A fighting game is a video game, generally an arcade or console game, in which two vaguely humanoid combatants fight each other, usually with martial arts and/or mystic/super/magic/etc. powers. The grand majority of these games use a side-view camera, and are largely confined to a 2D plane, whether or not the game is in a 3D environment or locked into a 2D plane, although there are exceptions to both rules. Common characters are martial artists or super heroes, although combatants range from damned souls and gods to Nintendo's character stable to Godzilla and his many rivals. Fighting games (save for SSBM and Marvel Super Heroes) tend to be missing the power-up items commonly found in other video games, and the single player mode tends to be the same as the vs. mode, save for the fact that the opponents are controlled by the computer.

While not all fighting games have all of these elements, most of them have most of them. Lacking some of these elements doesn't make the game not a fighting game. All a game needs is competitive two- (or more-) player play (although some of the players can be controlled by AI) with a primarily side-view camera, focusing on melee combat. With precious few exceptions, fighting games are not one hero fighting a swarm of cannon fodder, but a series of evenly matched duels/bouts.

While the history of fighting games is discussed in more detail near the end, it's not possible to talk about the genre without coming back to two games: Street Fighter II and Virtua Fighter. Street Fighter II wrote all the rules for 2D fighting games, and to a lesser extent Virtua Fighter wrote all the rules for 3D fighters. Many games have only a passing similarity to these two games and yet are still fighting games, but these two loom large in any discussion.

It bears mentioning that the term "fighting game" is often used interchangably to refer to what are also known as "beat-'em-ups" or "brawlers", and the term beat-'em-up is occasionally used to refer to fighting games. Less often, the two genres are considered a single genre.

For the purposes of this w/u, any game with cannon fodder enemies or the classic side-scrolling stage design terminating in a boss fight, as with games like Double Dragon or Final Fight, will be considered part of the separate beat em up genre.

The genres occasionally overlap, as a fighting game will be the two-player mode of a beat-'em-up (as with Double Dragon on the NES) or a beat-'em-up will be a bonus stage in a fighting game (as with the Tekken Force minigame in the Tekken series).

Male pronouns are used, because fighting games are dominated by stereotypes of all kinds.

In general, fighting games are played with an 8-way joystick, preferably as high resolution as possible, and between 3 and 8 buttons. (Three, four, and six buttons are most common.) The joystick control the player's character, obviously, with left being "move left" and right being "move right", but fighting games have a few quirks. In all 2D fighters and many 3D fighters, up makes the character jump and down makes the character duck. In some 3D fighters, however, up or down moves the character away or towards the screen, sidestepping out of the way of attacks.

The traditional Capcom/SNK clone fighter has 6 buttons: quick punch, medium punch, fierce punch, quick kick, medium kick, and fierce kick. (Many games use minor variations on this, renaming either the strengths or the types.) The most common change to this is SNK's simplification, omitting the medium attacks. Even Capcom would adapt this for some games, including Capcom Vs. SNK, Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, and the Game Boy Advance versions of its titles.

Quick attacks are, well, quick. Good for feints and combos, they do little damage. Medium attacks are balanced for speed and power, although many games omit them. Kicks reach further, whereas punches are quicker or harder, depending on the game.

Fierce attacks, though, are a special case. While they are the hardest hitting attacks, the fierce button tends to have the most alternate attacks assigned to them. Down and fierce kick, in most games, is a sweeping kick that can knock an opponent down. (Alternately, it's a sliding kick.) Down and fierce punch is generally a ground-to-sky uppercut for knocking foes out of the air. Forward and fierce punch (or less often kick, or block and punch) is usually a throw, where the fighter grabs his foe and flings him.

As Street Fighter II has grown older and older, the quick/medium/fierce punch/kick arrangement has become less and less common. Now, only 2D fighters still use this arrangement with any frequency, as 3D fighters tend to use control schemes more in line with the particular style of fighting. To give a couple examples, Tekken uses left/right punch/kick in a four-button arrangement, and Virtua Fighter boils things down to just a punch and a kick button.

