Atmosphere isn’t something fighting games are known for, or at least not in the way that Super Metroid is. Sure, fighting games have intricate stages that make an immersive frame, but really, most of the time, when you play a fighting game, you’re in the fight and just the fight.
You don’t ever really take time to smell the roses, or get caught up in the world. Which is totally understandable, because that’s not the focus of the genre. The immersion of a fighting game isn’t in the surroundings, but rather, in the fight itself. Again, I want to stress that this is never a bad thing, because being that focused on a game is a special kind of good game design.
However, I will say the Last Blade games are the best exception to the minimal atmosphere rule.
Without a doubt, I consider the two Neo-Geo Last Blade games the best looking video games ever. Their visuals may not be up to par with more modern games on a technical level, but the sheer artistry of the series has not been matched.
I think that speaks for itself! Remember, this is 16-bit pixel art.
It’s not just the beauty that makes Last Blade stand out, the setting and tone have a large hand in it too. The series take place in the Bakumatsu era. A time when Western lifestyles started being predominate in Japan, and the days of the samurai were coming to an end. It was a time of culture clash, strife, change, and loss. The backgrounds show those conflicts, not through telling you, but through their atmosphere.
The rest of the game is focused around that thematic idea: east vs west, the end of an era.
Musically, the minor orchestral score has more in common with western music than eastern composition. I’m pretty sure it’s a deliberate choice. Both of the soundtracks are phenomenal, especially the arranged versions of the songs. They have a kind of tranquil fury and melancholy hidden beneath the orchestra. “Changes” (LB1) and “Decision at Dawn” (LB2) showcase the musical style the best.
And I cannot forget the song “Moonlight.” Easily one of the greatest songs to end a video game on.
The character design also follows this pattern, they take a side on east vs west.
Some like Washizuka take a firm stand for eastern values.
While others have a more western bent like Kagami.
Some are a mix of the two like Moriya, a samurai with a trench coat. (which might be the coolest fighting game character design ever.)
SNK has always had a knack for making stylish, cool character designs and the Last Blade games are no exception. I can tell they had a lot of fun with these characters, because they animate with such personality.
Some are absolutely brutal like Setsuna. One of the best demons portrayed in a game.
Others have a sense of humor and fun like Amano, who saunters about like he’s getting over a hangover. Also he might have the best mullet in gaming.
Then there’s badasses like Zantetsu. Completely ruthless and cold. He’s the #1 reason why ninjas are cooler than pirates in fighting games. Also, he has an incredibly chilling voice.
Oh! They also made a samurai version of a Shakespearean heroine with Kojiroh. My personal favorite of the cast.
SNK didn’t skimp out on details either. There’s an obscene amount of small touches applied to the characters. After awhile, you start noticing the smaller things, like how Shigen’s arm becomes more stone-like as he breathes out, or Yuki’s visible muscles in her arms, or how clothes animate with the movements of the characters. It’s all top notch stuff, and still looks fantastic. Only a handful of fighting games animate better than it does.
The minute details of the characters and the aesthetic beauty of the stages come together to tell an effective story though a multiplayer based game. And the way the games themselves play, strengthen the mood conveyed in the series. More on that later.
Of the two games, I had a difficult time picking which one should be the primer entry. LB1 is great because it’s fairly accessible, has better balance, and is the better looking of the two. But LB2 is outstanding because of the darker atmosphere, more technical fighting, beautiful soundtrack, and newcomers like Kojiroh and Setsuna.
Last Blade 2 won by the skin of its teeth. But don’t let that dissuade you from Last Blade 1, it’s an equally excellent game. Both are worth your time.
At first glance, LB2 seems like a pretty normal weapon fighting game. You have two slash buttons (weak, heavy) and a kick button. Then there’s the repel. Repel works similarly to the Guard Impact of Soulcalibur, or the parry in Street Fighter III. If successfully landed, a repel counter attack deals a ton of damage.
These controls make the game defense based. Blindly rushing in will get you killed, because two or three repel counters do enough damage to practically end a fight.
Knowing the game focused on strong defensive play, SNK deliberately slowed down the pace. This in turn, makes precision and timing more important than aggression and lockdown. Which could lead to boring fights where both players are too hesitant to make a move. Instead the opposite happens, and the mechanics support engaging in a samurai duel.
