The most important fighting games of the decade

Last Updated February 14th, 2022

2019 is coming to a close and with it a decade of fighting game play and development. We have come a long way since 2010, when fighting games were just starting to come back into mainstream consciousness after a long slump in the late 90s and the beginning of the new millennium. We are now in a sort of second fighting game renaissance, with multiple major companies and indie developers entering the genre, producing new and innovative games with mechanics and systems we have never seen before. But how did we get here?

Let’s take a look at some of the most important fighting game releases of the past decade to find out.

Super Street Fighter IV to Ultra Street Fighter IV (2010-2014)

Street Fighter IV didn’t initially release this decade, but the majority of its content and updates did. In fact, for half a decade it was undeniably the biggest fighting game out there. It was repeatedly the most popular game at EVO, seeing numbers that would double or triple the next biggest non-Capcom game. It’s fair to say that the fighting game community revolved around Street Fighter, and if it weren’t for Street Fighter IV we may have never seen the eventual resurgence of the fighting game in the late 00s, and the new fighting game renaissance that we are experiencing right now.

It’s also worth noting that Street Fighter IV was one of the first fighting games to use modern 2.5D graphics, specifically utilizing detailed 3D models on a 2D plane to mimic the same style of gameplay that older sprite-based games had. What once was a departure from the norm has now become the norm, with only a few games like Under Night In-Birth and Blazblue still utilizing sprites.

Street Fighter IV was also one of the first major fighting game releases to do well on PC platforms, opening up fighting games to a whole other community. It had an amazing mod scene that created everything from costumes to whole new unofficial versions with unofficial mechanics. Many of these mechanics were then borrowed in the official Ultra Street Fighter IV’s Omega mode.

While the Street Fighter series continued on with Street Fighter V it continues to receive heavy criticism to this day. It is nowhere near as loved as Street Fighter IV was, and continues to live in its shadow.

Tatsunoko VS Capcom: Ultimate All Stars and Ultimate Marvel VS Capcom 3 (2010-2011)

We’ve lumped these two games together because they kind of represent the same thing, the re-emergence of Capcom’s VS series and the desire for its iconic team based over-the-top gameplay. Tatsunoko VS Capcom was actually released as a Japan exclusive game last decade, but demand for the game was so high through imports and appearances at official fighting game tournaments, that Capcom navigated a complex web of anime licensing to get it an official American release.

Shortly thereafter, Capcom announced that the Marvel VS Capcom series would be coming back after a hiatus of more than a decade. MVC3 and its updated versions then became the team game to play for the better part of THIS decade. It was right up there as one of the most popular games at EVO to both play and watch, right up until Marvel VS Capcom: Infinite came out and, unfortunately, bombed.

What was particularly impressive about MVC3, was that people kept finding new tech even late in the game’s life. While many would say the meta became stale at the end, largely due to characters like Vergil and the X-Factor mechanic, every EVO would bring about some surprise as a low-tier team ended up rocketing its way through the brackets. It could be argued that there was no better game this decade at generating hype.

Mortal Kombat (2011)

Netherrealm Games’ Mortal Kombat and Injustice series are the best-selling fighting games in America. However, you may not remember that NRS and the MK series in general was kind of a joke at the turn of the decade. Their last game before 2011’s Mortal Kombat (referred to by the community as Mortal Kombat 9) was Mortal Kombat VS DC Universe, largely considered one of the worst fighting games the studio ever produced.

MK9 basically scrapped everything the studio did before and brought things back to the drawing board. The 3D gameplay that the series had been built upon since Mortal Kombat 4 was thrown out. Instead, the series went back to its 2D roots, building dial-a-combo style 3D mechanics into a 2D plane. The result was something that felt new but familiar at the same time, a complete turnaround for the series.

MK9 also marked a change in design philosophy for NRS in terms of feature sets. It was developed as a fighting game that has a wealth of single-player content, from bosses that can only be fought in single-player modes, to a deep and engaging fully voice acted and animated story mode. This completely flew in the face of the standard fighting game wisdom, that fighting games are only ever held up by their VS modes and their core mechanics.

NRS fighters have all followed this model since. This includes the Injustice series, which put DC comics back on the fighting game map, and every Mortal Kombat game since. It’s arguable that Mortal Kombat X was actually the most popular NRS game to come out last decade, but it’s undeniable that MK9 started it all, and without it they wouldn’t be the powerhouse fighting game developer that they are today.

