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How Fighting Games Fail

Is there anything like the rush of a really good fight? Whether in an arcade or in your living room, playing Street Fighter or Tekken, there’s something at the core of fighting games that is just an incomparable experience. There are no powerups, there is no kill stealing, there is just you, and the man who wants to beat you to a pulp. The only way you’re going to take him down is by playing smarter, playing faster, and keeping a cool head. It’s this singular experience, this fair fight between equals, that the fighting game genre has been built on. It’s a genre very near and dear to my heart. For a long time, I couldn’t stand them, but a few years ago I gave fighting games another shot, and I’ve been a hardcore fan ever since. But I doubt you’ll find a more troubled genre in all of gaming.

The problem that fighting games find themselves with is one of design- the design philosophy of fighting games has advanced so very little over the years that they feel old. And as much as I love them, the genre is starting to stagnate… again.

[youtube P9dHCRnS8iA 600 335]

I say “again” because this is not a new problem. In the 90s, the genre was created, and almost immediately, the market became oversaturated. Street Fighter II was released in 1991, and in the next three years, Capcom released four more versions of the game. Street Fighter III was released in 1997, and had an updated rerelease that same year. We also saw three Street Fighter Alpha games, five Darkstalkers titles, and that’s just from Capcom.

This would be a lot of releases for any genre, but for fighting games especially, where it takes dozens of hours just to get the hang of a game, the release schedule was unbearable. If you can’t remember what that was like, just take a look at what FPSes are doing right now, and you’ll have the right idea.

So the genre died. For a decade, there were no really big fighting games- releases like Guilty Gear and Capcom vs. SNK 2 made a bit of a splash among the hardcore, but mostly, fighting games were in a coma, waiting for some big title to wake them up again. That revival happened in 2009, with Street Fighter IV. The game jumpstarted the genre again, and since then, we’ve seen the BlazBlue series, a new Marvel vs. Capcom, a revamped and improved Mortal Kombat, and the recently released Street Fighter x Tekken, among other games. The problem is, though, that Street Fighter IV, and all the subsequent releases, are just too old.

BlazBlue Tager v Hakumen

The kind of bizarre sight only seen in fighting games.

The genre was basically dead for ten years, and when Street Fighter IV revived it, it made some significant enhancements… but it didn’t make ten years worth of enhancements. And while some steps have been made by titles released since, they still feel years behind most other games being released. The stories and writing are, for the overwhelming majority, still laughably bad, the netcode is stunningly terrible (how is it that Call of Duty can track thirty-two players at once in a dense urban jungle, but Street Fighter can’t manage two guys standing in an empty field?), the controls are still so obtuse that they require actual study to use.

And there’s no sign that any of this is changing. Online features are sub-par. Three years later, with revised net code, Street Fighter x Tekken still plays like a train wreck online- arguably actually worse than Street Fighter IV did. The fighting is laggy, with random pausing and input not synced up to the gameplay. The sound randomly disappears in the middle of matches.

And these shortcomings are alongside a disappointing lack of online features in the genre- hell, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 shipped without a spectator mode. In a game where only two people can play at a time, but eight people can fill a lobby at once, that’s just inexcusable. Things like uploading replays to YouTube, checking rival players’ stats, and stable online play should be standard, rather than uncommon additions to one or two standout titles. Online play is the staple of modern gaming, and fighting games cannot afford to keep doing it wrong.

Two years after the SFIV revival, Marvel vs. Capcom’s writing is so bad that Capcom doesn’t even pretend to care about it. Characters have brief text and still image endings, and no other justification for any of the game’s events. MvC is an extreme example, but not that extreme, when Super Street Fighter IV has characters like Hakan, whose story is that he’s searching the world for a new oil recipe. And for that reason, he has to pummel dozens of people senseless. Right. Players argue that story doesn’t affect the fighting, and that’s true, but why should we settle for any part of these games being lousy? Why shouldn’t we insist on an excellent product, through and through?

And BlazBlue’s controls drive me up the wall, even after hundreds of hours’ experience in the fighting game genre. Inputs like the Dragon Punch Motion, the Half-Circle, and the infamous 720 (sure, you can pull it off if you jump, but try doing one without leaving the ground) have frustrated players new and old for years- and they’re completely unnecessary. There’s no good reason to make moves intentionally difficult to execute. Fighting games are doing so many things wrong that it’s clear the genre has stagnated, and I fully expect it to die again if something doesn’t change.

