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Why Fighting Games Are Better in 2D

Super Street Fighter IV Screenshot - 779261

By Louis Bedigian GameZone.com

It's no secret that Street Fighter IV was a huge success. But before its arrival, most fighting game series had left their 2D roots behind. Even the Street Fighter series had moved on with the EX offshoot. That series was eventually retired, and Street Fighter slowly disappeared from arcades and game consoles.

Why, after all these years, did Capcom finally return to this game? And why take the series back to the second dimension when Tekken, Virtua Fighter, Dead or Alive and nearly every other fighting series out there is pushing some variation of 3D combat?

The reasons are simpler than you might think. Let's take a look.

Reason #1: 2D Is Better Most gamers have fond memories of at least one 3D fighter. SoulCalibur is probably the most popular, first because it is arguably the best, and second because virtually every other 3D fighting series began in the 2D realm.

But since the 3D conversion took place, how many epic fighters can you name that you truly love? Two? Maybe three? Before the conversion, however, there were dozens: Mortal Kombat, Marvel vs. Capcom (which was preceded by excellent Marvel-specific fighting games), Killer Instinct, the 16-bit Street Fighter games, to name a few. Even lower-end fighters like WrestleMania and Primal Rage had their moments. How many lower-end fighting games can you say that about today? How many top-tier 3D fighting games can you say that about?

One could counter that statement by noting how the quality of the fighting genre has dropped tremendously over the last 10 years, thereby decreasing the likelihood that a 3D fighter will surpass those designed during the 2D era. But that argument doesn't stand up when you consider that even now, when the genre is only a few bad sequels away from extinction, the 2D games are still better. Many of you have seen evidence of this just by playing BlazBlue, which came out last summer. Before that, a few lucky souls got their hands on the rare – but unbelievably good – Arcana Heart. This PS2-exclusive went against the fighting game norms, replacing the typical punch and kick combos with an impressive collection of original moves. If you can find a copy, don't hesitate to bring it home.

Before Arcana Heart, Tekken 4 tried to go fully-3D and failed miserably. As a result, Tekken 5 went back to the Tekken 3 (2D, side-scrolling) format. Tekken 6 followed suit, and, despite being a rehash, is still a very enjoyable game.

You could go further back and examine Mortal Kombat 4, whose polygonal graphics didn't produce any three-dimensional gameplay (since when did a sidestep equal 3D?), or take a look at the many fighting games that started in 3D and, consequently, weren't popular enough to become an actual series. Tobal No. 1 and Ehrgeiz are two of the most notable flops.

But it's not the number of 3D disappointments that make 2D fighting games so great; it's what developers do with them. When Street Fighter IV arrived, it solidified the survival of the 2D fighter and proved once and for all that for the next several years – possibly the next several console generations – this is where the genre belongs.

Reason #2: Greater Flexibility I'm no game developer, but I can tell you that the prospect of developing a 3D fighter – a true 3D fighter – is an absolute nightmare. This is partially because it hasn't been done successfully yet, which means there are no blueprints to work from. Everything must be developed from scratch; otherwise you're just copying a bunch of failures.

What are some of the obstacles that prevent great 3D games from being made? It can be something as simple as where the characters stand. Should they face each other at all times, even when backing up? If not, how do you get the character to turn around quickly and seamlessly?

It can also be something complex like a special move. To throw a fireball in the second dimension, gamers know to roll the D-pad and press a button. It's simple, intuitive, and was a mechanic first developed a couple decades ago by – surprise! – the makers of Street Fighter.

The problem is: how do you do this in 3D? How do you convert those rolling motions – or something similar – to the third dimension without breaking the 3D controls? It's a lot harder than it sounds.

Look at Mario: his first two 3D outings were without projectiles. Sure, he had a water gun in Mario Sunshine, but he couldn't throw fireballs until Mario Galaxy, which arrived 11 years after Mario 64. Though Nintendo found a simple way to bring fireballs to Galaxy, I'm betting that this – and other mechanics traditionally found in side-scrollers – perplexed the developers for many years.

If something as simple as a fireball can prevent solid mechanics from being formed in a 3D fighter, just think about the nightmare of implementing other, more complex moves. Even jumping is tough, because most hardcore fighting fans want to jump by pushing up on the D-pad or thumbstick – not by pressing a jump-specific button.

When you add up all these obstacles, you get a design document that will torture the developers until the project is complete. How can they focus on designing unique and exhilarating gameplay features – most of which aren't even possible in 3D – when they have to solve all of these ridiculous problems? Maybe, just maybe, the reason 3D fighting games tend to suck is because none of these problems can be solved.

Reason #3: 3D? Where!? Truth be told, most of the 3D fighting games we play aren't really in the third dimension. Virtua Fighter, SoulCalibur and Dead or Alive can claim to be 3D fighters because of their cool graphics and interactive environments, but deep down, these are side-scrollers. You push right to move right and left to move left. That's the very definition of a side-scroller.

Outside of an immersive sidestep feature that lets you dodge attacks and pull off some interesting moves, you can't really move into the background or the foreground in any of these games. None of them have attempted the control style of Tobal No. 1 – which, despite being a failure, was a true 3D fighter – because the developers can't afford to take that risk.

Meanwhile, developers who go retro and stick with the tried-and-true 2D format are free to develop new fighting mechanics that have reinvigorated the genre.

Street Fighter hasn't broken new ground this generation, but its retro throwback has only just begun. First, Capcom developed what could be described as a reunion of classic gameplay: Street Fighter IV. Now the developers have enhanced it with the release of Super Street Fighter IV (a no-brainer given the world's obsession with Super Street Fighter II), Capcom has re-teamed with Marvel to revive the Marvel vs. Capcom series. After that, who knows?

No one wants to see Capcom rehash these retro revivals into oblivion. But if nothing else, this famed publisher is at least on track to develop compelling sequels in the near future. Now that everything (the engine, controls, graphics, etc.) is in place, the developers can get to work on designing fresh gameplay mechanics – which, sadly, might have been what they and others would have done 15 years ago had the 3D craze not taken over.

That kind of makes me fear what the new 3D craze – the one involving goggles and Avatar-inspired images – will do to our beloved video games.

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Louis Bedigian
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