WELCOME TO THE TOP FIVE! This week, I’ll take a break from my usual griping and complaining to geek out about something I’m always in a good mood about - - the good old days of 2D fighters!
Anime, video games, manga, art books, etc., all fall under the blanket of "otaku," as far I'm concerned. Japanese video games, especially in the 2D era, were working with most of the same tropes and visual themes as anime. Plenty of talented artists working in anime and manga got involved in the video game business, and when the fighting game boom of the early 90's happened, we were suddenly flooded with a bevy of beautifully-illustrated and inventive games that should appeal to any fan of the nerdy Japanese arts. As an artist, I certainly took notice.
And let's be honest, fighting games are really just interactive shonen anyway!
I got hooked early on and never looked back. Suffice it to say, I’ve played a lot of fighting games. From the classics to the not-so-classics to the utterly absurd, I’ve seen’em all. So I’ve decided to lend my expertise to all of you and help separate the wheat from chaff.
So, lets get down to it!
HONORABLE MENTION = = KING OF FIGHTERS ‘98
KOF was like a sports title for a while, with a new release every year. Well, 1998 is when everything changed. New combo system, nicely updated graphics, and a daunting roster of characters made KOF ’98 the best of the series.
Unfortunately, SNK was always stuck in the “little brother” role to CAPCOM. SNK put out a ton of great games, usually with interesting art and design, but as far as fighters were concerned, they always seemed a couple steps behind CAPCOM’s titles. This game helped to close that gap.
KOF has always been an aggressive game with a focus on offense and update to the combo system made this all the more exciting. Plus, you can’t beat these over-the-top supers! One of my favorites includes about 25 consecutive punches to the face.
NUMBER FIVE = = VAMPIRE SAVIOR (DARKSTALKERS 3)
Great designs, a unique feel and amazing settings all set the DARKSTALKERS series apart. This game has an amazing dark atmosphere, plenty of creepy characters to choose from, and an interesting spin on the two-round fight. DARKSTALKERS started strong but this third entry is easily the best in the series.
The gameplay in SAVIOR is rock solid, but much of the appeal of this franchise is its unforgettable look. This is kind of like STREET FIGHTER ALPHA's spooky goth cousin. The sprites are sharp, colorful and full of personality, and each one moves in a distinctive way. There is no question that these are among the most memorable fighters CAPCOM ever created (and I’m not just saying that because of Morrigan).
This particular installment of the franchise also took a bit of a risk, doing away with the traditional 3-round system. This time, each character is given two life bars and there’s only a brief pause after someone’s life bar is depleted - - the positions don’t reset, and the life bars don’t refill.
For example, if you manage to take all of your opponent’s life without being hit, then you have two full life bars in the second round, while your opponent only has one. This amps up the gameplay to an especially aggressive and quick-paced level. Every hit matters, so you have to be on at all times!
NUMBER FOUR = = GAROU: MARK OF THE WOLVES
This spiritual successor to the FATAL FURY series was arguably SNK’s most complex, technical and elegant game to date. It has beautiful new sprites and a slick updated animation style, plus some interesting new gameplay mechanics. Add to that a roster of interesting, balanced (and occasionally very offensive) fighters and you’ve got a tragically under-appreciated gem.
The new “just defend” mechanic rewards players for blocking at the last possible instant with a bit of life recovery and the chance to counterattack out of block stun. There’s also the “Tactical Offense Position” which lets you choose a section of life bar which, when reached, gives you a life and offense boost for as long as your health remains at that point.
The new style created for this game is one of my favorites that SNK ever used. Big sprites, really nice motion, warm colors and beautiful backgrounds make this game a joy to look at...
Perhaps most importantly of all, this game features a character by the name of Butt. No joke. Butt. if you're not already scouring eBay for a copy, then I don't know whats wrong with you.
NUMBER THREE = = GUILTY GEAR X
Arc system works got a little attention for the original GUILTY GEAR, but it wasn’t until they released this ultra slick update that the world really took notice. Suddenly, there was a real contender to CAPCOM’s throne. GUILTY GEAR is both a combo heavy rushdown and very technically-focused at the same time. The beauty of GG is that it can be played fast and frantic without much thought by the average Joe, or it can be played with intense precision by pros.
