Mortal Kombat X is poised to hit next-gen consoles this week. That’s X as in ten: Ten Mortal Kombat games since it jump-kicked its bloody way on to the Sega Genesis in 1992, and about eight since one was any good. But these top-shelf fighting franchises can’t seem to call it quits, returning to their decades-old creative wells to see what, if anything, they can still drudge up. But despite how much the legacy of the series has diminished over the years, there’s no denying that the original Mortal Kombat is a classic of the genre — and the same thing goes for Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, and many of the other franchises that today are struggling to maintain their tenuous hold on relevance. With that in mind we thought we’d take a look back through the archives to come up with an exhaustive, debate-settling list: the fifty greatest fighting games of all time.
50. STAR WARS: MASTERS OF TERAS KASI (1997, PSX)
The lightsaber duel is such an obviously appealing subject for a Star Wars video game that it’s amazing it took LucasArts so long to deliver. It didn’t handle quite as smoothly as its generational peers, but Masters of Teras Kasi afforded Star Wars fans the chance to square off against Darth Vader — more than worth the price of admission.
49. PLAYSTATION ALL-STARS BATTLE ROYALE (2012, VITA)
Nintendo purists were quick to mock Battle Royale as a Super Smash Bros imitation, and it does indeed bear a conspicuous resemblance. (And, true, “Colonel Radec” is no Super Mario.) But what it lacks in originality it makes up for in execution: this is a commendable platform fighter with much to recommend it.
48. SHAQ FU (1994, GENESIS)
Much-maligned in its day as a vain celebrity cash-in, Shaq Fu remains, despite its reputation, a very fine 2D martial-arts fantasy, well-served by fluid animations and fast, accurate controls. It also features Shaquille O'Neal duking it out with a superpowered evil mummy, which is as pleasantly ludicrous as it sounds.
47. WAR OF THE MONSTERS (2003, PS2)
A decade before Pacific Rim thrust “kaiju” into the popular imagination in America, Incognito’s dizzyingly fun science-fiction lark War of the Monsters gave players a glimpse of the beloved Japanese fascination — putting them in control of any number of oversized beasts, from Godzilla to King Kong, as they lumber and spar through city streets.
46. WWF SMACKDOWN! (2000, PSX)
THQ’s hugely popular WWF SmackDown! got right to the heart of what people love about pro wrestling: it isn’t so much the fighting itself as the spectacle with which it’s so extravagantly furnished. And so the game doubled down on flashy lights, cross-cutting camera angles, and elaborate pre-match introductions.
45. CLAYFIGHTER (1994, SNES)
Positioned as a parent-friendly riposte to Mortal Kombat’s furor-inciting vulgarity, Interplay’s claymation brawler Clayfighter — animated using stop-motion photography of actual clay models — distinguished itself with a novel aesthetic and, at a time when self-seriousness reigned supreme, a refreshingly jokey sensibility.
44. EHRGEIZ (1998, PSX)
DreamFactory’s little-played Ehrgeiz might have vanished into total obscurity were not for what remains its defining feature: the inclusion, as playable characters, of several beloved members of the Final Fantasy VII cast, the lightning-haired swashbuckler Cloud Strife chief among them. In one ingenious flourish of cross-pollination a decent fighter became a cult classic.
43. URBAN CHAMPION (1994, NES)
When Urban Champion was re-released on the Nintendo Wii’s digital Virtual Console platform in 2011, critics swiftly waved it off as a musty relic of gaming’s infancy. A rudimentary fighter, certainly, but Urban Champion isn’t antiquated: it simply finds the genre at its earliest — and most enjoyably simple.
42. BLAZBLUE: CALAMITY TRIGGER (2008, PC)
The hotly anticipated successor to ARC System’s beloved Guilty Gear series, Blazblue: Calamity Trigger is very much a purist’s fighting game — not, in any case, for the feint-hearted dabbler. This is about as deep and as rigorous as fighting mechanics come, rewarding the diehards their (doubtless many-houred) investments.
