Fighting games were not created in the 1990s, but they sure did hit their stride during that halcyon period. Narrowing down a list of the top 10 of all time is almost as difficult as you can get when it comes to making lists. Because of their iterative nature, most fighting game franchises have spawned multiple games some of which are preferred over others but few of which are objectively better than another. That said, this list represents a classic smattering of titles that made appearances in the arcades and on home consoles. In fact, with the exception of two games, most every title on this last had both a home and arcade installment.
The arcade atmosphere – from the competition to the energy of hanging out with other gamers – is what really gave fighting games their initial jumpstart so it is nearly impossible to forget this component when evaluating them in hindsight. In fact, until eSports, there wasn’t really anywhere a gamer could go for serious competition other than the arcades. That said, here are the ten top fighting games of all time using that criteria:
10. Samurai Shodown
This stylistic rendition on the fighting game craze comes from the masters of the genre over at SNK and features some of the most beautiful sprite work you will see in a classic arcade and console game. From the wandering ronin Haohmaru to the flamboyantly dressed antagonist Amakusa Shiro, this game bleeds with Japanese culture but also includes references to others as well. Basically it is like Street Fighter II with weapons and a historical theme. Beyond that, the gameplay is a little slower and more considered. Special attacks are really devastating and matches tend to play out like a fencing match rather than a furious flurry of attacks. Cool effects like jets of blood coming from your opponent’s body when you land a heavy blow to the extensive use of voice sampling make Samurai Shodown an experience made for the arcades. You’ll be hard pressed to find a presentation and character roster as unique and high quality as this outside of Capcom’s arcade work. The game is loud, stylish, cool as heck, and a must-play for every fighting game fan.
9. Dead or Alive
Just like Virtua Fighter except for ridiculous and combo heavy. In other words, the game is a seriously good time. Before the series got bogged down with boob physics and other vaguely insulting graphical features, Dead or Alive was an intense arena fighter from the makers of Ninja Gaiden that put a premium on over-the-top characters and devastating combos. What makes the original Dead or Alive game fun is that it took the earnestness out of fighting games and replaced it with a spirit that is hard to replicate. Often ridiculous and always fun, Dead or Alive understood what made fighting games so overwhelmingly addictive: The chance to play with friends in a competitive but fun game.
8. Mortal Kombat 11
As the newest game on this list, Mortal Kombat 11 continues in the glorious traditions of its forebears in an era where the arcades are no longer here. It is competitive, fun, weird, and utterly compelling on multiple levels. From complex gameplay systems to an emphasis on fighting online against opponents, Mortal Kombat 11 also doesn’t neglect narrative and lore, offering fans one of their most comprehensive games in this area to date. A fun title that has kept true to what it is, Mortal Kombat 11 only adds to the growing legacy of the fighting game genre in eSports and beyond.
7. Killer Instinct
How do you respond to increasing violence and gore in video games if you are a company like Nintendo? On top of that, how do you make a fighting game if your image was burnished off of kid-friendly fare? You could go the route of Data East and make a Street Fighter II ripoff in the form of Fighters History or you could go the route that Nintendo and Rare did when they developed Killer Instinct, a game that takes the combo-centric gameplay of Street Fighter II and mixes it with the grit of Mortal Kombat. Luckily for us, this fusion of mechanics and styles into a unique video game property resulted in a title with a style all its own. From massive chain combos to semi-violent fatalities, Killer Instinct took the best of both worlds, did its own thing with them, and produced a game that was as compelling as it was fun. It also didn’t hurt that the game ran on the hardware that was going to underpin the “Ultra 64” – or at least that’s what Nintendo claimed at the time. Silicon Graphics-inspired models like those found in Toy Story and Donkey Kong Country mixed in with the combo system of Street Fighter II and the dark vibes of Mortal Kombat might sound like the weirdest game you’ve ever read about, but it is Killer Instinct at its heart and it is absolutely bonkers good game.
