It’s well past time that I published this third and final part of my look at the fighting game’s “Golden Age” but, well…life/shit happens and I’ve been a bit lacking when it comes to those all-important creative juices. With that said, I’m back now so I apologise to anybody who has been waiting for Pt.3 but here it is – at last. So far in parts one and two, I have declared that the genre was at its peak from 1991-2000/01 and have discussed the reasons (as I see them) for its eventual, disappointing downfall. All things have to come to an end after all but worry not for Part 3 of this mini-series will focus on the happy stuff, namely what made this point in time so bloody fantastic for fans of fighting games…
A decade of innovation
It would be an outright lie to say that modern-day fighting games don’t bring new ideas to the table but it’s a stone-cold fact that the majority of genre staples and general mechanics (that are now taken for granted) were introduced throughout the 90’s and thus is was a very exciting time to be a player of fighting games. What we tend to see in modern fighting games by contrast are refinements, gimmicks (not necessarily always a bad thing) and attempts to be as flashy as possible.
Street Fighter II kicked things off in ’91 and while I have previously said that SFII cannot take any credit for being the original one-on-one fighting game (a statement I stand by), it certainly created a template that is still in use today. Best-of-three, special move inputs (now commonly used across the majority of fighting games), play styles (grappler, charge, projectile etc.) and character archtypes were all either born or made mainstream with SFII. SNK’s Art of Fighting would introduce ‘Super’ moves to the genre (before Super Street Fighter II Turbo popularised them) and Capcom’s other fighting game, Darkstalkers, debuted air-blocking. It’s actually astonishing that for all the visual and mechanical evolution of fighting games, Street Fighter II is still running in the background.
The next important innovation was already happening at the very same time that Street Fighter was dominating the scene however. Sega released Virtua Fighter in 1993, creating the first 3D fighting game. Comical moon-jumps aside, VF also championed more realistic fighting styles as opposed to the pyrotechnical wizardry and unlikely gymnastic feats of Street Fighter and began to carve out a niche of its own that would see major fruition with Virtua Fighter 2, a sequel widely regarded as one of the all-time greats within the genre. The likes of Tekken and Dead or Alive would follow (and overtake Virtua Fighter in terms of popularity) but Sega had got there first and created the genre’s second ‘main’ style.
So many smaller innovations were happening at the same time however. Fatal Fury experimented with plane-swapping, The King of Fighters brought team battles to the mix and Capcom’s Vs series would kick off the concept of crossovers between more than one company. Namco’s Soulblade (or Souledge in other territories) gave us weapons-based fighting while developers also experimented with taking fighting games into a more arena-based environment with the likes of Capcom’s Powerstone and Taito’s Psychic Force. Meanwhile, Super Street Fighter II X For Matching Service and Vampire Chronicle For Matching Service were quietly introducing online play to Japanese console gamers via their Dreamcast modems.
Obviously you can point out that it’s unfair to criticise modern fighting games for their lack of innovation due to the fact that there is only so much you can do with the genre and so the 1990’s would always boast the bulk of new, core mechanics. Regardless, the 90’s has to be remembered with greater fondness for this period of rapid evolution.
Art that blew us away
Outside of the technical stuff, this was THE most incredible period in terms of artistry for fighting games. Hand-drawn backgrounds and sprites were often beautiful to behold with the absolute zenith emerging towards the latter part of the decade. The likes of Street Fighter III, Vampire Saviour, The Last Blade 2, Marvel Vs Capcom and Arc’s Guilty Gear series boasted gorgeous 2D sprites that were a joy to behold and it was fascinating to imagine how many hours of painstaking work and skill we were witnessing on our screens. Today, the same developers behind these games are using 2.5d character models and ‘2D’ characters that are actually layered over polygons as well as cinematic super move animations with multiple camera angles. All of this is far from offensive and does actually look pretty nice but it simply cannot awe in the way that fully hand-drawn characters once did.
Backgrounds and backdrops were just as mind-blowing with the very best featuring ridiculous levels of detail and – in the case of larger crossover games – lots of hidden easter eggs and cameos to pick out. These were often more impressive than the characters themselves and even earlier 3D fighting games featured some lovely, static backdrops that were appealing in their simplicity without needing to rely on distracting background action. Below is a small selection to illustrate what I mean because art speaks for itself…
And this amazing, transitional stage from The King of Fighters ’99 that never fails to blow me away…
This is just the tip of a very large iceberg and if you (like me) have spent countless hours exploring the full spectrum of fighting games from this era of hand-drawn artistry, you will very likely have your own nominations and personal definition of the term ‘impressive’. Given the vast quantity of fighting games that were produced in the 90’s, there is so much to see and many, many hidden gems when it comes to stunning backgrounds.
