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15. Street Fighter II
Undocumented movesets, relying
on players to discover how to play on their own
Developed by Capcom
Planned by Akira Nishitani
Reason for inclusion:
Street Fighter II is chosen as emblematic of a range of fighting games, and being the first breakaway hit of the type most games end up doing it like it did. (Technically the original Street Fighter had command-based special moves too, but no one much likes that game anymore.)
The first step in becoming good at any fighting game is to learn the moves. Of course most people just read a FAQ nowadays, but how do those FAQs come to be written? Before, most arcade games went out of their way to demonstrate how to control them, printing the information right on the control panel. Imagine what must have happened in order to have performed that first Haudoken? Especially the first Shoryuken, which isn't exactly an intuitive input? The breaking from the idea of direct-control to command inputs is a significant one, and for many fighting games the moves aren't printed out for the player beforehand.
What purpose does hiding the
special moves have? Well, it adds to initial approachability at the
cost of making it harder to master. And that's not necessarily a disadvantage
to a fighting game, as mastery is supposed to be difficult. That helps
to make matches more interesting since, early in a title's life at least,
the players must work without full understanding of a game's options.
And really, mastery of a fighting game has to be difficult, because I don't think it's a very well-kept secret that there's not much to a fighting game. There are no maps to explore, there are no power-ups to find, a left-right line doesn't give much room for maneuverability, and secrets tend to be limited to playing a certain way (don't lose a match for an extra ending) or in entering controller codes ("Sub-Zero wins... Fatality"). The fighting game play model is purposely simplified to focus on the aspects of the game the designers see as important, but being simple, other means must be added in order to make it explorable. In this case, what's being explored is the capabilities of the characters, and how they compare with each other.
So how does news of the moves get out initially? Well these days there's strategy guides and such, as ostensibly complete catalogs of all the interesting stuff in a game they would naturally have complete movesets. Home versions of fighting games will often include a selection of moves in the manual, and some (like the Soulcalibur games) have a training mode that purposely spoils all the moves. And these days most games end up on sites like GameFAQs that pool the information gleaned from all these sources.
Back in the early days these options were not available, but some games would print a few moves on the cabinet art. Since the computer player has complete knowledge of all the possible moves, people could at least find out what kinds of moves were available from watching the opponents at work. Fighting games often lend themselves to discoverability by having the move animation match up, in an interpretational manner, with the motions of the joystick and the buttons, so the animation of a move is often a clue as to how to perform it. In Street Fighter II at least some degree of discoverability is important, since with a digital joystick and six buttons, there are a huge variety of controller inputs to search in order to find a new move.
Fighting games like Street Fighter II simplify the game world in order to focus on aspects of video game play that, before they came along, were important but not the main focus. It also, by hiding access to the more powerful abilities, adds a schoolyard mystique to the game, and increases the effort players must put in to master it. Yet, it's interesting to speculate as to what would happen to a game less charismatic than SFII were it to hide access to options in this way...
David Sirlin holds forth with
fascinating notes on fighting game design on his blog.