Basically, one small mistake can be your last.
And, thankfully, it hits the perfect middle ground of being both based around the tense, high damage samurai duels, but still retaining the stuff that makes fighting games fun like fireballs and a great meta system.
But where it becomes different is through the aforementioned meta system.
After you pick a character, you get to pick a “style” to go with them. This is a meaningful choice, and the styles radically change how your characters play.
The first of which is Power. This style makes your attacks stronger, deals more chip damage, gives you a chargeable unblockable attack, and a Super Desperation Move. (All you Street Fighter IV players, think of a SDM as an Ultra Combo.)
The second is Speed. This style makes your attacks weaker, but at the benefit of being able to combo them together easier. Instead of an unblockable attack, you get an overhead slash (an attack animated to look like it’s hitting low but hits high. Tricky mind game stuff.) And instead of a Super Desperation Move, you get a “Speed Combo” a super state that allows you to link certain attacks together to make devastating combos.
And it works great in practice. For example: take the grappler, Shigen. Shigen is abnormally powerful, but at the cost of being really slow. His attacks are also equally slow, outside of his weak slash ones, but those have t-rex reach. Basically, if Shigen wants to win, he has to find a way to deal damage at the cost of putting himself in close, and in danger.
By picking Power, Shigen is even stronger, and if he lands that Super Desperation Move, he’s pretty much guaranteed a win.
By picking Speed, Shigen’s attacks take less time to recover and because of his increased mobility, he has an easier time getting in closer.
See how this changes the basic idea of how to play Shigen? With this system in place, the player is presented with a choice of whether to play to their character’s strengths, or cover up their weaknesses.
Then there’s the third, hidden option of EX. Which takes the best aspects of Speed and Power (quick attacks that make easy combos for big damage) at the cost of making your character have awful defense and slow meter gain. In a phrase: high risk, high reward.
Now, all of this alone would make a fine fighting game. There’s plenty of character archtypes, and with the added bonus of style choice, you can fine- tune your playstyle even more. But that plays second fiddle to the way the mechanics contribute to the themes of the game’s atmosphere.
While the music itself is excellent, (seriously, “Moonlight” is probably the best credits song I’ve ever heard, look it up!) the second option of audio”natural sounds” are even better.
Here, only the sounds of the backgrounds are played. You’ll hear people chatter in towns, wind rustle tree leaves, and the ripples of rivers. It’s minor seeming stuff, but they blend with the duels spectacularly.
Having two samurai duel to the death, where one small mistake could be the defeat of either of them, with only the sounds of a crashing waterfall, a calm wind, swords clashing and battle cries is absolutely chilling. It looks and feels so visceral and alive. And when a fate is decided at the end of a fight, its all the more tragic when the defeated character cries out their last breath.
Even with the amazing aspects of the game, the thing that still continues to stand out for me about Last Blade is the reversed expectations towards violence. It’s not shocking to hear that some fighting games glamorize violence. (two words: “Finish Him”) But here, characters die ugly, unglamorous deaths. All the which made more effective because of the intimacy of the 1 vs 1 duel. Instead of having that “I won” feeling, you feel the opposite. It feels like you killed that person.
I’ve never played a fighting game, let alone a video game, that made me feel guilty about winning.
This isn’t to say that all of these heavy emotions are masterfully executed. There are plenty of (major) factors that can ruin the immersion in this game. The first of which being the heavily censored English release, the other being the laughably bad translation.
Those reasons were never enough to ruin it for me thanks to the import releases. The cast may be saying horribly cheesy stuff in their native tongue, but for the life of me, I wouldn’t know any better. Ignorance is bliss?
In the end, and even with its share of problems, The Last Blade 2 is a fantastic fighting game. The three styles create a meaningful choice in defining how your character fights, and thanks to the defensive nature of the duels, they have a distinct, high tension feel.
The setting conveys one of the best tones presented in all video games, feeling truly like a somber end of an era. This is largely made more effective because of the masterful cooperation between the music, visuals, characters, and mechanics.