The look of the game is almost entirely determined by Daisuke Ishiwatari and, as a result, it’s pretty singular and unified visually. The character designs are way out there and the style of the game is very much that of contemporary anime. The sprites are sharp, detailed and lively with a huge range of sizes and fighting styles.The backgrounds are also epic, colorful and full of motion.
And, of course, there are the instant kills! There's nothing more crushing than seeing the words "DESTROYED" flash across the screen as your entire life bar disappears. These especially over-the-top one-hit-kill moves are hard to pull off, but I can't imagine anything more decisive/satisfying.
GGX is also packed full of kitschy references to American music, particularly metal (which does appeals to me personally as a big metal nerd). Hearing the clumsy Engrish pronunciations of these references brings a smile to this usually frowny face of mine. “Master-of-puppet-oh!”
NUMBER TWO = = MARVEL VS CAPCOM 2
Here it is. The ultimate hype machine, MVC2. The game responsible for more high stakes money matches, more coast wars and more serious video game feuds than any other (and I mean this as a compliment). This is a game that got people excited, and invested, and even angry.
This game is all about through-the-roof insanity, unfair combos, and broken characters. MVC2 is openly and undeniably unbalanced, with tons of infinites and easily-exploitable supers. It's just good-old-fashioned-fun to play, especially if you’re not worried about going pro. 56 playable characters, tons of team combinations and individual combos to master.
The sprites do vary in quality, as some of them are quite a bit older than others, but generally the designs are all top notch. The way CAPCOM’s artists dealt with redesigning iconic Marvel characters still makes my neck hairs bristle. There’s a ton of art and enthusiasm poured into this game, and it definitely shows.
At high levels, MARVEL is somewhat complex, and extremely fast paced. But what this classic really has going for it, and in spades, is the ability to get people excited. It's epic, explosive and simply a lot of fun to watch.
In short, “IT’S MAHVEL BABEE”
NUMBER ONE = = STREET FIGHTER III: 3rd STRIKE
No surprises here. STREET FIGHTER 3 was the most balanced, well-crafted, technical and visually spectacular entry in the series to date, and 3rd STRIKE refined the system to near perfection.The parry system is inventive and exciting, adding a whole new level of mind games to the mix, as well as enabling shocking last minute comebacks. By tapping towards at the exact moment of impact, the player can deflect any attack, take no damage and have an opportunity to counter attack. It’s an advanced and interesting mechanic, which rewards practice and timing.
For proof of this, see the crowd absolutely lose their shit for Evo moment #37...
This is also a gorgeous game. These sprites are so well-animated, its absurd. Cloth hangs, folds and bounces in beautiful and believable ways; characters move smoothly and attack fluidly. The impact of a heavy hit feels solid and all this is compounded by plentiful details (like the table breaking in the background of Chun-Li’s stage or the snake falling out of the tree in Ibuki’s). There’s just so much here! So much attention paid to actions, reactions and gesture. Every character has a discernable personality, usually conveyed elegantly through their movement alone.
SF3 took some big risks in reinventing CAPCOM's beloved franchise, getting rid of almost the entire classic roster, introducing some complex features, and abandoning the cartoon-y look of the ALPHA series for something more mature and realistic. However, the payoff was huge and this game stands the test of time both visually and where gameplay is concerned.
SF2 defined the fighting genre and reigned as its king for years, but this new incarnation of the series trumps that worn-out old warhorse in every way. 3rd STRIKE looks better, plays tighter, and is more complex and rewarding than all the STREET FIGHTERS that preceded it. This is the high water mark of 2D fighting; and since very few people seem to be making these games anymore, it may forever remain the king of 2D fighters.
There are tons of great 2D fighters out there and I'm sure some of your favorites didn't make the list. Feel free to remind me of all the games I've snubbed in the comments section below.
Alex Eckman-Lawn is an illustrator and comic artists from Philadelphia. Check out his site - -alexeckmanlawn.com - - rumble with his Tumblr - -dudenukem.tumblr.com - - and hit up his Twitter: @alexeckmanlawn