In theory, fighting games should be one of the easiest genres to define - it's pretty much all there in the title. Two people trade karate chops, dragon punches and flying kicks until one is knocked unconscious or mercilessly killed, the only real complication coming from the clicking timer (fighters tend to suffer a cardiac arrest if they break the 60 second rule, you see.)
Except, it's not always one-on-one, as Marvel vs. Capcom lets you tag your characters in and out like professional wrestlers. Sometimes it's not just about feet and fists, as Soulcalibur furnishes its fighters with short swords and gigantic claymores.
There's even a distinction between how 2D and 3D fighting games operate, and once you factor in advanced terminology like super cancelling, zoning, turtling, juggling, parrying, tick-throwing and wave-dashing, it's clear that the fighting genre is one of the more complex around.
And fighting games mean different things to different people. Daishi Odashima, Director of Soulcalibur V, sees them as an advanced form of chess. "I think fighting games are like puzzles. You have some alternative actions and moves in every circumstance, and players need to find them. When I play fighting games seriously, I sometimes examine several moves like when playing Shogi. If you understand the rules of fighting games, they are almost the same as card games, but with a shorter time limit."
But Paulo Garcia, Lead Designer on Mortal Kombat, has a different take, seeing fighting games as more akin to competitive sports. "Part of what makes sports so much fun to watch is their ability to showcase not only the skill of the players, but the unpredictability of humans," he says, "Fighting games, more than any other game, capture this feeling in digital form. There are only so many ways that two boxers can swing their fists at each other, but the journey to that final knockout is never the same."
In this sense, fighting games are about reading your opponent and searching for an opening - just like in a real-life sparring match. For Katsuhiro Harada, Producer of Tekken 6, it's about much more than that, and he sees fighting games as something altogether more philosophical. "You channel your intelligence, your philosophy, your pride and your discipline into your character, then face an adversary to prove and express yourself. The fighting game means endless battling and a way of life."
This is an impassioned take on what the genre means to hardcore players. But in the hands of a casual audience, fighting games can be enjoyed with frenzied button mashing - in much the same way you don't need a car license to enjoy the delights of Forza 3.
A Brief History
The seventies saw a surge of interest in martial arts cinema, with 1971's The Big Boss and 1974's The Street Fighter hitting big. Video games, unsurprisingly, weren't going to miss a trick, and in 1976 - the same year a generation fell in love with Rocky Balboa - Sega released Heavyweight Champ.
It featured a boxing glove that could tilt up and down to perform high and low punches, and while its side on perspective is reminiscent of modern fighting games, it was far from a pioneer. Tim Skelly's vector-based 1979 game Warrior is more fondly remembered, and with its top down perspective featuring two battling knights it can lay claim to being the first weapons-based fighting game.
But the true grandfather of fighting games is none other than 1984's Karate Champ. Known in Japan as Way of the Empty Hand, this arcade game introduced the "best of three rounds" format alongside a varied move set. It also had a bonus stage where you punched a charging bull in the face.
Following Karate Champ was Yie Ar Kung Fu (1985). This Konami classic introduced characters with different fighting styles, health bars, female fighters as well as projectile attack - and it also featured a digitised voice that yelled "perfect" when you won a match without a scratch.
Then in 1987, Capcom released the original Street Fighter, a game that introduced the wandering Ryu and let players discover his fireball, dragon punch and hurricane kick techniques - all performed with circular motions of the joystick. Street Fighter was also the first fighting game to use a six-button layout split between punches and kicks. It was mildly innovative, but the best was yet to come.
In 1991 Capcom defined a genre with what is arguably the most important fighting game of all time. Street Fighter II: The World Warrior let you choose between eight different characters - each with their own special moves. It also pioneered the "combo" system that became synonymous with both the series and the genre.
"Street Fighter II had a big influence on my life", Namco's Harada enthuses, "I hold my arcade pad like I hold a wine glass. It's a strange way to hold a pad, but I played Street Fighter II so much that I bruised my left hand and it got covered in blisters. I still have the scar even today."
Street Fighter II's success kicked off a golden spell for the genre, spawning the likes of SNK's Fatal Fury: King of Fighters (1991) and Midway's Mortal Kombat (1992). Fatal Fury was released less than a year after Street Fighter II and introduced the Bogard brothers as well as an intriguing background/foreground switching system. Mortal Kombat, meanwhile, became Street Fighter's first true rival and sent the media into a frenzied hysteria thanks to its rushes of pixelated gore.