41. TEKKEN TAG TOURNAMENT (2000, DREAMCAST)
An attempt to invigorate a (somewhat) waning franchise by adopting the well-liked “tag-in” feature and four-player battles of games like Marvel vs Capcom and Dead or Alive 2, Tag Tournament turned out to bring Tekken to the next generation about as well as anyone could have expected, reminding fans of what they loved about the series to begin with.
40. KILLER INSTINCT (1995, SNES)
In the mid-1990s, every developer on the planet wanted its own Mortal Kombat. Rareware were among the only few to pull it off: their muscular arcade fighter leaned heavily on combo-strings (and combo breakers), hitting an addictively speedy rhythm that would be enough to make the game stand apart.
39. DEAD OR ALIVE 2 (2000, DREAMCAST)
You can really feel the hits you land in Dead or Alive 2. The upper cuts, the jump-kicks, the body slams: the blows have weight. It was widely revered upon release for its bleeding-edge graphics — credit the Dreamcast, always ahead of the game technically — but while that burnish has faded over time, that meaty, full-bodied physicality hasn’t a bit.
38. THE KING OF FIGHTERS ‘94 (1994, NEOGEO)
At a time when the market was overwhelmed with fighting games, The King of Fighters was the rare one to innovate. Combining fan-favorite characters from popular franchises? It was the first. Trading out multi-round battles for three-on-three bouts? It invented that too. Add to these novelties tight controls and a solid combat system and the game clearly proves a cut above.
37. DEAD OR ALIVE 3 (XBOX, 2001)
Best-remembered, for better or worse, as the game that set the high water mark for realistic breast physics, Dead or Alive 3 was a remarkable technical achievement for many more legitimate reasons. It became one of the hallmarks of the then-new Xbox for good reason: between its sumptuous graphics and complex animations, scarcely had a fighter looked so good.
36. MARVEL VS CAPCOM: CLASH OF SUPER HEROES (1998, ARCADE)
The cult crossover franchise enjoyed a major coup in the late 90s with this, its first great installment. Clash of Super Heroes pounced into arcades and soon made the jump to the Dreamcast (a meager Playstation port followed), and it wasn’t long before fighting fans were galvanized by the game’s frenzied speed.
35. STREET FIGHTER ALPHA III (1998, PSX)
The Street Fighter series may have peaked early, but this mid-career installment, a big hit on the Playstation in 1998, showed that even diminishing returns could still pack a whallop. Following the franchise axiom that evolution simply means adding more, the manic Alpha III is a vast, likably sprawling game.
34. GUILTY GEAR XX ACCENT CORE (2006, PS2)
Guilty Gear XX is in many ways the ideal “hardcore” fighting game: deep enough mechanically that aficionados will find their obsession satisfied, but not so dense that (comparative) amateurs will be instantly alienated, it’s a fighter that aims to give back only as much as you’re willing to put into it — and for some that might be a lot.
33. DRAGON BALL Z: ULTIMATE BATTLE 22 (1995, PSX)
Scores of fighting games based on the popular anime series appeared on home consoles in Japan over the years, but one of the only Dragon Ball Z titles valuable as more than mere fan service was Ultimate Battle 22, a fun, well-playing combination 2D/3D fighter and the first DBZ game of the 32-bit generation.
32. TEKKEN 4 (2002, PS2)
Tekken 4 is a good example of the fighting game at its most modestly successful: it doesn’t strive to reimagine the genre, nor even to introduce much in the way of novelty or surprise. Rather it’s content to emphasis the strength of its core mechanics, which, by Tekken installment number four, have been honed to the point of exactness.
31. ETERNAL CHAMPIONS (1993, GENESIS)
Sega Interactive’s Eternal Champions hasn’t enjoyed much of a legacy in the twenty years since its release, but time has been kind to this long-obscure 2D fighter — one of the very few of its era to be developed directly for a home console rather than the arcade market, and quite obviously designed to play to those strengths.
