The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Fighting Games

The past 25 years have been an incredible timeline in the world of fighting games. With the rise of franchises like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, the market became over-saturated and the genre began to fall in the late 90’s, only to re-surge in the past few years. The journey has been a very bumpy one filled with controversy, shady tactics, and on the brighter side, some of the biggest fan support of any genre in gaming.

While games like The Way of the Exploding Fist are viewed as the birth of the fighting games genre, but the game that set the standard was the original Street Fighter, which was innovative, being the first fighting game to make use of “special moves.” The game a huge hit at arcades and was even awarded “Game of the Year” by a few magazines at the time. Capcom seen the potential and released Street Fighter II. The craze for fighting games picked up as people lined up to play the game at the arcade. Several companies seen the money that was being made by Street Fighter II and wanted to capitalize, but almost none of the games released were able to compete.

Midway saw potential in the genre and put together a team who were working on an action game starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, which fell through due to scheduling conflicts and were left with an empty plate. Ed Boon, John Tobias, and others pulled off what we now know as the original Mortal Kombat. Known for it’s over the top violence and character sprites made from digitized actors, the game, and eventually the series, became a phenomenon. The controversy also created a mystique about the game that was alluring to people who didn’t know about it. Mortal Kombat also impacted the industry as it led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB).

With these two franchises in direct competition, the fighting game genre and arcades were on fire. Sega looked to cash in on the fighting game craze and released Eternal Champions, and while the series sold very well, it couldn’t hold a candle to the popularity of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.

In 1993, Mortal Kombat II was released with huge praise and even more fanfare from the fighting game community. Capcom capitalized with the release of Super Street Fighter II which added new characters, and further refined the gameplay from the previous editions, notably Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting. This began a pattern for Capcom, and one that would play a role in the downfall of fighting games.

Street Fighter: The Movie was released on the big screen in 1994 and was very poorly received. Many fans of the series called the film “an embarrassment.” About the same time, New Line was wrapping up production on a feature film for Mortal Kombat. The market was on fire, and of course, the media was talking up both Street Fighter and Mortal KombatNamco looked to take the fighting game world in a new direction – 3D. Tekken was released to arcades in 1994 and was an instant hit. Around the same time, SNK was releasing King of Fighters ’94. This put a lot of pressure on both Capcom and Midway to “up the ante.”

In 1995, Mortal Kombat 3 was released and while the game was extremely popular, many fans of the series felt is was missing the dark, mystical feel of the first two games. By this point, the first two games were tearing it up on home consoles and the first Mortal Kombat game caused a lot of problems for Nintendo, as the port released on the SNES was heavily censored. This caused sales of the Genesis/Mega Drive version to sky-rocket. Nintendo capitalized and looked to beat Sega with their release of Mortal Kombat II, which featured better graphics, sound, and gameplay that was closer to the arcade.

By this point, Capcom was starting to feel a bit left in the dust after releasing several versions of Street Fighter II, and released Street Fighter Alpha. Fans were a little disappointed when learning that the game was merely a prequel to Street Fighter II. Mortal Kombat was tearing it up at the box office, and the competition in the arcades was as hot as ever, but many were feeling a bit burnt out. The market had become over-saturated. Several versions of Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat was everywhere – games, movies, cartoons, and even a live-action tour. Tekken 2 was also hitting the arcades and was very well recieved, but didn’t find huge success until it was ported to the Sony PlayStation in 1996.

1997 came around and Capcom was feeling pressure to keep things fresh. Street Fighter EX introduced 3D graphics, but still had the same fighting system as Street Fighter II. Mortal Kombat also felt the pressure and Mortal Kombat 4 introduced 3D graphics to the series. While the games did well financially,  fans of the series were not happy with the new direction. Mortal Kombat fans in particular felt the series had lost it’s “charm” when it dropped the digitized actors. Street Fighter fans felt the 3D graphics strayed too far from the series’ Animé look. In response, Capcom finally released Street Fighter III: New Generation. The game got decent reception, but at this point, Tekken 2 took a short reign as the top fighting game, but neither game was making much money. Midway began looking at taking the Mortal Kombat franchise in a new direction and released Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero. While sales were very high (being one of the top selling games of the year), the game was very poorly received by critics and fans. Not in particular for the direction, as Kombat fans loved the concept, but mainly on the game’s sloppy execution and being overly difficult.

