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Note: Hope you enjoy our first genre-specific installment of our Defining Games series
During the 1990s, the fighting genre dominated the arcade scene, helping the industry come back for a few years from a slump partially created by home console releases. Fighting games slowly continued to evolve, trying new gameplay and graphical styles while giving us the player versus player combat we yearned for. But only certain series can say they shaped the course of fighting game history and had a major impact. The games and series presented in this list would help guide and define what makes a fighting game, both 2D and 3D. (You might also want to check out our Hidden Games of the 2D Fighting Genre as well)
While not the first fighting game, Karate Champ is one of the oldest incarnations of the genre, releasing in 1984. It’s also considered the first fighting game to use the standard side view commonly found in 2D fighters. But don’t expect many of the other genre norms to be found: Karate Champ used a point system to determine who won matches, as opposed to beating your opponent until their health bar was empty. The controls would also evolve away from Karate Champ’s dual joysticks.
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Street Fighter Series
Street Fighter, Street Fighter II series, Street Fighter Alpha series, Street Fighter EX series, Street Fighter III series, Street Fighter IV series, Numerous spin-offs
The Street Fighter series is easily one of the most prevalent video game series of all time. Every new generation has received numerous updates, enhancements, ports, remixes, anthologies, sequels, alternate releases, and re-releases. And almost every major console and many minor ones since before the 16-bit generation has featured at least one Street Fighter game, with the notable exception of the Nintendo 64. There has even been a Street Fighter release in Brazil for the Sega Master System.
However, it is not surprising that Capcom has spent so much time on the Street Fighter franchise. Street Fighter II’s original release in the arcades would prove so popular that the series would see numerous rip-off titles. The multitude of similar 2D fighters would earn the moniker “Street Fighter clone,” though few ever managed to approach the quality or popularity of the original.
Meanwhile a lagging arcade industry injured by the high sales of home consoles and the growing appreciation of the 2D platformer (a genre that hardly appears in the arcade) would see a new boost in funds as thousands head to the arcade to drop quarter after quarter trying to best their friends. And that popularity also translated into enormous sales: according to Capcom’s Investor Relations website, two of the five highest selling games the company has ever released were SNES ports of Street Fighter II and Street Fighter II Turbo, reaching a combined total of over 10 million units (interestingly enough the other three were Resident Evil titles).
The Street Fighter series is also notable for helping popularize Capcom’s six button control scheme for 2D fighters, with three punch and three kick buttons, as well as the directional roll method for inputting special move commands. The series has not only spawned dozens of games but also led to the creation of numerous anime and memorabilia, and a live action film with Jean Claude Van Damme, though with mixed results. Street Fighter also laid the groundwork for such notable Capcom fighters as the Darkstalkers, Cyberbots, and the Capcom Vs. series, and Street Fighter characters have appeared in other fighting games, puzzle games, and other genres. Mainstay character Ryu’s famous Hadouken even appeared as a hidden bonus in Capcom’s SNES classic Mega Man X, with tremendous effect.
Despite changes to visual style and additional gameplay mechanics that have helped the series evolve with every new iteration, Street Fighter has remained true to its 2D fighter roots with every new release. There are few game series that have had the presence, influence, and effect on the video games industry that Street Fighter has had and likely will continue to have in the coming game generations.
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Mortal Kombat Series
Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat 2, Mortal Kombat 3 and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, Mortal Kombat Trilogy, Mortal Kombat 4 and Mortal Kombat Gold, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Mortal Kombat: Deception, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe, Mortal Kombat Advance, Numerous spin-offs
Street Fighter’s biggest competitor in the United States during the 1990s, Mortal Kombat was Midway’s flagship fighting series until the company was purchased in 2009. The series would be known for its blood, gore, and sense of humor, as well as its key position in the formation of the ESRB. Starting as a game based on action star Jean Claude Van Damme, Mortal Kombat was the brainchild of Ed Boon and John Tobias, spawning a series which spans the 2D/3D fighter gulf. And in the early days the series would also be well known for its use of digitized actors and palette swaps, which would eventually become a major criticism of the series’ 2D days.
