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I: Introduction To The Madness

“I don’t know how to get things started… It’s like there’s this great big wheel I’ve got to start rolling only I don’t seem to have the muscles to get it going.” —Carol Shields, author of The Stone Diaries

This all started when Dragon Ball FighterZ (2018) went on sale on the Nintendo Switch eShop. I picked it up because everybody-and-their-mother praised it for its artstyle, playstyle, tone, game feel, etc. This game might as well have been a masterpiece as far as fighting games are concerned. I played it and, sure enough, I agree. It’s fluid, flashy, and overflowing with things to do. A solid fighter. Feeling aggressive, I downloaded Mortal Kombat 9 (2011), an old favourite of mine, on Steam and found myself staring at the remains of the past. I’ve put in upwards of three-hundred hours into MK9 across two different platforms, but today, in late-2019, I found it pretty archaic. What had changed?

This sent me down a rabbit hole; what makes more recent fighting games look, feel, and play better than my old favourite? What makes fighting games good at all? Why do I have all this free time? It’s finals season, and I should be studying for my Intro to AI class… Well, I can’t stop now! I picked up pretty much every notable fighter in the past few years to try to say something meaningful about their execution. Let’s play a game of how pretentious I can sound while talking about fighting games! Behold: the Fighting Game Mega Mix Vol.1 written by a twenty-something who enjoys spending money on fighting games he’s no good at playing. (I basically pay CAD$20 a year to get my ass handed to me in Smash Ultimate.)

I’m going to break these reviews down into sub-categories for easier skimming. I’ll also try to employ some sort of metric-based rating system to quantify the quality of these games. So, not only am I about to be overtly pretentious while talking about fighting games on the internet, but I’m also about to rank them with a modicum of objectivity. This is definitely not going to paint me in any sort of negative light… There are also too many fighting games to review, so I’m breaking this into several volumes which I’ll write over a series of months. I’ll be evaluating all of these games based on some shared criteria. Things like (1) Gameplay Fluidity, (2) Roster Variability, and (3) Presentation. I outlined my general process in a blog post about this upcoming review, so feel free to check that out if you want a little more detail.

I.I: Rating System

I’m using a 6-point rating system for all metrics (with some comedic exceptions). For the most part, ratings translate to the following numeric scores. I don’t think this is a good way to review anything let alone video games, but I spent too long researching the “best” way to do this, and after a certain point, you just need to wrap things up. (I’m also going to say whether you should pick the game up. I debated having a rating system for that too, but I think a simple Yes/No will suffice. If you disagree, please see the following section.)

Hopefully, these ratings make sense. “Terrible” and “Amazing” scores are quite rare, with most ratings falling between the 20% and 80% range. While it’s pretty much impossible to objectively rate any given metric, I’ll try my darndest to make sure I can back up my assignments. There will always be people who vehemently disagree with me, and to them, I say: “You try reviewing the next thirty games and report back.”

I.II: Who Am I

But who am I to pass judgement on a bunch of video games made by professional video game developers? I’m just a boy! Well, I’ll have you know I’ve spent about six hours minimum over the past 40 days playing every fighting game I’ve included below. Roughly speaking, I’ve dedicated my entire existence this past month, about 200+ hours, to playing fighting games. I’ve been sitting at my desk writing this for just over 100 hours now. In total, I’ve spent about 300+ hours writing about fighting games, and I’m honestly getting a little sick of it.

I like fighting games quite a bit, but this is way too much. I actually planned on reviewing 50 fighting games initially, but I had to consider my mental health (not to mention my physical health; my wrists and fingers are killing me). I really hope someone appreciates the torture I’ve put myself through these past months. My cynical guess is that someone is going to scroll down to their favourite game, see my review, and email me with their complaints. If you are someone who intends to email me complaints, I promise you that I’ve set up numerous email filters that should flag literally anything regarding fighting games, filing them to a folder I’ll never open. Maybe, when I’m on my death bed, I’ll open said folder and have someone read them out to me as I fade away. Maybe I’ll read them when I’m drunk and high and down on my luck… The point I’m trying to make here is that you can spend months of your life making something only for one dude on the other side of the world to nitpick it to death. It’s a thankless task. With that out of the way, we should probably just jump into it.

II: Mortal Kombat

“We begin the process in concept and we figure out “what is the character going to look like?” We usually start with one or two looks, we define those looks, and then from that, we build out the kit of gear that the user will be able to customize. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, sometimes we have to be creative to make it work.” —Jon Anderson, Mortal Kombat executive producer

I grew up on Mortal Kombat, something that would probably make my parents audibly scoff. MK9 was my bread-and-butter on XBOX 360; I knew the ins and outs of that thing. I was just a wee lad, so I couldn’t really afford to buy the latest and greatest fighting games as they came around. So, I made do with MK9. Later, I picked up MKX and MK11 on Steam. I never got around to playing the older titles, so I might save those for later.

II.I: Mortal Kombat 9 (2011)

I’ve probably played more hours of MK9 than most other fighting games. I bought it on my XBOX 360 back in 2011. Then, I re-bought it on Steam in 2016. After work, I’d play MK9; after school, I’d play MK9. I can’t really tell you why I played so much MK9, but I suppose something about it resonated with me.

MK9 came out in the early 2010s while remaining just as rigid as fighters from the late 1990s. I suspect the way NeatherRealm Studios does their animation emphasizes “realism” as opposed to the sloppy, sloshy movement of other fighters. That’s a shame because spectating a game of MK9 often looks like two tall trees extending their branches to whack one another (with exceptions from characters such as Sheeva). In terms of playable characters, MK9 does well to provide a cast of both technically AND visually distinct fighters. Raiden looks and plays much differently compared to Quan Chi, despite both of them being wizard-adjacent. Content is just as diverse as the roster; there’s a good amount of co-op modes, single-player ladders, and multi-player tournaments. The campaign is really something else; fully voiced, well animated, and interesting, the campaign is a welcome addition in my book. The training mode is serviceable for a game released in 2011. Presentation is fine, but other games that were out-and-about in 2011 looked better and were more fun to spectate (e.g. Street Fighter IV). Regardless, MK9’s gore and crunchy violence still do a good job of hit-confirming, children’s ears be damned.

Balance is the hardest to talk about (mainly because these games are archaic, making them impossible to play online with seasoned vets). From what I remember (and from reading NeatherRealm forum posts1), MK9 had some mild balance issues, even after patching. Characters like Ermac and Kung-Lao were higher-tier spammers that we’re able to easily abuse teleports and lifts. Most other characters were balanced well, and there were no god-tiers who wiped the floor with anybody (assuming “anybody” is not me, because I got my ass handed to me more times than I’d like to admit). In terms of creativity, MK9 has fatalities and babalities, along with stage fatalities. Both fatalities are often brutal, grotesque, and morbid, making them fun to watch. Babalities are pretty funny, too. The single-player ladder content is also contextualized well. Minigames are both silly and a welcomed break from combat. For an eight-year-old game, the level of creativity on display still holds up today.

II.II: Mortal Kombat X (2015)

After about a hundred more hours with MKX, I can safely say that I completely forgot this game existed. Besides being anecdotally forgettable, MKX serves as a moderate step up from its predecessor. Is it good? I mean, sure. But, the specifics are far less flattering.