What needs to change? Interesting, for a lot of what fighting games could become, you need to look at a game from all the way back in 2001- Super Smash Bros. Melee. It’s easy to forget, but SSBM is a fighting game, and it’s one that does a lot right that most don’t. More than any other fighting game, SSBM makes sense to new players. You can pick up a control and figure out how to play in a few minutes- basically impossible to do with a normal fighting game, unless you’re used to the genre- and actually play well enough to not feel like a complete idiot. Melee, and the rest of the series, is designed to make the player feel good. It wants them to succeed, it wants them to do cool things. And this is the ultimate key to its success- the reason so many gamers love it. It’s on your side.

Other fighting games, on the other hand, seem to resent the player, insisting on bizarrely obtuse inputs like the half-circle or charge moves because they want the player to obey- they don’t want you to succeed, they want you to follow their rules, arbitrary or not. The few fighting games that make concerted efforts to design parts of the game for new players tend to do it wrong, anyway- features like Simple Mode in MvC3 and automatic combos in SFxT don’t teach the player anything, they just build bad habits that are even harder to get rid of if you ever want to play the game seriously. You can’t fix the inhospitability of fighting games by tacking on some broken mechanic that almost ruins professional play- you need to change the very core of the game to welcome new players.

...What.

But it’s important to take a moment to note the things that fighting games do right. Games like BlazBlue and Mortal Kombat actually do manage to nail the story aspect, delivering a satisfying single player experience. Character design in nearly all fighting games is some of the best in the business, delivering iconic, interesting, and visually pleasing characters that are easy to love. Animations are superb, especially Street Fighter IV’s comically exaggerated ones that make the fighting look all that much more dynamic.

And of course, no genre does one-on-one fighting like fighting games do. They are, and perhaps always will be, the masters of that field. In bringing this genre up to modern expectations, we need to remember not to ruin what these games have done so well for so many years.

I really love fighting games. I love what they can be, I love the moment when you pull off a perfect combo, or when an opponent reads your movements and counters brilliantly. I love winning, and I love losing. I just don’t like to see them so consistently shoot themselves in the foot by not growing their install base, while at the same time wearing out the fans they do have with a nonstop blitz of releases. It’s time to evolve, guys. The genre can be so much more… and if you don’t want it to die again, it needs to be so much more.

9 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Whine harder, faggot. Learn how to play.

  2. guest says:

    In the beginning of your article you explain exactly the reason why fighting games have and most likely will retain its roots. Even to this day, most fighters are very complicated to play and not much change is done, I agree with that, but to me that is the beauty of the genre. There are fighters are there as well that try to change things and make it more friendly to gamers who just want to have a good time such as dead or alive and mortal kombat (simplifies things a bit control wise). The heart of fighting games have always been about the battle of wits and the high curve of learning. That is the sheer beauty of it. There is almost no other genre out there in video games that demand more out of a player than fighting games. One frame timings, in a thousands of situations per match which you have to train yourself to be able to handle, and you can’t do it within one press of a button to save your life. The complexity is the beauty, and the complexity is what allows its community to have a sense of communication with each other outside of language barriers. Although I do agree with you that they are still very similar in the span of ten years from then till now, it should stay this way. Like chess (although not as complex and difficult as chess), fighting games mirror the sense of intellectual communication between the two players trying to outwit the other with sets of rules and regulations.

    • Colin Dettmar says:

      You make some interesting points. I do agree that there is a lot about fighting games that is and should remain timeless, and I certainly wouldn’t want to make fighting games have a lower skill ceiling. But as much as we hardcore relish in how much fun we have now that we know how to play, the process of learning was -not- very fun. Heading online as a new player and getting killed in two combos without landing a hit was not a good time.

      The initial experience of the genre is very negative, and by making it more intuitive, and giving it better single player content, we can make it more accessible and enjoyable for new players without affecting the skill ceiling.

  3. MartinB105 says:

    Great article. I never thought of it like that before.

    To put the absurdity of fighting game mechanics into perspective, imagine if you had to use secret complicated button sequences to use items in Mario Kart – and the sequences were different for each character and item!

    Or, can you imagine having to do quarter-circle motions to pull of melee attacks in FPS games or throw fireballs in Mario platformers?

    Competitive games should be about accessible and fair mechanics that allow players to compete on an even playing field to see who has the most skill. It should not be who knows the most obscure button sequences. If I lose because you knew a secret 27-button sequence that I didn’t, that’s not skill; it just means you’ve wasted more time on the game than I have.