It always pains me to see that these games have been so underloved. They never really hit it right with most kinds of players. They’re too complicated for newer fighting game players, and they don’t really hold up too well in high level play. They hit that middle ground player between “button mashing” and ”I can do 1 frame links in my sleep” which isn’t that big of an audience. (At least back then)
While unfortunate, it does make the players who are in this gap treasure them even more. Nowadays, because of the fighting game renaissance, the bigger group of players in all skill levels, and gaming culture’s greater appreciation for pixel art, I think the games would find a new audience. Regardless to whether or not people have the kind of feelings I did when I first played these games, they stand on their own two feet as solid fighting games.
In the end, the world, the people, the sounds, the themes remain as a one of a kind exploration of fighting games, and as SNK’s finest endeavor.
One glance drew you in. It didn’t matter what preference you had in games, or if you liked fighting games; As soon as you looked at it, you were putting a quarter in the machine. Soulcalibur dropped jaws, sold Dreamcasts, and raised expectations.
For my money, I think was the second coming of Street Fighter II.
When it hit, and especially when it hit consoles, it took gaming culture by storm. Everyone was playing it, trading strategies, and just marveling at how outstanding it was from a technological standpoint. It was the Street Fighter II of 3D fighting games, and a very strong argument against 2D fighters.
However, the true strength of Soucalibur isn’t necessarily it’s technical or artistic merits, or if it is more fun than 2D fighters. I believe that the strength of Soulcalibur is that it was the first traditional fighting game designed for a market outside of just hardcore fighting game players.
To this day, there hasn’t been a traditional fighting game as easy to get into. Button mashers, if you haven’t played Soulcalibur, you haven’t properly mashed. But if you wanted to play with more than blind attacks Soulcalibur revealed that there was a lot of depth behind the clashing blades.
While making games accessible isn’t a new thing, especially with how modern fighting games are designed, you have to remember, Soulcalibur came out at a time when fighting games got more complex each passing year. They were made exclusivity for a specific player, and while there were many fantastic games, they were hard to approach for newer players.
So taking the focus away from crazy hundred+ hit custom combos, strict cancels, and super moves, instead highlighting the moment-to-moment duel, made Soulcalibur a huge hit to non-fighting game players.
Like Street Fighter II, the core of the game was so well designed that despite the aged graphics, and dated presentation, it’s still a blast. My friends say the Dreamcast port has “pretty good graphics for 1999.” And it’s hard to disagree with them. The gorgeous 19th century stages give it a unique look. While flowing rivers, towering fortresses, and peaceful retreats breathe life into Soulcalibur’s world excellently.
There are many better looking games, but an ever present charm lingers behind these graphics, especially for the cast. They move with grace and character, thanks to the beautiful animation and iconic designs.
And, there’s the soundtrack. The Soul series has always had illustrious music, and this isn’t an exception. Some songs were exciting and powerful like “Wings of Faith.” Others more melancholic, world weary, like “Leaving the World Behind.” Often, listening to the tracks made you think they were from a JRPG.
But I should talk about fighting now. Ahem:
Accessibility doesn’t come from being button mash friendly. Sure Soulcalibur is, but I feel like the design of the game is what makes it accessible. It’s a system of rules that are easy to learn thanks to how elegantly the mechanics connect to each other.
Personally, I feel as if Project Soul set up three pre-production rules, for Calibur’s design.
1. Every action has a consequence.
2. Commands have to be easy to do. (lenient command buffering)
3. It has to be fun.
Then they started the nitty gritty game design.
Starting off, Project Soul introduced “8-Way Run.” An innovative, much beloved feature.
Being able to move in eight directions might sound insignificant, because a large part of what separates 3D fighting games from 2D ones is the well, 3D. Remember, at the time, most 3D fighting games were stingy with how you could move. (probably due to memory limitations) Outside of moving toward or away from the other player, usually games only allowed sidesteping in an upward or downward direction. With 8-way run, not only did it make the controls feel natural and smooth, it opened up the entire arena, making it something you could take full advantage of.
With a feature that important, attacks had to complement it. Thankfully, they did. Instead of having attack buttons associated with varying strengths of attacks, they were converted into attack categories.
Breaking the four buttons down, it looks like this:
(B) attacks: Vertical slashes +Generally all purpose, high priority, high power attacks.
-They can be sidestepped by 8-way run.
(A) attacks: Horizontal slashes +Also general purpose, can cut off 8-way run.
-They tend to lack power and usually lose out to (B) attacks.
(K) attacks: Kicks +Quick and safe.
