The best fighting games have been a part of pop culture since the 80s. The genre, which has amassed a huge fan following around the world, started off in the arcades, where inserting coins into big, noisy machines to take on friends and strangers around the room in a show of skill and determination was the true form displaying mastery over the format.
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Things have changed, sure, but the genre has retained its core essence throughout its many innovations and iterations. While the visuals have improved, things have gotten more flashy and bombastic (or more gorey when it comes to Mortal Kombat), the art of fighting games has remained the same.
It’s one of the most challenging genres, where quick thinking and twitch reflexes play as much of a part as knowing your strengths and weaknesses, as well as quickly assessing the same of your opponent. It’s a genre where every frame rendered matters, and timing is of the utmost importance.
10 Best Fighting Games of All Time
As such, we have collected some of the finest games this genre has to offer across all time. This is not a definitive list by any means, and we have surely missed some classics. In that case, do post your favourites in the comment below!
Street Fighter II (1991)
Widely regarded as the game that revolutionized the fight game genre, Street Fighter II is the timeless classic that not only set the standard but also established the blueprint for modern fighting games as a whole.
What worked in Street Fighter II’s favour was its iconic character design and vibrant graphics. The diverse cast of characters, each hailing from different parts of the world, appealed to a worldwide audience and contributed to the game’s cultural significance.
Top that off with its competitive nature and multiplayer mode, which propelled the game to new heights and laid the foundation for professional fighting game tournaments.
Best Street Fighter Games:
If you like Street Fighter, here are the best games to play:
- Street Fighter II
- Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo
- Street Fighter 6
- The original Street Fighter.
Mortal Kombat (1992)
If Street Fighter II put the fighting game genre on the map, Mortal Kombat marked the M-rated paradigm shift that no one really expected.
What set the game apart was its groundbreaking use of digitized actors for character sprites, which blended realistic martial arts and meticulously captured animations, making players feel like they were actually controlling real fighters in a life-or-death struggle.
Its introduction of Fatalities – the gruesome and gory finishing moves executed at the end of a match – helped the game achieve even higher heights and also attract controversy. Back then, such violent depiction in games was unheard of (the game pre-dates Doom!), and it raised many eyebrows and gained traction in the mainstream media as well.
Best Mortal Kombat Games:
- Mortal Kombat
- Mortal Kombat 3
- Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe
- Mortal Kombat 11.
Tekken 3 (1997)
Tekken 3 stood out in the increasingly crowded fighting game scene, being one of the first fully 3D fighting games on the market.
It used the power of the PlayStation to present a robust 3D fighting system that seamlessly blended beautiful visuals, depth and accessibility, which immediately caught the attention of players around the globe.
Its wide character roster, each with its unique fighting style, combos, and backstory, also helped broaden its appeal, and its innovative game modes, such as Tekken Force and Tekken Ball, cemented its place as an all-time classic.
Best Tekken Games
- Tekken 3
- Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection
- Tekken 8.
Soulcalibur II (2002)
Soulcalibur II’s weapon-based fighting mechanics are a shining example of how the genre has continued to evolve, pushing the envelope further and reaching for new heights.
Along with the weapons – unique to each character – the 8-way run system, fluid 3D movement, and the introduction of Guard Impact, which enabled players to parry and counter their opponent’s attacks, played a pivotal role in the mass adoption of the game.
Add to that the stunning visuals, an engaging single-player campaign, and crossovers such as Link from The Legend of Zelda, Heihachi Mishima from Tekken, and Spawn from Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, added even more to the game’s popularity.
King of Fighters XIII (2010)
While the King of Fighters series doesn’t hold much in terms of single-player content like its peers, its long-lasting space in the fighting game scene can solely be attributed to deep and intricate gameplay mechanics.
King of Fighters XIII refined the series’ 3v3 team battle system, introducing the EX Mode and Hyper Drive mechanics. The EX Mode enhanced individual character abilities, while the Hyper Drive system allowed players to execute extended combos and powerful moves. These additions provided a high level of technical depth, which competitive players cherished.
While King of Fighters has seen many instalments, King of Fighters XIII ranks at the top of the pile.
Capcom vs SNK 2 (2001)
Capcom vs SNK 2’s popularity lies in its revolutionary crossover concept – which has now become the norm – by bringing together characters from two of the most popular fighting game developers, Capcom and SNK. This collaboration resonated with fans of both series, offering a dream match scenario where characters like Ryu from Street Fighter could clash with Kyo Kusanagi from The King of Fighters.
What made the game really tick was the introduction of the Groove System, offering players multiple fighting styles or “grooves” to choose from, each with its unique mechanics and advantages. This depth allowed for diverse playstyles, appealing to a broad spectrum of players and contributing to the game’s massive popularity in the esports scene.
Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown (2012)
The legacy of Virtua Fighter series has a history dating back to the arcade era, and the franchise has consistently set standards for 3D fighting games and has built a reputation for its technical innovation.
One of the most peculiar things about Virtua Fighter is that the game only employs three buttons – punch, kick, and guard – but makes it work by giving each character their own meticulously crafted moveset, and demands a deep understanding of spacing, timing, and intricate combo execution from its players.
As it is with fighting games, anything that requires mastery over its technical aspects becomes a huge hit with the fans of the genre, and Virtua Fighter is no exception. It fosters this with a commitment to balance and a well-tuned roster, ensuring that no character possesses an unfair advantage.
Guilty Gear Xrd REV 2 (2017)
While Guilty Gear Strive has been a huge success, Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2 is its own unique take on the franchise as well, as it presents a pure, unfiltered take on the Guilty Gear formula everyone has come to love.
Its odd-ball characters, coupled with its charming 3D cel-shaded art style and cinematic fighting sequences, present a fluid and immersive fighting experience.
The game also keeps an eye on newcomers to the series with the ‘Stylish’ mode, which simplifies inputs and executions, while those who want to test their mettle can play the game in the ‘Technical’ mode, which unlocks the deep and complex gameplay mechanics ready to be exploited.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax (2013)
Several factors contributed to Persona 4 Arena Ultimax’s appeal and popularity, one of which is the blend of Personas and combat styles into one.
Each character possesses distinct Personas, which can result in a varied and strategic gameplay experience. The crossover of characters from Persona 3 and Persona 4 also helped, bringing over fans from the beloved RPG franchise to the fighting game.
Add to that the RPG elements with the status elements, Persona’s trademark visual style and a killer soundtrack, along with a suite of well-crafted roster, and it’s not hard to see why this game topped the charts.
Killer Instinct (2013)
A remake of sorts of Rare’s 1994 title, Killer Instinct for the Xbox, proved that it was more than the Mortal Kombat imitator many touted it to be.
One of the game’s many innovations was the introduction of combo breakers, allowing players to interrupt their opponent’s combos, fostering a strategic environment where even players who find themselves cornered can claw back in. The combo system, where players could link various attacks into devastating combos, also added to its appeal, as well as being the first game to integrate rollback netcode.
The game still continues to be popular, especially in the competitive scene. However, fans are still pinning hopes for Microsoft to release a sequel sometime soon.
Mufaddal Fakhruddin has been writing about games and technology for the past 15 years. He has lost count as to how many reviews he has written over the years, but he is sure headphone reviews make up at least 70% of that.