After Street Fighter II came Mortal Kombat. After Mortal Kombat came a tsunami.
As the Street Fighter II phenomena grew in arcades and then again when ports of the popular games came to home consoles, nearly every company in the industry suddenly found themselves in a position to capitalize on the frenzy. A complete list of the 2D one-on-one fighting games that resulted in the subsequent years surpasses 112 entries; many of these proving little more than flash in the pan titles, never to be heard from again once the craze quieted.
However, there were a few titles that managed to sell in decent numbers, establish a loyal following and, in many cases, spawn sequels – some leading to genuine franchises. Street Fighter II (and its dozens of iterations that followed) and Mortal Kombat (with its direct sequels) may have been the undisputed leaders of the pack at the time, but the following titles managed to share in the limelight:
Created by Rare and released by Midway in arcades and Nintendo for the SNES in 1994, Killer Instinct was one of the more successful one-on-ones to come on the scene post SF2 and MK.
It borrows the basic move set and player controls from the SF2 school of play but emphasizes finishing moves like in MK. Unique to Killer Instinct was the concept of double energy bars: Rather than winning two rounds out of three, each player begins with two bars of energy. If a character finishes with his or her opponent’s first life bar, the fight stops and resumes, similar to a round, but the winning character still keeps whatever amount of energy he or she had at the time. The player who depletes their opponent’s second life bar wins the match and advances.
Also, while combos were all the rage at the later stage of the trend when Killer Instinct came on the scene, KI was unique in that it offered players the opportunity to input combo breakers to stymie an opponent’s offensive charge. This meant equal emphasis on mastering button combinations on both the offensive and defensive side of the coin.
Finishing moves here are known as No Mercies and each character boasts a pair of these violent enders in the grand tradition of MK’s Fatalities though considerably less gory. Another twist on the formula is the Humiliation – or the combination finisher when your opponent is still on their first life bar which, rather than end them, causes them to dance.
It would perhaps become best known for its roster of fantastical fighters (there are, for example, a skeleton, velociraptor, android ninja, and werewolf on the list to mention a few), the game actually began development as a much more grounded Mortal Kombat style title known at the time as Brute Force.
Interestingly, the full motion video and audio clips were so data intensive at the time that every custom arcade cabinet actually contained a hard disk drive (HDD) strictly containing that information.
The game’s unique visuals were accomplished using early motion capture technology coupled to prerendered character models. Backgrounds, in the arcade, were treated like fully rendered movie files and thus boasted a nonstationary camera that scaled, zoomed, rotated and moved about the play areas.
The SNES version, due to memory limitations, was forced to do away with the fancy camera angles but maintained a lot of the arcade’s appeal with the prerendered characters, accurately depicted backgrounds and port-perfect combos and moves.
Killer Instinct did just about everything right, offering a unique character roster, deep combo and move sets, and, rare for the genre, a surprisingly deep backstory with individual character development. The downside was that it tended to fall in on the difficult side against the AI and demanded ridiculously precise timing to keep from being decimated (some combos could go on for as many as 80-consecutive hits, effectively ending a match in one sequence). However, it was timing, mostly, that prevented it from achieving the “legendary” status of its predecessors SFII and MK. By the time it came home in 1995, the 2D fighting game hype had tampered considerably; especially considering the move to full 3D gaming indicative of the 5th console generation was already well underway. Even still, Rare managed to move 3.2-million copies of the cart and has since developed a franchise out of the material spanning several areas of media, cementing its place as arguably the third most successful 2D fighting title behind the Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat empires.
A 1996 sequel was released to arcades that would be ported to the N64 as “Killer Instinct Gold” and a series reboot found its way to Xbox One in 2013, Windows 10 in 2016 then Steam in 2017.
If Killer Instinct was the Super Nintendo’s exclusive one-on-one killer app, then Eternal Champion’s was Sega’s. The Genesis and SNES shared 98% of the fighting games on the market, as developers were quick to port arcade smashes to both competing systems for maximum market reach. However, there were a couple of titles exclusive to each platform. In the case of Eternal Champions, not only was it a Genesis exclusive, it was developed from the ground up for the Sega home market; one of very few one-on-ones not to have originated in arcades.
