Fighting games have definitely evolved over the years, and though Sega's Heavyweight Champ from 1976 & Tim Skelley's Warrior from 1979 did technically come first, it's Data East & Technos Japan's Karate Champ (Karate-Do in Japan) from 1984 that's generally considered the originator of the genre that we know today. That would make 2019 the 35th Anniversary of the fighting game genre (which would be the Coral or Jade Anniversary, if you're curious), and to celebrate I want to shine a light on some of the most important games, from a historical perspective, that you either don't know about, or simply didn't realize what they actually did for the genre as a whole. Sure, Street Fighter II created a standard that all have since followed, Mortal Kombat brought violence & gore to the equation, The King of Fighters '94 may be the first real "crossover", Virtua Fighter introduced polygons to the equation, & Battle Arena Toshinden took the genre into "true 3D", but everyone knows about those games & what they did. These, on the other hand, are six of the most important fighting games that have been forgotten by the sands of time... Or at least the clicking of the arcade sticks of bigger names.
The Genre Will Not Be Monopolized
When Karate Champ came out it was a notable success for Data East, and later that year a new version saw release in arcades that allowed for two players to fight each other; understandably, it was called Karate Champ - Player vs. Player internationally. Still, there wasn't really anything else quite like what Technos developed for Data East on the market, so it's only natural that it would inspire others to make similar games. One person in particular was Archer MacLean, a British computer programmer who made his gaming debut with 1984's Dropzone for Atari's line of 8-bit computers. MacLean then followed that up with his next game, International Karate, which saw release in late 1985 by System 3 for various European computers, like the ZX Spectrum. The game saw you play as a gi-wearing karateka, as you fight other karateka in locations around the world, utilizing a point system in order to win. To no surprise, this was similar to Karate Champ, which saw you play as a gi-wearing karateka, as you fight other karateka, & in Player vs. Player you fight in locations around the world. Sure, the reasons for the fighting were different, as IK utilized a simple kumite, while KC PvP was all for the affections of various women, but it's easy to tell that MacLean used the arcade game as the basis for his computer game.
Now, to be perfectly honest, had International Karate remained exclusive to Europe I'm sure that nothing major would have come about from this fairly blatant copy. However, IK found the attention of Epyx, and a North American release came out on the Commordore 64 in April of 1986, under the name World Karate Championship. This then resulted in Data East filing a lawsuit against Epyx for infringement of copyright, trademark, & trade dress. As mentioned before, the similarities between the two games were already numerous, & Epyx's renaming of the game seemed to blatantly be meant to make buyers think it was actually Karate Champ. The resulting Data East USA, Inc. v. Epyx, Inc. case is interesting, because it wasn't actually just a simple result. At first, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California sided with Data East, stating that Epyx infringed on the company's copyright. Not just that, but Epyx was prohibited from releasing any sort of derivative work, & all remaining copies of World Karate Championship were recalled. Naturally, Epyx appealed the decision, so the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard the case, and found 15 similarities between Karate Champ & International Karate. However, the Appeals Court determined that these similarities "encompassed the idea of karate", and beyond those similarities the games were in fact different enough that most gamers would be able to tell them apart. Therefore, the decision was reversed in favor of Epyx, and Archer MacLean even made a sequel, International Karate+, that saw release in 1987.
Why is this "Important"? While Data East vs. Epyx has seen use in other cases, including one between Apple & Microsoft in 1994, for the purposes of this list, International Karate's importance is in making sure that no one company could have a monopoly on the fighting game genre. Had Data East actually won the appeal, it would have essentially established that Data East owned the copyright for a video game in which two combatants went against each other, i.e. the company would have had the ability to shut down any other company from making a fighting game. This would have heavily stifled the genre in a way that most of us likely can't even comprehend; eventually, advancements would have been made, but not like they did in real life. With the courts declaring that Data East could not monopolize the genre, it allowed developers to make their own fighting games, which in turn allowed the genre to slowly evolve with time by way of multiple minds at work, instead of changing solely through Data East's machinations.
Finally, 4-Fighter Free-for-Alls!