Skullgirls (2012-2015)

In my personal opinion, Skullgirls was the best fighting game to come out last decade, but even if you aren’t on the Skullgirls hype train like I am, you have to admit it was an incredibly important game, especially when it came to indie development. Skullgirls was one of the first indie fighters to get major mainstream notice for being developed by a former fighting game pro, Mike Z. It did a lot with a very small team and budget, and amassed a significant following in the FGC, despite its divisive art-style. It competed against Melee in an epic charity donation run-off, and while it didn’t win, it sure gave what was one of the biggest powerhouses in the FGC a run for its money. It also was one of the most successful crowdfunded fighting games, adding a total of six new characters to its roster through fan support alone.

It was also just very intelligently designed. From the way it allowed you to button check before a match, to the way it handled controllers being connected and disconnected, to the need to hold the pause button to pause a serious match, it felt like all the good ideas from fighting game design came together here, and that’s not even mentioning its actual mechanics. It combined some of the best parts of team games like the VS series, anime games like Guilty Gear and Blazblue, and it even took inspiration from obscure fighters like Weaponlord and One Must Fall 2097. Its reset heavy gameplay just felt good, and its roster was impressively balanced, with no one team ever dominating the meta.

Skullgirls fans are so dedicated that they still hold huge tournaments to this day. It may never have officially been a main tournament at EVO, but it is still one of the most loved indie fighters of the FGC. We never saw anything quite like Skullgirls when it first released, and we may never see anything like it since.

Killer Instinct (2013-2016)

Killer Instinct was yet another major franchise revival, coming back to the Xbox One after nearly two decades. For the longest time, this was the reason for the fighting game community to purchase an Xbox One. Its ground combo centric gameplay along with its combo-breaker system was completely unique, unlike even other combo-centric games on the market. It also felt like a labor of love, filling its roster with classic characters from KI’s past, reimagined for a modern day release. In fact, it was a labor of love in a very real way, as its two developer teams were known for getting help from prominent players, streamers, and YouTube personalities in the fighting game community when designing, balancing, and marketing the game.

More importantly, Killer Instinct was one of the first games to popularize the “seasonal” model of content distribution. Every year the game would change. Not only would new characters be offered as DLC, but the game’s central mechanics would change. We also saw new modes, new stages, new costumes, and more, all given out on a yearly basis.

Each “season” the game would look almost unrecognizable from what it was before. It was these “seasons” that took the place of new version releases. We never had to see “Super Ultra Killer Instinct DX Plus” because all the updates were made to the core game. In a way, this made Killer Instinct a more living experience, rather than a game you bought once and were done with. These seasons constantly renewed interest in Killer Instinct long past its initial release. Nearly every major fighting game follows the seasonal model these days, a trend that can largely be attributed to Killer Instinct’s success.

Guilty Gear Xrd to Rev2 (2014 – 2017)

Yet another franchise revival, Guilty Gear Xrd was important for a lot of reasons, but the most notable one is its graphics style. While Street Fighter IV may have been the first to popularize 2.5D graphics in fighting games, Guilty Gear Xrd was one of the first fighting games to use them specifically to mimic sprite style graphics. It purposefully did not smooth out the motion between key frames of its 3D models, instead treating each pose like a single sprite. This is what gave Guilty Gear Xrd its iconic anime style look, a look that would carry on to major Arcsys releases from that point on.

As hardcore and complicated as the Guilty Gear series is known for being, the Xrd line is well known for having some of the best tutorials period. It actually asks you to play small mini-games to learn the basics, walks you through character specific combos and strategies, asks you to come up with your own techniques to reach certain milestones, and much more. In a way, Guilty Gear was responsible for revolutionizing the way we think about teaching people fighting games, perhaps even more so than any of these new “newbie friendly” fighting games like Fantasy Strike.

Tekken 7 (2015-2019)

Tekken 7 is important for a lot of reasons. First of all, it’s one of the only 3D fighters on this list. 3D fighters saturated the market in the 00s, but have taken a backseat to 2.5D fighters in the 2010s. Yet Tekken 7 is still going strong, leading the charge as Bandai Namco’s major fighting game IP.

Second, it got its start in arcades. The age of the arcade is coming to a close, even in Japan these days. While games like Street Fighter IV were old enough to still see a primary arcade release, the latter half of this decade seemed to bring us games that were built for home consoles first and foremost.

Not Tekken 7, however. It spent two years in the arcades before finally coming to the home. In those two years its competitive scene flourished, against all odds. That is a miracle in today’s fighting game environment, which is largely centered on online play.

