Combining genre staples has been around for a long time. It’s a technique that, when well executed, can create some really interesting experiences.
But is it applicable to fighting games?
Well, why exclude any genre, really? Even the original Metroid could be considered a dungeon-crawler grafted onto a side-scrolling platformer.
Well, Metroid was relatively non-linear, allowed the player to backtrack, strengthened the player character over time, and required unique inventory items to unlock various parts of the game world. The lack of an in-game map even prompted many players to make their own — a staple of numerous hack ‘n’ slash adventures.
Metroid also did a great job of seamlessly “localizing” these dungeon-crawling mechanics for its own setting. A good example of this were the red doors that only opened when they were shot with missiles. The missiles served the function of keys and also played a vital role in the game’s combat. In addition, they made for a much better thematic fit than actual keys.
Even when the genre cross-breeding isn’t quite that organic, though, the end-result can be a fairly unique experience. Case in point, Puzzle Quest, City Rain, and Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure.
So, with videogame genre-mashing in mind, I was thinking of how fighting games could benefit from including some RPG elements. More specifically, how some of those genre staples could enhance the fighters’ single-player campaigns.
Now this is a tricky concept as fighting games are already pretty asymmetrical and difficult to balance. What’s more, their status is — in a way — ultimately judged by their feasibility as tournament titles, which further limits the amount of ways in which they can be altered.
But first, let’s backtrack a bit to the golden age of fighting games: the early 90s arcades.
As with all arcade titles, fighters were meant to suck quarters. Each playthrough started off with a clean slate, and, aside from the player getting better, no permanent bonuses were awarded for extended play.
In order to keep a fast pace, time limits were enforced for everything from character selection to the rounds themselves, and the storylines were relegated to quick and simple slide-shows. Since head-to-head competition between players became the main draw of these games, everything but the characters ended up serving a strictly aesthetic role. This wasn’t a bad thing, though, as it fostered fair-play and allowed anyone to step in and compete on even ground.
Some later titles like Warzard/Red Earth tried to break away from these conventions, and although they were interesting experiments, they didn’t do all that well.
When fighting games started coming over to consoles, very little changed. This was understandable as players mostly wanted the arcade experience, and, despite the lack of today’s online play, local multiplayer was very important and had to stay structurally intact. Once again, a few non-arcade titles like Bushido Blade tried to turn the genre on its head, but they never reached mainstream status.
What’s somewhat surprising here, though, is how little these games evolved in the single-player area. The only differences between home and arcade versions were basic practice modes, with an extra cinematic or two occasionally thrown in.
So much more could be done, though. Even without breaking the multiplayer component or drastically changing the genre, there’s room for improvement. But first, let’s see what we can and can’t do with a typical arcade-style console fighter:
- An arcade mode with at least most of the roster unlocked should be available by default (the fact that nearly half of Street Fighter IV’s cast is hidden away is pretty annoying). It’s an expectation of the genre, and there’s no real reason to upset it.
- Whatever the player does in the single-player mode should carry over to the multiplayer, otherwise there’s no continuation and a significant disconnect wedges itself between the two parts of the game.
- Aesthetic modifiers can be implemented as they’re pretty commonly accepted, i.e., players can usually choose their character’s costume, colour scheme, unique quote, taunt, etc.
- Some gameplay customizations can be allowed as well since it’s already present in various arcade fighters, e.g., slash/bust modes in Samurai Shodown 3, “ISMs” in Street Fighter Alpha 3, and super move selection in Street Fighter III. The key thing to watch out for here, though, is that these options should be limited and clearly indicated in the multiplayer portion of the game.
- Extensive gameplay customization outside of the multiplayer modifiers should not be allowed. Soul Calibur IV’s character creation is fun, but it can get quite ridiculous. It’s also prohibited in tournament play simply because it represents too many unknowns.
- The monetary constraints and arbitrary time limits of arcade games should not be present in the console game’s single-player mode.
- To provide pacing and variety, the single player experience can include goal oriented gameplay and different formats to the fights (stage sizes, health constraints, round numbers, etc.). However, these should be presented as one-offs and shouldn’t carry over to the main part of the game.
The above points are just rough suggestions, but I think they can be used to successfully plug in some of those aforementioned RPG elements. But in order to concentrate on adding character advancement, character progression, and story development, a different sort of a single-player campaign needs to be introduced.
And personally, I see it going something like this:
- Story-wise, it’d take place before the arcade tournament. This would allow lots of character progression without interfering with the main mode of the game.
- The beginning of this campaign would be a tutorial of sorts. Going back to the character’s origins, it’d show how he first began to learn the arts of fighting and what set him on this path.
- After going through some basic moves and gameplay principles, the player would be introduced to some more advanced tactics. Matches against dummies and simple sparring partners would come into play based on specific set-pieces, e.g., opponents would only jump or crouch.
- As the player’s character grew in power, his statistics such as maximum health and damage absorption could increase. These would have to be isolated to the campaign mode, though, and the end result would have to equal the statistics of the character in the standard arcade mode.
- As the character developed personality, choices for costumes, colour schemes and personal flourishes would present themselves. These would allow the player to stamp the character with his own personal touch.
- After completing various challenges, special moves would be introduced. To add significance to this event, bonus-round like minigames would be implemented in order to simulate the character learning and practicing the new moves.
- Once the special moves were mastered, more sparring and heavily goal-oriented challenges would follow. These would make the player utilize his whole arsenal and work towards mastering the overall character.
- Throughout the campaign, the player would visit various locations and encounter numerous challengers. This would be the perfect setup for introducing rivalries, and it’d also serve to add weight to the tournament itself.
- To add significance to the player’s choices, further aesthetic alterations could be introduced such as tattoos or scars.
- With the player having gotten quite comfortable with his character, extra training missions would be presented such as fighting multiple opponents without a health recharge.
- To cap off the campaign, a decision on the character’s “super move” would have to be made. This could come in a dramatic time in the story, and, after a couple more sparring sessions that would rely on perfectly executed supers, the player would finally end his preparation and enter the tournament.
Upon the campaign’s completion, the customized character would become unlocked in the arcade and multiplayer modes. Despite the variety and amount of choices in the campaign, this wouldn’t really upset the head-to-head battles. All the character’s uniqueness would simply amount to predefined choices for the costume, colour, taunt, super move, etc. However, this mode would still create a bond between the player and his character, and that would even be further enhanced in the arcade mode (it’d be particularly nice if scenes in the arcade mode reflected and referenced the player’s choices in the campaign).
Now this might sound like a massive undertaking, but it could utilize existing resources for the most part. It’d still be extra work, though, which is probably why not many fighting games have put all that much effort into enhancing their single-player scenarios. However, as fighting games move away from the arcades and onto console, developers are starting to take a different approach to designing them. In fact, the recently announced BlazBlue promises an extensive single-player mode, so maybe someone will finally evolve the long-stagnated single-player part of the genre.