The fighting genre's next major milestone was just around the corner. Sega's Virtua Fighter (1993) was the first of a new breed of fighting games that featured characters constructed from polygon and in addition to the aesthetical shift, Virtua Fighter laid the foundation for 3D fighting mechanics.
Hot on the heels of Virtua Fighter was Tekken (1994), the inaugural title of the best selling fighting game series to date. It was at the crest of a wave of other prominent 3D fighting games - including Dead or Alive (1996), Bloody Roar (1997) and Soulcalibur (1998) - as well as two of the greatest 2D fighting games ever made in both Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike (1999) and Garou: Mark of the Wolves (1999). Their respective Parrying and Just Defend systems proved that a strong defence was just as important as a steady offence.
It would also be disingenuous not to mention Power Stone (1999), Capcom's 3D arena fighter, and Super Smash Bros. (1999), as both these games steered the genre into fresh new territory. "I was amazed by the consistent control style for all characters in Super Smash Bros", enthuses Yoshinori Ono, Producer of Street Fighter IV, "The development team put effort into lowering the entry barrier. They also incorporated the stage structure into the gameplay, adding flexibility. I hope, one day, we will do our interpretation of this type of game."
The post millennium period then saw a cool-down period where the popularity of fighting games began to decline in the West. Fighting games continued to be released, but a lull had been reached - though thankfully, the second (and ongoing) golden age of fighting games was only a few years down the road.
Reading List - Current Contenders
Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition (360, PS3, PC)
Street Fighter IV took the original World Warriors sprites and re-sculpted them into 3D with a flexible combat system that layered the accessibility of Ultra combos with the hidden depth of the Focus system.
Tekken 6 (360, PS3)
While Street Fighter was missing in action for nearly a decade, the Tekken series maintained a strong position in arcades and on consoles. Its latest instalment also introduced a "Rage" system that lets players do more damage with their last slither of health.
BlazBlue: Continuum Shift (360, PS3)
While most other studios were jumping on the 2.5D bandwagon - with fighting games that used 3D polygons and 2D mechanics - Arc System Works crafted a sprite-based fighter with boundless beauty.
Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds (360, PS3)
Crafting a sequel for the highly revered Marvel vs. Capcom 2 was never going to be easy, but Capcom pulled out all the stops with a chaotic fusion of diverse characters and combo flexibility.
Mortal Kombat (360, PS3)
After years of flirting with 3D fighting systems, and failing to deliver anything particularly special, NetherRealm Studios exhumed the remains of the original MK trilogy and fashioned them into a capable 2D fighting game with character and depth.
Reading List - Classic Collection
Although Soul Edge introduced players to the Katana skills of Mitsurugi, it was the release of Soulcalibur on the Dreamcast that cemented the series as a heavy hitter - partly thanks to its evasive Eight-Way Run system.
Street Fighter Anniversary Collection (Xbox)
Anniversary Collection is worth its weight in gold as it contains Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie and Hyper Street Fighter II - the latter being an amalgamation of Street Fighter II and its four main revisions.
Garou: Mark of the Wolves (XBLA)
With a back-catalogue of fighting games to rival even Capcom, picking a single SNK game is always a painstaking task, but amongst the regal tournaments and samurai conflicts, there's Garou: Mark of the Wolves - the final instalment in the Fatal Fury series and SNK's counter dunk to 3rd Strike.
State of play
Following the console release of Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger in 2009, fighting games have seen a resurgence in Western popularity. The quality of titles has also increased, but when you look at games like The King of Fighters XII and Mortal Kombat, the level of progression is gradual rather than dramatic.
"It's difficult, certainly", Arc System Works' Daisuke Ishiwatari muses. "When you look at Smash Bros and PowerStone, these games add additional players and power-ups to try and broaden the experience, but in doing so, they move away from a classic 'fighting game'. With games like Guilty Gear and Street Fighter, the template is very simple - two human opponents - one wins, one loses. It's a scenario that's older than videogames. How we continue to explore that dynamic is down to the creator's imagination."
