Bridging The Gap: Why 2D Fighters Still Reign Supreme

By quash / Originally published on YOMI GOLD BURST on May 14, 2015

"The challenge for 3D games is to find a way to meaningfully involve a greater variety of ranges. Make the game really play when you're at a distance, instead of simply degenerating into unpunishable backdashing, etc. Do ranges matter in 3D games? Obviously they do, but not in the same ways, and not to the same degrees. The ubiquity of fireballs in SF games opens avenues for play beyond the characters themselves, and a richer game overall."

The above quote is from an article written by Seth Killian back in the early '00s that compared 2D fighters to 3D ones on a conceptual level [ > ]. In the simplest of terms, the article states that 2D fighters are superior to 3D ones because they place more emphasis on controlling space, which is a constant threat, whereas 3D fighters place more emphasis on controlling time, a threat which is mitigated by creating distance between you and your opponent.
   While this article may have been written long ago, much of what it states still rings true today. While 3D fighters have since established some ground on that front, by adding things like small, walled arenas that promote the close-range game while prohibiting overly defensive play, the fact remains that the main attraction of 3D games is the close-range game; guessing between mid and throw, linear or circular, etc.
   In the article's addendum, Seth predicted 3D games would move in the direction of 2D games, citing Virtual On as the game to set the foundation for things to come. It makes sense, seeing as Virtual On does give each character a few effective ranges to work at, and the game really does a good job of utilizing all of the space in any given arena. As we will discuss later, however, these things have so far been almost entirely limited to mech fighters, while conventional 3D fighters have played to their strengths and only passively acknowledged their weaknesses.
   What Seth failed to account for, however, was how 3D fighter conventions could improve 2D fighters, which is exactly what the airdash genre sought to do, and have by any measure, succeeded at. This is why these games are so popular in Japan and are becoming increasingly popular abroad.
   This adoption of 3D mechanics spells trouble for 3D fighters, and for good reason: you no longer have to choose between a good ranged game or a good up-close guessing game. There's a ton of 2D fighters these days that allow you to effectively control space at a distance that also have a good close-range game.
   Compare this to modern, non-mech 3D fighters, which are still trying to figure out how to effectively use all the space on screen, and you'll see just how little progress has been made on this front; the genre still suffers from a lack of a constant threat. The genre hasn’t made an honest attempt to reinvent itself in an age where their advantages are gradually becoming irrelevant, and have been for awhile.
   This, if you ask me, summarizes the conundrum 3D fighters face today: they have played it safe for too long and it has caught up to them in a way that makes them an endangered species.
   As we will cover a bit later, there have been some attempts, particularly in the case of Tekken, to adopt 2D fighter concepts, though they have failed to adequately solve the fundamental issues the genre has had for years. 2D fighters, on the other hand, have been able to successfully implement things that 3D fighters pioneered in their heyday, which has allowed them to evolve in unprecedented ways.
   How is it possible for 2D fighters to implement 3D mechanics, you may wonder?
   Ultimately, both require the same fundamental skill sets (as much as some people may want to claim otherwise, it simply isn’t true); whether you’re judging the speed and spacing of a fireball to determine your options against it or judging whether or not your opponent just made his move safe by fuzzy-guarding, the same basic principles apply. The difference, as stated before, is in where the emphasis on spacing and timing are placed. So, really, nothing is stopping 2D games from adopting certain 3D mechanics, just as there is nothing stopping 3D games from adopting certain 2D mechanics. Obviously there are some things that have to be subverted in order for this to happen (play any 2D fighter with sidesteps and you'll see what I mean), but it is definitely possible to find a balance that works.
   To put it simply: in order to adopt certain conventions of 3D fighters, airdash fighters had to slightly subvert certain aspects of 2D fighters. We will get more into the nuts and bolts of this later, but one important thing to understand is that these subversions are in no way a bad thing; it is what has allowed the genre to thrive, and it is what gave rise to the immense variety of airdash fighters we have today.
   This phenomenon is one that, in all fairness, neither Seth nor anyone else could have reasonably predicted. The genre has changed a lot since then, and clearly there are many things that even the most experienced or insightful player couldn’t have possibly accounted for.
