The routine of spending an afternoon and dozens of quarters at the local arcade, trying to win a match against that kid in the neighborhood who knew how to perform all the special moves, may be a thing of the past — but fighting games are more relevant now than ever. Cross-play erases platform barriers, rollback netcode allows for smooth fights, and free-to-play models bring in more newcomers eager to test their skills.
Street Fighter 6 is right around the corner and Mortal Kombat 1 is officially due in September. Tekken 8 was also announced during one of Sony’s State of Play showcases last year, and although it doesn’t yet have a release date, it’s possible we could see it this year. In other words, 2023 could be a massive year for the fighting game genre, with three of its biggest franchises potentially receiving major sequels.
In the meantime, there’s an almost endless catalog of fighting games with which to hone your skills. Some fundamental titles aren’t currently available on modern platforms, but you can still find a fantastic selection of games to start flexing your fingers. We’ve gathered this list of the best fighting games (and, in some cases, the second-best games in their respective series) to help you dive deeper into one of the most rewardingly complex genres. (If you’re considering getting into fighting games for the first time, you should also watch the video below.)
Guilty Gear Strive
Selecting only one Guilty Gear used to be tough. How could you choose between the brilliant and frenetic battles of XX Accent Core Plus and the ridiculous amount of freedom and systems that Rev 2 offers? Well, you couldn’t. Luckily, the latest entry in the series, Guilty Gear Strive, makes things much easier.
Simply put, Strive is the best pick for both hardcore fans of the series and players new to the fighting genre entirely. Its updated 3D cel-shaded style, with impressive grounded designs and use of shadows, makes for the most striking characters in the series — which is saying a lot — and Roman Cancel, the series’ signature mechanic that allows for extended combos, attacks, and evasion moves, is at its best and most approachable in Strive. The fighters might have a more limited move list compared to earlier entries, but they will still take endlessly rewarding practice to master.
Guilty Gear Strive is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. It’s also available via Game Pass.
Released for GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox in 2003, Soulcalibur 2 took everything the previous entry did — weapon-focused face-offs, detailed characters, and some key mechanics, including Guard Impact and the Critical Edge attacks — and turned it up to 11. The sequel set a new precedent for fighting games that let you use swords, spears, and myriad other sharp objects in a 3D environment. And it looked fantastic in the process.
Soulcalibur 2 also popularized a feature we now take for granted in the genre: platform-specific guest characters. Depending on the version you were playing, you could either play as Heihachi from Tekken, Spawn from the comic series of the same name, or Link from The Legend of Zelda.
Soulcalibur 2 is not currently available on modern platforms, but you can play Soulcalibur 6 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.
Marvel vs. Capcom 2
Despite a lasting legacy as one of the greatest entries in the fighting game genre — a recent campaign by a well-known streamer brought the game back into the spotlight, as did an ESPN graphic during the 2020 NBA Finals and a sighting at a recent AEW event — Marvel vs. Capcom 2 has become woefully difficult to play in 2023. But with its iconic roster, 3v3 team-based mechanics, and stellar music, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 remains a high watermark in the fighting game scene.
Unless you want to drain your wallet with a deluxe arcade cabinet or download Marvel vs. Capcom 2 through… other means, the fighting game icon may be out of your reach. In that case, you can play Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, which is also pretty good.
Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is not available on current platforms, but you can play Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC.
Skullgirls 2nd Encore
Skullgirls is the queen of indie fighting games. This 2v2 fighter is the game that jump-started the indie competitive scene, with a layered combat system involving creative combos, character synergies, and powerful tag mechanics.
Skullgirls is also home to some of the most creative hand-drawn characters in the medium — there’s a doctor who wields medical tools and a corpse in a black bag, a girl whose hair became infected with a parasite and now has superpowers, and, my personal favorite, a big boy that is basically a one-man band attacking with different instruments. The game’s definitive version, 2nd Encore, is still getting new updates and characters in 2023.
Skullgirls 2nd Encore is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC, Mac, and Linux.
Mortal Kombat X
NetherRealm Studios is on a great streak. Since the launch of Mortal Kombat 9, the revival of the series in 2011, the studio has evolved the idea of a “modern fighting game”: tons of single-player content, a stupid but equally hilarious story, and a robust multiplayer component (even if it doesn’t work well all the time).
While the last few titles have been good, though, Mortal Kombat X allows you to make the most split-second choices during battles. Its introduction of styles for each character, reducing the number of special moves you can perform, seemed limited at first, but it ended up bringing a level of freedom that wasn’t replicated in MK 11 thanks to its variety of possible routes and links. It also took a big swing with several new characters, including new fan favorites like Cassie Cage and Erron Black.
Mortal Kombat X is available on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Part platform fighter, part homage to video game history, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is something truly special. It’s a title that lets you have the wildest (and weirdest) fantasy battles between completely unrelated characters like Solid Snake, Pac-Man, Steve (the dude from Minecraft), and Sora. With over 80 characters to choose from, dozens of stages, hundreds of songs, and an array of modes, Ultimate never stops giving.