    I think button sequences are just a relic that has been left over from the 90’s arcade era, when it was ultra-cool to impress your mates and onlookers by performing fireballs, helicopter kicks, etc. that your friends didn’t know about. These moves lost their “wow” factor after Mortal Kombat’s secret fatality moves and Killer Instincts ultra long combos.

    Keep the moves; just make it about the skill in using them, not the ability to remember and execute them.

  4. Well, I think most people like the way fighting games are. Its very similar to 2d or 3d platformers. Those genres havent changed either. From Super Mario Galaxy to Rayman Origins, its still the same exact gameplay as 10 or 20 years ago, albeit with a gimmick sprinkled here and there. People like that.
    While the “hardcore” audience like the fact that their skill in older games will transfer over to new games, the “average” gamer also feels comfortable knowing that playing Super Mario 64 15 years ago prepared them to play Super Mario Galaxy 2. Relearning things is tough for a lot of people. Especially when it comes to a form of entertainment. Most people feel they SHOULDN’T have to go out of their way to learn anything thats just meant as a diversion. Its not a job. IT doesnt matter.
    In a sense, people have been practicing SFxT since 1991. They know halfcircles and dial-a-combos. Its boosts the ego a bit and makes them keep going.

    To be honest, I never understood Blazblue or Guilty Gear. Theyre not a lot like SF or SNK games, so I actually gave up on them. Same thing with Mortal Kombat. I feel like im in love with the way SF plays. Same thing with Virtua Fighter. Maybe im getting old, but I like familiarity in a genre.

    In short, I think Capcom and Namco and everyone else is just giving people what they want. Maybe there is a new better way to do things, but were stubborn people.

  5. Alex Shedlock says:

    I’m surprised by the lack of reference to SkullGirls. That’s a beat ’em ‘up that’s really looking to modernise things: it’s DLC so designed for quick loading gameplay, a multitude of features updating and streamlining the actual experience of a beat ’em up, AND has a huge focus on the tutorial of the game, explaining the basics and the advanced techniques for anyone who wants to learn them.

  6. Fuckyou says:

    Fighting games has always been about match ups,execution,game plan,adaptability, if you can’t handle it then don’t play it.

    Don’t bring up some badly design game where only 1-2 people know a secret death combo that always works, to label a whole genre, because you clearly have no clue what you are talking about.

    Super smash brothers is a retarded game for casual players who can’t handle a real balance competitive fighting game.

    If you can’t even do shoryukens, hcb motions, then why the heck are you playing in the first place? fighting games needs execution, don’t blame the genre because you suck at it.

    Original gamers have been able to do walking 720s like forever.

    Also there is no hidden secret combo or anything in any remotely balance fighter, every move is out in the open available for everybody.

    Your just a fucking scrub who plays in his own bubble of ssmb. They should make a street fighter game just for you where you can do 720 with 1 button yeah thats real balance. A move that is so damaging and have so much range and it only needs 1 button.

  7. paul says:

    Very interesting read sir. I’m a 32 year old man, therefore I was 12 year olds when KOF 94 came out and 13 when KOF 95 came out. I was 9 year olds when I first play Street fighter 1 in 1991. The reason I’m giving you these dates is because at 9, 12 and 13 I was able to master street fighter, mortal kombat, king of fighters, Killer instinct, etc…at 32, I wouldn’t be able to master anything in the current gaming scene, even if I tried.
    Games back then were much, much more accessible right away. You needed to learn certain basic moves, but once you got those moves out of the way, off you went to show your skill, not how good your memory was. Today is definitely different. You need to take a college course just to understand the moves of half of the characters in a game, and then a second course to understand the moves of the remaining characters.
    I remember KOF 94 was all about speed and how fast you could pull off the moves, positioning, mistakes by your opponent, etc…not memory. Also, it was slower paced, therefore it felt like a real fighting game…maybe i’m just old school.
    I tried to introduce my 10 year old son to street fighter by buying him street fighter 4 in 2009…case in point – he played it about 5 or 10 times…never touched it again. It’s sitting in steam, unplayed since 2009…lol, AND HE IS 9! he should be into these type of games like I was back when I was 9. Instead, he opted to go for the easier route – call of duty, starcraft 2, Super smash bros for wii…
    He became 1 less player in the fighting genre who probably won’t go back to it because of its complexity and feeling of not belonging.
    Good read sir.