The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the Fighting Genre

What happened to fighting games? They once were the drivers of the video game industry. They once dominated sales on home consoles, flew off the shelves, and changed the arcade experience forever. The early 90’s gave birth to the fighting game genre beginning with the release of the 2 most iconic franchises in the genre as well as the entire video game industry, Street fighter 2 in 991 and Mortal Kombat in 1992. Those 2 games sparked a cultural revolution that created a genre and a demand for more 2-D violence on screen.

After the commercial success of Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, Tekken and Virtua Fighter emerged in 93 and 94 to meet the new demand for fighting games. All 4 games story elements centered around a fighting tournament. However, each game had its own unique trademark characters and features. Street Fighter 2 had popularized the use of special moves. Street Fighter 2 had also done a masterful job of creating characters that the public cared about. Almost all (If not all) the characters from SF II are household names from Ryu (Main Protagonist) and Ken to Blanka, Guile, Vega, and Chun Li. It’s well established roster gave rise to many spinoffs and sequels. Mortal Kombat even to this day is legendary (And controversial) for being the first game to bring realistic blood and gore to video games.

MK was one of the major reasons the ESRB rating system was created. The game featured blood in the basic combat and gave rise to the notorious “Fatality”, where each fighter would dismember their opponent in an original way. These fatalities ranged from heads, hearts, and cartilage being pulled off and out to gruesome stage fatalities were bodies would disintegrate, burn, and fall into pits of spikes. Mortal Kombat engrained itself in the American culture because of it’s hardcore gore and violence. Virtua Fighter and Tekken upon release would not follow the same risky path.

Virtua Fighter is the well-known Godfather of 3-D fighting games. It also was the only game to have actual tournament style rules, that included a ring, and ring outs (If a player was knocked off the ring). Virtua Fighter was also well renowned for bringing intricate fighting style and character depth, as well as the character balance across the board. (Which is rare in fighting games as they almost always possess at least 1 “juggernaut character) Tekken being the last released of the 4 had arguably the most interesting evolution over the course of its earliest editions.

The first Tekken much like Virtua Fighter had a traditional ring and tournament style gameplay. However that was cut from Tekken 2 on. Tekken controls allowed the players to control an individual limb of their fighter. The Tekken franchise also originated some gameplay mechanics like auto blocking, and sidestepping. This was only the beginning for the fighting game genre. Many other titles and gameplay mechanics would be added to the genre over the course of the 90’s and 2000’s, however these 4 titles (Street fighter and Mortal kombat in particular) would stay ahead of the pack and maintain their legacy.

With 2 generations of next generation consoles emerging, (PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, Xbox 360, PS3) the 2000’s would bring dramatic changes to the fighting game genre and eventually lead to it’s near death. During the “console wars” of the mid 2000’s the Mortal Kombat franchise teetered on mediocrity compared to its predecessors. The Street Fighter franchise had attempted to transition to 3-D along with the Sega Saturn with a poor reception. It eventually went back to it’s 2-D roots with all sequels on the Playstation 2. Tekken had its greatest successes in its later additions. (3, 4, 5) Despite contributions from the genre’s most iconic titles, the early and mid-2000’s did not see the same sales and commercial success for fighting games like the 90’s. Other genres like Sports, Action Adventure, and first person shooters were suddenly producing hit original properties as well as continuing the success of their series titles. What was happening to the fighting game genre?

The reality for the fighting game genre was that like the rest of its industry, it had to adapt to a new generation of gamer that was emerging. Suddenly expectations rose to (In some cases unrealistic) levels not seen in the previous generation. Gamers wanted complex, engaging stories, million dollar budgets rival to the movie industry, online capabilities, etc. Most importantly what “casual” gamers wanted was something the genre was not in the position to offer. The evolution of the video game industry as a whole in the 2000’s moved very quickly as it began to infuse itself into mainstream pop culture, movies, TV, and music. Despite a few gems in the sand for the genre like Soul Calibur 2, Marvel V.S Capcom 2, and updated remakes of iconic 90’s classics, the genre had overheated and needed to rest and recuperate itself back to life.

