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Fighting The Good Fight; Why Fighting Games Need Their Arses Kicked [Part 1]
by Daniel Boutros on 10/21/09 01:43:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Fighting games are very dear to me. If it wasn't for a fateful challenge in a dingy London arcade 16 years ago, I probably would've taken up drawing things for a living.

But as it stands, I didn't end up drawing things for a living, and I did play enough King of Fighters '94 to beat an SNK employee which led me to all manner of work and fun in the games biz. 

Terry slaps Chang in the chesticlesThing is, what I loved about SNK fighters particularly, is that they were never scared to play with new design systems or tweaks, that back then, were technically adventurous and played well to adding unique feels and perspectives to digital pugilism.

Just a few examples - Fatal Fury 2 opened up 'super moves', then called 'desperation attacks' which you could only use when 80% of your health was depleted. King of Fighters opened up tag-team fighting. Fatal Fury added 'absorb and counter' moves, whereby you'd allow yourself to be hit and activate an imediate counter.

Nowadays those same ideas have been recycled or just discarded in favour of the most popular, such as the super move. No fighting games I've played from the big 4 fighting game makers - Sega, Capcom, Namco and SNK - have attempted to stray from these base systems and they merely add a refinement or two, or something external of the main system to keep you invested. Costume customization, experience points or otherwise.

Largely, fighting games are still about depleting the other guy's energy bar before yours, memorizing and breaking patterns, baiting attacks and capitalising on mistakes with memorised sequences or hits. There's really nothing more to it.

Character rosters are teired by who wins more matches in tournaments, but in reality, the best characters are those who are designed to be able to capitalise on the most situations. Sagat in Street Fighter 4 for example can start a combo from a great range with many of his standard attacks. He can lead most of those moves into a special move, cancel that into a powerful super move, then a much more powerful, highly damaging move called an 'ultra' from almost any position. Few other characters have that kind of flexibility and the range, power and speed he has, hence why his use is considered 'cheesy' by the fighting game community. 

So what's the point of all this?

Well, this base of the genre is laid upon conventions more than 15 years old. I think it's time we took a look at how to revise or rebuild it.

Firstly, what are the things we LOVE about fighting? Off the top of my head...

  1. The tension of landing a hit
  2. The release of raw aggression
  3. The relief of victory
  4. The pride of winning

I think it's fair to say that today's games based on those 15 year old conventions do satisfy most of the listed experiences, but not so much the tension experience. 

I tend to find most fighters start off with tension in the initial starting seconds, or the final hits that deplete that bar, but it's never savoured or nurtured through mechanics.

It's only in those two moments of engineered mortality : the breaking of your safe state and then the kill.

Starting moments in fighting games tend to have both fighters at either end, just out of easy attack range so they can get involved with the aggressive side quickly. These starting points are still within range of special attacks, meaning the player can't just fluke, but has to commit to an attack. Multitudes of combos based on seamless, unbreakable flow are encouraged, so special attacks that can facilitate that are usually better rewarded. Ones where the starting hit isn't easily answered if it's blocked. Domination is encouraged.

The ending slivers of an energy bar usually bring out the most tense moment in a fight in my experience. This final moment tends to switch people's minds to emergency mode and tactics almost *always* alter at this point if the losing party is playing to win. But only at that time.

Why not fight at this emergency level all the time? Well the several hits you are afforded before death give you time to play. A game is often about the act of play. It's fun. And fun can be disarming.

Landing combos and sequences is a lot of fun and quite cathartic. The rhythmic aspect almost lends it a sense of symphonic.

However, it's not neccessarily true to the nature of a fight, and unless it's a life or death fight - which few of us have ever really been in, save for those of us who grew up in rougher parts - it can often descend into just trying to hurt the other guy, rather than K.O him.

Bushido Blade aka Badass Blade to its fansThe only fighting game that has ever communicated the sense of mortality so well is Square Enix's Bushido Blade. A frankly solid and unique game that did bugger-all numbers, but won very loving fans for those who got a hold of it.

If I remember correctly, your battles would start with both fighters very far apart. The great thing about this was the tension in the advance, as NONE of your attacks would be in range at this point.

