Finish Him! Where have all the Fatalities Gone?

Bill Loguidice's picture

Author: Mathew Tschirgi
Editing: Cecil Casey, Matt Barton, Bill Logiduce
Online Layout: Cecil Casey, David Torre
Screenshots: Cecil Casey, David Torre

Mortal Kombat 2 - Fatality
Fatality from Mortal Kombat 2 (Arcade)
©1993 Midway

Fighting games are still a fairly popular video game genre. Mortal Kombat: Deception managed to become Midway's fastest selling games selling over a million units. Despite their popularity, fighting games are a genre that has shown little innovation over time. Sure, they have moved from 2-D to 3-D, but basic game play mechanics have remained virtually unchanged. We're going to examine the lack of innovation in the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat franchises, then take a closer look at a trio of fighting games that tend to innovate instead of merely replicate what has come before: One Must Fall: 2097, Bushido Blade, and Super Smash Bros.

Before we begin, I'd like to give my definition of a fighting game. Fighting games are so varied that they should be classified into three different sub-genres. 2-D Fighters, like Capcom's Street Fighter franchise, are games in which your avatar has to fight against computer/human avatars one-on-one in an arena in a 2-D environment. 3-D Fighters, like Namco's Soul Calibur franchise, are games in which your avatar has to fight against computer/human opponents one-on-one in an arena within a 3-D environment. Beat-em-Ups, like Capcom's Final Fight franchise, are games in which your avatar has to fight against multiple avatars in a series of levels in either a 2-D or 3-D environment.

This article is going to focus on 2-D and 3-D Fighters. Try not to be too upset if your favorite game isn't covered-if you want to suggest a good game that I might have glanced over, please do so with the instant feedback option at the end of the article or send me an e-mail.

Street Fighter 2: Champion Edition
Street Fighter 2: Champion Edition (Arcade)
©1992 Capcom

Although it is not the most popular 2-D Fighter anymore, one of the more important ones is Capcom's Street Fighter franchise. The first game in the series isn't as well known as its sequel. While you can only choose from two avatars, the Japanese Ryu and the American Ken, it did let you fight against a variety of opponents who had special moves in a variety of international locations. Pulling off special moves in Street Fighter was a bit tricky, but you could kill your opponent in one or two hits!

While most 2-D and 3-D Fighters have a variety of standard punches and kicks at their disposal (one button might make your avatar throw a Weak Punch while another button might make your Avatar throw a Strong Kick), special moves were secret attacks that knocked off a lot more damage than regular attacks. To perform one, a player had to memorize a combination of joystick movements and button presses; to have Ken or Ryu toss a Hadoken (a blue fireball) at another avatar, the player had to roll the joystick a quarter circle clockwise towards the opposing avatar (moving the joystick in a fluid motion from down, to down-towards, to towards), then press one of the Punch buttons.

Such special moves sound simple when written out, but often took several tries to nail them down. Before the Internet made it easy for any stumped gamer to grab a FAQ, gamers had a few different options to track down the latest special move. A few arcade machines had basic special moves printed on the case itself. Clever gamers could try out random moves while playing a game, hoping to stumble upon a winning combination (though Street Fighter pioneered the Hadoken special move, nearly every other 2-D Fighter released afterwards used the same button combinations [quarter circle forward, then punch] for fireball special moves). Those wanting the quick and easy way out would purchase an issue of Game Pro or Electronic Gaming Monthly to see if they had the latest special moves printed in the newest issue.

Karate Champ
Karate Champ (Arcade)
©1984 Data East (source: Wikipedia)

This is not to say that Street Fighter was the first 2-D Fighter to feature a lot of these options, but it was arguably the first one to do it well. Data East's Karate Champ featured your avatar fighting against a computer opponent in some varied locations, although there were no special moves. Konami's Yie-Ar Kung Fu had much more varied opponents with a cartoony quality that undoubtedly influenced Capcom's muscular yet stylized look in their Street Fighter franchise.

Street Fighter II: The World Warrior was the first game in the series that most people are familiar with. Allowing players to select from a whopping eight different avatars of different nationalities (ranging from the hulking Russian Zangief to the demure Chinese Chun Li), the game play was a bit more involved than Street Fighter. Each character now had several different special moves, some of which were more difficult to pull off than others. It was a huge hit in arcades around the world.

Capcom milked this franchise for all it was worth, but ultimately not improving the game play by much. Street Fighter II: Championship Edition allowed players to play as the four boss characters while Super Street Fighter II introduced four new avatars to the mix, including the Bruce Lee-inspired Fei Long. Regardless of the extra avatars players got to choose from, the game play didn't change a whole lot-there might have been a few new special moves, but ultimately you had to move around, block, punch, kick, or complete special moves until you bested your opponent.

Later on Capcom introduced the Street Fighter Alpha series (known as Street Fighter Zero in Japan), which was a prequel to the first Street Fighter game. It introduced more complex combo systems, meaning players could link their attacks in proper succession to score more damage on their opponents, but game play was the same song, just a slightly difference dance.

As Street Fighter II was gaining in popularity, several other companies came out with competing 2-D Fighters. Without a doubt the most influential of these was Midway's Mortal Kombat series. Visually what set this one apart from the crowd was that the graphics for the avatars were captured frame by frame from prerecorded full-motion video sequences, giving the characters a more realistic look. This technique was pioneered in Midway's abominable Pit Fighter, a 2-D Fighter with cheap AI where one could win through button-mashing (pressing random buttons in order to win a match) as opposed to actual skill.

