The Street Fighter games are arguably the best-known fighting titles ever released (only Mortal Kombat comes close), and the series has sold a staggering 37 million copies. Fighting games, though, have been around since the very beginning of the medium. The first one we hit on this list landed in arcades in 1976 – a full 40 years ago! Lace up your gloves, charge up your ki, and let’s write the book on the history of fighting games.
I tried to play, either on original machines or through emulation, every single game that could be considered a “fighting game” in the history of video games. I’m going to try and talk briefly about as many as humanly possible, and provide YouTube links for gameplay footage, but please let us know in the comments if I missed any. And since this article is, seriously, the length of a novella, we’ve included a handy table of contents so you can easily hop between sections.
Table of Contents
- The Prehistory of Fighting Games
- Play at Home: Fighting Games Hit Consoles
- Martial Arts Mayhem: Everybody Kung-Fu Fights
- Things Get Real: Street Fighter Arrives
- Copycats and Clones of Capcom’s Classic
- Here Comes a New Challenger: Street Fighter II
- Pro-Gear Spec: SNK Enters the Arena
- Finish Him: Mortal Kombat Changes Everything
- Bring on the Blood: Fighting Games Get Violent
- Creatures of The Night: The Spookiest Fighting Games
- Kill or Be Killed: Killer Instinct’s Krazy Kombos
- Super Powers: Fighting Games Meet Comic Books
- A New Dimension: Fighting Games Embrace 3D
- Half and Half: 2.5D Fighting Games
- Bringing it All Back Home: Street Fighter II Evolves
- Bootleg Bashing: Street Fighter Rainbow
- Alpha Flight: Street Fight Goes Back in Time
- A New Generation: Street Fighter III
- Come Together: Franchise vs. Franchise
- Smash Me Up: Nintendo’s Magnificent Fighting Game Melee
- Arc Reactor: From Guilty Gear to BlazBlue
- Dirty Players: Erotic Fighting Games
- Odds and Sods
- Also-Rans in 3D
- The Worst of the Worst: Fighting Games Hit Rock Bottom
- Off the Turnbuckle: Wrestling Games
- King of the Ring: Boxing Games
- The End of Arcades
- Homemade Hand-to-Hand: Indie Fighting Games
- Roll Your Own: Custom Fighting Games
- Return of the King: Street Fighter IV and More
The Prehistory of Fighting Games
The very early days of arcade gaming were a time of relentless experimentation – before the traditional joystick and buttons setup became the norm, designers built custom cabinets with wheels, levers, bumpers and pedals. Project Support Engineering’s 1976 Knights In Armor featured a pair of levers that let two players square off as knights on horseback and attempt to unseat the other. It may well be the first electronic fighting game, but no machines are known to exist.
Sega’s Heavyweight Champ was also released in 1976, and stuck closely to what we now consider the traditional fighting game model. Players controlled large pixelated boxers on the screen with an unusual control lever that was shaped like a boxing glove, moving it up and down to block and pushing it towards the screen to punch. You couldn’t adjust their positioning, and the overall play was unexciting, but the basic theme was there: hit or be hit.
1979’s Warrior was a top-down vector fighting game created by Cinematronics. It was only playable by two people, who each controlled a knight with a long sword that could be used to stab the opponent or push them into holes. The game is fairly primitive, but things would get fancier pretty soon.
Play at Home
Arcade games were expensive to produce, but with the advent of home consoles and computers the market started to fill up with software.
Boxing games would be the prime medium for man-to-man combat for some time. Activision’s 1980 Boxing for the Atari 2600 showed a pair of pugilists in top-down view and let you “block” attacks with proper fist positioning.
The Intellivision got its own boxing game the next year, with a roster of six fighters to choose from, each with different abilities.
In 1982, Funvision announced Karate for the Atari 2600, which featured large fighters facing off in a rectangular arena. Although the game featured a variety of attacks triggered by holding a joystick direction and pressing the Atari controller’s lone button, hit detection and movement were incredibly sluggish and the game didn’t make any real impact.
One of the strangest early fighting games came out the same year for the Apple II computer. The Bilestoad was a top-down combat game like Warrior, but with pixel graphics instead of vector. It’s the first fighting game that let you chop your opponent’s arms off, which would cause some trouble later.
1983’s Swordfight was the first one-on-one combat game for the ZX Spectrum, with clunky graphics and awful, cheating AI. It did, however, debut a feature that would be common in future 3D fighters – the ability to replay the match after it finished.
The same year, the Commodore 64 saw Super Black Belt Karate, another very primitive martial arts game with one-button and joystick controls. It did, however, have some nice backgrounds. For the same machine, taekwondo simulator Black Belt was significantly better. The game was responsive and well-crafted, with multiple attacks and a lot of attention paid to the rules of the art – turning your back on your opponent or leaving the sparring area led to penalties, for instance.
Let’s head back to the arcades for a bit to talk about some significant contributors to the fighting genre.
Martial Arts Mayhem: Everybody Kung-Fu Fights
1984’s Karate Champ represented the next step in fighting game evolution. With a dual-joystick control scheme that let the player perform multiple different moves, it introduced features that we still use today like holding back to block attacks. The animation was jerky and the game was very difficult to get good at, but it was a harbinger of things to come.
Taito’s Great Swordsman came out the same year, with three different fighting styles – kendo, fencing, and gladiator combat. Like Karate Champ, the game used a points-based system to determine the winner.
Home games saw the martial arts craze boom in the early 80s. One of the most important early fighting games was Karateka, the first game developed by Prince of Persia‘s Jordan Mechner. The smooth, rotoscoped animation set a high bar for games to follow, and the quirky details – the ability to bow to enemies, for example – made it a classic.
The newly-released Nintendo Entertainment System got its own fighting game with 1984’s Urban Champion, which pitted two evenly-matched brawlers against each other in a slugfest in the streets. Environmental hazards like falling flower pots jazzed it up a bit, but it’s widely considered one of Nintendo’s worst games.
The ZX Spectrum battled back the same year with Kung Fu, a slow-paced combat game with four attack moves and no jumping. Interestingly, you could use your attacks to block your opponents, which added a bit of strategy, but on the whole the game was pretty dull.
Yie Ar Kung Fu, released to arcades in 1985 by Konami, added one of the most important features to the martial arts genre: multiple distinctive characters. Although the player was limited to controlling protagonist Oolong, he faced off with a wide variety of foes, each with their own appearance, weapons, and special moves. Learning how to beat them required careful observation and lightning-quick reactions, and the game was a commercial success.
The company would release a second fighting game that year that, while obscure today, introduced many of the features of the genre – Galactic Warriors. As one of three giant robots, players had life bars, took chip damage from blocked attacks, and could switch between ranged and melee attacks with a button press. Oh, and there was a female robot who could shoot her boobs as missiles.
That same year saw the release of Taiyo’s Shanghai Kid, which also featured multiple characters and life bars, but the enemies were less AI-based and more repetitive patterns, so it wasn’t nearly as notable. It did introduce “combos” that could be performed by button mashing at specific points, as well as a primitive counter system that let you turn high attacks into throws.
1985 also saw the debut of the first fighting game with a female main character in Typhoon Gal from Taito. The judo-heavy game played differently from traditional striking-based titles. The only way to finally defeat an enemy was through throwing them, and main character Yuki’s health slowly regenerated over time, giving it a keep-away aspect.
At home, the multi-platform Way Of The Exploding Fist was a straight Xerox of Karate Champ, but it would wind up one of the most influential fighting games of all time. With smooth, fluid animation and detailed backgrounds, it was a huge hit.
The 1986 sequel Fist II added a bogus “adventure mode” and further refined the fighting action.
International Karate was so close to Champ that Data East actually unsuccessfully tried to sue publisher Epyx. It was one of the first video game lawsuits, and the courts ruled that Epyx had indeed infringed on the trademark (a ruling that would later be reversed).