You could run around freely and easily, and you could win a fight in one or two mortality-testing slashes with your blade. Slashes to softer body parts like hands and feet caused wounding and impaired movement. You really had to time and aim those hits in 2 player battles.

The controls were limited to commiting to a stance before attack - another tension-creating mechanic - and then a speed of attack, which also defined the strength of the cut. Where you connected with the blade mattered. It was so simple, yet the exacting nature added situational complexity, depth and further tension. The environments were varied, with bamboo forests next to stone courtyards, an underwater river inside a cave and you could navigate these environments and others that almost always contained a sense of contrast to engineer positional advantages.

Damn I loved that game.

Granted it wasn't as immediately rewarding as other fighters, possibly because there was less literal, visual moment-to-moment 'action' to reward - a lot of the action was mental - but perhaps with what we can add to the illustration and atmosphere of that mortality nowadays, it could be time for Square Enix to revive the series...

Anyway. Tension for hand to hand fighters would have to be different. And that's probably why few have bothered to try it.

Mortality would be important, and to limit that to knock-outs from solid head strikes and liver K.Os is tough as it's more limiting to players than having to aim an angled slice if it's to be believable.

There could be crippling attacks. But being crippled in a game can slow it down, and slow usually translates to boring. Unless you can add an extra layer of interactivity in the environment so you can be Jackie Chan resourceful. You know... sand in the eyes, rock throwing, using a satchel as a bludgeon, an ashtray as a projectile, and so on. A lot to code, but with the right control system and simplistic barrier of entry, could be very welcoming to the thoughtful. But still, tuning that to allow the Bushido Blade illusion would take a hell of a lot of iteration and thought.

I guess the real key is to give the player very little, but create the illusion of empowerment and capability in all situations, within that sense of mortality. That's the trick Bushido Blade pulls perfectly. Even when my crippled legs stop me from standing, I'm still able to slice your head off with that one clean blow. I never feel completely helpless, just limited.

I'll kick you to death!


[P.S. Sorry if you caught this half finished. I just started bloggingand didn't realise the default setting when you save is 'published'.Whoops. Lesson learned...]


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Ian Morrison
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Yeah, those four items are quite general, and would as easily apply to a first person shooter. What makes a fighting game unique? The focus on movement and distance, where your weapon is also the other person's target? The kinetic feel of physical impacts compared to the less visceral "pew pew" of guns? The fact that you're caught in a duel to the death with an enemy on (ostensibly) even footing? Those are the sorts of things that seem unique to fighters to me.

Daniel Boutros
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Andre : You missed the point of the piece. And your needs are just that; your needs. They'll always be met as 2D fighters will never stop existing. And as bored of the conventions as I am, I don't want that part of the genre to die, I just want something new. And I tried Kendo, but I hated how it felt. I didn't find it enjoyable at all. Way of the Samurai was more my thing.

I'm making a case to look at REAL fighting and see what we can extrapolate from it to perhaps EXPAND the genre, realise the best things about real fighting and also explore ideas about what feels good now, and why.

Ian : Completely agree.

Kent Ward
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Interesting post. I look forward to more on this matter. You do bring up a good point about a lack of innovation in the genre. I think the last significant additions to the genre were multi-tiered 3D stages, parrying attacks, and 8-directional movement. There have been a lot of fighting games this decade that have focused on fine tuning some of those concepts(and others), but nothing completely new has been delivered. It's been about evolution as opposed to innovation. Even when a new franchise fighting game comes out that's different from it's predecessor, it's because they are remixing gameplay features that were used in other fighting games. There was nothing in the core fighting mechanics of "Street Fighter IV" or "The King of Fighters XII" that already wasn't in some other fighting game.

Now I feel like there are two sides to the argument. The first is for innovation. I really think there need to be some new mechanics in the fighting game genre. I do like the idea of environments being more interactive in 3D fighters. I wish that there were more fighting games that captured the spirit of fights from movies such as "Enter the Dragon" or "Once Upon a Time in China". It would also be interesting to see how players would change their strategy if their fighter had a broken arm or was limping in a battle. What happens if your fighter is hanging off the edge of a cliff? What do you do then? So there is room for exploring new genre features.

