Opinion – Fighting Games Are Obsessed With Nostalgia
2017 was a fantastic year for fighting games. As Street Fighter V, Guilty Gear Xrd, Killer Instinct, and The King of Fighters XIV got updates and characters, Tekken 7, Injustice 2, and Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite gave fans something new to look forward to all year long. Gundam Versus may not be a traditional fighting game, but it’s made waves with a dedicated community that crosses over with fighting game fans nonetheless. These games all stoked the passion of different communities, which bodes well for the genre as a whole.
2018 looks to be even better, as those games will likely receive updates to keep them fresh and will be joined by Dragon Ball FighterZ, Soulcalibur VI, Fighting EX Layer (though the release date on that one is still up in the air), BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle, and the Street Fighter Anniversary Collection. We’re even getting Rising Thunder, a game canceled in its beta phase, to come back. What more could a fighting game fan ask for?
Looking at that list of names, however, you do find one thing missing: An original fighting game series, free of classic or crossover characters. One that succeeds not just on the quality of its preservation of revered mechanics and nostalgic value, but on the merits of the new ideas and characters it introduces to the genre. Even as we enter the fifth year of a new console generation, it still seems like fighting games have an issue moving past their nostalgia.
The biggest instance of this trend came during this year’s Evo, the largest fighting game tournament in the world. During its Sunday finals, fans were treated to several fighting-related announcements. The throughline? “Your favorite character is back!” as Tekken 7, Marvel Vs. Capcom, and more got character reveals that, while surprising, were all characters we'd seen before. The rest of the year saw announcements like Noctis from Final Fantasy XV in Tekken 7 and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Injustice 2.
Meanwhile, Street Fighter V hadn’t been garnering much favor from the community after a poor launch and the announcement that aside from Akuma all of the characters in the second season of characters would be new to the series. That fans were made to wait for classic characters who still hadn’t made it to the roster in favor of characters they had no previous affinity toward gave the season a mixed perception. It was only when Sagat, Sakura, Cody, and Blanka were anounced for season three that perception improved.
The message from fans this year was clear: Give us something we already like, not something new. I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about the way fans’ excitement for upcoming games tends to ride on the expectation of seeing a character they already like make the cut rather than being surprised by someone new. This happened with Guilty Gear Xrd, is currently happening with Dragon Ball FighterZ, and I have little doubt it will happen with SoulCalibur VI. People will applaud when their favorites make it in, and complain when they don’t see their favorite character when a number of newcomers clutter up the roster (as was the case with Street Fighter V).
Fighting game publishers and developers keep digging backwards because it works. These sorts of announcements are how fighting games make headlines beyond their normally niche popularity. Seeing The Ninja Turtles in Injustice 2 is sure to make at least a few people who wouldn’t have otherwise played Injustice 2 pick it up for at least a little while. Fighting game sales have been strong, too, showing the genre isn’t suffering from the trend.
And as someone who’s stuck with the genre on-and-off for most of their life, nostalgia for fighting games is often more than aesthetic. Seeing Sakura in Street Fighter V excites me not only because I remember her and like her new look, but because she brings back the many hours I spent with her in Street Fighter Alpha 2, Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, and Street Fighter IV. I’ve grown attached to her moveset, combos, and gameplan over the years, and I’m eager to see how they’ve developed and changed in Street Fighter V. I can even imagine that, if certain combos work the way they have before, I’ll be excited that my muscle memory has carried over.
To be clear, the year did have some interesting new contenders. For Honor and Arms were both major games from big publishers but, while commercially successful, their status as fighting games is murky, and they haven’t taken off with the traditional fighting game community. If anything, they’ve found success in the ways they weren’t like fighting games.
But in the last 10 years, I can think of only two new fighting series that featured only original characters and have stuck around: BlazBlue and Skullgirls. Both have developed dedicated fan communities over the last few years, but nothing on the level Street Fighter, Tekken, or Super Smash Bros. Sony released PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale back in 2012, but a crossover hardly counts as bringing new blood to the genre. Several other one-off anime fighting games have also seen the light of day, but few manage to stay around for long or developer large communities.
The reception to new series altogether has been tepid and scarce, since we haven’t seen too many of them recently. Other genres might have similar issues with sequelitis, but still see huge new franchises like Destiny, Horizon, and more pop up regularly. You don’t see as many crossover characters, either. With fighting games, it feels like it’s all about looking backward, rather than forward, for inspiration.
As comforting as the return of older characters and series might be, I can’t help but wonder if they preclude a wealth of new series, characters, ideas, and systems to fall in love with. When a series introduces a wildly new concept, players often react by saying “This isn’t real [Series Name].” Working on a new series would let developers experiment with new ideas without worrying about having to be “real” anything, and maybe push the genre forward along the way. New fighting game series and classic ones don’t have to butt up against one another. But right now, the sure bet is to bring back a classic series and be as faithful to its history as possible. If you can throw in a few characters from other games or comic books, all the better.
I also wonder if, along with some of the other parts of fighting games (the time investment, the need memorize combos, etc.) going back to well for older characters isn’t keeping potential newcomers away from the genre; aesthetics matter in a genre where you spend looking at the same characters and stages for hours on end, and a new series could introduce a new look and feel that attracts people for who may not find the old-school design of many contemporary fighting game characters that appealing.
There are a couple of slivers of hope for new series on the horizon. SNK is currently working on “many new fighting games,” and I have to hope they’re not all throwbacks. Then there’s Riot, which recently bought Rising Thunder developer Radiant Entertainment, which could be working on a new fighting game series. If they are, it could be the biggest new entry into fighting games we’ve seen in a long time, and the next major test case for whether fighting game fans will click with new ideas and characters. If, as most everyone else anticipates, they’re making a League of Legends fighter, well... I hope Blitzcrank is in it.