Listing all of the Exploding Fist copycats would take pages – some included Kickboxing Vigilante, Shanghai Karate, and Way Of The Little Dragon. There’s pretty much no reason to play any of them.
Several lesser attempts also came out in the next few years – Chop Suey for Atari computers, Brian Jack’s Uchi Mata for a variety of platforms (which was the first game to feature the kind of complex controller motions that would become a staple of the genre), the NES port of Capcom’s Trojan contained a one-on-one fighting bonus game, and Sega’s dry Champion Kendo.
One of the most popular was Barbarian, which sold well in part due to having a foxy bikini babe on the cover.
Numerous companies had taken their own stab at the fighting genre, but soon one would debut the title that would change everything.
Things Get Real: Street Fighter Arrives
In 1987, Japanese company Capcom made their entry into the genre with Street Fighter, which had some of the largest and most detailed characters in any fighting game so far. As protagonist Ryu, you traveled the world facing off with ten distinct opponents, including British punk Birdie, boxer Mike, and Muay Thai master Sagat.
In addition, the game had a unique control system. Capcom had little experience making hardware, but they paired with Atari to create “punch pads” for the cabinet – the harder players hit them, the harder the punches and kicks would be. Unfortunately, these were impossible to use correctly and started injuring arcadegoers, so the company re-issued the game with a six-button replacement that would follow the series.
The game was incredibly ambitious – Capcom wrote backstories for the characters, hid special moves that could be executed with specific joystick motions, and created custom backgrounds for every stage. It was an expensive production, and a commercial failure. The controls were difficult to use and the game was punishingly hard.
Thankfully for fighting game lovers, the success of side-scrolling brawler Final Fight gave Capcom the confidence they needed to make another combat-based game. This time, they’d do it right, but it would take a few years, and a lot would happen in the interim.
Copycats and Clones of Capcom’s Classic
Even though the original Street Fighter wasn’t a success, other companies were fascinated by it. The game was incredibly ambitious, and up-and-coming software company SNK could use some of that ambition. Before the sequel came out, SNK poached several key employees from Capcom, including director Takashi Nishiyama. Ironically, Nishiyama himself had been grabbed from IREM after he made Kung Fu Master, so he was a dude in demand.
Nishiyama actually developed a fighting game for SNK two years before SFII was released – brawler Street Smart. It had some interesting ideas, like being able to juggle opponents hit in the air, but it was just a start.
Other fighting games in the gap between 1987 and 1991 included the very weird Kageki, which pit Japanese yakuza against each other in a strange quasi top-down environment where every fighter had a giant head.
The NES version of Double Dragon had an extra mode where you could battle other people (like the earlier Trojan).
The most graphically advanced fighting game of the pre-SFII era was the quirky Last Apostle Puppet Show, which featured digitized graphics of its big-headed fighters. The game itself was dull, but it’s fun to watch in action. Like many early arcade fighting games, the difficulty is way out of whack.
1988’s Fighting Road for the NES had a super meter that let players launch fireballs when it was full, but the game was so difficult to control that nobody really remembers it today. Namco’s 1989 Tenkaichi Bushi: Keru Nagūru was probably the best fighting game on the system, with nice animation and 15 different characters (although many were palette swaps).
Probably the second-weirdest fighting game of the decade was Spitting Image, an Amiga title based on a then-popular satirical British puppet show that skewered world leaders and celebrities. The graphics were top-flight, but as was the case with many of the early fighting games the gameplay was just Exploding Fist all over again.
1989 was actually a very potent year for fighting games, with a pair of well-received titles. Hippodrome let the player take control of a well-muscled gladiator in unique battles against a variety of mythical creatures. The enemy visual design in this was the best any fighting game had ever seen, but it was painfully difficult, designed to suck quarters down at a breakneck pace.
Violence Fight not only had an incredible name, but high-quality graphics with big sprites. The controls were simple, but the ability to pick up and throw environmental objects added a wrinkle to the play.
The 1991 sequel Solitary Fighter had you punch a bear, so that’s a point in its favor.
1989 also saw the first portable fighting game, Fist of the North Star: 10 Big Brawls for the King Of Universe on the Game Boy. It was a stinker, even for the time.
Special mention needs to be made for Tongue Of The Fatman, which licked home computers in ’89 as well. Considered by many to be the worst fighting game of all time, it featured ten different alien warriors that you could barely control in interminable, boring bouts.
1990 saw the release of arguably the most famous fighting game to date: Atari’s Pit Fighter. Using then-trendy digitized photographs for its characters, the brawler featured up to three players in the “pit” at once and spectators who would occasionally get physical with the combatants. It was a huge hit, but with the gift of hindsight it’s easy to see just how awful it was.
Panza Kick Boxing was an attempt to bring Thai martial arts to home consoles, with a fealty to realism that was unusual at the time. The endorsement of French kickboxing legend Andre Panza didn’t mean much in the States, but the game itself is quite good. Even though it’s limited to the joystick and one button, it has a solid variety of moves and the player-on-player mode can be strategic and fun.
So that gets us up to speed with the rest of the industry. Now let’s see what Capcom was doing in those three years to change everything.
Here Comes a New Challenger: Street Fighter II
Capcom learned from their many mistakes with Street Fighter and in 1991 released a sequel that was unlike anything else in the arcades. Ryu and Ken returned, but now they were joined by six other playable characters from all over the globe. High-kicking Chun Li, stretchy Dhalsim, and obese E. Honda all played totally differently, introducing individual player preferences before the match even started.
The team making Street Fighter II was the biggest Capcom had ever assembled at nearly 40 people. They were encouraged to come up with the wildest ideas they could think of for the player characters, and iterated constantly to make them as unique as possible.
The effort paid off. Street Fighter II was an instant arcade success. The player-on-player “vs. mode” made game owners money hand over fist, as competitors were throwing in quarters every few minutes to keep their streaks going or challenge the dominant player. SFII would usher in a new arcade boom.
Things start to get crazy here, so instead of going in chronological order we’re going to examine individual franchises and developers, starting with one of Capcom’s biggest rivals – SNK.
Pro-Gear Spec: SNK Enters the Arena
SNK wanted its own fighting franchise, and Nishiyama gave it to them with Fatal Fury.
The company was developing its Neo-Geo hardware, which was an arcade cabinet that took special ROM cartridges that could be switched out, giving them increased return on investment. The system quickly became known as a home for fighting games, with the Fatal Fury series joined by King Of Fighters, World Heroes, and Samurai Shodown, among others. Let’s go through those franchises one at a time and see what made them tick.
Fatal Fury hit arcades in 1991, just seven months after SFII. With only three controllable characters, the game is mostly a historical curiosity. The series spawned multiple sequels, which iterated and refined upon their unique qualities. The ability to “lane change,” move into the foreground or background to dodge enemy attacks, was a major gameplay feature. Sequels continued to come out until 1999’s Garou: Mark Of The Wolves, although a final game was planned and, according to leaks, 70% completed.
The next year, SNK kicked off their other major franchise with Art Of Fighting. Set in the same fictional universe as Fatal Fury, AOF introduced Ryo Sakazaki and Robert Garcia, two playable characters on a quest for revenge. The huge processing power of the Neo-Geo did allow for huge, well-animated fighters, but their sheer size kind of reduced the available strategies.
Two sequels followed of increasingly lower quality. The third installment is notable for the addition of unblockable, highly damaging attacks that basically destroyed the balance of the whole game.
1994 would see SNK fuse the two franchises to create their most popular series: King Of Fighters. Instead of the traditional rounds of combat, KoF let you choose a team of three fighters, all of whom had to be knocked out before your game was over – and, of course, you had to do the same to prevail over the opposing team. The fighting engine was the smoothest SNK had released to date, with the ability to quickly dodge attacks and juggle airborne opponents. KoF would receive yearly updates until 2003 and sporadic ones afterwards.