Released in December of 1993, Eternal Champions came on the scene when the fighting game genre was red hot and Sega still wasn’t taking chances when it came to promoting their new golden child. A Slurpee flavor entitled “Eternal Champions Cherry” arrived to 7-Eleven stores throughout the United States that came in cups with character art on them and a temporary tattoo on the bottom. There was also a special cash and rebate promotion in July 1993 featured on MTV in a time where they still aired music videos. Electronic Gaming Monthly sponsored Eternal Champions tournaments in the United States as part of a roaming video game show. In short, you had to have been living under a fairly decent sized rock to have missed the launch of Eternal Champions.
The game featured a surprisingly rich story for a fighter. In it an omniscient being known as the Eternal Champion predicts that mankind’s reign is faltering due to the untimely and unjust deaths of key individuals throughout human history. Seeking to restore balance to humanity, the Eternal Champion gathers these individuals from the fabric of time moments before their death to participate in a fighting tournament. The victor would bring balance to the universe, whilst the losers would be returned to the instant they were taken to live out their deaths just as history intended.
Among those chosen – a bounty hunter from the future, a prehistoric caveman, a 1920s gangster, an Atlantean gladiator, an enigmatic alchemist etc. The story structured so that space and time were not factors allows Eternal Champions to experiment with an intriguing roster of combatants from many eras and periods. All told the games boasts nine playable characters and an end boss coming in the form of the Eternal Champion himself.
As is mandated for consideration in the genre, there are combo moves aplenty in Eternal Champions though saying they captured the joystick fluidity of Street Fighter II’s dynamics is certainly a bit of a stretch. It seems as though emphasis was deliberately placed upon charge attacks here, possibly to distinguish it from the hoards of competition. Additionally, Mortal Kombat’s Fatalities had all but dominated the scene by this point in time so it stood to reason Eternal Champions would be sure to include some variant of the concept. What it offers is something called Overkills whereby a button combination must be entered in the final moments of a match and the opponent standing in a specific spot of the screen. Like a Fatality, this results in a spectacular, if oft violent, demise of the opponent but often integrating the stage’s background into the process.
Visually the game is a bit of a mixed bag – it boasts nice large sprites and backgrounds with an impressive amount of activity taking place. However, because of the Genesis’ limited color pallet and relatively restrictive memory, the graphics seem plagued with a grainy, washed out aesthetic. Sound and music, however, were masterful and made wonderful use of the 16-bit hardware.
Sales numbers are all but impossible to track down but the game was popular enough to warrant both a sequel on the Sega CD platform in 1995 (Challenge from the Darkside) and a pair of spin-off games, Eternal Champions’ ultimate fate was to fade into oblivion when Sega of Japan decided it was unwise to split their resources promoting two first party one-on-one fighting games and opted to focus its energy exclusively on the Virtua Fighter franchise.
Atari knew that arcades in the mid-90s were chock full of quarter-carrying kids looking to show off their skills in a one-on-one fighting game and threw their proverbial hat into the arena with Primal Rage in 1994. The concept was certainly nothing unique: A one-on-one best two out of three match format tournament fighter complete with combo moves and finishers ala MK – but what made Primal Rage stand out against the hordes of similar fighters was the character roster. Each of the seven selectable characters was a monster of sorts; with characters designs mimicking dinosaurs, reptiles and primates.
Set in an alternate universe where a massive meteor strike devastated the planet, human civilization finds itself regressed into essentially tribes of Stone Age dwellers. The planet is now primitively referred to as “Urth” by the survivors of the cataclysms. Seven fearsome creatures emerge from their slumber deep within the Urth’s crust, worshiped by the primitive humans, who form segregated clans beneath the ones they follow, the battle for supremacy can only be determined by a winner-takes-all battle royale’.
The visuals were accomplished by using moldable armatures cast and airbrushed then filmed using stop motion animation. As a result, the end result is neither a pixel art graphic (Street Fighter II) nor a motion capped human actor (Mortal Kombat) but rather something in between.