But the buckets of blood and gory (and often funny) Fatalities would play an important part in video game history: when Mortal Kombat first saw a home port in the 1990s, Nintendo censored it heavily and the Sega Genesis version proved tremendously successful. Nintendo reigned in their censorship and saw sales increase dramatically for Mortal Kombat 2, but the violent antics of such characters as Liu Kang, Sub-Zero, and Shang Tsung caught the attention of U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, and the video game industry found themselves up before the U.S. government. The end result? Self regulation, or the government would do it for you, so the Electronic Software Ratings Board was formed.
With the jump to 3D technology in gaming in the mid-90s becoming popular, Mortal Kombat was one of the few major fighting games to cross the bridge, and the only one to successfully stay. With the release of MK4, the series shed its 2D roots and became fully 3D, eventually dropping its four button control scheme in favor of multiple fighting and weapon styles for its enormous cast. But it would keep its straight directional command input system, being the most prevalent fighter series to do so, and it would keep the comedy and the gore.
Mortal Kombat would also see several action-adventure titles revolving around different characters, a live action and animated television show, two feature films of varying quality, and a considerable amount of merchandise. It would also feature heavy influence over the oft-forgotten fighting game War Gods.
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The King of Fighters Series
SNK’s long running fighting series would find its roots in Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury. While all three are technically separate series, they would feature intertwining plots and characters would make cameo appearances in various games. The games would also feature similar artwork and controls. SNK would further increase the size of the King of Fighters universe by adding in characters from such games as Ikari Warriors and Psycho Soldier. The overall cast list is enormous, as is the number of releases.
But SNK brought innovation too. The King of Fighters offered team-based combat for 3 on 3 matches, while the Fatal Fury system was well known for its two-lane stages fighters could hop between for interesting and new strategies. Art of Fighting gave us the Spirit Gauge, a learnable super move, and desperation attacks as early as 1992. Horizontal scaling was also enabled, allowing fighters to break from combat and put large distances between them and their opponent.
SNK would also use a similar control style across games, adopting a four-button scheme that utilizes the same directional rolls that Capcom uses in Street Fighter. Once in use, SNK kept this style across their fighting games so players can go between titles and series and be comfortable. While it has experimented with 3D technology in the KOF: Maximum Impact line of games, the main line has stayed true to its visuals and style.
While SNK’s games would develop a devoted following in the US, they proved immensely popular in Japan, becoming Capcom’s biggest rival in their home market. The series would feature dozens of releases, re-releases, ports, and numerous spinoffs in different genres. Characters would also be featured in such compilation fighters as Neo Geo Battle Coliseum and SNK Gals’ Fighters. The series has also seen a considerable amount of merchandise, ranging from pachinko machines to soundtrack releases, comics, and animated shorts.
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Samurai Shodown Series
Samurai Shodown series, Samurai Shodown 64 series, Samurai Shodown! series, Samurai Shodown: Warriors Rage, Samurai Shodown Mobile series, Samurai Shodown Sen, Samurai Shodown Anthology, Numerous spin-offs
Samurai Shodown is a weapons-based fighting game series, also known by its Japanese title Samurai Spirits, with early titles appearing in 2D and many later titles appearing in 3D. The game would take a drastically different control scheme from Street Fighter, earning it accolades for standing out in a field full of SF clones. It also stood out for its setting, occurring during the Japanese feudal-era. The series would also use period music and lots of blood to keep to its historical setting.
From the beginning, Samurai Shodown stood out, earning several Best Game of the Year awards and numerous other accolades. And the series continued to develop, adding new characters and trying new features. Samurai Shodown II made Gamespot’s list of the Greatest Games of All Time. But after the second installment, the series declined. Samurai Shodown III was unfortunately rushed, and while IV featured improvements, it did not manage to fix several problems. But even then, fans enjoyed the unique gameplay and enjoyed the games despite their issues, and ports to the Neo Geo Pocket, Pocket Color, and mobile phones were released under the names Samurai Shodown! and Samurai Shodown Mobile.
SNK also experimented with the series in 3D, releasing Samurai Shodown 64, 64: Warrior’s Rage, and Sen. Samurai Shodown: Warrior’s Rage was also a 3D game visually, though most action takes place on a 2D plane like the original series. The series has released a compilation, Samurai Shodown Anthology, and has featured spin-offs like Samurai Shodown RPG and Maid by Iroha.
