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Hello again, and welcome to the final (for now) installment of “The Forgotten Essentials,” which devotes a little time to looking into genre-specific elements of game design that can make all the difference between an “okay” title and a truly memorable one, but are notwithstanding frequently overlooked in favor of more obvious, universal aspects. If you’ve read the corresponding series entries for the RPG and the shmup, you already have some idea of what to expect – if this is your first time passing through, well, I’ve kind of already mentioned everything you need to know about these articles as it is, so let’s just get on with it.
For this issue, I’m going to stick around the arcades that spawned the shooters featured in the most recent article, but will put up a few quarters at a different set of machines entirely – namely, the time-honored tourney fighters (just to be entirely clear, we’re talking Street Fighter II-style games here, as opposed to Final Fight-esque “beat-em-ups” or whatever you’d care to call them). Just about everyone has thrown a few fireballs and taken a couple of virtual fists to the face at some point, even if it’s been awhile by now – as such, it’s relatively common knowledge that a good fighter needs a reasonably balanced cast, accurate hit detection, and a healthy dose of tactical and technical depth for advanced players to sink their teeth into, but what else? As with the shmups, the days of seeing so many me-too fighters that you can’t tell which is which have long passed on, but now that Street Fighter IV has sparked a bit of renewed interest in the genre (and KoF XII plus a handful of other anticipated such titles on the way), this is as good a time as any to take a look at the seldom-ballyhooed things that any developer looking to make the next great fighter ought to keep in mind.
Full-Featured Trainer – If you’ll pardon me for using the shmup article as a jumping-off point once more, the decline of the fighter in the mind of the majority of gamers, as with the shooters, is due to many factors – however you want to parse it, however, as their audience has become simultaneously more niche and more demanding, developers have by and large acquiesced. In the past, most anyone could walk up to a Street Fighter II cabinet, take a glance at the move list sticker on the front, and have a pretty solid idea of how the basics of the game worked (obviously, the exploits and other more advanced techniques would require more experience to grasp) – these days, for someone to get a rudimentary handle on even the standard, universal set of combat options featured in many contemporary fighters (multiple types of dash jumps, various cancels, stances and modes to shift between, etc.), they might as well plan on attending a seminar, and they’d better bring their notes with them when they attempt to fight “for real.” Before I go any farther, I’d best cut off those already screaming “scrub!” at the knees – no, I am not advocating making fighting games any less complicated or otherwise “easier” than they’ve become. What I am encouraging developers to do is what many (but not all, by any means) of the “pros” among you frequently refuse to lower yourselves to – namely, giving the newbies a little patience and a lot of help.
In short, I think that anyone who decides to give a fighting game a “meaningful” go ought to feel welcomed, as opposed to intimidated – while obviously they’re not going to understand either the mechanics or the mindset required to succeed at first, what’s going to motivate them improve (and more importantly, not just give up on fighters in general right then and there) is a nudge in the right direction and ample opportunity to practice, as opposed to an indifferent lack of guidance (or worse, outright mockery). Developers can do their part, at least in home ports of their fighters, by including as many training and practice options and features as they can think to cram in – those wet behind the ears can get familiar with the basic maneuvers and moves against a dummy, graduating to key combo and cancel exercises as they improve, while advanced combatants can record a difficult-to-counter string of moves into a CPU opponent and work on their response, as well as view replays of masters’ matches and observe the techniques at work. Nothing that isn’t beyond reason should be left out – input displays, easy-to-access move lists, computer demonstrations, recording options, relevant individual challenges, and so on. We’ll take it all.
In a nutshell, developers, to expand your audience, give everyone, regardless of skill level, a way to figure out what they need to. Meanwhile, particularly in the dwindling arcade scene, hopefully the gist of this section has already given the experienced fighter players out there a sense of what should be expected of them on this front – more often than not, those who display “hopeless” characteristics after a sound beating at your hands are suffering not from a “lack of drive” but from ignorance. Don’t assume the worst and dismiss it – if it’s at all possible under the circumstances, get off your throne and see if you can fix it. Or, at the VERY least, have the good sense to stifle whatever stinging remark you might be tempted to puke out to further assert your dominance – every one of those steaming nuggets has the ability to chase off yet another potential fighter fan for good, and quite frankly you can’t afford a much smaller tent than you already have.