1992’s World Heroes was the game that wore the Street Fighter influence most blatantly. The title removed the few innovations of the Fatal Fury series and replaced them with colorful, over-the-top characters including a robotic German army officer, a mystical Russian monk, and a French swordmistress. Although it was derivative, World Heroes controlled well and introduced some concepts to the genre, including double-jumping (ninjas Hanzou and Fuuma could jump a second time when in the air).
The sequel, World Heroes II, was released less than a year later and spawned an additional pair of games.
SNK debuted the Samurai Shodown series in 1993. The weapon-based fighter had detailed graphics and zoomed in and out of the screen as players got closer and farther from each other. The series abandoned some of the tropes that had become common – instead of combos chaining multiple hits, SamSho focused more on landing single, powerful blows. Sequels further refined the gameplay, allowing super moves to break weapons, introducing parries, and eventually kicking off a 3D side series.
1997 would see the release of The Last Blade, which was sort of a spiritual sequel to SamSho that let you parry attacks and choose between two “modes” for your character – Speed let you chain combos, while Power increased the force of your attacks. The sequel introduced a third EX mode that would combine the two.
Those are the main series, but there were piles of other one-on-one combat games on the Neo-Geo, including 1994’s brawling-based Aggressors of Dark Kombat (which also featured an instant-kill attack), anime-esque Kabuki Klash, superhero-themed Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer, weapons-based Savage Reign and sequel Kizuna Encounter (that let you switch fighters if you were standing in a special spot on the battlefield), 1996’s Breakers and its sequel, Ninja Master’s (yes, that apostrophe is intentional) that let you take out or put away weapons, Ragnagard, bizarre cartoonish Waku Waku 7, Korean-developed Fight Fever, et cetera.
Finish Him: Mortal Kombat Changes Everything
You’ll notice that, up to this point, successful fighting games almost universally came from Japan. Ed Boon and John Tobias wanted to change all that. The duo worked for Midway, the arcade juggernaut that had recently acquired pinball maker Williams, and were put together to create a title that would challenge Street Fighter‘s dominance in American arcades. Tobias had worked on the extremely popular Smash TV, which fused cartoonish gore with classic twin-stick shooter action, and he figured that a little red stuff was just what the fighting genre needed.
The game started as a tie-in for Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Universal Soldier, but after the license fell through they kept on working on it, knowing that the game would be a hit for the company.
The first thing that the team decided on was digitized graphics. Instead of the painstakingly hand-drawn sprites of their competitors, Midway would hire actors and film them on a soundstage, cutting out the backgrounds to create fighters that looked as real as technology would allow. In addition, MK eschewed holding back to block, instead devoting a button press to it. That said, the first game was pretty clumsy. Super moves had bizarre control motions, every character shared the same moveset with a few specials added on, and the balance was totally out of whack.
None of that mattered. Mortal Kombat‘s impact was immediately felt. The arcade version was hugely successful, but things got really hectic when the game was ported to home consoles. A congressional investigation into video game violence brought the public eye into the arcades, and the fact that the Genesis version had blood where the Super Nintendo’s didn’t gave Sega one of its first big advantages in the console wars.
The history of the Mortal Kombat games could be an article of its own. The franchise produced new installments at a breakneck pace, but unlike the incremental improvements of Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat stayed pretty much unchanged for years, simply adding new characters to the mix (along with grislier Fatalities). That didn’t hurt the series much, though.
Mortal Kombat 4 would transition the series to using 3D models instead of digitized photos, but motion capture was used to create their movements to maintain the traditional MK jerkiness. The new style let players sidestep attacks into the foreground and background, which was intended to add a layer of strategy to the aging fighting system.
The sequel, Deadly Alliance, eschewed arcade release entirely but added the ability to select from multiple fighting styles for each kombatant.
Multiple sequels followed, but the general quality of the franchise was pretty lousy. 2011 saw a reboot of the franchise that focused on high-quality mechanics, and it brought the game into the competitive scene. Recent installment, Mortal Kombat X, is the most solid entry the franchise has seen yet.
Even Capcom tried to copy Mortal Kombat‘s success – the tie-in game for the Street Fighter movie used digitized actors instead of hand-drawn sprites. They weren’t the only ones, though.
Bring on the Blood: Fighting Games Get Violent
The success of Mortal Kombat ushered in a new era in fighting game development. Instead of mimicking Capcom’s cartoonish fighters, companies could now go the gore-filled route, and in the mid-90s multiple titles came out trying to up the ante on brutal violence.
Time Killers was the first Kombat kopy to hit arcades in 1992, and it found success. In addition to gruesome blood-spurting special moves, players could chop off arms and even heads. Controls were clumsy and character design was generic, but something about the game proved reasonably popular.
It was followed in 1994 by an unofficial sequel, the absurd BloodStorm. It was developer Strata’s last game, and for good reason – it’s virtually unplayable. Controls are awful, characters are ugly, and more effort was put into hidden secrets and codes than the fighting engine itself. Maybe Strata should have skipped the “big head mode” and invested in some playtesting.
1993’s Blood Warrior seems like it was built as an ordinary fighting game and then had gouts and splatters of red stuff added in a hurry before it hit the arcades.
Sammy’s Survival Arts came out less than a year after the first Mortal Kombat game, and it shows. It also uses digitized actors for its fighters, but the developers blew them up to such a huge size that you have no room to maneuver on the screen, making it difficult to play. The last boss also explodes into a fountain of pictures of Hitler when you finally beat him.
Probably the nadir of Mortal Kombat-alikes was Data East’s completely inept 1994 Tattoo Assassins. As we’ve seen, Data East had a reputation for putting out some of the worst fighting games in the arcades, but this was something special. Digitized fighters with magical tattoos faced off in a number of gory arenas, but what made Tattoo Assassins was the fatalities and finishing moves – a whopping 2,196 of them! The game was never officially released, but it has been leaked and lord, it’s bad.
The same year saw a fighting game that might have been even worse released for PCs. Catfight was published by a front company for porn studio Vivid and starred eleven digitized female fighters. How bad is it? Catfight has an 8 on Metacritic. Out of 100.
Not all Mortal Kombat knock-offs hit arcades. Home takes on the concept included Naughty Dog’s Way Of The Warrior, made while the company was in bankruptcy with the motion capture done in front of a sheet in an apartment, Sega’s Eternal Champions and its sequel which fused hand-drawn artwork with stage-specific “Overkills,” and Kasumi Ninja for the Atari Jaguar, which let parents set the level of gore they were comfortable with their kids seeing.
The Jaguar actually had several bad fighting games. The only things you need to know about Ultra Vortek is that it has a song on its soundtrack named “Krappin.”
Interplay’s ClayFighter series was intended to copy the style of the MK games without the blood and gore – which was kind of the whole point. They featured digitized sprites of stop-motion clay animation and controlled like absolute garbage. A pair of sequels followed the original game.
Once the Mortal Kombat franchise moved to 3D, copycats tried to do the same. Forgettable titles like Mace: The Dark Age, Bio F.R.E.A.K.S., and War Gods deluged the market – some of them coming from Midway itself.
Creatures of the Night: The Spookiest Fighting Games
Looking to kick off a new franchise, Capcom unleashed Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors in 1994. Mixing the fast-paced play of the latest Street Fighter updates with a Gothic horror theme, the game pushed the envelope with the addition of air blocking, being able to move while crouched and execute easy “chain combos” that let you link multiple attacks of different strength together. The game was originally intended to star the classic Universal Pictures monsters, but when the studio refused the license Capcom producer Alex Jimenez created an all-new cast in an hour.
Some of his creations have become company-wide staples, most notably succubus Morrigan and catgirl Felicia, who appeared in many, many other games. The rest of the cast was unique and fun to play as well, and Darkstalkers spawned multiple sequels. Fans have been begging Capcom to bring the franchise back for decades, to no avail.
