The Golden Age of Fighting Games: When it happened and why it ended [Part 2]

In the first part of this little series, I explained that the one true ‘Golden Age’ of the fighting game genre took place – in my opinion – from ’91 – ’00/01. I’ve also discussed how I believe the decline of the arcades was a major factor in this most excellent era coming to an end. Now it’s time to continue where I left off with Part 2, where I will discuss two more factors that I consider to be highly influential to this disappointing demise.

Capcom pulling out of developing new titles/sequels

Like it or not, Capcom are a major driving force in the fighting game arena and what they do can have a massive effect on the genre as a whole. Fighting games DID exist before Street Fighter II (International Karate, Yie Ar Kung Fu and even the original Street Fighter to name a few examples) but SFII became a template for fighting games to imitate, something that is still happening today. The move inputs for specials for example were near enough universally adopted by every following fighting game with the same input motions still in use today.

I also made a note in Part 1 of how Capcom eventually returning to the fray with Street Fighter IV revitalised the genre, encouraging the revival of other dormant fighting games and creating a hospitable breeding environment for brand-new challengers to emerge. This is a clear example of Capcom’s actions carrying serious clout. No, the genre didn’t fully die out while they were away from the action but the return of Capcom and Street Fighter brought much-needed attention and popularity back to the world of fighting games.

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Niche productions such as the upcoming Blade Strangers may never have existed if not for a resurgence in fighting game popularity that goes back to Street Fighter IV’s emergence.

So when Capcom backed out of developing new titles post-Capcom Vs SNK 2, it was a big blow to the genre and the community. I will be going into more depth on those barren years for fans of fighting games in a separate post but Capcom basically focused on brand-new console franchises such as Devil May Cry while keeping their fighting game heritage on the backburner with some re-releases and compilations. In fairness, these were welcome additions to any fighting game fan’s library. The likes of Street Fighter Alpha Anthology, Vampire: Darkstalkers Collection, Hyper Street Fighter II and the PS2 port of Third Strike represented immense convenience and (in the case of the collections) fantastic value for money. Nobody could knock the quality of these releases but they weren’t proper, new sequels and gamers began to ask questions. Would we ever see new Street Fighter, Darkstalkers or VS games again?

Capcom did try something new with the 3D Capcom Fighting All-Stars, a project which was eventually cancelled. They then disappointed with the underwhelming Capcom Fighting Jam, a lazy crossover game featuring a jarring collection of re-used sprites and a limited roster. The game wasn’t broken but it was surprising to see such a poor original effort from a company that had previously been the gold standard.

Street Fighter was a household name and at this point, it was slipping into the background with the more casual gamers that had been caught up in the franchise’s prior popularity no longer being that invested in fighting games as a whole. Without any new, good games in the series, SF became a relic of a bygone age, something that people who had owned the game on the SNES talked about in nostalgic tones. 3D fighting games such as Tekken and Dead or Alive carried on thanks to the polygon-based side of the genre being more resilient such was its appeal to both the hardcore fans and casual console gamers alike. 2D fighters however became a serious niche and games like Guilty Gear and The King of Fighters were still around but consigned to a more obscure status. These were games that resembled Street Fighter to the casual observer – that old fighting game thing that they remembered playing in the 90’s.

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A nice idea and a bit of a novelty but the backdrops had more characters than the game. Also: look at that ancient Demitri sprite!

This is why I consider Capcom to be so influential. If they or the Street Fighter series aren’t around, it gives the impression that there’s no confidence in the genre or money to be made by publishers weighing up whether or not to greenlight a sequel for one of their own franchises. Capcom helped define the genre as we know it, the genre faded away as they took a step back and it finally experienced a resurgence when they returned. Whether you like Capcom or are more partial to the offerings of a different developer, there’s no denying their influence.

The bankruptcy of the original SNK

Every warrior needs a sparring partner or a fierce rival to help them push their mind and body further. SNK played this role for Capcom back in the 90’s and it was almost a decade of the two giants trading blows. SNK pumped out series after series: Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Samurai Shodown, The King of Fighters, The Last Blade and Garou: Mark of the Wolves to name the more well-known games. Not all of these games were great and the clunkiness of the older ones prevented them from being true Street Fighter II beaters but SNK were in this for the long run. Their Neo Geo MVS arcade hardware was massively powerful and long-lasting, easily capable of hosting fighting games that could beat Capcom’s for aesthetic detail and on-screen action.