Just like before, the movement of pretty much every character is stiff and static. It still looks like two trees fighting, but now the graphics are a little nicer and the animations are a little more dynamic. This still makes watching MK tournaments a test of patience, as you wait for the only flashy part of the fight: the finishers. However, I concede that the look and feel of the characters have improved. Gameplay now feels much smoother and tighter than MK9. Again, just like before, MKX has a nice, well-rounded roster of characters. Everybody’s playstyle should be present and accounted for. Nothing too crazy here. And, again (I’m sounding like a broken record here), there is an adequate amount of single-player, multi-player, and miscellaneous game modes to satisfy all. I should get that tattooed onto my forehead.

Presentation is just as adequate as MK9; there’s nothing that really impresses me here. It’s a safe, predictable presentation (that probably hasn’t changed much since Mortal Kombat: Armageddon on the PS2). It’s fine, but it’s nothing to write home about. Balance is fine, too. Similar to MK9, some characters, like Sub Zero, can be a good deal more powerful than the rest. For example, a skilled Quan Chi player can absolutely dominate others with his 36% no-meter combo. Creativity is pretty meh as well; fatalities are still here, but now they’re joined by bruitalities, which are just gorier fatalities. They’re fun to watch if you don’t have a sensitive stomach. But, this small inclusion does little to boost the levels of creative potential the series houses. Boy! I sure hope the sequel does a better job!

II.III: Mortal Kombat 11 (2019)

The surprising news is that MK11 is actually a substantial improvement from MKX. I was getting a little cynical about MK while going through the games, but this is actually a lot of fun. But. BUT. MK11 brings microtransactions to the series. While this could contribute to the game’s creativity score, every shit-box developer has adopted the inclusion of microtransactions in a CAD$80 release. Wow! Good job, NeatherRealm! The in-game economy is so catastrophically skewed towards grinding for hours, incentivizing players to spend real-world money to buy the skins they want. This economy is so complex, chaotic, and annoying that Kotaku actually wrote a little guide about how to traverse it2. (That’s about all I’m gonna talk about in terms of the in-game economy because the game underneath is actually pretty great.)

This is the first MK game where every character feels good to play. All are tight, well-animated, and fluid, contributing to slick gameplay. This is actually quite odd considering the reduced movement speed and the lack of running. It’s this slower movement that turns fights in MK11 into these methodical, resource-heavy encounters that are way more tense than MK9 or MKX. Pretty good! Like those that came before it, MK11 has a large collection of diverse characters to choose from. There are 24 base game characters along with 9 more DLC fighters. Each one is well designed and unique enough to justify its inclusion. In terms of content, the single-player campaign is honestly amazing. It’s short, sweet, and satisfying. The cutscenes are surprisingly well animated (the faces especially), and the plot is entertaining. There’s also the mandatory single-player and multi-player offerings you’d expect in a fighter. Everything is looking good so far.

Presentation is where MK11 really does it for me. Everything has been polished up and given a new face. All assets, from the characters to the stages to the soundtrack, have all been improved across the board. This, coupled with the more fluid gameplay, makes spectating MK11 into a joy. Fights are also bookended by an excellent intro and closing cutscenes, effects, and transitions. This is a pretty well-presented experience. This game only came out a few months ago, but I can confidently say that MK11 is the best-balanced MK game on release. I have no real issues with the balance; tier lists are being updated as of Winter 2019, and I expect any balance issues to be ironed out. Finally, developer creativity is much more visible in MK11 than any other contemporary MK release. There are a handful of new fatal blows, finishers, and brutal knockback moves that make for a game where you can really express yourself. I know I’ve always wanted to roleplay kicking someone’s spine straight out from under them using with one swift kick to the groin as a female police officer. Thank you, NeatherRealm.

III: Street Fighter

“As soon as I joined the team, I was told, “Draw a Spanish ninja. Could also be a Thai ninja.” I had just started work on the Thai ninja when I was told again, “Let’s go with Spanish. Think of the first guy that appeared from the Land of Asura in Fist of the ***** Star,” so I made my design from there.” —Mizuho “Katuragi” Kageyama, Street Fighter II character designer

I’m just gonna say it: I’m the fucking worst at Street Fighter. I’ve practiced and I’ve read the forums and I’ve watched the YouTube videos. I just can’t win; I suspect small children could whoop my adult-ass with freaking Dan. But, I won’t let that stop me from enjoying watching others play it. I’m not sure if a reviewer must qualify their review with competence, but damned if I don’t try!

It’s important to remember that SF games are typically released on arcades (usually, before they grace home consoles and PC), so their initial releases are typically barebones and stripped-down. These games initially release with a handful of characters, a versus mode, and online play. Single-player arcade ladders, campaigns, and bonus party modes aren’t included unless the arcades demanded it. They’re patched and re-released later on with an appropriate amount of content. My personal opinion is that a game that releases on home consoles and PC should already be feature-full if they’re releasing it for full-ish price but that’s just me. What do I know, Capcom.

III.I: Ultra Street Fighter 4 (2014)

This was the first Street Fighter game I had ever played. Coming from MK, I was thoroughly confused by the blocking mechanism. I truly had no idea how to successfully block attacks, and as a result, I got my twink ass handed to me by every rando online. A few forum posts later, and I’m jumping up and down, blocking left-right-and-center. Getting the hang of directional blocking opened me up to a literal treasure trove of other fighters; it turns out MK misleads me to think that every other fighter would have a dedicated block button…

USF4 felt like a more fluid, dynamic game than MK9 (I began playing them both around the same time). It’s a shame I couldn’t get the hang of blocking in those early years or else I’d have played a lot less MK9. Characters move, attack, and defend tightly and responsively, and their animations are clear and attractive. Nothing to complain about. Content variety is fine. It has everything I expect in a fighter: an assortment of single-player, multi-player, and versus modes along with bonus challenges and extras. In terms of its roster, it has 44 characters which all feel unique-enough. Each one has exaggerated proportions, a whacky catchphrase, and a set of fun moves. I can’t stress how goofy some of these bozos look. Blanka looks like the Hulk’s weird brother. Poison is the first trans character I’ve ever played in a video game3, so that’s something.

The game is goofy & playful and presents itself as such. Colours are all vibrant, poses are all exaggerated, and movements are all sloppy (in a good way). This game looks like what I imagine a kid sees when they smash two action figures together. Balance is pretty good, I think. I’ve seen dozens of tournaments. Each tournament seemingly has a different fighter taking home the gold, so that probably means most characters can win tournaments. I’d say the game’s creativity is in its visuals and art style. It’s just so pretty to look at. Even the particle effects are stylized. In a world of modern military shooters and hyper-realistic combat simulators, some colour is always welcome. Most screenshots of the game might as well be 3D renders of concept art.

III.II: Street Fighter V (2016)

SFV really upset me. I can’t think of another release that pushes all my buttons the way SFV did. In-game ads? Check! An in-game currency that’s skewed intending to get players to buy characters through the shop? Check! An initial lack of content, with re-releases that contain the complete game? Check! I can keep going for another thousand words, but honestly, that’s not what this mega mix is all about. I’ll try to keep the review focused on the game itself.

