[Editorial Tuesday] The History of Fighting Games

For the past two and a half decades, fighting games have been one of the major genres of gaming whether they were on consoles or in the arcades. Some of the main titles from its inception that reign to this day includes Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Tekken. So how did it all start? How did some become a pop culture phenomenon, the subject of a US congressional hearing, get banned in a select number of countries, and gain the outrage of other political/special interest groups? Read today’s Editorial Tuesday to find out!

Heavyweight Champ and Karate Champ

Just like how Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat started out, the fighting game genre originated in the arcades during its heyday between the 1970’s and 1980’s. One of the originally released fighting games was a simple arcade boxing game called Heavyweight Champ by Sega. However, it didn’t operate with a joystick with a four to six button layout like your typical fighter. It used two levers/joysticks that represent boxing gloves and depending on how the player maneuvers them, the punches could go to the head or body. But with boxing being a sport limited to punching, it was natural that people would want more. During the mid-1970’s, Kung Fu progressively became popular thanks to Bruce Lee, and games that allowed kicking and jumping were naturally inevitable but would still take another decade after the debut of Heavyweight Champ.

In 1984, Technos and Data East released one of the first ever two-player arcade martial arts influenced fighters, Karate Champ, or Karate-Do in Japan. Player one would be a fighter in a traditional white gi, and the player two fighters would wear a red gi. The rules of the game took inspiration from real life karate tournaments that are portrayed from the original Karate Kid movie, which were point oriented. If a player successfully lands a punch or kick, they are awarded a point and whoever can get two points wins like in your typical karate tournament. While this does not sound exciting by today’s standards, it still became a big hit in the arcades and on the Commodore 64.


The Rise of Street Fighter

Without a doubt, no one can deny that the 1991 release of Street Fighter II was the breakout hit for the franchise. The first game made its initial debut in 1987 and was presentably much different from what modern players are used to in relation to the game’s traditional standards. Instead of buttons, some arcade cabinets had these big pads (one for punch and one for kick) where if you hit them hard enough, the impact of your character’s hits would increase.

Other versions of the arcade release would also have the standard joystick and six-button layout. While most arcade cabinets of Street Fighter since Street Fighter II would include instructions on how to do a character’s special move, players had to figure them out on their own and were relatively difficult to pull off in the first game. Last, the ONLY playable characters were Ken and Ryu. If you wanted to play as Ryu, then you have to play as player one. If you wanted to be Ken, you would assume the player two position. It was met with positive reception, but thankfully Capcom had great ideas for its sequel to the point that it would make the first game obsolete.

Street Fighter II became an international hit to the point it is considered the original standard for modern fighting games. Street Fighter II gained popularity, not because of its graphics and visuals, but because it was one of the first fighting games that allowed players to have a selection of more than two characters with their own distinct fighting styles with a deep combo system. Instead of your standard karate fighter, players could be a pro wrestler, a sumo wrestler, a heavyweight boxer, an elite soldier, and a kung-fu fighting machine. Thanks to its success, it had numerous upgrades, spin-offs, and sequels that added to its roster and mechanics (such as giving Chun Li a fireball from the Turbo release). It added more to the learning curve and deepened its replay value.

Its Super Nintendo release would then become one of Capcom’s biggest sellers. Thanks to its worldwide popularity, it would inspire a couple of (controversial) live-action movies and an American animated series that would be subjected to parody on YouTube. However, fans can find quality adaptations of Street Fighter through its anime feature film and anime series. In turn, the anime movie would then inspire the interquel, Alpha/Zero by using anime style designs (such as the muscle definitions of Bison and Sagat) and introducing the two vs. one dramatic battle feature that pays homage to Ken and Ryu’s final fight with Bison in the anime movie.


