After a generation spent courting casual players, fighting games are getting technical again
Fighting-game singleplayer modes have a lot to answer for. In Street Fighters of yore, any human playing Ken who follows one missed dragon punch with another to catch your intended punishment before it can hit him is only doing it because Arcade mode taught him to. For all its strides forward, Guilty Gear Xrd reinforces the lesson. If an AI Sol Badguy misses you with his Shoryuken-like Volcanic Viper, he’ll unleash another the second he lands, and then another. Only after the third does he stand still.
It has often been said that fighting-game singleplayer modes breed bad habits. It’s true, but you are only being taught them because they are effective, at least when using the CPU’s own tricks against it, or on unskilled foes in multiplayer. A human opponent will see what you’re doing and adapt, coaching you out of those bad habits, but the AI never learns. It’ll fall for it every time, because the developer wants you to feel powerful.
It was something that was especially true of Street Fighter IV, and its Ultra Combo. It was aimed ostensibly at the lesser skilled, powered by a meter that filled as you took damage and which, when deployed, was so powerful it could turn the bout back in your favour. It was balanced by being a risky endeavour: miss, and the recovery animation was typically so long that an opponent had time to consider their every option before meting out a response. Offline, however, the CPU would rarely bother blocking it. Capcom wanted you to witness the cinematic spectacle of your avatar taking control of the match. It kicked off the fighting game revival by telling players they could be brilliant without practice or study or even very much skill.
Others would follow. Just as the 2D fighters that sprang up in the aftermath of SFII’s early-’90s success used Capcom’s game as the set text, so the reboots and challengers that trailed in SFIV’s wake added some kind of spectacular comeback mechanic. Fighting-game developers spent the 360 and PS3 era pitching their wares to a larger audience. At retail, at least, many succeeded. And certainly, the high-level tournament scene is a busier field now than it was before SFIV. But those new players stuck around because they fell in love with a game so deeply that they were prepared to find out what made it tick with little to no help from the developer.
As the generation progressed, things changed. Skullgirls set a new standard for fighting-game tutorials, and even Capcom noticed, though Street Fighter X Tekken’s introductory lessons were poorly paced, tonally inappropriate (hosted by Dan Hibiki, the unskilled butt of many jokes), and only told half the story. It’s easy to see why: as with SFIV, Capcom was pitching to firsttimers, telling them its new game was easy to understand and be brilliant at, a laudable goal that had little grounding in fact.
Now things are changing. Guilty Gear does not compromise in its mechanics or the way it teaches you them. It shows you its wares over 50 tutorials, then shows you even more in its missions, then tests you with its challenges. It puts you under no illusions about the technical complexity of what lies ahead, but trusts you to be able to do it, helps you learn how to, and assures you that the rewards are every bit as spectacular as its visuals. The forthcoming Mortal Kombat X, the latest in a series that has long favoured spectacle over systems, gives characters multiple stances with different movesets, and so looks like being more of a fighting game than ever. And that tantalising first glimpse of SFV suggests Capcom is now seeking to test and reward the invested player, rather than court the casual one. How Nether-Realm and Capcom explain their next games’ intricacies will be key, of course, but the early signs are heartening. After a generation opening their arms to the world, fighting games look once again to be embracing those who love them the most.
Arc triggering cinematic effects with normal and round-ending moves means the spectacular is more readily available