Oh, yeah, there’s also a guard button. (G) That’s kinda important.
Unlike 2D fighters however, Soulcalibur does not have block/chip damage. This was in put in place to not punish good defense. It also makes stalemates rare because attacks do a healthy amount of damage. A good 7-13 hits decides a match.
To not make the game just dodge, guard, and attack, other mechanics were added to spice up the mix. Some are standard like throws. Others like Guard Impact, offer something different.
By pressing forward or backwards+(G) when you’re about to get hit, (or down forward/down backwards+(G) for low attacks) you’ll parry that oncoming attack, and put yourself in an advantageous position.
I adore this mechanic. It has a risk, (you have to commit, timing it wrong = getting whacked) but the payoff is immense. Timing a backward guard impact (almost literally) drags the opponent to you, leaving them in a bad position, and you in an open one. Timing a forward guard impact, counters an attack, and advances your position towards the opponent. With this, you can shut down the momentum of the other player and turn the fight around.
But wait, it gets better! If your attack was guard impacted, the opponent cannot attack or guard your next attack, they can only guard impact. The window to attempt a guard impact is long enough to make it so the first attacking player can go for a quick attack, or a delayed attack, high or low. It’s a four tiered mixup, and makes the guard impact a good skill to have, but not the deciding factor in fights.
With this framework in play, tons of contrasting character dynamics emerged.
There were short ranged, fast characters who won with aggression and crazy mixup. (Taki, Maxi, Sophitia.) Slow characters, who waited for an opening, and landed powerful strikes. (Nightmare, Astaroth) Long range characters, who controlled the fight at a distance. (after all, you can’t fight if you can’t hit your opponent…Kilik, Ivy) Others, were a mix of range and power. (Mitsurugi, Cervantes)
From a character design perspective, everyone had a simple design that stood out.
There were characters like Nightmare, a good man fallen into darkness.
Kilik, an atoning monk with a dark past. His disciplined training with the bo staff, gave him a unique style.
Mitsurugi, a grizzled samurai trying to prove that the sword is stronger than the rifle. (good luck buddy)
Sophitia, a the chosen warrior and true heroine of the game! Also my main.
Ivy, the character everyone seems to know. Probably not because she has a cool whip-sword.
Cervantes. Ivy’s duel wielding, name-taking, ghost pirate father. He’s the #1 reason why pirates are better than ninjas in fighting games.
Or Voldo, the ever creepy, ever contortion-y, ever grunty, assassin. Better at giving nightmares to people than Nightmare. Works as a backup dancer for his day job.
When you get down to it, Soulcalibur works on every level.
It works on a beginner level. Both because it’s button mash friendly and all the fastest/safest attacks are usually associated with singular button presses.
It works on an intermediate level, because all the mechanics smoothly connect together. The expansive movelists also give the player something new to discover.
And it works on an advanced level because fights become deeply psychological. Pro players reinterpret the rules, turning Soulcalibur into something else entirely. They do things like delaying attacks, baiting guard impacts, hoping over low sweeps, spacing out each other, and setting up throws. It’s a blast to watch, and I always see something fresh whenever a new tournament comes around.
People saw Soulcalibur as a sign of things to come, as a real step forward. Not just for fighting games, but for gaming. Even today, it’s the highest ranking fighting game on Gamerankings.com, and it deserves this praise.
Ever so rarely, there’s a game out there, that when you get down to it, in form and function, gets everything right that it set out to do.
Vampire Savior, is one of those games.
It may of not been apparent at first to the fighting game playing public, considering how it was more or less a financial bomb everywhere besides Japanese arcades. But the Vampire trilogy (called “Darkstalkers” everywhere else) are the second most important 2D fighting games ever made.
In my opinion, the Vampire games represent the turning point for the genre. They’re the landmark representing when fighting games started experimenting with new concepts. Most of which would be continued to be borrowed, modified, and expanded-upon to this day by other companies.
On the other hand, the Vampire games also represent the point where fighting games started getting deeper and more complex. This meant that developers started catering games to top players and obsessive fans. In a way, the Vampire games can possibly be attributed as the harbinger of the stagnation the genre faced.
However, I am one of those obsessive fans, and I believe that the Darkstalkers games aren’t the harbinger of doom, but rather, the catalyst that sparked creativity of game designers for years.