Perhaps the game’s lasting notoriety is that it was ported to nearly every console imaginable at the time. After making rounds in the arcade, it was brought to the 3DO, SNES, Genesis, Amiga, MS-DOS, Game Gear, Game Boy, Jaguar CD, PlayStation, and Saturn. In short, if you had a console at the time, you could play Primal Rage on it.
Combos were a big part of the game’s appeal and depth but Primal Rage moved further away from the fluid joystick rolls with button presses that Capcom made popular and opted to instead focus on combinations that required multiple button holds with stick movements jammed in at the end. This worked decent enough in the arcade but proved terribly tricky for many of the home ports depending upon the platform in question’s button layout.
Stringing together hit combos in battle is a good means of getting puny humans to gather to watch the carnage and the player is free to squash, throw or eat them accordingly. This gimmick alone proved surprisingly amusing. And of course the gore between combatants is maxed out as well. Finishers in particular can be violent, bloody and occasionally humorous (one character literally urinates all over its fallen opponent).
Difficulty, as had been the trend by then in the genre, borders on ridiculous. To beat the game, the player has to beat all seven playable characters before taking on all of them again back to back on a single health bar.
The graphics vary wildly, as expected, given the sheer number of platforms that received a port with the “next generation” hardware at the time coming closest to matching the large characters and crisp backgrounds of the arcade.
Like so many games of the era, multimedia tie-ins were plentiful with Primal Rage toys, comics and novels finding their way to store shelves. The game, however, would remain the only entry in the franchise as development for a 1996 sequel was ultimately cancelled when Atari feared the industry had moved away from the genre enough to where profitability potential would be slim.
It is very possible Data East’s foray into the hottest genre at the time would have been little more than a flash in the pan like so many of the other entries on this list except for one little detail. Of all the one-on-one fighting games that flooded the market post-Street Fighter II, Fighter’s History was the one Capcom deemed the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back and decided to seek legal retribution.
Fighter’s History arrived to arcades in March of 1993 and was then ported to the SNES in May of 1994.
The game uses a six-button control configuration similar to Street Fighter II and its iterations; three punch buttons and three kick buttons, each with different strength levels (light, medium, and heavy).
This one offers a total of nine playable characters from around the globe, as well as two non-playable bosses at the end of the single-player tournament. The final boss and sponsor of the game’s tournament is revealed to be none other than bald, mustachioed Karnov; lead character of the older Data East action game of the same name.
One unique feature Fighter’s History brought to the genre was the concept of character weak points; or a single region targeted enough to where landing a hit causes dizziness and continued contact there results in greater damage to the life bar.
In terms of style, control, look and feel, the game does mimic Capcom’s Street Fighter II, perhaps more so than many of the rival titles being released around the time. So on March 16th, 1994, Capcom sought a preliminary injunction in California court to prevent Data East from producing, marketing or selling Fighter’s History anywhere in the world, alleging that the game infringed Capcom’s copyright in Street Fighter II.
Capcom alleged that Data East copied the distinctive fighting styles, appearances, special moves and joystick/ button combination attacks of many of Street Fighter II’s characters. Data East rebutted by saying that there was nothing unique about Street Fighter II aside from its immense popularity and that similarities between the two games were the result of both companies drawing upon the public domain of stereotyped characters (martial artists, pro wrestlers, gymnasts etc.)
In order for Capcom to get the injunction to proceed, they would have to prove that their copyrighted material itself had been stolen by Data East – in this case it would have been actual source code or game development assets.
Because Data East had developed its own game from the ground up, Capcom was quite unable to prove any such claims and the courts saw things in Data East’s favor. Sure, the games looked and felt similar but, the court reasoned, neither Capcom nor Street Fighter II invented the genre of the one-on-one fighting game. Even if they had, it’s not possible to copyright something so broad as a category of video game or control scheme (think about how many games mimicked Space Invaders’ style of play and control in the early 1980s).
Data East was free and clear to continue both in manufacturing and distribution of Fighter’s History and, what otherwise would have been yet another SFII clone in a time chock full of them, a piece of legal history was made in the process.
Two different sequels were produced: Fighter’s History Dynamite for the Neo Geo in 1994, followed by Fighter’s History: Mizoguchi’s Moment of Crisis (which never left Japan) for the Super Famicom in 1995.
