I have been playing videogames for as long as I can remember, some of my earliest childhood memories involve Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. And as long as I have been playing videogames, I have been sucking at videogames. And of all the genres of videogames that I suck at, fighting games remained at the top of the list. Until recently.
I’ve always liked fighting games. I enjoy having a large selection of indivudual characters to choose from, each with their own distinct appearance character and playstyle. Because there is usually not a tedious story to bother with, or any oversized open world to suck up resources, all of the time and effort goes into making the characters as unique and interesting as possible. To paraphrase Matt Groening, the secret to good character design is making sure that they are identifiable even from their silhouette. The original palette swap designs notwithstanding, even the least game savvy player can tell Scorpion from Subzero from Reptile. I defy anyone to look at the outlines of Cammy, Chun-Li and Ibuki and say that they could be from the same person. In a world where most video game protagonist seems to be printed from a cookie cutter of angry chiselled white dude, having a selection of varied ‘protagonists’ available is like breath of fresh air.
And even apart from the character designs, each of the games has a distinct visual style. Street Fighter has evolved from its original arcade machine iterations by incorporating some of the best uses of cell shading this side of WindWaker. Mortal Kombat has used the exponential increases in graphical technology since its inception to finally bring the ultra-violence its premise promised into glorious reality. And one of the Smash bros series greatest achievements has to be taking characters from a dozen different franchises and making them fit seamlessly onto one platform.
Fighting games are also, in this increasingly online only world, one of the few genres to cling tightly to the idea of local multiplayer. Again, because of the relatively limited scope of each level and the game’s mechanics, where first person shooters and racing games demand that we sit in different rooms and talk via headsets, all you need is two controllers and a copy of your preferred brawler to have some old school fun. Sure it is enjoyable to play with strangers across the globe, but there are few gaming pleasures as beautiful and pure as laughing in your friends faces as you demolish them in a perfect two round beat down that will live in the halls of your anecdotal history for all time.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a moment suggesting that everyone should play fighting games because they’re some sort of higher art form. They are nowhere near my favourite genre of games, but I think they’re very often overlooked. I know I disregarded them for a very long time because as far as I could tell, I was terrible at them. As much as we all love a challenge, there’s nothing enjoyable about banging your head against a brick wall for hours on end. No doubt some of you reading will have had the same experience. But earlier this year I made a startling realisation. I don’t suck at fighting games, I just suck at Street Fighter. As much as SF is the premiere fighting game franchise, there are plenty more to choose from, and if you find yourself not enjoying it, there are plenty more to choose from. Brief sojourns into Smash Bros, Mortal Kombat and other more obscure titles led me to the first fighting game I have ever been actually flat out inarguably good at, Killer Instinct. Suddenly I went from being unable to pull off even the simplest combos to getting perfect rounds and it was absolutely glorious. I can’t claim to be any kind of real competitor, I certainly won’t be taking the stage at EVO any time soon, but I’m just good enough that my fragile ego can handle the occasional pain of being pummelled.
Fighting games as a whole are a perfect example of what makes videogames great. They’re focused purely on the mechanics and character designs, there’s no place for overwrought story, cliché characters or any of the other things that games all too often fails to successfully copy from other mediums. Nor do they fall into the traps of modern video game design. There are no open worlds full of tedious collectibles, no mildly patronising moral choices at work here, just good old fashioned gameplay of two people using simulated avatars to pummel each other senseless. So pick up a pad, grab your best friend and show them how much you value their friendship by punching their head off.