I’ll be honest, I’ve been thinking about writing a blog on my thoughts regarding fighting game rosters for quite some time now, but every time I tried to sit down and actually do it, I’d immediately lose any and all motivation to do so. Maybe it’s because I was worried that my thoughts were too out there, or alternatively, too safe. But finally, something happened that caused me to man up and finally go through with writing this.
A couple weeks back, preeminent Marvel vs Capcom Infinite leaker Ryce revealed what is generally assumed to be the final base roster for the game upon its release this September. Now, I’ll be honest with you: when I saw this roster, I flipped out. Hell, I’m still pretty angry about it even now, as I’m writing this blog post. In fact, simply due to the fact that my piss is no longer at a steady boil over this potential catastrophe, I’ve reached that point where, despite still being angry over a perceived wrongdoing, I’m able to look at the situation more critically, as opposed to my standard method of “pure, blind, white-hot rage”.
More Like, Marvel vs. Capcom Finite
Before I get to the actual meat and potatoes of this ramble, I feel that I owe it to myself to finally articulate just why I feel so betrayed by the purported MvCI roster. I mean, if this ends up being true, then a game with “Infinite” in the title will have an even smaller roster than even the original Marvel vs. Capcom 3, making this the most blatant case of fraudulent advertisement since the classic 1980s film, The NeverEnding Story. That’s not particularly why I’m so mad about this though. No, this goes back deeper, to Capcom’s glory days in the 2D fighting scene. There was essentially this unwritten agreement, between players and Capcom: fighting games were costly to develop, so Capcom would often recycle art and various other assets across multiple games, in order to save on costs while also delivering games with ever-increasing rosters.
It’s not like Capcom was alone on this one. SNK managed to release games in their King of Fighters series for an entire decade, each with their own healthy rosters relying significantly on recycled assets. Midway’s Mortal Kombat series did something similar: relying on palette swap characters, in order to save RAM, while delivering larger rosters, though not quite to the extent as those Chinese bootlegs on the NES, where you get to fight as Terry, Trery, Troy and Tuyr. The odd part is that Mortal Kombat 2 and 3 didn’t actually recycle any graphics for playable characters from their direct predecessors. Granted, then you had Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, which was more of an arcade expansion and revision, as opposed to a sequel, followed by the outright sloppy Mortal Kombat Trilogy, marking the one occasion I can remember where Midway beat Capcom to the punch, effectively inventing the sloppy MUGEN progenitor that Capcom would later popularize with MvC2.
The fact is that so many long-runners in the genre would recycle assets was inevitable, but also acceptable. Sure, eventually you had cases where it would cause some of their games to look outright ridiculous:
…but it was still a necessary evil in order to deliver the larger rosters both hardcore and casual fans alike craved. The thing about this leaked roster for Infinite is that, if it’s the real deal, if this truly is the roster that Capcom intends to deliver with the base game for $60, then it completely voids that unspoken contract. The upside to recycling content and, let’s be fair, a lot of stuff was clearly torn right out of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 — hell, Chris Redfield (still can’t get over the fact they chose to include him) looks identical to how he did in MvC3, just with a duller color palette — is the fact that it generally means a larger game, as resources can be allocated to expanding on the existing content: just look at Ultra Street Fighter II. The thing is, this roster manages to be even smaller than that of the original release for Marvel vs. Capcom 3, while drawing a majority of its characters from both iterations of MvC3. I remember defending MvC3 having a smaller roster than its predecessor, I would say things like, “Well, they had to rebuild characters from scratch, not just ripping them directly from a game from 1994.” I mean, it’s true, but this game doesn’t quite have that excuse. I mean, I could understand ditching the X-Men and Fantastic 4 characters — we’re still not quite sure just how Marvel’s license goes, despite their crowing that “the entire Marvel universe was up for grabs” — but this goes way beyond it. It’s essentially bringing back half the UMvC3 roster and replacing what’s been excised with… well, not nothing, but crumbs, table scraps at best.
Now, I’ve heard people defend this roster, saying things like small rosters were traditional in Marvel games. The thing is, let’s look back at the “base” roster (excepting hidden characters like Roll, Shadow Lady and Red Venom, among others) for the original Marvel vs. Capcom, which Capcom seems to be implying is serving as the inspiration for Infinite’s gameplay, as well as other elements.