1994’s Capcom Fighting Evolution mixed up several of those franchises into one game.
Kill or be Killed: Killer Instinct’s Krazy Kombos
The lack of blood on the Super Nintendo version of Mortal Kombat was a big blow to the system, so Nintendo had some interest in recapturing the fighting game demographic. They recruited British developers Rare, who worked with cutting-edge hardware to create what was without a doubt the hottest arcade game of 1995. Killer Instinct featured 3D modeled characters turned into 2D sprites, a bevy of diverse, dynamic fighters, an over-the-top announcer, and a special move that could break out of combos.
A sequel followed in 1996, but the franchise lay fallow until Rare was sold to Microsoft with all of their intellectual property. 2013’s Killer Instinct brought it back on the Xbox One. Released as a free-to-play game where you had to buy characters, it’s developed into a solid tournament series. The game was hugely influential, with several companies trying to make their own Instinct killers. One notable unreleased game was Atari’s Vicious Circle, which was nearing completion at the end of the fighting game boom and bust.
Super Powers: Fighting Games Meet Comic Books
Comic books made for perfect inspiration for fighting games: larger-than-life characters duking it out with fists and feet was exactly what people wanted to play. In 1994 Capcom got the Marvel Comics license for fighting games and brought out X-Men: Children Of The Atom, which took mutant heroes and villains and put them in a fast-paced fighting environment that captivated arcade players.
1995 saw the engine expanded to include more Marvel characters like Captain America with Marvel Super Heroes, and another sequel in that franchise followed.
And then things got interesting and kicked off what is now known as the “Vs. franchise.” 1996 saw the release of X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, which used characters from the previous game as well as Street Fighter Alpha 2. Battles were now two-on-two, with the ability to tag in and out added. 1997’s Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter would expand the cast to include non-mutants like Spider-Man and the Hulk, and the next year saw the first Marvel Vs. Capcom game, which brought in Darkstalkers, Mega Man, and other franchise characters.
2000’s Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 came at the end of the company’s first big wave of fighting games. Following a design philosophy best described as “insane,” it featured a roster of 56 different characters, ranging from the massive Juggernaut to the tiny Servbot. Fights were now three-on-three, and moved almost faster than the eye could follow. Even though MvC 2 was obviously egregiously broken, a rabid community of competitive players grew around it and it was played in competition for over a decade.
In the interim, Capcom teamed with Japanese firm Tatsunoko to make a Vs. game using their stable of costumed heroes. Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Cross Generation of Heroes didn’t get much scene support due to being a Wii exclusive, but the underrated game had some interesting concepts.
Old-school fans lost their marbles when Capcom got the Marvel license back and put out Marvel vs. Capcom 3 in 2011. Abandoning sprites for 3D models, the sequel managed to please most fans of the franchise with the return of favorite characters like Sentinel, but some changes designed to make it more friendly to casual players like the X-Factor comeback mechanic weren’t as well-received.
The game got an update, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, later in the year, but Capcom no longer has the Marvel license so don’t look for another Vs. game for ten years or so.
During the period when Capcom lacked the Marvel license, other publishers got to play with it, with worse results. 1995’s Avengers in Galactic Storm, made by our old friends Data East, was a tremendously bad arcade game with low-poly Avengers facing off against generic enemies during an invasion by the alien Kree.
2001 saw Paradox get the job making a tie-in game for the X-Men movie, and 3D fighter Mutant Academy was the result. At the time, it was reasonably well-reviewed, but in hindsight it looks and plays pretty badly.
It sold well enough to spawn two sequels, ending with X-Men: Next Dimension on the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube.
Things didn’t get much better when EA got the license to make 2005’s Marvel Nemesis: Rise Of The Imperfects. The 3D fighter was the only game the two companies made together, a follow-up was planned at EA’s Chicago office but the studio closed before the project was finished, and Nemesis was a sizable disappointment. The cast of new heroes and villains, known as the Imperfects, created for the game were supposed to have an impact in comics as well, but most of them haven’t been seen since.
2014’s Marvel: Contest Of Champions is a free-to-play mobile game that fares a little better, although given the limitations of the platform there’s not a ton of strategy or nuance in its fighting. It’s reasonably fun and free, though.
Moving over to the Distinguished Competition, the first DC fighting game was 1995’s Justice League Task Force, released in the bold era of Mullet Superman. In an interesting footnote, the SNES version was one of the first games developed by Blizzard. How off-base is the game? Aquaman is one of the best characters. ‘Nuff said.
Another DC fighting game wouldn’t come out until 1998’s Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, which took the then-current 3D MK engine and characters and transplanted Superman, Batman, the Joker and others in, fatalities and all. The game was a novelty, and hardcore gore-hound MK fans didn’t love that the franchise’s HD debut on the PS3 and 360 was a tamer, T-rated, superhero crossover. It was the last thing Midway Games would do before entering bankruptcy.
The MK/DC connection would continue, however. 2013’s Injustice: Gods Among Us refined the NetherRealm Studios formula, stripped out the Kombatants and created a fairly solid fighting game featuring alternate-universe versions of heroes and villains duking it out. It actually got some competitive tournament play, which is pretty rare for a DC title.
1993’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters was released on three different home platforms – the NES, SNES and Sega Genesis. Each version was completely different.
The fighting amphibians came back in 2005 with TMNT: Mutant Melee, a Smash Bros-esque four-player brawler. A sequel to that game by the actual Smash Bros. developers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Smash-Up, dropped in 2009.
In other superhero franchises, 1995’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Fighting Edition, released to tie in with the movie the same year, is widely known as one of the most dementedly unbalanced fighting games ever. Villain Ivan Ooze is so absurdly overpowered that he can easily beat any other character without taking damage – and you can play as him.
Overseas, many manga and anime franchises had multiple fighting games based on them. Most notable are Ranma 1/2, which had a pretty decent SNES title, and the legion of sub-par Dragon Ball Z games. This section would triple in size if we listed them all, but thankfully they’ve started to increase in quality in recent years so we’ll just show you 2015’s Dragon Ball Xenoverse and call it a day.
The Gundam franchise also saw multiple fighters, starting with 1997’s Gundam: The Battle Master. These games dispensed with many fighting game conventions – the huge robots move slowly, can take part-specific damage, and can’t block projectiles, which are limited in use.
A New Dimension: Fighting Games Embrace 3D
Detailed sprite artwork had become one of the hallmarks of fighting games, but new technology was quickly making it obsolete. The hotness at the end of the 20th century was polygons rendered in three dimensions, allowing for dramatic camera movements and new styles of gameplay. The first fighting game rendered in 3D was Sega’s Virtua Fighter in 1993. Although primitive, it introduced a number of concepts that would go on to define a genre.
Characters were no longer locked into facing each other on a flat plane – they could now step sideways to dodge attacks and counter, adding a (pardon the cliche) new dimension to strategy. The novelty made Virtua Fighter a success, and it became Sega’s main fighting franchise, spawning multiple increasingly polished sequels as well as a big-head spinoff, Virtua Fighter Kids.
They also used the engine for a second franchise, Fighting Vipers. Instead of the deliberate pace and (relative) realism of VF, Vipers pushed things in a more cartoonish direction.
One of the programmers put 3D versions of Sonic the Hedgehog and Tails in as a joke, but Sega liked it so much that they developed Sonic The Fighters off of the same engine.
That wasn’t the most absurd take on the Virtua formula, though. That honor goes to 1996’s Fighters Megamix, which brought in characters from other Sega franchises – including a race car from Daytona USA.
The first PlayStation launched with Battle Arena Toshinden from developer Tamsoft. The weapons-based 3D fighter wasn’t very good, but the novelty of large polygonal characters battling it out was enough to spawn a small franchise with three more sequels on the same system.
