Many video games are violent, but fighting games put martial arts front and center. With such a tight focus on hand-to-hand combat, fighting games are a lot more strategic than they might appear on the surface. When fans sink their teeth into a new game, they try to learn the moves and understand the systems at play, all in service of getting their opponents to slip up and let down their guard. Then it’s beat-down time.
Below, we take a look at the 10 most lauded fighting games of all time. As for our methodology, we surveyed all of the fighting games listed on Metacritic with exceptional praise all around, creating a composite score including both critic and user ratings (e.g. a game with a 95 critic score and 9.3 user score would receive a 94 composite score). This should gives us the clearest picture of how well the games were received overall between the time of release and now.
10. Street Fighter IV for PC
Composite Metacritic Score: 86.5
It was Street Fighter II that really kicked off the whole fighting game craze back in 1991. Once that game hit arcades, it spread like wildfire, with people lining up for a chance to pump quarters into the machine and compete against whoever happened to be standing next to them.
Street Fighter IV arrived on the scene in 2008, well after most arcades had shut down in the wake of ever more powerful and multiplayer-friendly home consoles being released. But thanks to the game’s online capabilities, you could still take turns battling against strangers, using the series’ easy-to-learn-but-hard-to-master fighting mechanics. There’s a reason Street Fighter is probably the most popular fighting game series around, and this fourth installment proves it once again.
9. Street Fighter Alpha 3 for PlayStation
Composite Metacritic Score: 88.5
A different kind of Street Fighter game rings in at No. 9 on the list. The Alpha games are distinct from the main Street Fighter series in a couple of ways. First, they use a more exaggerated, anime-inspired art style that still holds up today. Second, the gameplay revolves around combos and counter-attacks, including meters that, when filled, let you unleash massive, punishing strings of attacks.
Super Street Fighter Alpha 3, which came out in 1998, adds nine new fighters to the mix, and three different fighting styles for each character. After its arcade debut, the game landed on a number of different consoles, from the Dreamcast to the PlayStation Portable, but it’s the edition for the PlayStation One that takes the cake.
8. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 for Dreamcast
Composite Metacritic Score: 90.5
Have you ever wondered who would win in a fight between Spider-Man and Mega Man? If you have, then you’re in luck, because a whole game is based around questions like that. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 lets you duke it out between a whole host of video game characters and superheroes like Mega Man, Ryu, Captain America, and Wolverine. And guess what? It’s just as fun as it sounds.
Fighting games that feature crossovers between two universes of characters are nothing new, but Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is the best of the bunch. Not only does it have an incredible roster, but it also gives each character a set of easy-to-learn moves, making it a lot more accessible than many games on this list. It’s a cool idea that’s wonderfully executed. What more could you want?
7. Super Smash Bros. Brawl for Wii
Composite Metacritic Score: 91
The Super Smash Bros. series started in 1999 on the Nintendo 64. The basic premise is that it puts a bunch of Nintendo characters on the screen and lets them beat the stuffing out of each other in a delightfully frivolous and lighthearted way. Brawl is the 2008 Wii installment of the franchise, and it does a great job of carrying the series’ torch for that generation of Nintendo hardware.
Brawl introduced several new features to the series. One is online play, which meant you didn’t have to wait until all of your friends were able to come over to clash against them. It also brought in a stage builder that let you piece together a level in whatever layout you wanted. It even branched out beyond Nintendo franchises to include Solid Snake and Sonic the Hedgehog in its lineup of fighters.
6. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U
Composite Metacritic Score: 91
Interestingly, the newest game on the list was also the best until a few more reviews came in and knocked it down a few pegs. Not that it’s unexpected for a series as lauded as Super Smash Bros. A number of factors go into making this game the instant masterpiece it is. First is its incredible lineup of iconic characters from Nintendo franchises and beyond. Second, the company has much experience crafting this series of fighting games, with over about 15 years of history doing so.
