There have been thousands of attempts at making the perfect fighting game. In fact, the longest running game series, and the longest running story line in video games is the Tekken series. But how much have fighting games changed? Are they really different from one another? What makes a good fighting game good? Honestly, most of those answers are going to be based on opinion, and the entirety of this article will be mine. I’ve played more fighting games than I care to count, and even take great interest in the ones I haven’t, and I feel qualified to make a statement on the state of the union of the fighting game, if you would.
First, we should take a look at how fighting games have changed over time. The first fighting game was the arcade game Heavyweight Champ from 1976, however, the first game to popularize the one-on-one fist fighting style of gameplay was Karate Champ from 1984. These games consisted of simple hand to hand fighting, punches, kicks, and incredibly basic combo attacks, that more or less, depended on the players ability to mash buttons quickly. 1987 gave us Street Fighter, which introduced the concept of a special attack, with such iconic moves as the Hadouken, an energy based projectile, similar to a shuriken, and shoryuken, an absurd spinning uppercut. These moves were not explicitly demonstrated to the player though, one had to learn a character to learn the move, mostly through hitting seemingly random buttons. These inputs would be simplified to a quarter-circle motion, or a back to front movement input and then an attack button, but without move lists, it was up to the player’s dedication to find those moves. This made using them intrinsically rewarding, and gave the player a distinct, “I did it” feeling. Street Fighter, and more importantly, Street Fighter II cracked the fighting genre wide open, and lead to many other fighters the world has come to know and love, including Tekken, Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, and a seemingly endlessly growing list. As much as we see new installments in long-running series, such as Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator 2, it seems like we haven’t seen a new fighting series come out in recent years and gain much steam in the community, with an exception being the Injustice series.
It is important to note the difference between a fighting game and a “beat em up,” or yet more vague, a “brawler.” Fighting games, traditionally, feature only two characters fighting each other, either bare handed or with a melee weapon of some sort. Beat ’em ups are usually more of a side-scrolling game, or one character taking on mobs of weaker “pest” characters, as we’ve seen in the modern day. These games are satisfying, and make the player feel a high degree of satisfaction from mowing down multiple foes very quickly, but do not meet the same criteria as a fighting game. Brawler is a bizarre amorphous sub-genre that seems to be applied to any game in which fighting is even remotely involved. I will never understand how “brawler” got to be so popular of a tag, yet many who read this have probably never played Splatterhouse, a brawler if ever there was one. Again, these games can be satisfying, but not quite what we’re looking for out of our fighter.
A fighting game is a beautiful thing because it pits two characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses against one another. Some characters move slow, and deal massive damage with each hit, while others rely on fast, weaker hits, landing many weak hits over few strong hits. Each of these characters will have varying move sets that, in a modern day, can be looked up on the fly to study and learn the character much more quickly than what was seen in the late 70’s through 90’s. These intense battles can be done either as a single player, traditionally through an arcade mode, that puts the player through a series of fights against other characters that are controlled by the computer, or with two players, as you’ll see in any number of households across the world. This is actually what drew a large deal of controversy with the release of Street Fighter V in early 2016. Street Fighter V clearly demonstrated that it was more focused on the E-sports community than the individual fighter, as it launched with no arcade or story mode. This upset those of us who prefer to play the game alone and learn our characters before going into the multiplayer realm, which is distinctly different than anything the AI will put you through. Injustice and Mortal Kombat, both the products of Netherrealm Studios, have entirely embraced the single player audience by giving the player a cinematic story mode, complete with intricate stories, impressive cinematics, and a few quick-time events, to help the player feel like they have some agency over the incredible moves that are only programmed into the story mode, and can’t be preformed in an actual fight.
The fighting game has stood the test of time as a past time between two friends. The culmination of a rad bromance. The fighting game is a bromantic activity, shared between two loving bros. Humor aside, fighting games have been used in my personal life alone to determine who buys the pizza, whether Batman could beat up Superman, and who got to play music on the radio. The fighting game has also become a staple of the hip-hop community, in an odd turn. Who would have thought video games based off of bad kung-fu movies would have infiltrated the same communities that pride themselves on how many crimes they commit per fiscal year. Nevertheless, fighting games have grown in the community so much that we’ve seen tournaments played in areas that are also rife with hip-hop fans, such as Chicago, New York, and California, though once anything becomes popular it will arguably make its way to these locations anyway. The influences shared between fighting games and hip hop only serve to make the games more interesting and fun, particularly in sound design, such as T.J. Combo’s theme from the latest installment in Killer Instinct. The fighting genre has also shared a loving relationship with rock and metal music, as the player will notice while playing games such as Guilty Gear. The Street Fighter series has managed to incorporate more techno/electronic music into their games, while also meshing in traditional, almost stereotyped music depending on the fighters origin. Chun-Li’s has a very distinct oriental sound to it in comparison to say, Guile, an American.
One of the large criticisms of the fighting game is actually that it embraces stereotypes too much, as one will notice from playing absurd games such as Punch-Out. This was particularly evident due to Anita Sarkeesian pointing out a lack of “fat” fighters, or even fighters that split from the traditional concept of beauty in fighting games at large. While it is true that fighting games seldom see fighters that depart from the societal norm of traditional attractive qualities, many argue that fighting games should step away from that norm. Fighters at large were inspired by goofy, absurd kung-fu movies, and the 80’s action film. This leads to larger than life male characters, and slender, beautiful female characters. It’s basically a root of the game at this stage. I would also stress that inclusion of “fat” characters such as E. Honda in Street Fighter, or Bo Rai Cho in Mortal Kombat, is more often seen as a joke than a serious character anyways, and these games have built an empire on being emblems of the absurdly fit. Your character should look like a professional wrestling action figure that was put in the microwave for 20 seconds. It isn’t a sexual statement, or a jab at those who aren’t in the traditional standard of beauty, but an attempt at fulfilling the base needs of a fighting game. You shouldn’t relate to these characters, nor should you aspire to be them, in most cases. Frankly, the attempt to apply logic and a social and moral implications to games where one selects characters with the intent of beating each other to a bloody pulp is absurd.
