Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Serial Gaming: Fighting Games

This article can also be found on One Hit Pixel, here.

I’ve loved fighting games for a long time. I’ve never been great at them – most of the time I’m not even good at them – but they bring about such excitement and tension. The kind of hollering at the screen you can only manage when it’s about a toe-to-toe duel with larger than life attacks. I’m an ardent pacifist in real life, but in King of Fighters, I’ll stain my hands with your blood.

That said, until very recently, I didn’t quite appreciate how games within the genre have such important differences. At the moment I’m playing Persona 4 Arena, Skullgirls, and Tekken Tag Tournament 2; but I admit that I approach them all mentally in a rather similar fashion.

At their core, all fighting games (the good ones, anyway) follow some basic tenets: movement and spacing, the attack/block/throw strategic triangle, and even how the HUD should look. The other differences feel aesthetic, maybe even inconsequential.

Then I discovered Salty Bet.

Serial Gaming: Fighting Games
13:1 odds for Chun-Li
For the uninitiated, Salty Bet is a perpetually running stream of MUGEN, an open-source fighting game engine where users can create characters. Fighters from the history of the genre, popular or obscure, have been rendered in the engine, along with bizarre and imbalanced custom creations.

Characters are selected out of a roster of hundreds, and fight it out while controlled by AI. Viewers gamble on the results with play money, with the payouts depending on which way people have voted.
It’s a rather dystopian form of entertainment, but it very quickly becomes inexplicably compelling to watch. For fighting game enthusiasts, it’s a nostalgic mash-up of favourite characters, obscure series, and bizarre custom creations.

I witnessed a rather tense match between Clark Steel from King of Fighters (A burly military man with a penchant for wrestling) against Robo-Ky from Guilty Gear (A surprisingly sassy robot filled with missiles).

The ground-based combo heavy system of King of Fighters was an odd match against the high-speed aerial manoeuvres of Guilty Gear. It was a tense match, and not just because I went all-in on Robo-Ky. Sadly though, Clark won out.

When universes collide
In the same way that taking the Blue Falcon for a spin around Mario Circuit sounds like a fun idea, but logistically silly – Salty Bet makes it clear that the minutiae that sets games in a genre apart are differences worth respecting.

The problem is, crossovers between series are the dreams of obsessive neckbeards the world over. In the same way that superhero comic fans lust for a fight between say, Captain America and Superman, fighting game fans can’t turn down a fight between Ryu and Kyo Kusanagi.

Official crossovers of that nature do indeed exist, with Capcom vs SNK 2 and Street Fighter x Tekken being the most famous examples. However, in both games, the attempt to bring disparate fighting systems together was a tricky process.

CvS2 actually takes about 8 different fighting game series from the two publishers, and takes at least one mechanic from them all! A ‘groove’ type you select at the start of each battle determines what gameplay style you use. It was a good game (and the game where I first tried to learn how to play instead of just mashing buttons), but the complexity resulted in matches playing out similar to those bizarre 3D chess sets while simultaneously trying to land an aeroplane. That’s caught fire.

SFxT went a slightly different route to blend its host series. Making a 3D fighting (and largely projectile-free) system like Tekken work in a Street Fighter format is an obvious conundrum, but mostly the game uses entirely original mechanics, including the ‘Pandora Mode’ desperation move and the infamous Gem System. The resulting experience felt gimmicky and awkward. While the Gems provided handicaps for less skilled players, their use didn’t help said players understand the quirks of the game any better.

The Birth of New Series
Because CvS2 is so inaccessible, and SFxT was largely a hot mess, it’s difficult to call those crossover games a total success – but experiments like those titles have definitely formed the latest generation of fighting games.

Since we’re no longer in an era where Street Fighter is the genre baseline, new fighting games don’t need to intentionally come up with new mechanics to set themselves apart – we have a complex library of games systems, ripe for remixing into something new.

Skullgirls, which has recently become available on Steam, is a prime example. Although it doesn’t look like it on the surface, the game is packed to the brim with bits and pieces from other fighter series the developers had close to their hearts.

However, because it’s not overtly trying to mash different games together, the experience as a whole is very unified and smooth. It’s been described as the missing link between Marvel vs Capcom 2 and Guilty Gear, and I can definitely feel that when I play.

Yatagarasu is another indie fighter that only very recently completed a crowdsourced fundraiser to become a more robust, multi-platform release. Its lead developer was heavily involved with the development of several King of Fighters titles, but it aims to be something far beyond that. Most notably, it features an easy-to-use parry system (which most famously showed up in Street Fighter III) for some very technical battles.

As a final, kind of silly example, did you know that there’s a League of Legends fighting game in development? It’s fan made, but it’s been given the all-clear by Riot. Because they want it to be accessible to players who aren’t used the execution requirements of fighting games, they’re actually taking cues from Super Smash Bros. for how special moves work. I wait for more information about it with apprehensive curiosity.

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