I would also like to see a fighting game where knockouts in fights are actual knockouts; I hate having a final sliver of life taken away by a jab to the knee. That's usually not a fight-ending move.

Now Andre had some argument for fighting games staying the way they are. In all honesty, fans of franchises like Tekken and Street Fighter would get mad if their core gameplay strayed from that fan base's limited definition of a competitive fighting game. That's what they are paying for and it's probably best to continue giving them that. Those games are fun too and for - the most part - they've done a great job to evolve fighting game mechanics that were established in the nineties.

Now that the fighting game genre is back in the spotlight, it's time for the genre to go in new directions. Maybe it's time for some new fighting game IP.

Daniel Boutros
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Andre : If you're going to call out those games, why not mention what innovations in those games you're specifically calling out?

For the record, my take:

SC3 /SC4 didn't catch on in tournaments because Namco is historically poor at balancing their fighting game characters and SC3 just descended into simplistic dull nonsense at the tournament level. I sense their philosophy of balance is different to most and a little more loose.

VF3TB wasn't widely released worldwide.

Tekken 4's 'innovation' was introduced in VF3 and didn't work for Tekken because it's easier to exploit walls and barriers in Tekken to dominate opponents. That, and the roster was thinner than before (and fans found T4 less fun).

Fighting Vipers 2. Aside from not having played it, again, it wasn't widely released.

DOA4. How many different counter inputs to commit to muscle memory? 3? 4? It was absurd.

Finally, the innovations weren't to blame (in isolation). The formulas as a cohesive, complete piece was the problem. Sometimes, an innovation requires other things fundamental to the original formula to change, but most will simply layer things on top and avoid alienating the audience by removing a core piece of what made the thing great initially, IMO.

James Hofmann
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I think the key complaint is that every action in mainstream fighting games has very binary, "hit or miss" results, and that makes it more like a toy than an honest portrayal of fighting. Base assumptions like life bars, damage priority, and trying collision to frames of animation mean that you get stuck at a local maxima of what the game lets players express, and the mechanics have nowhere to go from there.

The other way to go about it is to do heavy simulation, and to my knowledge, the most simmy of the sim-fighters is Toribash. But that game has a different problem, which is that there's little immediacy: although you can pull off complex maneuvers with grabs, holds, leveraging and throwing, it's a long struggle to get there. The basic control mechanism of controlling individual muscle groups results in huge complexity.

There's a middle ground out there somewhere, though - a game where physics, or perhaps some more abstract simulation, is applied to make most situations unique and less binary, yet the controls given to the player remain transparent.

Daniel Boutros
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James : Totally 100% agree. There's a lot of places we can take the concept of fighting. We just need to look beyond the present base formula underlying all present fighters.

Aaron Porter
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I don't think the "fighting genre" itself is capable of subverting its traditional format. Competitive based fighting games rely on their fundamental "hit or miss" mechanics.

1. The tension of landing a hit

2. The release of raw aggression

3. The relief of victory

4. The pride of winning

I agree that these components make fighting unique, yet the expression of them would be awkward in a player v.s player scenario. The aesthetics of fighting have been appropriated in entertainment through narrative. What makes fighting work well in movies, anime, pub brawls, is the contextual information that gives significance to the event of a fight. To try and replicate the emotional components of real fighting would be difficult, considering that the majority of tension/adrenaline from fighting comes from facing actual threat.

Kent Ward
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I agree with Aaron. "Hit or miss" is a part of the fighting game genre. If you can't get over that, then fighting games are not for you.

I do believe that there is room to expand the genre, especially with making the space the combatants fight in more interactive.

Daniel Boutros
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Aaron - very eloquent and thoughtful post, though I disagree about subverting the format. I think the common format can be subverted, it'll just take a lot of iteration. Hit or miss is a vital part of a fight and shouldn't be understated. Without that, it's not even a fight.

I like your point about context laying the emotional stage. It's definitely something I've come to realise while writing that last post. Still, it's an interesting challenge to try and condense into a round by round format. Definitely one I'm fascinated by and will likely dedicate another post to, later.

i play winner
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You are hungry for more but haven't finished what's already on your plate.