Although Square was best known for RPGs, they had a few fighting games as well. Their first, Tobal No. 1, was notable for an unusual visual style featuring untextured polygons and free 3D movement.
Squaresoft’s Bushido Blade is a 3D fighter like none other – the realistic samurai action featured fights that could be won with a single brutal strike and expansive arenas. It’s a cult classic. The sequel polished some of its quirks down and resulted in a less satisfying game.
Namco’s 1995 Soul Edge was a weapons-based 3D fighter that featured a diverse, interesting cast of characters with pronounced strengths and weaknesses. Although rough, it spawned the Soul Calibur series, which remains one of the leading entries in the genre. The franchise made weapons-based fighting smooth, flashy, and easy to learn, but left enough room for advanced competitive strategies to flourish.
The same year saw the release of the horribly sluggish Criticom, which spawned 1997’s Dark Rift (the first fighting game to run in 60 FPS). The next year, the same developers put out the equally lousy Cardinal Syn.
1996 saw the launch of Tecmo’s Dead Or Alive franchise, which built on the now-standard formula with a complex interacting system of attacks, blocks, and grabs. The series has, over time, become more famous for its big-boobed fighting babes than its fighting engine, but advocates insist that it’s still a top-tier game.
1996’s Heaven’s Gate was a generic 3D fighter from Atlus that was their first take on the genre. It was totally undistinguished.
Even LucasArts got in on the 3D fighting craze with 1997’s Star Wars: Masters Of Teras Kasi. Apparently that’s a martial art in the Star Wars universe, just like “jizz” is a musical genre. It’s not a particularly exciting or good martial art, but the game does let you play as Chewbacca so that’s a point in its favor.
Hudson’s 1997 Bloody Roar took the established 3D fighting formula with free movement inside an enclosed area and added a lycanthropic twist – each character could morph into a more powerful half-animal form for a short time. The franchise was big business for a hot minute, but in 2003 the last game came out and it hasn’t been seen since.
2000’s Tom and Jerry in Fists of Furry and its 2002 sequel took unlikely inspiration from the classic cat and mouse cartoon, letting the cast battle to the death in diverse 3D environments that included a kitchen, a boxing ring, and… Hell.
The popular Naruto manga series has spawned a giant pile of fighting games, starting with 2003’s Clash Of Ninja. In general, these titles are simple, fast-paced fighters with not a lot of strategic depth, but with the launch of the shockingly gorgeous Ultimate Ninja Storm series, developers Cyber Connect 2 worked to make the gameplay more complex and rewarding. The most recent entry in the franchise, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Revolution, has 100 playable characters.
Although Capcom kept primarily to 2D fighters, they did dabble in the third dimension with giant robot brawler Tech Romancer and fast-paced Power Stone. Final Fight Revenge brought Haggar and crew back to fight it out once more. Star Gladiator featured bizarre polygonal aliens duking it out with laser swords and cosmic yo-yos.
Special mention needs to go to 2001’s Heavy Metal: Geomatrix, which was licensed from the legendary sci-fi/fantasy magazine.
Half and Half: 2.5D Fighting Games
Other games used 3D engines but kept the fighting stuck to the traditional 2D plane. The most famous example of this is the Tekken series, first launched by Namco in 1994. With a diverse cast of polygonal fighters and a curious control scheme (four attack buttons, marked for right and left hands and feet), the series is known for its complex and often ridiculous storylines. Namco has stuck with the franchise through thick and thin, mixing it up with two-on-two mechanics in Tekken Tag Tournament.
Capcom wasn’t immune to the polygonal craze either. The Rival Schools games introduced an all-new cast of high school brawlers, and Street Fighter EX brought classics like Ken and Ryu into conflict with newly created combatants. The company attempted to follow it up with Capcom Fighting All-Stars, but it tested so poorly it was never released.
Some other 3D games on the 2D plane worth noting are Yukes’ odd Evil Zone, which had only one attack button, and quirky N64 fighter Rakuga kids.
Bringing it All Back Home: Street Fighter II Evolves
Eager to continue making money off of Street Fighter, 1992 saw the company release Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, which let players control the four boss characters for the first time, as well as adding “mirror matches” where both could control the same fighter and some subtle character balance changes. It was hugely successful, required significantly less effort than programming a new game, and started a cycle of updates that would keep the company afloat for years. Later the same year they’d release Hyper Fighting, which increased the general game speed and gave most characters a new special move.
1993’s Super Street Fighter II kept the train rolling with redrawn graphics and four new characters – Cammy, Dee Jay, T. Hawk and Fei Long. But it wasn’t until 1994 that they’d adopt one of the most vital mechanics in fighting game history.
It’s easy to write the narrative claiming that Capcom wrote the book and other companies just copied it, but after the dam broke ideas started to flow freely in both directions. The basic gameplay of Street Fighter II started to get stale after a while, so the company investigated ways to make it more exciting and tactically complex. They’d get one from Takashi Nishiyama: the super meter.
Super Street Fighter II Turbo increased the play speed once more, but players now had an additional resource to keep track of. A small bar at the bottom of the screen filled up as you attacked your foe, and when at 100% you could perform a special move that did insane damage. That’s a Super Combo, and you’ll see a lot more of those. Turbo would be the last game in the SFII series for some time, but Capcom wasn’t anywhere near done with their fighting franchise.
Bootleg Bashing: Street Fighter Rainbow
We need to take a second here to talk about a Street Fighter game that wasn’t sanctioned by Capcom, but still landed in arcades all over the world. Street Fighter Rainbow was a bootleg version of Champion Edition that was released in 1993. Developed by Hung Hsi Enterprise Taiwan, it replaced chips on the program board and gave the fighters new abilities, including mid-air special moves and homing projectiles. It was horribly unbalanced but still insanely fun, and Capcom actually was inspired by some of the weird changes that the hackers made.
Alpha Flight: Street Fighter Goes Back in Time
One would think that Street Fighter III was the next logical step, but logic and fighting games don’t always mix. Instead, Capcom released Street Fighter Alpha in 1995. Taking place in between the first two games, returning fighters were drawn in a new anime-influenced style and joined by the debuting Rose and Dan. Gameplay enhancements included air blocking and a three-tier Super Combo gauge. The game was followed by a pair of sequels in 1997 and 1998, which introduced new fighters and a system where you could select from multiple “styles.”
Alpha helped lay the groundwork for Capcom to develop a “house style” for their games. While Mortal Kombat pushed towards realism and other companies started investigating 3D, Capcom focused on high-quality artwork and animation that could be used across multiple games. However, they’d soon make a perplexing decision that would dilute their key franchise seemingly beyond repair.
Simultaneously with the Alpha franchise, Capcom released Street Fighter III to arcades in 1997. The company wanted to make a significant mechanical step forward from Street Fighter II, and shocked fans by releasing a game that introduced a cast of completely new characters (except for Ryu and Ken). The mechanical changes in SFIII were solid, especially the ability to parry enemy attacks with precision timing, and the first sequel would introduce the EX gauge and the ability to use some bar for more powerful special moves, but overall the game was a disappointment to Capcom.
1999 saw the third and final game in the Street Fighter III series, Third Strike. As the most solid and well-polished entry, it developed a fan following in the competitive fighting game scene, but its commercial performance wasn’t anything close to Street Fighter II and it would be the last numbered SF game for nine years.
We should probably also mention Pocket Fighter here, a strange 1997 title that had chibi Capcom characters bashing each other with cartoonish moves and collecting gems to increase their power.
Come Together: Franchise vs. Franchise
So on one side we have Capcom, and on another we have SNK. They’re both very good at what they do – but what if they joined up to make a game? That question was answered in 1999 with SNK vs. Capcom: The Match of the Millennium for the Neo Geo Pocket Color. 26 characters from both companies battled it out in a fighting engine that let players pick Capcom or SNK-styled super meters.
