Feature

The 30 Greatest Fighting Games of All Time

by Game Informer Staff on Apr 25, 2019 at 02:35 PM

On this page you’ll find a celebration of the best fighting games of all time. Our picks include classics that have stood the test of time as well as recent juggernauts that have earned their place among the elite. We’ve weighted our list towards gameplay and lasting impact more than anything else, putting feature lists and single-player content on the backburner. We’ve included competitors from several different disciplines, but all of them capture that wonderful mix of dedication, competition, and all-out fun that have made the genre so invigorating for decades. 

For this list, we focused mostly on traditional fighting, which means you won’t find wrestling, boxing, mixed martial arts, or any games that are based on real-world sports. With that out of the way, let’s get to the fight.

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30. Injustice 2  

Platform: PS4 • Xbox One • PC • iOS • Android / Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment / Developer: NetherRealm Studios / Release: 2017
You might not think NetherRealm’s ultra-violent sensibilities would mix well with DC Comics’ all-ages brands, but the studio behind Mortal Kombat knocked it out of the park with the Injustice series. NetherRealm’s gory finishers morphed into over-the-top superhero slapstick in Injustice 2, but the tone works surprisingly well. While the single-player story wasn’t as strong as the first game, NetherRealm’s combat was more polished, earning Injustice 2 a devoted following on the competitive circuit. Even after hours of knockout superhero brawls, we still giggle with glee when The Flash travels through time to smash Superman’s head against a T. rex. 

29. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax

Platform: PS3 • 360 / Publisher: Atlus / Developer: Arc System Works, Atlus / Release: 2014
Appealing to two different audiences is no easy feat, but Atlus managed to please Persona fans and fighting game enthusiasts with Persona 4 Arena. As a sequel, Ultimax continued the RPG-influenced story and refined the original fighting concepts, resulting in a fascinating fusion. It provided new characters based on a variety of novel gameplay mechanics, and it didn’t skimp on the cutscenes. It sat in an odd middle ground between genres, but Ultimax had something for every kind of fan.

28. Dead or Alive 4  

Platform: 360 / Publisher: Tecmo / Developer: Team Ninja / Release: 2005
In the early months of the Xbox 360’s lifespan, the console was desperate for quality games to show off what the new generation could pull off, and Dead or Alive 4 fit the bill perfectly. One of Dead or Alive’s most mechanically sound entries, the fourth entry featured an in-depth counter system and an impressive level of fluidity in animation. It was also the first in the series to feature online play (a novelty in 2005).

27. BlazBlue: Central Fiction   

Platform: PS4 • Switch • PS3 • PC / Publisher: Aksys Games / Developer: Arc System Works / Release: 2016
The stories in fighting games are frequently viewed as inconsequential, but the complicated tale in BlazBlue is a big part of its appeal. Central Fiction served as the satisfying conclusion to a long-running arc, but it also delivered on the combat front, with 35 playable characters competing in matches that encouraged offensive play. The highly technical bouts reveled in their complexity, making Central Fiction a rewarding entry for seasoned players.

26. The King of Fighters XIII  

Platform: PS3 • 360 • PC • Arcade / Publisher: Atlus / Developer: SNK / Release: 2011
As most fighting-game series were switching to 3D models and simplifying inputs, the King of Fighters series stuck to its retro guns, and for hardcore fans, the results spoke for themselves in XIII. A deluge of chained supers and drive cancels mixed with the series’ staples of multiple jump types and three-man teams to deliver one of the most complex, old-school fighters around. The gorgeous 2D sprites and backgrounds, meanwhile, have aged better than most of their polygonal contemporaries, giving King of Fighters XIII a character unlike anything else out there today.

25. Bushido Blade

Platform: PS1 / Publisher: Square / Developer: Light Weight / Release: 1997
Bushido Blade answered the question, “How long would you last in a real swordfight” with demoralizing clarity: “Probably not very.” The PlayStation game featured duos battling for supremacy, but its high-stakes combat was far removed from what the rest of the fighting-game genre was attempting. Here, battles could be over in a flash the moment combatants let their guard down. Skilled players could parry, roll, and use the terrain to their advantage, creating fights that felt as cinematic as they were brutal. 

