Twenty years ago this month, Killer Instinct burst into the arcades alongside Cruis'n USA as the first of the Ultra 64 period-games that were meant to put Nintendo at the forefront of video game technology.
Of the two, Killer Instinct did the most to make people sit up and take notice. Coming as it did at the tail end of the first fighting game boom, it had some of the best graphics around; and with its lengthy and slightly insane combos, it immediately stood out from both Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. The future, it seemed, had arrived.
And in a way, it had, though not in the way that most people thought. Whether fans and industry observers knew it or not, events were moving quickly, and it was only a matter of time before fighting games would face a massive upheaval along with every other genre as the medium rapidly transitioned into 3D. It may not have been readily apparent then, but the Killer Instinct was the vanguard of that period.
Today, venerable '90s era series such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat continue to survive and to a point thrive, but another transition is on the way... has even started already. The question is: are the developers and the community ready?
Though it may be apocryphal, Sony supposedly strongly discouraged the development of 2D in the days of the original PlayStation, leaving many established 16-bit franchises in the cold. But even if Sony, Sega, and Nintendo welcomed 2D games with open arms, there was no denying that the late '90s were a massive period of upheaval. If your game can't make the leap to 3D, the prevailing wisdom went, then it was doomed to be forever trapped in the past.
SNK mostly responded by shrugging and doing what they had always done—making glorious-looking 2D games for the tiny niche of gamers that could afford the Neo-Geo. Tekken, Virtua Fighter, Soul Edge, and even Killer Instinct to an extent were already there—the apparent vanguard of a new generation of fighting games that had designs on pushing the old guard out. The rest either died out or had a tough decision to make.
Worth noting is the fact that while fighting games were a few years removed from their Street Fighter II heyday by the late '90s, the genre still had a relatively healthy presence in both American and Japanese arcades. In addition, with Japanese gamers being somewhat more accepting of 2D artwork than their western counterparts, it wasn't as large a leap for a company like Capcom to stick with sprites in Street Fighter. Thus, when Street Fighter III was released in 1997, it was in 2D.
Japanese fighting game developers also had another reason to stick with what worked: the nascent fighting game community. From their somewhat beginnings, fighting games had evolved into a real codified genre by the mid-'90s, and organized competition was growing. Anyone who's been around competitive groups knows that such communities are automatically suspicious of even minute changes to their favorite game, let alone a massive shift to an infant medium like 3D.
Which is not to say that Capcom was unwilling to experiment a bit with their flagship fighter. Longtime fans may recall Street Fighter EX, which was first released in 1996—a 3D spinoff that was surprisingly faithful to the original despite looking a lot like, well, Virtua Fighter. Ultimately, however, its fidelity to the original was its achilles heel, making it not much more than a somewhat ugly 3D clone, which was pretty much what it was. Where Tekken and later Soul Calibur pushed the sub-genre ahead, Street Fighter EX mostly resided in the shadow of the original.
By comparison, though, the tumultuous period at the end of the '90s was kind to Street Fighter. The same could not be said for Mortal Kombat, which struggled to remain relevant following Mortal Kombat 3. Having always depended more on shock value and a morbid sense of humor for its appear, Mortal Kombat had a bit more room to evolve than its competitors, but it also meant that it couldn't as easily fall back on what worked. As a result, Mortal Kombat spent a large part of the late '90s flailing around trying to find something that would work: Mortal Kombat Mythologies, Mortal Kombat: Special Forces, and Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks—all awful action-adventure spinoffs—are just a few examples of games that sent the series flying off the rails.
The early 2000s found both Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat at a crossroads, with the outright death of arcades depriving them of a key showcase venue and the devolution of the genre into a hardcore niche removing it from the public eye. Despite their differences, both of them ultimately responded the same way: By going back to basics.
The Middle Years and the Second Renaissance
The mid-2000s were paricularly tough on Street Fighter. The series still had plenty of fans, but it had long since developed a reputation for being to difficult to learn, making it tough for a new generation of fans to pick up the series. By around 2003, it had largely been supplanted in the popular consciousness by the likes of Soul Calibur, which as a next-generation 3D fighter had proven itself deep, accessible, and most importantly, fun.
The prevailing wisdom at that time was that 2D fighting games were pretty much finished. Mortal Kombat managed to linger, finally making the transition to 3D with Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance which, while not exactly amazing, was a far sight better than the miserable Mortal Kombat, introducing individual fighting styles, more advanced combos, and somewhat realistic character models. Street Fighter, though, did not get another sequel until 2008.
The fight to get Street Fighter IV is well-known at this point: Capcom's Yoshinori Ono pushed hard to get another game in the series made, but Capcom's executives resisted. Finally, Capcom relented following the positive reception afford Street Fighter II HD Remix, and work began on Street Fighter IV—a 3D version of the series that finally managed to retain the fluidity and technical depth of the original games. Like Street Fighter EX, it was slavishly faithful to Street Fighter II; but by 2008, the appetite for a new entry in the series was enough that such faithfulness was a blessing rather than a curse. Three years later, Warner Bros. successfull rebooted Mortal Kombat with a 2.5D version of its own, eschewing the evolution of Mortal Kombat: Deadly and its ilk for something more familiar. For fighting games and their ilk, nostalgia provided the boost they needed to become relevant again.
Much was made at the time of the 2D fighting game genre's "second renaissance"—a period in which longtime favorites and a handful of newcomers finally found a way to leverage online play to replace their lost arcade niche. True, the failure of Street Fighter X Tekken put a bit of a damper on the enthusiam generated by the success of Street Fighter IV, but there's no denying that the genre is more viable than it was a decade ago. Freed of the pressure to dramatically evolve into something new, they have successfully settled into a reasonably healthy niche. Even Killer Instinct has managed to make a comeback on the Xbox One.
For all the talk of fighting games making a comeback in the late 2000s, though, the reality is that the genre has struggled to gain traction outside of a very narrow subset of hardcore devotees. As Street Fighter IV and its ilk have risen, more accessible fighters like Soul Calibur have dropped off the radar entirely, skewing the genre almost entirely toward enthusiasts. The EVO series, which has become the largest fighting game tournament of its kind, is one of the rare instances in which fighting games penetrate the popular consciousness; and even there, the scope and the winnings pale in comparison to those of League of Legends and DotA 2, which are the current competitive games du jour.
With that, fighting games find themselves at another, less obvious, point of transition. Over the next few years, they will have to prove that they can continue to build a following outside of their core audience. The good news is that they are much better positioned to succeed than they were in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, when the collapse of the arcade history robbed them of their spiritual home in the U.S. With their flashy attacks, quick pace, and easy-to-follow format, fighting games are particularly well-positioned to take advantage of the current streaming boom. To do that, though, the currently stagnant competitive scene, which has been hurt somewhat by a lack of new games and reputation for being insular to the point of being hostile, will have to continue to grow.
Admittedly, it's a bit of a chicken and the egg problem for the genre: a wider audience is needed to justify more games, but new games are usually what generates that wider audience. The situation isn't quite as dire as it might appear, though. Even among though who don't play fighting games regularly, there's an appetite for the spectacle and skill that few other genres can provide. As always, the seeds of success are there; now the community and developers alike just have to figure out how to get them to blossom.