A Stage Is Worth a Thousand Words

Fighting game stages once spoke volumes about the characters they represent. Why is this so uncommon in modern fighters?

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What can E. Honda's bathhouse in Street Fighter II tell us about his character? What about Fulgore's factory from Killer Instinct, or Scorpion's hellish lair from Mortal Kombat?

In the early years of the fighting genre, many games assigned individual stages to each cast member. These arenas were custom-tailored to reflect the warrior's personality. A pile of flaming skulls or demonic minions would tip you off to a warlord's nefarious intentions, while a tranquil meadow or moonlight vista advertised the exact opposite.

These arenas were often the bulk of a fighting game's storytelling. Barring a quick ending sequence or a blurb in the manual, the most information you were likely to find on a fighter was in his/her/its design and stage. Character-specific stages were a creative means of embellishing a fighter's history.

Many classic fighting games used stage design to great effect; here are some examples:

Street Fighter: Ryu's Stage

Calm. Sparse. Traditional. Ryu's rooftop stage is a perfect representation of the man himself. He is a focused warrior who lives not for worldly possessions but for perfecting his ancient martial art. The arena's serenity and isolation illustrate Ryu's elevation of fighting above all other distractions. This is the quintessential stage for the quintessential fighter.

Darkstalkers: Anakaris' Stage

While other stages may illustrate this point better, this stage in Darkstalkers 3 always stood out to me. Anakaris is a lonely creature unstuck from time, fighting atop the tomb of his ancestors. The oversized moon overhead hints at his supernatural origins, while the light off the sphinx's back implies a new dawn rising for his people upon Anakaris' return.

Guilty Gear: May's Stage

As Guilty Gear's roster grew, the developers got practical about character-specific stages by tying multiple fighters to a single arena. The May Ship--home of May and Jonny--reveals the high-flying lives of these sky pirates. The ship's guns show they're ready for war, but the goofy graffiti from the crew highlights their childish nature. Other versions of this stage show additional ships in the distance, hinting at the full size of this pirate fleet.

Super Smash Bros.: Olimar's Stage

The Smash Bros. series does a consistently good job of distilling entire game franchises down into single stages. The Pikmin stage shrinks the fighters down and exposes them to some of the same hazards found in Olimar's native game. Even if you've never played a Pikmin game, you quickly learn the value of bottle caps, and how deadly a Bulborb can be.

As the fighting genre has grown, there has been a shift in stage design. Cooking up 59 stages for the entire roster of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 would require an unreasonable amount of resources, so it's no surprise larger rosters have curbed character-specific stages. In their place, fighting games have still produced some very exciting arenas, including an elevator into outer space and a court of elephants surrounding the Taj Mahal.

However, I believe there is a missed opportunity here. Instead of building several stand-alone locations, adding an overarching narrative to their design would help build a more interesting world. The Mortal Kombat series has done a great job of this. From the living forest to Shang Tsung's throne room, each location is unique while remaining consistent within the same universe. Together these stages build a terrifying vision of a world governed by violence.

People play games, even fighting games, for different reasons. Some are content just playing the bare-bones training stages over and over, free from distraction. Others need something to hook them up front before they're ready to start mastering the mechanics. A unified stage design that builds a cohesive world is another way to entice players who may otherwise pass on the fighting genre.

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Discussion

0 comments
skornedwarrior
skornedwarrior

I think game based stages in PS ALL-STARS BATTLE ROYALE are done very well.

Coco_pierrot
Coco_pierrot

I didn't play a lot of modern fighting game but I sure do remember some old fighting game from the SNES area the most but many of them copied Street Fighter. Then Tekken and Virtual Fighter came and the stage started to be less and less important ... sure the level in those games fit together but there is always something missing. Like ... why here ???

 

While in a game like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, the setting was more obvious... in the case of street fighter you are a fighter traveling to world to become the best ... so of course when you find an opponant you are fighting in his/her home place.

 

I think it as a lot to do with the fact that few Fighting Games do have a story ... or a cohesive story. A lot of the time it feels like they throw a bunch of caracters in various environnement because it is cool ...

 

But the future isn't completely dark. Mortal Kombat 9 did an incredible job at making sense of the various stage with his story mode.

