I have a theory about fighting games. I think that even the worst fighting games are pretty good. We see this in the Kusoge Phenomenon, where people play “broken” “shit-games”. These games have massive combos, wacky mixups, poor regard for balance, strange damage scaling or infinite prevention, and strange attack design with cancel points and hitboxes that don’t really make sense. However people still enjoy playing them, because they’re still deep games. They’re still games with combo systems you can explore, with mixups you can try out, and with moves that have a variety of different effects. This is a mismatch between what we traditionally consider to be “good” about games, and what actually creates depth.
Street Fighter 2 created the modern fighting game, and all fighting games take from it. SF2 was such a solid template for a game that if you just implement all the features of SF2 you will have a decent fighting game, entirely by default. I’m going to list these features as:
- Always facing your opponent
- Health bars and a timer
- Ability to move left and right and crouch without uninterruptible and vulnerable transition animations
- Ability to jump in 3 directions with fixed jump arcs in a way that actually simulates physics instead of just playing a jump animation
- A variety of attacks across different buttons that vary by stance (standing, crouching, jumping)
- Attacks with animations that have unique hitboxes and hurtboxes, with a startup, active, and recovery period, that deal different amounts of damage.
- Hitstun and blockstun animations that are not just paired animations with the attacker
- The ability to block by holding back and down-back
- 3 block zones for attacks: high, mid, and low. 2 blocking stances: Standing and Crouching, which each cover 2 of the 3 zones
- The ability to throw the opponent, even when they’re blocking, thus giving you a way through blocks
- The incapability of throwing someone who is in hitstun or blockstun
- The incapability of blocking in mid-air
- Being invincible when you’re knocked down until the frame you get up; upon which you are allowed to block or act instantly
- A combo system (the ability to cancel normal moves into special moves, and moves happen to link into one another with enough hitstun)
- Combo Damage Scaling (each move in a combo deals less damage as a combo goes longer)
And you’ll notice that many of these features are common to many games, and many fighting games deviate from these or violate these, but have some other sort of safeguarding mechanism to make the game work such that someone cannot follow a single looping strategy to win. Tekken and Blazblue let you hit people when they’re knocked down, but they have ways to tech in order to get up safely. Blazblue and Under Night In-Birth both allow you to throw people who are in hitstun and blockstun, but give the defender a much wider window to tech safely. Many games let you block in the air under specific conditions. There are any number of kusoge with weird or no combo scaling. Despite all this, these games still hold up, because they still abide by the majority of the conventions above.
And looking through the historical record of fighting games before SF2, we can see the games that didn’t follow these conventions. Street Fighter 1 has walking left and right be uninterruptible hopping animations. Karate Champ has jumping just be an animation the characters play instead of a distinct state with physics. Neither game has throwing to get through blocks. Karate Champ doesn’t even have health.
SF2 has so shaped our conception of what a fighting game is that we don’t really perceive other fighting games as being real fighting games, and we don’t have an idea what a fighting game would be without the template provided by SF2. It might be easy to imagine Kusoge, but it’s difficult to impossible to imagine a truly bad fighting game.
So I’m going to do just that. Allow me to detail for you all the ways that you can ruin fighting games.
An easy one is to simply allow people in blockstun to be thrown, and create a moveset that can give people enough plus frames to throw someone that is bllocking. Now all your jump-ins and all your plus-frame moves are unblockable throw setups. This is especially infuriating if throws are instantaneous, have no tech window, and no whiff animation. We’re back to SF2 World Warrior!
For that matter, why have ground throws only affect grounded opponents and air throws only affect airborne opponents?Just let both of them mix together and throw anyone regardless of their state. Now you can’t predict what someone jumping in on you will do, and if you block, you’ll get thrown anyway.
Next, allow people who are knocked down to be hit. This makes every oki setup into an infinite loop. Alternatively, you could simply give more invinsibility frames than the wakeup normally allows, giving you invincible coverage out of every knockdown, making all your wakeup moves into wakeup shoryukens, except safe and unpunishable. This completely negates any sort of tactical advantage that a knockdown would give, instead making it a free advantage to the defender.
Next up, why have frame advantage at all? Why not just make everything unsafe? Why have hitstun? Why not just allow both players to continuously hit each other without interruption? If you really want to get into the weeds, why not tamper with hitstun to make it last exactly as long as recovery on each and every move? Why not do all three of these for different moves in the moveset at random? Why not have every move just randomly be unsafe, 0 on block, or deal no hitstun?
Why not have randomized animation startups? Why not have semi-randomized movesets to begin with? Fighting games have proximity moves sometimes, why not just give people a single proximity attack button with your entire moveset on that one button, so you have 3-6 different moves coming out at 3-6 different ranges? Or a probabilistic distribution of moves based on range?
Why not remove blocking entirely? Why not make parrying the only way to block? Instead of 2 blocking directions, why not have 3? Why not make all of them reactable, or none of them reactable? Why not just randomly pick moves to be reactable or not? Why not avoid establishing a consistent visual language for which zone you’re supposed to block in and instead assign that property arbitrarily? Why not make cross-ups completely unblockable?
Move damage is already a little random in Street Fighter 2, why not make it completely random? Why not just have some hits miss outright for no reason? Why not implement 3d hitboxes that are affected by how wide or thin the character is, so some moves won’t work on characters that are too thin?
Why have real jump animations with real jumping physics? For that matter, why have unpaired animations at all? Why have hitboxes? Just make everything resolve based on range and animation state, instead of anything resembling a system of physical interactions.
Why not have 5-10 frame transition animations for pretty much everything? Walking, crouching, blocking? A lot of old games had transition animations for blocking and look how well that turned out! (it created unblockables) You could make a whole game that feels like an old cinematic platformer!
I would say, why not make it so you can block grounded attacks during jumps?, but Strive did that, and it worked out, albeit after some heavy penalties for the airborne player. So why not let people block in the middle of attacking?Why not just make every attack option select into a block?
Why not give people free combo breakers? Just let people flip out of combos invincibly for free? Or infinite burst meter? Why not just end combos automatically after 5 hits, after 3 hits, after 1 hit? You could make every hit knock down and give mercy invincibility on wakeup, which might make the casuals happy, but also eliminate the entire point of knockdowns giving a strategic advantage in the first place
Why have a health system? Why not just make matches last to the first hit? Why not have fast regenerating health, so if you can’t finish someone off in 3 seconds, you need to try again?
Why not have infinite super meters? Why have any finite resources at all? Why not share all your resources evenly with your opponent? Why not have supers on a timer, so everyone gets them all at the same time, then whoever uses it first denies it from the other players?
Why not just let people attack in the wrong direction like it’s a beat em up? Not even give them the dignity of having moves that cover both sides, like Smash Bros? Just require anyone walking away to reorient themselves or miss outright. What purpose would this one even serve besides being annoying?
If you really wanted to, you could break fighting games over your knee, but Street Fighter II has given us a design language so engrained, we don’t even realize we’re following it. Our “bad” fighting games may have low production values and janky interactions with infinite combos, but they don’t even scratch the surface on how boring or infuriating a fighting game could be. Fighting games at their worst are still good games, which is a testament to just how much a solid template can uplift a genre.
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