Post-Street Fighter in the West

Shortly after Street Fighter II became a hit, Ed Boon and John Tobias of Midway stepped up to the challenge in the US by debuting Mortal Kombat in 1992. While Street Fighter II’s visuals took its influence from anime and manga, Mortal Kombat’s photorealistic digitized graphics pay homage to 1970’s and 1980’s martial arts cinema. In fact, Mortal Kombat was intended to be a game starring Jean Claude Van Damme. Unable to come to any agreements with Van Damme, Midway changed the game to what is now Mortal Kombat and Jean Claude Van Damme would then be remodeled as the game’s martial arts movie star, Johnny Cage. Ironically, Van Damme would later star in the 1994 Street Fighter live action movie.

In addition to its then captivating graphics, Mortal Kombat took America by storm by adding in blood and fatalities to distinct itself and to get people playing. Just like how the first Street Fighter intentionally kept its special moves such as the Hadouken and Shoryuken a secret, the fatalities in the first Mortal Kombat were also a hidden gem. At the time, nobody did what Mortal Kombat was doing by ripping out opponent’s hearts, ripping heads from their bodies, and uppercutting them to a pit of spikes. If any kid from those days owned or rented a copy of that game for their Genesis or Super Nintendo, that was considered a bragging right in the schoolyard since a good number of parents wouldn’t allow them to play it.

In addition to Night Trap, Mortal Kombat would then become the subject of a bipartisan US congressional hearing in the 1990’s about video games and violence. Midway showed that the hearings did not faze them by adding in other novelty finishes such as Friendships and Babalities, while still expanding its violent content in its sequels. When it came to international releases, it was banned in Spain and Germany and the Japanese release would turn black and white in the event a player could pull off a fatality. Even international releases of newer installments are still subjected to being banned in other countries such as in Australia and Korea.

Just like how Street Fighter paved way for Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat helped pave way for fighting games with digitized graphics with extreme content for the sake of pushing the envelope. Some of these notable games include Primal Rage, Killer Instinct, and Tattoo Assassins. Some were given some good scores, and others were just style over substance in an attempt of outdoing Mortal Kombat in being edgy. As Mortal Kombat became the best selling game, it would become a pop culture franchise by inspiring a hit movie, a TV series, an animated series, and an Internet series.


Post-Street Fighter in Japan

As Midway’s Mortal Kombat was going toe-to-toe with Street Fighter in the US, SNK would be Street Fighter’s challenger in Japan and Korea. While SNK’s flagship fighter has always been King of Fighters, it started with Fatal Fury. In an ironic twist of fate, it was actually developed by the original creators of the first Street Fighter, Takashi Nishiyama and Hiroshi Matsumoto. The main novelty of Fatal Fury was that it had two-planes in each stage. You could fight in the foreground or in the background, and the characters would appropriately shrink if they jumped to the background showcasing then groundbreaking animations. Last, no one can deny that if offered a more difficult challenge with its boss battles with the likes of Hwa Jai and Geese, and the difficulty of the boss battles would thrive as a staple of SNK’s fighting games.

Thanks to the success of Fatal Fury, SNK would further expand its library of fighting games by debuting Art of Fighting, which was mostly the brainchild of Hiroshi Matsumoto. What makes Art of Fighting special to the legacy of fighting games is that it was the first fighting game to use super special attacks, and would also use desperation attacks when a character’s life bar was near depletion. This desperation move feature would later be implemented in some select installments of King of Fighters and in the PlayStation’s breakout 3D fighter, Battle Arena Toshinden.

In terms of its graphical presentation, just like how Fatal Fury had unique animations with its two-plane stages, Art of Fighting was the first and one of the few fighting games back in the day to use real-time zooming/scaling animations. If the characters got within striking distance, the camera would zoom in to make the characters bigger and to show off more detail. This is a feature that would also be utilized in Samurai Shodown, one of the first weapons oriented fighters. As a game that emphasized weapons, Samurai Shodown would emphasize on landing one strike as opposed to stringing combos, and would appropriately use blood. Last, it was one of the few fighting games that would have health items thrown in like an old school beat ‘em up and/or platform games.

