In the rough-and-tumble world of video games that includes esports, there’s nothing more exciting for pro players, game makers and stream viewers than the Flash-fast, mano-a-mano action of fighting games. Historically, it all began in 1976 with Sega’s black and white fighter, “Heavyweight Champ,” which included boxing gloves as controllers. Today, the eclectic list of arcade games that players have loved for decades includes the wonderfully hectic “Super Smash Bros.,” the myth-laden “SoulCalibur” and over the top violence of “Mortal Kombat,” a new version of which was just released. But what makes are great fighting game? The Washington Post asked a variety of experts, including esports pros, game developers and executives, journalists and streamers, this deceptively simple question and three obvious trends emerged: It needs to be fast. It should make you feel as if you’re amazing. And it needs to have a compelling story or theme to keep you engaged for hours.
Seth Killian, Co-Founder, Evolution Championship Series (EVO), lead game designer, Riot Games
“A great fighting game lets you stare right into the soul of your opponent. There [are] no teammates to coordinate with, no noise in the system, and minimal variance — just a high-stakes, fast-paced test of nerves to see who is the predator, and who is the prey.”
“SonicFox,” Dominique McLean, four-time EVO champion
"For me, this makes a great game: it’s got to be super fast. Complex is good, too. It also has to fit my style, my archetype. [With ‘Mortal Kombat 11,’] it’s those crazy fatalities. I mean, Johnny Cage pulls off the enemy’s head and throws it at the window [during a take on a Hollywood set]. C’mon, it’s so great! This game is faster than the other games in the series. That’s important, too.
"I don’t play ‘SoulCalibur’ a lot, but there are things about it that make it cool, [like] the Ring Out. If you’re 80 percent [out of energy], you can knock someone out the arena and still win. But ‘SkullGirls’ is the most complex of the fighting games, and that makes it a great game. It’s so fast; it’s super sick and unforgiving. There are so many way to get hit and die. You have to take advantage of every split second. And there’s endless creativity. You can play one versus three, for instance. And that’s just one variation. Nothing else can compare to the depth of it.”
Dan Houser, Co-Founder, Lead Writer, Rockstar Games
“Our game ['Red Dead Redemption 2′] is about changes in the Wild West and Arthur Morgan, a man caught between the nastiness of nature and the brutality of encroaching industrialization. But the team thought hard [about what would make the fighting great], and took a great amount of time and effort to make the fighting feel natural, smooth and precise. You can’t just go into a fistfight willy nilly and start punching because you’ll get knocked right on your [behind]. It can be more like boxing rather than brawling. But you can brawl if you choose to."
“Jwong,” Justin Wong, nine-time EVO champion
"There are so many elements to make a great fighting game. It can be combos, balance, character diversity, game mechanics. But, to me, as long as I can play a fighting game for hours without looking at the time, that’s a great fighting game. [But that] will vary from each person.
“I grew up very poor in New York City. I thrived on anything positive like a small gift. I played ‘Marvel Vs. Capcom 1’ at Raul Candy Store, a bodega in the East Village and King of Fighters and in the local laundromat. I never want to give up the joy I had in the arcade as a boy. I didn’t want to lose my quarter or my dollar then, and I definitely don’t want to lose matches today.
"I love all the backstories in the game. I even buy the comic books and anything associated with ‘Street Fighter’ stories. When I play, I use Karin a lot. She’s a beautiful graceful character. She was a spoiled brat, but with ‘Street Fighter V,’ she became a leader and a strong woman. That was pretty tight.
“For me, ‘Street Fighter’ is the best example of a great game. It’s the only game that really brings the world together in all regions around the USA, Canada, Asia, Latin America, Africa and Middle East. Every year at EVO, someone comes out of nowhere. That’s super sick. Street Fighter is a universal language.”
Andrew Freeth, Co-Counder Juicy Cupcake Studio, Co-creator of Brief Battles, releasing May 7
"Ten years ago, when I was obsessed with ‘Mortal Kombat’ on the original Xbox, I would have suggested intense finishing moves and combos made the game great.
"These days, I think what makes a fighting game great is balance and accessibility. Not just balance of character abilities, but of a combination of elements that all build up to an experience that’s instantly satisfying and worth experiencing again and again. Core gameplay mechanics should be simple enough to be picked up in your first or second fight, making the game approachable for newcomers. At the same time, there needs to be enough complexity and freedom of choice to allow players to develop some real skill in the game.
“[A great fighting game] should never punish players to an extent where they are completely frustrated by a competitive game. I also think characters need to be relatable or humorous, so that you feel some attachment while battling.”
“NuckleDu,” Du Dang, Capcom Cup Champion, DreamHack Champion
“I started by playing ‘Street Fighter’ as a kid against my uncle and lost. But then, I practiced hard and beat him. Maybe that’s part of why I like the game so much. If I’m up against a character that’s really fast, I usually lead with an aggressive character. I play a lot with Guile, but I use characters as tools, tools to get to the world finals and win. There’s no [personal] attachment to them. One thing is not to fall in love with your characters. Some players will stick with character even if they’re nerfed. That’s never a good idea.”
Motohiro Okubo, Producer for “SoulCalibur VI”
“Fighting with armor and being able to run smoothly within a 3-D environment, the depth of story within, and the beautiful semi-realistic graphics. If [you] want to win more, [a player] will need to be in sync with the character … become the character him/herself. This means each character design and background needs to be appealing. Additionally, the story line needs to be appealing so that players can dive deeply into the world.”
Mike Andronico, Managing Editor, Tom’s Guide, fighting game reviewer
“To me, the ideal fighting game strikes a perfect balance between easy to learn and hard to master, while being fun for spectators to watch. Just like chess, the basic punches, kicks and special moves of a game like ‘Street Fighter’ are simple to understand. But put in the hands of two talented players, these moves lead to a dazzling back-and-forth of intricate mind games and stylish, exciting combos.”
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of video games Conquered Pop Culture)” Random House. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle and New York Game Awards. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.
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