6. Virtua Fighter 5
Release date: 2007
Notable facts: Was a launch title for the European release of the PlayStation 3. Officially dropped in North America three days before its actually announced release date.
Why it’s one of the best fighting games: All the things we mentioned before about how groundbreaking the first Virtua Fighter was? They were amplified in this, the franchise’s fifth (and so far final) release. The game was still endearingly straightforward, avoiding too many bells and whistles in favor of good, clean fighting. Emphasis on “clean,” as Sega introduced its “Clash System” which made it possible to cancel out an opponent’s attack with a properly timed throw. It was clear that the developers put as much work into the game’s blocking and countering systems as they did into its attacks, which is not something that many fighting games can claim.
At the same time, Sega refined the game’s animation to make it look even more beautiful, and preserved the excellent flow that had become a hallmark of the series. Virtua Fighter 5 came across as a fighting game for sophisticated gamers; it was built for players who wanted to be well-rounded, and who appreciated the intricacies of the fight, rather than just eye-popping visuals and being able to master the latest finishing move. It’s a complete shame that the company has now gone a dozen years without a new Virtua Fighter title, signaling the implicit death of the franchise. But if this does stand as the last one, it’s pretty darn near perfect.
5. Super Smash Bros. Melee
Release date: 2001
Notable facts: The game was so popular that at one point, it was estimated that 70 percent of all GameCube owners also owned Super Smash Bros. Melee. It was still the GameCube’s best-selling title in 2008, almost a decade after its release.
Why it’s one of the best fighting games: This is one of those rare games that both players and critics rave about. It was voted Game of the Year in 2001 by IGN readers, and received boatloads of acclaim from various publications; it currently has a 92/100 score on MetaCritic. That’s because Melee preserved the nostalgia of the original title, while then seriously improving over it in many ways, particularly when it came to the multiplayer experience. A game with “melee” in the title practically demands to be experienced in multiplayer, and the multiplayer mode in this title was one of the best that’s been in any fighting game before or since.
The game served up almost anything Nintendo junkies could ask for, from additional characters (more than a dozen who weren’t in its predecessor) to a great soundtrack (featuring orchestral versions of some of the best-known Nintendo game themes). Even in the single-player mode, there were great nostalgia elements, particularly in the universes available in Adventure Mode and the nods to each character’s history sprinkled elsewhere. The attention to detail made Melee incredibly fun and rewarding, even for the casual fans; there was always something new to discover. Even now, almost two decades later, it’s still got plenty of replay value.
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Release date: 1998 (arcade), 1999 (DreamCast), 2008 (Xbox 360/XBox One)
Notable facts: Was a launch title for the DreamCast. As of 2007 (almost a decade after its initial release), was the highest-scored fighting game of all time according to GameRankings, and the seventh highest-scoring game of all time in any genre.
Why it’s one of the best fighting games: Soulcalibur continued the rich story that began in 1995’s Soul Edge, in which everyone is continuing to pursue a cursed sword, which is now in the hands of Siegfried, the hero from the first game who’s become a mass murderer tearing his way through Europe under the moniker Nightmare.
It was an equally interesting second chapter plot-wise, tragic and emotional, while still taking great advantage of history to tell a unique story far beyond most fighting game plots. This was novel-quality stuff, that you just don’t see in most video games.
But where the game really shone was its technical innovations. Soulcalibur gave fighting game fans the eight-way run, which was a game-changer for character mobility and player strategy. It also had much better buffering than any other fighter at the time. The title essentially opened up the whole world of fighting games, literally. Add in the incredible level of detail on the characters and its overall visual beauty, and this was something special to behold. The animation was near-flawless; it was a joy to watch, let alone play and dig into those layers of story. Soulcalibur captured the best of both worlds, for the story-driven gamers and the ones who appreciate technical brilliance.