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.†
Thing 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...
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.
The 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.
PART 2 TO COME TOMORROW : RAW AGGRESSION
[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...]