In 2009, Arc System Works released BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, a 2-D fighting game available for Xbox 360 and PS3. The spiritual successor to Guilty Gear, BlazBlue looks and feels much different than its fighting game contemporaries. For one, the characters don’t conform to the standard Ryu/Ken archetypes – they each have individual styles that are wildly different not only from each other but from those of fighting games in general. And the music, by Guilty Gear composer Daisuke Ishiwatari, is one of the most intense and memorable soundtracks in recent memory.
Which is why it’s so heartbreaking that such a fantastic game is shackled to many of the problems that plague the fighting game genre as a whole. As videogames have grown in popularity, they’ve generally become more streamlined and accessible in an effort to please longtime fans while opening the door for new ones. But fighting games are so stuck in their roots that they’ve only cornered the market on themselves. In 2009, four major fighting games were released: Street Fighter IV, BlazBlue, King of Fighters XII, and Tekken 6. Of those four, BlazBlue is the only new IP, and it’s the only one trying to bring in new players.
Let’s take a step back. What defines the fighting game genre? First and foremost, fighting games are both highly competitive and varied in how they allow players to approach combat – players can choose from a diverse roster of fighters, but they generally have to be familiar with at least one in order to succeed. Just as importantly, fighting games are usually stylish enough to draw crowds of spectators who then wanted to play the games themselves – a byproduct of the genre’s arcade origins.
Over the years, the genre has become more complex, introducing game mechanics like scripted combos, various power meters and larger casts of characters. Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat spawned endless sequels and imitators, while Soul Edge and Virtua Fighter took the genre into the third dimension, allowing players to move around their opponents rather than just back and forth. And in the genre’s last burst of innovation, Super Smash Bros. let up to four players participate in a battle and threw items and stage hazards into the mix.
So what are the problems of the genre? The main issue is that fighting games have become stale and repetitive. Soulcalibur may have been revolutionary in 1998, but 2008’s Soulcalibur IV added very little to the series except better graphics, new characters and improved jiggle physics. To an outsider, Street Fighter IV is indistinguishable from Tekken 6.
Then there’s the fact that fighting games typically have giant learning curves that turn away potential players. Even something as simple as a quarter-circle – a standard gesture across most fighting games – is unintuitive to players who are just now entering the fray. Furthermore, despite similar gameplay, controls are vastly different between one game and the next, and long combos require not just familiarity with these inputs, but rote memorization. And because every character plays differently, the idea of picking the character you’re most comfortable with out of a cast of dozens of fighters can be quite intimidating.
Aside from stale mechanics and a steep learning curve, fighting games are notoriously bad at telling stories. While other genres have matured to the point of offering narratives that are as complex and thought-provoking as many films, fighting games are still telling minor variations of the same tale: Either there is a great tournament to prove which fighter is the strongest in the world, or there is some evil force that draws both heroes and villains from far and wide to either put a stop to it or use it for their own nefarious purposes. Even the method of storytelling that fighting games most often use is ineffective: A story mode that consists of an intro, seven or eight arbitrary fights and an epilogue is not the right way to develop characters.
There’s also an issue of inconsistent tone in many fighting games. A major problem I had with Soulcalibur IV were the ridiculous character designs that were completely at odds with the game’s serious, self-important cinematics. Many characters have unnecessary accessories, the women have unreasonably large cleavage and the characters constantly spout cheesy one-liners – and that’s before you throw Star Wars into the mix.
Fighting games have grown repetitive in their gameplay, overly complex in their controls and have remained clunky in their storytelling. Is it even possible for the genre to pull itself out of the rut it’s been stuck in for the last decade? I think it is, and while it’s by no means perfect, BlazBlue may hold the fix to many of these issues.
Let’s start with the storytelling. BlazBlue‘s approach scraps the standard fighting game clichés by offering a series of ridiculous “what if?” scenarios involving the characters. These vignettes do a good job of fleshing out their personalities and motivations, so when a friend plays the game for the first time and asks, “What’s that guy’s story?” you have a (fairly) clear answer for him. Just as importantly, BlazBlue nails its character and world design. BlazBlue may have overblown characters and dialogue, but it’s in the service of maintaining a consistently humorous tone. The goal isn’t to try to tell an epic tale that will last the ages; it’s to make something fun and concise for the players to enjoy while still learning the basic game mechanics.
BlazBlue also offers a rather unique solution to the dreaded learning curve that new players inevitably encounter: Those who bought the first shipment of the game were treated to a tutorial DVD that walks the player through all the characters’ movesets, outlining both general and more advanced strategies so that newcomers can get a better feel for the game. BlazBlue also keeps the cast small, but each character is unique and balanced so it’s easy to find somebody you like.
Of course, better characterizations and an easier difficulty curve can only take fighting games so far. If the genre really wants to improve, it needs to stop relying on the same standard fighting game mechanics and innovate. A lot of current games find some success in meshing genres together to create something new, but it’s hard to combine fighting game mechanics with other genres and still create something decent. Nonetheless, there are a number of games that have tried with mixed success. The Jump Super Stars series on the DS, for example, lets players build a “deck” of characters out of manga panels on the bottom screen and play their deck against their friends’. By tapping the touch screen, players can instantly change characters or call for help, and careful manipulation of the deck can give you a serious tactical advantage. This style of play complements the DS’s touch screen and multiplayer capabilities – it’s a shame the game has not yet been released outside of its native Japan.
But perhaps it’s time for designers to get even wilder with their ideas. How about a Pokémon-style fighting game of building a team of monsters that you can individually level up? Or perhaps a rhythm-based fighting game with a non-standard input device? Guitar controller or not, fighting along to the music would be an interesting experience at the very least. And with most competitive fighting games relying on online connectivity rather than two players in the same room, why not design a first-person fighter? Fighting games may have strong arcade roots, but developers need to start embracing today’s technology and re-examine what makes fighting games fun to play in the first place.
Fighting games aren’t dead yet. Even with all this talk about repetition and failed storytelling, everyone can admit a close fight between two competitors is a joy to watch and an even greater joy to experience. We simply need to find a way to re-energize the genre, and it’ll be ready for the next round.
Robert Bevill is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.