Then there were all the guest characters. Tekken 7 wasn’t the first game to have guest characters but these were certainly some of the weirdest. We saw Noctis from Final Fantasy XV, Neegan from The Walking Dead, and even Akuma’s Street Fighter crossover made fans go “hey wait… wasn’t Tekken X Street Fighter supposed to be a thing?”

Finally Tekken 7 is notable for being one of the longest lasting fighting games on this list, rivaled only by Street Fighter IV. It’s been five years, which is forever in video game time, and Bandai Namco is still supporting the game and its scene. We are going into 2020 set to still see more Tekken 7 tournaments and content, and we likely will continue to until Bandai Namco announces Tekken 8 on next-generation consoles.

Smash Bros. Ultimate (2018-2019)

Smash Bros. is an undeniable force in fighting games (and yes, it IS a fighting game. We aren’t having that discussion again). Every iteration of Smash has been immensely popular for both casuals and pros. So why is Smash Bros. Ultimate so important? Because this is very clearly the definitive version of Smash.

Every character, nearly every stage and item, tons of assist trophies and Pokémon, new mechanics like the Smash meter, the ability to turn stage hazards off or turn stages into Battlefield, nearly everything that players wanted in a Smash game is here (except for Waluigi.)

And it’s still receiving support. We got new modes like Stage Builder, new Mii costumes, and new DLC characters like Joker, The Hero, Banjo-Kazooie, and Terry Bogard all throughout last year. Not only that, but we still have another one coming for season 1 and a whole season 2 on the way.

There has never been a fighting game project this ambitious. We couldn’t imagine any company other than Nintendo having the resources to create a crossover game at this scale.

Dragon Ball FighterZ (2018-2019)

Dragon Ball FighterZ is a great 3v3 VS style game with a great IP, designed by two great fighting game developers: Bandai Namco and Arc System Works. However, it’s not its graphics, its mechanics, or its casual appeal that got it on this list. DBFZ is important because it holds the title of Capcom Killer.

Capcom has long been the king of fighting games. Nearly every EVO we would see Street Fighter and a VS title, both made by Capcom, taking the number one and number two slots on the main stage. However, Dragon Ball FighterZ knocked both of these series off their throne. In its debut year it had more players and more viewers than Street Fighter V at EVO. Not only that, but it was received so well that it’s major competition in the team-fighter space, Marvel VS Capcom: Infinite, didn’t even get an EVO slot!

We aren’t trying to hate on Capcom here, but breaking Capcom’s pseudo monopoly on fighting game popularity is both culturally and economically important. Fighting game developers are making bigger, better, and more innovative games now that dethroning Street Fighter is a real possibility. Many are getting into the VS fighting space with titles like Blazblue Cross-Tag Battle and Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid. This development space was practically owned by Capcom up until the fall of MVCI.  Competition in fighting game development is good and DBFZ really fanned the flames of competition.

While its popularity has waned this past year, Bandai Namco and Arc System Works don’t appear to be giving up on DBFZ just yet. It appears as if we are getting a season 3 of content which will renew interest in the game for 2020, and with no Marvel vs. Capcom 4 on the horizon, this is still poised to be the king of team VS style fighters for the foreseeable future.

Samurai Shodown (2019)

Finally, we wanted to put a game from this year on the list, to reflect on where fighting games have come and where they are going. What better game to take this slot than our fighting game of the year: Samurai Shodown.

While certainly not the best game on this list, Samurai Shodown is sort of emblematic of all the major fighting game trends this year.

  • It’s a nostalgic franchise revival
  • It uses 2.5D graphics when previous iterations used sprites
  • It uses the seasonal content model
  • It has a bunch of single-player focused modes
  • It simplified it’s gameplay to be accessible to newbies
  • It focused on high-damage short combos
  • It tried to innovate with brand new modes we hadn’t seen before
  • It filled its roster with fan favorites from the series
  • It has a lot of e-sports support from its parent company.
  • It brought old school fighting game veterans back into the e-sports scene

We can probably think of a few other games that are “more important” than Samurai Shodown,  such as the many new King of Fighters iterations, games in Arcsys’s Blazblue line, or even Under-Night’s sudden rise to popularity after EVO 2019. However, we think that Samurai Shodown best shows off what it means to be a fighting game in 2019. Will it still feel that way in 2020? We will have to wait and see.

What do you think? In your opinion, what are some of the most important fighting games of the last decade? Let us know in the comments.

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