[Out of the Box] Round 1: Fight!

Is the next step in fighting games going back to square one – and, if so, at what cost?
Author: Andy Curtiss
Published: April 1, 2011

Out of the Box is a recurring feature that allows the TotalPlayStation editors a chance to examine what is happening outside of Sony's magical boxes in the greater, wider world. For this outing, we politely sidestep the likes of Nintendo’s and Microsoft’s consoles and instead focus on the wares of Capcom, Arc System Works, and NetherRealm – and the path they just may trace for the future evolution of the industry as a whole.

When the Neo Geo Pack re-released classic fighting games Fatal Fury and Samurai Shodown, I was a tad surprised. There may be some classics in other genres that can be picked up and replayed years later, but, generally speaking, fighting games are not on that list. Despite my misgivings, however, I fired up the newly reissued Samurai Showdown and settled down with my favorite character, the American samurai Galford and his dog, Poppy. After several bouts and multiple rounds of severe beatings and the gnashing of teeth, I put down the controller – before I tossed it across the room – and decided that the old saying was at least partially true: sometimes you just can’t go home again.

I’ve always adored fighting games. The genre was actually the reason that I bought an Xbox before I bought a PlayStation 2. Microsoft’s system boasted a line-up of Tao Feng, Capcom vs. SNK, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and, most importantly, Dead or Alive. I can hear the rolling of eyes en masse at the mention of DOA, but – being gay – let me assure you that buxom babes wearing virtually nothing is the furthest thing from my mind; I loved Dead or Alive for the fighting game that it was, and not the boob fest that it came to be. For quite a while, I owned nothing but fighters for my new Xbox. They had caught me in their entrancing web: competition with other players, bragging rights for beating difficult modes, learning flashy moves and pulling them off in the thick of battle. The good ones included the clincher – a storyline full of personalities. I couldn't resist a fighting game in which the characters looked unique, had their own fighting styles, and had personality that affected the narrative.

The early- to mid-1990s were the peak of the fighting genre. With games like Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombats 2 and 3, Fatal Fury 1 and 2, The Art of Fighting, and many more, the industry was booming. Some titles focused on flashy special moves; others, on sheer brutality and gore. Every game claimed to have some kind of unique feature, although whether they really worked out or not was another story. The arcades always had a new fighting game to waste my mother’s quarters on, and the video rental store always had something to rent for my beloved Sega Genesis. To grow up in the ‘90s was to be raised in heaven.

The downside to all of this, however, was the over-saturation of the market (similar to what has recently occurred with the music-and-rhythm genre). In the ‘00s, gamers were beginning to pull away from the fighting genre, partially because of the final death throes of the video arcade, partially because of the glut of titles, but also partially, I suspect, due to the changes developers suddenly found themselves forced into making: more characters, more stages, more moves, bigger combos, more more more. Smaller titles especially had to push the bill due to a lack of brand-name recognition, but even the entrenched heavyweights like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter got caught up in the moment – 2007’s Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, for instance, featured 62 total characters, an adventure mode, a racing mode, and even a "Kreate a Fighter" mode. It would be nearly impossible to stuff it any further with “extra” content.

So the question now is: with the fighting genre boiled down to the few surviving franchises and developers, what happens next? Our friends at NetherRealm Studios (the new identity of Mortal Kombat makers Midway) thought that a return to roots was the best direction to tack. No more 3D movement and arenas, no more 60+ characters – just classic 2D fighting with a more traditional roster of 20 fighters. And the funny thing about keeping it simple, stupid? The game has yet to release, but it’s already met with near-universal acclaim from those who’ve managed to get their hands on it. The future, it would seem, is going back to the past.

But is this really that much of a shock? The Guilty Gear series, one of the most successful franchises in the history of the genre, has consistently utilized 2D mechanics, backgrounds, and (unique!) characters – a far cry from the character-duplicating or move set-sharing that some games, including my beloved DOA, are guilty of in their endless efforts at topping themselves. Considering that not even the classic Street Fighter dynasty has been impervious to the tempting transition to the third dimension (Street Fighter EX and Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha), GG’s success is all the more impressive. Maybe Arc System Works had the right idea all along.

But, then again, maybe not. For all the missteps and bloated baggage that has plagued their evolution, fighting games have still managed to nonetheless evolve – as is evidenced by my utter frustration at the clunky handling and framerate-skipping of the “classics” contained in the Neo Geo Pack. Like with so much else in life, there has to be a balance between basics and excess, between mindless conservatism and needless change. If the new Mortal Kombat is truly successful, critically as well as commercially, it’ll be because it managed to find the right balance.

And maybe – just maybe – we’ll find ourselves back in heaven again.

Previous Out of the Box installments:

How Wii’s Waggling Changed the World
Q1 2011

Halo: Videogame or Murderer?
Q4 2010