24. Skullgirls  

Platform: PS4 • Xbox One • Switch • PS3 • 360 • Vita PC • Mac • Linux • iOS • Android • Arcade / Publisher: Marvelous / Developer: Reverge Labs / Release: 2012
A lot of fighting games are inspired by anime, but few look as much like a cartoon come to life as Skullgirls. Before Dragon Ball FighterZ was even a dream, Reverge Labs’ visually stunning fighter wowed us with chaotic team-based battles and a roster of monstrous hand-drawn fighters. Fortunately, Skullgirls’ complex but approachable combat proved its beauty was more than skin-deep. An extensive tutorial system eased newcomers into advanced tactics, and its fluid action made Skullgirls a hard fighter to put down.

23. Killer Instinct  

Platform: Xbox One •  SNES • Game Boy • Arcade / Publisher: Midway, Nintendo / Developer: Rare / Release: 1994
In an era where “Mortal Kombat versus Street Fighter” arguments still permeated the playground, Rare brought in a newcomer to challenge the status quo. Killer Instinct’s visuals and audio were mind-boggling at the time. Ticking up the combo meter to absurd heights while the boisterous announcer lost his mind over your accomplishments was always satisfying. The original may not hold up as well as its contemporaries, but its impact is undeniable. Plus, the current Killer Instinct is a well-regarded fighter that established a model for updates that many other fighters have followed.

22. Tekken 3  

Platform: PS1 • Arcade / Publisher: Namco / Developer: Namco / Release: 1997
Tekken 3 was one of the most impressive sequels of its time, shaking up the foundation to the point that the roster offered more new faces than returning ones. Namco also refined the combat in a number of key ways, such as limiting jump heights and adding new evasive maneuvers (which include sidestepping). Executing 10-hit combos felt incredible, and mastering Lei Wulong’s numerous fighting stances required a great degree of skill and offered something we didn’t see much of in fighters at the time. The truest testament of its place in history: Tekken 3 still plays great today. 

21. Soulcalibur VI  

Platform: PS4 • Xbox One • PC / Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment / Developer: Project Soul, Dimps / Release: 2018
After a brief hiatus following the release of the solid-but-divergent Soulcalibur V, Project Soul delivered a powerful return to form in Soulcalibur VI. A reboot that brought back several fan favorites to make the title familiar to fans who’d lapsed from the series, it also improved combat by choosing components from every other entry. It wasn’t afraid to move forward, either, with a reversal edge technique that changed the pacing of each match and unique character traits that gave its classic characters newfound depth.

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20. Mortal Kombat X  

Platform: PS4 • Xbox One • PC • iOS • Android / Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment / Developer: NetherRealm Studios / Release: 2015
We’re still big Mortal Kombat fans, and X shows why. NetherRealm simply never stops revitalizing its classic series, or the genre as a whole. While the gruesome X-ray attacks and absurd fatalities still delivered the gore MK was founded on, a wealth of modes and multiple fighting styles for each character gave fans more ways to compete than ever. The Living Towers mode also added massive doses of replayability, with constantly changing scenarios. Mortal Kombat X’s visceral matches left us wanting more, and with Mortal Kombat 11 out this week, we’re not complaining.

19. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3  

Platform: PS4 • Xbox One • PS3 • 360 • Vita • PC / Publisher: Capcom / Developer: Capcom, Eighting / Release: 2011
Originally seen as a bit of an oversimplification of Marvel vs. Capcom 2’s freeform combo system, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 proved to be its own formidable beast. Armed with one of the most diverse rosters this side of Smash Bros., players eventually found infinites, glitches, and more ways to extend life-ending combos into the hundreds. With some ingenuity, you could combo practically anything into anything. The imbalance and chaos worked on some strange level, turning into a game that kept players tinkering and spectators riveted for years.