The franchise grew from there, with games produced by both companies through the early 2000s. You can tell the developers by which company name comes first. The two Capcom games – Capcom vs. SNK: Millennium Fight 2000 and its sequel – feature “ratio” systems where you have a certain number of points to spend on weak and strong characters. This was the series in which Capcom’s habit of reusing old character sprites would become notorious – the low-res Morrigan from Darkstalkers looks like garbage next to the fluid, colorful SNK characters.
Capcom would go back to the collaborative well with 2012’s Street Fighter X Tekken, which brought Namco’s franchise characters into Capcom’s fighting engine. The game was plagued with problems, including buggy early releases and one of the most bizarre bonus characters in fighting game history – a Mega Man modeled after the NES game’s bogus American box art. Namco was supposed to be developing a response game where SF mainstays would drop into Tekken-style fighting, but it’s seemingly vanished.
Other companies took the crossover route as well – Sony’s PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale and the Jump Super Stars series, for example – but one franchise would rule them all, and it would feature some of the medium’s most iconic characters.
One company that lagged behind in the fighting fad was Nintendo. After Urban Champion, the company stayed out of the genre until 1999 with the release of Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64. Developed on a shoestring budget by HAL Laboratories, creator Masahiro Sakurai put famous Nintendo characters like Mario and Samus in his prototype without permission and then pitched the game to the company.
Thankfully, Nintendo approved his concept, and Smash went on to introduce a number of radical new ideas to the genre. Instead of depleting a player’s life bar, matches were won by knocking them out of the boundaries of the stage. Mobility and platforming also played a huge part – instead of fighting on flat surfaces, a variety of different terrain made matches feel very different.
Smash saw multiple sequels – one for each Nintendo console generation. Competitive players still prefer Melee on the GameCube for its diverse roster and solid control. Brawl on the Wii was slower paced and introduced random tripping, which annoyed serious tournament players, but the fourth installment (simply titled Super Smash Bros. for the 3DS and Wii U) has brought it back to form.
Arc Reactor: From Guilty Gear to BlazBlue
Meanwhile, in Japan, a small developer was putting the finishing touches on a game that would instantly make them major players in the scene for decades to come. Guilty Gear, released in 1998, featured seriously over-the-top fighters with supernatural attacks and unique character mechanics. Many, many titles followed in the series. Guilty Gear X2 debuted an Arc trope with “burst,” a one-shot move that let you cut an opponent’s combo short and give you some breathing room. In 2014, they brought the series back with Guilty Gear Xrd, using cel-shaded polygons instead of sprites for the first time.
In 2008, Arc kicked off a new franchise with BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger. By then, the company had pretty much nailed what fans wanted from them: serious anime style, powerful but not unbalanced characters, and lots of attitude. The BlazBlue franchise continues to evolve as well.
Sex and violence are a time-honored combination, so it’s not surprising that more than a few fighting games have been released that add a little nudity or sexuality into the mix.
The first expressly perverted one-on-one fighter was in all probability Strip Fighter II by Games Express for the PC Engine. No, there was never a Strip Fighter I. The game is a clumsy ripoff of Capcom’s classic with an all-female cast, and when you beat one you’re treated to artwork of them nude.
Hilariously, an unrelated company would create Super Strip Fighter IV in 2010. It’s the only game we know of in which you can stomp on a downed character’s exposed penis.
The Sega Genesis was blessed with bizarre, super-primitive title Street Fucker, in which horribly-pixelated dudes with giant dongs leap at each other. If this is enough to get you off, you’re a bigger deviant than we thought.
1993 saw the release of the first game in the Variable Geo series, a long-running fighting franchise that again saw its female combatants sexually humiliated after losing. These games were released until 2003, but the last game was a visual novel (much cheaper to produce than a fighting game).
The most notorious sexual fighting game of all time is probably Illusion Soft’s 2002 release Battle Raper. As you’d expect from the charming title, the game lets you physically molest the four female fighters with horned-up grapples and force yourself on them after you win. Bizarrely (but fortunately?), the game’s 2005 sequel Battle Raper 2 features no actual rape.
Odds and Sods
Here’s where we’ll look at 2D fighting games that came out after Street Fighter II but don’t fit into any existing well-known franchise. Some of them are pretty cool, though.
Namco is one of Japan’s biggest publishers, and they tried to get in on the action quick with Knuckle Heads. With only six playable characters and weird controls (including a dedicated button for jumping), it didn’t perform well. Fellow big name Konami brought out Martial Champion, which featured separate buttons for high, mid, and low attacks.
1992’s Blandia also used a three-button layout similar to arcade game Gladiator. The characters also wore armor that had to be broken off before they could take damage, adding an interesting strategic layer to the proceedings.
The same year also saw Doomsday Warrior on the SNES, which featured some interesting mechanics but a totally broken throwing system that let you toss your foes around like they were sacks of potatoes.
Also that year, Kaneko released Power Moves, which let players add points to various stats between fights in a light RPG system. Jaleco’s Tuff E Nuff had a similar gameplay element, with special moves getting stronger every few fights.
Data East, who you’ll remember sued companies for ripping off Karate Champ, found themselves on the other end of legal threats with 1993’s Fighter’s History. The company took almost everything from Capcom’s breakthrough game – the six button control scheme, a female fighter with flashing leg kicks, and identical special move motions. Thankfully for the future of the genre, Capcom lost the suit. Two sequels followed, both of which were pretty bad.
Atlus’s 1993 Power Instinct is a curious franchise – even though it had some interesting features, like double jumps and, by Groove On Fight, a tag system, it never really built up a fan base. The bizarre cast (there’s multiple senior citizens and a baby in a diaper) and inconsistent fighting engines might explain that. The pick to play is probably 2003’s Matrimelee, a weird Neo-Geo game where the prize in the fighting tournament is the hand of a princess in marriage.
1993’s Joy Mech Fight for the Famicom is a robot-themed fighter that overcomes the console’s limited hardware in a pretty interesting way. Instead of animating a whole giant character, all you see are the salient parts of your android fighter – the head, hands, torso and feet. Multiple special moves, throws, and other features make this one of the best fighting games you’ve never played.
The same year, Video Systems released Ta•o Taido, their only fighting game. The bizarre engine had players hold down both attack buttons to charge up special attacks, then release while holding a direction to perform them. It didn’t really work, and the game’s insanely floaty jumps didn’t help matters.
Sega’s 1992 Holosseum was played on their unique hologram cabinet, which projected images not on a flat screen but rather in the middle of a curved projection that approximated a 3D space. The mechanics were incredibly primitive for the era, and with only four playable characters it was a novelty at best. They tried to make a more traditional fighting game the next year with Burning Rival.
Japanese developer Culture Brain tried to make their Hiryu No Ken series happen over multiple console generations. Previously-mentioned Shanghai Kid was the first, and thankfully the last was Virtual Hiryū no Ken for the PlayStation.
The company would follow it up with Dark Edge the next year that would use sprite-based graphics in another pseudo-3D battlefield. Their Genesis console would also see the release of Eternal Champions, which mixed the dark fantasy style of Mortal Kombat with some interesting gameplay quirks, including a depleting bar for special attacks and environmental kills.
Sega also tried to bring an existing franchise into the fighting era with Golden Axe: The Duel, transplanting heroes and villains from their series of brawlers into a well-animated but inessential fighting game.
Developer Hot-B only took one stab at the fighting world with 1993’s Schmeiser Robo, and that’s probably for the best: it’s really bad. Points for a battling ‘bot piloted by a Salvador Dali clone that walks on its hands, though.
The same year, IREM released Perfect Soldiers. It’s pretty generic, but many of the staff would move to SNK to work on their fighting franchises.
One cult favorite fighting game is 1994’s The Outfoxies, which casts players as hitmen trying to take each other out in massive, constantly-changing environments. Liberal use of weapons and traps make this one stand out from the norm.
