The Slow Demise of the Classic Fighting Game

After steadily pounding the pride out of several coworkers while playing copious amounts of games like Power Stone and Super Smash Brothers, I was forced to ask myself, what has happened to the fighting game genre?

There are several issues that are guaranteeing the vaporization of the classic fighting game; I hope that by going through these issues I will be able to express what I feel makes a “classic fighting game”. I am not saying that these issues or trends are necessarily bad; I am simply recognizing them for what they are: the bane of classic fighting games.

The most obvious trend is that the most successful titles that fall into the genre nowadays are ones that blur the lines between fighting and action/adventure. The exceptions to this rule, of course, are the titles being belched forth from Capcom on a yearly basis; their own problem is something a lot more aggravatingly deliberate which I will deal with in a second.

Now in regards to the idea that most developers veering away from the classic fighting game structure, I believe this is caused by a developer’s desire to be different. While this logic may have been solid several years ago when games like Super Smash Brothers and Digimon Rumble Arena first hit the stage, there have been countless games similar in style released on every platform since then. Semi-obscure but decent titles such as Viewtiful Joe: Red Hot Rumble, Jump Super Stars and Small Arms as well as failures like Rag Doll Kung Fu and Dream Mix TV World Fighters have ensured that the party style fighting game would never become a rarity within the industry.

Super Smash Brothers Melee

When done correctly, games within this sub-genre are undoubtedly fun but I consistently feel something is missing as I play. Perhaps it is the rather mature tone inherently bound to the fighting game genre upon its inception; the popular party fighting games almost always have a silly, carefree tone to them. I do not feel sorry for the characters upon losing nor do I question their well-being. The Nintendoverse will not plunge into a hellish world, rife with demons and baby eaters if I do not defeat Master Hand. It could also be the decreased emphasis on skill; the matches in these games seem to be determined by who got the best power up or who got screwed by the ever-changing battlefield. I’m not saying there’s absolutely no skill involved a la Call of Duty, but there are few nuances attached to these games’ mechanics that require one to practice mastery.

Another issue that may be the death knell for the classic fighting game is repetition. This issue is found most commonly in games that adhere closely to the classic fighting game style.

A series like SoulCalibur is one that I would say has retained its classic fighting game roots. However, the series is largely stagnant; aside from a few characters and move sets, nothing has really changed. This may be the price one has to pay for staying true to their roots or it may simply be an unrelated problem, I don’t know.

What I do know is that the developers may very well be trying to emulate, in players, the feeling experienced by Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (look it up); it’s always the same damn thing.

There is no perceived change in the series besides the eye candy which, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t mean all that much. As we all know, playing a great game is more about the feel of the game rather than the look. If that doesn’t ring true to you, then I guess you’ve never heard of the Wii.

Capcom, in all their omnipotence, saved the Street Fighter series from this pitfall. Unfortunately, Midway was not able to do the same and, from the looks of things, probably never will be. Even Mortal Kombat vs DC felt like I was playing yet another expired Mortal Kombat sequel despite the introduction of completely new and “your being here makes it hard for me to take this game seriously” type characters. Unlike many game series, Mortal Kombat is one that simply needs to die.

As I hinted at earlier, Capcom’s hand in the death of the classic fighter is a lot more deliberate and perhaps even a little insidious. Many people may not find any flaw within Capcom’s handling of their fighting series worth mentioning since after all, they practically pioneered the genre. I guess some may say that a King is free to exercise his royal prerogative to crap where he eats and in some cases I would agree, only this is not such a case.

I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore. Capcom’s hand in this crisis is subtle but devastating; they more recently are making games that are “pick up and play” rather than “learn, practice and master”. For many, this practice may seem deceitfully harmless but it is the ever descending slope on which the now manageable snowball representing “ease of playability” is currently rolling. If it continues its descent, we will be left with a giant white boulder signifying the complete annihilation of competition and the giant, unstoppable, destructive juggernaut known as “anybody can play and anyone can win regardless of experience”.