While Data East did publish Karate Champ, it was developed by Technos Japan, a studio that would later create a variant genre, the beat 'em up, with 1986's Nekketsu Kouha/Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio-kun, which was altered into Renegade outside of Japan. Interestingly enough, while Technos helped create fighting games as we now know them, the company didn't really venture into that genre that often, with the next real effort being the two-player versus mode in the NES/Famicom port of Double Dragon from 1988. After that, it would be another four years until Technos' next real fighting game, but what was created was, much like Karate Champ, a first that was also pretty ahead of its time.
Released only in Japan on the Famicom at the tail end of 1992, Nekketsu Kakutou Densetsu/Hot-Blooded Fighting Legend might look like a beat 'em up, but was in fact a tournament-style fighting game. Sure, it utilized the more open field that beat 'em ups utilize, but the focus was on defeating your foes until you're the last one standing, so I guess it might also be considered one of the very first arena-based fighting games. Still, what makes Nekketsu Kakutou Densetsu truly notable is that it was the first fighting game to feature combat between more than two characters. In fact, the game supported Hori's 4-Player Adpator, which was essentially the Japanese equivalent to the NES Four-Score, allowing for up to four players to fight each other at once. Admittedly, this was more of a novelty back in 1992, but just two years later Japan saw two more 4-player fighting games: Sunsoft's Sugoi Hebereke for the Super Famicom, which followed a similar arena-combat style as Technos' game, & Treasure's Yu Yu Hakusho: Makyo Toitsusen for the Mega Drive, which was a more traditional fighting game that included two planes so as to accommodate all of the players.
Why is this "Important"? Though Nekketsu Kakutou Densetsu, as well as the duo from 1994, remained exclusive to Japan, it showed the potential in making a fighting game featuring more than two characters on screen, and how doing so might require a change in the way the combat was handled. In fact, it's kind of amazing that Technos thought of making a four-player fighting game at this point, because it really wouldn't be until the end of the 90s, with games like Super Smash Bros., Rakugaki Showtime, & Wu-Tang Shaolin Style (or Thrill Kill), that developers finally put more concerted efforts towards creating fighting games that allowed for more than just two players at the same time. Sure, compared to the previous game, which literally ensured that the genre wasn't defined by a single company, this Famicom fighter is pretty minor on the scale of importance, but it's still noteworthy & worth keeping from being forgotten.
The Game that (Legally) Established a Standard
You can think of this as the sequel to the first entry, and it's not just because it featured one of the companies involved in that incident. Rather, much like a proper sequel, this entry takes the same basic concept, but expands upon it greatly. Anyway, in February of 1991 arcades around the world were introduced to Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, which wound up becoming a worldwide sensation that actually revived arcades in North America for a time, because of the way it handled the fighting game genre. Compared to the more simplistic games that came before it, SFII had a depth to it that had no been seen before, and even allowed for the ability to players to link attacks into each, allowing for combos. Amusingly, this was originally a glitch that the team at Capcom decided not to address, since they felt it was too difficult for players to reliably do; boy, were they wrong about that, in all the best ways. Obviously, SFII would not only inspire other developers to make their own fighting games, but it's execution resulted in everyone else copying it.
Still, after the whole incident between Karate Champ & International Karate six years prior, developers made sure not to copy SFII too much. Even SNK, which now had the men who created the original Street Fighter on board, made sure its early fighting games for the new Neo Geo hardware had their own styles to them, whether it was Fatal Fury's multiple fighting planes, Art of Fighting's rechargeable spirit gauge, or World Heroes' deathmatch mode. One company that, frankly, didn't give a damn, however, was Data East, which released Fighter's History to arcades in March of 1993. Almost immediately, people noticed tons of similarities between Street Fighter II & Fighter's History, and by the time Data East released a home conversion for the Super Nintendo in 1994, it got sued by Capcom USA over copyright infringement; Capcom Japan filed a similar lawsuit against Data East Japan. The resulting Capcom vs. Data East case was focused primarily on two arguments. Capcom used Data East's original game proposal to prove the infringement, as it directly mentioned SFII by name 22 times throughout the entire nine-page document. Data East, however, stated that Capcom's game was not original by any means, as it featured stereotyped characters & common fighting maneuvers; it even brought up that Karate Champ predated the original SF. Capcom also used the same test that was used for the Data East vs. Epyx case, showing that SFII & FH had similar characters, special moves & combos, controls, & other miscellaneous similarities.