Atlus wanted in on the craze but needed something to stand out from the crowd. When they released Power Instinct to arcades in early 1993, the gimmick they settled on would be humor. The story is straight forward enough: You play as a member of the Gōketsuji clan, who are battling to determine who will replace 78-year-old Oume Gōketsuji as head of the clan.
It offers eight selectable characters and one unplayable boss character, Oume Gōketsuji herself. It’s not every game that has you battling it out fisticuffs style with a 78-year-old lady as the end boss but hey, Atlus wanted to stand out from the competition and this was as good a way as any to do it. Additionally it introduced a unique transformation feature: several of the characters can change their outward appearance and even their fighting style by executing certain moves.
In terms of style and gameplay, this one leaned more toward the Street Fighter school of design than it did the Mortal Kombat with fairly large sprites and bright pixel art. Visually perhaps its closest comparison would be to some of SNK’s contemporary efforts with the responsiveness of control usually associated with Capcom.
Additionally, further separating itself from the hordes of SF clones was the ability of characters to double jump (which makes the screen scroll upward) and run. Run attacks were also possible for the entire roster. Also particularly neat is the fact that most stages’ initial borders are in fact smashable and extend the background in either direction should you crash your way through them. What you won’t find here, though, are Fatalities or finishers of any kind or over the top goriness.
For the most part Power Instinct strayed little from the proven Street Fighter II formula but managed to introduce some genuine charm into the fold (the old lady’s slightly younger sister Octane is a playable character and one of her attacks involves throwing her dentures at opponents). It sounds zany and silly on paper but the play experience is surprisingly solid.
A fairly faithful arcade port was brought to the SNES in late 1993 by Atlas and while the game was also ported to Sega’s 16-bit hardware, the Genesis incarnation never left Japan.
While it was relatively successful in both arcades and on the SNES here in the west, Power Instinct has become a staple franchise in Japan where it spans 6 games, novels, soundtracks, calendars etc.
It almost seems hard to believe now as few, if any, present day athletes are quite as multimedia friendly as Shaquille O’Neil was in the early 90s but here we had a basketball player turned actor turned rapper turned video game hero. And this was well before his Icy Hot commercials.
In corporate America’s defence, they did realize that forcing a manufactured “phenomenon” down society’s proverbial throat would be much easier if done so on the grounds of something that we were already obsessed with… And thus was born Shaq-Fu.
Electronic Arts and developer Delphine Software needed only look at the trending numbers to realize the one-on-one fighting game scene was red hot and while they surely wanted a piece of the arcade pot, the world would instead receive a pair of 16-bit home titles in late October of 1994.
What passes for a story here is that Shaquille O’Neal happens upon a dojo while heading to a charity basketball game in Tokyo, Japan. After speaking with Leotsu, a martial arts master, Shaq is convinced to travel to an alternate dimension, the Second World, where he must rescue a young boy named Nezu from the clutches of an evil mummy.
No major concern there, fighting games rarely rise or fall on the merits of backstory alone; this one would need fluid controls and strong gameplay mechanics to compete with the industry leaders. Did it deliver? Well let’s just say there was once a website called shaqfu.com that was dedicated to the cause of rounding up as many copies of the cart for decimation as possible.
So it’s THAT bad then? Actually, no. There are far worse one-on-one fighting games on the consoles floating about. Slaughter Sport on the Genesis and Rise of the Robots on SNES spring to mind to mention a few. Shaq-Fu’s biggest weakness is clunky, slightly delayed control but it contains all of the trappings for which the genre is known: A decent roster of playable characters, combination induced special attacks, even finishers and a blood code for the SNES version!
Amazingly enough, while the presentation of the material is pretty similar in both versions, the Genesis version comes out on top with more selectable characters (12 vs 7) and three additional stages. It is also credited for boasting the better music while the SNES benefits from a larger color pallet/ crisper visuals, especially in the background art.
Though the game doesn’t resemble Mortal Kombat in execution, the process of creating it was surprisingly similar. Delphine applied the same rotoscoping techniques as their 1992 title Flashback: The Quest for Identity, whereby human actors were filmed against a Blue Screen in studio before being digitized and drawn upon by artists using a Silicon Graphics SGI workstation.
