When conjuring up images of the best fighting games, there are a few franchises that dominate the scene more than any others.
This list is certainly not here to refute their championship pedigree, but we will seek to diversify the landscape a bit while giving nods to the titles that are the cornerstones of the genre.
Fighting games are defined by the simple question “who is the best?”, and the best fighting games are no less than a bare-knuckle tournament to determine just that.
Many of the best fighting games below were chosen because they changed the genre forever and, while they are not necessarily the first to innovate on the style, they are usually linked with popularising a specific feature or mechanic.
While the fighting genre has had its peaks and valleys, we are certainly enjoying a golden era with e-sports reestablishing fighting games as part of the cannon of competitive video games not seen since the heydays of the arcade cabinet.
Hopefully, you’ll enjoy revisiting the sweat-inducing, knuckle-crunching, tension-raising, fist-pumping classics as much as you enjoy some of the hidden gems and innovators in this list.
Table of Contents
Bloody Roar: Primal Fury kickstarts our list of the best fighting games, and it could well be of my favourite fighting games of all time.
Talk about starting this list off strong!
I mean, any game where the characters have the option of turning into a killer beast in the middle of the fight has to be in this list, right? It’s time for the ultimate ‘beast-down’.
Beat-down… get it? Moving on
As with many of the titles in this list, it’s totally fine if you’re just into your button mashing. There are special moves to learn that might give you the edge, but smashing that punch button is going to get you the results every time too.
The Beast Mode is where the main bulk of the fun is at, bringing epic Beast Drive attacks into play that come complete with their own clips cut-scene mini clips.
And while they’re not as brutal as the fatalities in Mortal Kombat, they’re still super cool!
Heck, you can even stop time in Hyper Beast mode and throw punches like there’s no tomorrow. Man, I love this game!
Next up on our list is an SNK classic, Fatal Fury Special. Some of you might have seen this game o our list of the best SNES fighting games, but to be honest, the Nintendo port simply can’t compare with the Neo Geo original.
Remember Fatal Fury 2? Well, this ‘Special’ version of the game is essentially an updated form of that title and featured some epic beatdown action for fans to get to grips with.
And even though it came out in 1993, it still gets our blood pumping as I write this today!
The graphics might be saturated, but the gameplay is fantastic. And for 1993 the characters and backgrounds are brilliantly designed too.
It was a fast paced game, much faster than its predecessor, in fact, and brought more features that we take for granted like special moves into play.
If you’re looking for an alternative to Street Fighter, then give this title a bash!
Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution is up next in our list of the best fighting games of all time, and it’s a title and indeed a series that really needs no introduction.
It’s fair to say thatVirtua Fighter has been a smash hit with Sega gamers for years now and a firm fixture in their console back catalogue. But for me, it was Virtua Fighter 4 on the PS2 where the series really found its feet and perfected its formula.
As with every upgrade in a fighting game, players got to experience some new and exciting additions from the previous entry in the canon. New characters arrived as well as moves and levels.
The Virtua Fighter fighting mechanic isn’t revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination; if you love Street Fighter and Tekken, then you’ll feel right at home with the controls.
What does set it apart from other fighting games is the ability to customise your fighters, however, something that early fighting games just didn’t have!
Pokkèn Tournament is everything that we wished Pokemon Stadium would have been. It also answers the question of what it would really look and feel like if we replaced Tekken characters with Pokemon.
The answer – just pure awesomeness!
I’m going to assume that everyone on this website right now loves Pokemon as much as us. Battling them in the conventional sense is always fun, but letting them just go wild without the turn-based move system is incredible!
Time your moves with epic combos and carry out special attacks that will floor the opposition.
The stadiums look and feel much more like what you’d expect from modern Pokemon games too. It’s all much more fast-paced and exciting compared to the Pokemon Stadium days, and seeing Charizard going up against foes never, ever gets old.