If that wasn’t enough, the Neo Geo AES was essentially a consolised, home version of the MVS meaning zero reduction in quality when playing the latest King of Fighters on your TV as opposed to in the arcades. The downside was the immense price tag that the AES came with and the prohibitive cost of cartridges which quickly marked the system out as a premium product that only the richest gamers could afford to put beside their TVs. There were conversions to the Playstation, Sega Saturn and Sega Dreamcast available but these were largely confined to Japan with the Saturn needing a RAM expansion cartridge before it could handle the games.

In any case, blow-for-blow was traded in this little war. SNK introduced team-based fighting while Capcom put their iconic characters up against Marvel’s comic book heroes/villains for the innovative and very epic ‘Vs‘ series. Street Fighter III introduced the legendary parry ability to separate the men from the boys. SNK replied with the equally beautiful Garou: Mark of the Wolves which just so happened to feature its own counter system – the Just Defend mechanic. SNK had a Ryu-alike character named Ryo so Capcom had a playful dig back at their rival when they created Dan Hibiki, a parody of the Sakazaki family’s moves and win poses…garbed in a pink gi.

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The Last Blade 2: SNK at their zenith.

As the 90’s drew to a close, Capcom and SNK had actually teamed-up for the fantastic Capcom Vs SNK, an amazing event for fans of the genre which would receive a sequel and also a quirky version from SNK themselves (SVC Chaos). When the dust had finally settled, it was gamers who had won. Capcom had hit hard with Third Strike, Vampire Saviour, Marvel Vs Capcom and Rival Schools but SNK held its ground with Garou, The Last Blade 2, King of Fighters ’98 and Samurai Shodown IV. SNK had began the decade with ambitious but clunky and sometimes crude efforts such as the original Art of Fighting but they were eventually able to legitimately match Capcom for quality art, animation and fantastic gameplay.

Sadly, the original SNK went into administration before being acquired by Playmore and being subsequently rebranded as SNK Playmore. King of Fighters games continued to arrive but the quality severely dipped during the 2000’s with the constant re-use of ancient Neo Geo sprites being less and less impressive each time they were wheeled out for the latest KOF game. SNK Playmore also mirrored Capcom with a slew of ports and collections of their back catalogue to newer systems. As with the Capcom re-issues, these were solid, desirable products but not exactly new games. Still, where Capcom binned Fighting All-Stars, SNK did at least manage to release TWO 3D spin offs of the King of Fighters even if they weren’t all that great.

But if Capcom’s fighting game properties had fallen into obscurity then spare a thought for SNK. New ports to the PS2 and Xbox were published by the unreliable Ignition Entertainment and sometimes extremely difficult to track down on release such was the niche nature of their fighting games post-bankruptcy. Essentially, it was only those in the know and an ever-dwindling fanbase who sought out the likes of KOF: Neowave and Neo Geo Battle Colisseum. A giant had fallen and it is arguable that SNK would have needed Capcom’s active presence within the genre to continue thriving had they not found themselves in trouble. In any case, the end of the rivalry and the loss of the original (and still the best) incarnation of SNK was a defining moment in the genre’s history.

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KOF lived on with the likes of Neowave (pictured here) but the sprites were showing their age by this point and no longer impressing anybody.

All of these reasons for the golden age of fighting games coming to a close are closely interlinked. The decline in arcade popularity for example pushed Capcom to withdraw and focus their efforts on the profits available in the booming console industry. Street Fighter used to be their cash cow but there was greater commercial sense in developing new Resident Evil and Devil May Cry sequels for Sony’s world-conquering Playstation 2. Had SNK not run into financial issues, they too would have been affected. Given how ALL of SNK’s properties were arcade-centric, it’s a (thankful) miracle that they are still around today. It’s important to note that they also had their own issues to contend with such as piracy of the Neo Geo cartridge format.

With all of the negativity out of the way, join me for Part 3 when I take a closer look at the top reasons that make ’91-’00/01 such a special time for the fighting game genre.

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