Tweak, Don’t Clone – Tell me how many times this has happened to you over the years – a new fighting game is announced, and a huge character roster is promised, to boot. Dozens upon dozens of fighters to see and potentially master, what’s not to be excited and/or curious about? Well, the “not” becomes painfully obvious once you finally get a chance to take new breadwinner for a spin and notice certain…trends, some similarities if you will, within that voluminous character select screen, especially once you’ve actually taken the reins of a handful of characters yourself. Gee, that sprite sure looks familiar…and haven’t I fought a half-dozen guys with a slightly-varying fireball-dragon punch-dash move set in a row already? Nothing reeks of laziness on the part of a game maker than clones and recycling – granted, no fighting fan expects a completely revamped title every time around, but come on, pretty much nobody buys the “quantity over quality” approach when it’s lathered on too thick, and fighters tend to have a rather poor track record in this area.
Thankfully, in recent years this cringe-worthy mindset has become less of a genre standard than it used to be, but more can still be done – to whit, what’s stopping designers from allowing players to “tweak” their character of choice to their liking, as opposed to adding a completely separate “tweaked” variation (or, worse, several) to the roster, taking up unnecessary space and serving as little more than a painfully obvious marketing gimmick (“check out the huge selection!”)? If a player would be willing to sacrifice a full-screen projectile for a more potent anti-air, don’t add a whole “new” character – let the player choose, and adjust it himself! Any number of applications along these lines have already surfaced, from the “grooves” in Capcom vs. SNK to the “arcanas” from Arcana Heart to the “EX” characters in Guilty Gear. And those are just a few possibilities – I can see designers going MUCH further with this, though obviously enough limits have to be in place to keep a character “intact,” lest things turn into a poor man’s Fighter Maker. But anyway, trust me on this, o Powers That Be – a more compact but variable selection of fighters is MUCH preferred over a “choose your fighter” screen that’s a mile wide but largely devoid of true variety.
Encourage - Nay, REQUIRE Variety – “Variety” doesn’t just apply to character design either – not even close. While balance within the roster was mentioned early on as an obvious necessity for even a basically functional fighter, a cast without any true dominators or weaklings is only the beginning. From here a developer must take a long, close look at those characters in relation to the battle system they’ve constructed, and be VERY sure as to whether everyone truly fits into it equally well. For example, is a high-offense strategy encouraged and rewarded to such an extent that the amount of time it takes for a “charge” character to get a special move ready renders that fighter all but irrelevant? Does a certain universal defensive maneuver put, say, keep-away or grappler characters at a pronounced disadvantage, even if their damage levels and such are well-balanced against other character types? Is the last boss so difficult that only one type of (frequently repetitive) strategy stands any chance of bringing him down? Basically, is there a viable counter for everything (and everyone), or are some attacks and techniques well-nigh unstoppable under the right circumstances? If the latter is true, a bit more time needs to be spent at the drawing board – either the overall setup need to be adjusted to the extent required to reestablish equilibrium, or the specific elements that muck things up need to be discarded altogether. In some games it’s fun to unlock some gizmo that gives you a stupid amount of power and all but breaks the game, but I’d argue that fighters need to resist the temptation to give players that kind of trip – precision and balance need to be the name of the game, ALL the time, and no single mindset should remain high and mighty for long, as everyone should ideally be ready (and able) to switch things up at any time. It’s a tall order, but the reward of some of gaming’s most loyal fans (and buyers) lies in wait at the other end of the tunnel.
Display Narrative Awareness – I suppose I ought to begin by clarifying exactly what I mean by “narrative awareness” – in simple terms, the best way I can put it is knowing when to keep talking and when to just shut up and let the chips fall where they may. In case you hadn’t noticed, most fighting games really don’t make much sense on the surface – seriously, why in the world are so many folks so hell-bent on beating the snot out of each other, almost always one on one (wouldn’t ganging up make more sense?), frequently in the weirdest locations you could dream up to fight someone? And why do super-villains seem to love organizing tournaments so much, anyway, especially when they tend to attract lots of heroes eager to smash one’s ribcage in? Granted, if the important stuff works well, your players are not likely to spend much time thinking about it – that said, if this is the state of affairs that works best for a particular title, do not (I repeat, DO NOT) force a game’s “story” on players.