While 1997 seemed it couldn’t get any worse for fighting games, it did. After the first Mortal Kombat film was a smash hit at the box office in ’95, New Line decided a sequel was needed. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was plagued by poor acting, bad special effects, and many of the actors from the first movie not returning either due to the shotty script, or in Christopher Lambert’s case, scheduling conflicts due to filming another movie. The movie has since been named one of the worst movies of all-time and left a bad taste in a ot of people’s mouths.

After 5 years of popularity and fighting games taking a new direction, many fans were beginning to “fall off the bandwagon.” Sales began to drop and the popularity of arcades declined as home ports of games started to get equal or, in some cases, better. It seemed as though the internet may have played a role in the downfall of fighting games as well, with the secrecy of special moves and “Easter Eggs” within the game usually being exposed before release. It was no longer needed to go to the arcade to pop in quarters to figure out the games’ secrets.

1998 seen the release of SNK‘s King of Fighters ’98 in Japan, which is still regarded as the best of the series, and Namco‘s Soulcalibur, which has become known as one of the greatest fighting games ever. Unfortunately, King of Fighters ’98 didn’t show up in America until a refined version, King of Fighters: The Dream Match 1999, was released on the Sega Dreamcast. The Dreamcast version was also well received, but sales never really took off. Soulcalibur pulled off decent sales, but was the victim of the Dreamcast‘s decline as the PlayStation 2 was imminent in North America. Midway released Mortal Kombat Gold on the Dreamcast that year as well, which refined MK4, added six characters, new stages, and a new weapons mechanic. The game was poorly received and bombed in sales.

Many companies began looking in a new direction entirely for the fighting game world. Marvel teamed up with Capcom to released a cross-over title pitting super heroes and fighting game characters against each other, thus Marvel vs. Capcom was born. It recieved high marks, but these two companies joining forces just wasn’t enough. Nintendo released Super Smash Bros., which had a roster of various Nintendo characters such as Mario, Link, and Pikachu. Many in the industry called the fighting genre “dead,” though game developers still held hope.

Through the turn of the Millennium, the genre went from being the dominant force in the gaming world to becoming more of a niche market. Dead or Alive 2 began creating a ripple within the gaming community, but still couldn’t come out from the shadow of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. It was about this time that that news of SNK vs. Capcom: Millenium Fight 2000 was coming to the Dreamcast, which was on it’s last breath. Both games were fair in their commercial success, but didn’t match the minor success that Marvel vs. Capcom had just one year prior. Midway once again tried to venture the Mortal Kombat series into an action-adventure game, Mortal Kombat: Special Forces. The game was riddled with problems due to it’s uneasy development period, as a number of key people from the Mortal Kombat team left Midway, most notably co-creator John Tobias. Many fans had begun to turn away from the franchise, and this is often considered the worst game in the franchise.

The advent of online gaming also brought upon an even steeper decline in the downfall of arcades. There was no longer a need to wait in line to face someone, as online gaming appealed in the sense that you could connect with people around the world. This took away some of the charm that fighting games had, as the “personal” feel of the fights were somewhat neutered, which many fighting game fans say was a major part of the experience – standing next to your opponent as you humiliated him or suffered defeat in front of a crowd of people. Many game companies struggled to find ways to make online fighting games appealing to those who were looking for that “arcade experience.”

Midway was hoping to reignite the flame with the release of their next title, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. Featuring a huge ad campaign and even a track performed by popular hard-rock band, Adema, the game was a huge success, winning multiple awards for “Fighting Game of the Year.” This gave many companies hope that fighting games still had life. Namco released Tekken 4, which received fair marks and even E3’s “Best Fighting Game” award, but was seen as simply “Tekken 3 with pretty graphics.Dead or Alive 3 was released as a launch title on the original Xbox, but received mixed reviews.

Fans of Street Fighter continued to wait patiently for Street Fighter IV, as Capcom continued releasing upgrades to previous Street Fighter games. This left many fans weary as some felt conned into buying the same game over and over for new characters and upgrades. It seemed Capcom had sort of left Street Fighter behind and focused more on their Resident Evil series, which was finding itself to be hugely successful at the time.