18. Street Fighter Alpha 3  

Platform: PS4 • Xbox One • Switch • PS2 • PS1 • Dreamcast • PSP • GBA • PC • Arcade / Publisher: Capcom / Developer: Capcom / Release: 1998
Arcade-goers expected more of the same from the third iteration in the series, but Street Fighter Alpha 3 shook up Capcom’s tried-and-true formula with the addition of three fighting styles called “isms.” Being able to harness the combat flow of Street Fighter Alpha: Warriors’ Dreams (A-ism), Street Fighter Alpha 2 (V-ism), and Super Street Fighter II Turbo (X-ism) completely shook up the speed, offense, and defense for each character. Alpha 3 also added more defensive strategies with perfect block timing. 

17. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate  

Platform: Switch / Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Bandai Namco, Sora Ltd. / Release: 2018
Using Ultimate as the subtitle for an entry in a long-running series is dangerous, especially when the Smash Bros. purists already know their personal favorite (yes, you’ll see it later in this list), but the latest Smash Bros. earns the term. Featuring every character that has ever appeared in Smash Bros. and more on the way, Ultimate represents the pinnacle of the series in terms of content. It also nailed its moment-to-moment combat by hewing closer to the high-speed fighting of Melee.

16. Dragon Ball FighterZ  

Platform: PS4 • Xbox One • Switch • PC / Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment / Developer: Arc System Works / Release: 2018
FighterZ may be one of the more recently released games on this list, but we’re confident in its placement and honestly would not be surprised to see it place even higher if we revisit this list in the future. Plenty of Dragon Ball fighting games have come and gone, but FighterZ is easily the best. Along with being a fantastic fighting game on its own, it did an amazing job of emulating and improving on the visuals of the source material. It found a foothold in the competitive circuit right away, and Arc System Works has only improved the game post-release.

15. Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves  

Platform: PS4 • 360 • PS2 • Neo Geo • Vita • PC • iOS / Publisher: SNK / Developer: SNK / Release: 2001
As proper a send-off as any series can ask for, Mark of the Wolves ended Fatal Fury’s run before folding completely into the King of Fighters series on a simple-but-elegant, high note. It featured the Tactical Offense Position (T.O.P) system, which asks players to choose whether they want to be powered-up (and gain access to new super moves) when their health is high, medium, or low. This forces you to make a gambit before a match even starts: Do you want to establish an early lead, or save room for a clutch comeback? It doesn’t rely on too many elaborate gimmicks; this fighter isn’t afraid to stand strong on its fundamentals.

14. Virtua Fighter 5  

Platform: PS3 • 360 • Arcade / Publisher: Sega / Developer: Sega AM2 / Release: 2007
Virtua Fighter has always had a reputation for being one the most technically sound 3D fighters out there, and no entry proved that more than Virtua Fighter 5. The 17 combatants were balanced, rich in moves, and each required a different mindset to control. This is one of those fighters that rewarded you for taking time to understand the nuances of each character, and the timing of their move delivery and animation follow-throughs. You can’t button mash your way through this one.

13. Darkstalkers III  

Platform: PS1 • Saturn • Arcade / Publisher: Capcom / Developer: Capcom / Release: 1997
This horror-themed series owes as much to Capcom’s work with Marvel Super Heroes as it does to movies like Frankenstein and Dracula. Characters were constantly in motion, nearly filling the screen with high-quality (and often hilarious) animations. Thanks to the Dark Force System, players could spend a portion of their super to perform limited special movies, such as summoning Sasquatch’s army of penguin pals. While the series has gone stagnant, characters including Morrigan and B.B. Hood often join the rosters in Capcom’s other series. 