After Ryo from Art of Fighting was introduced as a playable character in an installment of Fatal Fury, it would inspire SNK to make a full crossover between Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting which would then pave way for King of Fighters. In addition to using the characters from both games as their main fighters, it would include other characters from other SNK franchises such as Psycho Soldier and Ikari Warriors, and finally, introduce original characters such as Kyo and Iori. What made King of Fighters distinct from its predecessors and to fighting games as a whole was the ability to have three vs. three as opposed to one on one. Players and critics in Asia enjoyed how technical the game was and loved its style. It was overwhelmingly popular to the point that many in the East and its cult audience in the West thought it was superior to Street Fighter


3D Fighters

After Street Fighter, Fatal Fury, and Mortal Kombat established 2D fighters, Yu Suzuki of Sega took the genre to a new direction with the industry’s first ever 3D fighter, Virtua Fighter. Not only did it have 3D graphics, it also had 3D movement where characters can move left and right. While most 2D fighters were gimmick oriented with fireballs, in tune with a good majority of Suzuki’s games, he wanted to emphasize on realism. He put that philosophy into Virtua Fighter by trying to portray real-life fighting styles by balancing offense and defense through counters. Sega managed to make the game by using a mix of their own original hardware, and some hardware they borrowed from defense contractor Lockheed Martin. The game became a hit to the point that many developers admitted to being inspired by it. A couple of notable developers who took inspiration from Virtua Fighter are John Romero of Quake and Fumito Ueda of Team Ico.

Shortly after Virtua Fighter became a big hit, Namco followed up with Tekken, by hiring team members who worked on Virtua Fighter. While Virtua Fighter had a technical scheme, Tekken was a faster-paced game with an unlimited foreground (with no ring outs like in Virtua Fighter) and a faster frame rate with an easier learning curve. In addition to Tekken, Namco would expand its foray into 3D fighters with its Soul Calibur series, which focuses on weapons like SNK’s Samurai Shodown. In addition to Namco’s Tekken and Soul Calibur, Tecmo would debut their own 3D fighter in the mid-1990’s, Dead or Alive, which emphasized on a counter system with some sex appeal.


Crossovers

As stated earlier, Street Fighter and King of Fighters had a notable rivalry in the Land of the Rising Sun to the point it was expressed in their respective games. In a cut scene from King of Fighters ’94, shortly before fighting Rugal in the arcade mode, one of the statues of fighters Rugal has defeated happens to notably be Guile from Street Fighter II as a diss to that game. Street Fighter Alpha would later introduce Dan, a joke character who spoofs Ryo and Robert from King of Fighters as a rib on SNK.

Before SNK and Capcom would have their first fight, Capcom would popularize franchise crossovers with X-Men Vs. Street Fighter. Though some could understandably dispute that King of Fighters is a crossover, all the characters featured in that franchise all come from original SNK properties (along with what Sega did with Fighters Megamix and Nintendo has with Smash Bros). X-Men Vs. Street Fighter would be the first game to bring together characters from different companies for a crazy fighting game.

While tag team has always been a part of wrestling games as it is with the actual sport, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter took its initial concept and raised the stakes by introducing a tag feature where it’s a fight to the finish as opposed to the standard best two out of three rounds. With its high-res graphics, easy controls, and fast-paced nature, it became an instant hit and would become the inaugural Marvel Vs. Capcom game. Thanks to the game being a big hit and paving way for the Marvel Vs. Capcom franchise, the call for an SNK and Capcom crossover game would progressively become stronger.

For some of you who may not know, the first crossover between SNK and Capcom was not the Capcom produced Capcom Vs. SNK from 2000 for the arcade and Dreamcast, but an SNK produced game for the Neo Geo Pocket Color in 1999, SNK Vs. Capcom: The Match of the Millenium. While it may be unknown to most of you readers and casual (and maybe younger) fighting game fans, those who have played the game speak highly of it for its solid roster of 26 selectable characters, and various modes of gameplay such as the standard one on one, two vs. two tag team, and three on three team battle.