   Back when Seth wrote his article, 3D fighters had already undergone their first significant stage of evolution: the introduction of sidesteps in VF3. This new addition to the genre had already been refined enough to become a staple of it, with VF and Tekken being very heavy on movement by that point.
   2D fighters, on the other hand, had only started their renaissance; and it had gotten off to a pretty rough start, to say the least. There had been many significant advancements since SF2, to be sure, but they had yet to aggregate in one game. What the genre needed was a game that took the best elements of every groundbreaking game that had come before it.
   That was what we got in 2000 with the release of a game called Guilty Gear X.
   "Wait, Guilty Gear X?"
   Yes, dude, Guilty Gear X. It definitely wasn't a great or even good game, but it was the beginning of something beautiful.
   Put aside all the bad design choices, balance issues and stupid glitches for just a moment, and allow me to explain.
   GGX was supposed to be the solution to every problem 2D fighters had faced at that point. Tired of matches turning into whiff-for-meter contests? Not a problem, since you only gain tension for moving forward, and if you run away for too long you lose it all. Losing to infinite blockstrings? With instant blocking, nothing is inescapable (though that wasn’t true in practice until at least XX). Want a way to deal with projectiles at neutral besides blocking or jumping into bad situations? Have a superjump with an airdash option. Not to mention it was the first 2D fighter to implement momentum inheritance (with a way to “brake” and halt all momentum, if you so wished) and Roman Cancels, which greatly expanded offensive options in a way no other game had done before.
   Again, GGX was far from a great game, but it wasn’t because it was based on a flawed premise; the concept was amazing, but the execution was subpar. Things would improve in short order with GGXX, which took things to an entirely new level.
   The crowning achievement of Guilty Gear, though, is that it was the first 2D fighter to successfully give the defending player a way out of almost every bad situation. It achieved this by refining virtually every defensive option the 2D fighters before it had introduced. It was also the first 2D fighter to make movement a truly viable defensive option, even in situations when you're cornered. Granted, this took many years and several revisions to get right, but that has been the idea since the very beginning.
   Some of you may be thinking, “If airdash games bring all these great defensive options and all these new ways to move to the table, surely they fall into the same trap that 3D fighters do of making these things a little too good”? You could be forgiven for thinking that if you haven’t spent much time with one of these games, but I assure you, this is not the case. Guilty Gear has been a game that has heavily favored the attacker since the very beginning, and even the more defense-oriented airdash games do a good job of keeping offensive play strong (obviously, though, through different methods).
   With more, stronger defensive options come more and stronger ways to beat them.
   This is true not only in the corner, but at neutral, as well. Sure, fireballs don't control space quite as well as they do in Street Fighter, but have you seen the recovery on Ky's Stunedges? Or have you considered the fact that he can do them in the air? Or FRC them? Or both?
   Truth be told, the neutral game of Guilty Gear is not that different from Street Fighter’s. What you know as your fireball, cr.MK, and Shoryuken are now called f.S, 2S, and air throw. A far standing Slash may not reach as far as a fireball, but it does come out faster and cover the immediate area in front of your character instantly; it even fits Seth's criteria of being a setup, since they are almost always special-cancelable. 2S is basically the same thing as a cr.MK, though it does lead to more options both on hit and block. Last but certainly not least, your last resort reactionary anti-air can be used in a variety of situations, thanks in no small part to the fact that they have no startup and take priority over anything your opponent may have up their sleeve. As long as you’re below your opponent, nothing is stopping you from tossing them to the ground if they get too uppity.
   (As an aside, you can think of fireballs in Guilty Gear as being EX f.S, since they basically do the same thing but at different ranges.)
   As far as jumps go, they are also not that different from Street Fighter, though there are more defensive uses for jumping. Where most people tend to get lost is in figuring out what airdashes are supposed to be used for, which is really kind of funny because it almost answers itself: it is the equivalent of jumping forward or backward in SF.
   In case you don't know, you cannot block until the end of airdash recovery in GG. With this in mind, as well as the fact that every other jump allows you to block as soon as you're airborne, it is really just a process of elimination. Normal jumps give you an additional jump option, allowing you to double-jump or airdash as you see fit. Super jumps move you way too high in the air to be used in the same situations as a normal jump, and they only grant you an airdash option, so you can intuitively figure out that they're primarily used to create distance between you and the opponent (though they have offensive uses, as well). Finally, airdashes are designed to move you quickly, though at the expense of not being able to defend yourself. Sound familiar?
