Today’s fighting games have their roots in some of the biggest, most iconic releases of the early ’90s. Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat were huge, and together, they revived arcades here in America. But the genre wasn’t able to hold onto that popularity. Capcom pushed the fiddly, technical elements of its games to extremes; Mortal Kombat never quite found its footing after transitioning to 3-D; and releases in stalwart series like Tekken, Soul Calibur, and Virtua Fighter became increasingly rare. It wasn’t until 2008 with the much-hyped release of Street Fighter IV—the first new numbered game in the series in nine years—that the genre started seeing a resurgence thanks to a number of factors: the burgeoning world of esports, the emergence of livestreaming technology, and a conscious effort from the games’ developers to return them to something that more closely resembled their humble beginnings.
But while they’re more relevant than they were a decade ago, reviewing fighting games has taught me one thing: They’re still a niche. Predicating your game primarily on competition creates an inherent barrier to entry for a lot of players, and the prospect of going online, where you’ll inevitably be matched up against people who take things way more seriously than you, just makes things worse. Even in the simplest of games, like Nintendo’s revisionist Arms, there’s so much unspoken nuance to grasp and so few ways to actually learn it. Playing against the computer can let you polish your execution, but it doesn’t provide the kind of experience you really need to start succeeding against the ruthless online hordes. Enterprising members of the community have stepped up to provide everyone from beginners to pros with useful tips, but it wasn’t until recently that the fighting games themselves started teaching players how to do more than just press buttons.
In addition to having a brilliant cartoon aesthetic, 2012’s Skullgirls should also be applauded for having the best fighting-game tutorial up to that point. It served up discrete challenges meant to teach you about the game’s particulars, but it also took the time to educate players about the genre’s tricky underlying concepts, the stuff that more familiar players might use to trip you up when you venture online. Since the basics of fighting games are so similar across releases, learning what the hell a “mix-up” is, for example, and how to properly defend against and counteract them is an invaluable lesson that you can take from Skullgirls and apply to everything from Street Fighter IV to Persona 4 Arena. A year later, Microsoft’s Killer Instinct reboot sported a similarly thoughtful tutorial, a first for a big-budget fighter. Playing through them isn’t going to instantly make you a pro, but they at least try to explain the kinds of fundamental ideas you need to grasp to stand a chance, and seeing games finally embrace them, rather than blatantly ignoring an aspect of the genre’s culture that fans have been cultivating for decades, was mind-blowing at the time.
Unfortunately, most big-name fighters didn’t learn from these examples. The notoriously bare-bones Street Fighter V opens with an insultingly perfunctory tutorial, and Tekken 7 is perhaps even worse. It’s been heavily promoted and has attracted loads of new players and lapsed fans, but there’s no tutorial at all. You can hop into practice mode and thumb through the dozens of moves each character has, but it offers nothing beyond learning of their existence (something most people will promptly forget) and which buttons to press to make them happen. This is the big mistake fighting-game tutorials have always made. It’s not enough to teach someone how to make Ryu shoot a fireball out of his hands. You need to teach them why and when to shoot a fireball out of his hands. Without understanding the utility of all those moves and combos and meters, it’s all just meaningless flash.
Given its DC Comics origins and mainstream target audience, it makes sense that Injustice 2 would come packed with a solid tutorial, but NetherRealm’s game makes some important steps toward the kind of lessons the genre needs to be teaching. Its standard tutorial goes through the basics, but dig a little deeper and you can find a simple guide for every member of its roster. This is important in itself, as it gives players a guided environment to get a feel for each character. What’s more, those character-specific tutorials don’t just teach you how to use each fighter’s special moves and combos—they also describe why those maneuvers are useful. It comes right out and tells you that Scarecrow’s Schizophrenia grab is a perfect way to punish people when they get too close or that his Fear Is Power combo is tricky enough to throw defensive opponents off guard. These kinds of details, ones that describe actual use-case scenarios, are strewn throughout every character tutorial. It’s such a simple addition, but it makes a world of difference, and it’s shocking that no one has thought to do it before.
Injustice 2 isn’t perfect. It’s still bogged down with unexplained jargon that’s enough to ruin the tutorials for unfamiliar players (not everyone knows what a “special move cancel” is, NetherRealm, and you can’t just spring that on people), and while it does a decent job of covering its variety of available offensive and defensive techniques, it doesn’t really explain how to put them all together for effective play. Those great character guides are similarly limited, and while taking the time to explain why a move or combo is useful is a great first step, the tutorials could go further to build scenarios that force you to put that utility to the test, rather than just telling you about it. These are video games, after all. Teaching through-play is what they’re best at.
Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator is the rare fighting game that really understands that. While its deep character-specific guides commit the common sin of just dumping a bunch of button prompts on you, its ingenious main tutorial is made up of a series of mini-games. To teach you about movement, it’ll conjure a minefield of spikes that you have to traverse by jumping at various heights and dashing through the air. To teach you about your different attack buttons, it’ll summon little critters that can only be damaged by specific strikes and ask you to clear them out within a strict time limit. Like the cinematic story modes that have given NetherRealm’s games life with whole new audiences, Guilty Gear’s gamified tutorials are something every fighting-game developer should consider adopting.
For games with such simple beginnings, the basics of which still shine through all the bells and whistles of their descendants, fighting games’ barrier to entry has become impossibly high for many people. These are games you actively have to learn to play and understand. The least they could do is try to teach you. Even if more games build on the great first steps that we’ve seen recently, there’s little chance the genre will ever get back to the ubiquity it held in the early ’90s. But after pushing itself further and further into a niche for decades, their creators are only now starting to realize there are things it can do to open itself up to the rest of us who are looking to have some fun and maybe, just maybe, win a match or two online.