The Art of Fighting Series Ranked
Fans of SNK’s fighting games are on another level. What was once a major player in the arcade space has become relatively obscured in the passages of time. Look, I’m not saying Metal Slug or King of Fighters are suddenly some kind of unheard of series. But I think fans of SNK’s pretty hardcore games, fighting or otherwise, that the Japanese developer and publisher put out in the ’90s operate at a different level of commitment. That being said, there are definitely casual SNK appreciators, myself included. But that casual appreciation extends to fighting games in general, and SNK definitely distinguished itself in that genre especially. In that field, Art of Fighting was a formative series, and it was in fact only SNK’s second fighting game franchise. It followed Fatal Fury, which began in 1991, and actually operated as a prequel to that series, both flowing into the stories formed in the King of Fighters games (albeit with some creative bending of canonicity). Fatal Fury is definitely the better known series between it and Art of Fighting, while King of Fighters has outlasted them both. Art of Fighting received just three installments in the four years between 1992 and 1996. In spite of their proximity and development by SNK, the three series were distinguished by a number of innovations, and in the case of Art of Fighting, I’ll now get to that in short order.
All games developed by SNK.
#3 — ART OF FIGHTING 3: THE PATH OF THE WARRIOR (1996)
Well, in regards to innovations, ART OF FIGHTING 3: THE PATH OF THE WARRIOR is actually the least significant in the series. And indeed, it feels in a world apart from the two games that preceded it. A lot of that is due to the game’s story. In it, series mainstay Robert Garcia travels to Mexico to track down an old friend. But he and Ryo Sakazaki are the extent of “mainstays” (if you can call them such for just two games), as ART OF FIGHTING 3 almost totally switches out the character roster made familiar with the series’ first two games. That aspect is fine, I guess, as there are some interesting characters introduced in this way. But it’s the other aspects of the game that leave a lesser impact as well. Although the sprite work and backgrounds of ART OF FIGHTING 3 are pretty impressive, the game uses motion capture for its animation a la Mortal Kombat, and it actually just looks and feels less fluid. And of course, you want fluidity in your fighting games; the lack of it here slows things down or makes combat just awkward enough so as to disrupt the foundations set by ART OF FIGHTING 1 and 2. The special attacks in 3 also feel a little cheap or unbalanced, and generally, the game feels like a step backward. ART OF FIGHTING 3, in spite of my comments to the contrary, is not a bad fighting game, but it doesn’t fulfill the promise set by its predecessors as the conclusion of the brief yet respected series.
#2 — ART OF FIGHTING (1992)
ART OF FIGHTING, in some ways, feels beholden to earlier beat ’em ups; the ancestry of fighting games can be traced to those genre staples like Final Fight or Double Dragon, of course. In one way, it comes through in the bonus stages, but of course that wasn’t quite unique to ART OF FIGHTING for its genre, and the practice continued through many Street Fighter iterations. But I think the biggest thing is the single-player story mode’s reliance on just two characters. Although ART OF FIGHTING’s roster is made up of ten characters, one has to play as either Robert Garcia or probably the series’ true “main” character, Ryo Sakazaki. It’s a bit of a minor drag, especially since most any other fighting game’s arcade mode allows a player to use any fighter. But its negative impact is mitigated slightly by my interest in the ’70s setting of the game, as a prequel to characters and elements of Fatal Fury that are more familiar to me. But more than that, as story is usually background noise in fighting games, especially in this era, ART OF FIGHTING is simply great 2D fighting. While its artwork is simpler than 3’s, the first game’s animation is more fluid and in line with what I want from this era of fighting games. With ART OF FIGHTING, the series’ introduced or refined or popularized (the “ors” are because it’s kind of hard to trace the lineage of these things exactly) the use of what I like to call “tactical taunts;” that is, taunts that can have a gameplay effect. They can drain enemies’ “spirit gauges,” which represent the strength or weakness that a super attack will have…and those are acquired by completing the special bonus rounds. Indeed, 3’s availability of super attacks at the onset feels more in line with the conventions of modern fighting games, but the mechanics introduced in ART OF FIGHTING serve to distinguish it from its peers, and it simply operates well in the familiar combo-based punch-and-kick system.
#1 — ART OF FIGHTING 2 (1994)
In spite of the reputation of its absolutely punishing single-player mode, even by the standards of its time, ART OF FIGHTING 2 is my favorite game in the series. And that’s saying something, because I’m absolutely terrible at fighting games on the grand scale of things. But when you’re doing well in the game, or playing against an inferior-to-the-computer human player, the feel of ART OF FIGHTING 2 is unmatched by the series’ entries that sandwich it. It’s also the most intriguing for fans of Art of Fighting’s fellow series Fatal Fury and King of Fighters, as it documents the rise of FF’s main villain Geese Howard and the creation of the King of Fighters tournament. As mentioned, these elements would be either ignored or retconned to some extent for the crossover KoF series to account for everyone’s ages, but it’s still a neat story element. In any case, ART OF FIGHTING 2 upgrades the artwork and visual style of its predecessor in step with its fluidity. The characters control with a satisfying punch (pun intended) and the “rage gauge” system (essentially just a continuation of the spirit gauge from the first game) continues to enrich the strategy and intricacies of the fights. Unlike ART OF FIGHTING 3, the second game doesn’t drastically change things from its predecessor. Instead, ART OF FIGHTING 2 improves every element of the series’ debut, cementing Art of Fighting as a brief yet satisfying fighting franchise that fed into and fueled bigger and better series to come from SNK.