We’ve got 15 characters in all: 8 from the Capcom side and 7 from Marvel. Of the Marvel side, Captain America, Wolverine, Hulk and Spider-Man all return from the previous crossover game: Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter. Gambit makes a return from X-Men vs. Street Fighter, War Machine is a recolored Iron Man (who hadn’t appeared since the original Marvel Super Heroes), and Venom is an entirely original character. Capcom, on the other hand, only uses Chun-Li, Ryu and Zangief from the previous game. Morrigan is taken directly from Darkstalkers, but the art assets and movesets for Captain Commando, Strider Hiryu, Jin Saotome and MegaMan were all developed exclusively for this game. I’m not going to take into account the assist characters, though many of them were created exclusively for MvC1 as well, especially on the Capcom side. So let’s break this down: 5 characters — an entire third of the roster — were built especially for MvC1, from the ground-up. Morrigan got various new techniques when she was transferred over to MvC from Darkstalkers, especially if you count “Lilith”, a secret character who was essentially a Morrigan colorswap à la the Mortal Kombat ninjas. The MvCI base roster certainly doesn’t hit that watermark, not to mention the fact that its release platforms definitely lack the memory restrictions that would have necessitated such a small roster as the original Marvel vs. Capcom. I’m almost certain if Capcom had had more powerful hardware at hand at the time, the jump between the roster size of the first two Marvel vs. Capcom games wouldn’t have been nearly as significant.
I’ve also heard people draw comparisons to games like Injustice 2 — which has a base roster of 28 characters, like the MvCI leaked roster — and Tekken 7, which launched on home consoles and PC with a larger roster, but initially launched in arcades with a smaller roster. Injustice 2 is easy enough to torpedo: it had many more original characters and even returning character underwent some extreme modifications to make them play completely differently, Wonder Woman serves as a key example. Tekken 7 is a little harder to justify: just as I’m alleging MvCI is recycling most of its roster, so too is Tekken 7, with many of its characters returning from previous games in the series. I guess I could argue that Tekken characters are designed more complexly, but again, the ability to port characters makes that a bit of a cop-out. I think Tekken 7 is safe, because while 3 characters have already been confirmed as paid DLC — the preorder bonus Eliza from Tekken Revolution, and two as-of-yet unannounced guest characters — various staff members have hinting that additional classic characters may be free downloadable content down the line. Meanwhile, one of the first things Capcom did when re-revealing the game recently was announce 6 “all-new” DLC characters for the low, low price of $30 (alongside 6 “premium” costumes) — the same exact number of “all-new” characters in the game’s purported base roster. Take Thanos (who needed to be rebuilt from scratch) and “Rocket/Groot” (who may be a new tandem character or just Rocket with some additional attacks) into account and you can top that number, but it’s still not a good look for Capcom.
Maybe the roster’s fake, I know I’m hoping it is. Ryce has apparently been technically wrong in the past, but the fact that I’ve got a gut feeling that it’s far more real than any other pie in the sky leak that’s come out since the game’s announcement kind of casts a shadow of disappointment over the entire game. It reminds me of why I feel pessimism is the most logical way to view life: if you’re right, then you’re right. If you’re wrong, then chances are, something good happened. Win freaking win, baby.
Onto the Main Course
So with all of my ranting and raving out of the way, it’s time to get on with the actual point of this little post: how exactly should fighting game rosters be gauged?
Size Doesn’t Matter… Unless It Does
Yeah, I’m aware of just how confusing this title header is, but please bear with me: this will make a lot more sense once I’ve properly explained everything.
Basically, roster size should always be inversely correlated to the depth of each individual character. For example, The King of Fighters XIV launched with a whopping 50 characters — adding 4 via DLC — and while many of the characters are a little shallow in terms of complexity, given KoF’s reliance on synergy between characters, everything works out pretty well. Conversely, you’ve got a game like Skullgirls: it launched with 8 characters, managed to nearly double their roster via crowdfunding and as such, despite the game taking on a similar 2v2/3v3/etc. approach as the absolutely titantic MvC2, manages to put a greater emphasis on a more explicit approach to elements like team synergy and the base gameplay mechanics.
While most people tend to prefer a large roster over a small one, there have been times where clearly players’ eyes were larger than their stomach. It’s rare to find anyone that will outright criticize MvC2’s roster, but at the very least, all but the most die-hard of low-tier heroes will admit that roughly 3 quarters of the game’s roster are utterly worthless in competitive-style play. Then you’ve got the aforementioned Mortal Kombat Trilogy and its successor, Mortal Kombat Armageddon: both games attempted to cram as many characters from previous Mortal Kombat games as possible into their rosters and it ended up negatively affecting both games, with Trilogy being a glitchy abomination and Armageddon watering down the Fatality mechanic to nigh-incoherence. As such, even when attempting to create a game with a gigantic roster, a designer should always try to keep at least some sense of scale when planning the entire project.