In this instance the actors were used more as reference points for rotoscoping animated images than MK’s approach of simply animating the actual actors as the final result.
In practice the game is simply average – the biggest complaints coming in the form of laggy controls, inconsistent special attacks and computer controlled opponents attacking with precision nearly impossible to match by controller inputs. Additionally many players attest that the only strategy that seems to work for victory is to settle upon a single move (like Shaq’s forward lunge kick) and to simply spam that button until the opponent’s life bar is depleted.
Despite mediocre reviews at the time of release, this one has achieved absolute infamy as one of the worst video games ever created since. Game Gear, Game Boy, and Amiga did receive ports shortly after the 16-bit versions made their rounds.A direct one-on-one sequel was in development for release in early 96 for the SNES and Genesis but ended up on the cutting room floor on account of mixed reaction to the first one. A sequel, titled Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn, would eventually be developed and was released in 2018.
For reasons entirely unknown, Power Athlete just may boast the highest number of official names of any game on our list. Developed by System Vision and published by Kaneko in 1992, Power Athlete was released to the SNES as Power Moves and Genesis as Deadly Moves. The differences, as was so often the case then, had all to do with what Nintendo deemed too violent for its audience while Sega presented a more unfiltered version of the material. However, unlike games like Mortal Kombat and even, to lesser degree Shaq-Fu, the differences here are nearly entirely relegated to things like the game’s title and boxart.
Gameplay is virtually identical on either platform and, unlike a majority of the fighters at the time, doesn’t allow the player to select from a roster of characters in story mode. Rather, the only option here is to use a generic martial artist named Joe and to take him across the globe in a series of one-on-one/ best two out of three match battles.
Fortunately the entire cast of warriors (exception- the final boss, Ranker) are available in the 2-player versus mode, each coming with a unique set of moves, strengths and weaknesses.
One unique feature to Power Athlete is that points accrued during matches could then be applied to upgrade character attributes.
Control is fairly decent with a single caveat – Power Athlete was one of the rare 2D fighters that allowed for movement on the z-axis (foreground and back), meaning pressing up and down on the directional pad moves the character further back or forward rather than jump and duck. This also means that jumping is relegated to a button on the controller. While it doesn’t make playing the game particularly difficult per se, it does take some adjusting for individuals accustomed to the plug & play control scheme of most of the top entries in the genre.
Also absent here are finishing moves of any kind. Violence and special moves are comparable to Street Fighter II and, in fact, more than a few could have been copied and pasted directly. The music, unfortunately, isn’t near as memorable.
All in all Power Athlete/ Power Moves/ Deadly Moves is a largely forgettable experience from an era crowded with forgettable experiences. It received only a single release in North America but was successful enough in its native Japan to warrant a trilogy – followed there by Battle Master and Ragnagard.
When Weaponlord came out in 1995, already the one-on-one fighting game genre had splintered into several subsets, weapons based titles being one of these. Games like Time Killers in the arcade and SNK’s Samurai Showdown had come before and demonstrated the appeal of weaponry rather than strictly fisticuffs. Developed by Visual Concepts and published by Namco, Waponlord took the concept and brought it to both the Super Nintendo and Genesis platforms.
Project leads James Goddard and Dave Winstead, former Street Fighter alum at Capcom, left with plans to design a title for true enthusiasts of the fighting game genre. What resulted was a gritty, norse-themed weapon fighter with a ridiculously deep move-set designed to demand precision inputs rather than button mashing.
In fact, the game introduced a unique system whereby thrust-blocking, a combination input, was crucial for breaking up opponent combos. Additionally Deflect moves, essentially counterattack maneuvers were implemented here. Certain special moves, known as “Take Downs”, knock opponents onto their back with the potential for additional attacks while their foe is still on the ground.
Also unique, certain attacks could be performed on an opponent in mid-swing, cutting off a piece of clothing or hair in the process. Of course a game with this complex a move-set is going to offer Fatalities for maximum gore and closure to a match. They are known as Death Combos here.
Weaponlord’s characters possess between 9 and 12 special moves each and a password system meant returning to story mode at a later opportunity.
