The Year of the Combo

2012 was a tremendous year for fighting games. What trends emerge from such an outstanding lineup, and how can we ride this energy into the new year?

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As 2012 comes to a close, let’s take a moment to say "Hats off!" to the fighting game developers of the world, because this was a fantastic year for the genre. Between new releases and HD updates, there was at least one unique fighting game hitting the consoles for every month this year.

Not since the genre’s heyday in the mid-'90s has there been such volume and quality. It is a testament to the health of fighting games, and the support of their fans. Legendary franchises, such as Tekken and Dead or Alive, added powerful new entries to their lineups, while classics, such as JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Marvel Super Heroes, were given a second chance on modern hardware.

A closer examination of these successes reveals a common thread among the lot. And as 2013 approaches, that thread could be broken--for better or worse--by the genre's most diehard advocates: the fighting game community.

NEW AGE OF HEROES

A recurring design among many of this year’s marquee fighters was longer combos and combo-extending techniques. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and Dead or Alive 5 were the most overt with their bound and critical stun mechanics, respectively. Skullgirls wasn’t afraid to have combos lasting a solid 30 seconds (before the patch anyway), while PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale continues to provide some of the longest brawler combos this side of the Jump series.

But why are double- and triple-digit combos so popular? It's because they are intricately intertwined with the two fundamental challenges of any fighting match. No matter what game you're playing, or whom you are playing against, you are constantly cycling between two battles: player-versus-player and player-versus-self.

The first challenge--player-versus-player--covers the fundamentals of moving and attacking. As seen in the video above, simply landing a blow can be a tall order against a skilled opponent. In the first round, Duo Lon is not throwing out random moves and getting lucky. He is responding to (and in some cases predicting) Billy's actions. He is also dominating the player-versus-player challenge. With every jump, dash, and strike Billy makes, Duo Lon responds by putting himself in a strategically advantageous position to either avoid or counter the move.

No matter what game you're playing, or whom you are playing against, you are constantly cycling between two battles: player-versus-player and player-versus-self.
Hundreds of these snap decisions are made every round. While each move presents a risk, you can better your odds by understanding a character's fighting styles and the habits of your opponent. Of course, it's as much a physical challenge as mental. Fast reflexes are required to keep pace with these mental gymnastics.

This leads us to the second challenge--player-versus-self--which covers execution and efficiency. Imagine you have just scored a chance blow against that really annoying Rocket Raccoon in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. This was completely unexpected, and you have less than a second to react. Do you know the best combo--based on positioning, available meter, and time remaining--for that exact moment? Can you execute all those inputs perfectly?

In this situation, the challenge is no longer external (fighting the raccoon) but internal (performing the combo). Rocket Raccoon is helpless and will not be a problem again until the combo is either finished or fumbled. In these empowering moments, players get to demonstrate their mastery over the fighting mechanics, and their opponent, while bringing themselves closer to victory with every blow. Now, it is worth noting that some fighting games include ways to escape combos, but there are often severe restrictions placed on these techniques.

MATCH OF THE MILLENNIUM

The outcome of any fight will largely be determined by how well you grapple with these two challenges. Succeeding at one but not the other is often insufficient. If you can't land hits, and then confirm those hits into combos, then you won't find many wins in your tally. Proficiency in both does not come easy and takes a lot of practice. The fighting genre has been around for over 20 years, and some of its community members have been playing for just that long.

To reward this dedication, the genre has steadily grown more complex. Combo-extending techniques are a good example because they offer rewards for preexisting knowledge by giving players new (and lethal) ways to apply that knowledge. These additions lend much to the player-versus-self challenge, while the player-versus-player challenge has remained largely static. Surveying the genre at the end of 2012 reveals a landscape filled with extremely technical fighting games all targeting the experienced fighter.

For the genre to remain healthy, this pattern needs to change.

Continuing down a road in which advancements merely target experienced fighters will only lead to games that are suited for experienced fighters. To promote the health of the genre, there needs to be growth that reaches beyond the combo counter. The masterful design of longstanding franchises is certainly something to be celebrated, but there is a pressing need to develop new ways to attract fresh competitors.