Ignoring the terrible and useless analogy for a moment, when games adopt a characteristic such as “anybody can play and anyone can win”, they ultimately become devoid of their fun factor since your own personal talents and preferences have little to do with the outcome of the battle. Different titles manifest this disease in different ways.

Games like Street Fighter and BlazBlue have the symptom of tiered characters. When fighting games first hit the scene, all characters were equal. Some were faster than others, some were stronger but through a form of checks and balances every character the player had access to was objectively equal to any other. The choice of one’s character relied solely on the player’s preference, whether it was due to their character’s aesthetic appeal or their move-set.

More frequently, however, we get the problem of unbalanced characters. This means that no matter how skilled you are, depending on the character you are up against, you are at a disadvantage. There are some characters that are simply better than others.

For example, when BlazBlue was first released there was a character named Taokaka who is fast but ridiculously weak. Her antithesis is the burly Iron Tager who was slow but ridiculously strong. Though Taokaka’s concept probably made sense on paper, her application as a character is a joke. Though she is the fastest character, she is nowhere near fast enough to legitimize what she is lacking in strength and defense. Iron Tager, on the other hand, is a walking cheat code; his four hit KO strength coupled with his tank-like defense make it so that his sluggish movements are a non-factor. The one drawback that was meant to rein in his ability as a character is overshadowed by his other assets that are so effective they would make a super saiyan jealous.

Iron Tager VegetaThere are other examples in other games but I feel that this comparison illustrates what I am talking about most effectively; no matter how skilled the player, if he or she is using a character like Taokaka against someone using a character like Iron Tager, they are almost certainly going to lose. So players, in efforts to avoid getting defeated in such a lame and broken fashion, choose characters that are the most effective rather than ones that are appealing to them, thus removing a major fun factor from the whole experience.

The other manifestation is simplified game mechanics.

Once upon a time, fighting games had three different types of punches and kicks, each assigned to a different button. Players would have to practice in order to find out which sequence of button presses produced the best combos which were specific to each character. Super combos were produced by executing a lengthy motion on the directional pad followed by a button press. Bragging rights and blistered thumbs were your reward. Imagine my outrage upon playing Crapcom’s Marvel vs. Capcom 3 or 2009’s Tatsunoko vs Capcom.

Trying to execute complicated and unique combos by using various button combinations? Don’t worry about it, press square three times and your character will automatically mix up their assault into a flurry of fists and feet.

Alpha counters? Hah, what’s that?

Want to do a super combo? Why are you rubbing the controller like that? All we do is press L2 nowadays.

Excited to have a speedster squad with Spiderman, Wolverine and Felicia? Sorry old timer, all I have to do is choose Dante and Wesker and you die no matter what.

Dante

What plagues MvC3 is a mixture of both mind-numbingly simple gameplay mechanics and tiered characters, making it a wholly unfulfilling experience.

As I wrote this rant, I began to come under the realization that this may simply be the life cycle of genres; things change and the old is wiped out. Classic is called classic for a reason, nobody that plans on getting laid listens to classical music and enjoys it. Perhaps this is the reason for games straying away from the old school fighting game formula. I imagined that the people that make up the majority of game consumers have little to no interest in the classic fighting game style but then I thought that this may be the case simply because there is a lack of games that utilize this style.

One game that comes to mind as being the perfect melding of classic styling and modern developing required to stay relevant in today’s industry is the King of Fighters series. There is no line blurred when determining what genre of game it is. Playing a new iteration is rarely identical to playing the previous and probably most importantly, the only way you will beat me at that game is if you’re actually better than me. King of Fighters is a relatively well-received series, so the demand for these kinds of games is still there; perhaps developers know something I don’t. Regardless of the reasons, I am pretty certain that if things go on like this, the genre, as we know it, will disappear altogether.

Shame.