You shouldnt put the blame on developers as much as yourself with it comes to innovation, becuase with most of the players I've met, bordem comes when their game suffers or it no longer seems fresh. There are always new levels you can take your game -- just look at Japanese SFIII: 3s gameplay. To this day those players are still finding out new ways to play the game using the core gameplay engine that was put in place over 10 years ago. Ever seen Remy put 4 sonic booms on the screen at once? Didnt think so.

While in Japan over the summer, I saw first hand the Street Fighter 4 they played is not the Street Fighter 4 we play here. They use every set up imaginable in all the key places, while exploiting frame traps and setting up untechable knockdowns to start more mix ups. We are just now seeing this level of play in the states at tournaments, while everyone in Japan plays like that.

Before going, I too was feeling SF4 was a bit stale and Sagat was too straight forward and considered switching characters. After coming back I couldnt have been more wrong. Frame traps, kara tiger shot traps, cross up tiger knees into ultra. Who knew? I sure didnt. So you see, the blame is on me for not innovating, not Capcoms.

Also keep in mind that even with a simple, straight forward game like SF4, there is still a lot about the gameplay system that only a few even understand. Counter hits in SF4 are just now being exploited along with new option selects like the one Daigo was using at Seasons Beatings. Is developer innovation really lacking when the majority of the people playing the game can only grasp the basics to begin with?

If anything, after reading your Tekken 6 review you should spend more time learning the underlying gameplay mechanics and you will see that a lot of innovation has shown up in fighting games over the years. The bound system for instance is new to Tekken 6 and wasnt in Tekken 3 like you mention in the article. This is just one example -- look at BlazBlue and the latest revision of Virtua Fighter for more. Even though things may look similar, in reality they are very different and impact the game in many ways you may not realize.

Also, tension really has less to do with the gameplay system and more with who you are fighting against. I live in NorCal with a ton of great tournament players and anytime I fight them it's tense from the get go because one bad mistake at the beginning of the round can make a comeback almost impossible sometimes against a good player. If there is lack of tension, its your competition, not the game that needs changing.

So as you see, there has been a lot of innovation, not only in smaller niche games, but major franchises as well -- so much infact, that players are still wrapping their minds around how to fully utilize all of these mechanics. Again, the developers give you all the basic ingredients, but it's up to you as a player to cook up and bring creative gameplay and innovation to the competitive scene.

Oh yeah, don't forget to add salt. :)

- haunts

PS: Sagat has range and power, but not speed. If anything, all his high speed moves require strict spacing and are typically high risk, high reward (kara Tiger Uppercuts for instance). In the real fighting game community he isnt considered cheesy, but a character who requires a lot of skill and match up knowledge to do well with in tournaments. Not one Sagat made it into top 8 at EVO if that tells you anything about American Sagat players

Ron Newcomb
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Kent wrote, "I wish that there were more fighting games that captured the spirit of fights from movies such as "Enter the Dragon" or "Once Upon a Time in China"."

I agree; the choreography of kung fu movies is a feast for the eyes. But gods, how to control it?

Someone said, "You are hungry for more but haven't finished what's already on your plate."

That's because everything on the plate is ice cream. Some is mint ice cream and some is chocolate ice cream, but it's all ice cream. Just once I'd like some carrots or something.

Kent said, ""Hit or miss" is a part of the fighting game genre."

But not a part of marital arts, which includes partially blocked hits and full-contact hits that off-balance rather than damage. That is telling: fighting games are not about martial arts though they purport to be. The binary state of strikes is a pure videogame-ism. So are move cancelations, by any name. Human beings cannot instantly reset their position in physical space, which most if not all combo systems are based on. When people such as Daniel ask for a re-think of the genre, and you or Andre say "well look at all these non-obvious move cancelations you can do" then you've missed the point entirely.

Daniel: As it happens my first Gamasutra post was about the same thing, though I pick on SF4 in particular. I also got scads of fanboys missing the point. Would you take a look? I'd be interested in your thoughts:

You might find the post on creating a fencing game more enjoyable though. It is a blow-by-blow that attempts exactly what you're craving -- a re-think. I'd be interested on your thoughts there too, as it received little attention since it was about game design rather than spouting love.