   Really, the main things that set GG apart from SF from the standpoint of the neutral game is that there is slightly more emphasis on timing than spacing in GG (with the opposite being true of SF), and GG just gives you more ways to do the same things you can already do in SF. For every movement option in Guilty Gear, there is a way to beat it, so long as you’re spaced well enough and your timing is on point. If you are at all familiar with how Street Fighter works, the examples I laid out above should do a good enough job of laying it out without having to go too in-depth.
   You may now be thinking “Okay, I get that movement is far from unbeatable, what about all these different ways to block? Surely that weakens the offensive game”? Again, if you are inexperienced with these games, it is only a natural error to make; but again, it could not be further from the truth. Guilty Gear can have you guessing as many as six times per blockstring, depending on the character. To say that you need things like Faultless Defense and instant blocking is an understatement; without them, you would be blocking some characters literally until the timer ran out!
   This though, as true as it may be, is only a superficial analysis of what FD and IB really do for the game. From Seth’s second article on 2D vs 3D [ > ]:

"So while these are a few examples of punishability in 2D games, it remains true that most of the moves in 2D games can't be punished by most characters. That is to say, you can't score directly just for having blocked the moves correctly. In a lot of 3D games, on the other hand, that isn't the case. Comparatively, there are a huge number of punishable moves — in fact almost everything is punishable under some circumstance."

   This is where things get interesting, because in the case of Guilty Gear (and indeed, every airdash game), both of these statements are true. What allows this seemingly paradoxical statement to make perfect sense is the fact that you can lower your opponent’s frame advantage. Now, obviously, instant blocking doesn’t reduce said advantage enough to make every move punishable under every circumstance, but it can make a lot of moves (many of which would normally force you in a mixup situation) less safe to the point of no longer being useful, or in some cases, punishable (be it via air throw, a fast move such as a crouching punch, or whatever).
   The main thing instant blocking affords you, though, is the ability to escape.
   To make things clear, I am not at all insinuating that the modest reduction in blockstun that instant blocking affords you is enough to turn Guilty Gear into Tekken. When we talk about reverse nitaku in 3D fighters, we are usually referring to situations where you’re actually at a disadvantage, but can still get an attack out that may or may not beat what the opponent may throw out next. While these situations can happen in Guilty Gear, they usually require you to commit to something that can put you in a very unfavorable position if the opponent reads it (see: throw attempts, jump attempts, counter-pokes). The risk/reward is a bit skewed compared to 3D fighters, and rightfully so; if there were a “low crush” or “high crush” in Guilty Gear, the wakeup and corner game in general would suddenly become much more one-dimensional, and the game would fall apart. It is for the best, then, that IB doesn’t always allow you to mash your way out of bad situations, but rather grants you the opportunity to make a good read and get yourself out of a bad situation.
   Remember what I said about escaping? The reason this is such a big deal is because it increases the utility of the mechanics you’re already familiar with from moving around at neutral; a super jump can be as much of an offensive tool as it can be a defensive one, it just depends on the situation. Using Millia as an example here, she can SJ above you at an angle at neutral and throw her pin to force you to block or bait an anti-air. Conversely, she can do the exact same thing out of the corner (given she’s found an out), and while the results are the same (you either got hit or blocked), the reward is higher; Millia got out of a bad situation while creating an advantageous situation, instead of just the latter. This is a prime example of possibly the most significant influence the 3D fighting subgenre has had on airdash games: the utilization of movement options on both offense and defense. Any VF or Tekken heads in the audience may see the gears turning right about now, but those of you who have stuck to 2D games might be a little perplexed.
   To make it painfully clear, let’s go back to SF for a minute. When does anyone jump out of the corner in ST? Outside of a select few situations, you’ll almost never see it. If you haven’t figured it out by now, jumping in ST is primarily an offensive tool, albeit the riskiest one in the game (though also, as any DeeJay player can tell you, the most rewarding). How about walking out of the corner? It can happen, though it is far from ideal.
