For those who played video games in the ’90s, it’s easy to remember the experience of being in an arcade. Playing Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat with friends, screaming over each other as everybody busted out their best combos and every super move they knew the combination for. Nobody really knew what they were doing, but that was half the fun of it. Anything could happen, whether that be Ryu doing a special move they didn’t know he had or Sub-Zero ripping somebody’s spine out of their body.
When the 2000s came around though, everything changed. As home consoles got bigger and better, arcades no longer had the pull they once did. Online play was essentially non-existent, so the only way to play with others was to go to someone’s home or a tournament. Major players started to falter, as Capcom stopped releasing Street Fighter games and Midway Games rushed out Mortal Kombat games until they went out of business. Fighting games like Tekken and Soulcalibur still came out, but they failed to garner the audiences they once did.
Fighting games came back into mainstream attention when Capcom finally released Street Fighter IV in 2008, with its incredible reception and sales telling other companies that fighting games were still relevant. It particularly emphasized the importance of netplay, allowing players to battle no matter where in the world they were. As the most popular and famous fighting game, Street Fighter’s success and failure effectively defined the entire fighting game industry. That’s why its subsequent failure was worrying for everybody who loved the genre.
In 2012, Street Fighter X Tekken combined two of the biggest fighting games on the market. It should have been a surefire success, but it was marred by the on-disc DLC controversy. Twelve fully playable characters were included in Street Fighter X Tekken from the start but were hidden and slowly made available for purchase over six months. Street Fighter V followed in 2016 but faced similar controversy for its paltry starting roster of eight characters and its poor online gameplay.
Other series like Mortal Kombat and Tekken were still doing well in the middle of the 2010s, but Street Fighter’s declining quality created uncertainty. Other beloved fighting game franchises like Soulcalibur and Guilty Gear were still releasing installments but struggling to draw the fans and sales needed to continue making new ones. Rather than expanding, it seemed like fighting games were shrinking, only being able to attract die-hard fans while casual players turned away.
Everything began to turn around in 2018 with the release of Arc System Works’ long-anticipated Dragon Ball FighterZ. Based on the world-famous “Dragon Ball” anime, FighterZ combined Arc System Works’ world-renowned gameplay with an incredible graphical style. Anime fighting games are often derided for being cash grabs, but FighterZ broke the mold. Even today, more than 1,200 people play Dragon Ball FighterZ daily, an impressive number for a game that’s over four years old.
FighterZ was also one of the first games to become known for bridging the gap between casual and competitive players. Its simplified control scheme allows anybody to have fun by mashing buttons, but it also includes more complicated systems for dedicated players. This proved controversial at first, as fighting game players were worried that “dumbing down” the game too much would remove the high skill ceiling intrinsic to most fighting games. The depth in FighterZ’s mechanics fortunately proved that fighting games can be made more accessible without losing their complexity.
While the fighting game community wasn’t dead before FighterZ released, its runaway success proved that a new generation of fighting game players was out there, simply waiting for the right game. Arc System Works was one of the first to capitalize on this. In 2021, they released the long-anticipated next entry in their Guilty Gear series, and in 2022, they teamed up with fellow fighting game developer Eighting to create DnF Duel, based on the MMO Dungeon Fighter Online. Both games have received high praise for their visual fidelity and commitment to smooth online experiences.
Traditional fighting game fans have many options to choose from in the modern day. Beyond the aforementioned games, Tekken 7, Mortal Kombat 11 and Soulcalibur VI received downloadable content for years after their releases, and still have active online communities. The King of Fighters is getting its 15th installment, Granblue Fantasy Versus recently received a massive gameplay update, and older fighting games like Persona 4 Arena Ultimax and Darkstalkers are getting re-released on modern hardware.
Other genres of fighting games continue to thrive as well. Nintendo released the latest installment of the Super Smash Bros. series in 2018, and it is the best-selling fighting game of all time. Other platform fighters similar to Smash Bros. like Rivals of Aether, Brawlhalla and the upcoming MultiVersus have also found success on digital storefronts like Steam. Bandai Namco also consistently produces arena fighters based on popular anime properties like “Naruto,” “My Hero Academia” and “Demon Slayer.”
To top it all off, Street Fighter is coming back in a big way. Capcom has begun releasing trailers for the upcoming Street Fighter 6. The game boasts a unique visual style inspired by street graffiti and pro wrestling. Characters produce colorful paint effects as they attack and stare each other down as if they’re about to enter a wrestling ring. The reception has been massively positive, and many are hopeful that this new installment will be a return to form for gaming’s most popular and famous fighting game franchise.
This is all to say that fighting games have never been bigger and better than they are today. With the abundance of options available, everybody has something on the market for them. Fighting games are finally finding the perfect balance between casualness and competitiveness, opening the genre up to anybody that wants to give them a try. The dark ages of the 2000s have been left behind, and a new age of fighting games is being ushered in.