Another trend in control schemes introduced after Street Fighter II are buttons to do something other than attack. Mortal Kombat introduced a block button, which waned in popularity in line with Mortal Kombat's fade until a comeback after games like Virtua Fighter and Soul Calibur began emphasizing dodging as part of defense. Somewhat less common is a "tag" button, used in games where the player controls a team of characters, instead of just one, like Marvel Vs. Capcom and Tekken Tag Tournament. Vanishingly few games also have a button to run or dash (Mortal Kombat 3, for instance); most games simply assign this to a double-tap in the desired direction. Also increasingly rare is a "free movement" or "dodge" button, for movement other than forward and backward on the 2D plane described by the characters; most games simply incorporate this movement into normal joystick taps any more. (Historical examples would be Virtua Fighter before Virtua Fighter 4 and the cult classic Bushido Blade.) A rare few games have buttons for special moves/effects (c.f. Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 and Super Smash Bros. Melee).

Blocks are a key part of nearly every fighting game. Generally, a block is raised by either holding backwards on the joystick (Capcom and SNK's fighters, Tekken) or holding a block button (Virtua Fighter, SSBM, Mortal Kombat). A block, in most games, reduces the damage from all normal attacks to zero, and the damage from all special attacks (more on these below) to nearly-zero. In most games (there are exceptions), a standing block doesn't protect against ducking attacks, a ducking block doesn't protect from attacks from jumping foes or certain overhead attacks, and no block protects from a grab/throw move. Many games also have unblockable normal attacks or unblockable special attacks, which tend to be much slower than normal attacks. (Some games also have a "block meter", which registers damage from blocked attacks instead of on the normal health meter. When it's depleted, generally the fighter is left dizzy for a few seconds.)

Special attacks, introduced by the oft-imitated Street Fighter II, are, well, attacks that are special in some way. Ranging from flurries of punches to nearly-impossible flying kicks to supernatual projectiles, nearly every fighter in every fighting game since SF2 has special attacks. (The methods for performing special moves are discussed below.) The most common attacks are fireballs and "dragon punches" (named after Ryu's, of Street Fighter fame move). Dragon punches are a rising jump-uppercut, perfect for countering jumping attacks. In kung fu movie tradition, of course, characters yell out the names of the special attacks as they do them.

Introduced in Art of Fighting and refined in Street Fighter Alpha 2 and the King of Fighters series is what is known as the "Super Bar." (Or the Rage Bar, or the Spirit Bar, or any number of names.) The conventional example is the Marvel Vs. Capcom example - taking or dealing damage, as well as striking a blocking opponent or missing with an attack, builds up this bar. While some games (Samurai Shodown in particular) increase the power of your attacks as this bar fills, filling the bar completely usually allows some convoluted combination of joystick movements and button taps to unleash a super attack. In every game, a super attack does ridiculous damage, and generally drains the super bar. Examples range from throwing a larger fireball (Ryu in Street Fighter Alpha 3) to calling in a giant mecha to strafe the crap out of the arena (Jin in Marvel Vs. Capcom 2.)

Of course, all of these ways of damaging your opponent are a little silly with no way to keep track of the damage. Again, in this area, Street Fighter II dictates convention, and most games have a health bar at the top of the screen. Taking damage shortens this bar, as in most games, and once the bar runs out, it's a knock-out. Matches are generally best two of three rounds, with a life refill at the beginning of each round, again following the Street Fighter II convention.

The only really successful attempt to vary this formula is Virtua Fighter's "ring out" losses, where being knocked out of the ring is a loss. (This is in fact the only way to defeat one's opponent in SSBM.) Less sucessfully, Bushido Blade (although not its sequel) attempted to incorporate more realistic damage, including possible one-hit kills (Ed Boon's Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus attempted to incorpate realistic injuries, with somewhat mixed results), and Killer Instinct made come-from-behind victories more difficult by giving each player two life bars, rather than having three rounds. Neither of these modifications, nor any others, really caught on.

