Thursday, June 9, 2022

Knuckle Up

One of the major reasons nostalgia sticks around is simply because we refuse to build off the past. We either bury it or we rehash it endlessly. Both treat the past as if it were an object, and not a continuing living thing that we have to use to make a better future with. You can't live and learn if there isn't a past to learn from. However, for some reason, we would rather state trapped in the endless nothing of modernity, stuck in this limbo of mindless product consumption based on whether the corporation in question either perfectly Xeroxes everything from our youths, or satisfactorily turns it backwards so we can mock it with our big brains.

None of this seeks to build anything, even though we once were very proud of doing this. today we will talk about one such thing.

One of my favorite genres of video games are fighting games. I should specify that they were. I don't tend to enjoy them much these days. There are a few reasons for that, but first let us begin with what defines a fighter.

Younger brother of the beat 'em up genre, fighters nevertheless managed to achieve wider worldwide fame and longevity in the industry. The reason for this is the ease of introduction with a low barrier to entry that soon proves to be tough to master. They are simply flashier and are more involved in beat 'em ups. Essentially the ultimate genre for one on one play, they have managed to last decades due to these factors.

However, it wasn't always like this. There were periods, particularly with the creeping anti-arcade and anti-2D sentiment during the 32-bit generation that almost killed them off by the time the industry hit HD. It was at this point that publishers began courting the "esports" scene and lost much of the charm that normal people and more casual players loved about them, especially with the all too common obsession with "balance" that has muddied most modern multiplayer games like Overwatch. Corporate meddling crippled them good and sucked a lot of the fun out of it, blunted the edges. Regardless, the classics still remain fun to this day so let us begin there.

The origin for the genre is obviously from the martial arts/kung-fu flick boom of the 1970s that stuck throughout the 1980s, showing up in movies like Bloodsport. These games worked to mimic a one on one fight between two titans, where the one with the better skill level would come out on top. Naturally, they carved their own niche out.

1984's Karate Champ by Technos (yes, the Renegade and Double Dragon guys) and published by Data East was one of the first out the gate. The game is pretty simple, featuring a one on one setup of a karate competition using the joystick for moves. Months later came Konami's Yie Air Kung-Fu to put their stamp on it by making the fighting more fantastical like a wuxia film but with much the same setup as Karate Champ. The one vs. one style had its humble beginnings here.

Despite those two originals, the game that really put the pieces together was the beat 'em up Kung Fu Master which had one on one boss fights after the normal stages. The designer of this classic, Takashi Nishiyama, would take the boss fight idea and expand it into an idea when he went to Capcom. He called this idea Street Fighter. There were other tries at this genre in the late 1980s, but it wasn't until Street Fighter releasing in 1987 that solidified the general mechanics and feel of the genre. This was the template going forward.

You might know the franchise as being world famous, but the first game was rough and not exactly polished. Essentially, special moves were difficult to pull off, the AI was overly cheesy, and general movement was stiff. All things considered, the design itself was better than the final product. But it did the lay the groundwork that everyone built off of. Capcom themselves sort of remade this one as Street Fighter Alpha in the 1990s, fixing most of the above issues.

Nonetheless, Nishiyama left Capcom, and in 1991, came two games that would define the genre permanently. This was the year that the genre exploded, and for good reason. The Golden Age of the genre began with these two titles.

The first is the one you all know, Street Fighter II. This game finally proved what fighters were capable of when pushed to the max. Essentially a worldwide martial arts tournament with a wacky cast of characters, the rock solid and tight controls, and legendary soundtrack, as well as bright and bold artstyle, allowed it to show the potential the genre had. It still remains one of the most re-released and updated games of all-time, for good reason. Without hyperbole, it is one of the best games ever made, and deserves all the kudos and credit it has gotten. This took the frame that the original laid down and perfected it.

However, the second game I wanted to mention also came out this year. It was Nishiyama's new project called Fatal Fury (Garou Densetsu in Japan), which is a bit more interesting to talk about due to it being more than his own version of Street Fighter II. While Street Fighter II perfected the original Street Fighter formula, Fatal Fury strove to build on it. To be honest, I have always thought Fatal Fury was the more interesting of the two series, even if Street Fighter II is clearly the better of these two games on a fundamental level.