However, the courts decided to rule in favor of Data East, stating that any & all copied elements were scène à faire, a.k.a. they were what was expected in a fighting game & could not be copyrighted. Yes, FH's Matlok, Feilin & Ray were deemed very similar to SFII's Guile, Chun Li & Ken, but they were not "virtually identical", and instead were deemed to have come from similar origins. After this, fighting games started playing more & more similar to what Capcom introduced in 1992, though Data East's sequel game, 1994's Fighter's History Dynamite on the Neo Geo, did tone down the similarities to an extent, & was even renamed Karnov's Revenge internationally, likely due to the court case. As for the Japanese lawsuit, there's no word about what happened, though one can guess that it was quietly dropped in light of the American decision.
Why is this "Important"? Yes, Fighter's History was (& still is) mocked for being so similar to Street Fighter II that it hurts. However, that very blatant copycatting is why fighting games as we know them today all play similarly, at least at a very basic level. In essence, Data East used the experience with Epyx to its advantage, knowing that one company couldn't stake a claim over how a fighting game should play. The way Street Fighter II played was obviously the path that all fighting games should follow, & what Fighter's History wound up doing was make it literally illegal for Capcom to keep any other company from imitating it. Had Capcom won the lawsuit, it would have had given the company a literal monopoly over what was easily the best way a fighting game could play, which would have intensely stifled every other company's ability to make games in the same genre. Seriously, without Fighter's History, fighting games (especially ones based on a 2D plane) would not play the way they do nowadays, and there's no guarantee that Capcom's games would have become what they did without the competition of companies like SNK or Arc System Works, both of which took full advantage of their rights to follow SFII's lead, forcing Capcom to evolve.
In fact, I'd argue that Fighter's History is one of the the most important fighting games ever... I kid you not.
An Infinite Battlefield
For this entry, you can look at it from two points of view: "Why hasn't anyone else tried this since?" or "There's good reason why no one else has tried this since."
Fighting games, like any video game, are built around restrictions, and the most consistent of all has been restricting the field of play, a.k.a. sides of the screen. At first, the games worked completely within a single screen, but eventually some scrolling was implemented, first horizontally & the vertically. For 2D games, this was a simple implementation, as developers could simply stop the screen from scrolling in order enforce borders. Once polygons started being used, & the third dimension allowed for a more diverse "camera", things got tricky. Games like Virtua Fighter & Toshinden worked around this by implementing "Ring Outs", or losing by falling off the edge of the playfield; this allowed the camera to freely roam, yet still enforce borders. Others, like Tekken, simply decided to remove the borders & simply utilize a playfield that never came to an end. However, this was an idea that made sense for 3D fighting games, as they generally encouraged closer combat, and even then 3D fighting games eventually moved on to including physical borders, like walls.
But what about 2D fighting games? As the genre evolved, players found "the corner" to be a major appeal in the strategy of combat, so what would happen if a developer decided to remove that element? Interestingly enough, only a month after Tekken originally debuted in arcades at the tail end of 1994, a 2D fighting game on the Neo Geo actually did just that & allowed for indefinite screen scrolling. Released in January of 1995, Galaxy Fight: Universal Warriors was Sunsoft's second ever fighting game, following Sugoi Hebereke, & it dared to remove the ability for a player to trap the opponent into a corner by simply allowing the screen to continue scrolling. Obviously, there was still some sort of restriction, as fighters could only really be so far apart from each other, but it truly was impossible to prevent your opponent from backing away from you, should you gain the advantage. Unfortunately, it was also the most unique aspect of Galaxy Fight, which was otherwise simply a solid game, if a fair bit underwhelming. Sunsoft would find itself a true cult classic with its third fighting game, Waku Waku 7, but that didn't maintain the "infinite battlefield" that its spiritual predecessor utilized. That being said, no other 2D fighting game has ever included indefinite screen scrolling since Galaxy Fight, so one can at least argue that it features the largest stages ever in a fighting game.