So that breaks this down into one question:
“What did the Vampire games get right?”
The first thing that comes to my mind is that these games were the first to give their fighting game characters, well, character.
And I don’t just mean that the games are about Halloween monsters punching each other instead of Ryu and Ken, I mean in the idea that these games had animation that showed you who these monsters really were.
Take for example, Victor’s walking animation. From first glance, you can tell he’s the Frankenstein monster. Huge body, green coat, visible scar on his arm.
But what makes this even cooler, is that if you look at him closer, a trail of electricity goes from one side of his body to the other, showing that he’s powered by, or can generate electricity. You notice his shoulders take broad, slow turns, and how he plants his feet into the ground and his back leg gives a very noticeable push as he steps forward.
Doesn’t that give you the idea that he’s determined to not stop at anything, and has a narrow focus on just the fight, as shown by his unmoving head?
Which seriously, think about that. In just a walk animation, the audience has a feel for Victor’s character. There was no cutscene, no text, and no voice acting, but yet, you could say you have an idea on who Victor is.
Isn’t that awesome? Few video games actually write their characters well, but yet though the animation in Vampire Savior, you can tell all those things about Victor.
Still, this detailed animation wouldn’t mean as much if the characters themselves were boring.
Thankfully, this is adverted. Vampire Savior’s cast is easily one of the best designed casts around. Both in terms of character and game design. Instead of just making normal looking attack animations, everyone stretched, hopped, lilted, and sprung into life, with a degree of fluidity that became the original “gold standard” for sprite animation.
And well, even without the animation, everyone is so cool!
Take for example Lord Raptor, a punk rocker turned zombie, who turns his arms into chainsaws to beat people up.
Or what about Bishamon, a haunted suit of samurai armor, brought to life with an unquenchable blood-lust.
Then there’s Q-Bee, a broodmother who feasts on the souls of the world.
Or Jon Talbain, a kung-fu werewolf!
And if that’s not bizzare enough for you, what about B.B. Hood? A psychotic take on Little Red Riding Hood, who’s packing heat.
Or what about Jedah, the guy 13 year old goths wish they were.
Then of course, there’s Morrigan. The poster child pin up girl for both the Vampire games, and succubi.
Or if none of this convinces you how awesome any of these people are, there’s Sasquash. Did I stutter? He’s fucking Sasquash! As if this game couldn’t get any better, they let you play as Sasquash!
Seriously, I love the night warriors, they’re an incredibly fun bunch. Some of them keep it light, like the aforementioned Sasquash, while others are still absolutely brutal like Jedah, and some are fun to watch come to life, like B.B. Hood, and Q-Bee.
Either way, creativity wasn’t in short supply during these game’s development,
and we got an absolutely awesome cast of characters.
It’s probably no surprise, with art direction this strong that VS is an incredibly immersive game. Musically, it takes a more atmospheric approach, focusing less on making iconic melodies, and more on fitting the fight. I feel as if the track “Forever Torment” gives the best idea of what Darkstalkers music is like.
However, the real unsung hero of the Vampire games is the stages. Each of them compliment the crazyness of the cast very well.
Some are classic horror type locales, like a vampire’s castle, or a dark street. Others, like certain members of the cast, are just straight up bizarre, like “Tower of Arrogance” a stage where you fight sideways on a skyscraper. And some are “Fetus of God.”
Which still creeps me the hell out.
However, as truly wonderful as the aesthetics and polish is, the true crux of Vampire Savior is the fighting itself.
The game takes the same ideas from how SF II plays (6 attack buttons, 3 punches, 3 kicks, blocking by holding the opposite direction your character is facing, jumping by pressing an upward direction, etc.)and like it’s characters, it subverts the living crap out of fighting game conventions.
Some of them, are fairly standard fare, but still posses unique stuff like Demitri, and Morrigan. They’re the stand in for the shoto archtype.
While others like Jedah and B.B. Hood combine archtypes together. This time in the case of “rushdown” and “zoning.” They’re characters who win by being aggressive, but also by positioning themselves correctly. (more so than most fighting game characters.)
Then there are characters who are in a specific archtype, but are designed with a completely original theory like Victor. A grappler with incredibly long range, and due to his electric nature, has immense power.