Along with photo-realistic graphics, designers Ed Boon and John Tobias brought plenty of blood and gore to the table. Practically every punch or kick delivered a cheesy flow of red blood from the opposing avatar which splattered onto the ground. When you won two rounds against your opponent, you had a chance to finish them off with a Fatality, an ultra-violent special move which often dismembered or annihilated the opposing avatar in a memorable way.

Despite public outcry aimed at the level of blood and gore in the game, game play was straight from the Street Fighter II mold. Controls were noticeably stiffer, with special moves relying more on tapping the joystick than the smooth rolls required for Street Fighter II. Fatalities in particular were a pain to pull off, requiring your avatar to stand at a specific position on the screen while punching in the different key combinations.

Mortal Kombat 2 - Friendship.
Friendship from Mortal Kombat 2 (Arcade)
©1993 Midway

Mortal Kombat did very well in the arcades, spawning several sequels. Unfortunately, much as Capcom did with their Street Fighter series, Midway went for more cookie-cutter game play instead of trying something truly unique for their sequels. Mortal Kombat II offered a wider selection of avatars to choose from, as well as a satirical take on the Fatality known as a Friendship (the most memorable of which had the Jean Claude Van Damme inspired Johnny Cage whip out a photograph and autograph it to his "biggest fan"). Mortal Kombat 3 offered an option to charge towards your opponent and Animalities (finishing moves which turned your avatar into an animal which would attack your opponent; these stemmed from the false rumors that you could do Animalities in the original Mortal Kombat), but it brought nothing terribly new to the table.

Mortal Kombat 4 took the series to 3-D, with rather simplistic polygonal graphics and sloppy controls. Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance upped the ante with better graphics, giving the game more of a darker feel than Mortal Kombat 4, but also introduced a host of new avatars to pick from. The marketing for the latest game in the series, Mortal Kombat: Deception, was rather odd since it focused more on the various side game play modes (including one which was a blatant rip-off of Capcom's Street Fighter 2 spin-off, Puzzle Fighter).

So we've taken a brief look at how the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat franchises managed to grow in popularity while failing in advancing the game play mechanics to any noticeable degree. Why did Capcom and Midway keep things so similar in their games over time? Probably because it's the safest thing to do-if you change the game play of a sequel too much, it just pisses off the new fans while alienating newcomers to the franchise.

Just take a look at Shigeru Miyamoto's The Legend of Zelda: The Adventure of Link. The second game in the Zelda franchise is not a fan favorite because it changes the overhead exploration game play into a side-scrolling action title with RPG elements. Where the original game focused on solving puzzles in dungeons with light action elements, the sequel was almost pure action. Though the game still sold well, it's not what most gamers would rank as their favorite Zelda game.

One Must Fall: 2097
One Must Fall: 2097
©1994 Epic MegaGames

One of the more innovative 2-D Fighters was Epic Megagames' One Must Fall: 2097. Having a sci-fi setting in which players had robot avatars which fought each other to the death, the single player mode was rather interesting for a couple of reasons. One of these was the RPG elements added to the game-depending on how many points your avatar scored, your avatar earned different amounts of money. This money could be spent on upgrades to the statistics of your robot, adding an element of strategy to the game-having the chance to work on balancing the various statistics for your fighter made the game that much more interesting. Another novel element of the game occurred between rounds. Commentators gave a play-by-play on your match with stills from your fight, making the illusion that your robotic avatar was fighting in a TV show that much more convincing.

Bushido Blade
Bushido Blade (PSX)
©1997 Squaresoft

Squaresoft pulled off a more realistic take on 3-D Fighters with their Bushido Blade series. Set in medieval Japan, players controlled their mostly Japanese avatars armed with various Japanese weapons. Unlike most fighting games that gave players a life bar, Bushido Blade took a more realistic turn. Your avatar could die by the sword (or spear, or gun) after only a few hits. One well placed hit could knock your avatar out in a single blow. This really put a new sort of energy into the fighting, making a match between two skilled players look more like a ballet than a bloodbath. Katanas would clash as one avatar fought the other, and knowing that one wrong move could doom the other player made matches that much more invigorating.

Super Smash Brothers
Super Smash Brothers (N64)
©1999 Nintendo

Nintendo took an arguably more simplistic take on the 2-D Fighter that made the genre more accessible to non-gamers with their Super Smash Bros. franchise. Limiting attacks and special moves to a few simplistic button presses injected a healthy dose of fun into the genre. Anyone from a toddler to a stoned college student could pick up a controller and master the moves in a matter of minutes, which was a refreshing antidote to the increasingly complicated special moves, combos, and fatalities found in other 2-D Fighters. Having Super Scopes, Pokéballs, and Hammers randomly drop on the playing field also helped mix things up a bit, making a fighting match less predictable than usual.

While fighting games overall have lacked in the innovation department, a few have stood out from the crowd. Unless a genre truly continues to reinvent itself it will die, or at least hobble along supported by die-hard fans. Just take a look at the graphic adventure, a genre that flourished in the late 1980's and early 1990's (including such great titles as LucasArts' Day of the Tentacle and Sierra Online's The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery) until a glut of bad titles and lack of innovation (most of them copycats of the overrated, yet best-selling, Myst) delivered the genre a shotgun blow to the face. The real question is can fighting games be creative in a contemporary environment where the bottom line matters more than creativity? If gaming history has proved anything, it's that no genre stays consistently popular for long.