The Samurai Shodown characters have appeared in numerous games, including Neo Geo Battle Coliseum, SNK vs. Capcom, KOF: Maximum Impact 2, Capcom vs. SNK 2, Days of Memories: Oedo Love Scroll, SNK Gals’ Fighters, and more. Several anime OVAs and manga have been released, and Samurai Shodown V saw a collectible card game by Sabertooth Games as part of its Universal Fighting System. A considerable amount of other merchandise has been produced, and popular character Nakoruru has become a major icon for SNK.
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Virtua Fighter Series
Virtua Fighter, Virtua Fighter: Remix, Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Fighter 3 and VF3tb, Virtua Fighter 4 and VF4: Evolution, Virtua Fighter 10th Anniversary, Virtua Fighter 5, Virtua Fighter Kids, Numerous Spin-offs
Virtua Fighter is the progenitor of all 3D fighting games. Created by well-known Sega designer Yu Suzuki, the VF series would debut in 1993 on hardware from Lockheed Martin. The game series’ impact is considered so important, there are VF machines located in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It’s part of the Smithsonian Institute’s Permanent Research Collection on Information Technology. In 2008 the Virtua Fighter series was also awarded 7 world records by Guinness World Records.
While not always as popular as other well-known 3D fighters Tekken and Soul Calibur, the VF series is known for being highly technical in execution, with a three-button control scheme that requires the pressing of multiple buttons at once to access certain moves. The difficulty curve of learning to play Virtua Fighter has sometimes been likened to a brick wall, but fans find it an extremely rewarding process populated with memorable and unique characters.
It’s also a consistent series, with only one character having been dropped from the roster at any time, and only for technical reasons. The series has seen innovation, trying out different combat styles, new characters, undulation in stage designs, and the incorporation of a dodge button allowing players to sidestep incoming attacks, though these features were later removed. The VF games also provided a team-based 3D fighter in Virtua Fighter 3tb, where teams of two characters fight one after the other in the arena.
The series has seen five main releases, with several tweaked or redone versions released to fix technical problems and balance issues. Sega has been meticulous in their dedication to making sure each iteration is balanced, to the point of not releasing an online version until 2007 over concerns of lag affecting matches. There have also been several side releases, such as Virtua Fighter Kids and Virtua Fighter Animation, and characters from the series have found their way into games such as Fighters Megamix, Virtua Quest, and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing.
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Tekken is one of the two biggest 3D fighting franchises from Namco, and one of the oldest in the genre: the original Tekken debuted in arcades in 1994. Tekken’s also slightly unusual in that buttons are mapped to characters’ limbs, allowing players to identify controls based on the actions performed. Tekken also received a considerable amount of popularity for characters’ use of real fighting styles, though they’re not exact due to game physics and the developers’ creative license. Character designs are also highly creative and over-the-top, including a bear, wooden man, and boxing kangaroo, among the multitude of other characters to appear across the long-running series.
Tekken would also serve as Namco’s counterpoint to Sega’s Virtua Fighter. Namco and Sega had a fierce rivalry in the arcade, and if Sega released a game or put in new features, Namco would be sure to follow up soon after. But in the home market, Namco would release Tekken almost exclusively for Sony’s highly successful PlayStation line, while early Virtua Fighters would release on Sega consoles soon doomed to obscurity. Namco would also bring in a sense of humor, featuring a cameo of Masashi Tanaka’s Gon, including Yoshimitsu in both the Tekken and Soul Calibur series, and parodying several characters with the amalgamation character Dr. Boskonovitch.
The Tekken series would become an important piece of the PlayStation brand, with the original release being the first game on the console to sell more than 1 million units. The series has been noted as the best selling fighting series for PlayStation. The series has one numerous accolades and high praise from reviewers, with several entries making Top Fighting Game lists in various publications and websites, including Gamespot, PSM, and GameRankings
Tekken has seen two spin-off games, Death By Degrees and Tekken Card Challenge, as well as a team battle game, Tekken Tag Tournament. Several updates were released for Tekken 5 and 6, and Tekken characters appeared in the Japan-only Namco X Capcom. The series spawned a short OVA released in the US as Tekken: The Motion Picture, with mixed results (can you say invisible dinosaurs?), as well as the live-action film Tekken, numerous soundtracks, and other memorabilia.