STOPSAMMING
STOPSAMMING

gaming has turned into shit thats why.

radialincisor
radialincisor

It seems to me like there is a lot of misconception as to what the role of a stage should be and how much consideration of resources they should be given, with tourney players regarding them as a mere visual distraction and casual players demanding more of the ficitonal immersion. They aren't wrong, but rather this is an outdated way of looking at it. Tekken 5 gives us LiLi's stage as a character study, but who wants to fight there? The same game gives us the wolve's den, a stage that could be in any fighter really, but the psychological representations amp you up for battle in a more relevant way than any character empathy could.

Arenas should appeal to a player in ways that are conducive to in-game play and experimentation, not be mere showpieces for generic tropes.

Lucky_Krystal
Lucky_Krystal

Its funny, I was just thinking this exact same thing as I was playing Tekken 6 the other day. Back when I played Tekken 3, I remembered that each character had their own stage and theme music that really fit with the characters. I thought that was a really nice touch. 

 

But like he said, I guess it would be hard to give a huge roster of characters their own individual stage. I understand that. But man, character stages and themes are something I miss about older fighting games (though I think street fighter still does the individual musical themes. Props to them).

Fallout_red
Fallout_red

I came here, hoping to get an explanation about MK3 level called Jade's Desert, featuring a trapped Cyrax! Other than that, really great article and nice choices.

rann89
rann89

Why is this so uncommon in modern fighters? The same reason Call of Duty is considered the best shooter now. 

JediKnight66
JediKnight66

...and yet a majority of tournament matches are played on the training stage.

zackcurl
zackcurl

i remember being a huge fan of the stages in X-Men: Children Of The Atom.  they moved and changed, and had a great feel to them that made you feel like you were in the same places you imagined from the comics.  Spiral's Mojovision stage, Psylocke's train stage, and the danger room level were personal favorites.  it was a great opportunity, i'm sure, for the developers to use the universe those characters already existed in to embellish their world in the game.  that game took every advantage it could get, and succeeded because of that.

g1rldraco7
g1rldraco7

I agree that the stages made to show what each fighter is all about makes the gaming experience fuller. I like how you feel like you're there and how the details make it want to come out. This is one aspect of the fighting games design that must not be cheap about and yet when I read this I heard Maxwell's voice how cool :)

SunicoXD
SunicoXD

Actually, the whole "stage speaks volumes about characters they represent" concept is not limited to just fighting games. It happens to almost every genre. Take chess for example: the checkered black and white stage represents everything that chess has to offer.

robfield
robfield

Developers realized that people would buy the game regardless of stage nuance. Games like Dead or Alive and Soul Calibur tried to maintain personality in stages, but then even those games fell off of it. It also doesn't help that most fighting game stages are not interactive.

NightFox313
NightFox313

I felt that SoulCalibur II represented the characters' stages really well. It's not like the later installments such as Soul Calibur IV, which really lost the feel for me. It's still a good game though.

mr_toffee
mr_toffee moderator

Concerning FG stages, Darkstalkers 3's Fetus of God stage warrants a mention just because it's flat-out creepy, eye-catching, and sets the stage for a climactic battle against Jedah.

IanNottinghamX
IanNottinghamX

I feel that many fighters and many games in general as technology advances, there seems to be more of an excuse to half ass things because its now possible for the graphics to be so detailed that they figure people arent paying attention. Things like simple design sense and  visual communication are being thrown to the wayside..its like production of the game content,decisions from higher ups,dlc content and tight deadlines in creating the product doesnt any longer give the developers a comfort zone to create things in the way that portray certain game design sensibilities in the right way.

tom_cat_01
tom_cat_01

I think developers these days are more wary of propagating national stereotypes/cliches in their stage and character design. Could you imagine if Street Fighter 2 was released for the first time today: with the stretchy, fire-breathing Yoga Indian, the Brazilian jungle monster, the hairy Russian wrestler, the Bruce-lee lookalike? - there would definitely be those quarters of the media who accuse the game of laziness, maybe even national stereotyping or racism - it just wouldn't fly.

MJ12-Conspiracy
MJ12-Conspiracy

Some of my fave fighting game stages were from Mortal Kombat and Killer Instinct, I was never that into Street Fighter so I never took notice. Another game I kinda liked the stages for was Eternal Champoint, that whole game had really good art compared to the early VF games that replaced it ugh.

