Street Fighter 2 is one of the only games that truly deserve to be called "genre-defining" -- today, 25 years after SF2's release, we can see that practically every fighting game out there has adopted its core game design principles as industry-standard gospel, with only a few tweaks here and there to stand out from the crowd.
If you're the average consumer or dev, or even if you're an experienced fighting game competitor, you probably aren't all that familiar with all the games that have tried to make major changes to the fighting game template.
So, in celebration of SF2's 25th anniversary, I'm going to walk through some of the fascinating deviations and beautiful experiments that fighting game devs took to try and change SF2's fighting game formula. Studying these games may inspire you in your own designs, or may suggest ways to tinker with the paradigm you're currently wokring within.
I'm going to try to avoid the other well-known franchises (if you know Street Fighter, you probably also know Mortal Kombat and Tekken) and focus on the weird stuff... for education's sake!
A quick note about me: I've written a (free) book that teaches fighting game fundamentals using Street Fighter, as well as educational fighting game streams and videos, and I'm the community manager for a free-to-play PC fighting game currently in public technical alpha called Rising Thunder. You might also like my previous Gamasutra article, Street Fighter for Designers: Top 8 Lessons from Evo 2015.
Fighting games cut from SF2's cloth: Asuka 120% Burning Fest, Weaponlord, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Guilty Gear
Asuka 120% Burning Fest (Fill-in Cafe, 1994): Clash system and simplified inputs
SF2 may have set the foundations for the 2D fighter genre, but there are several notable games that have poked and prodded at some of the genre's conventions while keeping a similar format.
Shoutouts to ex-Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield for introducing me to Asuka 120% Burning Fest, a Japanese 2D fighter from the post-SF2 boom. Not only did it swap the standard martial-artists-from-around-the-world fighter cast with high school girls representing their various club activities (including the chemistry and biology clubs), but it also made two notable system changes.
One was the "clash system": in SF2, if two attacks collide simultaneously, both players take damage and go into hitstun, but in Asuka 120%, both characters will just go on into the next hit-phase of the move. The second was a significantly simplified input system -- pretty much everyone has the same special move codes, meaning that if you could perform one character's moves, you could perform all of them.
Combined, both systems made for a fascinating permutation of the SF2 standard. With the clash system, the number of hits in a move are relevant for determining who wins a clash -- and since the window to cancel a move into another move is fairly lax, players can clash across entire combo routes before one of them wins out and takes damage. All told, Asuka 120% does a lot with these relatively simple system tweaks to make a traditional 2D fighting game more accessible and less intimidating without feeling like a lesser SF2. The developers of Asuka 120% Burning Fest eventually went to Treasure, where they reused some of the core concepts in their fighting games.
Weaponlord (Visual Concepts, 1995): An online fighting game in '95
Others have done good work unearthing Weaponlord's history as an interesting-but-ill-timed attempt by early American fighting game devs to challenge SF2's success, so if you want to know the whole story, check out the GameSpy interview with James Goddard and Dave Winstead, GameSpot's Forging Weaponlord, and the Hardcore Gaming 101 writeup.
From a modern game design perspective, the most notable contribution Weaponlord made to fighting games the active defense system called the "thrust block" -- a versatile parry that served as a high-risk, high-reward defensive option. This a relatively new innovation for the time, but more interesting to contemporary devs is this tidbit from the GameSpot interview with James Goddard, where he mentions that the thrust block was designed with zero-frame startup specifically as a concession to online play via the XBAND dialup peripheral.
That's right: A Super Nintendo game in 1995 was designed around internet play. Personally, as someone currently working on a fighting game built around online multiplayer over broadband, I can't imagine designing a 2D fighting game for ~250ms travel times, yet there they were, handling sync timing and tweaking frame data to make the game playable over a modem. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Goddard is currently design director on Killer Instinct for Microsoft, a game which has been lauded in core fighting game circles for having better-than-average netcode.
Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes (Capcom, 2000): The best team fighter
Capcom had found plenty of success doing crossover fighting games during the late '90s, as their concurrent work on Street Fighter Alpha, Darkstalkers, and various licensed Marvel fighting games gave them plenty of readily reusable assets to keep the games coming. This peaked with Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes, a three-on-three tag match slugfest so chaotic that even genre veterans could barely parse what is happening on screen at any given time.
Capcom's earlier crossover games (X-Men vs. Street Fighter, Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter, and Marvel vs. Capcom) had treated tag-team two-on-twos much like a similar pro wrestling match: You had one character on the field responding to your controls, and certain moves would allow you to tag them in, summon them for a brief assist attack, or perform a joint hyper combo together. MvC2 largely kept the same basic structure, but the addition of a third team member shifted the emphasis toward developing teams that synergized effectively between the three.
