Much of my free time over the last fortnight has been me playing Dead or Alive: Dimensions and Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition on my Nintendo 3DS. As surprising as this might seem to people reading this, I actually wasn’t really big on fighting games as a kid: I once played Street Fighter Alpha 3 at a friend’s place a LONG time ago, I once went on holiday to a place which had an arcade cabinet which had a fighting game on it and I had played Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. Brawl at a few other friend’s places (not to mention having copies of Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Kirby Fighters Deluxe), but I didn’t really play fighting games properly until I went around to a friend’s place about a month back and tried out Tekken Tag Team 2 and Dead or Alive 5 Final Fight. After proving to be surprisingly good at them both (as in, I won matches against the friend who owned the games quite a few times, despite having never played them before on top of my little-to-no experience with that sort of game and him being VERY familiar with them and being big on fighting games in general), I decided to check out fighting games more and have since started to really enjoy them, to the extent that I’m actually debating setting up my PS3 again so I can get a couple of lesser known fighting games for some home console practice (such as Darkstalkers Resurrection and Fighting Vipers).
However, it was while I was doing a bit of digging into fighting games that I noticed that there were not a lot of fighting games designed for handheld systems out there. Don’t get me wrong, there are fighting games which can be played on handheld systems out there, but it feels like fighting games have become the domain of home consoles and PC. Even this year, Street Fighter V, one of the biggest fighting game releases of the year, has had a simultaneous release on the PS4 and PC, but, to my knowledge, no fighting game of any real note has been announced as exclusively on the Nintendo 3DS or the PlayStation Vita for a few years now. Heck, the most recent fighting game I can think of which was exclusively a handheld game was actually Kirby Fighters Deluxe, which was originally a subgame that was part of Kirby: Triple Deluxe back when it was released in 2014 before getting its own separate digital release…and, if you don’t count that (which I don’t), it was actually Tekken 3D: Prime Edition, which was released in February 2012.
As you might have guessed from the article title, this has left me pondering one question which I think I’ve bored my friends to death with so many times over the last few weeks: why hasn’t there been more of a push to move fighting games over to handheld systems?
Before fighting game fans start to wonder if I’m saying that there should not be fighting games on home consoles, I will stress that I do not want fighting games to stop being made for home consoles. Fighting games have been part of home console gaming for so long that dropping them entirely from home consoles would be a decision that I would actually protest against quite strongly for much the same reason why I protest so strongly over the fact that platformer games seem to have been ignored by most of the video game industry in the last few years: it’s a core part of what made gaming what it is today and the removal of it feels like it is accidentally taking that away from the gamers of tomorrow. What I AM asking, however, is why the video game industry seems to have overlooked the idea of having handheld games be part of the fighting game community, because I think there is a lot of untapped potential there which could work out far better than a lot of people seem to think it will.
Let’s start with something that a lot of people will probably be thinking of: in terms of overall sales, handheld console actually outsell home consoles. Here’s a figure for you which actually surprised me when I did the maths on it: the Nintendo 3DS family as a whole has shipped about 58.85 million units. If you’re wondering why this is an impressive figure, then bear in mind that PlayStation 4, which is the best selling home console of the current gaming generation, has shipped 43.5 million units. Not a bad figure on its own, it must be said, but it still means that, statistically speaking, for every three PlayStation 4 owners, there are four Nintendo 3DS owners. Even if you add in the best case sales for the PlayStation Vita onto the sale for the PlayStation 4, the Nintendo 3DS on its own is still outselling Sony’s gaming products as a whole by a few million, and that figure only gets even wider if you include the Wii U (which would bump up Nintendo’s shipped units to 71.87 million in total). This will probably change in the next couple of months, admittedly, as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s slimmer re-releases and cheaper prices will probably tempt gamers who were on the fence about them earlier to go for them while the Nintendo 3DS won’t be doing anything like that (it’s already done that, technically: that was what the New Nintendo 3DS was basically doing!), but the core point being made is that the best selling game’s system at the time of writing is actually a handheld console. So a push towards fighting games might actually be a good way to reflect that more and open up the handheld market to a much better range of games than it perhaps has had for the last while.
