Bigredcoat

Videogames, politics, science, all the important things in life.

The Fighter is Dead

Posted by nfinit on April 2, 2007

(Submitted to The Platformers 4-2-07)

This article started off as an examination of three
traditional console genres and how developers and fans alike were
responsible for their demise. But upon further research, I realized that
two of these genres I had thought dead or dying- the shooter and the racing
game- were still vital parts of the gaming dynamic, evolving new concepts and
thus able to attract new fans. However, the third- the fighter-
has not seen a major revision in gameplay mechanics since the first Virtua
Fighter nearly fifteen years ago. How did the fighter, so recently a
essential factor of the gaming universe and a driving force of console sales,
collapse into irrelevance? And how have the shump and the racer, both
far older than the fighter, managed to escape obsolescence?

The Racer– Mirror Course

I know, it’s hard to understand how I could think the racer was near the
edge of relevance, especially when you consider how much marketing
faith Microsoft placed in Project Gotham 3 or how important Mario
Kart is to Nintendo. But as a devoted fan of the genre, I am hard
pressed to find appreciable evolution as of late. Today we see
racers split into two camps, with little leeway between. In one you
have the over-the-top brainless arcade frenzy of Burnout, where catastrophic
wrecks at 200 miles per hour with no discernible loss in position are
common. On the other end of the spectrum you have Forza Motorsports and
Grand Turismo 4 engaged in mortal combat over who can produce the most
soulless Nurburgring experience, the joy of driving wrung dry amid a maze of
menu screens set to a jazz fusion soundtrack.

But something happened to racers, the subtle sort of shift you don’t
really notice until it’s already passed by, and I believe the roots of this
change lay in Grand Theft Auto 3. Free roaming gameplay has come to the
racing genre, first seen in a full fledged game in Eden Game’s Test Drive:
Unlimited, and it represents a fundamental change in the philosophy of how
racers are played and presented. Whereas practically every other racing
game made gives you a list of racetracks to chose from with no transition
whatsoever between, TD:U presents the player with a thousand miles of roadway
modeled on Hawaii’s Oahu island. The island is the racetrack,
the player able to seek out races and events staged within.
Further, TD:U has a fully integrated online component, one that melds
seamlessly with the single-player game, the player often unable to tell the
difference between the normal AI cars and other, flesh-and-blood
drivers. As an actual racing game though, TD:U is a tad
uninspiring. Cars are largely the same, with little other than
acceleration and top speed differentiating them, and the racing
physics lean toward the arcade end of the spectrum while still not able
to approach the reckless joy of Burnout. However, it points a
way forward, and the sort of idea I desperately want to see Polyphony Digital
(the detail obsessive madmen behind Gran Turismo) copy whole cloth and place
their own racing ethos within.

The Shooter– Smart Bomb

By the end of the PlayStation 2 cycle Shumps had fallen into utter
irrelevance. While the games remained fundamentally sound (after all,
it’s hard to screw up a something three steps removed from Space
Invaders), they had become exercises in franchise self-abuse, with
gameplay conventions carved in stone before the NES was set to
silicon. If anything, the genre has actually
devolved from previous generations that
gave us Panzer Dragoon, Galaxy Force and Star Fox 64. Even
Treasure, masters of the traditional 2-D shump, gave us the excellent,
inventive puzzle shooter Bangai-O for the Dreamcast… barely a console
generation later they returned to remaking Gradius.

Shumps find themselves travelling quite the opposite path to redemption taken
by the racer, their evolution represented by a return to the roots of the
genre. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved hearkens back to the frenzy of
the arcades shooters of yore, using the power of the 360 not to create
high-rez polygons, but instead to throw a riot of lethal particle effects
at the player, frantic action not seen since Berserk and
Defender. Meanwhile the freely distributed Warning Forever
literally evolves, constantly pitting
the player in single-screen combat against a single, constantly changing
enemy. This minimalist (and free-of-charge)ethic is also found in
the work of Kenta Cho, creator of rRootage, Torus Trooper
and GunRoar; any of which in another age would have easily qualified
for franchise-worthy blockbusters.

The Fighter– Ring Out

I want you to try an experiment next time you’re mooching coffee and
magazines at the bookstore. Find a strategy guide for a 3d fighter,
something relatively simple, say Dead or Alive 4. Now find a
beginner’s guide to C++. Open them side by side. Which seems more
rewarding, learning the counters, command throws, string combos, alternate
stances, step-baiting, ect of DoA, or programming your own videogame from
scratch? It’s going to take you a good couple of hundred hours of
practice either way, at least one of the two will land you a degree somewhere
down the line.

You see, instead of devolution or division, the fighter fell victim to its
fans. Mired within arcane language and obtuse concepts, the
fighter finds itself cursed with a hardcore fanbase struck with
tunnel vision, a tunnel vision which the developers have embraced. excluding
new fans for the demands of tiered tournament play.
The hardcore fighter community does not want change, they want
incremental improvements to the same basic strategies laid out in Virtua
Fighter, and that’s something Namco and Sega and Temco are more
than prepared to dole out along with regularly scheduled graphics
upgrades. There is simply no way for a newcomer to the genre to find a
foothold, and without new fans any demand for new gameplay mechanics have
fallen to the wayside.

Summary

Stagnation of gameplay leads to stagnation within the playerbase. Once
your market stops growing you’re stuck with the same core group of people who
will buy your sequels no matter how stale they are, and you wind up catering
to those fans, forcing out new players. Within a short time you wind up
with Virtua Fighter 5 selling all of fifty thousand copies in it’s opening
week. This is the trap the racing genre found itself on the precipice
of, and the one the shump is currently trying to free itself
from. I don’t know if there’s a way out for the fighter, perhaps
we’ve seen everything interesting left to do with it. Nintendo
fans tell me the Smash Brothers franchise remains uncompromisingly fun while
still allowing a semblance of high-level play- I’ll have to take their word
for that, it’s not the sort of game that appeals to me. Even Midway has
admitted that the promise of fighting action itself isn’t quite enough to
sell Mortal Kombat anymore, having long ago decided to fill game discs out
with kart racing and puzzle games, turning what was once a well-respected
fighting franchise into something of a slipshod party game. Even Capcom,
progenitors of the genre and renown for their willingness to squeeze the final
penny from a franchise, realized there was no money left in the 2d fighter and
vacated their crown.

Which leads us to the real crime of all this. We’ll never
see an updated Morganna sprite.

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