The ideal MvC2 team must take into account how well any given character can use the other two assists; how much super meter the team needs to build for each character to do its job, and how long it'll take to generate that meter before the opponent does; how well the team can recover from opponent-inflicted forced tag-outs (called "snapbacks"); and several other factors before even considering how effective the player is at controlling any of their characters individually.
It's a strange testament to MvC2's design that even though competitive play revolves around roughly 1/5th of the 56-character cast, the dozens of permutations available with just those characters are enough to have kept the game interesting for over a decade. The net effect is that MvC2, by virtue of its three-on-three format, has gotten the closest out of any fighting game to a compelling competitive 'build-your-own-character' mode.
Guilty Gear (Arc System Works, 1998): The 2D fighter for people who love 2D fighters
As Guilty Gear is still very much alive and kicking, I'll keep this brief. With GG and its sister series BlazBlue, Arc System Works has forgotten more about traditional 2D fighting games than most studios will ever begin to explore. Each GG character is practically its own fighting game at this point, often with resources and mechanics that exist only for that specific character -- and they're bound together by a set of core shared systems and mechanics that would be enough to populate five Street Fighters. If you're ever trying to design a character for pretty much anything, it's worth your time to dig through the GG library, because ASW probably did something like that way before you did.
Highlights include: Bridget, a young boy dressed as a nun who fights with a yo-yo that must be carefully placed and moved across the screen; Zato-1, a blind assassin who fights by summoning his shadow (which responds to the player's joystick inputs and button releases, meaning the player must simultaneously handle two characters with one controller, and time their button presses and releases appropriately); Venom, another assassin who lays pool balls across the screen to create intricate setups off their chain collisions; and most recently, Jack-O, whose minion-summoning mechanics draw more from a MOBA than a fighting game.
Stylized realism: Bushido Blade, Buriki One, Fighter's Destiny
Bushido Blade (Light Weight, 1997): Real-enough samurai duels
One frequent criticism of traditional fighting games is that they don't look or feel like a real fight does, leading a handful of developers to build games aiming for a more realistic experience without getting into the sporty nature of a Fight Night or UFC game.
When I put the call out on Twitter for suggestions for this list, Bushido Blade was hands-down the most frequent response. Instead of street fighting, Bushido Blade aimed to recreate the thrill of a samurai duel by breaking out from the 2D plane into free-roaming 3D environments and designing a realistic damage system; you could block or parry, but if you ate a clean hit it was either going to injure a limb or kill you outright.
When most fighting games were going for more systems, more characters, more stylized graphics, more combos, and generally digging itself deeper in a hole of genre esoterica, Bushido Blade felt simple and clean. Interestingly enough, its legacy is best felt not in any major triple-A fighting game, but in indie games Nidhogg and Divekick.
Fighters Destiny (Genki, 1998): Point-sparring in a fighting game
Of all the core design elements to mess with, Fighters Destiny arguably picked the most-core element to change. Rather than determine a victor using health bars, Fighters Destiny implemented a point system inspired somewhat by competitive karate, where players would fight until one scored a point by inflicting a ring out, knockdown, or other specific conditions, at which point the action would reset and the fight would resume.
Fighters Destiny certainly didn't leave any lasting impacts on the genre overall, but it's certainly an experiment worth considering further. Contemporary fighting games built around life meters and the best-two-of-three rounds system make it easy to snowball early advantages into a victory, because players have to earn a mid-round reset by doing something to get the opponent off their back and into a neutral state, at which point the defending player is forced to play aggressively and make bigger bets to win the round from a life deficit. With the point sparring model, you get to emphasize the players' jousting for superiority from a neutral state over their ability to snowball a small advantage into a bigger one, leading to more exciting matches for competitors and spectators alike.
Buriki One: World Grapple Tournament '99 in Tokyo (SNK, 1999): 2D MMA
Buriki One is a curious one. Where SNK's core lay in their 2D fighter pantheon (King of Fighters and Fatal Fury, among others), Buriki One was an attempt to tie the outlandish characters of a typical fighting game into a game that felt more like Pride, the Japanese mixed martial arts event promotion that swept the country in the late '90s and early 2000s. (Ryo Sakazaki from Art of Fighting actually shows up as a playable character!)
What we end up with in Buriki One is a game that looks like a sports-fighting game, like any pro wrestling, boxing, or MMA game, but plays on a 2D plane. Part of this change entailed swapping the attack controls to the joystick (up for a heavy, slow attack, down for a quick, light attack, and toward for a medium attack) and the movement controls to two buttons that move your fighter left or right.