2013 will be a pivotal time for the genre. Unlike in prior years, many fighting games in 2013's lineup are deviating from traditional design. New and original games are taking a fresh look at player-versus-player design, while stepping back from intimidating, player-versus-self mechanics. How the fighting game community responds to these games is going to have a major impact on the genre's health moving forward.

FIGHT FOR THE FUTURE

The indie space offers the most extreme examples of this shift in design. Divekick and Senor Footsies strip away all combos and restrict movement in interesting ways. Basically, they’re taking the "combo" out of "touch-of-death combo" and seeing what happens. This is an important experiment, as these games can show players the fun of single, one-on-one combat, without the upfront commitment of learning a highly technical set of mechanics.

Over the years, the FGC has formed the heart of the genre, and their immense support through guides, videos, and tournaments is what keeps fighting games healthy after release.
Indies aside, For example, 2013's larger productions are also finding new ways to distinguish themselves. NetherRealm Studio's DC Comics-inspired fighter Injustice: Gods Among Us has shown a greater emphasis on stage selection by letting fighters weaponize background elements to attack their opponents. And while details are sparse on the fourth Super Smash Bros. game, it is unlikely Nintendo and Namco Bandai will try to conform the series' already distinct style of fighting.

Together, these games have the opportunity to entice new players to the fighting game genre, players who didn't grow up with genre mainstays. But this growth will not be easy without the support of the genre's greatest strength, the fighting game community. Over the years, the FGC has formed the heart of the genre, and its immense support through guides, videos, and tournaments is what keeps fighting games healthy years after release. However, not every game can afford to target this core community, and games that lack support can quickly fade from competition.

Outside of the games themselves, 2012 also saw new ways for the community to get involved with their favorite genre. Shoryuken launched their beta for the SRK Fantasy League, a fighting game twist on fantasy sports. Points were awarded for correctly predicting bracket results, and future versions may award prizes for high scores. Elsewhere, EventHubs debuted Fight Tracker: a service designed to help members of the fighting game community find, and fight, each other across different game consoles or in person. The team has a lot of additional features planned for this service, including support for coordinating events and venues.

As 2013 approaches, the genre nears a crossroads where it can grow beyond the core fighting game community. If original fighting games that don't adhere to genre conventions can find success, that will benefit everyone. It will promote more new ideas and more experimentation. The results will form a larger fan base and better designs for the entire genre.

With the community's support of fighting games as a whole--and not just individual releases--2013 could spark a wealth of new ideas and creativity. Right now, the fans have a lot of influence in how this growth will progress, if it progresses at all. Use it well, and hopefully there will be many more years as strong as 2012 for fighting games.

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Discussion

20 comments
brxricano
brxricano

You COULD think about the Year Of The Combo....OR! or.....you could think about Combo Of The Year! eh? EH?! DONT YOU JUDGE ME!

Deanpool
Deanpool

Personally i like Beat em ups, but the online beat em up community is pathetic - i mean i should not be playing against  people who regard themselves as seasoned pro's and hearing the words "Ha-do-ken" over a hundred times in a 60 second round. Yes i admit i'm weak against human players but i shouldnt have to be a fighting phenom to have a fair fight against "pro's".

CW1252
CW1252

Oh yeah, they need to bring back Toshinden.

CW1252
CW1252

Nothing is wrong with fighters in my opinion and I totally disagree that they're being targeted to 'experienced fighters'. The author right when he says that to be good at fighters takes dedication, practice, knowledge of the games mechanics, and fine reflexes. But that not how I would interpret these elements as for the 'experienced'. They've taken alot of effort to educate people about the games with tutorials , strategy guides, and etc. Fighters are now geared to make people ready as ready as anyone experienced. Besides fighters come with a learning curve regardless. 

