Fighting games are complicated. That's just a simple truth. As the genre has developed over the last few decades, franchises have become inundated with mechanics that both alienate newcomers and drive divisions between players. The makers of the upcoming game Fantasy Strike are trying to change that.
Developed by Sirlin Games, a studio founded by former competitive fighting game player David Sirlin, Fantasy Strike is defined more by what it doesn't do than what it does. Instead of offering players a wide variety of attacks like most modern fighting games (many of which fall by the wayside in serious competition), Fantasy Strike strips controls down to one basic attack button and two special buttons. While jumps can be bound to up, they're assigned to a button by default. . By simplifying or sometimes outright removing traditional fighting game mechanics, Sirlin is on a mission to make Fantasy Strike, which is slated for release next year, something everyone can jump into and learn.
It's not like this hasn't been tried before, most notably by an indie fighter known as Divekick. That game was the brainchild of Adam "Keits" Heart. It removed the joystick from the equation by giving players just two buttons to work with: one for jumping and one for kicking, in a diagonal dive, toward the opponent. Those simple inputs and the surprisingly deep strategies they enabled, taught important fighting game skills like spacing and punishment under the guise of parody.
"Divekick was really interesting to me," Sirlin told Compete. "I thought it was going to be garbage, but it surpassed my expectations. I didn't realise that you could have dynamics as good as they had with only two buttons. That said, I want something that's closer to a traditional fighting game, something that I might go to a tournament [to play]."
By exploring what Divekick was able to accomplish and then slowly adding in elements like traditional movement and health bars, Sirlin was able to prototype something that felt "real" to him. In a diagram on his personal website, Sirlin describes Fantasy Strike as a middle-ground between Divekick's simple gameplay and the complexity of most modern fighting games. While some diehard competitors may see this as a betrayal of important genre norms, Sirlin simply believes in rewarding what he calls "contested skill."
It comes down to the difference between contested and uncontested skill," he said. "By uncontested, I mean I practice a combo for weeks in training mode, land it on you, and you can't really do anything about it. It's uncontested. But many other skills are contested, like being in the right range. I want to be in my sweet spot, but you're constantly fighting against me to try and change that range. We're interacting with each other in an interesting way. In Fantasy Strike, all those contested skills are still there: spacing, mixups, timing, what you should react to and what you should try to predict, when you should go on the offensive or play it safe. That's all there."
It's what Fantasy Strike doesn't have, however, that really helps it stand apart. There's no dashing or crouching, for instance. Crouching, Sirlin said, simply wasn't a necessary part of the game as they continued to flesh out the base mechanics, and removing it helped to trim down the number of normal attacks for each character. Where games like Street Fighter and Guilty Gear can have dozens of moves per cast member, Fantasy Strike gives players around half that to work with, a move Sirlin hopes can make each attack relevant.
Throw teching — that is, countering an opponent's throw attempt by performing your own — is also a little different in Fantasy Strike. This game's system, called Yomi Counter, allows players to resist throws by simply doing nothing. If you're doing anything but standing in your idle animation while a throw is attempted, you get thrown. As a competitor, Sirlin watched as throwing dominated games like Street Fighter II due to their relative strength, which then prompted players to complain and developers to react by making them weaker. The idea that would become the Yomi Counter mechanic developed in Sirlin's mind over ten years of experiences like these.
"The people who complained [about throws] have valid complaints, but you can't solve it by making throws weak because you need a way to beat blocks," Sirlin explained. "They're an integral part of the system. [Without crouching], Fantasy Strike doesn't have high-low mixups, so we really need throws to be good. I thought the better answer was to make sure there was always a way to get out [of a throw] if you know it's coming. When you're neutral, you can always get out. Plus, it has a built in disadvantage because you can be hit by a combo. Yomi Counter has been in Fantasy Strike from the start, and it's always just worked."
Online reactions to Fantasy Strike haven't been too positive. Players on popular fighting game portals like Shoryuken and EventHubs have disparaged the game for its rough art style and simplistic mechanics. Sirlin has tried to assure naysayers that his intentions come from an experienced position.
"I'm a former pro player, made top eight at Evo three times, helped run Evo for years, and represented the USA's Street Fighter team," Sirlin said. "I don't want to make a game that's shallow and boring. It's something we're conscious of the whole time, making sure we're making a real fighting game. If you make the moves and combos in your game easy to do, that doesn't really tell you anything about the depth of the game. It's just another thing. It's difficult to explain that to people because they think that if [execution] is easy, what else is there? Well, there's the rest of what fighting games are about."
Fans have also criticised Fantasy Strike for having moves that are similar to classic attacks in other games. People see shades of popular Street Fighter moves like shoryukens, flash kicks, and lariats, for example. Sirlin sees these similarities as a way to quickly familiarise newcomers with which moves are used in which situations as well as to give experienced competitors familiar anchor points to latch onto.
"When individual players play Smash, Street Fighter, or Guilty Gear, what do they play together? Each one would take months to get to a basic level of competence. But because we have a very-easy-to-get-into game, we've seen really good Smash players compete against really good Guilty Gear players. It's a message of positivity in a way. We don't have to say, 'Whatever fighting game you play, it sucks and you should play ours.' We're not saying that! I'm sure your fighting game is great! Everyone's second fighting game can be a way to meet in the middle."
Fantasy Strike is currently being crowdfunded on Fig, with a tentative release on Steam and PlayStation 4 scheduled for 2018.