Given the realistic setting, this actually makes a certain amount of sense, especially if you think of Buriki One as an attempt to convert Pride fans to fighting games. If your goal is to simplify a core fighting game experience, it makes sense to try focusing less on the importance of positioning in a 2D plane, which is often hard for new players to learn and understand, and more on interactions between the different attacks.
Fighting in the third dimension: Virtua Fighter, Battle Arena Toshinden, Soul Calibur
Virtua Fighter (Sega, 1993): Welcome to the third dimension...kind of
Bringing fighting games to the third dimension is not a trivial task, particularly because the established genre conventions call for the arcade-standard eight-way joystick and buttons to be used for both inputting move codes and navigating space. Once you've solved those problems, though, you still kind of need to figure out how to use the third dimension to, well, add depth to the actual fighting experience.
Sega's Virtua Fighter was the first fighting game to try 3D -- though when it comes to the actual gameplay, the devs kept it to fighting in a 2D plane until Virtua Fighter 3 introduced the sidestep mechanic to the series. VF's biggest contribution to the genre was arguably designing movesets around three buttons (punch, kick, and block) and a simpler set of motions -- usually combinations of single-direction inputs and button presses, often used in preset chains.
This made learning a character's moveset less about complicated joystick execution and more about memorizing a wider set of context-specific moves, which later turned out to be useful for freeing up the joystick so players could use it to more easily navigate a 3D space. Also, Virtua Fighter added ring-outs as another win condition; knocking your opponent off the platform immediately wins you the round.
Battle Arena Toshinden (Tamsoft, 1995): Sidestepping
Battle Arena Toshinden was another one of the early 3D fighting games -- and that's usually the main thing people remember it for. However, it is generally recognized as the first fighting game to work in all three dimensions via the sidestep mechanic, where players can use the L and R shoulder buttons to dodge projectiles without sacrificing position. Most 3D fighting games now use different permutations of a sidestep, though DreamFactory's Tobal No. 1 was notable for using more of a free-roam style navigation system.
Soul Calibur (Namco, 1999): Full movement with eight-way run
Namco had made a splash in 3D fighting games with both Tekken and Soul Edge, but the difference between the two games was mostly thematic (contemporary martial arts vs. fantasy weapon fighting) until its sequel Soul Calibur. Soul Calibur was arguably one of the first games to truly embrace all three dimensions; in addition to the simple sidestep, many attacks often included Z-axis movement as part of the animation, and players could actually shift into an eight-way-run movement stance that gave you access to a different subset of moves. The end result was that Soul Calibur felt like an excellent compromise between the samurai fantasy of Bushido Blade's free-roaming duels and a traditional fighting game.
All about projectiles: Cyber Troopers Virtual-On, Touhou Suimusou: Immaterial and Missing Power, Senko no Ronde
Cyber Troopers Virtual-On (Sega, 1995): Mobility in sustained projectile fights
When we look back at the fighting game canon, one thing stands out about SF2 and its numerous sequels: Projectile attacks are very, very important. Indeed, most of the subsequent Street Fighter series are largely defined by the systems they implement in order to avoid non-stop douken-fests. However, many later games decided to double down on projectiles, space control, and precision movement as the focal point of a one-on-one duel while feeling closer in spirit to a classic fighting game than, say, a first-person shooter.
At first glance, Virtual-On doesn't look like it has much in common with a classic fighting game; yes, it is one-on-one and uses health meters, but it's about robots dashing around in an arena blowing each other up, not people punching each other in the face. Spend some time with any of the Virtual-On games, though, and you'll find that it fits in far better with fighting games than any other genre. It doesn't emphasize aiming or weapon selection enough to feel like a shooter, nor is it about tactical positioning and attrition like a typical mech or tank sim.
Instead, the game is about attacking to force your opponent to dodge by dashing or jumping, then punishing your opponent for dashing or jumping while they're trying to counter attack and force you to move. When it comes down to it, Virtual-On is basically the Ryu fireball/Dragon Punch trap expanded into a 3D robot dueling game.
Touhou Suimusou: Immaterial and Missing Power (Tasogare Frontier / Team Shanghai Alice, 2004): Bullet hell 2D fighter
In 2004, Japanese doujin devs took bullet hell series Touhou into 2D fighter-land with Touhou Suimusou: Immaterial and Missing Power (commonly abbreviated as IaMP). While the game appears to resemble any other anime-styled fighting game, it's actually built largely around projectile attacks (hence the bullet hell roots) and the "graze" mechanic, where most projectiles can be dashed through -- meaning that the traditional attack-block-throw triangle in fighting games is instead largely replaced by ranged attacks, mobility, and physical attacks.