Why is this "Important"? Admittedly, the importance of Galaxy Fight isn't anywhere near as important as the other five entries in this list, but it is a perfect example of why some standards & limitations are rarely challenged. The idea of either putting your opponent into a corner or getting stuck in a corner quickly became an important element of strategy in fighting games, and while the 90s were definitely an era of experimentation, the concept of having an "infinite battlefield" pretty much died with the advent of the new millennium. Tekken dropped the concept with the fourth game, 3D fighters in general have either relied on ring outs or enclosed arenas ever since, & 2D fighters have maintained the status quo of simply not scrolling the screen infinitely since Galaxy Fight. Sure, getting stuck in the corner while your opponent wallops on you sucks, but it also forces you to try to find ways to either escape or not get stuck in that situation again.
The First Fight Against Lag
Today, online play has become so synonymous with fighting games that it's bizarre when a brand new game DOESN'T have any sort of online option. The world of online fighting gameplay has always had an uphill battle, however, and it's because of a single word: Lag. That added delay in response time when playing with other people via the internet may not be as affecting in most video games, but it can be absolutely match-ruining with fighting games, where split-second (nay, frame-exact) timing is essential. Even to this day, in an age of data speeds that just a decade or so ago were considered ludicrous, lag can be a problem, but just imagine trying to fight against another player during the mid-90s, on consoles that weren't even designed for online play! Cue the XBAND, a plug-in modem made by Catapult Entertainment that came in Sega Genesis & (later) Super Nintendo flavors. Like any modem of the time, it used a home's phone line to transmit data, and by using memory manipulation, similar to that of the Game Genie, it turned games with local multiplayer into ones that could be played online.
At a data transfer rate of 2,400 bits per second (or 300 Bytes per second), XBAND wasn't exactly ideal, but it worked well enough for console games of the time, and at it's peak had around 15,000 subscribers, which isn't anything to sneeze at. Still, XBAND was more of a novelty, as almost no games were really developed with it in mind... Almost. Developed by Visual Concepts, which had developed the original Clayfighter, & designed by James Goddard & Dave Winstead, who both worked on (Super) Street Fighter II (Goddard was even the creator of Dee Jay!), late 1995's Weaponlord for the SNES & Genesis was developed specifically with the idea of it being played online. With Namco on board to publish, & XBAND being consulted to ensure as little lag as possible when played over the modem, Weaponlord was designed as a slightly slower-paced fighting game to accommodate any potential lag. For example, character's turn around a little slower than usual, so as to not result in lag making a character suddenly move around too suddenly, & even the timing for the ability to parry (which itself was fairly innovative) was made more lenient to account for lag. Unfortunately, this also wound up with reviewers of the time harping on the game for having "choppy animation" & poor control, though the depth of the fighting itself was praised. Also, while the game found itself a cult following, it was not a strong seller, which Goddard attributed to it being such a late release for the 16-bit consoles. He & Winstead do feel that Namco took the weapons-based combat as an influence for Soul Edge, which came out in arcades shortly later.
Why is this "Important"? Though today merely a footnote in the history of fighting games, Weaponlord is important for showing that developers were looking into combating lag as far back as 24 years ago, before online play was even advertised as something that would actually be a focus. It was even the only game to ever advertise XBAND on the cover, showing that Goddard & Winstead really saw the potential of playing fighting games online. Unfortunately, the genre wouldn't really be given another go at online play until the Dreamcast, and that was primarily only via Capcom's "Matching Service" that was Japan-exclusive. Thankfully, James Goddard has remained in the industry, even eventually working on Microsoft's reboot of Killer Instinct for the Xbox One, so at least the man who gave the first real effort to combat lag has continued to offer his experience to the current generation of developers & players.