The game plays pretty well. It feels like they iterated atop all the good that SF4 implemented. Characters feel tight, fun, and flashy. Movement, combos, and tech all look and feel great, and I can’t really pick apart anything I dislike. The roster, however, is another story. Now, SF games always release for the arcades first, so it’s (partially) excusable that it lacks many single-player and extra modes that most other games have made mainstream. What I found fairly inexcusable was that SFV released with 16 characters. SF has an insane roster of characters, so it was a bit strange that they only decide to release a small subset of them initially. DLC has about doubled that number, a release tactic that Capcom has normalized. I’m not a fan, but if you’re patient, you can pick up the Definitive/Complete edition of the game a few years after release. Those that were included were given well-rounded movesets, covering a good variety of playstyles. Everyone feels unique enough, I guess. Content variety gets a solid thumbs-down from me. Initial console and PC releases were as barebones as Capcom could reasonably publish, with content updates and re-releases (including a re-release which included an actual arcade mode) over time. Again, not a fan of this kind of release procedure, so SFV gets a huge, turgid “boo” from Michael Bassili. They should be ashamed.

The game presents itself alright; nothing too flashy, nothing too crazy. Combos look a little flashier now, which has to count for something. The training modes are fairly well-presented too. Balance is harder to quantify with SFV than others. Every new DLC character needs balance patches. Every new mode needs balance patches. Every re-release gets balance patches. The best thing I can say is that the base version of SFV was pretty well-balanced. Most other SF games release with top-tiers that dominate the rest of the roster, so it’s refreshing to know that I won’t get my twink ass handed to me by Zangief or Machida. In terms of creativity, Capcom gets another fat “boo” from me. Nothing worth mentioning, in my humble opinion. I guess SFV has more input lag, which is something. I wouldn’t call input lag “creative” but seeing as how Capcom didn’t ship the game with an arcade mode, I don’t really have much to review here. Fine fighter, a piss-poor value proposition for consumers.

SFV is also a “service-based game” which demands a player’s daily attention to grind Fight Money. Again, I don’t like this sort of stuff. If Capcom was a dog, I’d be hitting it with a rolled-up newspaper.

III.III: Street Fighter II (All Of Them, Damnit)

A classic six-times over, SF2 remains one of the tightest fighters out there. It somehow remains timeless despite its look, features, and feel. It’s weird; it’s one of the few classic retro games that have aged especially well. It doesn’t do anything offensively, and it’s not all that special nowadays. It’s pure. There’s something to it that demands your respect.

The game is five years older than me, but it plays as good as some contemporary releases. Capcom struck gold with SF2. Every character is crisp, tight, and responsive. Movement is flashy but restrained. A masterclass. Anybody looking to make a 2D fighter nowadays should take notes. There are only around 12 fighters (depending on the version you pick up), but each one is completely unique, both in appearance and in playstyle. No redundancy. Every playstyle is present and well-represented. However, this being a game from the early 90s, it doesn’t bring the trove of single-player, multi-player, and bonus modes modern players have come to expect and demand. That’s not a knock on the game, however. These older titles were meant first-and-foremost to be in-person arcade titles. A local versus mode is all they needed. More contemporary re-releases brought arcade and multiplayer modes along with them, which helps this game stay relevant almost thirty years later. It’s small-ish roster also draws from the fact that (a) this was an arcade title from the 90s and (b) that this game was the first of a whole new wave of fighters going forward.

It’s presentation also suffers due to its age. Old arcade cabinets were what players saw first, so it’s safe to assume 90s Capcom didn’t try to dazzle them with the in-game presentation. That would’ve been the wrong way to market their title. Again, modern re-releases have brought the title to a more adequate level of presentation and fanfare. Now, balance is where SF2 stands out. A small roster makes it easier to balance your game. Surprisingly, SFV also benefited from this (as I mentioned above). Creativity, again, suffers from the game’s age. However, SF2 was incredibly influential for the development of the genre4. Its design inspired three decades of fighting game developers in the way of controls, characters, moves, combos, etcetera. SF2 is the giant all subsequent fighters stood atop of. Without SF2, the fighting game landscape might not have developed into the phenomenon it is today.

IV: Soulcalibur

“Weapon variety, weapon portfolio – that really became a very important part of the roster selection process. In terms of the volume, of course, there’s always resources and development cycle considerations that we have to abide by – but I don’t actually think more is necessarily better.” —Motohiro Okubo, Soulcalibur VI producer

Every few years, a Soulcalibur game is released. People talk about it for a while, they praise it, they call it their favourite fighter of the year. And then it’s never spoken of again. I don’t know why that it; one of the first fighters I ever played was Soulcalibur 4 on my old XBOX 360. I remember feeling disappointed that other fighting games didn’t incorporate the third dimension into their gameplay. I still think highly of the Soulcalibur series, but I won’t lie and say I hold it above any other fighter on the market right now. The main gimmicks SC brings to the table is its robust character creation engine and its RPG-ish weapon mechanics. You can make absolute monstrosities, a feature I always appreciate in my fighting games. You can also change up weapons and equipment on your fighter, which is definitely something unique.

IV.I: Soulcalibur IV (2008)

I love Soulcalibur, despite my comment about how forgetful this series is. I don’t think I’m all that wrong, though. SC games aren’t as talked about as Tekken or Mortal Kombat; they’re almost a nice series within a niche genre, like some sort of niche-stromboli. Despite all that, I hold SC4 in high regard. It was a breath of fresh air! A third dimension! Weapons! Character creation! Little baby-Michael played this thing all day and all night (when I would get bored with MK9, or when religious friends came over). Looking online, I don’t see much love for SC4 anymore, which is a shame.

SC4 suffers from the same problem MK9 did: all characters feel stiff and look like tall, floppy brick walls. I suspect it’s a constraint of the times, but it nevertheless makes spectating SC4 look kind of janky. Roster diversity is good, featuring a variety of characters across varying playstyles, personalities, weapons, and appearances. Since weapons are a part of combat, your character will also have a hand on deciding your playstyle. A list containing the weapons characters can use highlights the high variance in character builds. Content variety is also good. There’s a healthy mix of single-player, versus, and multi-player modes. It also includes a Museum option, a feature/extra I wish more games had. I love looking at concept art and B.T.S. information.

The game’s presentation is dated, but fine. Menus are nice, combos and effects are reasonably flashy, etc. Nothing wild; good for 2008. Balance is pretty good across the board, except for Hilde’s Doom Combo which can take you from 0% to ring-out in a few seconds. It’s honestly insane! Just watch the combo and tell me that’s not a problem. Other characters are fairly well balanced, in my opinion. I never complained during a single-player. In terms of creativity, the character creator deserves massive praise. Watching my genetic abomination murder someone else’s generic abomination will never get old. I’d say this is a pretty solid fighter and an even better Sims competitor.

IV.II: Soulcalibur VI (2018)

The most recent SC game is very-okay. I like it a lot, but I’m confident it will fade away into obscurity again within a few years. While it’s character creator can make disgusting creatures not worthy of life, the combat and modes on offer haven’t evolved much since the last game I played, ten years ago.