Senko no Ronde (G.rev, 2005): Even more bullet-hell than IaMP
If IaMP and Virtual-On gently push projectile combat to the center of the game, Senko no Ronde goes full-on bullet hell, complete with a change in perspective to a flat top-down 2D plane and the ability to temporarily transform your robot fighter into a giant boss form. The combat mechanics draw from a similar pool as Virtual-On, as well -- it's largely about using projectiles to force movement to open up more opportunities for damage.
It's worth noting that lots of other games have played in this space, to varying degrees: Taito's Psychic Force, Sunsoft's Astra Superstars, the Dragon Ball Z games by Dimps, and the Naruto: Clash of Ninja games by Eighting are some of the more notable examples.
Not just one-on-one: Yu Yu Hakusho, Super Smash Bros., Power Stone, Rakugaki Showtime
Yuu Yuu Hakusho: Makyou Touitsusen (Treasure, 1994): Four players, two layers
One-on-one is great, but what happens when we try to add more players to the party? These games open up the action to more players, which introduces control challenges, since you no longer can rely on the opponent-relative movement scheme that traditional fighting games use.
Yuu Yuu Hakusho: Makyou Touitsusen was another one of those Treasure games that was way better than anyone ever expects from licensed anime games -- unfortunately, since Yuu Yuu Hakusho didn't have a whole lot of clout in the U.S. at the time, we never got it here. The game was built around two-to-four-player combat, which they pulled off by borrowing Fatal Fury's two-layer stage design -- players can hop between a foreground plane and a background plane. Of course, this gets a bit tricky if you're working in the SF2 template.
Since Yuu Yuu Hakusho was designed for the Genesis, Treasure had to build a compelling fighting game around a three-button controller (which was more than Capcom was able to do; the Street Fighter II: Championship Edition release on the Genesis was meant to use a special six-button controller, and if you had a three-button controller you had to press the Start button to alternate between punches and kicks). They started by opening up the movement system so you could freely look in either direction, and simplified the input codes to only use down and forward in special moves, meaning that players didn't have to worry about facing the wrong direction in the process of executing a special move. Also, the three buttons were mapped to Light Attack, Heavy Attack, and Guard -- after all, SF2's hold-back-to-block system doesn't really make sense if you have an opponent on both sides of you.
The end result is a game that feels much better than you'd expect a four-player SF2 to feel. Fortunately, it wasn't just a one-off; the core design work was later recalled in Treasure's Bleach DS games, which are also excellent and worth checking out.
Super Smash Brothers (HAL Laboratory, 1999): A platforming fighting game
In 2016, Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U tournaments are routinely topping the Twitch stream charts, so it can be easy to forget that Smash's status as a fighting game was contested for a long, long time. After all, changing the static 2D box arena out for levels that feel more like the original Mario Bros. and losing the health bars for the damage percentage mechanic essentially pull out two design elements so core to fighting games most players never even thought to question them.
It's fair to say that the standard four-player party mode, with items aplenty and stages that kill you rather often, don't really feel consistent or rigorous enough to encourage players to play it competitively. That's why the truly defining innovation in Smash isn't the levels, or the movement, or the simplified controls -- it's the way the team created a play space that is rich enough to sustain both party play and serious competition, and made the options available for the players to determine for themselves what they want out of it. Honestly, Smash wasn't a fighting game until the players made it a fighting game.
Power Stone (Capcom, 1999): Like Smash in 3D
I'd be remiss in including Smash in this list and not also giving Capcom's Power Stone a shoutout; it was another party fighting game with items, engaging levels, and simplified inputs, but unlike Smash, it featured a free-roaming 3D arena. While it's certainly fun to hop around the various levels beating up your buddies, the tradeoff to free-roaming 3D in a party fighter is that the devs relied on a rather high level of auto-targeting in the attacks, which kind of diluted the player's feeling of mastery after a certain point.
Rakugaki Showtime (Treasure, 1999): If dodgeball was a fighting game
Shoutouts to Ian Adams for pointing me in the direction of an interesting, obscure contender for the party fighter throne: Rakugaki Showtime, by Treasure. Like Power Stone, it takes place in an open 3D arena, but the combat is built more around projectiles, leading to a game that feels like dodgeball without the center dividing line. Play it to admire the scribbly, sketchy aesthetic and see how Treasure used targeting lines to visualize aiming projectiles in a 3D space.
Special thanks to Brandon Sheffield, Ian Adams, Andres Velasco y Coll, Bellreisa, Chris Pruett, Luis Garcia, and everyone else who suggested not-SF2 fighting games. Also, shoutouts to the poverty FGC for keeping this knowledge alive and kicking.