Like I said before, the Vampire games created mechanics just as unique as the cast itself.
The most well known one is the “Hunter Chains” a.k.a. a combo system. In VS you can chain together normal attacks in the order of “Weak attack, medium attack, hard attack.” It’s pretty intuitive, and makes combos easy to do. However, this never gets out of hand, because there’s a pretty strict rule of what kind of moves can go into each other. Without going into too much jargon, you’ll have to take my word that combos don’t last longer than 10 seconds tops.
It also lets you block in the air. (not the first game to do so, but the first to pull it off right) This takes away the “high risk, high reward” aspect of jumping in SFII. Instead, it actively encouraged you to use air attacks. In doing so, air combat made the fight go from “only use air attacks when you have the advantage” to “the entire screen is a battlefield.”
There’s other stuff it introduced is a bit more technical, but I’ll try to clarify it.
Darkstalkers made “super” moves, which at the cost of a filled up meter, at the bottom of the screen, allowed you to unleash a super powered version of a special move. (For example, instead of a normal fireball, you can get a SUPER fireball.)
It also allowed you to dash, not just on the ground, but in the air. Now, granted, only four characters can airdash, but now it's almost an obligatory feature in certain fighting games.
As awesome as the super moves are, there’s another way you can spend your super meter, called “Dark Force.” DF let’s you go into a “super state” which gave your character an extra bonus to their normal gameplay. Sasquash for example, takes control of penguins that explode while he attacks.
Then there’s “healing” or “white” life. While VS wasn’t the first game to do it, the way it executes it, makes a dynamic element. If you get hit, you slowly heal a fraction of your life, but, if you’re hit during that healing process, you take full damage. This forces you to decide between whether or not you want to risk losing your positioning/momentum, so you can get back some life.
The breakneck speed of the game really complements this dynamic. Because not only A) The constant assault, and free flow of attacks make every decision meaningful and tense. B) The lifebar is secretly two lifebars.
When your lifebar is depleted, instead of resetting your position to the center of the screen, and beginning at a new round, like many other pixel punchers, the game immeatly heals your character, and puts you back in the fray. Basically, it’s one big round, and an absolute rush.
Again, that’s a lot to take in, (and there's a bunch of stuff I didn't mention) but somehow, when playing the game, your brain naturally processes it. The reason why all these abstract concepts work is because the cartoony look sells them. Because these characters were so weird Capcom could get away with making a game that has all these abstract concepts.
By the end of the day, Vampire Savior is this:
A fighting game that has the rush of combos without the “sit around for 30 seconds until it ends” problem that combo heavy games have, a blindingly fast speed that makes it possibly the fastest fighting game ever made, characters with strong “skeletons” which gave all of them the tools to win, but yet are specialized enough to make a totally diverse roster that miraculously remains balanced, and enough defensive options to ensure that the game doesn’t become overly aggressive.
Vampire Savior is the bee’s knees. It’s an extraordinary achievement in fighting game design because again, fighting games still use these takes on character archtypes and mechanics.
Unlike many other trailblazing games, this is a fighting game series that didn’t just think of all these concepts, and implement them poorly, it executed these high concept ideas spectacularly.
It opened the floodgates for what fighting games could do, and inspired so many game designers for more than just gameplay reasons.
Above all else, it’s aged like wine. It remains as fast and fun as when it first came out, even today, it’s gained a pretty sizable world-wide tournament scene, one big enough to make Capcom take notice.
If Street Fighter II is the game that is what we use as the framework to make fighting games, than Vampire Savior is the detail work.
Still, even if it didn’t quite receive the money it deserved, and only broke out of cult classic status, it’s always going to be immortalized as one of the greatest fighting games ever made.
In gaming culture, the general consensus is that Street Fighter II is the fighting game. People often call it this because of it’s “innovative gameplay, beautiful graphics, and tight controls.”
Which, while valid praise, is only the surface of why Street Fighter II legitimized the genre overnight.
You got to remember, the year was 1991, up to that point, fighting games were a mess of button mashing gameplay and buggy hit detection. Trust me, unless you really want to see an early part of gaming history, there’s absolutely no reason you need to play a fighting game that came out before Street Fighter II.
History aside, what really is it about Street Fighter II that made it such a huge hit?