Lighting-round! Gameplay feels a lot tighter and more flashy than SF4, making it more fun to both watch and play. The roster remains diverse, whacky, interesting, and accepting. Plus, the character creator can make any creature you want, lending the roster a sense of possibility and potential. The content remains varied, including all of the essential fighting game features, modes, and elements.

Presentation got an upgrade, thankfully looking a lot flashier and cleaner than SC4. Nothing too wild. The game’s balanced, but not perfectly. It’s not as bad as Soulcalibur V, but it’s not the greatest. (I didn’t review SC5 because it looked pretty much the exact same as SC4). Sophitia, for example, can lock opponents into long stun combos where the only out is death. It actually feels like a lot of characters lack enough frames to be punished after attacking. These kinds of things can easily be patched out. I’m crossing my fingers for some definitive edition of SC6 with all the DLC and a bunch of essential balance patches. Finally, the character creation engine deserves much praise for being even weirder than SC4. You can make anything, from Donkey Kong to various Pokemon! It’s like Smash, but so much weirder.

V: Super Smash Bros.

“Providing accurate portrayals of characters is something I want to pay ample attention to. If I don’t stick to that thought, then we’d have to lower the quality or break the balance of the game. Something that goes way off spec could break the entire game.” —Masahiro Sakurai, Smash Brothers Director

The king of casual-competitive fighters, Smash has been alive and kicking in the professional scene since Melee. I came into it on the 3DS, but I’ve since travelled back to play some of these fighters for this review. The only I couldn’t bring myself to touch was the original Smash Bros. on the N64. It looks way too clunky and archaic for my modern sensibilities. Forgive me, Lords of EVO.

V.I: Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001)

Listen. I’m afraid to talk about this game in public. Every quirk, every game-breaking exploit has been found, documented, and used to win an EVO tournament. I’ve seen like ten YouTube videos on different sets of Melee bugs-turned-tricks. There’s literally nothing more I can say about Melee. It’s an iconic fighter turned competitive queen. Every university student living in a dorm has at least one copy of Melee lying around. Anything positive I say about the game will be shot down by full-time Melee players; anything negative I say will be shot down by Sakurai-san himself. I can’t win here. If it helps, try reading this review in Jerry Seinfeld’s voice. Nobody hates Jerry, not even Newman. (Side-note: I’m well aware Newman hated Jerry, but I was making a joke. I’m very afraid of upsetting the Melee community. Please don’t hurt me. I’m just a humble games journalist.)

Melee feels fantastic. Everyone plays fast, tight, and responsive. Tech and combos are all interesting and visually defined. This is a magnificent fighter to play. Simply moving around with the roster is fun on its own right; I think they struck gameplay gold with Melee. In terms of the roster, Melee brings out the big guns. 26 characters across Nintendo’s catalogue, including Mario, Donkey Kong, and Mewtwo. If you’ve ever played a video game, you’d probably be able to identify at least one character in Melee. Pretty much everyone is diverse and interesting to play. Clone characters like Dr. Mario and Young Link are a bit odd to me (why not just have them listed as a different skin), but it’s nothing to complain about. Content is oozing out the turgid stomach of Melee. Single-player, multi-player, and versus modes galore! Tons of bonus content as well! In fact, all of the Smash games have an exquisite amount of content, so I’ll refrain from repeating myself in this section.

Everything is presented in a fun, whacky way. The announcer yells each character’s name like they’re on fire; the menus and UI are funky and neat. Overall, this is a fun game with a fun visual style. Attacks and blocks are all visualized clearly, making Melee’s gameplay clear and polished. In terms of balance, the game is fine. There are some issues, like how Mr. Game & Watch’s head is exposed when he shields. Also, his aerials can’t be L-canceled, which is… fun. However, overall Melee feels balanced enough for competitive play. Finally, creativity is dripping from this bad boy. The very idea of different Nintendo characters getting together and beating the shit out of each other is magic. (Again, all of the Smash games get points for creativity because their nature is quite creative already. Smash is basically cheating here.)

V.II: Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008)

While Brawl isn’t as competitively viable as Melee or Ultimate, it still stands as a fun, creative fighter in its own right. It has all the charm and execution one would expect from Smash up till now. There’s a lot of review-overlap between all the Smash games, so it’s time for another Lighting Round!

Gameplay is slower and far more sluggish than Melee or Ultimate. It makes the moment-to-moment stuff far less tense and interesting, but it’s not a disaster or anything. Brawl feels like a more methodical fighter, and as a result, it might actually end up being a better casual fighter. Like all Smash games, the roster, and content variety are top. They’re the bee’s knees; they’re smash-ing!

Again, like all Smash games, its presentation, balance, and creativity are still there. This is still a Smash game, and that means it’s balanced to high-heck, presented fairly well, and as creative as this review is terse. Plus, now non-Nintendo characters are playable! Solid Snake, my crush, is now a playable Smash fighter! My underwear can only get so wet. My big complaint with Brawl is that it came out on the Wii, meaning it looked like ass. A lot of Wii games, such as Mario Kart Wii and Super Mario Galaxy, are all rendered super fuzzy and blurry. It must be a symptom of the Wii’s rendering power or something, but regardless, it makes Brawl look worse than Melee despite it coming out 7 years later. It’s easy for me to point my finger at an old console from my high-horse, but it’s honestly one of the only things I really dislike about the game.

V.III: Super Smash Bros. for 3DS/WiiU (2014)

Welcome back, picture clarity! It feels good to have you with us! Smash 4, as I’ll be referring to it from now on, is a solid fighter and a worthy representative on the WiiU/3DS. This is actually the first Smash game I ever owned, picking it up on my 3DS. Street Smash was a magical experience. I also discovered that I could no longer main Ice Climbers, which hurt more than I’d like to admit.

We’re also back to slick, fast gameplay! Thank you, Sakurai-san! Smash 4 feels tight-tight-tight! Even on my lowly 3DS, Smash 4 played extremely well, potentially signalling a return to viable competitive play. Just like all Smash games, the roster and content variety is exceptional. One thing I loved doing was to pit four level-9 Toon Links against one another, 5-minutes with no stock. It’s how I spent my summers.

And just like all the other Smash games, it’s presented well, balanced well, and is highly creative. Since this game was released on both the WiiU and the 3DS, I guess I’d recommend buying it for the WiiU. While they both play equally as well, the game looks and runs a whole lot better on the WiiU. However, don’t take that as a slight against the 3DS release; the portable version of Smash 4 will always hold a somewhat special place in my heart, right next to all the other junk my heart carries around for me.

V.IV: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (2018)

What else is there to say about Smash Ultimate? Every living life-form on this planet has already sung this game’s praises. It has a fuck-ton of characters, a shit-ton of stages, and a god-damned earful of tracks. It will be totally impossible to top this game going forward (my sympathies, Sakurai-san).

I’ve played Smash Ultimate for almost a hundred hours now, and I’m still discovering new stages and tracks. This is the first Switch game that earns its CAD$80 price tag (I’m jealous of you Americans who still pay USD$60 for a video game). The people behind Smash Ultimate seemingly did the impossible; they added everything possible to the game. Roster diversity and content diversity get a straight A+ from me. There isn’t a bone in my body that could ask for more… and they STILL added more through DLC! Calm down, Sakurai-san. I can’t handle this much quality content! Of course, the fluidity of gameplay is fantastic. Smash is the only fighting game that basically doubles as a co-op platformer, stage-depending. Characters jump and dash and roll and side-step all the time, creating these wild matches where players will be competing for weakest knees.