Safe vs. Unique
As such, size isn’t really particularly something that needs to be considered when contemplating a roster selection. In the end, that’s what matters: which characters are chosen and how they’re used, because frankly, it’s not always going to be as easy as just chucking in another character to fix the game, the roster has to be carefully planned regardless of its size.
I’ve pretty much narrowed this entire concept down to two axes. I’ll start with the more concrete one. Quite simply, it’s important for any fighting game’s roster to find the right balance between using a selection of characters that can be deemed safe — that is, with recognizable and iconic characters if the game is in an entry in an established franchise — and unique, quite literally the polar opposite, littered with off-the-wall choices and entirely original characters. Of course, everyone has their own personal preference when it comes to this spectrum, but it’s safe to say that it’s incredibly rare to find anyone who aligns with either extreme.
Many companies tend to prefer travelling the safe route when it comes to fighting games these days and honestly, I can’t blame them. When the first iteration of Street Fighter III launched, the only returning characters were Ryu and Ken — and even they almost didn’t make it. The game did poorly and even though later revisions would add characters like Akuma and Chun-Li to the mix, the damage was already done and the franchise didn’t resurface for roughly a decade. Likewise, series mascot (maskot?) Scorpion didn’t appear in the original release of Mortal Kombat 3 — which boasted characters like police officer Kurtis Stryker and Kitana’s mother Sindel — but was added to the Ultimate version due to fan outcry. Most of the time, it’s just not worth it to rock the boat when it comes to established characters. After all, Street Fighter IV and the Mortal Kombat reboot both did gangbusters and they ended up drawing their cast of characters from the games with the most mainstream recognition in their respective franchises.
On the other hand, many of those classic characters would have never have been invented if it weren’t for taking risks. Aside from Ryu, Ken and Sagat, the roster from Street Fighter II was full of entirely new characters. Mai Shirunai didn’t appear until Fatal Fury 2, Kitana and Mileena didn’t exist until MK2, Tekken 2 added Jun Kazama and Lei Wulong. Hell, Tekken in general shook up the roster in the third game and created some of its most popular characters in the process. Street Fighter III may have almost killed the series, but fighting fanatics are still howling out for more and more of its characters to appear in Street Fighter V. I personally tend to prefer unique rosters over the safe ones in general: usually that’s the only way many of my favorite characters ever make it into anything.
“Good” vs. “Bad”
I really tried to clamp this down, to make this come across as more coherent, to come up with some kind of an alternative that sounded less obtuse than “good” versus “bad”, but it’s just too hard. I originally considered “variety” as a potential axis — specifically a variety of play styles — but frankly, it’s just too unpredictable how fans accept different levels of variety in their gameplay. After all, when Street Fighter V launched with a claim that they were going to focus on making every character feel unique and fill in their own specific niche within the game’s engine, the fanbase literally shit their collective pants, throwing immense temper tantrums until Akuma and Sagat, two of the most iconic “shoto” characters — were added to the game, while in Street Fighter IV, the sheer amount of shotos was generally considered a major point of contention.
“Good” and “bad”, at least in this context, can’t really be quantified. While the safe/unique dichotomy has at least some concrete grounding, good/bad is totally abstract. It’s not even really something that any single individual can truly determine: it’s essentially the conglomeration of the opinions of each and every person that devotes any significant amount of time into the game. I suppose, “popular” and “unpopular” would be a good alternative statement, but somehow that just sounds even more simplistic than “good” and “bad” and doesn’t quite get the point across nearly as well.
