The term fighting game (or fighter) has been adopted in recent years because the older term beat-'em-up, while still frequently used, suggests that the player is battling against computer controlled opponents. At one time, prior to the release of Street Fighter 2, scrolling beat-'em-ups were the predominant form, so it made more emphasis to note that you were beating "'em" up (compare the change from "shoot-'em-up" to shooter or in many cases, FPS). Whereas these days, most games involving (usually unarmed) melee combat concentrate on two-player competition.

These games can present the action in either two or three dimensions, and frequently offer a wide range of characters (with unique fighting styles) to the player. It should be noted that this is one genre where 3D is not automatically "better" -- a 3D viewpoint sacrifices a lot of detail in the characters, backgrounds and animation to maintain a fluid framerate, and requires a different playing style. The fighting usually takes the form of "chopsocky" martial arts, sometimes with a smattering of comic-book magic. This genre is almost totally dominated by Japanese developers, notably Capcom, the late SNK, and Namco. The only modern American fighting game to be even remotely playable was the Mortal Kombat series.

Playing fighters is a dedicated hobby that approaches a competitive sport. Some players practice at home on their consoles and then dish out punishment at the local arcade. As with comics, popular characters return in different games, retaining the same moves but being redrawn in the art style of the new game. The fighter with the longest resume of them all is undoubtedly Ryu, whose first appearance was in the original Street Fighter, and who has returned as a playable character in over 30 games.

The prefered input method for a fighting game is a switched arcade joystick. Some cynics wrongly suggest that the continuing success of 2D fighters is solely due to the Street Fighter 2 "brand". It's really more of a TV/Radio situation.

The originator of the fighting game as we know it was, if I'm not mistaken, Archer Maclean (although I may well be). The blueprint for all modern fighters was Street Fighter 2, which was the first to feature all the vital elements: ultra-fast, multi-button and stick input ; a roster of highly varied yet balanced characters ; a large range of moves for each character ; a "home" location (replete with theme tune) for each character ; three timed rounds, first to two KO's wins. Capcom were also the first to incorporate many other now-standard ideas, in their desperate efforts to keep the SF cycle fresh.