The beginning of the 2nd generation of Consoles in the 2000’s began a slow resurrection of the genre with powerful new hardware capable of producing graphics and gameplay far above its predecessor’s wildest dreams. Titles like Virtua Fighter 5 and Def Jam Icon began to set the stage for a grand rebirth of the genre. With the Xbox 360 and PS3 came a much upgraded Xbox Live online community and the addition of Playstation Network. The two served as entertainment hubs offering a ton of content to the tips of our fingers. Gamers now could buy HD remakes of their favorite classic fighting games like Street Fighter 2 HD Remix, and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. These types of downloadable console games helped to reestablish the genre. However the best was yet to come.

In 2008 the genre received its biggest boost from two of its original hallmark franchises. First was the release of the surprisingly odd mash-up “Mortal Kombat V.S D.C Universe”. The game pitted MK’s most famous character’s against the top good and evil from the D.C world. They included Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Joker, and Lex Luther. The game did an interesting job through its story telling of tying the two worlds together. The game though not a true MK sequel did fill a void for fans of the series, who wanted a modern version of MK. The game’s reception was damaged some by the risky decision of the development to water down the blood and gore that had made the series famous. It would ultimately lay the groundwork for a future addition to the series. However its birth competitor would take the genre to new heights.

2008 also gave birth to Street Fighter IV. This was the game the genre had been awaiting for nearly a decade. Street Fighter IV in every way retained the core qualities that made the Street Fighter franchise so popular, as well as added new features like online game modes and 3-D graphics. Street Fighter IV revolutionized the new generation of fighting games and set a precedent for what would be expected of them going forward. It was such a popular title that Capcom released an upgraded version called Super Street Fighter IV in 2010 that managed to improve on what was already widely considered a near perfect game.

Super Street Fighter IV added a new character to the series in Juri, and brought back many familiar faces from previous Street Fighter titles like Dudley, Ibuki, Makoto, T-Hawk and Dee Jay. Capcom added a replay channel that enabled gamers to save videos from their own games to view, as well as spectate pro players, specific in-game characters being used online, etc. This added a never before seen layer of depth and strategy to the game. Players now could analyze their own games, study opponents, and watch the best in the world at will. New games modes such as Endless Battle, (King Of the Hill) Team Battle, the return of bonus car and barrel games from Street Fighter 2, and later through free downloadable content a Tournament mode was added. These were the revolutionary new additions the genre had lacked for a while. Street Fighter IV and its Super sequel had raised the bar, who would rise to challenge them?

In mid-April 2011 a remake to the original Mortal Kombat was released. Though named after the original, the game’s story is a combination of MK 1-3. The updated Street Fighter finally had a challenger for the hearts and fingertips of gamers worldwide. Like Street Fighter IV, the new MK contained a 3-D graphics engine and maintained its original 2-D fighting plane. The game contained arguably the most robust story in any fighting game to date. The upgraded MK also returned to its bloody roots, with head, arm, and heart ripping fatalities. Die hard fans of the original as well as new casual gamers alike praised its blood and guts. Mortal Kombat also added and upgraded key gameplay elements to set it apart from its competition. They included the deadly X-Ray moves, the return of character specific special moves, and weapons. In the online realm the new MK also added an interesting spin on King of the Hill mode, where players can socialize while spectating in lobbies. Once again all was well for the fighting game genre.

Fighting games are at the core of video game history. Ryu, Blanka, Sub-Zero and Scorpion are almost as well-known worldwide as Donkey Kong and Mario. The original franchises that created the genre today have made multi hundreds of millions. Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter had, live action and animated movies and TV shows, as well as tons of merchandise sold. So it’s fitting that those two series would reemerge and reclaim their dominance. As for the genre, its future success will depend on the continued success of its marquee franchises, revolutionary overhauls in online interface, gameplay, story, as well as character development. Who would’ve thought that two 2-D pixels beating the crap out of one another would appeal to so many, and spark a new wave of games.

Fighting games were a major catalyst for bringing violence, blood, and controversy to the video game industry. Besides being hugely popular with Gamers, games like MK were the subject of dozens of court cases involving the use of violence in video games and gave rise (as earlier mentioned) to the ESRB rating system. The genre has always pushed the limits of social and technological expectations, and has won over audiences the world over with some of the best character development in all of gaming. The genre continues to push forward and shall continue to be formidable in the industry with it’s two powerhouse founders leading the way with new and innovative sequels. Along with strong contributions from cross over titles like the recently released Marvel V.S Capcom 3 and next year’s most anticipated fighting game Street Fighter Cross Tekken. The future looks bright for the genre.