The Seifuku Densetsu Pretty Fighter series launched in 1994 as well (seeing a theme here?), with an all-female fighting cast that provided lots of panty shots when taking and receiving punishment. Similar slightly pervy franchises included Asuka 120% Burning Fest and Metal & Lace: Battle of the Robo Babes, the last one released for MS-DOS computers.
The mid-90s saw a couple of PC-only fighting games. Some were decent, like robot fighter One Must Fall 2097. Most of them were pretty awful. We’ll give extra demerits for 1995’s Xenophage: Alien Bloodsport, which combined awkward characters, clumsy controls, and a Barney the Dinosaur parody to create something truly awful. Body Blows was one of many fighting games for the Commodore Amiga, and probably the best. Developed by Team17, the minds behind the Worms series, it’s a solid take on the Capcom formula.
Taito’s 1994 Kaiser Knuckle is another Street Fighter-alike which was released as Global Champion abroad. It’s nothing special. A sequel was planned but abandoned.
Atari hit a hot spot in 1994 with Primal Rage, a fighting game set in prehistoric times and featuring dinosaurs and giant apes duking it out. The game had some cute features, including the ability to snack on wandering Neanderthals for health and gory finishers. A sequel was developed but never fully released, as Atari didn’t think they’d sell enough cabinets.
Banpresto’s curious 1985 Metamoqester barely qualifies as a fighting game – there’s no player-on-player mode, for example – but the gameplay is classic Street Fighter with a twist, as you travel the world fighting five enormous, bizarre monsters. It’s not “good” per se, but it sure is interesting.
Also very weird is Cho Aniki: Bakuretsu Rantou Hen, which transplants characters from the homoerotic shooting series into a mid-air fighter. If you want to battle using powerful farts, this is the game for you.
We’ve talked a lot of smack about Data East in this thing, but their 1995 Outlaws of the Lost Dynasty is actually pretty solid – a weapons-based fighter with the ability to disarm your foes, it’s not flashy but everything works and feels good, which is more than you can say for most of their games.
Double Dragon: The Movie brought the traditional side-scrolling brawler series into the fighting genre, with mixed to poor results. It did have Abobo as a playable character, which is good for a few sympathy points.
Japanese company Psikyo is best known for shooting games, but they dipped their toe into the fighting genre twice. 1994’s Battle K-Road is a quasi-realistic tournament of fighting styles including karate, boxing, and… being a cyborg. Their next game is significantly more interesting. Set in a city ravaged by a massive earthquake, The Fallen Angels has gorgeous character animation and some really interesting stages. It’s hilariously unbalanced, unfortunately, or it could have been a big hit.
Rabbit, created by Electronic Arts’ Japanese subsidiary Aorn, only saw release overseas in arcades and on the Sega Saturn. It’s a hidden gem, though – players control a variety of martial arts masters and can steal animal spirits from fallen foes, which can be used to trigger a variety of special moves. It’s somewhat similar to Capcom’s JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure game, based on the popular manga, which would hit four years later. That game is also notorious for having one of the most unfair characters ever: Pet Shop, a flying bird who is immune to low attacks.
Sunsoft’s ’88 witch fighter Astra Superstars is weird as hell – you can fly all over the screen and each button triggers a different attack. You’re also “ranked” through some inexplicable combination of attack and defense and if time runs out and your rank is lower than the opponent’s, you lose – even if you’ve drained more of their health.
Developer Fuuki didn’t get into the genre until relatively late with 1998’s Asura Blade, but the weapons-based fighter is fairly solid, with responsive controls and well-animated sprites. The 2000 sequel is even better.
Also in 2000, Slap Happy Rhythm Busters dropped as one of the weirdest home fighting games ever. The cel-shaded PS1 title stars a stylish cast of interesting fighters and incorporates special “Beat” moves, where pressing buttons in a timed sequence to the beat lets you deal big damage.
Also-Rans in 3D
Here are 3D fighters that don’t fit in anywhere above, for whatever reason. Some are good, some are bad, and some are just bizarre.
Arika’s Fighting Layer isn’t atrocious, but it’s a shadow of what the company would be able to accomplish once they started working with Capcom.
Developer Artdink is one of Japan’s strangest companies, churning out niche titles that we can’t imagine anyone buying. Their take on the fighting genre, Buchigire Kongou: Battle Construction Vehicles goes to a very weird place: instead of controlling humans or aliens or what have you, you pit trucks, tractors, and cranes against each other in a fight to the scrapyard.
Equally bizarre is Sega Saturn game Elan Doree, which mixes things up a bit by having all of the fighters ride dragons.
Psychic Force is another 3D fighter with full axis movement, pitting mentalists with a variety of supernatural skills against each other.
Paradox Interactive developed a fighting engine for 1998’s cancelled Thrill Kill, a PS2 game that would pit four demented fighters against each other at the same time. They went on to recycle it in Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style, a fighting game starring the Staten Island rap crew, as well as a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots game in 2000.
Speaking of hip-hop, the trio of Def Jam fighting games starting in 2003 brought other microphone maniacs to the martial arts word. The first two games were more wrestling-based, but Def Jam: Icon was more boxing-styled.
Finally, 2004’s Fight Club tie-in game was a mediocre offering that completely missed the point of the movie, but it did let you beat the bejesus out of Fred Durst, so that was something.
The Worst of the Worst: Fighting Games Hit Rock Bottom
I had to stake out a special area for fighting games that are so completely inept they need to be seen. These games aren’t just ugly and unoriginal – many of them are downright unplayable.
1992’s Dino Rex has a dynamite idea – pitting ferocious dinosaurs against each other – but the execution is so amazingly bad it’s hilarious. Each dinosaur has maybe two dozen frames of animation, one special move each, and some of the worst collision detection I’ve ever seen in a game. The ridiculous bonus stage – where your dinosaur is transported to the future to kill cops(!) – is just the cherry on top of the sundae.
Shaq Fu is famous for being one of the most idiotic licenses ever, and the game itself is just as lousy as you’d think a fighter starring a goliath NBA star would be. Probably the funniest thing about it is that Shaq is by far the weakest character in the roster.
Also incredibly bad: Banpresto’s Ultraman game, which has an idiotically tiny moveset, ridiculously unresponsive controls, and a level of difficulty so high that you’re lucky to land a single hit on your giant monster opponent.
1994’s Rise Of The Robots, developed for multiple platforms by Mirage Studios, was painful to play even in that era of lowered expectations and is even worse today. The clumsy brawler had multiple strikes against it, but probably the worst was that the robots couldn’t even turn around to face the other direction!
2002’s Bikini Karate Babes tried hard to cash in on the sexy fighter category a little too late, with ineptly digitized female fighters spanking each other in jerky animated sequences.
We would be remiss to list bad fighting games without giving a shoutout to Jackie Chan Fists Of Fire, which used digitized pictures of the Hong Kong action star and other schlubs to create a stiff, weird fighter that is still played ironically on charity streams.
We’ll close this out with Xbox launch title Kabuki Warriors, a game so lousy people thought it would spell the end for Microsoft’s entry into the hardware market. Launch day fighting games are almost always bad, but this one was so awful that its failure helped drive publisher Crave into bankruptcy.
Off the Turnbuckle: Wrestling Games
We’re going to put wrestling games, which can be considered a very specific fighting game subgenre, in their own section. Listing each and every one would be pointless (do we really need to elucidate the differences in year after year of mediocre WWE titles?), so here’s a quick history of the genre as a whole, with some high and low points.
The first pro wrestling game that we know of is Tag Team Wrestling, which hit arcades in 1983. It’s a pretty clumsy title in which you select the move you want to do from an on-screen menu that pops up whenever you grapple. It would receive a NES port that stands as one of the system’s worst games.