But while we wait for a game to come along that drop kicks the rule book out the window, and astounds us with an entirely new way of beating the virtual crap out of each other (and no, The Fight: Lights Out doesn't count), fighting games are also making important steps in other areas. This includes the online functionality provided by Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.
"With internet connectivity expanding and connection speeds getting faster and more reliable, the competitive desire that drove fighting games in the past has returned," Garcia described. "As a player, you have more access to competition, which drives you to improve. Players can easily find tips, footage and other information online about improving their own fighting game skills. This leads to more people playing at a higher level."
It also leads to more people interacting with the fighting game community through websites like Shoryuken and Frame-advantage, something which BlazBlue producer Toshimichi Mori sees as a quintessential ingredient to the continued growth of the genre.
"The fighting game community is the future of fighting games - no question. It's a relationship that must work two ways. We need the community to continue enjoying and buying our games, but we can't expect this to happen if we fail to entertain and surprise them. That is the key - we must work hard, not just to bring new experiences to the existing community, but to entertain people in such a way that new players are attracted to the community."
But attracting new players is no easy task, as the inherent complexity of fighting games is often a barrier that casual players aren't willing to overcome. And while games like BlazBlue and Marvel vs. Capcom offer streamlined control schemes as an incentive for beginners, Mori doesn't see this as a long-term solution.
"Fighting game creators have a responsibility to new players. I don't mean adding touch-screen special moves like in Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition, but adding easy to follow tools for people to understand how combat flows and how combos work. We worked very hard on BlazBlue's tutorials and challenges, and I think they made a big difference to the game's accessibility."
Another way in which fighting games are improving their widespread appeal is by offering more in terms of a single player experience, as while the genre is often seen as having a competitive focus, some players would rather play solo. Something which Mortal Kombat lead designer John Edwards and his colleagues are clearly aware of.
"I think two things need to happen to ensure the future is bright for the fighting genre. The first is finding some way to recreate the experience that got most of us hooked in the first place - competitive play with an emphasis on group interaction. The other thing is to create compelling single player content that acts as a way to hook the more casual gamer that might not otherwise give a competitive fighting game a chance."
And for Ishiwatari, this means looking beyond the core "fighting game" experience.
"Opening up the entertainment around the central fighting game focus, with things like a better Story mode, can attract new players. At Arc System Clash in London, we saw more female gamers enjoying BlazBlue - perhaps not the hardcore competition, but the universe and characters. If you can get new players and new types of gamers involved, fighting games will continue to have their place."
Street Fighter III 3rd Strike: Online Edition (UK: 26/08/11)
Anyone looking to track down the aforementioned Street Fighter Anniversary may want to wait for this up-and-coming release on XBLA and PSN. Online Edition is set to be the superlative 3rd Strike experience as it will feature the legendary GGPO (Good Game, Peace Out) netcode to keep lag minimal. "I still feel excited by Urien's charge partitioning and Ken's hit confirmation," Odashima admitted.
Street Fighter X Tekken (Q1 2012)
The clash of Street Fighter and Tekken characters in a genuine fighting game crossover is a big deal, as together they make up some of the best known characters in gaming. "Street Fighter X Tekken will break the barrier of being a traditional fighting game and seek for fresh blood to enter and compete with the veterans," Ono describes. "It will be a fighting game where a super skilled player and a noob can somewhat compete on a fair ground, hopefully!" But while Capcom have already released footage of Street X Tekken in action, Namco are still keeping their plans for Tekken X Street Fighter under wraps.
Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (2012)
"Tekken Tag Tournament 2 will be the culmination of the entire Tekken series", Harada states. "Not only are we able to show four characters on screen at once, but its graphics will be much more beautiful than Tekken 6. This time it's a Tag version, so two characters can do a combo at nearly the same time. You can make an opponent fall from the balcony and then the partner who is waiting at the bottom can do a combo. There will also be infinite strategies for the tag team combinations."
SoulCalibur V (2012)
Some people were less impressed with the shoehorning of Star Wars characters in SoulCalibur IV, so Odashima and has team are going back to basics for the next instalment in the Soul series. "SoulCalibur V is based on the concept of a new chapter. We've been creating the game so that players can easily understand it and feel exhilarated. Fighting games are difficult, but I want to make SoulCalibur V understandable and easy for beginners to start playing."