12. The King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match  

Platform: PS4 • Xbox One • Switch • PS3 • 360 • PS2 • Xbox • Neo Geo • PC • Arcade / Publisher: Playmore / Developer: Eolith / Release: 2005
For King of Fighters 2002, Eolith went back to the basics for a series of three-on-three battles that became the most-polished entry in the series. At the time, KOF 2002 included every character from all previous King of Fighters games, giving fans an unprecedented number of dream matchups. This impressive roster made KOF 2002 highly replayable, as players experimented with different teams and had to learn the various interactions between all fighters. Even a decade and a half later, Unlimited Match still lives up to its royal title.  

11. Capcom vs. SNK 2: Mark Of The Millennium 2001  

Platform: PS2 • Xbox • GameCube • Dreamcast • Arcade / Publisher: Capcom / Developer: Capcom / Release: 2001
Capcom’s other, less-famous crossover series went for broke as a celebration of fighting games. Not only does its roster deliver a who’s-who of the two most revered developers in the genre at the time, but its very DNA is a love letter. Its six distinct “grooves,” each bearing one of the letters from the acronym “CAP SNK,” fundamentally altered how you played. Want to dish out Street Fighter Alpha’s custom combos? Choose A-Groove. Want Mark of the Wolves’ Just-Defends and Samurai Shodown’s rage meter? Go for K-Groove. A ratio system also let you power up your best character, making for a fighter with a staggering degree of customization.

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10. Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition  

Platform: PS3 • 360 • PC • Arcade / Publisher: Capcom / Developer: Capcom, Dimps / Release: 2010
When it originally released, Street Fighter IV was largely responsible for the mainstream resurgence of fighting games. It garnered an audience beyond the usual genre devotees, and Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition’s 2012 patch represents the pinnacle of that original game’s evolution. With an excellent selection of cool characters, plus balance tweaks that polished combat to a mirror sheen, this is the definitive way to experience one of the most influential modern fighters. 

09. Samurai Shodown II  

Platform: PS4 • Xbox One • Switch • PS3 • 360 • Wii • PS1 • Neo Geo • Neo Geo CD • Neo Geo Pocket Color • PC • iOS • Android • Arcade / Publisher: SNK / Developer: SNK / Release: 1994
Weighing in at 202 MB on a Neo Geo cartridge, Samurai Shodown 2 was a sequel built independent of the original game, giving developer SNK more freedom to innovate. The changes included a more diverse move set consisting of the ability to break enemy weapons, dodge roll, and parry. These abilities combined to create unique strategies, with players looking for windows to disarm their opponent or deliver a powerful fatal strike. SNK continues to pump out fighting games, but none have delivered intensity on the same level as Samurai Shodown II. 

08. Guilty Gear Xrd  

Platform: PS4 • PS3 • PC / Publisher: Arc System Works / Developer: Arc System Works / Release: 2014
The Guilty Gear series has long been known for its deluge of arcane systems, cancels, and tricky combos, but Xrd found an incredible balance between stripping the chaff without losing the essence fans of its aggressively stylish and busy action had come to love. Boasting an immaculate anime art style in the Unreal Engine and a roster that constantly asks you to learn new mechanics and approaches without overwhelming you, Guilty Gear Xrd is a fighter’s fighting game, and even five years into its life cycle, it can still rock with the best of them as the crown jewel in developer Arc System Works’ diverse fighting-game catalog.

07. Tekken 7  

Platform: PS4 • Xbox One • PC • Arcade / Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment / Developer: Bandai Namco Studios / Release: 2017
The latest entry in the storied 3D fighting franchise is also its best. Bandai Namco continued to update and improve the series with a more dynamic and impactful camera, an expanded Rage system, and a massive roster full of new and fan-favorite characters. While the story mode offered an uneven conclusion of the decades-old rivalry between Heihachi and Kazuya Mishima, the core gameplay still had incredible depth for devoted fans, with 100-plus moves to learn and master for every fighter.

06. Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes  

Platform: PS3 • 360 • PS2 • Xbox • Dreamcast • iOS • Arcade / Publisher: Capcom / Developer: Capcom / Release: 2000
The fighting genre is no stranger to mashing up disparate franchises to create games with diverse casts, but Marvel vs. Capcom 2 was arguably one of the most ambitious attempts to pit superheroes against video game characters. Each of its 55 characters were meticulously animated with beautiful 2D sprites and you could play with three at a time to pull off screen-filling combos that are mind-blowing even by our modern, admittedly hardened standards. It also introduced us to the “I wanna take you for a ride” menu music, which is now stuck in your head. You’re welcome.

05. Soulcalibur  

Platform: 360 • Dreamcast • iOS • Android • Arcade / Publisher: Namco / Developer: Project Soul / Release: 1998
Like most classic fighting games, Soulcalibur originally released in arcades. However, Namco’s weapon-based fighter quickly became synonymous with the Dreamcast thanks to a stellar launch port that actually upped the visuals of its arcade predecessor. Fighting fans fell in love with the freedom of Soulcalibur’s eight-direction movement and lenient combo system, and the diverse, weapon-focused combat was accentuated by a cast of memorable characters. Even today, Soulcalibur still feels distinct, making it not only the best Dreamcast game of all time, but one of the best fighting games, as well.

04. Mortal Kombat II  

Platform: PS3 • 360 • PS1 • Saturn • Sega 32X • SNES • Genesis • Sega Master System • Game Gear • PC • Arcade / Publisher: Midway / Developer: Midway / Release: 1993
The first Mortal Kombat gained notoriety for its over-the-top violence, but the sequel gave it credibility as a fighter. There were still plenty of shocking moments and gruesome fatalities, but it was all supported by more engaging combat mechanics. It was also stuffed to the brim with secrets, including tongue-in-cheek alternatives to finishing your foes, such as babalities and friendships, that broke players’ brains in arcades. 

03. Super Street Fighter II Turbo  

Platform: PS4 • Xbox One • Switch • PS3 • 360 • Wii U • PS2 • Xbox • PS1 • GBA • Dreamcast • Saturn • 3DO • Amiga CD32 • Amiga • PC • Arcade / Publisher: Capcom / Developer: Capcom / Release: 1994
Super Street Fighter II Turbo was the culmination of a string of incremental updates to Capcom’s classic fighter, adding new combo types and introducing the world to a flame-haired fellow named Akuma. Street Fighter II was in many ways the primordial reference point for the genre, and this version is its most refined form. As a testament to its relevance, it’s still played competitively at Evo – not bad for a game that’s older than many of its players.

02. Super Smash Bros. Melee

Platform: GameCube / Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: HAL Laboratory / Release: 2001
Super Smash Bros. doesn’t use traditional fighting game mechanics, and it’s one of its greatest strengths. That, and it features some of the greatest video game characters of all time all mashed up into one fantastically fun brawler. We adore Smash Bros., with or without items, as there is just something supremely satisfying about taking control of Link and using him to send Mario flying off the side of a floating platform with a perfectly timed Smash attack. Melee stands tall as the fastest and most mechanically polished entry in the series to the point that even three console generations later, it is still a tournament staple.

01. Street Fighter III: Third Strike  

Platform: PS4 • Xbox One • PS3 • 360 • PS2 • Xbox • Dreamcast • PC • Arcade / Publisher: Capcom / Developer: Capcom / Release: 2000
How do you improve on a worldwide phenomenon and genre breakthrough like Street Fighter II? By implementing techniques the genre had birthed since that momentous game (such as throw-teching and enhanced specials) to create pitch-perfect pacing over three renditions, then throwing in a powerful new catalyst: parrying. If you dare to risk it all by pressing forward rather back when an attack is about to land, you can turn the momentum of a fight in your favor on a dime. Throw in some jaw-dropping sprite animations, a soundtrack that borrowed from a wealth of genres, and a cast that mixed old favorites and weirdos, and you have Street Fighter III: Third Strike, the best fighting game of all time. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Game Informer.