The whole package is surprisingly straightforward to consume, from a player’s point of view. The presentation is easy to parse, which is a marvel considering the amount of content on offer here. Content variety is out of this world, as well. More single-player, multi-player, and tournament modes than you can shake a stick at. Now, I stand by the opinion that the balance of characters in Smash Ultimate is very good. For a game with 74 characters (excluding DLC), it’s a fucking miracle that a few characters don’t overpower the rest. Most characters are an even match, and the top-tiers, like Joker and Pichu, don’t take much to counter. Balance patches keep rolling out, however, so this isn’t set in stone just yet. Check out the highly-dynamic tier list for the game whenever a patch rolls out. Honestly, even the E-tier characters like Kirby can put up a good fight, assuming the player knows what they’re doing. Overall, an instant classic that makes every other game look bad.

VI: Tekken

“We realized the audience was quite segmented. There were the hardcore players who liked the competitive elements, but also a very casual audience as well. Some people were only interested in the story.” —Katsuhiro Harada, Tekken series producer

Wanna hear a secret? I actually forgot Tekken existed until just now. It doesn’t matter how passionately professionals rave about the newest entry, I just never hear this series spoken about in the mainstream. And, that’s no indication of quality. The Tekken games, as I’ve recently found out, are marvels. They’re the 3D fighting game series, blending semi-realism with depth-based movement and impactful combat. I just wish I had played one of these fighters earlier in my life. I may have never settled with MK9 if I knew about Tekken 6 on the XBOX 360.

VI.I: Tekken 6 (2007)

While Tekken is the most “realistic” of the fighters on this list, it still feels fluid and tight. Where other games like MK let fighters leap over one another, Tekken keeps them low, opting instead to have fighters strafe around each other. This makes Tekken matches look and feel deeper than most other fighters. (Deeper in the sense that there is more depth in any given match, as flying over opponents isn’t allowed.) There are a ton of playable fighters, all with different movesets and mechanics. Armor King’s pro-wrestling throws and offensive fighting style differs from Bob’s offensive style, with Bob being faster, stronger, and well-equipped for ranged battle. The strong showing of diverse characters opens up worlds of matchup possibilities. The content variety on display is pretty great, too. There’s a wealth of single-player, multi-player, and versus modes to keep you busy indefinitely. The training modes are good too, essential for a 3D-casual like myself who needed to learn to stick low and strafe wide. Tekken is still an arcade-sweetheart, so this begs me to ask why Capcom finds it acceptable to release arcade titles on consoles without any supplementary modes…

The game is presented about as well as a late-2000s fighter can be presented. It looks fine, hitconfirms and blocks look great, and the music is pretty stellar. Tournament results confirm my suspicion that everyone is fairly well-balanced. In terms of creativity, Tekken 6 gets points just for being a Tekken game. I.e. it gets points for being a 3D fighter where strafing replaces jumping over opponents. Characters and stages in T6 are also pretty wild and fun, so I guess I’m satisfied with the level of creativity in this title. Good job, Bandai Namco.

VI.II: Tekken 7 (2015)

More good things to come. Tekken 7 feels like an overall upgrade to T6, from graphics to gameplay, to everything in between. (Man, I’m running out of fun transitional phrases…) The stand-out feature of T7 is the sublime story mode, which saw me putting in way too much time and effort. I think I’m a sucker for a corny fighting game story, so colour me elated.

Gameplay feels better than ever, in my opinion. Strong hits freeze-frame for a half-second to really hit home their impact. Strafing feels way more fluid, making it seem like these characters are slipping and sliding around one another. The impressive roster is still here, now with Akuma of Street Fighter-fame. He actually plays an integral part of the story this time around, which makes the fighting game scene feel like a small world, in a good way. Content variety still pleases me. Nothing new to write home about; I’d say I’m satisfied.

This time around, presentation has been kicked up a notch. Every impact lands like a nuclear bomb. Every stomp of the foot or slam from a throw feels massive, lending to the sense of weight these characters have. The lack of a high jump also contributes to this feeling… Again, balance seems alright this time around. Tournament results are still varied, and I never felt like I was getting my ass tossed like a salad in single-player. All good things. Finally, creativity has also been suped-up! Cutscenes fade semi-organically into gameplay, movements are far more visually stunning, and the whole package is well showcased to the player. This is my favourite Tekken title.

VII: Dead or Alive

“If you remember the debut trailer of DEAD OR ALIVE 5, it was Hayate versus Hayabusa in the Shibuya stage. It showed two male characters in a very serious battle situation. We wanted to show the evolution of realism from DEAD OR ALIVE 4. After that, we started showing the female characters and the rest of the elements of the game.” —Yutaka Saito, Dead or Alive 6 art director

Okay, I admit it. The only reason I know this series exists is because of their sexy volleyball spinoffs. Happy now? I didn’t know the volleyball games were spinoffs of fighters until just last year! Can you believe it never came up? For a series that’s been spitting out titles pretty regularly since the 90s, I’m pretty upset that I haven’t played any of them. Until now.

VII.I: Dead or Alive 5 Last Round (2015)

Dead or Alive 5 feels like a faster play than Tekken, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. While DoA’s speed and finesse outdoes Tekken, it thoroughly lacks the impact and spectacle that a good Tekken match provides.

Again, gameplay feels a lot faster than Tekken 6 or 7, but it lacks that impactful crash that comes with massive moves. Regardless, DoA5 makes it work, with responsive, tight controls and wrestling-style throws. It feels a bit worse to play than say Tekken 6, but it’s not terrible. Just different. The roster is turgid and vast, including characters from Virtua Fighter as well. Everyone feels fine to play, and they all seem to stand out from their competition. Content variety is fine, with a fully-animated story mode (which I adore), competitive modes, and training. All good things; nothing really stands out here.

The game’s presented pretty weakly when compared to other fighters of that era. Everything looks, sounds, and feels about a notch less-impressive than Tekken 6 or MK9/X. It makes DoA feel like a budget fighter. The sexy volleyball games are presented better than the fighting games they’re spinning off from! Balance is fine, but some characters are a bit unfair. Alpha-152, for example, has crazy strong attacks but some of the weakest defences of all the fighters, leading to inexperienced players getting their asses handed to them if they play defensively. Her crit combo is easy to execute and will easy dominate players without a strategy. She’s light, however, so she can be launched and juggled much easier than the rest. All this makes her easy to play against casuals, but impossible to win with should a mildly-skilled player approach. Lastly, creativity is fine. You can smash through walls on some stages which help the playspace feel dynamic. But, it’s no match for the creativity of Tekken or MK. It’s pretty average.

VII.II: Dead or Alive 6 (2019)

DoA6 took the series in a dark, edgy direction. It kind of feels and plays like Mortal Kombat but without the fatalities. This lends it some creativity and presentation points, mostly for making it feel like something substantial is happening on screen. I guess my biggest complaint of DoA5 was that is was so flaccid and bland. DoA6 has a little more charm, a little more personality, and a lot more substance than its predecessor.