   How do people get out of the corner in ST, then?
   Most of you know the answer, but in case you don’t, I’ll spell it out for you: you use the strongest option select you can, reversal out, or mash throw. Because there are so few defensive options, and even fewer ways to move, that’s all you’re left with. Of course, ST was designed around this, so it works out in the end unless you’re fighting E. Honda. Bottom line: you will almost never see anyone move out of the corner, but you will see them force their way out.
   Compare this to any 3D fighter with sidesteps, where you’ll see people go as far as call out the direction in which the opponent’s next move is going to hit to get out of bad situations. This of course, can be used at neutral as well as in situations with your back to the wall. On the other hand, mashing out of these situations, while entirely possible, can put you in an even worse predicament.
   So, to make Seth’s above passage more relevant to Guilty Gear, all we have to do is change one thing:
   “Comparatively, there are a huge number of escapable situations — in fact almost everything is escapable under some circumstance.”
   Of course, we now have to account for the fact that this is still a 2D fighter we’re talking about, and maintaining the right spacing against a cornered opponent can make a bad situation look good. You see this all the time in Guilty Gear, where one player ends a blockstring that pushes them out of the corner, prompting the other player to jump out, which is then promptly shut down by an air throw or other anti-air, depending on the spacing.
   With that, dear reader, we have come full circle. Adopting the best elements of 3D fighters while maintaining the best elements of 2D fighters. Right there, in print, for the world to read and understand. And that’s just one example! We haven’t even talked about delayed strings or staggers!
   We could talk about that, but I would rather you channel that interest into playing an airdash game for yourself and actually getting to understand how this all works on an intricate level. Any of them will do, really. I don't want to give the impression that all of these games are the same (they are just as, if not more varied than the generation of 2D fighters that came before it), but they do all operate on the same premise of increasing the amount of meaningful options on both offense and defense. There are definitely more than a few ways to skin this cat, and some games take rather extreme but interesting approaches to this concept. Go watch some videos of Arcana Heart followed by Under Night In-Birth, and you’ll see, even without knowing much about either of them, just how different these games are.
   Now that we've covered how 2D fighters have managed to take the best elements of 3D fighters, let’s discuss why the situation for 3D fighters is now particularly dire, and what needs to be done about it.
   Before we get to that, though, let’s first go over what 3D fighters get right.
   One thing few people can argue against is that VF and Tekken have a lot of cool stuff going on up-close. That is the strength of the genre to be sure; the constant back and forth, calling out moves, calling out call-outs, moving in and out of the range where you can force nitaku, etc. All of that is good stuff! So good, in fact, that 2D fighters claimed it for their own and ran with it. Which is exactly why the outlook for 3D fighters is so damn bleak right now.
   In all fairness, it is an uphill battle for 3D fighters. Implementing 2D neutral game conventions in 3D is not easy; the only non-mech 3D game to make an honest attempt to do so has been Soul Calibur, and we all know how well that’s turned out. The mech fighters are a different beast entirely (they are different beasts even amongst each other), but they have at the very least been able to move forward in this regard.
   Some of you 3D players may feel patronized right about now, but I assure you that I am in no way shitting on the genre or even a specific game. I play 3D fighters myself and still enjoy them a lot, but even I can easily admit that the genre has not addressed its fundamental weakness in any significant way in years.
   So, what specifically has been attempted to fix this? And why is this an issue? What if I like that there’s no 2D style footsies?
   All very good questions! Let’s start from the top.
   VF and Tekken have taken very different approaches to mending the Achilles heel of the genre, and while they have achieved moderate success, they are ultimately little more than stopgap measures that have failed to hold their weight over time.
   In the latest VF games, they’ve implemented a few things to help keep the action flowing. There’s been lots of experimentation with stages: stages with breakable walls, stages with two walls, stages with one wall, corridor-style stages, etc. All of this has been done in the name of keeping both players relatively close to each other as often as possible, incentivizing aggressive play while still keeping defensive options (namely backdashing) strong enough to be able to duck out of bad situations. This has all been done in a very elegant way that does indeed flow very well, so it’s not like I’m not giving the game credit where it’s due.
   So what’s the issue?
