The 7 Absolute Best Fighting Games of All Time

Fighting games have delighted gamers with over-the-top action and competition since hits like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat swept arcades in the early 1990s. While fighting games have come a long way graphically, their emphasis on mastering combos and out-thinking your opponent has stayed consistent. Countless franchises have made their mark on the genre over the years, but these 7 titles stand out as the absolute best fighting games of all time according to critics and fans.

A Brief History of Fighting Games

The origins of fighting games stretch back to 1976‘s Heavyweight Champ, an early black-and-white arcade game by Sega. It wasn‘t until the release of 1987‘s Street Fighter that the genre really started to take shape. This side-scrolling fighter let players battle with a variety of martial artists from around the world.

Its sequel Street Fighter II revolutionized arcades when it arrived in 1991. Thanks to its competitive gameplay, roster of iconic World Warriors like Ryu and Chun-Li, and the novelty of facing off against another human, Street Fighter II became a global phenomenon. It spawned countless sequels and spin-offs and solidified fighting games as a gaming staple.

Other franchises like Mortal Kombat, The King of Fighters, and Virtua Fighter kept the genre hot through the arcade scene‘s decline in the late 90s. Iconic titles continued hitting consoles too, particularly the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2. Fighting games drove innovation in areas like 3D graphics, online multiplayer, and motion controls. Today competitive fighting game tournaments draw huge crowds, demonstrating the lasting community and spectator appeal of titles like Street Fighter V and the crossover sensation Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

What Defines a Fighting Game?

Fighting games distill the experience of a martial arts duel or close-quarters battle down to its essence. Two combatants with their own strengths, weaknesses, and movesets square off in matches of skill and reflexes. Health bars get depleted as fighters exchange hits until one is knocked out. Combat revolves around timed button presses to chain normal attacks into explosive special moves and combos. Complex joystick motions give attacks direction and flair. It‘s as much a mind game as reflex test, trying to out-think and surprise your opponent.

Variants of the genre introduce wild concepts like weapons, magical powers, platforming elements, and up to 4 player battles. But mastering the basics of spacing, timing, combos, and movement separates experts from button mashers. Learning matchups between characters takes dedication too. Great fighting games capture that feel of a tense back-and-forth duel, where one misstep could cost you the round. Their competitive skill ceiling is almost limitless.

Now let‘s count down the 7 greatest fighting games that became legends based on their gameplay innovations, responses from critics and fans, and influence on the genre.

#7: Marvel vs Capcom 2 (2000)

Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (Renewed)

Crossover fighting games let developers pull from multiple licenses for new matchups, and none did it better than Marvel vs Capcom 2. It continued the landmark team battle system from X-Men vs Street Fighter and Marvel Super Heroes vs Street Fighter. Up to 3 characters tag in and out freely while fighting the opposing team. You can even call assists from off-screen partners for screen-filling super combos involving your whole squad.

The 56 playable fighters draw from fan favorites across Marvel Comics and Capcom franchises. Pit Wolverine and Ryu against the likes of Spider-Man, Captain America, Mega Man, and more. The sprawling cast offers seemingly endless team compositions for you to experiment with in singles or co-op matches. Even two decades after release, top players keep discovering new high level techniques.

While Capcom expanded MvC‘s scope further in later sequels, the second entry is considered the best balanced and most fun. Its cel-shaded visuals still charm too as a colorful love letter to comics and gaming icons. For both casual and competitive players, the depth, personality, and variety cement Marvel vs Capcom 2 as an enduring fighting masterpiece.

#6: Super Smash Bros Melee (2001)

Super Smash Bros Melee (Renewed)

The Super Smash Bros series has always redefined what a fighting game can be. Rather than draining health bars, Smash battles take place on platforms as players attempt to knock each other off stage. With its slower pace, item pickups, and lack of complicated inputs, Smash opens the genre to beginners. But make no mistake – serious Smash is still as hardcore as any fighter.

Super Smash Bros Melee for the Nintendo Gamecube still reigns supreme. 2001‘s sequel brought back all 12 characters from the N64 original while introducing over a dozen more, including Marth, Ice Climbers, and Mr. Game & Watch. Stages expanded well beyond Nintendo icons too, like a battle atop the alien mothership from HAL Laboratory‘s Kirby series.

Advanced techniques like directional air dodging, smooth movement, and dynamic hitstuns created a faster, combo-heavy game with immense competitive depth that still evolves today. Unlocking the full fighting potential of characters takes serious dedication that top Melee pros have hammered over years of play. Local multiplayer remains riotously fun too, making Super Smash Bros Melee the highest selling Gamecube game ever at over 7 million copies sold. For Nintendo mascot brawls with hidden nuance, Melee is unbeaten.

#5: Super Smash Bros Brawl (2008)

Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Renewed)

Super Smash Bros Brawl brought Nintendo‘s mascot fighter to the Wii with more polish, modes, and madness than ever. Stacking up a giant roster of 35 characters, Brawl pushed beyond Nintendo‘s stable to feature third party guests like Solid Snake and Sonic the Hedgehog. Stages similarly pulled from classic Sega and Konami titles for a digital museum of gaming history.

But the heart of the game remains Smash‘s foundation of chaotic 4 player battles. With so many unique fighters wielding everything from swords to lasers to PK fire, no match ever plays the same. Series-firsts like Final Smash finishing moves and the strategic Assist Trophy pickups keep the action unpredictable.

From racing Sonic in Green Hill Zone to brawling atop Ridge Racer cars, Super Smash Bros Brawl marked the biggest and most ambitious entry yet with its mountain of fan service. Selling over 13 million copies, the highest grossing entry on the Wii perfectly refined the welcoming gameplay and pop culture mashups that define Nintendo‘s signature fighter.

