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A (Brief) History of the Fighting Game

Let’s take a brief look back at the history of the genre, to see how such games became so iconic

fighting games
Mortal Kombat – Image Courtesy of Midway

Whether you have twitch reflexes, enjoy gory spectacle or simply despise the genre, chances are you know the big hitters of the fighting game genre. From Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Tekken to Super Smash Bros. the fighting game is among the most loved (and most divisive) genres out there.

Better yet, many fighting games can be picked up at incredible discounts.

Let’s take a brief look back at the history of the genre, to see how such games became so iconic.


fighting game
Enter the Dragon (1973) via IMDB

1970s: The Kung-Fu Craze

While the number of fighting games released in 1970s can probably be counted on your fingers, the 1970s planted many of the seeds from which the genre later flourished.

Most notably, the 1970s saw an explosion in the popularity of martial arts films. A spike in popularity largely attributed to one legendary figure: Bruce Lee. Films like Game of Death (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973) catapulted martial arts to the forefront of contemporary cool. Kickstarting the global fascination with martial arts.

Looking deeper, martial arts films also shared many stylistic similarities with the games which would follow—with many structuring themselves around a variety of martial arts challenges, culminating in various boss battles throughout the movies’ runtime. Such filmic structure undoubtedly had an influence on the structure of the games which followed.

Street Fighter – Image Courtesy of CAPCOM

The First Fighters

As games developed throughout the 1970s, fist-fighting games based on boxing became popular. Sega’s Heavyweight Champ, for example, release for arcade consoles in 1976. Three years later Warrior, developed by the short-lived US company Vectorbeam, introduced sword-fighting to the mix while keeping the same one-versus-one format.

Fast forward to 1984 and Nintendo released the legendary Punch-Out, a game which introduced features like blocking, dodging, stamina metres and more. Establishing many genre trends.

That very same year, Technos Japan released Karate Champ—a game which would go on to be labelled the first true fighting game. Karate Champ innovated on the established formulas, allowing players spar in tense one-versus-one duels performing a variety of complex moves through specific dual-joystick controls.

Up to this, players were always competing against the computer. But that was about to change. After its initial success, Karate Champ released a Player vs Player edition later the same year, becoming the first fighting game to allow competitive play.

This was understandably an immediate hit, causing other developers to scramble similar titles for release, such as Kung-Fu Master designed by Takashi Nishiyama—the man who would go on to pioneer the Street Fighter franchise, among others.

By 1985, martial arts games had begun to take over the arcades, enthralling players with their deep control schemes and tense competitive play.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Enter the Franchise

Throughout the rest of the 1980s, countless developers chimed in on the ever-more popular genre. While many games fell to the wayside, largely lost to history, the following 10 years saw many  of the most foundational franchises emerge.

Capcom’s Street Fighter released into arcades in 1987 innovating a unique control scheme using a punching-pad cabinet. While this wasn’t successful, the alternate six-button cabinet sold tens of thousands of units, propelling Capcom to develop Street Fighter II, which solidified the genre and has gone down in history as one of the greatest fighters of all time.

Mortal Kombat followed suit in 1992, introducing a new and far more brutal take on the genre. While its depictions of extreme violence sparked severe controversy, it may have in fact solidified the game’s place in gaming history—allowing it to spawn a new franchise in an already bustling marketplace. Mortal Kombat II released in the following year, and the series received its first film adaptation in 1995 which managed to strike #1 at the box office upon release.

Other touchstone franchises also flourished through the 1990s, from Tekken and Dead or Alive to the creation of mash-up fighting games like Soulcalibur and Super Smash Bros.

While the 1990s saw the fighting game market overflow with franchises, the genre’s popularity continued to boom. With many gamers becoming vehement followers of their favourite take on the nail-biting genre.

World Of Warcraft – Image Courtesy of Blizzard

Decline and Rebirth

By the early 2000s, the fighting game genre was one of the most ubiquitous in gaming. And with that ubiquity comes player fatigue. While developers continued to flood the market with sequels, new IPs and absurd mashups—from Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe to Capcom vs SNK: Millennium Fight 2000—players slowly moved onto other genres which were themselves evolving at the time—most notably MMORPGs, shooters and AAA story games.

This led to a huge decline in the fighting game player base, in turn pushing developers away from the genre. With the only remnants being the most established franchises and the die-hard competitive communities, which kept the older titles alive.

But the decline in mainstream appeal didn’t spell the end of the genre. Instead, it opened the door for established genres to double-down on their unique selling points, while also giving pace for passionate indie developers to contribute to the genre—seeing fantastic new takes on the genre like Skull Girls.

While the fighting game may not be at the forefront of gaming culture like it once was, it is certainly here to stay with a die-hard community not only playing but innovating on the genre. One thing’s for sure, we can’t wait to see a bunch of awesome new releases throughout the 2020s.

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