The last two generations of home consoles have hosted a major resurgence in the fighting game genre. Widely credited to success of the original Street Fighter IV (before it was updated twenty billion times at the last rough estimate), developers began dusting off their old franchises again and arcades in Japan were treated to a new slew of 2D and anime-styled fighters, many of which managed to reach us here in the West. Of course, the genre never completely died out; it just lost a lot of popularity. The likes of Tekken, Soul Calibur and Dead or Alive quietly soldiered on and were played by the genre faithful but gamers were more interested in open-world adventuring, sports games and online shooters.
SFIV represented Capcom finally deciding to quit it with the ports and re-releases and invest serious money into a brand-new installment. It was a very well-received game that revived a genre. Rival series’ that had never really gone away received more exposure and new franchises such as Blazblue exploded onto the scene. Mortal Kombat and Guilty Gear became big names again and we were treated to all manner of quirky, interesting fighters such as Persona 4 Arena, Under Night In-Birth and Tatsunoko Vs Capcom. As I type this today, Arika have just returned to the fray with Fighting EX Layer, Blade Strangers is on the horizon and a Dragonball fighting game has become a serious tournament contender. It’s a great time to be a fan of fighting games and yet, this is no “Golden Age” because that time has already been and passed.
That “Golden Age” – in my opinion – began in 1991 with the release of Street Fighter II (the game that all 2D fighting games still owe their basic templates to) and ended around 2000/2001 with Capcom Vs SNK 2 and Marvel Vs Capcom 2 – a duo of games that represented a culmination of a decade of advances in presentation, gameplay and crossover spectacle. I might look like I’m giving Capcom too much credit here by only citing their games but it’s simply a fact that some of their greatest and most popular creations bookend this fantastic era. Before discussing why I believe this ’91-’01 period to be the undisputed Golden Age of fighting games, I want to talk about the three main reasons that I believe were responsible for its eventual death.
- The decline of the arcades
- Capcom pulling out of developing original titles/new sequels
- The bankruptcy of the original SNK
Again, it really isn’t my intention to downplay the likes of Namco who side-stepped all of this and continued to keep Tekken in the public eye but I simply see Capcom as a bigger driving force in the genre who – when they get the attention of gamers – can help lift up everybody else along the way.
The Decline of Arcades
As the 90’s progressed, home console gaming grew in its power to impress consumers with the Playstation, N64 and Sega Saturn all offering cutting-edge 3D visuals which look hideously dated today in many cases but were mindblowing coming off the back of what the SNES, Mega Drive and other lesser competitors had been able to offer. PC gaming was continuing to gather serious steam with graphics that outstripped consoles (if you had the money to invest in the right upgrades for your tower) and that all-important online play. One ultimate side effect of this mighty technological push was that chasing perfect home conversions of arcade games suddenly seemed redundant when superior, more in-depth experiences could be had with original software on home consoles. Gamers wanted the story-driven style of gaming and genres that the arcades couldn’t offer due to their quick-play nature and so the arcades had their days numbered.
No longer was it the case that you had to hit up your local amusements or city centre arcade to gape in awe at the best graphics, smoothest animation and booming audio. Why would you when Ocarina of Time could deliver a vast, detailed game world? Gran Turismo offered hundreds of detailed real-world vehicles and circuits while Final Fantasy‘s CG segments were like movies except they came with monstrous amounts of gameplay unlike the old FMV “movie” experiments of the early 90’s. Gaming was evolving and it was no longer important to debate over which system could provide the most accurate home version of an arcade fighting game.
The irony however was that despite the pressures placed upon the arcade arena, some of the greatest and most memorable of fighting games were released during this period, a golden age of creativity that paradoxically took place while its traditional host environment received a slew of super moves to the face from the home console market. It wasn’t KO time yet but the writing was clearly on the wall. After all, new, increasingly powerful arcade technology cost a lot of money to develop and manufacture, a practice that made decreasing financial sense when a publisher could make easier profits on shipping thousands of copies of their game on a CD for home consoles.
Home conversions of the great games of this era still happened but the dedicated fighting game fan had to go to greater lengths to acquire the optimal versions of the arcade games they wanted in their home. Capcom’s games for example were usually severely compromised to function on the market-leading Playstation (due to a lack of video RAM) so if you wanted to play the likes of Marvel Superheroes Vs Street Fighter or Vampire Saviour as intended then you had to have a Sega Saturn capable of playing Japanese imports and the RAM expansion cartridge. To a fanatic of the genre, this was probably not a great deal but it pushed fighting games a little further from the mainstream compared to the SNES days when anybody could walk into a shop and purchase Street Fighter II.
It was at this point that the popularity within the genre mirrored the trend of 3D being more interesting than 2D with Namco’s Tekken proving extremely popular. Tekken was an arcade game but the name quickly became associated with the extremely accurate Playstation conversions and many consumers weren’t even aware of where each installment originated from. A further interesting fact is that the first three Tekken games + Tekken Tag Tournament all ran on Namco’s System 11 (Tekken, Tekken 2) and System 12 (Tekken 3, Tag) arcade technology which was very closely linked to the Playstation. System 11 in particular was essentially a Playstation except that it used surface-mounted ROM chips to store game data whereas the Playstation obviously had CD-Rom storage.
Numerous imitations emerged while Namco struck gold again by innovating with their weapons-based SoulEdge (known as SoulBlade in the West) and following it up with the massively popular SoulCalibur. Truly, it was the 3D fighting games that made perfect sense at home which were leading the way now. Conversions of 2D fighting game giants such as Third Strike and The King of Fighters were relegated to less successful consoles such as Sega’s short-lived Dreamcast with more and more games becoming import-only affairs denied to Europe and sometimes the US as well. The genre was not dead but it was evolving and the likes of Tekken and SoulCalibur would soon become more synomonous with home consoles than arcades (SoulCalibur III for instance was developed for the Playstation 2 first and then converted back to the arcades for a limited release).
Home technology also allowed for some franchises to find a second wind. Mortal Kombat for instance was able to ramp up the detail in it’s gory gameplay and spawn several spin-off games that – while not fantastic – sold pretty well and played to the strengths of the third dimension. Bloody Roar showed off flashy beastial transformations and Dead or Alive jiggled it’s way into the public conscious, taking advantage of the increasing processing power to animate its sexy females. True, many of these games had arcade releases first but they were difficult to distinguish from their home conversions unless you had a trained eye and it was the latter editions that the majority of consumers cared about.
Arcades are still around today and didn’t ever truly die out but it is an unavoidable fact that they are a mere shadow of their former selves, dominated by claw machines and flashy lightgun games that are brutal in their cynical game design, impossible to complete unless you feed the machine a steady flow of coins. Some fighting games still begin in the arcades (such as Tekken) but this is predominately in Japan, the homeland and last bastion of “proper” arcades (or Game Centers as they are known natively). The home console releases and profit-spinning DLC strategies are the top priorities now.
Some developers simply didn’t move with the times and the result was sub-standard home console sequels to their franchises or doomed experiments in the newly-dominant 3D realm such as Capcom’s cancelled Capcom Fighting Evolution. Other arcade stalwarts simply faded from popularity or mainstream relevance as home consoles nurtured new tastes in genres with RPG’s, driving games, FPS’s, huge open-world games and online gaming taking the place of established favourites including the fighting game.
Come back soon for Part 2 where I will discuss Capcom’s withdrawl from the scene, SNK’s downfall and why ’91 to ’01 was the definitive golden age of fighting games.