Martial Artists: How Fighting Games Can Look As Good As They Play

Fighting games are a genre with complex structure, fierce competition,  and devoted player bases worldwide. Despite rising popularity, fighting games aren’t appreciated for their aesthetics. Instead, their mechanics take focus, and define what makes them different—but this is a mistake. Visual design is one of the most important things in a fighting game. Visual design is essential for a fighting game to be engaging and powerful, and it’s central to setting them apart.

Players spend years mastering fighting games, compiling data trying to understand them, and filling pages with concepts and techniques, hoping to ease newcomers into them. Needless to say, fighting games can be complicated. How can a player recognize block-stun and hit-stun, or whether their throw was just teched? How do players differentiate an EX Move from a focus attack?

A fighting game’s visual design helps players understand its numerous mechanics. In some games, meters visually distinct. Others display shields onto characters who block attacks, or flash indicators during technicals or reversals. Visualising a fighting game’s mechanics make them easier for players to understand, and keeps its concepts from becoming abstract and difficult to comprehend.

Through a fighting game’s aesthetic, I can understand the impact of my interactions. Powerful attacks feel powerful and light attacks feel quick and deadly. I feel the power of a focus when a ring of dust blows from my feet, and when a blowback in King of Fighters shakes the screen. And I see the significance and impact of a fatality in Mortal Kombat, when a deep black starts to cover the environment. When a fighting game’s visuals are designed so heavily around my interactions, they help give them real weight in the world. They make my interactions matter.

The number of options in the genre is rising. EVO 2012 featured just six fighting games on its main stage,  not including titles like Arc System Works’ newest BlazBlue and Guilty Gear games, Skullgirls and Virtua Fighter 5 and the new Persona 4: Arena. Blazblue: Chrono Phantasma was just revealed, and  Injustice and Playstation All-Stars are yet to be released. There are so many fighting games I can focus on. Each series creates its own sub-community, with its own players, heroes, streams and websites. How can a new one possibly find stable ground?

To attract a group of players in such a crowded market, a unique visual design is almost a necessity. This explains why so many fighting games have unified thematic designs. Their aesthetics are unique and engage players in different ways, bringing across their own ideas and statements.


For example, Skullgirls acts as a supernatural period piece. Its theme of early 1920′s-30′s film is reflected through its use of deep blacks and browns and Art Deco typefaces, some resembling Lorraine Louie’s “Anna” or Tom Carnase’s “Busorama.” Its menu revolves around a stock of film, hovering in front of a lighted projector. The design of some of its stages reflects Art Deco interior design, specifically Medici Tower, with its black and white tile flooring. Peacock is a construction of the cartoons of the late 1920′s, from characters like Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky rabbit.

The game uses 20s-30s Art Deco to build a real culture. Buildings feel like they have history that exists beyond the player, and background characters don’t cheer you on like they do in Street Fighter–they chat and move among themselves. Some buildings are clubs; others feature billboard ads. People smoke in the streets of New Meridian and children chat outside their school in Maplecrest. Skullgirls’ world is bizarre enough that its characters don’t appear out of place; it’s is rare in that it makes you feel like a working cog in the universe.

Skullgirls creates an immersion that is different from other fighting games. It doesn’t send you around the world or crossover with other franchises. Skullgirls uses its art to focus only on a few central ideas, and build a universe around them, that feels independent and functions by itself. A real society.


Super Street Fighter IV demonstrates a strong connection to its 2D relationship. This goes beyond movement on a 2D plane; Super Street Fighter IV illustrates its connection by using calligraphic ink.

Whereas technical messages are displayed with normal Arial-like type, messages that bring emotion and energy—the names of characters, “fight” messages, “win” and “lose” screens—are shown in ink calligraphy.  Watching the black VS sign be painted ferociously onto a background of fire brings that high level of energy. So does seeing a calligraphic “A New Fighter has entered the Ring!” flash on the screen when an online match is found. During fully charged focus attacks and win animations, players will paint a trail of ink into the environment. And bolded versions of characters, where they appear drawn from ink act as costume unlocks.

Even in their 3D state, character models never lose the fluidity their 2D counterparts enjoyed. They may feel slightly more realistic, but they still move and act as though they’re hand drawn. You can see the brush strokes on their select screen portraits.

This is how Super Street Fighter IV stays connected to its roots. It’s art uses calligraphic ink and animated fluidity to give the game power and energy, and illustrate the significance of the hand drawn style, without actually being hand drawn. Street Fighter IV’s aesthetics show that the game is more than a push forward–it’s a love letter to the series as a whole.


Whereas Street Fighter’s aesthetic is composed of calligraphic ink and hand drawn elements, Mortal Kombat is an aesthetic of rock and steel. Chains and gears, sharpened metals and blades forged from molten rock permeate its stages. Spikes fill the bottom of pits and metro cars blow sparks as they grind along sidelines.

Mortal Kombat expresses itself not through fluidity or skillful articulation, but through oppression and   brutalization. Symbols of torture, despotism, and intense labour permeate its environments. Characters will bleed profusely; their skin will rip and their ligaments will tear apart. X-Ray attacks go further; organs are punctured, bones are shown breaking and weapons will blow through skulls. And of course fatalities exist to bring the game to its aesthetic extremes.

But why would any game want to show this? Why portray such extreme and senseless violence?  It’s because this is how Mortal Kombat displays power. The player isn’t applying strokes of ink to canvas–the player is taking scorching metal and grinding it to flesh. The metal and rock is there to illustrate the brutal nature of its tangible elements. X-Rays and ripped skin and flesh exist because Mortal Kombat wants you to do more than just defeat the enemy; Mortal Kombat wants you to destroy every aspect of them, to use the tools given to crush their physical state and humiliate them.

Mortal Kombat is about the brutal nature of conquering. It’s aesthetic goes to violent extremes in order to portray the overwhelming destruction of what we could consider an enemy, but also to act as a microcosm. Because as you destroy your opponents, splitting their skulls and tearing their flesh apart, you’re merely a working gear in a universe that has already been destroying itself.


This is how visuals act as the fighting game’s ultimate support system. It helps players understand its mechanics, keeps them engaged through their interactions, and helps bring across the themes and ideas that give them a personality. To ignore visual design in fighting games is to ignore a piece of the genre’s soul.


  1. 7ten

    No love for King of Fighters??

    • Fengxii

       @7ten King of Fighters XIII has some of the smartest visual design in a fighting game. It’s use of blacks, primary colors, and serif type is unmatched. The problem is that it doesn’t help communicate anything further. 
      That’s what separates KOF from games on this list. The game is good looking for sure, but I didn’t find it used to communicate anything meaningful, other than looking really good. The games on this list use aesthetic to illustrate a true artistic statement.
       KOF is awesome though. Leona/Vice/Elizabeth is my team. 

  2. Fengxii

    @AGBear Glad you enjoyed it 😉

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