One trend which did catch on for a while, though, was Mortal Kombat's signature Fatalities. Fatalities were grotesquely fatal finishing moves that a player could use on a defeated opponent. Common ones were flashing the opponent, ripping out vital organs, or just devouring the opponent. While later games tried to parody these finishing moves (Mortal Kombat 3's babalities and friendships and Killer Instinct's humiliations), they really served no purpose in the games themselves, and are mostly missing from more recent fighters, save for Guilty Gear X.

Traditionally, fighting games are one-on-one. However, the King of Fighters, Vs., and Capcom Vs. SNK series are played with teams of characters, chosen from a large selection of possible choices. Most games played with teams of characters simply switch out knocked-out characters in between rounds, although the Vs. series, as part of its generally insane gameplay, allows for switching characters on the fly, literally. (The tagged-in character jumps onto the screen with a flying kick.) Tekken Tag Tournament uses a similar method, although without the flying kick. As a rule, the fight is over when all of the characters are KO'ed, although Tekken Tag matches end when one character is finished off (much like tag teams in professional wrestling.)

Another common element in this subgenre: "call-in attacks", where a teammate (usually a teammate devoted to this purpose) hops in, does a special attack, and hops out. Usually, there's a limited number of these call-ins, but this isn't a hard-and-fast rule.

Very rarely, games allow for more than two players at once. Games like Super Smash Bros. Melee, Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee, and War of the Monsters (which allows more than two combatants at a time, but not more than two actual players) are not considered fighting games by some, but these games have many elements in common with more traditional fighting games.

Storywise, most fighting games have, of course, a giant, poorly-explained, anything-goes martial arts tournament, with each of the combatants fighting for personal glory, a government, to take over the world, or one of about a half-dozen different agendae. The combatants are almost always from all over the world, sometimes even a multiverse. The tournament is a front for an evil dictator/corporation/overlord/sorcerer, if not for Satan himself.

Generally, the only people who care are fanfiction writers and occasionally an obsessive noder.

Like any group of crazed zealots, fighting game fans have their own language. While the slang is transitory and often game- or series-specific, there's a convention for writing the combinations of joystick movements and button presses for combos and special moves.

Here's a diagram of a six-button control scheme (as in most of Capcom's fighters, and many clones):

ub  u  uf
  \ | /      1  2  3
b - * - f
  / | \      4  5  6
db  d  df

The star is the joystick directions, and the number correspond to the buttons. Generally, 1 is a quick punch, 2 is a middle punch, 3 is a fierce punch, 4 is a quick kick, 5 is a medium kick, and 6 is a fierce kick. (These are Street Fighter terms; most other games have other terms for essentially the same kinds of attacks.)

Here's a diagram of the four-button scheme used by Tekken, Capcom Vs. SNK, and some others.

ub  u  uf
  \ | /      1  2
b - * - f
  / | \      3  4
db  d  df

In most 4-button games, 1 is quick punch, 2 is fierce punch, 3 is quick kick, and 4 is fierce kick. In Tekken, however, 1 and 2 are left punch and right punch respectively, and 3 and 4 are left kick and right kick, given the game's emphasis on more realistic styles.

ub  u  uf
  \ | /         B  C  D
b - * - f     A
  / | \
db  d  df

SNK, of course, had to do things differently. As almost all of the SNK fighters were based on the NeoGeo hardware, they used the NeoGeo controller. All but Samurai Shodown used A as quick punch, B as fierce punch, C as quick kick, and D as fierce kick, while SS used A as a quick slash, B as a middle slash, A+B as a fierce slash, C as a quick kick, D as a medium kick, and C+D as a fierce kick.

Virtua Fighter and Soul Calibur and their sequels use a similar layout.

Of course, Street Fighter II introduced a certain set of joystick movements that would become standard. The ways of annotating these have since become standard. (I use the directions from the above control schemes.)