What makes Fatal Fury so interesting, however, is how it differs from the Street Fighter strand of the genre that was basically about fighting tournaments (until it hastily put together a background plot involving the evil organization of Shadowloo that doesn't really factor into the game itself) in that it has a story you play through. However, instead of getting in the way, the story enhances both the atmosphere and the tone, even if its mainly restricted to the opening movie and the victory screen, it is very effective.

Basically, in Fatal Fury you play as either Terry Bogard, his brother Andy, or their friend Joe Higashi, as they arrive in the seedy slums of South Town to enter the local King of Fighters tournament (yes, that one) to be the best of the best. At first this seems like a typical tournament story, but there is a bit more to it than that.

However, this is a pretense for taking revenge on the local boss, and tournament organizer, Geese Howard, for killing Terry and Andy's father years ago and turning South Town into the chaos of organized crime that it is.

You spend the game fighting through a gauntlet of opponents across South Town. It feels almost like a beat 'em up except with the focus entirely on the boss fights, sort of like building on that part of Kung Fu Master, in way. You beat the other competitors (and Geese's bodyguards) before getting to Geese himself and knock him out of the building itself (!) seemingly killing him and taking your revenge. It's a simple story, but works great through the gameplay and expressive sprites of the era. The sequels deal with the fallout of Geese's defeat here and even how it spreads worldwide. 

This is even expanded upon in the anime OVAs where you get to see more of the characters as well as top notch fighting directed by the legendary Masami Obari. I'm not sure there is anyone who enjoys these games who hasn't seen the anime, because it is that good.

The game is no slouch, either. Being that Fatal Fury was an SNK game, of course the graphics are bright and bold and the soundtrack grooves. The controls are a bit stiff and the AI tough, even by SNK standards, but overall, the game is rock solid and a huge leap over the original Street Fighter. This is a classic in its own right.

The gameplay does build upon that game, too. Fatal Fury features two planes of fighting, a front plain and a back plane, giving the brawls a pseudo-3D feel as you move in and out of the screen, the first of its kind. It doesn't amount to much in the first entry, but it is a good wrinkle later expanded upon in the follow-ups.

Overall, the game was a success, and it deserved it, despite to this day erroneously being thought of as a Street Fighter clone. It's really not.

As the 1990s went on, however, Fatal Fury would prove the more interesting franchise of the two. One of those reasons being that Capcom didn't make a proper sequel for over half a decade while SNK improved Fatal Fury throughout the 1990s.

Whereas Capcom took until 1997 to release and actual follow-up to Street Fighter II, Fatal Fury went on improving and shaking up the gameplay as it continued its story, and eventually brought it to a close. The second game (later updated to the fan favorite Fatal Fury Special) was probably the series popularity peak, offering a classic anime movie and the above mentioned OVAs to go with them, continuing the series penchant for pulp style adventure tales punctuated with cool fighting.

Before the 32-bit generation arrived, it looked as if fighting games were unstoppable. Few realized that the end of the Golden Age was in sight, but for now it was still going strong.

After this was the final game in the main series, Fatal Fury 3: Road to the Final Victory in 1995, which was itself updated three times (Fatal Fury Real Bout, Fatal Fury Real Bout 2, and Fatal Fury Real Bout Special) much like Street Fighter II was. This entry brought the story to a close with the final face-off with Geese Howard amidst a plot involving sacred scrolls and potentially the end of the world. The updated versions all have different content and playstyles (including the addition and removal of ring outs and up to THREE planes of fighting) but this is the end of the main story. And SNK went all out with it.

The last real Fatal Fury game released in 1999 as Garou: Mark of the Wolves, a sequel to the original story. In this, Geese's son, Rock Howard, who was raised by Terry Bogard after his father's death, finds himself in a new South Town, and a new era where he has to face his family's past. What direction will this new generation of fighters go in? This looked like it was meant to be the first in a new series, but SNK's bankruptcy meant this was instead the end of their games. Nonetheless, it was a fantastic final entry that more or less stands on its own as a new thing.

At the same time this fighting boom was going on were story-based fighters like Art of Fighting, Samurai Shodown, The Last Blade, or Mortal Kombat, which added their own touches to the genre. These games tended to accentuate the pulp adventure influence of the genre and less on the basic tournament framework (even if it did feature) which also eventually went on into the 3D fighting genre bursting out at the time. King of Fighters was SNK's attempt at an all-star fighting game featuring characters from all their fighters. Years later this would be their only real fighter they would put out.

