Shooters have incorporated melee attacks into their design since Perfect Dark on the N64. It's quite a genius design feature in how it cleans up close quarter encounters. Most shooter encounters play out somewhere between mid and long range. However, at close range the shooting mechanics often brake down. It's just very difficult to hit a target that is quickly moving around your tunnel vision player view. And even when a skillful player can keep their sights on target in these situations, in first person the rapid moving camera view puts a strain on the cleanness of the visual presentation. Close quarters aiming is just one factor of many that can cause shooting gameplay to break down. Read more on the FPShuffle here.
Now, instead of only shooting in close quarters, players have a viable option with melee attacks. Because getting close to opponents without being noticed and shot is difficult in shooters, melee attacks are generally designed with a lot of strength for the purpose of ending close quarters encounters quickly and simply. In many ways, melee attacks functionally simulate the effectiveness of close quarters combat (CQC), a style of combat designed to disarm and take out targets quickly: " CQC demands a rapid assault and a precise application of lethal force. ... CQC is defined as a short-duration, high-intensity conflict, characterized by sudden violence at close range."
On a side note, some shooters have slight thrusts properties to their melee mechanics that help players close in the distance on their targets. Furthermore, when melee attacks connect, the player aim or camera view is locked to focus on the target. This feature helps communicate very clearly to the player on the impact of successful hits. "Sticky" melee attacks are in Call of Duty and Halo games. I find Halo's sticky melee attack design to be far superior to the "slippery" melee attacks found in many PC style shooters like Team Fortress 2.
Kid Icarus Uprising features melee mechanics that Sakurai has designed to play more like a fighting game than any other shooter I know.
The design of Kid Icarus Uprising's melee attack is simple. Yet, its the core of a unique interplay sub system within the larger combat that creates a surprising amount of depth from such simplicity. First close in on a target while aiming at it. When the reticle changes to indicate you're within melee range, just press the SHOOT button. After the first melee attack comes out keep pressing the button to continue the combo. Weapons have 2-5 hits to their combos with the last hits doing the most damage. This design is a clear example of risk-reward where committing all the way to a melee attack may leave you open to attack from another player. The melee design is very similar to the standard combos in Smash. Yet, there are many wrinkles to the melee combat design of Kid Icarus Uprising that makes it special.
At any point between hits of your melee combo string you can continue melee attacking, stop attacking (by doing nothing), or circle strafe around your target. This circle strafe is a special dodge that only activates when players side DASH within 10 meters of their target. It's faster than a normal DODGE, doesn't require an incoming attack to activate, and is more effective because it can place you right behind your target (like rolling in Smash). With these three options, we have a elegant triangle of interplay. DODGE beats MELEE. MELEE beats waiting. And waiting beats DODGE.
And there's more design wrinkles. Achieving the same clean feedback features like in Halo, in Kid Icarus Uprising MELEE attacks clash with each other with screen shaking strength. The sound and visual feedback of a clashed attack is unmistakable. After activating a MELEE attack, your character will charge in to close in the distance. While charging in you'll take damage from enemy projectiles, but you cannot be knocked down. This feature gives an advantage to players who manage to close in on targets. It also forces targeted players to respond by engaging with the MELEE-triangle-interplay system.
Now you can begin to understand how engaging melee encounters can be. When a target closes in, they both strike! Clash! Player 1 continues to attack while player 2 DODGEs. Player 2 has the advantage and attacks, but player 1 DODGEs. Clash! Clash! Player 1 has two more hits left in his 4 hit melee combo. Player 2 anticipates the aggression and DODGEs early while player 1 attacks. Then player 1 DODGEs but this time player 2 waits taking the advantage to fire a charge shot into player 1 at point blank range.
Melee encounters are an intense type of gameplay encounter with its own kind of risk-reward and rules. With just a triangle of interplay and a real-time dynamic the potential for pattern based mixups and reading opponents explodes. Kid Icarus Uprising MELEE attacks remind me of focus attacks in Street Fighter 4 or clashing swords in Halo 3. I'm amazed by how many different variations of offense and defense are possible using focus attacks. Use it as a parry, a bluff, a combo extender, a recovery frame shortener, or a very aggressive block breaking offense. I'm also impressed with the variety in Halo 3 sword combat considering swords are one-hit-kill attacks (see video here). Between baiting lunges, blocking lunges with the quicker melee strikes, jumping to throw off the opponent's aim, and using grenades there are plenty of viable options and mixups possible.
Fighting Game Style
Ever since Street Fighter 2 defined the fighting game genre, fighting game gameplay has been viewed through the lens of character/attack positioning (spacing), a triangle of double blind core mechanics, and slippery slope-decay dynamics that reset frequently through the course of a round. Amazingly, Kid Icarus Uprising core design allows for the same kind of fighting gameplay to emerge, and the melee attacks are just the start. If you need to brush up on basic fighting game strategy with this video by Sirlin.
Because most incoming projectile attacks in KIU can be reacted to and easily countered at at most ranges, you may quickly get into what seems like a stalemate. You shoot, they DODGE. Your opponent shoots, you DODGE. Repeat. At these times the gameplay seems to go no where. The best comparison to make to these KIU stalemates is the fireball or general projectile game in Street Fighter. It's possible in a match for players to hurl fire balls at each other all day from across the screen. Even throwing in the occasional ex-fire ball that hits twice and generally counters normal fire balls does little to shake up this stalemate. The truth is, these situations are stalemates only when players refuse to use their other mechanics and viable options.
In Street Fighter, there are subtle differences in fireball sizes and speeds that keep the stalemate from being completely stagnant. Furthermore, being locked into a fireball stalemate is a test of endurance and focus as every fireball must be executed perfectly or else suffer a hit and possibly step onto a disadvantageous slippery slope. But ultimately fireball stalemates don't actually stall out the gameplay in Street Fighter because of interplay. In other words, there are generally several options players can take to break the stalemate. Some attacks dodge through fire balls, players can parry fireballs with a focus attack and dash forward, or there's the universal option of jumping over fireballs. Time your jump too early and your opponent can react, not throw the fire ball, and easily counter you with an anti-air. Time your jump too late and the opponent can throw the fire ball and still react with enough time to anti-air you. But if you can guess exactly when your opponent will throw the fireball, you can jump in and attack when he/she is unable to defend! Threatening your opponent with this kind of opportunity only happens when you're close enough to land a jump in attack. This is just a simple example of how the dynamic of space creates zones of interplay opportunities. In other words, with just the fireball game there are tests of skill (dexterity/timing), endurance, spacing (execution/knowledge), and reading. Even if the match appears to be in a stalemate, the players are deeply concentrating on learning each others habits and playstyles. For a great example, see the video above of Diago vs Dieminion.
Kid Icarus also features similar rich, dynamic, fighting game like gameplay. Like Street Fighter, charge attacks generally have 3 speeds allowing players to subtly alter the timing of their attacks, which helps create pattern based mixups. As you counter bullets with bullets, with careful aim and careful movement, players can inch their way into more advantageous zones. Getting within 10m is all it takes to switch the interplay from a projectile based zoning game to a melee game. And if you're really looking for a way to break a stalemate and close in, then you can attempt to knock down your opponent. That's right! Kid Icarus Uprising has knock downs that work about the same as they do in Street Fighter or Smash Brothers. On the ground you can tech the landing to stand up faster. Otherwise you must stay vulnerable a bit longer before you can roll back on your feet. If you're really bold or desperate, you can stand up with an attack ala Smash Brothers or reversals in Street Fighter.
In part 4 I'll finish detailing the core design of Kid Icarus Uprising by covering the rest of the combat wrinkles.