I recently read "Story Modes in fighting games DO matter" on Gamezone in which David Sanches goes off on why fighting games need a story. I've been thinking about this whole argument for some time, ever since the lack of plot was one aspect that many reviewers of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 took points off for. It bothers me that people are deducting points off a review on a genre that has always had a minimalist attitude towards narrative. Time and time again, I've had to state that a good story in a fighting game is a nice bonus, but not required to make a great fighting game.
There has been a growing movement in gaming calling for better story-telling in games, which I totally agree with. The problem is that these people are so focused on narratives they believe that it should be a part of every genre in some sort of fashion, with the exception being sports games. But like sports games, there are some genres that are simply not made to have a strong narrative and is one of them is the fighting game genre.
Before I go into my reasons why story is not important in a fighting game, I have to bring up the game that has become the "gold standard" in fighting game narratives: Mortal Kombat 9. Like everyone else that reviewed the game, I was thoroughly impressed with the story mode. But let's get real, people; its story was a retelling of the first 3 MK games. Let's also continue down our path of reality, and admit that no one was playing those games for the story back in the day. MK9 brought back some great memories from the past MKs, revealing some of the intricate plots in the story that many didn't know about unless they went deep into the MK lore. However, this was not some mesmerizing story from beginning to end. It was a great bonus for a fighting game, but after everyone beat it, guess what aspect of the game were people talking about the most? "OMG KUNG LAO IS SO FUCKING CHEAP!" was the discussion instead of an analysis of the plot.
TOO MANY CHARACTERS
With most fighting games having a minimum of 20 characters these days, it's hard to include everyone's favorite in fighting games with stories. This was actually an aspect of the MK9 story that people DIDN'T like when they had you control almost half the cast throughout the story mode. There were simply too many characters thrown into the mix resulting in you playing as a character you couldn't care less about. On that note, quick memo to NetherRealm Studios: NO ONE LIKES STRYKER!
With so many characters in a fighting games these days, you're left with either giving everyone their own little plot, like in Street Fighter and Tekken, or one story focusing on a few characters with the other fighters making cameos such as Soul Calibur. We know that having each character with their own little adventure isn't going to blow anyone away as several games have shown in the past. However, if you put the focus on a few characters to create this one big story, then you better hope that the characters selected are not painfully annoying. This scenario happens in Soul Cailbur 5 where both of the leads in the story mode, Pyrrha and Patroklos, were so annoying that I just didn't care what happened to them. Not only that, Pyrrha and Patroklos are far from being fan favorites.
DOESN'T MAKE SENSE AFTER SO MANY GAMES
The fighting game genre is different from most video game genres. Some franchises show up every other year while other franchises are released on a yearly basis. With so many frequent releases in a franchise, the stories are not going to make much sense after awhile. Take for example, the Street Fighter series. It started with Street Fighter, then the sequel, Street Fighter 2 which plot wise was followed up by Street Fighter 3. However the Alpha series was thrown in, telling of the time between Street Fighter 1 and 2, but it has characters that appear in the last Street Fighter 2 games, Super Street Fighter and Super Street Fighter Turbo. Then, Street Fighter 4 is supposed take place after Street Fighter 2 but before Street Fighter 3, yet it includes characters from Street Fighter 3, Street Fighter 2, and the Alpha series. For continuity nerds, this series is enough to scratch your head until it bleeds.
If you were to compare the fighting game genre to another genre, it would be sports because they both focus on the creating competitive experiences and catering to the fans. Fans of the genre want more gameplay from fighting games. They want to master everything that they can, and are starving for more once they do. This puts fighting game developers in a position of being like a drug dealer, giving us fans more of what we want and also what we don't know we want yet. Look at Tekken Tag Tournament. Here's a game that hardly had a plot, but it was a massive success because of the tag system. Endings were less than a minute, made ZERO sense, and no one gave a rat's ass becuase of how fun the game is. You found similar titles in the sports world such as EA's "Street" series where the games have little to do with professional rules, focusing on a fun and looser style of gamplay.
IN THE END, STORY DOESN'T MATTER IN A FIGHTING GAME
When people look back at their favorite fighting games, the first thing that pops in their mind is not the story. I don't remember the plot of any of the Vs. games, but I remember that I enjoyed X-Men vs. Street Fighter being the first Capcom game with a tag mode, Marvel vs. Capcom having the use of a 3rd teammate for assists, and of course the amazing fun of 3 person teams in Marvel vs. Capcom 2.
Does a weak narrative make those games subpar? Absolutely not. These games, and quality fighting games in general, are memorable and beloved because they were fun to play. Remember the feeling of throwing that first Hadoken, unleashing your first Fatality, or pulling off your first Ultra Combo? You didn't care about what your character's motivation was because it was about what motivated YOU to win that match. Whether it was Ryu, Johnny Cage, or Wolverine on screen, it was YOU in the game fighting your opponent. In the arcades, you may have played to try and beat a game, but once someone put in a quarter to play versus, that's when the real game started. It was then that you realized that someone had challenged YOU and wanted to make YOU lose YOUR game. It was then that you could care less about beating the game, instead it became beating the son of a bitch that just challenged you to a virtual fight. That's the excitement about fighting games, and something that gamers today don't realize as much. Fighting games have had a long tradition of focusing on being fun to play against other people, with the great ones featuring gameplay that is so good all you want to do is get better so you can beat the living hell out of everyone you know.
The bottom line is that a great story in a fighting game is a nice bonus to have when its there, but reviewers and gamers need to realize that it is not very important to the quality of a fighting game as a whole. More so than in other genres, what matters the most in a fighting game is the gameplay.