30. SUPER SMASH BROS. BRAWL (2008, WII)
Arguably the dark horse of the otherwise unanimously cherished Smash Bros. series — if only because it’s virtually unplayable using the Wii’s native controllers — the showy, fast-paced antics of Brawl nevertheless offer much the same pleasures of its predecessors. And what pleasures they are.
29. VIRTUAL ON: CYBER TROOPERS (1995, SATURN)
In a word: mechs. The underplayed arcade game Virtual On, ported in 1995 to the Sega Saturn, put players behind the cockpit-shaped helmet of a very large and very appealing robot — set to face off against a friend in a robot of his own. Who could resist?
28. DEF JAM: FIGHT FOR NY (2004, PS2)
As if orchestrating a street brawl between Henry Rollins and Slick Rick were not reason enough to play Def Jam: Fight for NY, the world’s most improbable fighting game went and surprised its every eager buyer by proving to actually be good.
27. WWF NO MERCY (2000, N64)
An elaborate character-creation system meets a deep single-player “career” campaign in this, the most gratifying wrestling fantasy ever realized — no-holds-barred escapism of the highest order. It was never easier to imagine yourself thrust into the ring…or, for that matter, to imagine that pro wrestling is real.
26. TEKKEN DARK RESURRECTION (2005, PSP)
Handheld consoles have never had much luck with fighting games, which are more commonly built for high-powered arcade machines way out of the handheld’s range. It was certainly astonishing, then, when Dark Resurrection made the quick leap from arcade to the Playstation Portable in 2005 — and all the more surprising that so little was lost in translation.
25. TOBAL NO. 1 (1996, PSX)
You may remember Squaresoft’s Tobal No. 1 as the game that included a playable demo of Final Fantasy VII — perhaps the only reason it enjoyed such success — but this distinctive Japanese fighter, whose characters were designed by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama, has a great deal more to recommend it than that.
24. TEKKEN 3 (1997, PSX)
The introduction of a third axis fundamentally changed the 3D fighting game, and that single, inevitable twist on the Tekken formula remains the most enduring contribution of the franchise’s third iteration — enough of a forward-looking leap that, combined with the already superb mechanics adherents to the series loved, made Tekken 3 a standout of its generation.
23. MORTAL KOMBAT II (1993, SNES)
Mortal Kombat II aroused the usual controversy among parents concerned for the sanctity of childhood playthings, earning ever more vocal criticism for its overhauled Fatality system and newly improved flourishes of death and dismemberment. So much blood, and, indeed, so much fun.
22. WU TANG: SHAOLIN STYLE (1999, PSX)
The Wu-Tang Clan styled their mythology around old kung-fu movies for so long that the appearance of a Wu-themed martial-arts game was hardly shocking. A spruced-up mod built on Paradox’s little-known Thrill Kill, the deliciously vulgar Shaolin Style is everything the eager Wu Tang fan (and dedicated gamer) could want and more.
21. DESTREGA (1998, PSX)
Rock, paper, scissors: the most basic childhood diversion formed the basis of Koei’s Destrega, a 3D, arena-style combat game for the original Playstation. Three moves with overlapping strengths and weaknesses added an intriguing wrinkle to a battle system that was otherwise familiarly smooth.
20. SOULCALIBUR II (2002, PS2)
It’s never easy to follow up a classic years later, and expectations for Soulcalibur II were duly stratospheric. But Project Soul came through: their next-gen update of the Soulcalibur legacy (cross-released on three platforms simultaneously, with a different playable character accorded to each) delivered more of the same full-tilt prowess fans of its predecessor had come to expect.
19. JOJO’S BIZARRE ADVENTURE (1998, PSX)
About as insane as its title implies, the manic, hyper-stylized JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is Capcom’s other late-90s arcade fighting game — infinitesimally as popular as Street Fighter or Marvel vs Capcom, but among those in the know just as beloved.
