When I started playing fighting games seriously, there were things people would tell me.
There were things I didn’t understand.
I didn’t understand what DP meant.
I didn’t understand what spacing was.
Someone would always insist that spacing in a fighting game, especially Street Fighter, was important.
It was an ethereal concept to me: What does that mean? What do I do with it?
Because I was usually the most inexperienced person in whatever FGC (Fighting Game Community) I was a part of, I focused on more obvious points.
I practiced combos in training modes. I worked on my blocking technique. I tried to pry open different fighting games’ design philosophies.
I couldn’t understand spacing, so I avoided it. I convinced myself I would get to it later.
It wasn’t obvious.
Capcom leaves guidance and discovery up to the community. They depend on the FGC to figure things out.
Because of it’s difficulty, Street Fighter mastery is considered one of the pinnacles of success in the FG genre.
SNK, though, enforces the subtle. SNK transforms the subtle into a lesson.
I believe this is why SNK has found success everywhere else in the world.
SNK fighters are lessons.
Every SNK fighting game has a shakiness to it.
But SNK does something that Capcom does not: Force the player to pay attention.
Starting with Fatal Fury 2, SNK implemented an at-will two-plane system, the first of its kind in the genre. This allowed players to jump between the foreground/background of a stage.
With a two-plane system, the player had to be aware of which plane their opponent was on, the best way to move to that plane, and to avoid level hazards.
The Last Blade series had a deflect button. If the player pressed the deflect button just as an opponent attacked, the attack would be parried, leaving them open for a counterattack.
This forces the player to watch their opponent carefully, to read frames carefully. The Last Blade drills players’ focus faster than any other fighter I’ve seen.
Capcom tried to do something similar in Street Fighter III with the introduction of the parry mechanic: The player taps forward when an opponent’s attack connects and the attack is neutralized with no damage taken.
The parry mechanic along with a flood of other innovations led to SFIII becoming one of the most highly regarded fighting games ever made.
But because SFIII was tailored with immense precision, it garnered vast critical approval, but nowhere near the financial success of its predecessor.
When SFIII: Third Strike came around, the game was dead in the United States.
Even the ‘Daigo Parry‘ couldn’t save it.
Capcom tried to out-SNK SNK.
By building a solid, tactical, mechanically coherent fighting game with polish and little brokenness, Capcom suffered.
People didn’t expect that from them. They just wanted another SFII.
It would take Capcom 10 years before they would release another game in the Street Fighter franchise and Street Fighter IV was an exercise in back-tracking.
(Here is the best review of SFIII: Third Strike you will read).
At the same time Capcom released their most complex and technical iteration of Street Fighter, SNK put out its last iteration of the Fatal Fury series: Garou: Mark of the Wolves.
Garou and 3S are often considered companion games.
Both are beautiful. Both innovate on their established franchises. Both are technical.
Garou pushed the limits of what was capable on SNK’s Neo Geo system.
Even though Neo Geo was incapable of semi-transparency and 3D effects, SNK was able to simulate them using complex 2D techniques.
Like SFIII, Garou was a reset.
SNK even altered the signature look of Terry Bogard, the series mascot.
They also eliminated the two-plane system Fatal Fury had introduced and become known for.
With Garou, SNK pruned away all the excess a decade of half-finished ideas left them with.
Fighting games are usually loud. They scream. They affirm their place in the arcades.
In the mid-90’s, you couldn’t walk into an arcade anywhere in the world without being pummeled with SFII audio.
Garou is a quiet game.
Garou is serene.
Garou’s music is comprised of low-key, modern jazz and dance tracks. The music keeps the atmosphere light and reinforces the game’s growth.
Keeping with this minimal style, SNK also paired back the roster of playable characters from the previous iteration by almost half.
Garou only has 14 characters.
There is a sense of intimacy in Garou’s world. There is a sense that the characters and places are all familiar to each other.
Because of the limited roster, each character has personality. Each character feels important.
The game does a profound job relating both characters and players to places in the world.
Garou’s greatest innovation is the stage introductions.
Before each fight, the stages are presented in short, animated clips.
There is no music. There is only ambient sound from the stage itself.
They are so well-done, so elegant, so subtle: They could be meditation objects.
Garou is a cohesive game.
All the aesthetic innovations are matched by the mechanical.
It introduces the ‘Tactical Offensive Position’ (T.O.P.). TOP is a customizable comeback mechanic.
After selecting a character, the game asks the player to choose a portion of the character’s lifebar (roughly one-third).
The player can choose the beginning, middle, or end.
During the fight, if that portion of the character’s lifebar is reached, they will begin flashing, indicating that TOP has engaged.
TOP grants the player access to a move that isn’t normally available, some health regeneration, and increased damage output.
SNK also introduced a ‘Just Defend’ mechanic similar to the SFIII parry. If the player blocks just before an attack connects, they recover more quickly from block.
All of Garou’s mechanical developments lead to an encouragement of offense.
Many of SNK’s fighting franchises are defensive and tactical.
Garou is a massive divergence from SNK’s traditional formula.
Lifebars disintegrate as fast as they did in SFII and the game’s offense functions on how well a player can use their normal attacks.
With its speed and small levels, Garou reinforces the importance of spacing.
It is a perfect exercise in learning what spacing is.
There is nowhere to run and attacking without thinking is easily punished here.
Garou wants the player to be offensive, but not stupid.
It wants the player to not only think about what attack to use, but about the potential space of that attack.
With Street Fighter III, Capcom sought to slow the game down. They wanted players to take their time and think. They wanted each hit to count.
Defensive players flourished in SFIII’s space.
Garou taught players how to attack. It was the antibody to a generation of SFII button-mashing.
It is by no means a perfect game, but an important one.
It is a game I would encourage anybody to play.
Garou is important as a whole work.
It reinforces FG basics in a soft, clear, beautiful way.
Brandon Sheffield once referred to Garou as being ‘holistic’.
And it is.
This is a game designed with clarity.
This is a game that balances light and seriousness with grace and perspective.
The gaming world has never been as toxic or as melodramatic as it is today.
And Garou’s softness, humor, and expectation are both reaffirming and cleansing, 15 years on.