As for the crossover, most gamers know with the initial Capcom Vs. SNK, it perfectly brought in a good mix of the King of Fighters 94’s system of charging up the character’s super meter with Street Fighter Alpha’s standard super meter which is built up by getting hit and hitting your opponent. If you matched up Rugal and Guile, it even spoofs the cutscene from King of Fighters ‘94 with Guile’s statue. In addition to an immediate sequel to Capcom Vs. SNK, SNK would finally produce its own versus game for the Neo Geo hardware, SNK Vs. Capcom CVS Chaos, which wouldn’t be as well received as Capcom Vs. SNK.

Midway would later make their long-awaited crossover with Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe. Though it was met with praise, many agreed that it came too late since Capcom was long-reigning supreme. While the Marvel Vs. Capcom series continues to thrive, other fighting games franchises would later have their own crossovers such as Street Fighter X Tekken, and the inclusion of Akira from Virtua Fighter in Dead or Alive 5.


Post-Arcade Era In the West

Though arcades in the West are about as rare as Bengali tigers, they are still thriving in Japan. While Capcom has released Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, Infinity, and Street Fighter V for home consoles, they do not have arcade releases in both the West and in Japan. With international online play now possible, it is easy to conclude that Capcom feels that arcades in general for some games are probably not profitable. On the other hand, Namco and Sega are still releasing arcade versions of Tekken and Virtua Fighter in Japan.

While playing online is great, some players feel it takes away a personal connection of the social aspect of arcade gaming where people can meet face-to-face. In addition, some feel that rage quitting in the middle of the game and how people just swear and yell in the safety behind a screen causes some frustrations in making friends and building a community.

However, fighting game tournaments in the US such as Evo continue to thrive to this day. The event started back in 1996 in Silicon Valley with the arcade releases Street Fighter Alpha 2 and Super Street Fighter II as its sole featured games. Since then, the event has moved to Las Vegas and now includes other non-Capcom fighters such as Tekken, Virtua Fighter, Guilty Gear, and now 2018’s Dragon Ball FighterZ is added to the next event. In addition to Evo, there are numerous events in Japan and Korea where legendary Street Fighter players like Daigo Umehara made his name and has been a long time celebrity of the fighting game world.


Final Thoughts

As we have seen with Street Fighter, Tekken, and Mortal Kombat, they all have stood the test of time, continue to thrive, and many fans still enjoy their older installments. Some games like King of Fighters and the rest of the SNK library are a major hit in one region, but a cult hit in another. Some were just a product of their time such as Killer Instinct, Battle Arena Toshinden, and a good majority of Saturn’s fighting game library exclusive in Japan such as Variable Fighter Geo and Asuka 120%. And there are some that will forever be remembered as one of the worst games of all time like Shaq Fu, which scores lower than Shaq’s free throw percentage.

As the 16-time world champion, Ric Flair would say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the world of fighting games have done a great job of demonstrating that. Whenever some games introduce a special feature, other developers would adapt them to their own games after its popular reception. After Art of Fighting and King of Fighters started using super attacks, Street Fighter would finally introduce them in Super Street Fighter II Turbo and further be emphasized in Alpha and III. Thanks to fatalities and other bonus finishers introduced in Mortal Kombat, other Western fighters like War Gods and Killer Instinct would follow suit in trying to outdo Mortal Kombat’s violence with their own finishers. As for zooming animations seen in Art of Fighting and in Samurai Shodown, some modern games take this to the next level with super combos like in Guilty Gear and Dragon Ball FighterZ, which makes the players feel like they are watching an anime.

The fighting game industry has been able to evolve thanks to healthy competition and continues to contribute to its ongoing progress Even though 3D has improved to the point of realism, and with Street Fighter IV and V now using 3D rendering, by no means has 2D gone the way of the dodo. Melty Blood, Guilty Gear, and BlazBlue still thrive as pure 2D fighters and present-day technology provide an excellent quality with high res graphics to show off amazing visuals and fast-paced gameplay. No matter what form they come in, fighting games and a good number of Mount Rushmore of the genre (Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, King of Fighters, and Virtua Fighter) are going to be around for a long time.

Justin

Writer

Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

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