Mortal Kombat: Deception was released and while it scored fairly well with critics, many noticed that Midway were beginning to focus too much on the included mini-games such as Chess Kombat and the Konquest mode, and many felt this was because Midway were no longer confident in the direction the Mortal Kombat series was taking. Many fans and fighter enthusiasts also complained that the series was beginning to stray too far from it’s roots.

The next big fighting game release was Tekken 5, which was seen as Namco going “back to basics” and looking to bring a breath of fresh air to the core gameplay. Tekken fans rejoiced as they finally had a game that matched Tekken 2, and to some, beat it. When Mortal Kombat: Armageddon was released a year later, there was a startling contrast to the confidence that Namco showed with Tekken 5 as Armageddon seemed more like Ed Boon and company having a lack of ideas and throwing everything they had into a game as more of a “fan service.” Many hardcore Kombat fans shunned the game, saying that it felt “incomplete” and showed that Midway had no idea what they were doing with the series anymore. The story also had many thinking that it was the final MK title.

The fighting game world was very quiet from 1999 to 2005 in comparison to it’s boom in the 90s. The release of Dead or Alive 4 went somewhat under the radar as a launch title for the Xbox 360 with sales only slightly picking up as the game went down in price. Street Fighter fans were getting anxious, and it wasn’t until 2007 that Super Street Fighter II: Turbo HD Remix was announced. While many fans were disappointed that it was merely another update to a previous Street Fighter game, the game was released in 2008 to amazing sales and has gone on to become the fastest and highest selling Xbox Live Arcade title ever.

Shortly after, Mortal Kombat 8 was announced to be in development, but it was revealed shortly after that Midway had signed an agreement with DC Comics. The progress made on MK8 was converted over to a cross-over title, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Released to good reviews and many critics citing a nice change in the games pacing, it seemed to some that maybe Mortal Kombat was beginning to find it’s groove again. While hardcore Kombat fans were not too thrilled about the DC Universe cross-over, most of them just shrugged it off as being an opportunity for the franchise to appeal to a larger audience.

With the surprise success of Super Street Fighter Turbo: HD Remix, fans of the series were finally given  news that they had been waiting for – Street Fighter IV and a new film to accompany. The release of Street Fighter IV was met with rave reviews, but Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li was underwhelming and left many scratching their heads. Tekken 6 was released in 2009 to positive reviews and impressive sales. BlazBlue was also beginning to break out into the mainstream with the release of BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger. After years of the genre becoming somewhat of an after-thought, things were finally looking up.

In 2010, Ed Boon announced that Mortal Kombat was going back to it’s roots. The game became one of the most highly anticipated releases and with it’s release in 2011, was a major success, selling more than 2 million copies in it’s first month. The game also found a bit of success at the arcades It was also announced that fighting games would be making their return to MLG in March of that year, and it was official that the genre was back on the rise. Along side the game was the release of a YouTube mini-series, Mortal Kombat: Legacy. The series was an instant hit, receiving millions of views per episode and, eventually, a new Mortal Kombat film was green-lit by Hollywood after.

2010 also seen the announcement of both Street Fighter X Tekken, and it’s counterpart, Tekken X Street Fighter. The match-up of the two monster fighting franchises had both fans at gaming media eager to see how these two franchises would intertwine and how well their mechanics would work with one-another. Released in March 2012, Street Fighter X Tekken was one of the bigger hits of the Spring season. Tekken X Street Fighter is still in the early developmental stages, but anticipation is already running high after the rave reviews of it’s predecessor. Midway also paid tribute to their fans and the recent success of the Mortal Kombat reboot by re-releasing Mortal Kombat, MKII, and Ultimate MK3 in the Mortal Kombat: Arcade Collection, which brought the trilogy to the current generation of consoles for the first time, allowing many of the younger generation of fans to experience these games for the first time.

It’s hard to say whether the genre will ever see the success it met in the early to mid-90s, but I think just about every fighting game fan will agree that we’re witnessing fighting games picking themselves up and wiping themselves off after walking over some bumpy roads and through muddy waters. Thanks to the recent success of the genre, there’s even been small arcade booms in bigger cities like New York, and there are many petitions online to have new arcades built in rural areas. With the pending release of Tekken Tag Tournament 2, the next Mortal Kombat, and the inevitable Street Fighter V, the future looks bright for those of us who love 5-hit combos, Hadoukens, and Fatalities. Do you think fighting games will ever be as successful as they once were, possible even more popular?

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