Sega’s 1984 Appoooh is a little better – you can select from one of eight caricatures of famous grapplers (including a hilarious Giant Baba) and fight it out in the ring.
Probably the most famous game of this era is Nintendo’s own Pro Wrestling, which featured a hilarious cast of fictional fake fighters and some ridiculous moves. The NES also had the first official WWE game with Acclaim’s Wrestlemania in 1989.
Multiple other companies would handle the WWF license over the years, from perennial stinkers LJN to beloved Japanese developers AKI, whose No Mercy still stands as the best WWF game of all time. In arcades, the games made by Technos (like WWF WrestleFest) offered big characters and fast, if shallow action. Rival federation WCW also had a handful of games, with the final one – Backstage Assault – being the worst.
Wrestling manga series Kinnikuman (known here as M.U.S.C.L.E.) also got some games, starting with the absolutely atrocious 1986 Tag Team Match: MUSCLE and winding up with the surprisingly fun 2004 Galactic Wrestling.
Easily the champion of all wrestling franchises is the Fire Pro series, which first debuted in 1989. The Japanese games are beloved for their strategic grappling system, huge roster, and ability to edit the appearance and moveset of your fighters. The series peaked in 2007 with the absolutely brilliant Fire Pro Wrestling Returns.
Less realistic wrestling games included Popeye 3 for the Commodore 64, where the spinach-chewing sailor squared off with the Xenomorph from Aliens, the King of the Monsters series for the Neo-Geo that replaced the ring with a city and the fighters with Godzilla-esque monsters, and Paradox’s Backyard Wrestling series that brought the favorite pastime of Middle America Juggalos to your home console.
King of the Ring: Boxing Games
We’ll do the same for boxing games. We started this journey with one, and talked about a few others in the prehistory portion, so it’s only fair to give a little time to other fisticuffs simulators, good and bad. We’re only going to talk about games that let you go head-to-head with another human, so stuff like Punch-Out!! doesn’t count.
1985’s Ring King was an early standout, with big-headed boxers able to circle, block, weave, and punch in a large ring. Over-the-top special moves like a spinning windmill fist add to the fun.
Taito’s 1988 Final Blow presented its pugilists in screen-filling side-view sprites. Strategically, there’s not much to talk about, but the graphics were insane for the era.
1992’s Evander Holyfield’s Real Deal Boxing increased the level of realism even more, as did Champions Forever Boxing for the PC Engine.
Midway’s 1999 Ready 2 Rumble Boxing was probably the truest heir to the Punch-Out!! throne. A variety of funny punchers with their own unique styles were easy to control but with a decent amount of strategic options.
The Victorious Boxers series was based on a popular anime and blended more cartoonish action with its realism. Two sequels followed.
Probably the king of the genre is EA’s Fight Night series, which offered a unique method of using analog sticks to control the speed and placement of your punches. We haven’t seen a new installment since 2011, which is a shame.
The End of Arcades
With every boom, there must come a bust. The golden age of arcades ended in the early 2000s, as home consoles became more and more able to deliver arcade-perfect experiences without the cost of quarter after quarter. The major players in the industry drastically cut back on their releases, and the little guys simply went out of business.
Don’t close the browser window just yet, though. With every darkness there must come a dawn, and the resurgence of fighting games is a victory you’ll feel deep in your bones.
Homemade Hand-to-Hand: Indie Fighting Games
In the 2000s, the big companies mostly moved away from fighting games. Without an arcade market to sustain them, they had to focus on consoles, and other styles simply sold better. However, the rise of independent hobbyist programming made creating fighting games even easier, and a doujin scene started to spring up in all over the world.
Type-Moon’s Melty Blood series, a hybrid visual novel and fighting game, first debuted in 2002 and has grown steadily in popularity since then. They’re defiantly anime-styled fighters with a primarily female cast.
2004’s Super Cosplay War Ultra has spawned multiple sequels. It’s a solid fan service-oriented brawler with female characters that change into different outfits when they do combos.
Japanese developer Team Shanghai Alice is best known for shooting games, but in 2004 they released Immaterial and Missing Power, which brought their magical girl characters into the fighting arena. “Touhous,” as the characters are often referred to, boast insanely overpowered projectile attacks that make this one fun to watch.
In 2006, the Arcana Heart series debuted. Even more female characters, but an added strategic layer of choosing an “arcana” that altered your special moves made this one pretty successful and spawned a few sequels.
In 2008, former SNK staffers released the first public build of Yatagarasu: Attack on Cataclysm, a fighter heavily inspired by Third Strike but with a four-button setup instead of six. The final game was released in 2014 to solid reviews.
2007 saw the release of Big Bang Beat: 1st Impression, a super-slick independent fighting game featuring characters from an erotic visual novel game. Ten characters square off in a variety of arenas, with the big twist being that use of super moves is limited by a meter that needs to recharge.
Akatsuki Blitzkampf was one of the first Japanese doujin fighters to get attention in the West. The 2007 game has a heavy Nazi influence, making it a little awkward to play in public, but it’s quite fun and very well-animated.
Skullgirls, created by long-time fighting game community veterans, was in development since 2008 and released in 2012. The hand-drawn female characters and vast, complex combo system made it extremely hype, even as problems with the publisher decreased its sales potential. Crowdfunding campaigns have allowed developer Lab Zero to add additional characters.
Mark Essen’s brilliant 2014 Nidhogg takes fighting games back to their roots – a pair of pixelated swordsmen face off in one-hit kill battles in a variety of environments. The whip-tight controls prove that complexity isn’t important to a fighting game.
A similar statement would be made in 2013’s Divekick, which controls with just two buttons: Dive and Kick.
Roll Your Own: Custom Fighting Games
It was only a matter of time before fighting games became so easy to make that anybody could do it. A number of creation kits are available for people to create their own characters, moves, stages, and more.
The most famous of these is MUGEN, which was released by Elecbyte in 1999 and has undergone numerous upgrades since then. A massive community of creators has grown around the platform, ripping characters from just about every game you can think of. Because there’s no consistency, though, many characters are insanely unbalanced. MUGEN is typically more fun to watch than to play – there’s even an online casino where people bet on AI-vs-AI matches streamed over Twitch.
Japanese company Enterbrain has released a number of titles in their Fighter Maker series, focusing on both 2D and 3D action. The first PlayStation installment actually got a release in the United States – Fighter Maker allowed gamers to create some seriously insane moves.
Some notable doujins made with Enterbrain software include Axel City, Vanguard Princess, and Destruction Desire. You also should check out Arm Joe, which is basically Les Miserables: The Fighting Game.
Special mention needs to be given to Dong Dong Never Die, one of the weirdest fighting games of all time. Developed by a Chinese hobbyist team and released in 1999, it’s a mish-mash of digitized photos, clunky hand-drawn art, Optimus Prime, and utter madness. Surprisingly, it’s pretty fun to play.
Return of the King: Street Fighter IV and More
Capcom announced their return to the Street Fighter franchise in 2008 with Street Fighter IV. Developed in collaboration with Japanese firm Dimps, the game brought the series back to basics, with Yoshinori Ono saying that he wanted to keep the systems simple to learn. New “focus attacks” let fighters soak up damage and retaliate with unblockable counterattacks.
The game was a huge success and rekindled the fighting game scene in the U.S. and abroad. It spawned a number of updates for the next two years, and the installment as a whole has sold over 8 million copies. Seeing Capcom back in the fighting game world was a game-changer, and many other firms would follow suit. In addition to older franchises like Mortal Kombat and Tekken debuting new installments, we saw renewed interest in new fighting games.
One of the most interesting franchises to hit in the new century was Persona 4 Arena, based on the cult hit role-playing games from Atlus. These stylish 2D fighters became huge sellers in Japan and built a competitive scene.
2013 saw a new JoJo’s game from Bandai, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All Star Battle. The hybrid 3D fighting was a little shallow, but overflowing with character.
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