Back to the actual structure of a fighting game though, each game can be distinctly separated from one another based on simple concepts the games apply. These include things like finishing moves, meters, or even how the game utilizes space, between a 2D or 3D space. For example, Guilty Gear uses a 2D plane for the fighters to move side-to-side, while Tekken uses a full 3d space, allowing the characters to move across a vast floor. Some of the different fighting games have become known for a single word because of how they handle these things. Mortal Kombat has become known for the “Fatality” an over the top finishing move that not only kills your opponent, but does so in a gruesome way, usually involving spilling blood all over the fighting plane. Dead Or Alive is known for the counter hold, where one blocks an opponents attack, and launches into a fluid counterattack, which punishes button-mashers mercilessly. Killer Instinct has the Ultra-Combo, another beautiful finishing move, which launches the victim into a lengthy and impressive combo that they can do nothing to stop.
Now allow me to wax poetic about the finishing move. I think finishers are undervalued in games in the modern era. Fatalities in Mortal Kombat feel great, and make you feel like your character selection actually mattered, as the fatality preformed depends entirely on which character you chose. Insta-kills in Guilty Gear add an interesting mechanic that makes it so the player losing the game has the power to turn the tide completely as long as they can get this one, incredibly challenging move off. A hit feels glorious, and a miss is demoralizing. It carries weight in a way that no other move in a fighting game does. I do not understand why the finishing move hasn’t been embraced more fully by the fighting genre, especially considering that one of the biggest aspects of the fighter is humiliation. From trash talk, to fatalities, to flawless victories, fighting games revolve around establishing superiority by humiliating your opponent. You can’t just be better than the other guy, you have to make them choke on it. You have to force them to realize your superiority. This is perfectly executed with a finishing move. Instead, we’ve seen an over abundance of the super meter.
The super meter is a gauge that appears on the screen that fills as the game moves forward. Actions like attacking, being blocked, or taking damage are typical meter builders, while Mortal Kombat pushes the bar further by awarding extra meters to more technical moves, such as counters, special moves, or wake-up attacks. the meter can be used by a fighter to enhance a special move, either through “meter burn,” as we see in Mortal Kombat, or “Shadow moves” as we see in Killer Instinct, break combos the opponent is building, or unleash a super move. While super moves are usually very satisfying, and involve character specific elements while dealing tons of damage, with the usual being around a third of a health bar, they don’t quite match the intense satisfaction of a finisher. I’ve personally started to use the super move as a stand-in for the finisher, to end a match with a bang, but it still never quite feels the same. Other games such as Injustice have incorporated a meter in new ways, such as a “Clash” system, in which the fighters invest a certain percentage of their meter to overpower their foe, gaining either a damage boost, or regaining health. Guilty Gear has also implemented the “Roman Cancel,” which allows a character to return to a base pose in the middle of a move, to allow the player to push their combos just a little further, by launching into a new combo, or capping things off nicely with a special move. The super meter can be seen as a “quality of life” adjustment to level the playing field in a way. Meter management has worked its way into the vernacular of the fighting community as well, to determine whether you should save the meter up for a big super move, or use it more liberally to land more enhanced specials.
There are some who say the implementation of the super move killed the fighting game, calling Street Fighter IV, one of the first to use the super move, “Baby’s First Fighting Game.” I however, disagree. I believe the super move created a bizarre schism in the fighting genre. The games that use the super move, such as Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, move one way, while those without, like Dead or Alive and Guilty Gear moved in another. The games without the super move have become known as more technical, while those with have become known as more casual. I think that is a fair sentiment, but it becomes unfair when we treat these games as “less than.” The communities rallying around each one continue to grow, and even if we do treat these as more casual or beginner friendly, I think that’s even more a reason to embrace them. Every player needs their first fighting game. For me, and many others, it was Street Fighter II. Some may not have come around until Mortal Kombat 9, which featured a super move, but arguably also featured an incredibly diverse cast of playable characters, each with intricate and involving movesets and finishing moves.
The ideal fighting game for me is very simple. All I seek is a diverse cast, with interesting characters, and completely individual movesets. I’ll be completely honest, Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator is the hardest I’ve ever gone into a game, and it was dead on arrival for an online community. The game features varying characters, each with entirely different movesets, with each special move being different and interesting, and the insta-kill system flawlessly featuring characteristics from each fighter, it’s a masterpiece. Couple that with sound design that feels like it should be there, each character having their own theme music that flawlessly matches both their personalities, and the intensity they bring to the fight. They managed to perfectly bridge the gap between giving me characters I could not possibly relate to, and characters I wanted to know so much more about, while still not straying from the absurdity that fighting games require, with characters named Sol Badguy, and Bedman, you know it’s got to be a little silly. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and as of yet, they have yet to shill out to the e-sports masses, and have managed to make a game two guys can play on a couch together.
In summation, fighting games just need to be fun, and bring variety to the table. The community is starving for interesting characters and intense game systems. As Capcom once said “Violence is a beautiful thing.” It truly is in the realm of a fighting game, which despite a rapidly changing culture, manages to live on. And please Capcom, let us talk trash at Evo again. Play more fighting games. Doctor’s orders.