Do you remember the smell of those old arcades, where the wafting scents from the food court would mix with cigarette smoke and a small tinge of burning electrical wires? No? For many of you, this is a description of a bygone era that only older people really know or seem to care about. You may not realize just how great an impact fighting games had in that scene, and you may not understand why it is all that different from today’s online scene. We’re still challenging other gamers online, after all. We’re still playing many of the same franchises, and even using fighting sticks if we choose, just like in those days. Those things are certainly true, but it’s impossible to understand how much the fighting game scene has evolved, along with fighting games themselves, without looking at those arcade roots. By following fighting games from their genesis to where they are today, we can see how the once mighty genre fell down, but got back up to fight its way back into relevance, in true fighting game form.
Going back to that arcade scene, imagine a cool breeze at your back as the main doors of the mall close behind you. You’ve just walked through the entrance, and your parents left you with a decent bill of money before going on their way. To your left is a vibrant arcade filled with many colorful cabinets and gamers huddled around them. The sounds are loud and overt, with each game trying to drown out the next as they vie for your attention. You waste no time rushing over to the token machine, and you place your money into it, only to see it slide right back out, rejected. You grumble, then rub the bill along the side of the machine in an effort to straighten out the folds and wrinkles, and you try again. A sound like winning a slot machine permeates from the machine as a pocketful of change drops into the cup below, and you’re now equipped for the battle ahead.
You gather up your treasure and quickly scan the room. There are a couple kids playing the Ms. Pac-Man machine, and you let out a quick chuckle before gazing further. Along the back wall is a line of older games, like Gauntlet, Karnov, and Tron, alongside somewhat newer ones like Smash TV and Narc. A quartet of gamers is assembled at the TMNT machine, and six more at the X-Men one. A kid is yelling at the Ghosts ’N Goblins machine, and some adult is shaking a pinball machine in the corner so hard you assume it’s probably the last game that machine will see. In the middle of the room, where the bigger crowds are gathered, you find Pit-Fighter, various iterations of Street Fighter II, and a Mortal Kombat machine. A few other games blur your vision in a rush until you lock-in on the one you’ve come to play: Mortal Kombat II.
The original Mortal Kombat had its share of fun and controversy, and you can’t wait to check out the new game that everyone is playing. You have to wait your turn, though. There is a big group of rambunctious gamers all waiting to play, and all watching for the secrets and tricks that the current players may betray. You make your way to the machine and put your token next to a line of others on the front of the machine, a sign that you’ve come to play. You watch many matches take place ahead of your turn, realizing that you could be playing any number of other games in the arcade instead of waiting, but you quickly dismiss that ridiculous notion. There was only one game that had the attention of the gaming world at the moment, and you were about to experience it.
You take mental notes of the different characters and follow each player’s stick movements and button presses. At the end of one match, you hear someone tell the winner that the stage has its own finisher, and they share the button combination required for it. A stranger quickly counters by saying the winner is using Jax, not Kitana, and then gives a different combination. You repeat each in your head, over and over. You can’t forget it because you’re not sure you’ll ever hear this information again. Slowly, your token on the machine slides down the line, and it’s finally your chance to play. You feel your palms getting sweaty as you drop your token in and take the reins.
The guy next to you just won with Scorpion, and he’s quick to pick Scorpion again. You’ve played the first Mortal Kombat, so you could choose one of the original fighters that you’re familiar with, like Liu Kang. But you learned some special moves for some of the others, and they all look so cool. With the timer quickly running down, you go with your gut and choose Kitana, one of the new kombatants. The Deadpool stage loads in, and you take a deep breath.
“Fight !!” shows on the screen, and you quickly duck, recognizing that your opponent has started each of his first rounds by firing Scorpion’s spear. Proud of your successful dodge, you let your guard down as he teleports, spears you, then finishes with an uppercut. You need to use your special moves, you decide, so you use your Fan Throw that you learned from watching the matches before. Scorpion jumps over it, however, then kicks you, spears you in, and uppercuts. The round ends shortly after, and you need to regroup. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, you realize what you can do better.
The second round starts with Scorpion’s spear once more. You duck, and quickly block. Many gamers fall into patterns, and you’ve studied his. The inevitable teleport finds you blocking it, then uppercutting him. You saw a combo earlier and have been pulling it off in your head over and over. Now is your chance, and you jump in at him, kick him into the air, then use your Fan Lift. As he rises helplessly in the air, you jump up, kick, then do your Fan Throw. You can see your opponent dismantling beside you, frustrated. He can’t stop relying on his same patterns, and you counter them each time, winning the second, then finally the third, final round of the match.
To properly “Finish Him !!” you recall the button combo you’ve said in your head countless times before the match. You move the stick forward, then down, then forward, and you remember that it ends with a kick. But was it high or low? You take a chance, press high kick, and watch as Kitana uppercuts Scorpion into the acidic pool in the background, leaving only a skeleton behind. You’re breathing heavy, more than your palms are sweaty, and you feel like a legend in the sea of wannabe’s behind you, all watching your every move. Who’s next?
Would you have felt pretty great having won that match online? Sure, but the experience of learning the match with a tangible group of gamers in the arcade was something special. Remember, back then the only way to find out the special moves, secrets, and everything else was to interact with the crowd or find a magazine that contained the information. Since magazines often took time to gather the details, the arcade scene was the quickest way to learn everything, and the camaraderie between all of the gamers is something that’s not found the same way these days.