6. King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match
Picking just one SNK series is almost as impossible as picking which King of Fighters game to put on this list. KOF2002 UM is often regarded as one of the best games by many fans – and for good reason. A massive roster, a complicated fighting system, and a dash of arcade showmanship that is sadly lacking in games today make this installment the one to try if you only can play one. The roster is what is truly overwhelming even for the time. Every fighter from almost every SNK fighting game series is in this game. That means you have access to a range of gameplay styles that fit your tastes. If you’re looking for a game that oozes with quality, this is your title.
5. Tekken 3
It was hard to choose between this game and Tekken 2. Really, the whole first three games in the Tekken series is an amazing set of games. But if we had to choose just one, we would pick the one that was huge in the arcades and which had a much-anticipated console release. Tekken 3 pushed the PlayStation to the limits just like it pushed the arcade’s graphics to the max. A series that combines special moves with the more serious fare found in Virtua Fighter, Tekken has always borrowed from other games but has morphed into its own tradition. That largely started to come into its own with the third game.
4. Soulcalibur II
Ask anyone who has played it and they will agree: Soulcalibur II is an amazing game. Heck, among weapons-based fighting games, it is a legend. What makes it so great? It has an interesting combination of a gameplay system that invites newcomers and rewards veterans as well as a beautiful landscape with characters that are imminently appealing and compelling in some way. Soulcalibur II amplifies its arcade heritage with flash and sparks but it builds its core elements around a very simple fighting system when compared to other games. Fighting games that involve weapons are often known for their complexity – and they’re often known for featuring only swords. Namco’s unparalleled ability to make each and every weapon feel unique and different is a testament to Soulcalibur II’s quality in execution.
3. Virtua Fighter II
Another sequel that takes the first game and does so much more with the core concept, Virtua Fighter II is a beautiful title even by today’s standards and it transformed the awkward, blocky characters of the first game into something that made 3D fighting games serious. Let’s face it – the first Virtua Fighter looked goofy. Sure, it was ahead of its time and is an amazing game by any stretch. But the 3D doesn’t hold up over time even if the gameplay does. It was meant to be a showcase property in the arcades for Sega back in the day and it remained that way pretty much throughout the life of the arcades. It always pushed the limits of current graphics and the debut of a Virtua Fighter game was often hailed for introducing new, cutting-edge tech in character models. This all began with Virtua Fighter 2, the quintessential Sega arcade game and a bright, gorgeous game that took the washed out first title and transmuted it into gold. All of the conventions that were revolutionary in Virtua Fighter 2 are things that we take for granted today.
2. Mortal Kombat II
The hallmark of a good sequel is whether or not it improves upon the first installment’s flaws while maintaining and even amplifying the magic that made it great in the first place. In this regard, Mortal Kombat II is a master class in how to pull off a sequel to a game. Not only does it take everything the first game did up a notch but it does it in a way that improves upon that game rather than distorting it or trying to change its core essence. Rather than staying away from controversy, Mortal Kombat II courted it and desensitized audiences to it. When you play a violent game today, you have pioneers like the MK series to thank for getting people on board with the idea of mature content in a video game. Plus, Mortal Kombat II did it in a way that subtly mocked the outrage. Things such as “friendships” and “babalities” alongside the riot-inducing fatalities that helped bring the first game to prominence poke fun at the prudes out there while also hinting to its fans that this is fantasy and is not meant to be taken so seriously. A game that can pull off both is a rare thing, indeed, but Mortal Kombat II avoided the camp of the third game and toned down the more realistic streak found in the first game. It is basically the Goldilocks title of the original trilogy. Doing everything just right not only makes it a great fighting game and an amazing sequel, but also a true classic of the fighting game genre.
1. Street Fighter II
Number one probably comes as no shock to anyone that has played fighting games before but it has to be said that Street Fighter II is the reason we are even writing this article. It is the fighting game par excellence. From flamboyant characters to vague lore to a rock-solid, airtight gameplay system, Street Fighter II stumbled into history and has sat atop the fighting game throne ever since. Before SFII, no one played fighting games and they were not on anyone’s radar. Arcades were filled with racers, shooters, pinball machines, and side-scrolling beat ‘em ups. This all changed after Street Fighter II’s release. It not only spawned a fleet of clones but also a ton of iterations in its own right. Singing this game’s praises is hard to do without sounding hyperbolic but this game is every bit the definition of revolutionary and groundbreaking.