Gameplay still feels faster than Tekken while lacking impact. However this time around, things do feel more substantial and impactful, which is nice. Rolls and strafes feel tight, and combos are flashier. Character variety is still good. You can customize characters before fighting, making the game stand out just one notch more than before. All playstyles are still present and accounted for. Nothing new here. Content variety is still sharp, bringing all the modes you’ve come to expect in a contemporary release. Training mode is good, and the story is still great. In fact, the story mode is probably my favourite part of this game; I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I’m happy.

Presentation has seen a good jump since the last title, with hits and throws looking just a bit more flashy and impactful. Music and overall spectacle is still less-impressive than Tekken, but it’s now more in-line with its contemporaries. This game just came out, so I can’t say anything about its balance. Patches are constantly coming out, listing hundreds of minute changes to everybody. As of Jan 01, 2019, everyone feels fine to me (but, pro players definitely have their quarrels). Finally, the edge brings some much-needed creativity to the series. Character customization is good too. The game feels less like a novice attempt and more like a worthy competitor to games like Tekken and Soulcalibur.

VIII: The King of Fighters

“Our main concept for the battle system and worldview about SNK Heroines was that you could laugh a lot, whether you win or lose. It could be a similar concept with party games or when you watch professional wrestling.” —Yasuyuki Oda, The King of Fighters XIV producer

The name says it all. This series has been a favourite of mine since… well, I never grew up with them, so I guess since I played them a few years back? In any case, I’m still super into KoF. I mainly play the older titles, but I have some love for the newer entries too. Terry will always look better in 2D to me, though. It’s a shame KoF isn’t as popular as it once was, in my opinion. I think Street Fighter has eclipsed KoF in a major way, and I’m doubtful that KoF can make any sort of cultural comeback. Regardless, these are some slick fighters.

You may be asking why I’m reviewing the KoF games before the Fatal Fury games. While sure, the FF games came before the KoF games, and characters from FF were brought into the fold of KoF. The reality here is that I messed up the ordering of my review items in my Markdown document, and it’s an immense pain in my ass to rearrange them. I have hyperlinks and TOC entries and a whole flow that I simply cannot toss to the side for the sake of “rational ordering” or “sensible list hierarchy.” If this offends you, I’d like to remind you that I didn’t call Smash Melee the best Smash game, which is illegal by decree of the UN.

VIII.I: The King of Fighters ‘94 (1994)

KoF ‘94 is a classic. It’s also an arcade game that’s older than me, so there’s that. My first thoughts were of its art style. Specifically, how amazing this thing looks. It completely outshines most contemporary sprite art fighters with its magical, flashy sprite work and fluid animations. This game sets the bar for visual fidelity, one that its own sequels fail to meet. It’s also a simple, fun-as-heck fighter. No mess, no fuss.

For a game that came out in 1994, the animations are on point. Every move, every interaction is gloriously rendered. Every hit and every block is clean, crisp, and tight. It’s crazy how well Kof ‘94 did sprite work. Roster diversity is a different story entirely. You select from teams of 3 fighters, all from different countries. The odd thing is that you can’t change the team up in any way. This does a few things. First, it means you need to figure out matchups between groups of three instead of individuals (less work than 3v3 matchups in games like FighterZ, more work than SF2). Since you choose from preset teams, you need to balance the pros of one fighter with the cons of another. It makes for some surprisingly complex matches for a game that came out in the mid-90s. Content variety is a solid “meh,” as it came out in an arcade. As I’ve mentioned before, arcade releases are barebones and to-the-point. No complaints there, really.

As an arcade title, the game isn’t as flashy or as heavy on the presentation as console fighters, which is fine. Can’t harp on an arcade title for not being a console title. Balance is pretty solid across the board. Characters like Goro are a weak-as-shit, but he’s carried by Kyo and Benimaru. Whenever I had quarrels with a single character in KoF ‘94, their team would make up for it. I believe that in this case (no individual matches), it might be best to have deliberately nerfed fighters if that contributes to a more well-rounded team composition. In any case, I think the teams are all balanced fairly well. KoF ‘94 gets points for creativity simply by having matches involve 3v3, with teams being representatives from across the globe. It’s like an Olympic-esque contest between countries, all sending their best fighters into the ring. Neat!

VIII.II: The King of Fighters ‘99 (1999)

Many years have passed, the fan-favourite KoF ‘98 has been released, and I’m but a small child. While I was busy being potty trained, the developers of KoF ‘99 were hard at work improving every single aspect of the KoF experience. Teams now bring a fourth support character into fights, lending a great deal more complexity to matchups.

Gameplay and roster diversity are both still good. The graphics have been upgraded substantially, and moment-to-moment gameplay has become tighter and flashier. The decade has proven generous. You can now pick your team of 3 fighters, plus a single support fighter that can be used in battle. This brings the number of possible matchups to a crazy-high level. I’d be lying if I said I remembered a single good matchup in my 30+ hours of play. A lot is going on, leading to a high amount of replay value. Content variety is still on-point for a fighting game.

The game’s presentation has seen an upgrade. UI and sound design have gotten good, and the stages all feel substantial and sexy. Spritework is still top-notch, too. Individual fighter balance has improved since weak fighters are no longer strapped to a pre-determined team. You have to account for players making weird low-tier teams, so nobody feels too weak or strong. Although, Terry feels like an absolute tank, for some reason. Finally, KoF ‘99 gets some more creativity points for letting you create your own teams. It also gets some additional points for its support character system.

VIII.III: The King of Fighters XIV (2016)

This game does not look good. There, I said it. That’s a disappointment, considering it looked breathtaking in 1994. Remember when Sonic made the switch to 3D? How all of his games looked so… odd, blocky, yet fuzzy at the same time? I suspect the KoF developers brought the art directors from Sonic 3D Blast to help make KoF XIV…

Attack animations, blocks, and everything in-between look like dog shit. Massive hits look like mere slaps; slides look like trips. Everything looks so very weak for some reason. Nothing looks impactful. As a result, everyone feels worse to play than they did just one decade earlier. The roster holds up, still allowing for these crazy-dynamic mashups. Every fight feels varied and exciting. Content variety has gone up due to it being released on an actual console. There are fully-rendered cutscenes (that look leagues better than the actual fighting) and enough modes to satisfy the mainstream console player.

Presentation is a little better, a little worse. The fighting is absolutely the weakest link here. It looks likes toddlers fighting on the playground. Everything that isn’t gameplay looks a lot better. Balance is pretty consistent across the board; you’ll see a good breadth of fighters reaching high-levels in tournaments (unlike KoF XIII which saw Team Karate cleaning house). Finally, there’s not a lot of creativity flowing through this game. Characters have a great deal more charisma and charm this time around, but there’s nothing that really makes this game stand out. I’ve never heard anybody talk about this game in public, so I assume I’m not the only one who feels this way. It’s a pretty forgettable fighter, and I regret all 20 hours I spent playing it. I’d much rather be playing literally anything else.