But when you get down to it, it’s the tried-and-true gameplay and deep customization options that make this among the fighting games to rule them all. Oh, and the absurdly fun matches that put eight-players onscreen at once don’t hurt. This game offers everything anyone could reasonably want in a fighting game, from multiple enjoyable modes to hundreds of collectibles and dozens of hours of content. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is as good as fighting games get.
5. Super Smash Bros. Melee for GameCube
Composite Metacritic Score: 91.5
Fun fact: Although Super Smash Bros. Melee predates Brawl by seven years, most Smash Bros. tournament players prefer Melee over Brawl. Why? For one thing, Brawl introduced a tripping mechanic that occasionally resulted in your character falling over when you tried to dash or do a quick attack, which was annoying. The other reason is that Brawl just moves a little slower than the other games in the series. Casual players probably wouldn’t even notice or care about those things, but tournament players know these games inside and out.
However, even without comparing it to its sequel, this 2001 GameCube game is a winner. It has all the standard stuff that makes a Smash Bros. game fun, plus a whole heap of extra content beyond what the Nintendo 64 original offered. Fans bought this game in droves, making it the best-selling GameCube game of all time, with 7 million units sold overall. Not bad for a cutesy fighting game.
4. Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution for PlayStation 2
Composite Metacritic Score: 92
By 2003, when this game launched, the Virtua Fighter series had come a long way. It all began in 1993, when Sega released the world’s first polygon-based fighting game in arcades. The fighters were blocky and the environments were bland, but the core gameplay mechanics were solid.
After several sequels, however, the graphics had improved significantly and the fighting mechanics hand gotten even better. By the time Virtua Fighter 4: Evolved was released in 2003, fighting games didn’t get much better than this. Of particular note was the depth and longevity of the single-player mode, which came in handy in the days before online multiplayer. Though it appears at No. 4 on this list, it ties with the next game.
3. SoulCalibur II for GameCube
Composite Metacritic Score: 92
Released in 2002, SoulCalibur II was hailed by many major video game critics as the best three-dimensional fighter ever made. It had a huge, well balanced cast of fighters, each with a weapon they could use to bring the pain down on their opponents. The graphics and sound were top notch, and whether you were playing it alone or with a friend, the game gave you plenty to do.
While the GameCube version scored highest using our methodology, with a 92 out of 100, the Xbox and PlayStation 2 editions were also well received, and both would have made this list on their own, with scores of 90 and 89.5, respectively. For convenience, we placed the game here, at its highest mark.
2. Tekken 3 for PlayStation
Composite Metacritic Score: 93
When the Tekken series debuted, and for years after, it was known as one of the most hardcore fighting game franchises around. Each character had over 100 unique moves and combos, which made the games challenging for newcomers to pick up and play. But if you took the time to master some of the more useful moves, and spent some time practicing, you discovered a terrific series of games.
When Tekken 3 landed in arcades in 1997, it put extra emphasis on the third dimension, meaning that sidestepping became every bit as important as blocking in terms of defense. That and other improvements remained as the game was ported over to the PlayStation, and continued on in future Tekken games. Though it appears at No.2 on this list, it’s actually tied for top place with the next game.
1. SoulCalibur for Dreamcast
Composite Metacritic Score: 93
Dreamcast was the first of its console generation to launch, so when SoulCalibur came out for the system in 1999, there was virtually nothing else on the console market that looked this good. From the detailed character models to the smooth, flowing animations, SoulCalibur blew away its competition. Even the game’s story outclasses its competition, by bringing all kinds of disparate fighters from various time periods together in search of a special sword.
But no matter how you dress it up or pull it together, a fighting game is only as good as its gameplay mechanics, and once again SoulCalibur nails it. With incredibly responsive controls and a variety of fighters and styles to master, this was a game for the ages. Time may have marched on, but SoulCalibur remains one of the best fighting games of all time.
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