The answer, simply put, is everything. That may sound completely pretentious, but give me a few paragraphs, and hopefully I can explain why this is such an amazing game.
From a presentation standpoint, everything was top notch. Each background was diverse and active. Some of these active details include, bystanders cheering for fights in America, elephants reacting when someone got hurt in India, and merchants pedaling merchandise in China (except for that one guy choking the chicken, what was his problem?)
It’s all pretty eye catching stuff, and a far cry from the stagnant backgrounds in fighting games up to this point in time.
Complementing the backgrounds was Yoko Shimomura’s outstanding soundtrack. (you know, the lady that composed music for those “Kingdom of Hearts” games?) Each character had a distinctive theme.
But above all else, what shined most was the stars themselves, the World Warriors. All of them practically came to life with gorgeous animation and distinct designs. They signified a huge leap in technical power for arcade games, with certain characters taking a colossal 12 megabytes of memory to animate.
From a distance, the technical details were polished to the point of where nobody could take their eyes off it.
However, this was an elaborate Trojan Horse, what is truly remembered, is how outstanding the gameplay was.
It may not look like it at first glance, because well, the game is about two lunkheads beating the tar out of each other, but Street Fighter II is a game about speed, execution, and strategy.
Street Fighter II rewards players who can react, think, and perform. To be a good player, you have to be able to handle the pace of the game, be able to preform strategies under pressure, and be able to out-think the opponent. Validating the standard design for not just competitive fighting games, but all competitive video games.
To strengthen this core idea, controls were made to complement the meta.
Take a look at that set up. Notice how it has only six attack buttons, and not a “jump” or “block” button. The controls were designed this way because Capcom cleverly mapped those commands to the joystick.
Holding the opposite direction your character is facing makes them block. While this is strange at first, it becomes natural, mimicking ”taking” a punch. And like actually taking a punch in real life, the attack still hurt the blocking player, not full damage, but just enough to show that over-relying on blocking has a consequence. Indirectly, it also prevents stalemates. Because block or “chip” damage, can actually be your fatal mistake.
Jumping works in a similar way. By having three directions that move your character airborne, you can move to better positions quickly, or jump towards your opponent with an attack, creating an offensive move. But again, like blocking, it’s balanced out with a consequence. You cannot block in air. Jumping almost an “Avatar State” idea. You’re at your most powerful, because a successful jump-in attack can lead to an unblockable combination of attacks (a “combo”) but if done incorrectly, you could eat a powerful anti-air attack like a dragon punch.
Speaking of attacking, that’s designed fantastically too. Each of the six attack buttons (three for punches, three for kicks, each of various strengths.) had moves that had different functions, ranges, speeds, and damages. Not to negate the fact that you could both crouch and jump, creating a three tiered attack system,with a kind of rock-paper-scissors mentality. Air attacks beat low blocking, low attacks beat standing blocking, and (proper) standing attacks beat air attacks. There’s also a fourth variable “throws” (attacks that break guards when you’re close enough. The trade off is that if you miss one, you’re putting yourself in no-man’s land.)
With this frame, a dynamic game emerges. An attacker has to figure out how to land attacks against a defender, and the defender has to find a way to shut down the attacker, or use attacks that could give them an advantage.
With this in mind, good players learned that they weren’t just mashing buttons to win, they picking moves that dealt with how the other player was fighting, and the cool thing was, there was never a right answer to how to deal with things, it was how you delt with it. I’ll get back to that later.
Oh, and I’m not even getting started with the 8 characters themselves. (well, okay 7 really, Ryu and Ken were the exact same at this point.) The same six button, three attack zone framework applied to every character,but all of them had a completely different sets of attacks that led them to playing a specific way.
In other words, everyone was an archtype.
Ryu and Ken were meant to appeal to beginner players. Their normal attacks are basic, and their special moves are practical and easy to pull off. These kinds of characters are called “shotos” named after the (fictional/heavily romantized) martial art Ryu and Ken practice. (shotokan karate)
Chun-Li was faster than every other character, but at the trade-off of her attacks lacking damage. Getting in people’s faces and overwhelming them with a rush of attacks, was her style. A “rushdown” character.
Blanka was incredibly powerful, but had terrible defense. He had to risk putting himself in dangerous positions, for the reward of heavy damage. He’s the “Paper Tiger” of the game.
