for players. The graphics are simple and stylized, but they do their job well -- some people will like them, some won't, but they're suited to the gameplay. If you're looking for a deep and immersive world to lose yourself in, this isn't it, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. If the idea of playing a hybrid MMO and fighting game appeals to you, however, the game hits all the notes it's aiming for and then some.