Ok, so fighting games in the arcades were a fantastic time. What was it about fighting games that made those times uniquely special, and does any of that hold up today? Some of it certainly does, which is why fighting games are experiencing a bit of a resurgence these days. To understand it all, let’s take a look at the inner workings of fighting games.
From the very first video games ever made, competition was a part of them. From Tennis for Two, Spacewar!, Combat, and Outlaw, to the myriad other competitive games, there were many ways to flaunt one’s digital supremacy over someone else. With fighting games, however, systems were created with a means for strategy and pure skill to be on full display. The earliest fighting games like Karate Champ, Shanghai Kid, and even the original Street Fighter attempted this with some success. It wasn’t until Street Fighter II released, however, that fighting games found their stride. The tight controls and balance found between different characters with different fighting styles found players learning what a “fireball motion” was, and the “rock-paper-scissors” concept of blocks defending strikes, throws punishing blocks, and strikes countering throws, still forms the foundation of nearly every fighting game since.
As gamers began to embrace the mechanics of Street Fighter II, some of the more skilled players began to understand a very crucial concept: fighting games aren’t actually games about fighting, but rather games about controlling space. The characters have fighting animations, of course, but those animation frames are meant to be used to control a space better than your opponent does. From games that are more focused on single strikes and light combos, like Bushido Blade and Samurai Shodown, to combo-focused fighters like Killer Instinct and Marvel vs. Capcom, controlling the space to land your moves, whether via “footsies,” “zoning,” or other means, is paramount to winning. In order to control the space, you must control your opponent. You play “head games” by using patterns of moves, then using your opponent’s learned conditioning against them. By understanding the core concepts of fighting games, the more skilled fighting gamers were able to play multiple fighting games very well, realizing that the more they learned each characters’ strengths and limitations in a game, the more they could use that knowledge to manipulate their opponents.
There hadn’t been a video game that combined what came to be the core fighting game principles so well before Street Fighter II. That game sparked a craze in the arcades, and in a world where secrets were currency, strategies and tactics for fighting games were the mother lode. Gamers traded knowledge about moves, strategies, and secrets, and the social experience became something that couldn’t be missed. Fighting games made arcades more profitable than ever before, and it wasn’t long before the games made it into gamers’ homes.
Much like the arcade scene, the perfect balance of gameplay competition found in fighting games saw living rooms and bedrooms filled with friends, trading virtual and verbal jabs as they found out just who was the best. Winning meant earning the respect of all who were watching, but losing was simply an opportunity to learn from one’s mistakes. We always knew why we lost, and we’d think about how to counter those who beat us until we were on top. Of course, our friends did the same, and we propelled each other up, building endless hours of camaraderie in the process that we would never forget.
Like many good things, it had to end at some point. As advancements in gaming propelled new technologies, 2D fighters entered the 3D realm, but other gameplay competition types were making their presence known as well. Goldeneye on N64, Quake on PC, SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs on Playstation 2, and Halo on Xbox each allowed teams to compete against each other, and soon the 1 vs. 1 aspect of fighting games began to fade in popularity. Being able to play with groups of others, all at once, is something that fighting games had a hard time fighting against. Projects like Power Stone attempted to allow more fighters to play at once, but gamers were hooked on improving their aim against each other in First Person Shooter games. FPS games quickly became the chosen arena of battle, and fighting games became increasingly obscure and niche.
The core concepts of balance, strategy, head games, and all of the 1 vs. 1 tactical matchups were still in place, however. As the allure of FPS games plateaued, gamers remembered the fun they had in those fighting games years before. Newer gamers began to take notice as well, and fighting games attempted to rise from the grave for round two. While not a mainstream genre like it once was, more gamers took some time to give their fire arms a break in their FPS games to take up martial arms against each other in amazing titles like Street Fighter IV, Mortal Kombat (2011), and BlazBlue. Each featured a unique blend of quality fighting game ingredients, such as balanced fighters, incredible artwork, and deep strategy, and gamers found themselves loving fighting games again.
This is what makes fighting games wholly unique: the marriage of strategy, mind games, and pure skill that is all needed to outwit and outplay your opponent. There are no teammates to bail someone out, and there are no other A.I. characters to contend with, as would be found in sports games. Constant balancing ensures (mostly, but not perfectly) that the matches between any two selected characters is a fair contest, and it’s skill against skill alone. Since different character match-ups present their own unique puzzles to solve, the bouts are always interesting and engaging. Much like the different pieces of a chess board have differing tactical advantages depending on their placement and situation, so do the match-ups also present their own situational strategies in the best fighting games.
That’s really what you’re buying when you purchase a quality fighting game. It’s a digital chess game of sorts, and it is infinitely playable. Much like chess, it’s not always the first thing most gamers want to play, though it certainly can be. The blend of gameplay on offer in fighting games, however, is something you must play fighting games to experience.
Sure, the social aspect has changed as the arcades faded from relevance while the internet rose to prominence, but it still exists. We still watch each other play, whether gathering in physical rooms together or in virtual rooms. We still talk our trash or keep silent and let our actions do the talking. We still respect great play and learn from our mistakes to come back better each time. And we still build those relationships in the fighting game community that are like no other. No, it’s not quite the same, tangible experience we had back in the arcade days, but much like the new relevance in fighting games, we endure and learn to be even better from it as we go one more round.