 

Keep the fighters just the way they are BUT give better servers! With arcades being dead, the industry needs to focus on making sure fighters give quality response online as this is critical to its reception (e.g. KOF XI).  Also, I think people need to learn the mechanics and learn to stop rage quitting when they eat a combo or when someone's figured their game out at punishes them for being predictable. 

 

As for innovation, nothing gives more pleasure than the ability to punish mistakes even more brutally. Thats what I believe players want the ability to do (remember how players made MVC/MVC2's combo system evolve into a hate-crime. Friggin finesse it tell you.). They manipulated it so well and many people felt the wrath (e.g. Cyclops MXvsSF/ Killer Instinct II ).Ultra! Ultra! Ultra! Ultra! Combooo!

joshhi
joshhi

Great article! Thanks Maxwell. You are one of the few - if not the only - journalist from a major gaming website who's passionate about fighting games and knows what he's talking about when covering that particular genre; one of the reasons I keep coming back to Gamespot. Happy holidays to you. Looking forward to reading your pieces in 2013!

Hugoboss0889
Hugoboss0889

fighting games (street fighter, Mortal Kombat, KOF, Killer instinct...etc.) were a huge part of my childhood

:D

ill always love them and i hope they keep doing well

tgwolf
tgwolf

I don't want it to continue, fighting-only games are just game-spam, they are a sorry excuse for ripping players off a good experience.

chechak7
chechak7

As 2013 approaches,Half Life 3 is coming closer ...... that is  great 

area51_33
area51_33

I Loled at this, fighting games haven't changed in 20 years, and they never will, get used to it,this "Maxwell Mcgee" guy must suck really bad at these games, go play pokemon or Wii fit.

area51_33
area51_33

I Loled at this, fighting games haven't changed in 20 years, and they never will, get used to it,this "Maxwell Mcgee" guy must suck really bad at these games, go play pokemon or Wii fit.

chipwithdip
chipwithdip

There's no real way to keep what makes a classic, arcade fighter "good" while making it accessible to mommy, daddy, and lil sis. It's a hardcore genre. Either you're can play games or you can't. It ain't easy, but a real gamer has better odds. Not trying to be an ass, but in all honesty, that's what it comes down to. Super Smash and PSABR may be the only two fighters out there that could appeal to a wide of a large array of skill levels, but they aren't arcade fighters.In the end, that's what I hate about game critics, especially Game Spot's. They call for change in Mario games and fighting games, but at the same time, they fail to fully understand the consequences of those possible changes. In this case, that depth you find in classic fighters like Tekken and Street Fighter would be totally screwed up if you started going all "dumbed down and simple" on us (especially Tekken. Already pretty masher friendly).

wantbackin
wantbackin

I think the future of the genre has hit its plateau. Out of all the genres, it is probably the one which could use a lot of improvement, including trying to appeal to wider audiences. Fighting games are not "system sellers" nor do they put much of an attempt at bringing in new people to the genre. It's funny how the sports and racing genres get flak for holding course, the fighting genre is no different.

 

I strongly doubt we'll see much in 2013 for the genre. Developers will be waiting for the next console cycle to really put much into the future of the genre. Let's just hope that 2013 is the beginning of the next generation of gaming so that all genres (not just fighting) see improvements.

saint311
saint311

I think for the genre to REALLY flourish, there needs to be dedicated servers for online play for each game.  Are there any fighting games that have dedicated servers for online play?  More often than not, when I try to get on Skullgirls or MK or BlazBlu online, it's laggy and frustrating.

StevenDaReal18
StevenDaReal18

No, I am not looking forward to no watering down of fighting games. I started getting into fighting games more in late 2010 with SSFIV so I might be considered part of the new audience fighting games have been trying to attract. What got me so into fighting games was their depth. I was interested in doing deep combos and learning about the game. After SSFIV I bought MVC3 thinking I would be able to do cool combos with super heroes(NO!). The game was all watered down and simplified combos felt awkward. I discovered Marvel vs Capcom 2 and was like What the F--k type of sequel was 3. Im not looking for watered down fighting games. So what I loss games I still play have been having fun and learning this whole time. I was interested in Injustice until they said they watered down the buttons. I wanted to do depth combos with Batman and feel like it was time to yell "I AM BATMAN!" in my living room. I'm not looking for watered down superheroes or fighting games. F--K That.