Related to this, there has been a general trend towards mobile gaming in the last few years which will make home consoles struggle as time goes by, to the extent that I suspect the next home console generation could well be the last one for Sony and Microsoft (Nintendo isn’t likely to drop out of the home console race, as they make a profit on all consoles sold while Sony and Microsoft sell their consoles at a loss, but I could certainly see Nintendo dropping out of the console market should this trend become so strong that it becomes financially unfeasible to make a console that would sell well). I don’t mean to sound like a PC elitist or anything like that, but the sad truth is that home consoles have found themselves stuck in a really bad position which is only going to get worse if the mobile gaming trend picks up even more steam: PCs can do what most consoles can do better than they can and the endless amounts of customisable parts mean that, while a home console might be able to keep up with PCs for a while upon release, near the end of their lifespans, their lack of improvement on their specs since release means that there is a very noticeable downgrade from the PC version of the game in comparison. Granted, this issue is more of a problem in the west rather than in Japan, where PC gaming isn’t really a big thing, but it is still something to bear in mind. On top of this, the move towards mobile gaming means that there’s far more competition out there than there was and, unfortunately, the fact that the competition doesn’t require you to do anything beyond turn on your phone (or mobile gaming system) to be able to start playing and it can be done on the move rather than having to have a system which is hooked up to a TV and can’t be played while on the move means that home consoles don’t really have a lot of time left unless a deliberate move towards console exclusive titles and a strong tightening up on third party games (kind of like what Nintendo does) is done, which is fine for Nintendo, but probably not going to work for Sony and Microsoft. So a move towards handheld gaming might actually be a sensible idea, because it offers an edge over PC gaming in just enough areas to give it its own unique approach to gaming while still allowing big games developers to make big games in a market where huge games aren’t really a big thing.
There’s also a factor of the portability being an asset to fighting games. Let’s be honest, most people who are familiar with fighting games first saw them in gaming arcades rather than on home consoles, because, back when they first started to appear in general, that was the best place for them: home consoles back then couldn’t run an arcade game at all and the idea of a handheld games console being able to play something that looked even half as good as what an arcade version of Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter did wasn’t even a feasible option until the PSP came out in 2005 (in the UK). Younger gamers today might not know what an arcade is unless they’ve watched Wreck-It Ralph, but, back they came out, they were kind of a big deal and they had a lot of power to them which allowed for some truly spectacular games, if you had the time and money to keep playing them until you were good at them. Naturally, fighting games tended to dominate arcades because they were competitive games (always a plus for most kids) and, so long as you had enough money to keep feeding into the machine, you and a bunch of friends could literally play them for hours (even if it did mean that you were hogging the system from everyone else!). Nowadays, of course, arcades have pretty much died out in the western world and been supplanted by home consoles, but the idea of going out to play games with friends still lasted for most gamers until the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 finally came around and online only multiplayer became the new standard. Yet handheld consoles still keep that trend alive, for the most part, with local multiplayer on most multiplayer focused games meaning that you have a local wireless system in the game and play together with that, meaning that handheld games have got to the point where they might actually be the closest thing to the arcade mentality of meeting up with random people at a random place just to enjoy a game together that you can get nowadays, only in a system which you can fit in your pocket and carry around with you at all times. So a push towards fighting games on handheld systems would actually be a nice way to return to fighting games’ roots, even if it’s in a way which seems completely the opposite of an arcade!