This isn’t to say that all fighting games should be devoid of background or personality – far from it, as a well-developed cast and setting can considerably enrich the experience (again, assuming the meat and potatoes have already been taken care of). On the other hand, if the premise behind the game doesn’t make any sense, don’t try to force it to do so – right off the top of my head, did anyone else shudder and wince as much as I did when they read the dossiers of Heihachi, Link and Spawn in Soul Calibur II? Come on, they’re fan-service guest characters whose presence makes no sense otherwise, and we’re fine with that – as such, why did Namco attempt to give them a “legitimate” storyline? On the flipside of the coin, while it is in there someplace, I don’t think even the most experienced players could tell you exactly what the plot of Marvel vs. Capcom 2 involves (uh, something about a pirate lady tossing a ball?) – which, in its case, is exactly how it should be (can you imagine if Capcom had tried to fit, say, Amingo into one of its already-convoluted canons someplace?). Once again, if you can think up a plausible, interesting story, by all means put it front and center (as always, within reason, since the story should never be unavoidable altogether if a player just wants to kick some tushie) – if you can’t (or shouldn’t), please, please don’t feel obligated to try.
Be Nice To Our Hands – While the image of sore, blistered thumbs and palms is a longtime running gag among gamers, I’m willing to wager that no genre has given rise to more painful manual sensations than the fighter has – while some players like to wear their “gaming injuries” as a red badge of courage, I really hope I’m not the only one who thinks that there are far better ways to gauge one’s devotion to gaming than this, and that developers can play a considerable role in making our lives a little easier on this front. First off, the obvious note of “please don’t make special moves near-impossible” – while I definitely think that some finger-twirlin’ skill ought to be required (and rewarded) when it comes to pulling off moves and combos successfully, I readily declare that the ludicrously unintuitive motions and timing of many older fighters in particular need to stay dead and buried, and that a player’s sense of when and how to execute a move should be more important than his ability to memorize its stupidly long and nonsensical input command list.
While I’m definitely not advocating a super-simplified “EO” system for every game (or any, to be honest), a handful of simple shortcuts (to whit, a single button that activates multiple-strength attacks at once for super moves) can help to even things out when it comes to making the shift down from joystick to controller, and save our fingers some unnecessary cramping. On that note, if you really want to go the extra mile, take the initiative to put out a peripheral that fits your games’ style – heaven knows that modern consoles’ default controllers aren’t made with fighting games in mind (oh Saturn, I miss you so). It doesn’t necessarily have to be anything TOO fancy – just a button layout that makes sense, and a stick or pad that allows for easy execution and less wear and tear on our mitts (heck, even the dinky PSP d-pad mod was better than nothing). No matter how well your game is crafted, it all goes to waste if we’re not able to play it capably or comfortably via our format of choice – make sure you don’t leave this crucial element out.
Don’t Skimp On Modes – Beating up one’s opponents is all well and good, no doubt about it, especially if you’ve got a well-constructed fighting system to tinker around with, but when you get right down to it, the envelope really hasn’t been pushed all that far when it comes to new and different ways to experience the time-honored ritual of sending a rival flying across the room (preferably on fire). An arbitrary series of “challenges” which forces the player to put his “usual” fighting game instincts on hold is a good start to encourage some new strategies and whatnot, but why stop there? For one thing, is there any good reason why all fighting games these days don’t include both a “single” and “team” or “tag” mode (and if you say “to be true to the storyline,” I’m going to scream)? Moreover, why not go the extra mile and offer the option of experiencing different plot excerpts, bonus fights, or other snippets depending on which type of fight you feel like that day?
While I’m not as big on “color edit” mode as some other fighting fans are, why not throw that in by default as well, along with plentiful options to tweak the core fighting experience (maybe someone would prefer to disable chip damage, super moves or the round time limit, why not let him? You could always enforce “standard rules only” for the leaderboards and such to keep things even on that front)? All this said, there is a caveat to keep in mind – while looking for different ways to allow players to experience the battle at hand, please keep in mind that you’re still dealing with a fighting game at the core. The mechanics for said game are quite likely to not work so well when duct-taped onto, say, a platformer, unless you make plenty of necessary adjustments – in a nutshell, take care to add variety without having to shove a square peg into a round hole. Especially if a player doesn’t have too many human opponents to square off against, this will let him know that you’re keeping him, and his need for variety and longevity in what he buys, in mind as well when you develop your titles – such a sense can take one’s series loyalty a surprisingly long way.
