Have 2D Fighting Games Reached Full Maturity? (Part I)
I though about this question as I was walking along the arcade halls and noticed that the fighting games section. The front section was flooded with Street Fighter 4 and Tekken cabinets, and the back section featured a number of fighting games most of which I had never heard of. The one that caught my eye, right next to Arcana Hearts, was Shin Kohime Musou: The All Girls Three Kingdoms Fighting Game. Seeing these two games side by side right after a sea of Street Fighters made me wonder – do 2D fighting games have anything more to offer? Because, it seems to me, 2D fighting games reached their highest level of sophistication during the mid to late 1990s, and everything we have seen since then, while fun, has at best been nothing more than a new coat of paint that revisits old formulas. It is, however, more often than not, the case that newer 2D fighting games are actually a de-evolution in the genre.
Defining the Fighting Game
Certainly, what a fighting game is can be interpreted in many ways. Sports games like boxing games or wrestling games, beat-em-ups, simulators, and other games can no doubt be considered as fighting games if one stretches the definition of what it means to be a fighting game to include “a game where you fight people”. However, for our definition, we will be using a more narrow definition in which a fighting game can be identified if it follows certain tropes specific to what is currently considered as part of the genre when players think of fighting games. A fighting game will be defined as one that focuses on one-on-one fights between either the player and the computer or two players. The game will feature more than one selectable character. Although the game can depict real life martial arts, or interpretations of real martial arts, it doesn’t have to. Play must demand of the player timed button presses in order to perform combinations (whether the system marks them as combos is irrelevant), each button is symbolic of one attack, and certain button patterns lead to the character performing some kind of special move. In this short essay, I will be focusing on non-mimetic fighting games – that is, games that do not attempt to imitate reality.
I understand that the proposed definition of fighting game excludes classic games of the genre like Karate Champ. This was done on purpose. I want this piece to focus on what is currently understood to be a fighting game, and the current popular understanding of fighting games can indeed be traced back to Captom’s 1987 game Street Fighter.
The first fighting games attempted to imitate sports. Both Data East’s Karate Champ and Beam Software’s The Way of the Exploding Fist featured a competition between martial artists who relied on traditional martial arts moves and were bound by mimetic representational systems. In other words, the characters could not leap high unto the air and fought in points-based martial arts tournaments. Konami’s often neglected Yie Ar Kung Fu introduced a few elements now commonly used in fighting games – namely the life bar and the ability to leap high into the air – but the characters, despite clearly being an attempt at caricaturesque aesthetics, still were representative of a single fighting discipline: Kung Fu. Furthermore, the lack of special moves or air attacks and the single-round system put this game as a rough transition between traditional martial arts game and contemporary fighting games.
On 1987, Capcom introduced Street Fighter. With it, the game introduced the now classic format of best two out of three / lifebar / special moves game system which players relate to fighting games. Later, on 1991, Capcom introduced Street Fighter II, which gave players the ability to choose from a number of characters.
To many players and critics, Street Fighter 2 is the fighting game par-excellence. However, the fighting game formula continued to be refined over the following years. Street Fighter 2: Championship Edition added the use of the boss enemy characters and Super Street Fighter 2 introduced the use of super moves and combo counter displays, but arguably it wasn’t until Street Fighter 3 when the fighting game formula reached full maturity. In Street Fighter III we find finely tuned mechanics and highly balanced characters. The game is easy for players to learn, but hard to master. Furthermore, although it is certainly easy to learn the game, its parry system ensures that the most skilled player will win.
Street Fighter III is such a masterpiece that it has yielded what is arguably one of the most, if not the most, memorable moment in the history of competitive gaming: the Evo 2004 Moment #37.
The Side Evolution of the Fighting Game
The timeline thus far described focuses on fighting games where, although there is some areal action, high flying acrobatics are not part of the ludic design. Games like these – like the Marvel vs. Capcom series – find their origins in X Men: Children of the Atom (1994). Children of the Atom featured a fighting system in which the characters could jump screens above the ground level and punish the opponent with extensive areal combos. This formula was fairly close to refined upon the release of Children of the Atom, with subsequent titles only tweaking the mechanics slightly in order to allow for longer combos and switching of characters mid-battle. Arguably, the first completely refined version of the high flying game can be seen in X Men vs. Street Fighter, with subsequent games in the franchise imitating it.
What About “Insert My Favorite Game Here”?
We have so far looked at two major types of fighting games: the standard fighting game, best exemplified by Street Fighter 3, and the high flying fighting game, best exemplified by X Men vs. Street Fighter.
Undoubtedly, there are other fighting games, many of them both good and fun. However, regardless of what they are, they fall under one of the two categories here described. The 2D Mortal Kombat games, despite all their blood and gore, are ultimately 2D fighters that are not as good mechanically as Street Fighter 3. The same is true of Skullgirls, Killer Instinct, King of Fighters, and Darkstalkers. Likewise, games like Guilty Gear are high flying fighting games that are not mechanically as good as X Men vs. Street Fighter.
I should note that when I say they are not as good I don’t mean “fun”. Indeed, Killer Instinct is more fun than Street Fighter 3 and Guilty Gear is more fun than X Men vs. Street Fighter, but they are not mechanically better. They are not better designed, they do not have better character balance, and at times there is an overall lack of cohesion to the aesthetics and mechanics.
At any rate, going back to fighting games, I have seen many games before and since Street Fighter 3 and X Men vs Street Fighter. The games before all seem to lead up to those titles, and the games since either try to imitate or go back to more basic play. Street Fighter 4 goes back to old Street Fighter 2 formulas. The King of Fighter series has always, and still, relies on Street Fighter 2 mechanics, with some of the more recent crossover games borrowing from Street Fighter 3. Even weapon fighters like Samurai Showdown rely heavily on play mechanics set by Street Fighter 2 / 3. Games like Tatsunoko vs. Capcom – another title I had the pleasure of playing at the new arcade – is a simplified version of the Street Fighter formula. There have been games that try to deviate from the Street Fighter formula, like Killer Instinct, but these games, while fun and innovative, are simply not as good.
And this brings me to Arcana Hearts and Shin Kohime Musou. These games featured scantily clad anime magical girl characters fighting on what was, again, mechanics largely being a cross between Street Fighter and X Men vs Street Fighter.
We have seen fighting games that feature magical girls, Gundams, dinosaurs, robots, and clay figures. Every single time, the closer to Street Fighter, the better they are considered. But no game has managed to trump Street Fighter 3.
To say that fighting games are dead would frankly be ridiculous. Despite them not being as good as a 10+ year old game, there are new fighting games being released often. Furthermore, there is a large and vibrant and always growing community of fighting game enthusiasts who keep the genre alive. Thus the question: have fighting games evolved to the point where they can evolve no further?