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The early history of fighting games

Through the mid-to-late-1990s the fighting game genre truly found its stride.

During those few years competitive fighters emerged as a dominant force in the arcade industry, even stepping up as one of the most popular, profitable genres found across gaming. Titles like Super Street Fighter II Turbo and THE KING OF FIGHTERS ‘95 and ‘98 solidified the emerging fighting game community, establishing a competitive scene that saw players develop and demonstrate dazzling levels of skill.

It's a period seen as something of a golden era. Plenty of thriving arcades were served a steady stream of exquisite, nuanced fighting games, filling them up with lively communities of regulars. Amusement centres in that period were vibrant, bristling with energy, and delightfully noisy.

But the fighting game genre itself actually emerged far, far earlier, and can even be traced back to the period of mechanical coin-op amusements that came before the likes of screens and pixels and sticks.

Vintage strength tester machine

The genre arguably has roots in the popularity of the fairground classic that is the ‘strength tester machine’; an electro mechanical device that lets players show off their power by pounding a punch bag in return for a rating. Other examples include the classic ‘mallet and bell’ contraption, and more contemporary examples such as ‘electric shock’ endurance tests (that actually use vibration). Strength testing amusements have existed for 120 years or more, and connect – for better or for worse – with a rather base instinct. Us humans might never quite move on from the notion that hitting something hard brings status. Indeed, melee combat is likely the oldest sport there is. We won’t say that means fighting games have roots in the first wrestling competitions some 15,300 years ago in France, but there is a lineage. Strength test machines and later fighting games simply provide a safer space for exploring a very animal instinct.

Heavyweight Champ by SEGA (1976)

That’s why strength test machines are still a stalwart of fairgrounds and carnivals to this day. But as the video game era dawned, a number of boxing games emerged that leaned into the allure of the strength machine. Black and white tiles like SEGA’s 1976 multiplayer release Heavyweight Champ clearly owe a debt to those mechanical contraptions of old, while offering a primitive vision of the melee combat games that were to come. In the case of Heavyweight Champ, players had to physically grapple with boxing glove controls, no doubt inspired by the fairground forebearers. Those boxing titles weren’t purebred fighting games, certainly, yet they deftly demonstrated the core appeal of one-on-one combat in a videogame context, and proved to be very bankable to arcade operators.

That success laid the groundwork for a new wave of competitive brawling games in the early-to-mid-1980s that followed the lead established by the previous decade’s boom in martial arts cinema. Technōs Japan’s 1984 title Karate Champ is perhaps the most defining title of that era, having done a great deal to establish and popularise a form of one-on-one fighting game that looks a lot more like today’s fighters. With a variety of moves, a best-of-three format and special bonus rounds, it established a template that much of the genre continues to respect. That same year Technōs went on to debut Karate Champ — Player vs Player, adding a multiplayer mode that started to attract a fledgling fighting game community; even though they might never have called themselves that.

Yie Ar Kung-Fu by Konami (1985)

Next came two releases that looked a lot more like modern fighters, differentiating themselves from the scrolling beat ‘em ups that also emerged in the wake of those earliest boxing games (check out our history of scrolling brawlers right here). Konami’s Yie Ar Kung-Fu and System 3’s International Karate both landed in 1985, and did a great deal to advance the potential of the fighting game concept.

Yie Ar Kung-Fu pushed things into somewhat more fantastical territory, presented the concept of a rostrum of martial arts combatants, offered a range of distinct combat styles, and delivered the action across a number of themed stages. Konami’s creation also introduced the idea of two player life bars that both drained towards a ‘KO’ marking at the centre. Many of today’s fighting game aficionados will tell you those are the factors that makes Yie Ar Kung-Fu the first true example of the genre. International Karate and its famed successor IK+, meanwhile, asserted that high production polish and a focus on replayability could elevate this emerging form.

By 1987, Capcom had made and published a game that would change everything. In isolation, Street Fighter made evolutionary steps forward, rather than reinventing the form. But it established a game series that would do more than just thrust a genre to new heights. That first Street Fighter certainly wasn’t a slouch when it came to innovation and quality. At this time scrolling brawlers were still the most popular form, but Capcom’s dev team was set to change that. Street Fighter introduced a foundational concept that continues to fascinate fighting game fans. It expected players to experiment with controls to discover new abilities, and work hard to uncover hidden depth and while exploring fresh strategies. In other words, it begged for mastery, and proved that fighters could offer depth with the capacity to entertain for years or even decades.

That first Street Fighter set control conventions too, albeit after a false start. Initially Capcom’s game employed pressure sensitive buttons, which would deliver different strengths of attack with different pressure applied to buttons. That, however, inspired play that broke a few too many arcade cabinets – perhaps because of the same psychology that saw people pound strength test machines. Players really attacked the control panels. It all got a bit costly on the repairs front, inspiring Capcom to develop a new six-button system of light, medium and hard punches and kicks. That control arrangement born from necessity would found the input systems a great many more fighting games that followed.

Street Fighter II by Capcom (1991)

Ultimately, however, it was the arrival of Street Fighter II and its myriad variants from 1991 on that really established what the form could offer. As arcade hardware became more capable, fighters not only became more visually elaborate; they could equally be more fluid and responsive, raising the skill ceiling while drilling down the limit of depth. In that expanding space, the genre truly established itself. THE KING OF FIGHTERS ‘94, Virtua Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter EX, The Last Blade, Samurai Shodown and a great many more emerged in this time – though some will tell you the market became so saturated with fighting games, the genre ultimately pulled the rug out from under its own feet.

THE KING OF FIGHTERS ‘94 by SNK (1994)

That era understandably courts a well told history, including the post-millenium movement where a slow decline began; likely thanks to arcade’s broader demise. There is, however, one untold history from that era. Or rather, there used to be. SNK’s THE KING OF FIGHTERS series is perhaps less talked about than the Street Fighter titles. But on spinning out of the Fatal Fury games, it left a remarkable legacy and influence that was shrouded with mystery. Bitmap’s latest release THE KING OF FIGHTERS: The Ultimate History, however, addresses that history, via interviews with the developers and access to SNK’s stunning archives. It really is the only place you’ll find that history. We also shared a recent post on how we put the book together, which gives you a taste of how we approach unearthing stories like that of THE KING OF FIGHTERS.

So if you’re hungry to dive deeper into a genre that shaped video games in their entirety, you know where to go!