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While Atari’s dinosaur-based fighting game did not sell well or have the overall impact that many of the other titles on this list did, it did feature a sordid history involving censorship and a grassroots movement to have it banned after a mother witnessed her 11-year-old son pull off Chaos’ urination fatality. It is also the most prominent fighting game to feature the charging attack buttons method for special moves, meaning an attack button must be pressed down and held until the directional command is put in. The player then releases the attack button to unleash the attack. It was a rare control system that few games used, but it would also appear in such titles as Battle Blaze and WeaponLord.
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Namco’s other top fighting series; the Soul series takes the cake as the premier 3D weapons fighting series. Each game follows several characters vying to control or destroy the cursed sword Soul Edge. To do this, characters must duke it out with weapons from around the world, utilizing a combat system made up of four buttons and featuring the Guard Impact system, allowing players to parry or repel incoming attacks. Other abilities, such as Critical Finishes, would find their way into the games over time. The first game also featured the ability to break weapons and fight hand-to-hand, though this was dropped in subsequent games.
The Soul series also featured a large number of cameo characters along the way, starting with Soulcalibur 2: depending on the console, players had access to Legend of Zelda’s Link, Tekken’s Heihachi Mishima, or Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. Other cameos include Darth Vader, Kratos, and Lloyd Irving from Tales of Symphonia. The series is also known for adding new characters to home releases, as well as oodles of extra content, artwork, weapons demonstrations, and in later games, character creators that allowed players to create all manner of folks, ranging from Chun Li to Chuck Norris.
While the series overall has received numerous accolades, Soulcalibur in particular has been labeled one of the greatest fighting games of all time, receiving perfect scores from the likes of Famitsu, EGM, IGN, and Gamespot. It consistently appears in Top 100 lists on such sites as IGN.
There have been a few updates for certain entries in the series, and beyond Soulcalibur Legends, there have been no spin-off titles, though some Soul characters ended up in Namco X Capcom. While there have been plans for a film for some time, nothing has ever come to fruition. Merchandise, including themed arcade sticks, has been released for the series.
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Capcom Vs. Series
X-Men: Children of the Atom, Marvel Super Heroes, X-Men vs. Street Fighter, Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom series, Capcom vs. SNK series, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, Namco X Capcom
Building on a deal to use licensed Marvel characters in video games, Capcom produced a game where popular X-Men characters beat the crap out of each other. Featuring voice actors from the popular X-Men animated series, and seeing release in arcades at the same time that Capcom’s X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse was appearing on the Super Nintendo, X-Men: Children of the Atom would be a hit. It would use the same control style as Street Fighter, but would incorporate Super Jumps and vertically scrolling stages, a choice between manual and auto-blocking, and even a chance to fight Akuma from Street Fighter! This would be followed by a sequel that included more of Marvel’s roster, and would then lead to one of the most popular 2D fighting series of the late 1990s and 2000s: the Capcom vs. series!
The Capcom vs. series would become one of the most popular team-based fighting series, featuring enormous rosters of popular and recognizable characters from various companies, including the likes of SNK’s fighting games, Tatsunoko’s anime creations, and Marvel’s super heroes. Tatsunoko vs. Capcom was the biggest change to the gameplay style, as it used a new control style unlike previous incarnations of Versus titles. The company also took a drastic turn from fighting games with the release of Namco X Capcom, a Japan-only RPG.
Of all titles in the series, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 has experienced the greatest amount of popularity. Originally released in 2000, it has seen a decade of continual tournament play, demanded high collector prices, and experienced several re-releases. The Marvel vs. Capcom line has been the most successful of the different series that fall under the Capcom vs. title. Meanwhile, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom remains one of the best fighters on the Nintendo Wii.
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Super Smash Bros. Series
The Smash Bros. line of games are Nintendo’s main fighting series, incorporating popular Nintendo characters in a four-player 2D battle on nontraditional stages, also based on Nintendo properties. Throw in an easy-to-learn control scheme for fighting and special moves and random items from various games, and you have a recipe for success. Super Smash Bros. was the top fighting game for the Nintendo 64 in its day, and the series has remained popular at tournaments ever since.
