Friday, May 27, 2016

A Brief History of Fighting Games

     Fighting games are exactly what they sound like but there is a surprisingly deep history and complexity to the genre. Typically, these games feature one-on-one combat, either between a player and computer or two human players, although there are titles that feature team battles. Fights take place in 2D or 3D arenas, are usually divided into rounds (best of three is common), and end when one player’s life bar is depleted. The genre is known for having complex mechanics in which players must learn how to attack, block, counter, deliver special moves, and perform combos (a chain of attacks) through mastery of the game’s controls and precise timing.

     Much of the skill involved in fighting games requires an intimate knowledge of the player’s chosen character and the specific mechanics of the individual title. Because of this steep learning curve, fighting games have transformed into a niche genre, with a dedicated following of talented enthusiasts. Often, players specialize in one specific franchise and the competitive play, whether it be in official tournaments, the local arcade, or on someone’s couch, is arguably the most intense in any multiplayer field.

     The underlying fundamentals of fighting games evolved from boxing and karate games in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as Heavyweight Champ and Karate Champ. Such titles have since spun-off into the sports genre, with an emphasis on realism and simulation in contrast to the fighting genre’s often over-the-top and exaggerated presentation. It was Capcom’s Street Fighter in 1987 that popularized the style as it is known today. Street Fighter pitted animated characters of different martial arts backgrounds against each other and innovated several standards of fighting games, such as blocking, pressure controls, and special “hidden” moves.

     Street Fighter II is what really brought the genre into its own in 1991. Capcom’s sequel ignited the arcade boom of the 1990s and turned the gaming world on its head with its introduction of competitive multiplayer. Street Fighter II remains one of the best selling and most influential games of all time and impacted the direction of the genre like no other title.

     Perhaps the best of the games to follow in Street Fighter’s footsteps was Mortal Kombat. In terms of mechanics and gameplay Mortal Kombat was very similar to its predecessor but its presentation was much more adult and overtly violent. Mortal Kombat quickly gained fame and infamy for its over-the-top gore and grotesque “Fatalities”, in which the victor of a fight could brutally finish (see:kill) their dazed opponent. The game was the subject of several court cases, has been banned in multiple countries, and is credited with spurring the creation of the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) rating system. As a franchise, Mortal Kombat has continued with regular game installments, multiple movies, comic books, action figures, and more.

     Once just a student of Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat ended up having nearly as profound of an affect on the industry as Capcom’s title. A wave of copycat games cloned MK’s style, each working to up the ante on the blood and brutality of the other. Most of these titles have faded into the annals of gaming history but a select few, such as Killer Instinct and Primal Rage standout. Mortal Kombat continues to be revered and exalted by game critics and holds numerous records with Guinness World Records.

     Until this point, fighting games had been contained to a 2D graphical and gameplay style. With technological advancements, 3D gameplay opened a new frontier and games such as Tekken and Virtua Fighter pioneered the new possibilities. Tekken quickly grew to be arguably the most competitive franchise in the fighting genre, with an emphasis on balanced gameplay and a serious presentation. Through seven sequels and a couple spin-offs, Tekken has held on to this crown in arcades ever since.

     3D fighting games took over at the turn of the millennium with franchises such as Soul and Dead or Alive innovating the genre with features like weapon based combat and destructible environments. Even Mortal Kombat had to evolve, introducing 3D arenas and alternate fighting styles. Around this time, fighting games started to focus more on home console releases as the glory days of arcades began to wane.

     In recent years, fighting games have undergone a renaissance after the long awaited release of Street Fighter IV. Street Fighter IV utilized 3D character models in a traditional 2D fighting arena, marked the debut of online play to the series, and received rave reviews from critics and fans alike. The success of SF IV has already led to the revitalization of its peers, Mortal Kombat and Tekken.

     Another popular modern trend in modern fighting games is the crossover, in which the roster is compiled from all-star sources. The roots of this can be traced to Marvel vs Capcom, in which characters from Capcom’s games such as Street Fighter and Resident Evil squared-off against Marvel comic characters like Spider-Man and Iron Man. In 2008, Midway and DC Comics flipped the coin on this formula with Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe. Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. assembles all of their beloved characters, like Mario, Kirby, and Donkey Kong, and throws them into an all out rumble with frantic results. Sony tried to copy this recipe in 2012 with their Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale with their own pantheon of characters.

     It is unclear what the next horizon of fighting games has in store for gamers but it is such a timeless genre that there is no doubt there will be plenty of button-mashing and controller flipping going for a long time to come. Blockbuster franchises like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Super Smash Bros. have received a new jolt from online play and could only be getting warmed up. Until then, there are plenty of classics and contemporary titles to keep us busy. 

Posted by Terry Pierson, Programming Technician