By the late '90s, however, 3D had taken over everything, including fighters. The genre made its jump with games like Virtua Fighter and Tekken, taking little time to try and establish new ground with this newfangled dimension.

The big one was a game called Soul Blade (eventually Soul Calibur) that involved a story of cursed demon swords and wandering warriors out to claim, or destroy, it for themselves. The Soul series is a full on adventure story full of interesting characters and fantastic scenery and gameplay that fully takes advantage of its 3D dimension. However, it keep up the promise of pulp-style adventure the genre was known for by that time.

My personal favorite of this time period is a now-little known series called Battle Arena Toshinden. A series obviously taking inspiration from Street Fighter II (rival main characters, worldwide cast, underworld syndicate running a tournament) but went in a much better and exciting direction with it. Toshinden embraced the hotblooded wild side of the genre, starring bounty hunters, disgraced knights, private detectives, treasure hunters, an orphaned gypsy dancer looking for her father, and still more, along with telling a complete story that ends with the third entry.

The gameplay is very basic 3D fighter with dodging, ring-outs, and light and strong attacks, though every entry improves upon the last. The third instalment removes the ring-outs and increases the speed, almost making it a different game at times, but they are otherwise typical mid-90s 3D fighting games. This, however, is a strength.

The first game is probably the most popular, being one of the first console 3D fighters, and it shows its age as a consequence. The game is an early PlayStation title released in 1995, and was actually one of the first games I got with my system. It mirrors the original Street Fighter in how rough and unpolished it is. The original Battle Arena Toshinden is slow and clunky and a bit difficult to look at, but there is a solid framework here. It is a shame Sony ditched promoting the series almost instantly for Tekken instead because Toshinden only improved after the first game.

The follow-up, Battle Arena Toshinden 2 (also made into an anime OVA by the director of the Fatal Fury ones, Masami Obari), continues the story with the Secret Society attempting to finish off the traitors and winners from the previous tournament in a bit of a free-for-all. The gameplay is smoother than before and it looks better with a killer soundtrack. This 1996 instalment tends to be the favorite entry of the series (for those still paying attention to it) and is probably the best one to play first if you're going to get into it today.

But the third game, which came out here in 1997, came out by the time the series was more or less forgotten in the mainstream. This entry shook things up the most by being lightning fast, having walled arenas, and doubling the cast of fighters by having new characters featuring move sets from other characters. In this game, after the Secret Society fell, a rival group lead by a man named Vermillion decided to wipe out the remnants and silence those who knew the truth of what was going on, including the cast from the first two games! Depending on which character you choose, you either do Vermillion's work for him, or you storm the hidden mountain base and eliminate the threat of this secret war once and for all. Did you know this underground group is also trying revive a "god of fighting" into the world? Things get wild by the end.

Battle Arena Toshinden emphasized simple, reliable, and flashy, and it did it great, especially by the end of the series. They did attempt to make a fourth entry, Garou-style, but it never went anywhere (because it was much too late) and the series died with the original PlayStation, forgotten like so many other non-AAA franchises. It is probably for the best because where the genre is now would never allow anything like it to exist today.

You might wonder why I brought all of this up. What do the roots of the genre have to do with what is happening today? The reason is that the genre lost its way as the years went on and is a pale shadow of its glory. Fighting fans might not want to admit it, but its been that way for a long, long time now. It was fairly clear when Street Fighter IV was basically 3D Street Fighter II with a new character pack added onto it. There was no gas left in that tank.

There hasn't been a new fighting franchise in a long time. The genre mostly consists of endless rehashes of King of Fighters, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, or Guilty Gear, with nothing much new to show except graphical upgrades and endless balance patches to make the games less fun. there is no more wild madness like in smaller series like Battle Arena Toshinden or Bloody Roar. Part of what makes these games great is learning exploits to beat tough foes or feel invincible while exploiting a character's weakness. Taking that craziness out misses a lot of the appeal. Now everything must be dumbed down into a bland, formless mush.