#4: Virtua Fighter 4 (2002)

Virtua Fighter 4 – PlayStation 2

In an era when arcades reigned supreme, Sega‘s groundbreaking Virtua Fighter series pioneered fluid 3D fighting mechanics and realistic character animations. By the fourth entry, Virtua Fighter had evolved into one of the deepest competitive fighting franchises thanks to its precise combat. With 3 buttons each for punching and kicking plus a guard button, Virtua Fighter‘s control scheme feels intuitive. But with no fireballs or other projectiles, the focus stays on tense spacing and lightning-quick reactions.

Each of Virtua Fighter 4‘s 13 wildly diverse fighters feel wholly unique too, from the brute force of mountain man Taka-Arashi to the deceptive Aiki-jujutsu grace of Aoi Umenokoji. Their move sets are firmly rooted in real martial arts like Karate and Pro Wrestling, creating a grounded combat flow focused on throws, holds, counters, and quick strikes over flashy special moves. Huge animation improvements make every blow brutally impactful as well.

Pummeling polygon powerhouses in Virtua Fighter 4 tests your mind as much as your reflexes. For a 3D fighter with incredible depth yet easy pick-up-and play controls, Virtua Fighter 4 became a must-have title for the PlayStation 2 era competitive scene.

#3: Street Fighter IV (2008)

Street Fighter IV – Playstation 3

Street Fighter II pioneered competitive gaming in 1991. But the series lost momentum to 3D fighters as it stagnated through the late 90s. Then Street Fighter IV arrived to reclaim the throne and kick off a fighting game renaissance. It brought Capcom‘s archetypal World Warriors into stunning 3D backdrops while retaining the tight, responsive 2D battles fans loved.

Ryu, Chun-Li, Ken and the crew faced off against new opponents like the shock-and-awe wrestler Zangief. Flashy Ultra Combos punctuated the return to Street Fighter‘s signature 6 button rolls and combos too. Overall it was a masterclass in rebooting a classic franchise for a modern age while keeping the soul intact. As both a competitive benchmark and pop culture icon, the King was back with Street Fighter IV.

Launching first to arcades then consoles over 2008 and 2009, Street Fighter IV dominated the fighting scene and made waves in the gaming mainstream too. Its high production value visuals wowed players as much as the refined combat. For veterans it played like coming home again. But for newcomers, IV represented the perfect jumping on point to experience Street Fighter greatness.

#2: Tekken 3 (1998)

Tekken 3

While Sega and Capcom duked it out over arcades, Bandai Namco created a 3D fighter that changed everything. Where early attempts at 3D like Battle Arena Toshinden stumbled with blocky visuals and controls, 1995‘s Tekken aced the format with style thanks to detailed graphics and a simplistic 4 button layout. Skill came from stringing together combos using different arm and leg combinations instead of difficult joystick motions.

Tekken 3 raised the bar astronomically by expanding into polygons with smooth 60 frames per second animation. Each fist and kick connected with the savage force you imagined. Characters like forest ninja Yoshimitsu came loaded with thousands of possible attacks to decipher. Stages like Jin Kazama’s temple courtyard and industrial rooftops burst with color and destructible objects. Playable endings for each fighter stoked interest in Tekken’s epic narrative too, centering on the Mishima clan’s generational blood feud.

Besides boasting one of fighting games’ largest rosters ever at 21 brawlers, Tekken 3 popularized sidestep dodging to circle foes. It also introduced iconic characters like Hwaorang and Ling Xiaoyu who became series staples. Brutal combos and juggling launches made for long, tense rounds where a single mistake would cost you the win. For fast-paced 3D combat, Tekken still throws the best punches around thanks to this genre masterstroke.

#1: Soulcalibur (1999)

Soul Calibur – Sega Dreamcast

When Sega wanted to show off what their new Dreamcast system could do, they tapped Namco fighting experts Project Soul. Their weapon-based 3D fighter Soulcalibur hit arcades in 1998 then arrived on Dreamcast in ‘99 as a jaw-dropping showcase of fluid animation and visual detail. Vivid lighting illuminated clashes between knight Siegfried‘s massive sword and shield-maiden Sophitia‘s blades that popped off the screen. Soulcalibur moved smoothly too with an 8-way run allowing you to sidestep and circle opponents freely.

Combat revolved around high, mid and low attacks corresponding to vertical swings, horizontal slashes, and low leg sweeps respectively. Successfully blocking and countering made you feel like a true swordsman strategizing attacks. With so many possible attack angles and an actual side jump move for evasion, bouts felt inventive and free-flowing compared to stubbier 3D contemporaries.

With rich lore behind each warrior on a mythic quest for the titular sword, Project Soul crafted iconic characters who moved with lifelike fluidity thanks to advanced motion capture. For fast, weapons-based 3D fighting unlike anything seen before, Soul Calibur earns its place as the greatest fighting game ever.

The Legacy of Fighting Games

While other genres have largely overshadowed fighting games in mainstream popularity, the niche remains fiercely beloved by both casual and competitive scenes. Top players still spar using decades old titles like Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike while newcomers jump in through more accessible modern hits like Dragonball FighterZ.

Fighting games continue driving forward too, with boundaries still being pushed in online networking code, cross-platform accessibility, and stunning animation. Thanks to their straightforward concept with endless room for innovation, we’ll surely be blown away by more revolutionary ideas in the genre for years to come.

But these 7 timeless classics represent the best fighting games have already achieved – sheer fun, technical brilliance, pop culture celebration, and competition refined to an art. Game on and see if you have what it takes to stand among legends of the arena in these greatest hits.

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