Plus check out how cool Mewtwo looks above – this is one of the best fighting games that everyone should have in their arsenal!
In terms of looks and gameplay style, this game feels very much like the Marvel Vs Capcom titles (and there’s a strong chance that you’ll be seeing one of those further down this list!). The graphics are bold, and it almost feels like you’ve stepped inside a DragonBall Z episode while playing!
Like the Marvel Vs Capcom series, players can pick teams of up to 3 people and head into battle, going up against their favourite characters from the show and creating their very own ultimate showdowns.
Play solo or head online with friends. It’s a must-have for Dragon Ball Z fans and a great fighting title if you’re looking to dip your toe into the series!
What would a best fighting games list be without Tekken? While there were other Tekken titles before it and certainly many more since, Tekken 3 stands as an inflection point.
It’s crisp, smooth and punishing, giving rise to the culture of long memorised combo moves, rather than the more ‘burst style’ of the traditional 2D fighters.
The best players made a string of combos look like a highly sophisticated dance routine orchestrated to end in a knockout.
In the hands of the right gamer, a character and a string of moves you could take your opponents health from full to floor in a few satisfying seconds.
Tekken 3 vaulted fighting games to a new level, and as arcade cabinets began dying, out it stood as one of the titles that drove a stake through their heart.
Tekken 3 launched an entire legion of Tekken diehards that continue to worship the game and its play style to this day.
Marvel Vs Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes started its life in the arcades but has made its way onto so many platforms that it’s tough to keep track of them all. It belongs on a best fighting games list for so many reasons, but a few stand out.
Firstly, the gameplay is superb. Many would argue one of if not the pinnacle of the arcade style 2D fighting game of which Capcom are masters. It captures the feel of a comic book ‘come to life’ perfectly.
It’s bright and engaging in a uniquely Capcom way that still feels genuine to the source material of comics.
It also marks a major step in universe crossovers. Before the MCU was a twinkle in filmmakers eyes, comic books and video games tried it first, but video games put it in the palm of your hands.
While it may not have been the first to do a crossover, it did popularize it broadly. Not only did it nail the idea, but it is also the standard bearer for another unique fighting game mechanic, “tag-team” play.
For these reasons and so many more Marvel Vs. Capcom stands proudly in the pantheon of best fighting games.
There is some argument as to whether or not the Power Stone Collection constitutes as a fighting game. Still, seeing as it essentially pioneered and established a whole new style of fighting game in the 3D realm with its isometric camera, it’s a safe bet to call it a fighting game.
Once again Capcom took its winning formula of interesting characters, sound mechanics, and dynamic arena design, and out came a masterpiece of enjoyable gameplay.
Being a fun game on it’s own with colors and graphics that popped off the screen, it wasn’t as beloved as it should have been in its heyday. Still, it had a cult following which has blossomed and it has aged very well with time.
‘Collection’ is not the first title in the series, but it has the best parts of Power Stone 1 & 2 and you can take it with you!
If you have not had the joy of playing any of the Powerstone games, grab hold of a copy and and you won’t be disappointed.
Spend enough time with it and you will see why it deserves to be on this best fighting game list!
What the heck is a wrastlin’ game doing on a best fighting game list?
Well just hear me out.
WWF No Mercy is absolutely a fighting game, despite arguments as to whether it’s a sport/sports entertainment game. Players fight… plain and simple!
By jettisoning the traditional health bar for a “Spirit” meter that made the fight experience burst with heart pounding drama, there was always chance, a glimmer of hope you could come back from the brink before Stone Cold pummelled you into oblivion
It also laid the foundation for exploring other ways to measure “winning” in the genre with the WCW vs. NWO title carving a path for Super Smash Bros. just a few years later.
Controversial or not, most regard the THQ/Aki titles beginning with WCW vs. NWO: World Tour all the way to game engines retirement with WWF No Mercy to be the finest wrestling games ever created and undoubtedly some of the best fighting games around.