I look forward to reading the rest of your series here.

Bo Banducci
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I Play Winner,

You seem to be an expert on fighting games, which is why minute changes in the genre are significant innovations for you. For someone like me, who has never really gotten into a fighting game but owned Soul Calibur 2 and maybe one other, the genre isn't innovating. The kind of innovation I would like to see is the kind that DOES alienate all those hardcore Tekken fans someone talked about in their post. If a fighting game were to be so different that it made me into a hardcore player, then of course it would alienate those Tekken players. That's the point - it needs to be different. Some developers should keep making the classic fighters because there are people who love them. But there is a massive audience waiting for a different kind of fighting game.

i play winner
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"For someone like me, who has never really gotten into a fighting game but owned Soul Calibur 2 and maybe one other, the genre isn't innovating."

See, this is what I am talking about though! lol.

How would you know if the genre isnt evolving or innovating if the last fighting game you put your hands on was for the dreamcast? If you're not even bothering to understand the gameplay to begin with, how would you know?

That's like me going to an expert on RTS games and saying the last RTS I played was Starcraft, and well they REALLY need to start mixing things up in the RTS genre cause its getting stale. How would I know? I havent played anything else besides Starcraft to begin with! LOL

With that being said, if you're talking about offering something a little different, I think a modern day PowerStone-esque game ( would do really well with people who are more casual about the whole genre to begin with. There is a lot of possiblities with a fighting game with 3/4 overhead perspective with easy to pull off and understand move sets. Throw items, compelling customizable characters with solid 4-16 player online play into the mix and I think it would really take off.

I dont know if most developers are willing to take that risk. There -may- be a massive audience for something like this, but maybe not -- we dont really know. Even if there is initial interest, fighting games require a competitive scene to really thrive and there is no guarantee a competitive scene would form around a game like this.

What we do know is there is already an established fan base of fighting game players and enthusiasts that really just want (somewhat) balanced gameplay with solid netcode. Is this too much to ask for? Do we really need to turn the whole genre on its head with gimmicks just to get what the genre -really- needs?

There needs to be more innovation geared towards connecting fighting game players, rather than on how to divide them.

Daniel Boutros
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Hi I Play Winner;

You state that there are innovations in the genre. Yes. There are many small ones that fit within the format of the 2 on 2, side by side, memory-play, meets-on-foot-strategy, meets muscle memory game structure. The last one I really liked was Guilty Gear's chip-damage shield.

However there's no MAJOR, STRUCTURAL innovation. That's my point, and there is an audience for it.

Currently, innovations have only laid to the same format. And as result, the larger genre is still mired in all the classic problems that were excusable when the tech and manpower had to work around hardware limitations, but now we can do a lot more.

The classic format of the genre is still mired in TERRIBLE readability.

It's a lot about trial and error learning moves, their individual properties and attributes in specific circumstances. I've found many moments of per-situation contextual attributes that just don't run consistent and it's a poor crutch for the genre in my view and leads to the bad kind of frustration that puts off a lot of players. And people who just don't have the patience for that kind of design any more.

To a viewer, could a Crimson Viper standing kicking Zangief's gut knock him to the floor? No. Should a jab be able to stop a giant fat man flying toward you at speed with the full weight of his body? I don't think it should.

It restricts the learning curve to those who are going to be willing to spend the time to discover each and every contextual argument and exchange. The game only becomes consistent, once you have taken the incredible amount of time to trial and error your way to the developer's hidden rulesets, which are never explained, only left for you to discover.

Which is fine if you like that sort of thing, but I'm 30 now, with limited time to enjoy my games and not 15, with all the time in the world, so my needs are different in terms of lifestyle. Though I still love the genre, I just *want* to enjoy it more without the giant undertaking of work. I want to enjoy the think on your feet aspect, the showman aspect, the tension, the exchange. But I don't want to memorise a million and one things and spend hours on forums. And I shouldn't have to.

While I noticed a while back, the genre was embracing it's more 'martial arts' paralleling aspect of you get out what you put in, I think it's starting to bleed into the side of arrogance. And in Tekken's case laziness.