The biggest downside to this one is that the 7-playable characters were hardly memorable compared to the rosters of your Street Fighters and Mortal Kombats; and sprite animations were a bit stiff and slow to account for the game’s ambition of being compatible with early online play.
Visually the game is a very unique blend of traits with hand drawn background scans placed behind massive character sprites. And the soundtrack is appropriately epic.
All in all Weaponlord is a largely overlooked gem with a very steep learning curve and enough depth to satisfy even the most diehard fans of the genre.
Tuff E Nuff
Tuff E Nuff (known in Japan as Dead Dance) is a 2D fighting game developed and published by Jaleco for the SNES in September 1993.
Set in the post-apocalyptic future after the Great War of 2151, the story follows four champions as they fight in a large coliseum to determine who enters the great Tower of the Fighting King and defeat his six minions (before taking on the Fighting King himself). This plays out across ten stages in story mode.
As the story suggests, the game’s roster of playable characters is thin. The game starts off with only four characters, but implementation of a code can unlock the other seven characters.
The fighting system is based on four buttons: two for kicks and two for punches (light and fierce, respectively) and all characters have at least two special attacks.
The four main characters’ skills evolve over story mode, featuring an RPG-like element, special moves becoming slightly larger and more powerful after each group of opponents are defeated.
ClayFighter proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that not all fighting games had to take themselves seriously to be fun.
It was released for the Super Nintendo in November 1993 and later ported to Sega Genesis in June 1994. Developed by Visual Concepts and published by Interplay Productions, ClayFighter would go on to become a franchise unto itself.
From a creation standpoint, the game’s design wasn’t all that different from the Mortal Kombat school of design only rather than photographing and animating human actors, clay models were photographed and animated into positions for the onscreen action.
The game features eight playable characters and one boss. Circus themed, bright and playful, it was a nice diversion in a particularly dark time in the genre. However, especially in hindsight, gameplay was stiff, slow and very uninspired. The first entry in particular is a rare case of large sprites working against the game as colliding hit boxes are all but inevitable so rather than develop offensive and defensive strategies, it’s usually a situation of button mashing to get more hits in than the opponent.
ClayFighter was followed by the Tournament Edition update in 1994. Two sequels were also produced: ClayFighter 2: Judgment Clay for the SNES in 1995 and ClayFighter 63⅓ for the Nintendo 64 in 1997. The latter of which had its own special edition with ClayFighter: Sculptor’s Cut in 1998. ClayFighter sold 200,000 copies by the end of 1994.
Brutal: Paws of Fury
Another entry to the genre of the more light-hearted variety came to us from GameTek back in 1994 in the form of Brutal: Paws of Fury
This one used 2D cell shaded graphics for a cartoony look and consisted entirely of a tournament for anthropomorphic animal combatants.
While it followed most of the trapping associated with the genre, Brutal was unique in that players begin with only ‘basic’ moveset (movement, three attack types, grapple), and have to ‘learn’ new moves during the single player story mode. Upon defeating two opponents, it’s off to a tutorial stage to learn a new technique (the first is a taunt that recovers their character’s health, followed by a special move or kata in subsequent revisits). By the time the player has fought all the way to the final boss, they would have unlocked their character’s full repertoire of moves.
Interestingly, this game was originally a Sega CD exclusive title that was then ported to other systems after the fact. It began with a roster of 10 playable characters that had to be scaled back to 8 for the 16-bit incarnations.
Brutal: Paws of Fury was released for the Sega CD, Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, PC, Amiga, and Amiga CD32. An enhanced version, Brutal Unleashed: Above the Claw, was released for MS-DOS and Sega 32X in 1995.
Game play was, comparatively speaking, slower and less fluid than many of its contemporaries, though it could be argued that the game wasn’t looking so much to emulate the feel of the Street Fighter phenomenon so much as forge its own path with gorgeous cartoony visuals and a character leveling gimmick to add depth to the formula.
Sadly, by 1995 the popularity of the one-on-one fighting game had largely run its course, due in no small part to the transition into 3D capable console territory with the Sony PlayStation, Sega Saturn and soon-to-be-released Nintendo 64. As such, Brutal was largely ignored for having arrived late to the party.