The Golden Era of 2D Fighting

Fireballs, colorful sprites and short, digitized, unintelligible voice samples. The golden days of 2D Fighting.

By Francisco Naranjo. Posted 08/27/2010 20:05 6 Comments     ShareThis

The Golden Era of 2D Fighting

Fighting games: the pinnacle of competitive gaming. It’s not only about getting a higher score than your opponent, it’s not about performing a determined task faster than your rival – it’s about literally kicking the butt of the other player. Punches, kicks, throws, projectiles, taunts; absolutely everything goes. While there were some rather primitive fighting games in the ’80s, it wasn’t until Street Fighter II‘s release in 1991 that they became more sophisticated, and in consequence, much more popular. The SNES saw a lot of these games during its lifetime. Let’s take a look at some of the most important games of the golden era of 2D Fighting.

Street Fighter II (1991)
Arguably the most important and influential fighter, it practically shaped the genre and was one of the most popular games of the decade, becoming a cultural icon. With the first Street Fighter having some serious gameplay issues and just not being very fun, the release of its sequel was what made the Street Fighter name huge. The game’s concept was very simple: a 1-on-1 fighting game featuring, initially, 8 playable characters with unique fighting styles– except for Ryu and Ken, that is. The game instantly became immensely popular and had countless ports, sequels, and of course ripoffs.

Street Fighter II introduced several elements that would become staples of the fighting genre– fireballs, palette swap characters, bosses, bonus stages, character stereotypes; it all began here. Numerous updates improved upon this winning formula, with Super Street Fighter II being the most complete version on SNES. While Super Street Fighter II Turbo was never released on SNES, oddly enough there was a surprisingly playable version of Street Fighter Alpha 2 for Nintendo’s 16 bit console. That’s quite a feat for the grey machine considering that game was also released on PlayStation and Sega Saturn.

Mortal Kombat (1992)
Due to the huge success of Street Fighter II, the market was soon flooded with tons of Street-Fighter-wannabe fighting games. Mortal Kombat wasn’t particularly good, but it had blood– lots of it. That was practically what made the Mortal Kombat franchise big in the first place, since the gameplay in Mortal Kombat was slow, imprecise and bland. Using digitized¬† characters instead of hand-drawn sprites also helped distinguish it from other fighting games. Mortal Kombat was a success, and became one of the most controversial titles in gaming history.

Nintendo, being all family-friendly, decided to censor the first Mortal Kombat game for SNES, resulting in the Genesis version getting a better reception. Nintendo learned its lesson and Mortal Kombat II for SNES kept all the blood and gore the original arcade version had. Mortal Kombat II is considered by many to be the best game in the long-running series, which is kind of sad considered it was released 17 years ago. The Mortal Kombat series is a guilty pleasure– you don’t play a Mortal Kombat game as a technical and polished fighter, but as a fun, cheesy gorefest.

Art of Fighting (1992)
Heavily inspired by Street Fighter II, Art of Fighting was released in 1992 by SNK– one of many attempts by the company to dethrone Capcom as the king of fighters. Art of Fighting had considerably better visuals, with huge sprites and a camera that would zoom out when the characters moved far from each other. Still, most of the designs were rather uninspired and very reminiscent of Street Fighter characters. Even Sakazaki Ryo, one of the game’s protagonist, looked like a mash up between Street Fighter’s Ryu and Ken. Oh, and his name was Ryo. With a more over-the-top style than Street Fighter (including “super attacks” for the first time) and the odd decision of having only 2 playable characters for arcade mode, Art of Fighting never achieved the success Street Fighter II did.

In 1994 a sequel was released, but the SNES version was Japan-only. It had more characters (all of them being selectable at any time) and some interesting additions, like the characters getting bruised as the match progressed. The difficulty level in the SNES version was unusually high; maybe that’s why it was never released in America (yes, Japan used to believe we non-Japanese gamers were less capable… see Super Mario Bros. 2 and Final Fantasy USA).

Fatal Fury (1991)
Being released actually a few months after Capcom’s Street Fighter II, SNK’s Fatal Fury hit the arcades only to be completely overshadowed by Ryu, Ken and Chun-li. The SNES version of Fatal Fury was published in Japan in 1992, while the American version had to wait one more year. Either way, the game was too late to compete with the much more varied and popular Street Fighter II. The core gameplay was very simple, but the arcade version had a two-lane system that allowed the fighters to switch back an forth during the fight, making it less two-dimensional. It also introduced two-on-one fights, but this feature never got too popular.

The Fatal Fury series eventually became one of the most technical and critically acclaimed fighting series, and one of SNK’s biggest successes. This series mentions the fictional “King of Fighters” tournament for the first time, which eventually was the base for SNK’s huge arcade fighting series of the same name.

World Heroes (1992)
Created by ADK, the World Heroes series was destined to be overshadowed and forgotten. It had a very unusual 3 button layout (kick, punch, and throw– holding down the kick and punch buttons would increase the strength) and some rather bizarre character designs based on actual historical figures. Thankfully, the SNES version could be played with the traditional 6 button layout, thanks to the SNES pad. Despite its unusual looks, World Heroes was more similar to the Street Fighter games, gameplay-wise, than other series mentioned above. This means it didn’t innovate a lot in the fighting scene, except for the “Death Match” mode. In this mode, the stages were filled with all kinds of hazards like mines, oil, spikes and thunder bolts.

It spawned several sequels, but only the first two games were available on SNES. The second game, World Heroes 2, was a big improvement upon the first game. It had more characters and stages, and it was overall more fun, playable and varied. Despite its unpopularity, there was a small but dedicated competitive community for this series; it had some relatively big professional tournaments.

Killer Instinct (1994)
Good ol’ Rare developed Killer Instinct back in 1994, and the fighter was a highly anticipated release for SNES in 1995. The gameplay fuses elements from several games, like the Street Fighter 6-button layout and Mortal Kombat finishing moves. Still, it had some innovative features, too, like its double energy bar system instead of the traditional 2-round structure, flashy automatic combos and combo breakers. Using then-awesome looking pre-rendered sprites, combined with a fantastic soundtrack and memorable gameplay, Killer Instinct was a big hit on SNES. There was even a pretty decent port for Game Boy, though lacking two characters (Cinder and Riptor) and many other elements– which may not be such a bad thing at all, considering Cinder was considered ‘broken’ in the competitive scene.

Its sequel, Killer Instinct 2, was never released on a home console, but Killer Instinct Gold for Nintendo 64 was based on it. Sadly, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a new Killer Instinct game, which is a shame because the series is one of the highlights of the late SNES days.

Unlike modern Nintendo consoles, SNES had tons of fighting games. Do you have a favorite one? Feel free to comment about it here.

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