IX: Fatal Fury

“My biggest contribution was pushing for the eight-directional joystick and six buttons. But initially, I created a cabinet that used pressure-sensor mechanics. At the time, Capcom didn’t have any experience making large arcade machines, only tabletop games, and we had a mission to make a large machine. So we worked with Atari to make a punching bag where the game used pressure-sensor mechanics to measure the player’s punch strength.” —Takashi Nishiyama, Fatal Fury creator

As the precursor to KoF, how could I not love Fatal Fury? I don’t really have much to say about this series. It was short-lived yet highly influential. The character of Terry Bogard was just released as DLC for Smash Ultimate, so it’s safe to say the FF legacy has endured, even if their games haven’t. I’ve also made the grave mistake of reviewing these after KoF, so… let’s take a time machine!

IX.I: Fatal Fury Special (1993)

A quality classic, FFS is as old-school as it was influential. It came in the era of SF2, where fighters were taking off in arcades, and the potential for creativity was exceptionally high. FFS doesn’t do anything crazy, just enough. It came out in a special time where being a good fighter was enough. It was different. Modern sensibilities may scoff at the gameplay of FFS, but for the sea of fighting game developers-to-come, FFS was another example of this new and popular genre called the “fighting game.”

For 1993, the gameplay was great. (Now, not so much.) Everything has this thick layer of jank which never quite disappears. Spritework is crisp and colourful, but the animations aren’t quite there yet. Everyone plays super stiff, and the number of movement and attack frames is far less than what we’re used to now. Roster diversity is fine; there are tons of great characters here. From the distance-closing Terry to the close-gamed Big Bear/Raiden. Everyone feels necessary. As for content variety, this was an arcade title, so there wasn’t much more than a versus mode, which is fine.

Presentation was great for 1993. The announcer, the maps, the stages, the hit confirms. Everything was on point, important for such a formative game. The charm and overall quality of presentation would be passed down to KoF later on. Characters feel pretty well-balanced, with a few quirks. I found I would be able to stunlock many beefy characters with Terry’s dash attacks. But, I can’t see any real issues with the roster. In terms of creativity, FFS allowed players to fight in both the foreground and the background. This is creative, but I suspect there’s a reason it didn’t stay in the mainstream. I found it annoying and tedious to switch between the planes. In theory, it makes the game look like it’s got much more depth than it actually has, what with being a 2D fighter and all. In reality, it’s a gimmick that I dislike more than I like. One benefit of this foreground-background switching was that it was much harder to stay stunlocked, as you could always swap planes should you become stuck. You win some and you lose some.

IX.II: Real Bout Fatal Fury (1995)

RBFF is a peak-90s fighter for me. It has just enough style, charm, and personality to make it stand out without being overbearing. It might not be as well-regarded as SF2, but I stand by RBFF as one of my favourite fighters from this generation. RBFF also introduced Ring Outs! They are easy to pull off, which is both a good and a bad thing. It’s trivial to push your opponent out of the ring, but the same goes for you. Unlike Soulcalibur, which prevents your character from straight walking off the stage, RBFF is content to just let you take the easy way out.

Attack animations are crisp. Everyone feels tight and responsive to play. RBFF finds a healthy middle ground between sloshy movement animations and overall responsiveness. There are enough characters to keep the game interesting, but not enough to justify a console release. However, for an arcade title, both the roster diversity and content variety are serviceable. Every character feels unique enough to justify its inclusion.

The game’s got the presentation of an arcade title, which is to say it’s completely fine. Characters feel well balanced too. My one overall complaint is that characters with dash attacks feel more susceptible to launching themselves out of the ring than less-mobile fighters. People like Terry and Chonshu can fly off the stage at a moments notice, a feat more frustrating than impressive. Finally, the game gets some points for creativity by keeping the foreground-background hopping mechanic. Stages also change their appearance as the match progresses, and you are tasked with fighting 3 opponents on the same stage. It feels like a middle ground between the team dynamics of KoF and the personal vendettas of SF. Overall, a solid game.

X: Guilty Gear

“One of the goals for Guilty Gear is achieving high-quality graphics. Specifically, on that point, the Nintendo Switch might not be a good match, but that’s not our final conclusion. We’re still working on that.” —Daisuke Ishiwatari, Guilty Gear creator

The poster child for anime fighters, Guilty Gear occupies a weird space in the fighting game scene. It’s a cult classic, amassing a small army of devout players. It’s faltered here and there. But, Guilty Gear lives on, both through its spiritual successor BlazBlue and its cult following. It’s also a marvel to watch; I’d recommend checking out a Guilty Gear tournament’s final few matches to see some impressive animations and visuals.

X.I: Guilty Gear (1998)

We finally get around to talking about my favourite sub-genre of fighting games: the anime fighter. Guilty Gear is flashy, bombastic, and slick-as-hell. Spectating GG is like watching old Dragon Ball cartoons. It’s like smashing your action figures together. It’s a breath of fresh air. Everything is steeped in this cocktail of sexy action and rewarding combat. You feel like a rockstar playing GG.

Every character feels like the main character in some action anime. Moves are satisfying to pull off, rewarding to watch play out, and as responsive as possible. To top it all off, the game is fast. Real fast. It makes KoF and FF look like they’re being played at half-speed. Every character has a completely unique appearance and moveset. You can tell the designers really had some fun creating them. It’s as if the Guilty Gear developers reached back through time and asked my younger self for design ideas. This game is just leaking visual charm. Now, while this game came out on the original PlayStation, it still lacks a little here-and-there. It does, however, have a training mode, arcade mode, and versus mode, which is all an early console player expected.

Presentation is off the charts. The whole game, from the UI, to the hits, to the windups, look like they were pulled from a kid’s cartoon (in a totally good way). If you had a younger sibling, they’d be perfectly content watching you play Guilty Gear. It’s just that good-looking. Balance is fairly good, although ranged characters like Axl allow for stunlocking across great distances. The nice thing about GG, however, is that the movement is fast enough to make breaking out of those stunlocks a little bit easier. Finally, creativity is completely on point. I think I’m biased towards media that’s different enough from the real world. I guess I want the media I consume to be different from what I experience all the time. With that in mind, I adore GG’s charm and style. Metal music blares over these two speedy, deadly action-movie heroes as they dash around one another in a frenzy. If you don’t like the cut of Guilty Gear’s gib, I’m confident in saying you also don’t like fun.

X.II: Guilty Gear X (2000)

Arc System Works really brought their A-game in 2000. Everything that made GG great in 1998 was turned up to 11. Better movement, better visuals, better sound, better tech. It’s all so very good. You can tell that ASW found its niche in the fighting game scene. Arc System Works games are all about closing the gap and punishing hard. They’re about flashy, spectacular combat and stylish presentations. They’re what I consider “fun.”

Movement is on another level here. Closing the gap fast lets you lock your opponent into this mega-ultra-suplex combo that sends them soaring into the stratosphere. Everyone feels so good to play, it puts all early 90’s fighters to shame. (Not really, though. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and the Arc System Works games are no exception. They feel like the next logical step from the early KoF games, which is crazy considering people don’t even talk about The King of Fighters anymore.) The roster is still as diverse as ever, and now there are a ton more modes for play.

The game’s presentation is still out of this world. Everything is still slick and sexy and full of charm. Characters feel well balanced, something I’ve come to expect from an Arc System Works game. And finally, the game’s creativity knows no bounds. The visuals alone make this one of the most interesting fighters on the market in the early 2000s. This game (or any of its re-re-releases) is a definite must-have if you love fast-paced action and bombastic spectacle.

