One of my most treasured gaming memories came in the summer of 1991. I was on the cusp of entering high school and spending nearly every day either biking to the video store (remember those?) to rent Super Nintendo games to play until the sun came up or going to the local mall to convert all of my currency into quarters and play the best quality experiences that gaming had to offer at the time in the arcade.
I was familiar with every machine in the arcade, and before playing my first game I always walked the entire length of the room to inspect every choice. One day -stuck way in the back of my arcade- I saw something unlike anything else I’d ever seen before. I’d played Karate Champ, Yie Ar Kung Fu, and a few other like-minded fighting titles before, but this was something on a whole new level. The diversity of characters, the special attacks, the music, the feel; from the first time I laid hands on it, I knew this was something truly special. The game, of course, was Street Fighter II: The World Warriors.
Needless to say, the machine didn’t say in the back for long. By the time school started that lonely machine I felt like I had discovered and nurtured dominated the arcade and gathered lines and crowds of spectators. It was the first game I ever saw that had multiple machines in the same arcade, kids at school printed up lists of all of the special attacks and sold them in the halls (this was before the internet, obviously), and by the end of the next year Mortal Kombat had joined Street Fighter in what would soon become a crowded pantheon that was the ‘90s fighting game scene.
King of Fighters, Fatal Fury, Samurai Showdown, World Heroes, Tekken, Virtua Fighter; the hits just kept coming and coming in the early ‘90s. Street Fighter II was rereleased again and again and then made into a horrifying bad movie, which spawned another rerelease of the game based on the movie that was based on the game. That happened and we all let it happen. This is what the beginning of the end looked like. When Mortal Kombat 3 came out the next year and cost three quarters a play, I knew my beloved arcade scene wasn’t going to last much longer.
By 1995, Electronic Gaming Monthly was calling the fighting genre’s gluttony the “Most Appalling Trend” of the year, the Neo-Geo console (which was built around a library of fighting games) was foundering, and console games were approaching arcade quality for the first time. Soon, arcades were closing and the only fighting game anyone was talking about anymore was Tekken on the PlayStation aside from critics panning the endless King of Fighters series (which released some fifteen core games between 1994 and 2006 plus several spin-offs).
That’s not to say that the genre died altogether. Personally, I still stopped into arcades in larger cities to be delighted by the crossover titles like X-Men vs. Street Fighter (which would evolve into the awesome Marvel vs. Capcom series) and the like as franchises huddled together to keep themselves alive, but I always played them alone. There were no more lines; no more of the human opponents that had made every trip to the arcade feel like an event. The American arcade scene was gone.
With the fall of arcades and the rise of single-player story-based console gaming, fighting games were no longer where it was at. While Japan never lost its competitive arcade culture and the fighting scene that depended on it, America went into a deep depression where fighting games were concerned. By the new millennium, it was niche genre loved by a dedicated cult of hardcore gamers and nostalgia buffs, some of whom began using the MUGEN engine to create and combine their own fighting game franchises.
About this time the next generation of fighting games was lining up while the classic 2D sprite-based titles we all knew and loved became increasingly complicated, shutting out potential newcomers. Dead or Alive was hitting its stride, perfecting the 3D combat that Virtua Fighter pioneered, the anime-influenced Guilty Gear was becoming the 2D series of choice overseas, and Nintendo saw what Capcom had been doing with its crossover fighters and came up with a little thing called Super Smash Bros.
Street Fighter 3 was beloved by hardcore fans, but failed to catch on, partly due to an almost entirely new and unfamiliar roster, but in 2009, Capcom almost single-handedly brought the fighting genre back to the public eye with Street Fighter IV, which retained the series’ classic gameplay and recognizable characters while featuring snazzy new 3D models. Around the same time, Guilty Gear’s spiritual successor Blazblue came around and caught my eye with its fresh mechanics, presentation, and narrative (a fighting game with a complex story. Whaaaa?). Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…
And now we’ve had reboots of Mortal Kombat and Killer Instinct and more Marvel vs. Capcom and Tekken Tag Tournaments. There are even fighting games based on role-playing games like Dissidia Final Fantasy. Yeah. That happened. And Persona hasn’t had a proper title since the PS2, but we’ve had two fighting game sequels to Persona 4 in the last few years. I know for some of us, this genre never left, but nevertheless, it’s making a comeback. Big time.
To what do we owe the rise, fall, and resurgence of fighting games? Well, the appeal of taking on somebody else in a one-on-one test of skills and strategy is as ingrained in us as propagating our species. Street Fighter II was arguably the first video game to become a competitive public spectacle. But on the heels of a thousand imitations and the advent of higher quality console gaming killing American arcades while the mechanics of the games themselves became increasingly complex and unwelcoming to new players, the genre fell out of favor for awhile. But it came back. It was always coming back.
With online gaming becoming increasingly social and the spectatorship of professional gaming tournaments on the rise, it’s entirely natural for fighting games to be stepping back into the spotlight. And what that means for gaming culture is simple: it’s a new generation. The 1990s was all about face-to-face interaction and getting out in the world. In the 2010s, it’s all about connecting to that world through the internet.
If you want to experience any game this very second, you can pull up a Let’s Play video on Youtube. If you want to see two skilled players go head-to-head, you can stream tournaments. If you want to test yourself against other players, well, that’s pretty much a standard feature for console titles these days. There’s just less body odor involved now and if somebody complains endlessly about throws being cheap, you can mute them. And there won’t be any more hours spent trying to beat the game without getting hit trying to unlock hoax characters inspired by bad translations either (Sheng Long, my ASS!) thanks to the internet. It’s a wonderful world we live in, folks.
And you know that whole old school/inaccessible to casuals thing that kept so many people away from most fighting games in the aughts? Well it just so happens that sort of thing has become fashionable in and of itself again. Turn, turn, turn. Capcom has done a hell of a job adding depth to newer Street Fighter games while keeping it relatively inviting to new players. It’s not a hyper speed tag-team chaos-fest like Marvel vs. Capcom nor is it anime insanity like BlazBlue. It’s not trying to be edgy and violent like Mortal Kombat while piling on fatalities to make gamers feel like failures when they flub the potential post-fight victory gorefest. It’s just a straightforward normal speed 2D one-on-one fighting game.
If you want to hone your fighting game skills to the absolute limit with mid-combo V-triggers leading into your Critical Art finisher in Street Fighter V, then get on with your bad self. But it’s quite possible to be successful and have a good time without training like an olympian, which is something that wasn’t always true of fighting games. Most characters have better ways to deal with fireball throwers than jumping into a dragon punch and a lot of other lame go-to tactics that have dominated competitive play and chased gamers away in the past have been weakened or eliminated as well.
Street Fighter IV ushered in a new era for the fighting genre, SFV is refining it further and I think we should all be really excited about what’s coming next. The current trends towards hardcore mechanics, customization, and immersive stories could spawn a whole new generation of fighting games inspired and emboldened by the resurgence of the classic franchises. Wait for it. In the meantime, though, a whole bunch of Street Fighter noobs are waiting online for me to show them how we used to do it back in the day. I’d hate to disappoint.