CincoToes
CincoToes

I love fighting games, but I'm not a fan of these intricate combo systems. They're cool enough to pull off, but what if you're the guy getting bounced through the air? You just have to wait since there usually isn't much you can do once you've been launched. Games like that end up having 2 or 3 real confrontations in between a bunch of juggling, and I find that dull even if I'm winning. I'd rather play a fighting game where there is tension throughout the match, a constant fight, instead of a few very brief confrontations and the meat of the game being an exhibition of combo memory and execution.

Tzunoy
Tzunoy

Back to roots if you wanna make a difference.

USAPATRIOT21
USAPATRIOT21

There need to be more arcade machines with these new fighting games. That was the best place to play Street Fighter II

Kats_RK
Kats_RK

Rather boring this year of games to be honest.

Victorious_Fize
Victorious_Fize

Great article. It's about time the genre expands to more than being powered by the FGC. Like it or not, the FGC, while doing absolutely great things for the genre, also limits it a lot. It makes it a niche area and makes for an average gamer very hard to excel without FGC playing a part.

 

I too, lament how VF fell into obscurity while games like Skull Girls and P4A became an instant hit, and the FGC did nothing about it (shows that the community is not mature enough to handle the genre). All in all, having a hivemind to reign over a gaming genre, and worst of all, to pander for it, is usually a very bad idea.

syztem
syztem

I see no reason for the genre to betray itself for the sake of appealing to outsiders who are frightened of complexity.

 

I've already witnessed the first person shooter sell its soul. I'd rather not see fighting games do the same.

gba1989
gba1989

This is inspiring, makes me want to play a fighting game once again.

duran_gabriel
duran_gabriel

My X,A,B,Y buttons will start suffering again :D

asifah30
asifah30

I really like fighting games and I've played so many times Street fighter (92') but now I can't play more  fighting games because they come only for consoles and I don't own any console only PC.

Taasi23
Taasi23

I CAN'T CONTROL IT!!!

NeoIostars
NeoIostars

no mention of VF5 Final Showdown? Aw, come on...

g1rldraco7
g1rldraco7

Very good point Maxwell. I hope the right changes are made and what fighting games are you excited for in 2013? For me It's Dark Stalkers Resurrection, Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 and hopefully some information on the next Bloody Roar fighting game.

R2C25
R2C25

Just bought a fighting stick to play the original VF5, still looking good and its combos its second to none. On the other hand whats sup with Microsoft holding on Killer Instinct and not making it? They mean to tell me there is no one that can program this game? It was the first fighting  game to focus mostly on combos and in my opinion it still has the best combinations.

00LiteYear
00LiteYear

It's possible to do Player vs Self vs Player at the same time. I'm talking about confusing yourself so much it confuses the opponent too.

King9999
King9999

I'm really hoping for a Rival Schools revival next year.

vetalfox
vetalfox

@CincoToes very true. Today's fighting games genre can be renamed into juggling games. 

What i want to see is the ability to combine your basic land strikes in any combinations possible and your opponent being able to answer it at any micropause. After all you will never see jugling in real fight.

179107199999
179107199999

@CincoToes I'm an avid Tekken fan but TTT2 is more combo than anything else.The game has styles that are fun to explore but for the most part the games system is maximized by players to go in to combos instead of actual fighting.However I still play that more than SC5.I quit that game because of diluted movelists simpilifed stances (mainly how terrible Natsu's possesion is) and Viola and Zwei being high combo characters.SC2 was the best to me because it wasn't about combos.It actually was about knowing you character and another character and landing critical hits and making setups instead of combos.In that sense Soul Calibur 2 was at least to me the very epitome of a fighting game.Every game this year and I mean EVERY fighting game concentrated on combos more than anything.(Still miffed at Nightmare's infinite in SC5.I mean come on an infinite in SC?) Its ashame something revolutionary like Bushido Blade wouldn't make it in this era.Simply because you have to react and choose your move wisely for one wrong move and you die.At least you don't get juggled for half a screen and barely have a chance to fight.Can you imagine being a new player and getting launched twice in Tekken and not being able to really play? Juggles are fun but when they're over extended they at least to me take the fun out of a game.I want to play a fighting game where you can max a person's style and not just rely on juggle mechanics.I still love TTT2 but T6 for me was better because in my exprience you could actually style fight more than juggle batttle

Niitris
Niitris

 @CincoToes This.