IDK, really it was the fighting systems, the way fighters played why I played them, never liked SF or Tekken, loved MK and Soul Calibur....Eternal Champions, KI and KOF/Capcom VS SNK.

Looking forward to Injustice: Gods Among Us.....

3ThirtySeven
3ThirtySeven

Roster was definitely a factor.  Too many characters squeezed in to one game.  I'd also make a point to probably add Last Blade to this list, take your pick (mine would be the Kaede stage).

burgeg
burgeg

Well, I'm pretty sure the stages in the upcoming Injustice Gods Among us are going to be damn impressive. Especially with the whole interacting with the stage thing the game has going on.

King9999
King9999

I would say the roster size is definitely a factor as to why there are fewer stages, let alone inspired ones or character-specific stages.

jinzo9988
jinzo9988

3D happened.  Somehow the move from 2D stages to 3D completely killed this.  Yeah, there were games that had 2D stages that were irrelevant but it seems like the jump from 2D to 3D brought this change about fairly suddenly.

radialincisor
radialincisor

 @Coco_pierrot i agree and i think the term that should be used here is "genius loci", that is to say that levels should be unified in some way with both the proceedings and the outcome. this type of treatment is commonplace in movies, where the actions of the protagonist pick up context along the way and allow the use of additional sound fx and visual fx or even symbolisms to increase the emotional scope of what is being shone. (e.g. final scene in kung fu hustle. The scene ties together the character storylines but also, thru use of exaggerations and compositional techniques, resolves other, more meta subplots.)

zen120
zen120

@STOPSAMMING you say on a gaming website.

Uri-Z
Uri-Z

 @Lucky_Krystal I loved King's stage in Tekken 2. It really made me wonder why a wrestler with a tiger mask would reside in a church. And the music was awesome too, I always looked forward to that stage, fricking loved it

dr-bones
dr-bones

 @Fallout_red  As far as I can recall, Cyrax malfuctioned and simply started to walk endlessly . He wound up getting trapped in the desert, where he was eventually picked up by Special Forces. That's how he came to work with Jax and Sonya in the later games.

NightFox313
NightFox313

 @robfield I'd agree with you about how most fighting game stages are not interactive, but SoulCalibur V did something unique that I liked, which involved stages with multiple levels. Par example, if a person got rung out of the stage, then the next round would take place in a different part of the stage that was underneath, which was pretty neat.

BlackBaldwin
BlackBaldwin

 @MJ12-Conspiracy

 Dumb question but did they ever make a sequel to enternal champions?  I loved that game and I couldn't ever figure out how to do any of the finishing moves on that game but in all respect a great fighter!

jinzo9988
jinzo9988

I'm going to add an addendum to this and say that oversized character rosters killed this concept too.  Rosters grew to the point where having 30+ stages all tailored to each individual character started becoming unrealistic(or so it seems).

Fallout_red
Fallout_red

 @dr-bones Wow, I wasn't expecting that. Thanks for the info. As a MK fan, I feel kinda ashamed that I didn't know the actual history / reasoning behind that level (Back in the Genesis days, I spend days trying to perform a rumored stage fatality in that level and trying to understand why Cyrax was there).

Coco_pierrot
Coco_pierrot

 @Shabo883 

It is obvious that rann89 compared the praise of a very shallow game to the decline of anything quality in a game.

 

radialincisor
radialincisor

 @NightFox313  @robfield well this is probably a dead thread now, but to chime in anyway: the "interactivity" of these past stages has been quite limited. Starting with street fighter 2 ( which btw had breakable objects in the ryu stage and foreground objects which were later removed) and on to kakuto chojin and tekken 4, you can see that objects in the arena are used by tourney players to try and break the game. No dev wants that. So Cal 2 let you pick the stage and arena shape, which is imo a better solution.. in order to do it right, theyre going to have to go balls out and just get a lot of resources into the stage, a la power stone. if that one didnt have character orientations like Erghiez, but rather an orbital system like So Cal, they'd be onto something..

radialincisor
radialincisor

 @NightFox313  @robfield oh wait i thought kakuto chojin had breakable objects, my bad, i guess it doesnt... but tekken 4 has different terrain heights, in case anyone wondered