Imagine for a moment that Sega didn’t dissolve into Sonic re-hashes and instead continued to compete with Nintendo. Lethal League might’ve been Sega’s long-lost response to the Smash Bros. phenomenon. Combining Jet Set Radio’s vibrant neon colors with Smash Bros’ chaotic competition, Lethal League surpasses cheap imitation thanks to its fast, uncomplicated battle system and five wonderfully detailed characters.
Like this year’s Nidhogg, Lethal League is a two-dimensional brawler/fighter/party game for two to four people around a single screen, perhaps with a large amount of party-appropriate food and alcoholic beverages included. The game requires that group of friends to hit an “energy ball” (like a baseball, only more lethal and able to be hit at ridiculous, screen-warping speeds) at each other. Each hit paints the ball with that character’s color and renders the character immune to its knock-out strike. Players choose from six character sprites who range from a little leaguer named Raptor, who wields a standard baseball bat, to Candyman, a mix of Pac-Man and The Joker who wields a long walking cane as his weapon of choice.
Players can also bunt the ball, which momentarily stops its momentum, and perform a character-specific super, which can just be a very intense hit, or allow the ball to travel through one wall and come out the opposite. Players hit the ball back and forth until it’s a time-warping ball of speeding lethal light that quickly dismantles the beautifully arranged stages. It’s baseball-gone-anime, but only the insane, hyperstimulating sort of anime, thankfully. If you’ve ever had the fortunate chance to come across Data East’s Windjammers, the pace of a Lethal League game is in that same tier of extreme Pong-likeplay.
Much like Smash Bros.’ smash system, Lethal League’s swing differs between each of the five characters, but the ease of execution makes introducing yourself to Lethal League feel effortless. In the heat of a four-man, stock-based online game, there’s a great chance even the biggest novice could knock a few experienced players out with a few lucky hits. Lethal League rewards split-second timing and reflexes more than it does knowledge of its character differences, bunts, and the angle of diagonal hits, which gives it a tense, entertaining atmosphere where anyone can land the final, decisive blow. If anything sets Lethal League apart from the recent local-centric brethren, it’s the stable networking and ease with which newbies can enter the zany, competitive space.
The layout and design of Lethal League’s menus and its tiered challenge mode reveal Team Reptile’s adoration for Smash Bros. Thankfully, it’s Koster and Remmer’s commitment to character detail that will set the game apart from most other fighting games. When I look into the manic face of Candyman, I can imagine a string of games released on the Dreamcast, all featuring his dramatic posture and hard-hitting cane. Even the music-much of it licensed from other sources-adds the right electro sheen or beat-thumping crunch to each individual fight.
Lethal League came a long way since its original flash prototype. Dion Koster and Tim Remmers of Team Reptile polished off a set of cool characters, sound effects, and stages that all evoke a space that’s both familiar and exciting in the mind of anyone who has ever picked up a Nintendo 64 controller. Lethal League is a lean, intricately detailed fighting game designed for everyone in 2014, and what’s more, it’s a smashing good time.