Quick punch, middle punch, fierce punch, quick kick, medium kick, and fierce kick, respectively. Some people use the numbers, and some use these abbreviations; it's a matter of style.
P, K
Punch and kick. Many attacks don't require a specific strength of punch or kick, so this implies that the strength is irrelevant.
Quarter-Circle Forward - Start the joystick at the D position, then roll it 90 degrees forward through DF to the F position.
Quarter-Circle Back - Same as QCF, only roll it backwards to the B position instead.
Half-Circle Forward - Start at B, then roll the joystick down and then forward, passing through DB, D, DF, and finally around the rest of the way to F.
Half-Circle Back - As HCF, only backwards from F, through D, to B.
Dragon Punch - A z-shaped motion. F to D in a quick motion, then roll to DF. This is one of the tricker motions for many new players. (It's named such because it's the motion for Ryu and Ken's Dragon Punch.)
Reverse Dragon Punch (Dragon Punch Backwards) - The same motion, only backwards. B to D in a quick motion, rolling to DB.
At the same time as - The simplest example would be above in Samurai Shodown's controls, where you tap A and B at the same time for a fierce slash.
Then - For example, QP,QK would mean "quick punch, then quick kick".
Hold whatever button is in the parenthesis. In some games, it can be (x,n), where n is a number of seconds, or in the case of Tekken, frames of animation.
This is an attack that hits an enemy that has already been knocked into the air. Some games allow a player to string juggles, while in others, it's just an extra hit or two.

An example of this, from Killer Instinct, would be one of Glacius's Killer Combos:

(B),F+MP,MP,F,B+MP,MP,QCF,FP, Wait 3, Juggle QCF,FP.

In English, this means...

  1. Hold back.
  2. Tap forward and hit medium punch simultaneously.
  3. Hit medium punch.
  4. Tap forward.
  5. Tap back and hit medium punch simultaneously.
  6. Hit medium punch.
  7. Press down on the control stick, then roll it ninety degrees to forward.
  8. Hit fierce punch.
  9. Wait approximately three counts.
  10. (This, combined with the next command, will juggle the opponent, and thus needs to be carefully timed.) Press down on the control stick, then roll it ninety degrees to forward.
  11. Hit fierce punch.

Tap, hit, push, and hold deserve special mention. Tapping or hitting the joystick or a button means a quick, firm press and equally quick release. Push tends to mean holding the button or joystick a fraction longer. Holding it means pressing the button or joystick and holding it, usually for about two or three seconds.

All of these annotations assume that the fighter is in the first-player position; standing on the left, facing right. Commands will need to be horizontally inverted if the fighter is facing to the right.

Most importantly, every good fighting game gets sequel after sequel after sequel. Street Fighter II on its own has 5 or 6 major variations.

All of the below information is current as of September 15, 2003.

As a rule of thumb, 2D fighters tend to be flashier, with lots of mystical abilities poorly explained. (Playing Street Fighter Alpha 3, for example, might lead you to believe that throwing fireballs was something you could learn in a stripmall self-defense class.) Capcom and SNK have all but a stranglehold on this subgenre, and Capcom's heavy American comic influence and SNK's very heavy manga influence have shaped the appearance any competitors. Their flagship Vs. series and King of Fighters series, respectively, are the current state of the art, as far as game and character design are concerned. (Capcom has also shown some tendencies to revert to earlier modes of design, with recent rereleases of Street Fighter Alpha 3 and Super Street Fighter II Turbo, as well as the distinctly throwback stylings of Capcom Vs. SNK 2.

Capcom, of course, is the home of the Street Fighter series and the more complex Street Fighter Alpha series (including Street Fighter Alpha 3, arguably one of the best 2D fighting games ever). Capcom is also well known for their "Vs." series, composed of a series of games pitting their Street Fighter (and later even Darkstalkers and non-fighting-game characters, like Megaman and Strider) versus first the X-Men, then against all manner of Marvel characters. (Paradoxically, Capcom Vs. SNK and Capcom Vs. SNK 2 are considered part of the Street Fighter Alpha series.) Apparently deceased are the Darkstalkers and Street Fighter III series.