Not surprisingly, a genre of party fighters based on popular characters appeared in the wake of its success. Titles like Onimusha: Blade Warriors and Dissidia: Final Fantasy can be attributed to the success of Smash Bros. But what do you expect from a series that has consistently sold over 1 million titles. Super Smash Bros. Melee was the best selling game of the Nintendo Gamecube, while Super Smash Bros. Brawl was Nintendo’s fastest selling title, moving 1.4 million units in the first week of its release.
Games in the series have also received many awards, including Super Smash Bros. Brawl winning the “Best Fighting Game” in 2008 from Gamespot. And the series’ popularity will likely continue in the coming years, as I’ve yet to meet anyone who isn’t interested in playing a game of Smash Bros. from time to time. Nintendo has released some merchandise specifically for the series, but considering it’s a mash up of popular characters, Nintendo doesn’t really need to release much specifically themed for the series.
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Guilty Gear Series
Guilty Gear, Guilty Gear X series, Guilty Gear XX series, Guilty Gear Petit series, Guilty Gear Isuka, Guilty Gear Club, Guilty Gear RoA, Guilty Gear Dust Strikers, Guilty Gear: Judgement, Guilty Gear 2: Overture
Guilty Gear combines frantic action with heavy metal music and a bizarre storyline to bring an incredible experience that is as awesome and stylistic as it is strange. The gameplay is unique, combining anime-style sprites with references to famous hard rock and heavy metal bands.
At the time of Guilty Gear X’s release (the second installment), the series became one of the leaders in the movement towards 2D fighters with high-resolution sprites. While this may seem rather superficial to the hardcore fans of the genre, this helped bring renewed interest to 2D fighters with the mainstream crowd. It wasn’t an overnight transition, but many gamers that were once interested in 2D fighters began to take notice and a trend slowly followed. Big-name players like SNK have followed suit with the likes of high-resolution sprites in The King of Fighters XII.
The series has tried to innovate with other methods, albeit not always successfully. For instance, Guilty Gear Isuka reintroduced Fatal Fury’s lane system, and included a button to turn players around. Guilty Gear has seen many releases on handhelds, bringing such features as four player combat to the Nintendo DS. There are also several characters that appeared solely in the handheld versions, such as Fanny, a nurse with a massive syringe who’s only in Guilty Gear Petit and Petit 2 for the Bandai WonderSwan Color.
After Sega’s purchase of Guilty Gear’s publisher, Sammy, the developers at Arc System Works lost the rights to the Guilty Gear franchise and moved onto creating a spiritual successor in BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger. But even before this, Arc System Works was moving away from Guilty Gear as a fighting series: their last game in the series, Guilty Gear 2: Overture, a 3D title described as “Meirei Action” by series designer Daisuke Ishiwatari. The series has spawned merchandise, most notably its series of soundtracks.
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Other Important Fighters
While the games that follow have not had the impact of the titles already on the list, they do at least deserve a mention.
Capcom’s fighting monster series has created numerous memorable characters like Morrigan, Felicia, and Demitri. It also brought us the sixteen-bit sprites that dominated Capcom fighters from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.
Killer Instinct Series
Though short-lived, the Killer Instinct series experienced a considerable amount of popularity in the mid-1990s. The series is perhaps best known for its auto combos, its double energy bars, and its pre-rendered sprites.
Dead Or Alive Series
Known mainly for its bounce physics more than anything else, DOA is an extremely counter-heavy 3D fighting series featuring gorgeous tiered stages that were as much fun to explore as they were to fight in. The series became one of the biggest series on Xbox consoles.
Bloody Roar Series
A 3D fighting series focusing on zoanthropy, Bloody Roar has characters turning into man/animal hybrids to tear into each other. The ability offers an interesting twist on the gameplay, as fighters can suddenly transform to do massive amounts of damage.
Check Out More Hidden Gems
If you’d like to explore the fighting genre further, we strongly recommend you check out our list of The Best Undiscovered 2D Fighting Games