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There is no experience more frustrating that having your ass handed to you by a friend in a fighting game. While you nervously grip the controller, trying to remember what button initiates a heavy attack, their hands flit across their fightstick with a perfected grace designed to ruin your lovely afternoon together. As you struggle to land a single hit, they unleash a torrent of “combos”, executed through a series of complex maneuvers drilled into their brain by hours upon hours of practice.
Welcome to the world of fighting games, where one of the biggest barriers to success is the fact that not everyone has the time to spend practicing quarter-circle turns—and welcome to Rising Thunder, a free-to-play fighting game for the PC designed to tackle this exact problem.
“There are tons of gamers who don’t play fighting games, but are interested in the idea of a fighting game,” Tom Cannon tells me. “That’s who we’re going after.”
Few games can claim the competitive pedigree that fighting games have commanded over the years. While genres and concepts rise and fall with the tides of popularity, fighting games have survived the transition from sweaty, neon-saturated arcades to the living room like few ever have.
The community surrounding them is passionate to the extreme, dedicating months and years to learning the nuances of their favorite characters, mastering every move, and understanding the mind games that factor into a fight. Tom Cannon knows all of this because in 2002 he founded the Evolution Championship Series (EVO) with his brother, Tony, alongside Seth Killian and Joey Cueller. Since 2002, EVO has risen to become the premiere fighting game tournament, where players meet from every corner of the planet to test their might.
In 2013, Tom and Tony Cannon founded game developer Radiant Entertainment, and Rising Thunder is the second game the team is developing.
“Fighting games are booming,” Cannon says, “and now is a great time to experiment with different control schemes, different formats for fighting.” Rising Thunder is the result of that drive to innovate. Where fighting games enjoy a reputation as brutally technical, requiring players to master moves that are difficult to pull off, Rising Thunder strips that away for a control scheme that is more approachable to every type of player. In lieu of complicated rotations of the joystick in conjunction with button presses to initiate a move, all of Rising Thunder’s characters can trigger their abilities with a single button.
“Rising Thunder is designed to get you into the interesting parts of fighting faster,” Seth Killian says. Like Cannon, Killian comes from his own special lineage in the fighting game world. He was the community manager at Capcom for seven years, and his influence on Street Fighter IV is so strongly felt that the game’s final boss is named after him. In March of 2014, Killian left his job as lead gameplay designer at Sony’s Santa Monica studio to joining Radiant and help develop Rising Thunder—to make the Cannon brothers’ and his vision for an accessible fighting game a reality.
“There’s still a lifetime of learning and experience that will continually improve and challenge your skills,” Killian adds. “But it’s getting to those interesting parts where 90 percent of people drop out. The ‘real game’ requires that you can effortlessly execute every move without conscious attention and effort. That is literally how they are designed. But with traditional fighting games, that’s just not an option for most players without months or years of grinding basic techniques.”
“It’s really difficult to break through the noise and base-level difficulty of fighting games,” Killian says. “But once you do, there’s an experience like no other waiting for you. No other game offers such a perfect mix of strategic play and animal instinct in such a tight, high-intensity package.”
Rising Thunder is an attempt to scrape away all of those issues to bring the competitive joy of fighting games to a much wider audience. In July of 2015, Rising Thunder officially launched on PC for free. Though the game is available to download and play, it is far from complete. Borrowing the development philosophy that is becoming more popular with video games, the team at Radiant wants to get Rising Thunder in player’s hands first as a foundation for their vision before adding all the other features that audiences expect from a fully-fledged video game.
As of right now, Rising Thunder features six different characters that players can choose from. Each one draws inspiration from established styles in the genre, like Talos, a hulking robot who specializes in grappling opponents. Though the game is unpolished from a presentation standpoint, with character art and graphics that, as Cannon tells me, still need a lot of work, the focus is on creating a fundamentally amazing fighting game before adding all the bells and whistles.
“Controls were definitely the focus of our efforts as we think it’s the number one pain point of new players,” Killian says.
“We want you to feel like you’re fighting your opponent and not the game,” Cannon adds.
