Virtua Fighter 2 | Arcade 1994, Saturn 1995 | Pai and Wolf
It was the summer of 1994 and I was walking through a casino--not gambling--and found myself inexplicably drawn towards the side of the building that had an absolutely enormous arcade. In the front of the arcade, there was a screen featuring one of the most amazing displays of technology I had ever seen--Akira fighting Shun Di on a raft as it was floating along a river and underneath a massive bridge. I played quite a bit of the original Virtua Fighter, but what I was seeing was such an enormous leap in visual detail that I almost didn't believe it was real. But Virtua Fighter 2 was very real and while it's amazing rendering of polygons sparked the initial attraction, it was the depth of gameplay mechanics that kept me coming back.
I had two mains for VF2 (I know that kind of defeats the purpose of a main), but there was good reason. I liked using Pai because anytime I busted her out on someone, at that time, they almost always just expected her same punch, punch, punch, kick combo from Virtua Fighter, not realizing that she had a great assortment of counters, reversals, and other combos at her disposal. I found myself switching to Wolf later on because all of his grapple moves just looked really cool and often caught opponents off guard, but I won't hesitate to say that I abused his clothesline.
Samurai Shodown 2 | Neo Geo 1994 | Hanzo Hattori
To this day, Samurai Shodown 2 is one of the greatest fighting games ever created. When the original game came out, I found myself leaning a bit more towards Haohmaru for reasons that should be obvious--his moves were easy to pull off for any Street Fighter fan and his standard moves had a stupid amount of reach. Going into 2, I felt like I needed to change things up, so I went right for Hanzo--a character I used off and on before in the original Samurai Shodown because he is a ninja and not, in fact, a samurai.
Hanzo in Samurai Shodown 2 was the first character that really taught me the importance of properly executing cross-ups despite criticism from opponents that using such moves constituted cheating. But what I liked most about playing as Hanzo was how deception factored into his repertoire of moves, especially when it came to intertwining his projectile attack (the bouncing fireball) and his teleport move.
Saturday Night Slam Masters | Arcade 1993 | Mike Haggar
Saturday Night Slam Masters was a fantastic wrestling game, but it was also just a really great fighting game. Sure, it wasn't necessarily as complex as something like Street Fighter, but it had more than enough depth to keep it interesting. Plus, it had one thing most fighting games didn't have--Mike Haggar. Yes, that Mike Haggar. The only mayor in America who knows how to really get things done and his tools are two massive fists and devastating pile driver. There's some debate as to whether or not this is pre-Final Fight or post-Final Fight Mike Haggar, but it doesn't matter. I used him in this game and I will use him in Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
Golden Axe: The Duel | Saturn 1996 | None of them. They're all terrible.
My experience with Golden Axe: The Duel comes from the Saturn version of the game, so apologies if the arcade version is any better, but the Saturn version was absolute garbage. Maybe I just didn't give it a chance, but everything about it felt like a knockoff of Samurai Shodown, only someone forgot to include the parts that actually made Samurai Shodown good. Another sign of its horribleness: It's one of the few fighting games I've ever returned to the store and this is coming from someone who actually owned Way of the Warrior for 3DO. In fact, I think the only reason why I didn't return it that same day was due to being a huge fan of the original Golden Axe and perhaps hoping Sega would release Revenge of Death Adder for the Saturn if The Duel did well. It did not. But hey, Sega? Revenge of Death Adder would make for a nice XBLA/PSN release.