Another thing missing is the pulp style adventure that games like Fatal Fury kickstarted back in the early 1990s. All that cool stuff I mentioned above? It doesn't really happen anymore--it's all the same formulaic stuff. The lack of story beyond "bad organization forms tournament, again and again" has worn out its welcome, especially when there is no longer story to make something fun out of. This is how you get nonsense like Mortal Kombat fumbling its time travel story so very terribly by killing off all the good characters for corporately bland and safe Current Year ones. 

Even Street Fighter has resorted to basically remaking Street Fighter II over and over with the Street Fighter Alpha 3 cast and a handful of new ones every entry. For a franchise that shook the industry up with fresh ideas back in the day, this is beyond sad. Mortal Kombat rebooted the story and screwed it up instantly, burying it into the dirt. SNK has abandoned all of their more interesting fighting franchises for King of Fighters (always their least interesting fighting series), and there isn't much else. Every other older franchise appears to be dead or aimed squarely at the esports crowd. There is nothing exciting happening in the genre anymore.

So when I see a new Street Fighter game announced, I don't get excited anymore. I just see a series that gave up being interesting back in 2008 for rehashing past success and milking nostalgia instead. This is more or less where the genre is today, and it is disappointing.

The series, like the genre, is not building anything anymore, it is not seeking to improve or travel new arenas. It is satisfied copying the same game forever while tweaking it just enough to trick you into buying a new product that isn't new at all. 

Fighters might be passed their prime, but I don't think the nadir has ever been worse for them. At least beat 'em ups still occasionally get fresh entries like Streets of Rage 4 or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge that build on past success. Fighters trapped in their AAA or death, esports-centric crowd will never regain the appeal they once had, not until they remember what made them great. Until then, enjoy another 3D version of Street Fighter II with a handful of new characters. It isn't like Street Fighter is the only series like this, they're all going down this path.

Of course, it makes sense when you think about it. The more they use the nostalgia crutch, the less new material they have to create. In the era of AAA where everything costs an arm and a leg to make things, and where the content is less than that of which you'd get in games decades ago, these companies don't have much choice. Charge ahead towards Progress, or get left behind. You don't want to get left behind, do you?

But that isn't how progress works. This is a dead end where nothing new can or will be built. Sure enough, that is where the industry is today.

Hopefully one day the industry will get the shot in the arm it needs, but at least we still have the classics. They're still fun today and they still inspire. Go enjoy, get inspired from them, and spread the joy to other people. There is plenty good out there, just not always in the places you expect to find it from.

Sometimes finding it is a battle, but what isn't these days? That's part of the fun.


  1. You seem to have overlooked some of the fighting franchises coming out of Japan over the past decade or so, especially stuff published by Arc System Works. BlazBlue and Guilty Gear especially look like the kind of series you're looking for, with ongoing storylines and deep gameplay. EVO may tend to dominate public awareness of the fighting genre, but there's a ton of AA and indie-made games from both Japan and the US that have managed to carve out their own niches. (Heck, there's even one that started life as a My Little Pony fangame, got C&D'ed by Hasbro, and got a whole new roster of characters designed by the original showrunner for Friendship Is Magic. You know, if you're into that.)

    1. Yeah, I know about Guilty Gear and BlazBlue. Thanks for the suggestions.

  2. I bailed on fighting games pretty early on. Had fun playing them with my friends in high school, but that was about it. Recently, I got ahold of Skullgirls because I found the cartoony graphics appealing, but holy crap the tutorial by itself was overwhelming. You said "low barrier to entry that soon proves to be tough to master"? Yeah, it's just tough to master now, that low barrier is gone. So I leave the genre to the people who like it that way.

    1. Modern fighting games are more interested in esports and competition. Balance comes at the cost of accessibility and fun.

  3. Great trip into the past and spot-on as usual for the problems of modern gaming. Designers should look back at group of friends playing together when making a fighting game, but unfortunately until an eventual market crash they won' think about it. LOL

    I'm curious: do you now just launch an old fighting game when you feel the need (maybe using Fightcade) or have you enjoyed any of the new ones in the last decade?

    1. I tend to just play old ones every now and then, like Real Bout Fatal Fury Special. The new ones tend to be pale imitations of old ones that I've already played many times.

      To be honest, I was hoping Terry Bogard being in Smash Bros would have gotten at least a new Fatal Fury/Garou out of SNK, but they're still just going with King of Fighters. AAA has not been good for the genre.