18. FLYING DRAGON (1998, N64)
Inexplicably unpopular (and now virtually impossible to find) in North America upon release, Natsume’s excellent Flying Dragon is actually a game divided in two: one half features your typical 3D martial-artists throwing down, while the other shrinks the fighters to miniature size. Best of all, though, is the RPG-style system that allows you to collect useful items and upgrade your character.
17. STREET FIGHTER IV (2008, PS3/360)
Doubtless few expected that a new numbered Street Fighter sequel in 2008 — the first in more than a decade — would be much good, as most of the fighting franchises that were titans in the 90s petered to mediocrity by the late 200s. But no: the brawny Street Fighter IV was very much a worthy successor, proving to be among the finest fighting games of the last decade.
16. KARATEKA (1984, PC)
Before he took the gaming world by storm with his revolutionary Prince of Persia, a young Jordan Mechner spent his free time after school developing a modest early fighting-platformer hybrid called Karateka. Released on the Apple II before being ported to the Commodore 64 and Atari 800, Karateka is an ingenious little game — a fine case of how much can be done with so little.
15. SOULCALIBUR IV (2008, PS3/360)
The in-built greatness of the Soulcalibur franchise got its customary next-gen facelift in 2008 with installment the fourth, its first foray onto the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. But this time around fans got a new clutch of characters in addition to the usual upgrades — Yoda and Darth Vader chief among them. Soulcalibur plus lightsabers: well, obviously.
14. SUPER SMASH BROS. (1999, N64)
“Duke it out,” the box art tantalizingly announced, “as your favorite Nintendo characters.” And that was probably the way the developer pitched it, too: throw Mario and his friends together and let the kids beat one another’s heads in. Silly as it still sounds, it worked, swiftly earning universal acclaim and launching one of Nintendo’s most consistently remarkable franchises in the process. Who knew?
13. VIRTUA FIGHTER 4 (2001, PS2)
By its fourth iteration, Virtua Fighter’s core strength lay in its refinements: the basic combat system remained pleasingly familiar, the characters were largely unvarying, and fans of the series knew more or less what to expect, only better. If the luster of the new had worn dim by 2001, the improvements added an admirable polish of their own. More of the same? Perhaps. But this sort of same was good.
12. POWER STONE (1999, DREAMCAST)
Like a divine rebuke to custom, Power Stone emerged in the late 1990s looking and playing like no other fighting game out there: a glimmering, vigorous 3D fighter that carefully avoided every one of the genre’s cliches. An early arrival on the Dreamcast, it had the distinction of being the console’s true killer-app — the first and best reason to own one was to bring the brightest star of the arcade home to master.
11. VIRTUA FIGHTER 2 (1994, SATURN)
Almost single-handedly justifying the existence of the otherwise dire Sega Saturn, Virtua Fighter 2 represented the closest a home-console fighting port had come to replicating an authentic arcade experience — pretty much the ultimate goal of every developer of the era. The tech has dated, naturally enough, but the feeling of command and finesse remains. It was a work of great skill and the resulting excellent still stands.
10. GET ON TOP (2014, PS3/PS4)
Smuggled in, unadvertised, as a secret add-on minigame to last year’s delightful Sportsfriends, Get on Top is another brainchild of Bennett Foddy, the creative genius behind QWOP. Like that cult curio, Get on Top is almost absurdly simple: spartan mechanics, stripped-down graphics, effortless controls. And yet from this straightforward premise one finds a fighting game of unbelievable depth and wit.
9. MORTAL KOMBAT (1992, GENESIS)
Mortal Kombat has a strong claim on being the most controversial video game in history — and maybe the most influential. The swift, galvanic action, no less than the attendant bloodshed, helped changed the way the public saw video games, graduating them from extravagant children’s toys to entertainments for adults. Every time a limb is severed or a bone is cracked in a modern video game, the influence of Mortal Kombat is manifesting itself.