The TRUE "Original", & More Ambitious, Tag Team Fighter
Ask anyone, and I'm sure they'll all say the same thing: It's not about who did it first, but who did it best. Similarly, if you were to ask anyone what the first arcade tag team fighting game was, i.e. where you could actively switch between two characters over the course of a single battle, they'd all say the same thing: 1996's X-Men vs. Street Fighter. Now, to clarify, I do say "arcade", because technically tag team fighting had already been done at least a year earlier with Data East's Fighter's History: Mizoguchi Kiki Ippatsu!! on the Super Famicom, but since it had remained Japan-exclusive until 2017 it's understandable that most wouldn't have known about it. Still, over in the arcade scene, Capcom's first "real" crossover with Marvel Comics got everyone talking, because tag team fighting had not been seen at that point by most people. Not just that, but this was a rare moment when Capcom truly had a bit of a monopoly on the concept, because most other companies didn't really try to copy the future "Vs. Series" tag team idea. However, at the same time Capcom was making XvSF, its rival SNK was making its own take on tag team fighting, and Kizuna Encounter: Super Tag Battle would actually beat Capcom to market in Japan by a mere five days, coming out on September 20, 1996 to XvSF's September 25.
Similar to Capcom's game, Kizuna Encounter (Get it? Because "kizuna" is Japanese for "bonds", so it's a battle between people who have "bonded" together) was a continuation of a previous game, in this case 1995's Savage Reign, but where the two companies differed was in how their tag systems were implemented. Whereas XvSF was very free form & allowed tagging from anywhere on the ground, Kizuna Encounter required that players be in their respective tag area in order to tag out, & where fights in XvSF ended once both members of a team were defeated, Kizuna's fights ended after only one member's defeat. In theory, it's easy to see that SNK aimed to be a more strategic type of tag team fighter, while Capcom just went for sheer, raucous fervor; the fact that literally every single character in XvSF had an infinite combo didn't hurt, either. Still, I can tell that most people would probably think "So what?" to Kizuna Encounter technically being first in the arcades, because in the end Capcom arguably did the execution better. However, where SNK was more reserved in gameplay, it was more ambitious in concept, because alongside the regular release there was another version that was given location testing: Kizuna Encounter: Super Tag Battle 4Way Battle Version!
Yes, about three years before Capcom would finally do something similar with Cross Fever Mode for the Dreamcast port of Marvel vs. Capcom, SNK actually made a version of Kizuna Encounter that allowed four players to fight together using two linked Neo Geo MVS cabinets. Unfortunately, this version never saw anything beyond the location tests, likely due to the logistics of needing to link up MVS cabinets (which is something SNK never tried again), but a rom of 4Way Battle has since been leaked & can be found online, and there's even at least one video online of someone actually hooking up the game as intended, showing that SNK not only was first to the arcade market with tag team fighting, but was also already crazy enough to consider letting four players into the action. Sadly, 4Way Battle Version has never seen any sort of official release, so it looks like almost no one will ever truly be able to experience the game as how the team at SNK conceived it.
Why is this "Important"? Again, the fact that X-Men vs. Street Fighter simply did the concept better is undeniable, and it lead to the creation of one of the most cherished franchises in fighting game history. In comparison, SNK wouldn't give tag team fighting another try until The King of Fighters 2003, and that was a 3-on-3 fighter. Still, the fact that Kizuna Encounter: Super Tag Battle 4Way Battle Version was even made back in 1996 is mind-blowing, because it showed that the people at SNK were way ahead of their time, so much so that the company couldn't really deliver upon it, simply because the Neo Geo MVS wasn't really designed to be linked up across multiple cabinets. Even in the two decades since this game, only a handful of fighting games have actually offered anything like Kizuna 4Way Battle, like Marvel vs. Capcom's Cross Fever Mode (again, exclusive to Dreamcast), some entries in the Dead or Alive Series, or Street Fighter EX3. Yes, even with online play being more prevalent than ever, let alone being easier than ever to connect four controllers to a single console, developers have generally hesitated in actually offering tag battles in the way that SNK originally considered back in 1996.
In the 35 years since Karate Champ, the fighting game genre as a whole has evolved in so many ways that no doubt couldn't have been considered possible back in 1984. Of course, most of that is due to the biggest names in the history of the genre, which either accidentally blazed new trails, purposefully pushed the envelope in many ways, or simply felt like a natural advancement. Still, we shouldn't ignore these six games, which ensured that the genre would truly be an open field that everyone could experiment with, were simply ahead of their times, or experimented in ways that can't be dismissed.