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Monday, March 4, 2024

This is almost certainly going to be the best year for fighting games ever

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Every time a new Mortal Kombat arrives I think it might be the one that is so freaking gross I can’t stomach it anymore. MK1 threatened to be that game when Netherrealm trotted out a montage of body mutilating fatalities to show off its latest skin shredding tech, but playing it at Summer Game Fest, the gore didn’t give me that same ick. It’s just punctuation. In Mortal Kombat, every sentence ends with a big red❗and the only thing this game has to say is: This is going to be the best year for fighting games ever

Mortal Kombat 1 is more polished than a crystal skull, almost as if Netherrealm could have just made a fighting game in its sleep and used the bulk of the last few years to focus on flair. The detail on these faces? Johnny Cage’s cakes? The way two fighters square off in a short cutscene that masks loading, before flowing seamlessly into the fight? Mirror sheen. 

Personally, though, I’d give it all up for my stupid-ass goofball create-a-character in Street Fighter 6’s story mode, which has me running around town fighting random weirdos with cardboard boxes on their heads. We don’t know much about Mortal Kombat 1’s story mode yet, but so far it looks like it’s doing more of what the last three MK games have done: remixing the series’ convoluted lore in fun new ways, with cutscenes gradually creeping up on Hollywood CG-level realism.

Maybe there’s some surprise freedom hiding away in MK1’s story somewhere, but my bet is it’ll mostly be cutscenes interspersed with fights again. I’d be pregaming disappointment about that if Street Fighter 6 wasn’t already here with a radically different experience: one where I can give Chun Li a can of sardines and hope it makes her like me. Why choose one or the other when we can have both?

These two landing just months apart has echoes of November 2004, when Halo 2 and Half-Life 2 were pulling FPS games in such different directions they threatened to tear the genre’s arms off. This time we’re getting a pair of fighting games from teams at the peak of their craft—an absolute feast of fists. A platter of punches. A banquet of beatdowns. A quiche full of K.O.s. (If you can’t tell, I’m ready for lunch.)

The point is, fighting game players would be eating good this year even if Street Fighter 6 and Mortal Kombat 1 were all we had to chew on. But 2023 has even more in store for us. 

There’s indie newcomer Diesel Legacy: The Brazen Age, which features a rare 2v2 format for four simultaneous players. It has some really nice toon shaded art and an unusual take on 2D for a fighting game, with three “lanes” for players to bounce between. The lanes bring in some of the sidestepping footsies and special attacks you’d normally expect from a 3D fighter. The mayhem can feel a bit more like Street Fighter than Super Smash Bros. at times, but Diesel Legacy is made by fighting game industry veterans and controls much like Street Fighter. 

Then there’s the looming presence of Tekken 8. We don’t know if it will arrive in 2023, but chances seem pretty damn good—Bandai Namco is running a network test in July. PC Gamer’s resident Tekken superfan Mollie Taylor has been gearing up for the new Tekken era by competing in Tekken 7 tournaments, which are still going strong.

Tekken 7 was a smash success in 2017, and it’s continued selling for 6 years. It passed 10 million sales in December, making it the best-selling Tekken game ever; all told Tekken has sold even more copies than Street Fighter, even. But the buzz around Street Fighter 6 has been on another level than anything we’ve seen from fighting games on PC.

On Steam, Street Fighter 6 peaked with 70,000 simultaneous players at launch, dwarfing Tekken 7’s 19,000 in 2017 and doubling Mortal Kombat 11’s 35,000 in 2019. The PC has had other breakout fighting games in its history: in 2018 Dragon Ball FighterZ launched to 44,000 simultaneous players, which crushed the record at the time. All of these games are on consoles too, of course, where they typically have more players. But earlier this year Capcom switched one of its tournaments from PS4 hardware to PC; it seems entirely possible we’ll see the PC become the default platform for competitive play in the future. 

Where people play fighting games aside, though, it’s just a delight to see so much excitement for them. I can’t overstate how much Street Fighter 6’s adventurous story mode and its modern controls option are going to appeal to people who always assumed Street Fighter wasn’t for them. Mortal Kombat and Tekken are both the kinds of games that people will buy on the strength of their ridiculous graphics alone, but of course they’ve got more than that going on. MK1’s Kameo system is a clever way to integrate some of the depth of a tag fighter while adding more nuanced control over how your AI partner jumps in with an assist; Tekken 8’s adding multiple systems that reward aggressive play and a new control type for inexperienced players.

Capcom, Bandai Namco and Netherrealm are definitely going to sell more fighting games in the next 12 months than at any time in fighting game history. Has there ever been a better year in fighting game history, though? Maybe I’ll give the nod to 1995, which included a dizzying number of games including Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, Soul Edge, Street Fighter Alpha, and Tekken 2—a standout variety pack of a year. Honestly though, if you pore over FightersGeneration’s timeline, it starts to look like there’s never really been a bad year for fighting game players, even as the genre weathered its least popular periods.

I have a feeling once 2023 fully sinks in and we see how many new people have jumped into the ring, the next few are really going to take us for a ride.

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