XI: Skullgirls

“I always enjoyed designing dark, cute, kind of morbid monster-girl type designs. It’s something that I’ve been doing for fun ever since [my] high school and college days. I ended up piling up a few of them [characters] and thinking of a hypothetical, “oh this would be cool!” fighting game, but I didn’t have an engine at that time. It was just art.” —Alex Ahad, creative director for Skullgirls

I’d heard about Skullgirls from an EVO tournament I skimmed. It looked like some generic anime fighter with a (mostly) all-women roster. Well, colour me embarrassed. I’ve sunk about fifty hours these past few months playing Skullgirls, and I don’t feel like stopping any time soon. There’s only one game in this series, with one re-release, so this might be the only complete category in this review.

XI.I: Skullgirls (2012)

I had always heard of Skullgirls. It always sort of existed in the background for me. One day, I picked it up on the Switch eShop and discovered that I had been ignoring a tight, stylish fighter for years. The art style is really the cherry on top. Expressive, flashy, and responsive gameplay is shown to you through the lens of some amazing artwork.

Playing Skullgirls is incredibly tight. Every move feels predictable, flashy, and fluid. Jumps and dashes flow seamlessly into attacks. So, not only does Skullgirls look good, it plays well too. While the roster of playable characters may seem sparse at first, each one is meticulously drawn, programmed, and animated. Everyone is unique. Everyone has a fun name and a fun playstyle. I’d go as far as to say that no two characters in Skullgirls play the same. Parasoul’s umbrella attacks promote playing at a distance, while Valentine’s ninja-like attacks (while similar to Parasoul’s) allow her to more freely, incorporating more jump attacks. Valentine also carries a bone saw which helps her bridge the gap. Super-versatile characters here. In terms of content variety, Skullgirls doesn’t skimp. It features the best training/tutorial mode in a fighter I’ve ever seen, containing dialogue, combo blocking training, and more of that slick presentation I mentioned earlier. There’s a full single-player campaign, versus modes, online modes, etcetera. If J.C Denton has his way, disabling the internet and plunging the world into a communications dark-age, I’m confident I’d be able to keep playing Skullgirls no-problem. There’s just so much to do, and that’s before mentioning any of its online content.

Presentation is important, for both spectators and players. I’m worried that if I keep gushing about Skullgirls’ presentation, people will start to think I’m secretly Alex Ahad. Watching Skullgirls at EVO is like watching a really well-made animated cartoon. So fluid, so stylish, so art-deco. Now, a small roster (8 originally, 6 more through DLC) allowed the team behind Skullgirls to polish the absolute shit out of its characters. No character stands out as overpowered; any reasonably-skilled player can doge anything from anybody. Creativity is where Skullgirls takes it to the next level. Everything is presented in this art-deco, 1950s style. The music is swanky, the menu elements are hyper-art-deco, and stages are retro-inspired. Even the announcer is passed through this low-fi filter to make his voice sound like he’s speaking over the radio in the 1950s. Nice. It’s honestly a miracle this game got so many things right on its first try.

XII: Dragon Ball

“It was very interesting to get a chance to see players from around the world using different fighting styles and strategies. One example of this is, if I remember correctly there were a lot of Piccolo players overseas compared to Japan. The overall fighting strategy varied so much depending on each region, which made me realized how international this community is.” —Tomoko Hiroki, Dragon Ball FighterZ producer

I picked FighterZ on a Nintendo eShop sale this year, and boy-howdy did it blow my socks off. It might be one of the flashiest, cleanest, and best-feeling fighters I’ve sunk my teeth into. And, I’m not the only one singing its praises. I’ve never played any of the other Dragon Ball fighters (mainly because I’ve never seen the Dragon Ball anime or read the manga), but the series is definitely on my radar now.

XII.I: Dragon Ball FighterZ (2018)

A masterclass of anime fighting games, FighterZ is everything I want in a fighter. It looks like someone reached into a Dragon Ball manga and ripped out a panel. The developers behind this bad-boy must’ve really cared about the Dragon Ball property. The labour of love here shines through every asset, every interaction, every mechanic.

Everything about this game is perfect. The gameplay is tight, responsive, fluid, creative, and exciting. Hot damn. The roster has characters from the anime and the manga, 21 to start with 3 unlockables and 8 DLC characters (as of 2019, fighters’ passes are still being released). Every character looks, feels, and plays slightly differently. If you’re a Dragon Ball fan, this game is sure to satisfy. Even the character introduction cinematics are true to the source material. In terms of content variety, there’s a single-player campaign, a detailed training mode (with combo tutorials for every character), as well as a multitude of single-player & multi-player battle offerings. Connect to the internet to roam around a cute little hub world, challenging all you see.

Presentation and creativity are really where FighterZ excels. You’ll never get bored watching a match. Every move is so action-packed. It makes MK9 look like something I made in high school. FighterZ makes matches seem too-intense. “Am I REALLY doing THAT? How did I make it look so cool?!” This shit is bananas. Honestly, just watch the EVO grand finals and marvel at the sheer spectacle. What. A. Show. The art style itself is enough to grant it serious creativity awards. Careful animations and character modelling resulted in a 2D anime-looking product from a completely 3D game. Wow. This should be the standard anime fighters should be held up against; anything attempting this art style is already at a serious disadvantage.

XIII: Concluding Thoughts

“Games are a trigger for adults to again become primitive, primal, as a way of thinking and remembering. An adult is a child who has more ethics and morals, that’s all. I am not creating a game. I am in the game. The game is not for children, it is for me. It is for an adult who still has a character of a child.” —Shigeru Miyamoto, influential game designer

So what did we learn? Probably nothing. Probably that I have too much time on my hands. Maybe I need a hobby or something? Regardless, I think it’s clear which games I hold in high regard. Fluid, crisp, visual, and cerebral fighters are king in my eyes. Games like Dragon Ball FighterZ, Ultra Street Fighter IV, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate take the cake for me. “But, Michael! What about X, Y, or even Z??” Yeah, this is definitely not a complete list or anything. There are actually more Street Fighter II games than I’m willing to entertain, and I haven’t even mentioned series like Marvel vs. Capcom or Injustice. I’ll have to play a bunch more fighting games and release a follow up to this review. (Don’t expect it any time soon. This review took all the life outta me, and I gotta wind down or something.)

If you like fighting games, I hope this review entertained you. If you don’t, I hope a game or two sounded interesting to you. Fighting games are one of my favourite genres of games, and I don’t have nearly as many friends who agree. Maybe the next re-release of Street Fighter II will come with a companion I can keep in my closet… In any case, thanks for slogging through fighting games with me! See you need year; happy holidays!

  1. https://www.giantbomb.com/mortal-kombat/3030-25042/forums/this-game-still-has-way-too-many-balance-issues-499251/ 

  2. https://kotaku.com/you-cant-actually-buy-your-way-out-of-mortal-kombat-11s-1834311465 

  3. https://streetfighter.fandom.com/wiki/Poison#Controversy 

  4. https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/264509/The_25year_legacy_of_Street_Fighter_II_in_the_words_of_the_experts.php