Long before the first person shooter dominated the release schedule, the fighting genre reigned supreme.
Characters from Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter were icons of mid-‘90s gaming, and the various titles in each franchise were amongst the biggest selling games ever in the 16-bit era.
But over time this part of gaming genre history has faded a little. While the big names remain, it was last week’s triumphant number one debut for Street Fighter IV which has proven the fighting genre still has power
Technically, the genre began life in arcades worldwide in 1976 with Sega’s black and white cabinet, Heavyweight Champ, and then in 1979 with Tim Skelly’s Warrior.
However, the beat ‘em up didn’t achieve real critical acclaim until The Way of the Exploding Fist arrived on Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore in 1985 – a game that pre-dated Capcom’s now-legendary Street Fighter series by two years.
Nevertheless, it was Capcom that brought the fighter kicking and punching into the mainstream when Street Fighter II arrived in the spring of 1991. To give you an idea of its importance at the time, it could almost be argued as being the era’s Wii Sports – it was part of a popular official Super Nintendo bundle, and its eventual move to Mega Drive was controversial but keenly waited by fans. In time the brawler has appeared on over 20 platforms, influencing every beat ‘em up since, including Midway’s controversial 1992 hit, Mortal Kombat.
“The original idea for Mortal Kombat was inspired by a number of things,” recalls Mortal Kombat senior producer Hans Lo. “Arcade games were huge in 1991 and our company Midway – we were called Williams Electronics at the time – had a state of the art graphics chip that could display very realistic digitised graphics.
"We were big fans of martial arts movies like Enter The Dragon so we decided to create a game based on a martial arts tournament. As we were able to display such detailed graphics, we wanted to be hyper-realistic so we added blood, which got a huge reaction, and we kept taking it further. Before we knew it we had an arcade game that had long lines of people wanting to play it.”
The beat ‘em up boom was so significant it spawned movies based on the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat franchises. Meanwhile Sega got back in on the act in 1993 with the first in its Virtua Fighter series. Just a year later Namco launched the first in the world-conquering Tekken series, while Nintendo entered the ring with the Rare-developed Killer Instinct.
“Rare had just invested in some expensive Silicon Graphics machines, which we used to develop a unique look by rendering 3D models into sprites,” explains Killer Instinct lead designer Chris Tilston.
“We needed some games in which to use this technique and a fighting game was the logical choice as they were really popular in the arcades. The idea for Killer Instinct really came about from trying to gel the unique characters we had into a theme that seemed believable.”
However, as quickly as the fighting genre rose to prominence, brawlers began to fade away during the later 1990s. Consumer interest shifted with the advent of 3D gaming, and various new Street Fighter iterations couldn’t recapture that enthusiasm. Simply, the other areas of games were putting up a fight through new evolutions.
“I think back then we saw the fighting game market as a bit of a niche, one which had had its day in the sun, and some members of the team wanted to try something new,” Tilston continues.
“The massive success of Donkey Kong Country also raised the bar on expectations and it made sense to try and find the next big thing – something which most sequels can’t be because expectations have been set by the previous.”
Capcom’s head of PR Leo Tan adds: “I think in the mid-‘90s the gaming culture was quite different to how it is now. The arcade mentality was still in effect and games were still rock hard. Gamers seldom played for the story, it was all about the challenge and proving your worth. I guess as games became more mass market, fighting games became less relevant.”
Nevertheless, the fighting genre never completely went away. Wrestling titles became particularly popular when THQ acquired the WWF licence (which became WWE) from Acclaim, launching the now-established Smackdown series in 2000. In 1999 Nintendo struck gold with the fan-baiting Super Smash Bros, while the likes of Dead or Alive, Tekken, Soul Calibur and Mortal Kombat kept the category strong.
“If you look at each iteration of Mortal Kombat, there has been something new with each game,” comments Hans Lo. “Each MK brought something new to the table that was fun and exciting. Because of this, Mortal Kombat has survived and grown where many have just faded away.”
Despite a smattering of chart hits, the fighting genre hasn’t come close to re-capturing the popularity it enjoyed during the ‘90s.
Until, that is, the past twelve months, which has seen the brawler make a dramatic and triumphant return to the charts. Super Smash Bros. Brawl on Wii held the number one position in the UK charts for two weeks last year, just before Soul Calibur IV grabbed the coveted top spot. Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe may have been released during one of the busiest periods in the industry’s history, but it still notched up 1.8 million in global sales. And of course Capcom’s long-awaited Street Fighter IV is the biggest number one of 2009 so far.
It’s also a viable genre for new digital titles too – XBLA releases based on movies The Warriors and The Watchmen are also fighting games.
“There was a dry period of pretty standard beat-em-ups, but this genre is simply one of the longest standing
and was never going to go away,” comments Ubisoft’s Phil Brannelly, who looked after the launch of Soul Calibur IV last year. “It just needed a shot in the arm and Soul Calibur IV has helped kick that off.”
And with Tekken 6, Punch Out!!, more Mortal Kombat and a new Ready 2 Rumble coming on the horizon, not to mention rumours of a new Killer Instinct, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic for the genre’s future.
Atari’s Lee Kirton concludes: “The fighting genre is definitely still a major contender in video games, as proven by the sales of Street Fighter IV. Tekken and Street Fighter are the biggest fighting brands in video games, so we’re very confident that Tekken 6 will perform well on its release later in the year.”
RETAIL FIGHTERS - a look at the upcoming fighters due this year and beyond
Bleach: Dark Souls
Sega’s unique and popular DS fighter based on the manga comic returns, with multiple modes and 44 playable characters.
Ready 2 Rumble Revolution
Along with a ‘sophisticated’ boxing engine, Ready 2 Rumble is set to appeal to a wider audience with recognisable characters based on celebrities.
Nintendo’s popular Punch Out!! franchise is returning to the ring this year on Wii, and is being developed by Next Level Games.
The first Tekken available on Xbox 360 is being published in the UK by Atari, and features online play and customisable fighters.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Smash-Up
From the makers of Smash Brothers and Dead or Alive comes a four-player brawler for Wii that coincides with the Ninja Turtles’ 25th anniversary.
WWE Legends of Wrestlemania
A spin-off to THQ’s much-loved Smackdown series hits shelves to coincicide with WrestleMania XXV. A new Smackdown is also due before the end of the year.
Mortal Kombat 9
After the success of MK Vs. DC, the Mortal Kombat team is returning to its roots with enough blood and violence to satisfy its adult fanbase.