Perhaps if the home versions of all the latest fighter iterations did a better job of communicating and teaching the micro-rules, then the communities would grow and the great things you see happening with SF4 in Japan (and what eventually happened with SF3), would happen sooner.

So to those of us who can't trial and error our way into enjoyment, it's a pain in the arse.

Also dude; really? You're going to bring up my G4 review on gamasutra? ;)


FYI - after exploring the bound move, I still didn't find it anything new. Definitely nothing worthy of a press release highlight or note on the back of the box.

My crude view of it, is it's simply another form of juggle. While I understand that when mixed in with a specific character's move roster, it gives them a more rounded sense of balance than some had prior, I don't feel like it adds any new play to the structure. More strategy and mix-up opportunities when in intense competition, with a regular community, but again, is it ever shown or explained in the game? Have I encountered any players or moments in the game, through the 20something hours I had to review it where I had to use it or had it used against me? No.

It's just another micro-evolution of something that's existed for a long time. And that's fine as there's still a hunger for that. For me, it's no longer interesting.

As for your final statement:

"There needs to be more innovation geared towards connecting fighting game players, rather than on how to divide them."

I couldn't agree more. That's partly why I marked down Tekken ;-)

Seriously though, the core problem of the classic format and its design conventions IMO really is down to concept accessibility and modes or support of those concepts to be understood by the larger community.

Not making the game easier to 'play' by any means, but simply having isolated training or otherwise modes that teach these minute details, piece by piece. Thinks like guard stuns, guard stun invincibility... all the small things. Leaving them to forums to figure out and so forth is arrogant and lazy in my view.

Daniel Boutros
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Ron - nice post. Interesting perspective too. Agree about the guard concept. I was taught in Wing Chun, the best defense is an attack. As such, we were taught to never block but always counter with punches, which made fights a lot more exhilirating, since you were always risking vulnerability. Though the difficulty with emulating the creative feeling you'd need to recreate that in a game would need a controller overhaul, or just a very focused gameplay structure, pulled away side on perspective, or rather, moved inward to arms vs arms.

Additionally, throw mechanics need a lot of work. Grabbing someone in reality always leads to anotehr flow of exchange unless you get a finishing strike or knock them into a point of vulnerability. A meta game using manipulation of leverage could be a lot of fun...

Felix Adam
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I'm a fighting game follower (Altough nowhere near tournament level for most game, I just love fighting games!) for 15 years, and I'm surprised not to see one mention of Super Smash Bros!

Beside it's "friendlier" look, I find as much satisfaction playing Brawl against my friend during lunch time as I do playing Tekken 6 online. The four majors parts of fighting games are there. For sure, if you're looking for realism, super tricky controls to modify your attacks for certain situations, you won't find it in SSB. Sure the items mechanics in SSB is pretty much always removed for competitive play because of its random nature, but it's one step in the direction you're pointing.

Just adding some more oils to that fire, keep it burning! :)

Benjamin Marchand
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Cool blog :)

31 year old fighting game genre fan here, to the point of deciding to make a whole fighting game by himself ( WIP thread here : )

Your article answers a bunch of questions about what a real fighting game fan wants.

Bring it on, for people like me to better please your instincts ;)

Daniel Boutros
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Hi Felix - didn't mention Super Smash Bros as that level of gameplay is incredibly well-hidden from the player who doesn't have a dedicated community of friends to play within or time to trawl through FAQs.

A real shame, as friends have shown me incredible depth in the game. A shame the game doesn't have a 'pro' tutorial that teaches you all those high level nuances.

Benjamin - thanks :) I finally put part 3 up here...

jason serafinowicz
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Hi Daniel, interesting post, and something I've been thinking about for some years. I haven't read your follow-up parts yet, but I recommend having a look at Fighter's Destiny on the N64. It was good fun, and the premise of the game was not based on an energy bar, but instead on a points system based on ring-outs and knock-downs. This made for an interesting and fun throw system, whereby each throw was about a stand-off between both players to mash the buttons faster than their opponent in an efffort to either throw or reversal the throw.

Anyway, I'll read the others parts now. Cheers!