If you’re looking for the fastest and most mechanically rich entry in the series, Smash Bros. Melee is the way to go. For all the rest that make Smash be Smash, Ultimate is the correct choice.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is available on Nintendo Switch.
First released for arcade cabinets in 1997 and then brought to PlayStation the next year, Tekken 3 was dazzling, with its detailed (for the time) polygons, the sparks and explosions when each attack connected, and the absolute bangers that played throughout it all. (Just by entering the character select screen, you can listen to what remains one of the most mesmerizing and exciting tracks in the genre.)
Over time, the series has became known for its absurd amount of playable fighters. With 21 characters, Tekken 3’s roster may have been comparatively small, but a lot of current fan favorites were already in the fray, including Gon, King, Jin, Kuma, Nina, and Yoshimitsu.
Tekken 3 is not currently available on modern systems, but you can play the fantastic Tekken 7 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.
Killer Instinct (2013)
Perhaps one of the most unexpected reboots ever, Killer Instinct returned in 2013 and made waves in the genre. For starters, it was the first major title to introduce rollback netcode, a type of connection between players that is now expected in every new fighting game. It also presented a free-to-play format that is now being evolved by other games, like MultiVersus and the upcoming Project L.
Killer Instinct is also one of the more approachable fighting games out there. Its fabulous Combo Assist system is great for beginners, letting you create combos with only a couple of buttons and a permissive timing. What’s more, the game also has an extensive and comprehensive tutorial.
Killer Instinct is available on Windows PC and Xbox One.
The King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match
If you don’t mind old sprites and a higher barrier to entry than more modern entries have, The King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match is an absolute blast. With a ludicrous roster of 66 characters and almost every single fighter from the eight previous entries, you’ll spend countless hours just figuring out which three characters compose your dream team.
As is sometimes the case with older games, 2002 Unlimited Match isn’t easy to get used to. But if you dedicate the time to learning its overarching systems and character-specific mechanics, you’ll discover a rich, nuanced game with an incredibly rewarding learning curve. Plus, the PC and PS4 versions have rollback netcode for better online matches.
The King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match is available on PlayStation 4 and Windows PC.
BlazBlue: Central Fiction
Guilty Gear’s younger brother, BlazBlue, deserves a spot in this list simply for the consistency the series has maintained over the years. Each of the main entries and their respective re-releases have been nothing short of amazing; visual spectacles that present arguably the peak of anime-ish design in a 2D fighting game, featuring characters that play vastly different from one another. Figuring out each of these characters feels like a rewarding puzzle of its own.
Central Fiction, the latest entry that was released in 2016 for consoles, added new characters and the end of the story, turning it into the definitive BlazBlue package.
BlazBlue: Central Fiction is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC.
Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown
It’s been decades since we saw those clumsy bodies of squares and rectangles pummeling one another for the first time, but much has changed since the launch of the original Virtua Fighter: Those laughable models turned into phenomenal HD designs powered by the Dragon Engine (courtesy of the Yakuza team) in Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown. One thing has not changed, though: Fights feel like games of chess, with a ridiculous amount of options, systems, and moves per character.
Ultimate Showdown was the revamp the series needed to appeal to a new audience and bring its intricate but rewarding combat to a new generation. It’s the most beautiful Virtua Fighter, with the most fighters in a single entry and a robust training mode.
Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown is available on PlayStation 4.
Samurai Shodown (2019)
“Excuse me, how much damage did that single move do?” This will likely be a common question you ask yourself during your first battles in the reboot of the popular SNK series. Many of your cuts, slashes, and hits have a chance of taking outrageous chunks of damage from your opponent’s health bar. This makes every fight a nerve-wracking mental battle in which any single mistake can cost you the round.
Whereas Soulcalibur popularized weapons-based combat in 3D, Samurai Shodown did the same for the 2D arena. It’s tense, thrilling, and demanding in equal measures. The 2019 version has a beautiful, updated cel-shaded visual style and multiplayer options that are still getting support in 2023.
Samurai Shodown is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike
What makes Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike stand out in a legendary franchise with dozens of editions and re-releases? Confidence and style. Its roots in hip-hop culture can be seen in every stage, tune, and little detail of its presentation. However, the impeccable sprites of the characters wouldn’t matter if 3rd Strike didn’t have a robust combat system that built on the intricacies of the Street Fighter 3 subseries. It offers exceptional levels of polish.
And in a series, and genre, packed with memorable characters, 3rd Strike features one of the most robust rosters out there, with plenty of new faces for anyone unfamiliar with 2nd Impact, the previous entry in Street Fighter 3. (It also removed several of the series’ stalwart characters, which, although shocking at first, has gone down as a bold move in the realm of roster shakeups.)
Unless Street Fighter 6 proves otherwise, Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike remains the peak in the series.
Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.