The last thing I want this site to be is timely, but seeing some online noise about remarks in this interview (specifically “…these characters are just functions…”) inspired me—I had been writing about this kind of fighting game design philosophy for a couple of months, and this gives me the opportunity to expound a little more.
By the mid-to-late 90s, Capcom started experimenting with the arcade mode progression in their fighting games, primarily in their non-Street Fighter/Darkstalkers/Marvel games; rather than the random line-up of opponents followed by one or more bosses, they began to take the character story-driven match-ups that were present in the Street Fighter Alpha games (which had character-specific rival and final boss battles) and go even further with them—who you fought was determined by who your fighter was. I imagine part of the reason why most of the games went in this direction is to differentiate them from Capcom’s “big” fighters, and from each other; theme became incredibly important, and that led to highly-specific visual designs, techniques, and narrative flourishes. They could no longer just be a fighting game with a different set of characters, but one with an individual concept and aesthetic identity, leading to one of the most diverse and interesting line-ups the genre has ever seen, with the narrative-based arcade modes being just one of the major avenues used to highlight that diversity.
There isn’t really a ton of room for smoothly integrated storytelling in fighting games—the match is such a visceral ballet of violence with near-limitless possibilities, trying to impose a consistent narrative on it seems a foolish task. The best most fighting games can do is include some specific pre- or post-battle dialogue between characters (and, in the case of Street Fighter IV, having some specific dialogue that can pop up in the battle itself), or cinematic cut scenes—the latter being kind of the boring default choice, as it never really feels apiece with the game itself and can come off as scenes from an animated spin-off movie awkwardly grafted onto the game. Plus, even if the delivery systems weren’t so limited, it’s not like most fighting games would have a really riveting plot to deliver—they very earnestly take after their non-video game inspirations, dumb-as-hell action/adventure schlock (be it movies, animation, comics, or whatever) or beautifully-made martial arts films where “plot” is left simple so as to more easily string the fights together.
There are many subtle or seemingly extraneous things that contribute to the overall feel of fighting game, and sound design is chief among them. You’d think the people playing the game would be so concerned with the actual battle that things like music, sound effects, and voices would be easy to overlook—although at least with the sound effects, they’re important to the game as cues for the game’s actions. But people care about the music and voices anyway, because they add to the atmosphere of the game, and can make a battle more intense (or more methodical), or liven up the mood; just like the overall visual style, the sounds help define the tone of the game, and contribute to a game’s individual vibe.
Straying from the usual format, this post will be about an interesting individual character in a fighting game, rather than an entire game. Character design is incredibly important for a fighting game: as key as the universal systems are, what’s more interesting is how each of the game’s characters not only utilize those systems, but also provide idiosyncratic gameplay strategies. The characters become an interpretation of what the “feel” of the game is, and because of their unique qualities (both in gameplay terms and in visual terms) they can be endearing to players, offering a gateway—you can learn what the game’s about through the characters that click with you. It’s especially exciting when you find the ones that go about things in unexpected ways; once a developer has a handle of the system they’ve created, they can then make characters who break or alter the way those systems are supposed to work, messing with the buttons, motions, or even the physics of the game. There was once a time when the differences between characters felt minimal; but in later games, developers are more confident in how their games play, and so they then make characters who often feel like they’re from a completely different game.
The base concept for fighting games is so simple, it’s no wonder the games themselves have often done everything they can to make themselves extremely complex. That’s not to say they’re overcompensating for that simplicity, out of fear of ending up a fancier version of Rock-Em Sock-Em Robots, but rather seem to be logically expanding upon an appealing and understandable core, adding on and re-envisioning and finding new ways to make you think about the art of hitting someone until they fall down. This has taken some fighting games down the path of increasingly numerous and intricate systems, to the point where without some knowledge of those systems the game itself feels awkward, unfinished—these are games that, as a minimum requirement, ask for time investment and practice, to understand what the gauges mean, how to use your defensive and offensive mechanics and in what situations, and THEN you can actually get to knowing the ins and outs of each character (once you get to match-ups and frame data, you’ve already ventured into truly arcane territory.) This has led to games with a myriad of options to explore endlessly, but also means that a lot of games are just not pick-up-and-play friendly, aimed as they are almost exclusively at experienced to advanced fighting game players. By the mid-to-late nineties, when those types of fighting games were becoming increasingly common, some developers began to think of ways to bridge the gap, to make games that can be approached by less learned players, but are still interesting in their own right. Sometimes this means simply having fewer gameplay mechanics you have to learn, sometimes this means going back to the fundamentals and starting from there (as Super Smash Bros did), and sometimes that means making mechanics that can be used for different purposes at different skill levels.
The second post in this series was about fighting/wrestling game hybrids, and last week I wrote about some anime/manga-based fighting games—now, suddenly, here’s a post that combines both those topics!
Fans of wrestling games probably know all about the legacy of AKI Corporation, the Japanese developer who created some of the most beloved wrestling games of the N64/Playstation era, which included games for both the WCW and WWE, as well as Japanese promotions, over the course of three or four years. Beginning early on with an innovative combat system for its time, each new game built on the last, and by the time their reign as the top wrestling developer ended at the turn of the millennium, they had enough clout to bring attention to most of their post-wrestling ventures. They never had to stray far from their roots, though, and they put their experience to use in a number of new contexts; a notable example are the two Def Jam titles, which used a variation of their wrestling engine in games featuring real rappers off the Def Jam label. No one has any reason to expect games like that to be any good—except people who know AKI’s reputation.