8. MIKE TYSON’S PUNCH-OUT!! (1987, NES)
Can we trace the console gamer’s taste for bloodshed to poor Mike Tyson? Maybe so: it was with Punch-Out!! that players were first introduced to the satisfying thrust of a well-timed jab, flying out with the tap of a button and colliding with an opponent’s unsuspecting jaw. There were fighting games before this. None had so great an effect on how the rest would turn out to be.
7. TEKKEN 2 (1995, PSX)
An obvious landmark in the evolution of the 3D fighting game, Tekken 2 is the sort of step ahead that you can’t step back from — and the genre never did. This, it seemed at the time, was the fighting game of the future, the first glimpse of the generational advancements yet to come. Improvements abound down the line. None had this installment’s exhilarating purity.
6. MARVEL VS. CAPCOM 2 (2000, DREAMCAST)
Gosh, what vigor: the inimitable Marvel vs Capcom 2 is a brash spasm of cartoon lunacy, whooshing and swooping around as if hopped-up on something fierce. Euphoria in the fighting genre reached an apex here that it never seemed advisable to take further, even if such a thing were possible; this is an experience too ecstatic to want to repeat.
5. BUSHIDO BLADE (1997, PSX)
If Marvel vs Capcom 2 represents the fighting game at its most, er, zestful, then Bushido Blade is the genre at its most placid. A game of great calm and reserve, it’s one of the only times a virtual fight has been treated with the moral seriousness one would think it deserves. A single swing of the sword is all it takes to best an opponent here, and each movement feels commensurately important — each carries the weight of responsibility inherent in taking a life.
4. SUPER STREET FIGHTER II: TURBO (1994, ARCADE)
It makes sense that the 3D fighting game should have taken off around 1995: after the release of Super Street Fighter II the year before, any other 2D game would have seemed redundant. A kind of self-evident perfection was reached here. Complexity, difficulty, movement, balance: everything seemed honed so precisely that nothing could be further improved. Among its peers it remains, more than twenty years out, the platonic ideal — the 2D fighting game’s perfection.
3. SUPER SMASH BROS. MELEE (2001, GAMECUBE)
Here inspiration meets refinement, with glorious results. The original Super Smash Bros. was an experiment whose success the game was never designed to accommodate — the mechanics were too imprecise, the balance too slanted, for it to sustain the fighting game enthusiast’s obsession. Nintendo wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Melee, its successor, returned to the framework that made the first game a hit and amply furnished it to suit the purist, calibrating every jump and punch to match (or exceed) the standards befitting the genre’s exemplars.
2. POWER STONE 2 (2000, DREAMCAST)
Power Stone was a marvel — a gasp of inspired creativity and a salve for anyone burned by lesser fighters. Power Stone 2, in the way that only video games seem capable, took what worked about its predecessor and greatly improved upon it: players jumped from two to four (paving the way for fights of unrivaled depth and strategic intricacy), weapon and character rosters ballooned enormously, and, best of all, the game’s static arena-style levels started moving — sometimes even tearing themselves to pieces in the middle of a battle.
1. SOULCALIBUR (1999, DREAMCAST)
The two most important qualities of any fighting game are style and mechanics. Soulcalibur, quite simply, perfected both: in formal terms it was a work of a breathtaking splendor, a crisp fantasy realized with (at the time) unprecedented graphics and (to this day) a striking, almost painterly aesthetic. It’s a beautiful game. Mechanically it’s on even surer footing — in fact, insofar as such a thing can be measured with accuracy, it plays better than just about any game ever made. Its controls are as smooth as buttercream; its movements are the height of elegance. As a work of sheer programming skill the only word that seems fitting is “sophisticated” — as in tremendously, ineffably complex. Put it together and what do you get? Not merely a great fighting game. The best fighting game ever made.