Thursday, 10 December 2015

A Golden Era of 2D Fighting Games: Why it will never be bettered

Most people would say that if there were a golden era of 2D fighting games then it began with Street Fighter II. I would disagree however. Street Fighter II is undoubtedly probably the single most important 2D fighting game ever conceived (given how even the most modern equivalents owe a lot to it) and I would personally include Super Street Fighter II Turbo amongst my all-time favourites BUT my view is that the true golden era began in the mid-90's and ran to 2000/2001 at the latest. Beyond the turn of the millenium, there was a severe draught in the fighting game scene with only re-releases and a few hardcore series' quietly staying alive in the background (and mostly staying in Japan). Street Fighter IV changed all this of course and now we have a lot of fighting games to choose from but as enjoyable as these new titles are, I'm here to argue that they can't touch the output of that mid-90's-2000/2001 period.

Street Fighter III: as pretty a 2D fighter as you will see.
In my mind, it really all began with the first Darkstalkers (or Vampire as it was known in Japan) and the debut of Capcom's vibrant 16-bit colour animation sprites. The game was released in 1994 but already, the character sprites were a big step-up from those in SFII, displaying a more cartoon-like appearance but crucially, being beautifully animated. Movement looked fluid and the game was a joy to play for that reason alone. A year later, Capcom released the first Street Fighter Alpha installment (known as Zero in Japan), a prequel to Street Fighter II that utilised the same sprite technology from Darkstalkers to bring the characters of Street Fighter alive in a way that had never been seen before. This extraordinary brand of hand-drawn 2D coupled with hand-created 2D backgrounds would only grow stronger as the 90's wore on and it forms a key pillar of my argument.

Today's fighting games for example are very rarely animated by hand, usually due to the cost and time factors in an industry that has become increasingly corporate and fixated on release dates as well as maximum profits. Even Capcom themselves - once the masters of exquisite 2D - have preferred to adopt a 2.5D approach (3D characters made to resemble 2D) with the likes of SFIV, Marvel Vs Capcom 3 and Tatsunoko Vs Capcom. Others such as SNK (King of Fighters XIII) or Arc System works (Guilty Gear Xrd) have cleverly manipulated polygon-based models to make them appear as 2D sprites when the truth is entirely the opposite. Here is just one reason that the games from the period I am championing simply cannot be beaten. Take a look at the sprites from the likes of Street Fighter III and Capcom Vs SNK for example to see Capcom at the peak of their powers. These characters are bursting with life and the knowledge that it was all painstakingly created by hand lends a sense of immortality - a sort of love that is missing from their modern equivalents.

Capcom Vs SNK: another true highlight.
By the tail end of the golden era however, things were changing. Capcom Vs SNK 2 and Marvel Vs Capcom 2 both retained the same captivating sprites as their forebearers but the backgrounds to the stages had become 3D, something that many fans are still vocally annoyed about. It certainly doesn't detract from the brilliance of both games but you'd be hard-pressed to find somebody who won't admit that the richly-detailed backdrops of the earlier games were far superior. Like character sprites, the backgrounds are equally as important and a real sign that care and attention has been lavished on a 2D fighting game. Capcom produced some truly stunning backgrounds for the likes of Street Fighter 3, Capcom Vs SNK and Street Fighter Alpha 3 but it was always SNK that stole the show as far as I'm concerned.

Some of the backdrops for the KOF series as well as Garou, Samurai Shodown and The Last Blade are truly staggering when you consider that they were created by hand. Obviously there's little time to truly admire them in the heat of battle but if you take a look at them on the internet with the characters and HUD's removed then you can pick out an amazing number of details and really start to appreciate the work involved. This page for instance has 50 animated gifs of some 2D fighting's greatest stages and believe me when I say there are countless more. Between these and the indulgent sprite work, we can get the sense that these games were created in an era where developers were producing art and not just a game. There is a definite sense that a lot of what went into developing these games was done for the love of fighting games and not just to get another sequel shoved out of the office door. I must reiterate that I am a big fan of modern fighting games and I play them as much as the classics but rarely will I stumble upon that same sensation of a fighting game being made for the fans by fans.

The Guilty Gear series was also highly impressive.
The final aspect I want to touch on - and probably the one I'm most passionate about - is the music of fighting games in that special mid-90's-2000/2001 period. Whether it was Third Strike's funky OST, the jazzy riffs in the KOF games or the blend of playful and gothic tones in Darkstalkers, the music in these games bounced about with the same care to attention as the backgrounds and sprites. Here was a time when a player could identify a game or series simply by listening to music. It's certainly a big statement when modern fighting games are chock full of remixes of older OST's for example but for a large part, the music selection is forgettable or too focused on electric/metal/epic orchestral pieces. That's not to say all modern fighting game music is disappointing (because it isn't) but there's no way it will compete with what went before. Take to Youtube if you don't believe me or wait for the next installments in my 'Favourite Video Game Music' series of posts (what a disgraceful plug).

So that's my case. I will always be buying fighting games above other genres first and foremost but I'll never be far from my collection of classic brawlers. Where else can a gamer become absorbed in a fascinating tapestry of sumptuous locations, captivating sprites and music made to fit a specific stage or character like a well worn-in glove? As I have said, it all comes back to knowing that love went into making these titles and recognising that they are works of art in their own right. Those kinds of values are irreplaceable in my mind.

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