SNK, known also for the NeoGeo and constant filings for bankruptcy, is best known for the King of Fighters and Fatal Fury series. (Fatal Fury is known as Garou in Japan, and the latest game in the series is better known by its Japanese name, Garou: Mark of the Wolf.) King of Fighters, like Street Fighter Alpha, seems to absorb SNK characters from other games, and has completely absorbed the cast of Art of Fighting. Samurai Shodown/Samurai Spirits, SNK's stylish fencing fighter, has been AWOL for quite a while. Rumors constantly abound of another installment, sustaining a tiny core of fans.

A recent upstart in 2D fighting games is Sammy, with their Guilty Gear series. Guilty Gear XX in particular recieved excellent press for its complex gameplay and hand-drawn characters and animation. There isn't any apparent rivary between Sammy, Capcom, and SNK, however, as the 2D fighting pie is now quite small. Rumors currently fly of a Sammy/SNK collaboration from the creators of SNK Vs. Capcom Chaos.

Previous notable competitors in the 2D fighter subgenre are Midway/Acclaim, with their gleefully violent Mortal Kombat series, peaking at 2 and mired in terrible variants of 3 and the utter failure of the move to 3D; Data East, with its prolific, mediocre Street Fighter clones, one of which actually sparked a lawsuit from Capcom; Nintendo/Rare, with their one-hit-wonder Killer Instinct; Atari/Midway's gleefully deviant Primal Rage; and probably many other forgettable one-offs.

The current 2D fighting game state of the art is fairly spare. Guilty Gear XX and Capcom Vs. SNK 2 are beginning to show their age graphically, but remain the games to beat as far as gameplay is concerned. SNK Vs. Capcom Chaos has recently been released in arcades, and is proving to be a sign that SNK and the King of Fighters style of fighting game isn't dead yet, and more KoF titles are planned for the future. A new installment of Street Fighter, however, is notably absent.

3D fighters once had a lot more in common with 2D fighters, as they are an outgrowth of 2D fighters, but in the last few years they've begun to take on a unique identity. As a rule of thumb, they're much closer to the actual martial arts (even the robots and demons and panda bears of Tekken use a style vaguely similar to real arts). Also, home consoles tend to be friendlier to them, as the Playstation and Playstation 2 are ill-equipped to handle the rich, memory-intensive animations of 2D fighters. Modern 3D fighters are dominated by Namco, Tecmo, and Sega, although the competition is far more diverse in this subgenre (due to a combination of the 3D game bias, and due to the fact that a decent-looking 3D fighter can be made without the huge amount of work involved in actually drawing each frame of animation.)

The state of the art for 3D fighting games is evolving much more quickly than for 2D fighting games, given the greater amount of competition. As of this noding, the two games for enthusiasts are Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution and Soul Calibur 2. VF4Evo has stronger AI and is much less friendly to so called "button mashers", whereas SC2 is more accomadating to new players and considerably prettier graphically. There are other factors (SC2 is available on more than the PlayStation 2, for example) of course, and venturing to any message board anywhere and sayng "VF4Evo vs. SC2" will net you more than you could possibly imagine. These two tower over the current competition, which largely consists of the aging Dead or Alive 3, the unambitious Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, or the utterly mediocre Bloody Roar Extreme.

While there have been a great, great many forgettable 3D fighters, there's one company that seems to be continuously pumping out failures. Curiously, it's the reigning king of the 2D fighter, Capcom. Street Fighter EX has been universally ill-recieved (no small wonder, as the series isn't given much priority by Capcom, and has inane crap like a character named "Skullomania"), but Battle Arena Toshinden and Rival Schools were initially well-recieved. However, both were essentially 2D-style fighters in three dimensions (Battle Arena Toshinden was as shallow as a very shallow thing, to boot), and the genre evolved away from these games. Consistant failure isn't an extinct phenomenon, of course; Hudson Soft's Bloody Roar series is uniformly awful, but refuses to die. Increasingly more ridiculous subtitles like Bloody Roar: Primal Fury and Bloody Roar Extreme are par for the fighting game course, though.

A full treatment of the history of fighting games is forthcoming; this node is, as ever, a work in progress.