 

I loved the fighting games of the 90's. Games that put more emphasis on fundamentals rather than who can do the 20 hit combo first. Don't get me wrong, I love the way fighters have evolved to make these more creative systems, and there are room for crazy, combo heavy games like MvC and BlazBlue, but I think there needs to be games that are a little more "simple" in nature.

 

An example, one heavy slash (HP) in Samurai Shodown can take in between 25-40% of your health (ouch), compare that to the likes of Guilty Gear, BlazBlue, or even SoulCalibur (where you have to do a combo or super to take the same amount of health).

 

Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat (1,2) Samurai Shodown (when it was good), Tekken (before the PS2 days) were games that look great (for their time) and put importance on landing that solid hit and goods fundamentals. In my opinion, they're every bit as fun as today's games. I hope that fighters for the next gen systems are a return to that, but making gameplay elements that enhance the old school experience (like what parrying did for SF3 or what the sidestep did for 3D fighters).

 

Besides, a lot more people would play fighters if the amount of moves for the best options wasn't so excessive. Also, simpler and less combos =/= less depth; anyone who's played Street Fighter 2 would know that.

King9999
King9999

 @CincoToes Agree 100%.  Ever watch the classic "Ode to the 2-hit Combo" vid?  It was made years ago, but it's still relevant since modern fighters are so combo-centric.

Runock
Runock

 @USAPATRIOT21 Arcades are all but dead in th USA. Japan still has success with them but not us.

King9999
King9999

 @USAPATRIOT21 Unfortunately, that's not feasible with arcades shutting down left and right.

syztem
syztem

 @Victorious_Fize Skullgirls survived for like two weeks. P4A made it a month.

 

There are people from every fighter who complain about the lack of support their game is receiving, and then proceed to do nothing about it. If no one shows up to events, the game dies. If you don't want it to die, show up. It's not on the FGC, it's on you.

megakick
megakick

 @syztem

 Not really complex when there is a set of combo you just need to remember them. its' not much different then Guitar Hero. Rather play a Fighter with no preset combos and air juggles.

USAPATRIOT21
USAPATRIOT21

@syztem What are you talking about? There are better first person shooters out there than ever before.

gunther78362
gunther78362

There's a whole bunch of fight games for pc, SF4 and SF X Tekken are two examples off the top of my head

King9999
King9999

 @NeoIostars There's a link to an article about VF5 in there, but it's not good news.  There's a VF5-exclusive tournament coming next year, though.

Marksman2200
Marksman2200

 @R2C25 Apparently, Microsoft/Rare failed to renew the copyright for the name in the mid 2000's. It was then by chance that Fox did a very short lived drama of the same name. The name is now under Fox's ownership and will be until the copyright has expired.  Now Microsoft can't use the name "Killer Instinct".

nini200
nini200

@vetalfox @CincoToes Which is why Virtua Fighter series is the epitome of 3D fighting games.  Juggles exist in the game but they aren't overbearing and physics play a huge role.  For instance, you can't juggle Taka like you can El Blaze due to a huge difference in weight.

RedLegZeff
RedLegZeff

 @USAPATRIOT21  @syztem Well first person shooters are a bit from what they were back in the day, but I think there's still a lot of variety and strength. Rpg's have mostly sold out, say bioware rpgs for example are completely gone. Survival horror games, nearly dead(if not for lone survivor I'd say they're gone). Several other genre's are endangered too. First person shooters are probably the healthiest, though show some dumbing down.