Take Multiplayer Seriously – That said, let’s shift gears a bit, shall we? While several other genres these days have built a sizable amount of their reputation and appeal on multiplayer experiences, for my money none of them, down to this day (save maybe party games, but they barely count in the first place), are as reliant on the pure, unadulterated rush of pitting oneself against human competition as the tourney fighter. While you’re much more hard-pressed to find a place where you can leave 50 cents on a cabinet to reserve your spot a few rounds down the road than used to be the case, the surge of online gaming has at least partially stepped up to fill in the gap, and fighting game developers would be wise to take full advantage of it – seeing high-quality titles released (in particular) locally for the PS2 with their online versus capabilities gutted (while Japanese players, as usual, get the full package) just breaks my heart.
Anyway, assuming that online IS included, as the aforementioned section said, while solo players should be free to mess around with the rules if they please, once things get serious that ability should be VERY much toned down – in exchange, the ability to find a player of roughly one’s own skill level should be as painless as possible, though (again, at the risk of repeating myself) high-level fighters should do their part to encourage newer recruits to seek out some help and examples of “how it’s done” from those among their ranks willing to spare a few minutes of quality time. Heck, why not include “seeking training” as a search option, and allow both “masters” and “pupils” to leave feedback regarding their experience, as well as post replays and commentary for future teachers and trainees to benefit from? Moreover, both online and at the more local end, plenty of tournament options ought to be included – any reasonable mode, setting and such should be available as a component of the competition, as well as the ability to simply sit back and observe from afar if one needs a break. Oh, and finally, why doesn’t every “team-based” fighter include the option for different players to control different members of a single team? Seriously. Anyway, the modern gaming scene is perfect for fighters to once more stake their claim as the standard-setter for multiplayer gaming – the only question is, will they and their players step up and take this opportunity seriously?
Do It – The FIRST Time – The last thing any video game (or an entire genre of them) needs is a punch line attached to it that just won’t die – in the case of fighters, that punch line is “Super Turbo Extreme Hyper Championship X Edition Special Ultimate Episode Gamma Challenge MCMXLIV.” Although few series these days manage to get far enough to even begin to justify an inordinate number of revisions, addendums and other late-edition paraphernalia, the endless series of quarter-sucking “upgrades” from way back in the early 90’s are still a running gag to this day, and must be heretofore minimized at all costs. As was put out in the open earlier on, nobody is expecting fighting game developers to never re-use anything, but if you are going to do something like this, be sure to A) Take enough time on the very first product to at least work out the bugs, infinites, balance issues, and other potentially game-breaking problems, so that future “revisions” can focus on adding value in the form of new content, as opposed to fixing the rushed (and hence, screwed up) stuff already in there, and B) Know when to stop, cash in your chips, and move on to something completely new. I don’t have a specific number of “semi-sequels” to aim for in mind, but seriously, at some point over in your offices someone has to say “…do you really think they’re going to fall for this again?” Granted, we’re aware that there’s only so much polishing and such that can happen before the publisher’s deadline looms large, and that a truly great series will get better as new entries arrive and are fine-tuned to near-perfection, but there is a line to be drawn here. Cross it at your own peril.
Well, I guess that’s about all – I know that fighting game fans tend to be more passionate about their favorite titles than many others, but hopefully nothing I said above was voiced out of turn, or fails to make sense – as usual, any specific point you’d like to take issue with (or feel was left out), feel free to bring it up in the comments section, and I’ll do my utmost to clarify or acknowledge everything as best I can. (On second thought, maybe I should have gone ahead and been more ornery, in the interest of getting a bit of discussion, civil or not, going around here…)
Anyways, that should conclude my “Forgotten Essentials” series, at least for now – these three entries have covered the gaming genres that I felt most qualified to opine about, but if I ever happen to gain similar insight (lacking a better term) into different types of games, then I’ll definitely voice similar thoughts on those too. As it stands, I hope you enjoyed The Forgotten Essentials – thanks as always for stopping in.