I guess the best way to illustrate how these axes relate to one another would be to present an example of each quadrant on this proposed intersection:
This one is probably the easiest to explain, so I figure it’s the best to start with. After 2002, the King of Fighters series went through some major changes. While they regressed to 3-on-3 gameplay, they implemented a new tag-team mechanic. In addition, they ditched various roster staples. 2003 cut characters like Andy Bogard, Sie Kensou and Choi Bounge, characters that had appeared since the first game in the series. But this was mere child’s play for what awaited in its follow-up, The King of Fighters XI. The fanbase literally revolted when Mai Shirunai was omitted and in addition, the Women Fighters Team had been disbanded, with two classic members King and Yuri Sakazaki teaming with Ryo on the Art of Fighting Team. Leona, another popular character, was also left out of the game — albeit due to storyline reasons — marking her first absence since she first appeared in ’96. Joe Higashi was also dropped for the first time in series history, leaving a Fatal Fury Team comprised of Terry Bogard, Kim Kaphwan (thus disbanding Team Kim) and series newcomer Duck King. Perhaps the strangest addition of all was the Anti-Kyokugen Team, a team devised to combat the aforementioned Art of Fighting Team. Consisting of Malin (a newcomer from KoF 2003), Kasumi Todoh and Eiji Kisaragi (who hadn’t appeared in a game since KoF ’95).
I know it’s ironic to use two games from the same series back-to-back for these examples, but in the end, this was one of the first things I thought about when conceiving this rant. While The King of Fighters XIII’s roster recycled the characters that were built for the previous game (itself called a “dream match” by SNK Playmore and a “overglorified beta” by everyone else), but clearly the rosters of both games — and particularly XIII’s — were built as a response to 2003 and XI: going for more classic choices in response to the previous games’ unorthodox rosters. I’d say they went a little too far: most of the roster comes from ’96 and earlier. Technically, Hwa Jai and Saiki are the only characters new to the series in this game: Raiden appeared in XII, Hwa Jai was a headswap of Joe Higashi and Saiki was added for the console version, as well as based on Ash Crimson’s existing sprite work. Unfortunately, I feel like they regressed too much in certain ways. The Art of Fighting and Women Fighters teams have regressed to their ’94-’95 rosters, which unfortunately leaves them fairly bland and regrettably, robs the latter of its potential to include a unique character. It’s also pretty jarring considering how few classic characters were in the past few games in the series, yet their storylines were all directly connected. Personally, I preferred the rosters from 2003 and XI over XIII’s, just due to their variety and how they departed from the conventions
Okay, this is technically a cheat: this was the base roster for Street Fighter IV when it launched in arcades, it was further expanded in the console release and then in future upgrades. When the game was first released, however, the base roster consisted of the original 8 World Warriors, the Four Heavenly Kings of Shadoloo and 4 brand-new characters. There were three seemingly unplayable bosses, Akuma; Gouken and Seth — though Akuma was actually a time-unlocked character and all 3 were unlockable characters in the home version. Of course, the new characters were generally considered underwhelming and the fact that the rest of the roster was essentially just a repeat of Street Fighter II Turbo. Fortunately, even the initial home release added various characters from later games: Cammy, Rose, Gen, Dan and Sakura. Granted, they were all unlockable characters, but it’s better than nothing. Besides, with this admittedly weak base roster, Capcom managed to kickstart the fighting game genre yet again and future revisions would improve the roster significantly. Of course, this was one of those cases where the roster didn’t even really matter in the long run, but it’s the only example I could really think of for this archetype.
This is pretty much the best example of this paradigm I can think of. Tekken 3’s roster was an extreme departure from those of the first two games in the series, but it introduced so many characters that would become mainstays in the entire franchise. Of course, even some of the “returning” characters are essentially new people taking on the roles of existing characters like King II and Kuma II. You’ve also got other various legacy characters like Hwoarang, student of Baek Doo San and Julia Chang, adopted daughter of Michelle. With the exception of Forest Law (and of course, Gun Jack), these characters would completely surpass the fame of their progenitors and become far more popular characters in their own right. Indeed, I’m under the impression that I may be the only Tekken fan that preferred the cast from the second game over the third and even I have a lot of love for the new characters.
In the end, a fighting game’s roster is perhaps one of its most important elements. It combines story, as each character has their own motivations and plays their own role in whatever level of story — be it an outright novel like Blazblue or literally non-existent like the original Super Smash Bros. — that game contains. Likewise, they are one of the two base elements of any fighting game: as necessary as the base game engine itself. In fact, fighting games are one of those rare video game genres where the characters are the gameplay. For fighting games, some of the most inconsequential things can make all the difference in the world and as they attempt to break into the rapidly expanding world of eSports, let me make it clear that rosters are one thing that should be considered now more than ever.
I guess I should be thanking Capcom for giving me the motivation to finally express these thoughts, but at the same time fuck Capcom for giving me the motivation to finally expressing these thoughts under such dire circumstances.