E. Honda, is almost kind-of a foil to Blanka. He had solid defense, and decent damage. I’ve seen so many different interpretations on how people play him that I don’t quite feel confident labeling him as one specific archtype.
Zangief was incredibly powerful, and had the strongest attack in the game, the Spinning Pile Driver, but had to get close to do that damage. He was also the slowest of the bunch. Think the opposite of Chun-Li, also known as a “grappler.”
Dhalsim had normal moves that could cover a wide area, but if someone got close to him, he was in trouble. Because he fights at a distance and wants to keep people away from him, he’s the “zoner” of the game.
And finally, there’s Guile, a character who brought the fight to him, first by pestering the enemy to get close to him, when they got close, punished oncoming attacks. His style of hunker-down, defensive play has forever been associated with the “turtle” archtype. Also associated with a theme song that seemingly goes with everything.
So, with all these factors set in play, this meant you could find a playstyle to your liking. You weren’t forced to play a mirror match against one selectable character, like in many earlier fighting games, you could play one of eight, seven!
The final result is that Street Fighter II had a rich, tightly focused core, and an aspect of individuality. Which to me seems (almost) like clairvoyant forward thinking; Especially with modern video games seem so focused on “letting the player pick their style” or “letting your choices matter.” Fighting games were already that way, already having that idea, way back in 1991!
So does all of that sound complicated? Well, the truth is, yes. That’s a lot to take in, and because of all those intricacies, not to mention it gets worse with the idea of trying to apply all of those factors under pressure and with the context of another player who can do also make use of everything you can do.
But that doesn’t make it bad, just, it takes some practice, and if you put in that practice, Street Fighter II, and by delegation, all good fighting games, become a deep experience that only improves the more you put into it.
And if you’re thinking something along the lines of “well, duh, this is how all fighting games are.” I have to stress, again, they weren’t all this way. Fighting games were just about the fight at the time, not the strategy, pressure, or offense vs defense idea; literally they were just “PUNCH BUTTON, KICK BUTTON, JUMP BUTTON. FIHGT!”
Street Fighter II wasn’t an outstanding game out of delegation; it was and still is an outstanding game because it took all these complex ideas and made a rock solid core of game design. A core design so compelling, that all fighting games, regardless of if they’re 2D, 3D, team based, competitive, casual, or ratio based, continue to use it a framework.
And yes, it isn’t perfect. There are some terrible glitches, Guile overpowers everyone, and even with all this awesome stuff it made, the fighting game “Hyper Turbo Super Alpha XX: Mark of The Wolves ‘99” business model emerged from it.
But the fact remains that Street Fighter II’s successes far outweigh it’s faults.
An innovative masterpiece, in every sense of the word.
I love fighting games. Love them. If I had to give up playing all other genres of video games, just to keep playing fighting games, I wouldn’t think twice.
So, okay, unhealthy addiction aside, what keeps me going back to them?
As pretentious as it sounds: honesty, and mastery.
Fighting games are an honest genre. They may not depict violence in a honest way, but they sure have a knack at showing your weaknesses as a player if you’re doing badly. I don’t like games that only want to make you feel like a god. In my opinion, player empowerment is an empty way to hide the lack of depth a game has.
Honesty, alone doesn't just draw me to them, I love the fact that they’re designed to be more fun at higher level play. While many other games tend to become stale once you get good at them, fighting games get better the more you improve. And to me, that’s what makes a game fun, knowing that there’s always something to improve on, always some way you can handle a fight better.
Plus, they’re socially designed, but individually skill based. All outcomes are determined by individual skill. There’s no bad teammate to take the blame, there’s no item you can buy that gives you an advantage over the other player, just you versus them, the one with the most skill, wins.
Understandably, they’re not for everyone. Apparently practicing for hours, pressing a specific combinations of buttons in quick intervals, for the award of hopefully using those combinations of button presses against friends in a group setting, isn’t enough of an award for the time spent in it.
So yeah, those are some of the (many) reasons I think that fighting games are a fantastic genre, and with this primer, I hope to pay tribute to the ten games I hold as the best of the best.
And if you’ve not an experienced fighting game player, don’t worry, this stuff is going to be more aimed at non-players over hardcore fans. I won’t be going into the single player modes, or the extra content, I want to focus exclusively on the Vs mode of each game.