There’s also the factor of how much handheld gaming has come in the few years. Most people who first encountered handheld gaming did so through the Game Boy family of games, which tended to use pixel graphics more akin to an NES/SNES and which didn’t really suit a fighting game very well as a result (although this isn’t to say that nobody tried: in fact, the first few Mortal Kombat games actually got releases on the Game Boy systems, if you can believe that!). This even carried over to a minor extent with the Nintendo DS, but it was the system’s competitor, the PSP, which really showed that a home console was capable of delivering a full 3D game and doing it well (which was proven to me with Monster Hunter Freedom). Since then, the Nintendo 3DS has caught up in that regard (with arguably the crowning jewel in its crown being Xenoblade Chronicles 3D: say what you will about the quality of the port in comparison to the original game, but it’s still a huge modern 3D JRPG on a handheld system and it runs really well, a feat which I think most would have considered an impossibility before it had happened!) and the success of Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS shows that a fighting game on handheld systems is not only possible, but very much capable of doing very well. Some of this can probably be traced back to the usual hype that occurs whenever a Super Smash Bros. game is released (because, well, these are games that include characters from the company’s gaming history: even casual gamers will recognise some of the characters in one of the games, so it’s easy for huge amounts of hype to generate as a result) and the fact that it is a cross-platform release with the Wii U (effectively meaning that you can play with friends if you have ANY current Nintendo system), but the core point still stands: a fighting game is not only possible on handheld systems now, but can do incredibly well if done right. So the lack of a real attempt to try to fill the gap in this market now that it has become open feels like a major missed opportunity to me, because the technology is more than at the point where fighting games can be done on handheld systems and there is a lot of potential in doing the idea if it can be done well.
Of course, all of this doesn’t mean the road to making a fighting game on a portable console is easy. One thing that I will admit has disappointed me with the portable fighting games I have played is that they do a REALLY bad job with their story modes (although nobody really plays fighting games for their stories anyway, so it’s not too big a deal for most people, I imagine). I also find that the graphics do still feel like a downgrade compared to home console games, although this is an understandable trade off in my eyes. The controls can also be a bit difficult on some levels: while I’ve had no major troubles with playing Dead or Alive: Dimensions, I’ve had more difficulty wrapping my head around the controls for Super Street Fighter IV, to the extent that I still don’t get how to do the special moves for it properly and characters still catch me off guard whenever I try new stuff with them. This one is probably more me than the game itself, I’ll admit, but I think the inputs for the special moves are difficult to actually pull off, as I’ve not worked out how to do any of them with any reliability yet. I also am well aware that a handheld fighting game which is trying to make a big push towards filling that gap in the market would probably have to be a new IP if it wants to differentiate itself from the other big names, which is a problem because new IPs tend to struggle to catch on with people, a fate which could easily sink it before it starts. It’s also more difficult for new IPs to guarantee quality control, because it’s usually a sign of people trying something very different from what they usually do.
A possible solution, speaking hypothetically, would be to pick an IP which older gamers will recognise, but which isn’t having anything currently done with it (like Darkstalkers, Rival Schools or Fighting Vipers) and make a push forward into the handheld market with that, although whether such an idea would actually work is hard to say, as it depends on how those older gamers react to the idea of a handheld fighting game based on one of those fighting games they grew up playing. Though I doubt it could go much worse than Dungeon Keeper Mobile went, so there’s that in its favour, especially if fighting games stick to the original ideas of what made them work and don’t screw it up as royally as EA and Mythic Entertainment did there…
Realistically speaking, I’m aware that I’m probably talking about something which isn’t likely to happen, but I can see a potentially good idea here and it’s something which I think has some potentially great benefits to it. At the end of the day, though, I’m just happy to be finally enjoying fighting games properly, so, as long as the games are good, I ain’t gonna complain too hard about what system they’re on! Because, at the end of the day, what is important with gaming isn’t the system/s the game is on, it’s the quality of the games and how much fun you have with them. Call me old fashioned and naive if you want to, but gaming to me isn’t about the politics, flame wars, system wars or business side of things that seem to crop up so much nowadays: it’s about the feeling of just sitting down and leaving the rest of the world behind while enjoying a video game. Which probably explains my fondness for games which are as visually creative as the Rayman and Kirby franchises…