   The issue, simply, is that when the game does occasionally degenerate into the fullscreen scenario we all know and love, there’s very little incentive to move forward on the part of either player. I am fully aware that there are ways to move in from fullscreen and force a mixup, but there is also no denying that there is little incentive to do so most of the time. I mean, why would you? Unless you’re the player with the life deficit, there’s not much reason to do much besides square-step your way around and generally be a jerk. Obviously, nobody should ever want to play this way, and often times I think people tend to intentionally end this situation because of how boring it is.
   This has been the case for quite some time now. Yet, it was not always this way. Through some bizarre twist of fate, the 3D fighters that did not suffer from this at all were the ones that had yet to implement sidesteps (pre-VF3), which were basically in-your-face 2D fighters with ring-outs. Running to the other side of the stage wasn’t even possible at that point, let alone desirable.
   To be clear, I am in no way saying we need to get rid of sidesteps; they add too much to the genre to just take away. It is just worth pointing out that 3D fighters do not “need” to be this way, as some people seem to think.
   You can have a fullscreen game in 3D, even with sidestepping. Tekken has one. Sort of.
   The weird thing about Tekken to me, and one of the main reasons I could never get into it the same way I could VF, is that it utilizes 3D hitboxes (hitcubes?) instead of model-based collision detection. Why does this matter, you may wonder? Well, because your character’s moves often times have inactive hitboxes that extend until the end of recovery, it allows for whiff punishing at some pretty insane ranges.
   While this is one way to give 3D fighters a fullscreen poking game of sorts, I find it to be a little… shoehorned. Like, there is definitely a complete guessing game there, but I’m not sure if it’s the kind you should want at fullscreen. When I was playing Tekken 6, the fullscreen game felt less like a means to an end and more like the point of the game. It felt like the game was telling me that the majority of my matches should be taking place around fullscreen, with the up-close game being reserved for when you manage to score a knockdown. It just seems a little backwards that the game would want me to spend more time with its less interesting aspects and less time up-close, which is still where the game works best.
   While Tekken does have its own flavor that some can’t seem to get enough of, if you're all about the fullscreen game, I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to play a 2D fighter like Samurai Spirits instead. At least in a game like that, there’s more of a sense of characters having certain ranges they work best at instead of everyone being able to use a few choice moves to whiff punish things from a distance. It is a much more fulfilling experience, since you're given way more opportunities to position yourself to make good reads instead of playing a simpler guessing game at mostly the same range. This is due to the fact that you can control space much more effectively in a game like SS; there's spacing at virtually every range, and characters that can effectively utilize at least a few of those ranges.
   That, dear reader, is what the 3D fighter needs. Ranges where I work better than you, and ranges where you work better than me.
   The fact of the matter is, the mid-range footsies game of both VF and Tekken are pretty rigid. You basically have your one range where you can tell the other guy to eat shit, and the other guy has the one range where he can do the same to you. VF does a good job of allowing you to use more than just a few moves to hit people at said ranges, but the same general issue persists. Tekken, on the other hand, does a good job of keeping you out of that situation, but I feel that it sort of throws the baby out with the bathwater with the fullscreen poking game.
   Well shit, dude, here you are telling me all this shit that’s wrong with 3D fighters. What can be done about it?
   For starters, we can get rid of the notion that 3D fighters “need” to be a certain way. The genre underwent one renaissance before, and I feel it’s about time we have another. We certainly aren’t playing 3D fighters as much as we used to, so perhaps we’re all thinking this without fully realizing it.
   As for the specifics; well, I’m not entirely sure. Probably not the answer you wanted to hear, but I’m not a game designer, lol. I do think Soul Calibur has the right idea in that it gives every character a few distinct ranges they can work well at, but unfortunately that game has butchered the execution time and time again. DOA is doing some interesting stuff right now, though I don’t think this is a task best left to a series that may very well disappear again after this year. Tekken 7, while not by any means a bad game, isn’t doing much to incentivize the mid-range game, which is exactly what it needed to do (and may end up doing down the road).
   What I can say with confidence is that unless things change soon, we may not have any more 3D fighters coming out for a very long time. Seeing how they were responsible for much of what makes all fighting games, 2D and 3D alike, as good as they are, that would be a damn shame.