Sounds good to me
Of course, tight gameplay and pretty aesthetics need suitably good audio to match and this golden age of fighting games just so happened to represent developer sound teams at the peak of their powers. Modern fighting games tend to have very orchestral ‘epic’ soundtracks, pulse-pounding techno or mixes of older themes. The former work within the game(s) and are of good quality but are usually not that memorable. The latter – to me at least – demonstrates a distinct lack of confidence on the part of the developers when it comes to composing original, catchy themes that will be remembered in years to come.
Fighting game music from the 90’s though? It stuck in your head and is the kind of stuff that gamers flock to Youtube to listen to again all these years later. Importing expensive soundtrack CD’s from Japan is WORTH it for these OST’s. This was also an era when console ports of arcade fighting games such as Virtua Fighter, King of Fighters ’96 and the Playstation Tekken trilogy featured arranged versions of the entire soundtracks that took advantage of the CD medium. Clear effort was put into re-arranging soundtracks and catchy arcade riffs suddenly gained transitions, extra layers of instrumentation and more depth in general. The best part was that BOTH the arcade and home arrangements were usually worth listening to and I can’t have been the only one who regularly switched them about in the options menus!
There are literally hundreds of amazing tracks to choose from so below are (Youtube) links to just 10 of my favourites from the era.
- Street Fighter II – Ken Theme (CPSII Version)
- Tekken 2 – Kazuya Theme (Arranged PS1 Version)
- Super Street Fighter II Turbo – Cammy Theme (Arranged 3DO Version)
- Virtua Fighter 2 – Akira Theme (Arcade Version)
- King of Fighters ’96 – Art of Fighting Team (Arranged Version)
- Street Fighter III: Third Strike – Elena Theme
- Street Fighter III: Third Strike – Ryu Theme (Arranged)
- Tekken 2 – Yoshimitsu Theme (Arranged PS1 Version)
- Capcom Vs SNK – Menu Theme 2
- Capcom Vs SNK 2 – London Theme
Those are just a fraction of my favourites and if I’m being honest, I feel that the list does a major disservice to some of the more obscure fighting games of the era as well as some of the major ones but I could genuinely sit here linking away forever to what I consider to be amazing pieces of music.
Heart and Soul
All of this – the innovation, art, music – are however, all mere ingredients that come together to form the biggest characteristic of the fighting game genre in ’91-00/01 that gives it the Golden Age status. That characteristic is SOUL. This was an era when developers were battling to outdo one another at a terrific pace, developing bigger and better arcade boards, fighting fire with fire and racing to be the first to introduce their new innovations to the market. Capcom and SNK slugged it out for the decade (before the incredible Capcom Vs SNK series paid tribute to their war), 3D fighting games evolved at a great pace and bigger and bolder sprites vied for our attention on a constant basis.
When the dust settled though, it was us – the fans – that were the real winners. Fighting games during this period felt like more than just simple money-making products (which they obviously were intended to be). They felt alive and you could feel how the developers had put so much creativity and artistry into trying to make the best possible product, pushing the available hardware to the limits and beyond (see the necessary RAM expansion cartridges for Sega Saturn ports of several Capcom and SNK games). The graphics, sound and even conceptual character artwork just kept getting better and better as each year passed and it was a real treat to behold.
Modern fighting games are still very enjoyable but there is a lot of focus on the almost clinical tournament play (as it is streamed over the internet as en E-Sport), online play and DLC. The creativity is still there but computer modelled characters and environments simply cannot stop the heart in the same way that hand-drawn animation once did. There is also so much recycling and updating of old music and stages from the past with an over-reliance on the glory days. True, fans don’t help this matter at times when they demand to see throwbacks in order to feel comfortable with a new generation of their favourite series but even so, the current fighting game scene certainly doesn’t feel innovative or aesthetically special (rare exceptions aside of course).
Taking one final, quick look at the stages and music for example, it felt like developers created these specifically to describe the characters that they belonged to, conveying their personalities wordlessly through the tone of the music and themes of the stages. Things are a lot more generic today by contrast.
This was actually a difficult topic to tackle because rose-tinted vision is a very real threat and we – as humans – love to tell the next generation how the old days were better (before they themselves do the same to another younger generation, despite believing that they won’t!). On the subject of fighting games however, I do genuinely believe that 1991 through to around 2000/2001 was the defining Golden Age for the genre. It was when fighting games had the most soul and a capacity to thrill with their visuals and move the heart with their sound. It was the birth of countless icons and still the place for superb gameplay.
And that concludes my three-part look at why I believe this was the one, true Golden Age of fighting games. I’d love to hear what others think!