MOMENTS OF TRIUMPH
For the past few weeks I have been spending my evenings battling human opponents on Rising Thunder’s online servers. As one of the players who, as Cannon assumes, loves the idea of a fighting game but is turned off by the genre’s inaccessibility, Rising Thunder has me hooked. Where I would spend evenings trying to master Street Fighter IV’s complicated techniques, only to still fail because I panicked in the heat of battle, Rising Thunder quickly clicked.
It took weeks before achieving my first win while playing Street Fighter. Yet, on the second night of playing Rising Thunder, I claimed my first victory when I perfectly timed my “Super” to catch my opponent in mid-air after a devastating combo. I leapt from my chair, hands raised in sweet, sweet triumph, and, for just a moment, I glimpsed the experience that Killian and Cannon are so passionate about.
Because each move is simplified to a single button press, I never had to fuss with the execution of a maneuver and rather spent my time invested in learning when to use it for maximum devastation. Rising Thunder became a cerebral experience rather than a technical one, and was more immediately gratifying as a result.
Don’t be mistaken, however. Rising Thunder still boasts much of the complexity of its contemporaries. Combos are still a massive part of the game, as is knowing when to block and when to attack. Digging deeper, players can also swap specific “special” moves to change the way characters play. That isn’t even mentioning the ability to perform “cancels” and other similarly complicated techniques pros will need to master.
When the online servers paired me against an opponent well above my skill level, I had a momentary flashback of sitting on the carpet playing a traditional fighting game, helpless as a flurry of attacks from my friend eviscerated me. But instead, I took a deep breath and focused more on how to outwit my opponent. I still received the ass kicking of a lifetime, but I took immense pride in just how low I managed to make their health continuing to improve my own game, rather than simply suffering while trying to remember a basic move.
“We want to make a fighting game that is just as hardcore and strategic at its core as the best in the genre, but has the accessibility so players who want that twitch, high action, high pressure competitive experience can get to it without feeling like they’re fighting the game,” Cannon says.
That isn’t the only issue that Rising Thunder aims to tackle. While learning how to execute moves and combos is one major hurdle, understanding how to put that knowledge to good use is a much bigger obstacle. If you’ve ever played a fighting game against the computer and then switched to a real opponent, you’ll understand just how vastly different the two can be. Cannon described to me how the team is also hoping to reinvent the training modes of fighting games to include concepts that are rarely ever communicated by the game itself, like positioning, blocking, and punishing overzealous opponents. “It’s very early for us, but you’ll see these features coming out over the next couple of months,” Cannon says.
This drastic change in the way we perceive fighting games also requires a drastic change in the way fighting games are built. Where the genre has traditionally followed the standard model of being developed and released as a full priced game, Rising Thunder is free and currently only available on a platform that is very different from the consoles where fighting games are typically played. “We love consoles,” Killian says. “But starting on PC was important for us because we wanted to control every aspect of the game. We wanted to be able to tune every part of online responsiveness, as well as do a lot of character and game updates. By starting on the PC with our own launcher, we had that direct control over every part of the game.”
As independent video games become more readily available across every system, the way games are being developed is changing. Killian tells me that a huge benefit of releasing Rising Thunder in an unfinished state is the ability to have a conversation with the players in a much more direct way. That constant feedback at every step of the process is what Killian hopes will shape Rising Thunder into one of the biggest names in the genre. “We want to systematically break down the barriers that have kept people from playing fighters, from having to pay 60 dollars, to having to play against only local friends, to struggling with bizarre move motions to access the basic strategic game.”
Maybe you’re like me and a lifetime of traumatic childhood beatings at the hands of your more skilled friends has made you weary of the genre entirely. If so, Rising Thunder is absolutely worth checking out. Since launching in July, the game has already received plenty of updates as the team works with their fans to deliver a new way of thinking about fighting games. There is still a long road ahead before Rising Thunder comes close to delivering an experience as complete as those offered by the biggest fighting games, but this is one underdog I’m happy to place a bet on.
“I want to challenge a new generation to take on the fighting game pros of the world,” Seth Killian tells me. “And I want to knock down the obstacles standing in their way.”
Rising Thunder is available now for free.
Steven Messner is a freelance writer with a zealous passion for good beer and good video games. He also enjoys taco night, games about space, and forgetting to take out the garbage. You can find his work at GamesRadar, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and Paste Magazine. Alternatively, you could just add him on Twitter @stevenmessner and say hello. He likes that.
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