Super Smash Bros. Melee possibly the most appropriately titled fighting game of all time. When it comes to Super Smash Bros. there is no question as to what’s going down.
A fighting game disguised in the friendly Trojan horse of some of Nintendo’s most storied characters, Super Smash Bros. is fast, frantic and fun. There are a multitude of ways to play the game, some of the arena designs are so interactive they are practically their own character, and with the multiplayer alone it is incredibly easy to sink countless hours into this franchise.
Many regard “Melee” to be the pinnacle of the series which still has tournaments and a vibrant community playing the game to this day.
Not enough can be said about how engaging competitive and nerve racking Super Smash Bros. Melee is. While HAL laboratories built the game it just goes to show what Nintendo can do when it applies its values of approachability, strong characters, and exceptional gameplay to a fighting game.
The beauty and simplicity of Bushido Blade is something truly incredible. A best fighting game list would not have depth or be nearly as well rounded without including this masterpiece.
Square (Squaresoft back then) a developer known the world over for its incredible RPGs, created a work of art in Bushido Blade. It’s a weapons based fighting game, with realistic consequences.
Generally speaking it is one hit one kill. The pace is intentionally slowed down to heighten the suspense of the moment.
Matches are chesslike and can last a heck of a long time, but generally the death is quick and painful, even startling!
Each attack begs to be calculated, lest you misstep and lose the use of one of your limbs or the match entirely. One foul swoop and it could be over in a heartbeat.
The game is palm-sweat-inducing and the tension is high until the final blow. It manages to be both clean and complex at the same time. There is no music, no health bar, no a lot of things, but the arenas are vast allowing you to move uninhibited and the game doesn’t feel spartan, more Kurosawa and just as epic.
If you enjoy the beauty, artistry and honor of the Japanese warrior, then you must experience the thrill of the visceral Bushido Blade.
While Mortal Kombat is not generally considered the absolute best fighting game on any list and Mortal Kombat II not even necessarily the greatest in the series, it still stands out as one of the best fighting games of all time because it is pure peak MK.
When Mortal Kombat debuted it represented a culture shift in gaming. It pushed the boundaries of violence and gore to an almost laughable level, intentionally.
The creators at Midway didn’t hesitate to find that fine line and then blow past it, to the delight of gamers everywhere. MKII took all the great things of MK and polished the rough edges into a smooth stone.
Few games since have done what MKII did, forcing you to discover what gruesome moves you could perform on your opponent and dare you to look away when the blood spilled.
MKII took all the glory and success of the first game and cranked it up to 11. It leaned even harder into the unique style of digitzed graphics based on live actors that had made Midway games famous and added a bunch of new characters.
It also went even harder on the FATALITIES the game introduced, the finishing moves made famous by Kung-Fu movies but never explored in games prior to Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat II was a bloodbath, of brutal bare knuckle brawling you can’t stop looking at and smiling.
Street Fighter II Turbo is arguably the granddaddy of all fighting games. In fact, it would be criminal if a Street Fighter game was not on a list of best fighting games of all time.
It certainly wasn’t the first title in the series, but it is one of the best. Capcom nailed everything with this title. Street Fighter II Turbo was brought to market quickly after the fans of Street Fighter gave feedback on its slow speed, hence the turbo!
Still one of the most pure 2D fighting games to ever grace the screen, ‘Turbo’ has it all. Expect great sprite work, vibrant colors, engaging music, satisfying sound effects and crisp responsive gameplay.
If you have never played Street Fighter, or any fighting game for that matter, this is likely the place to start.
The learning curve can be steep. but it just makes the payoff when you begin to win matches that much more satisfying.
Next up on our list of the best fighting games of all time is a retro classic. Killer Instinct for the DMG might look like blurred stick men fighting to the death, but characters like Glacius and Fulgore ruled my childhood.
After seeing the detailed image of the fighter in question before the bout started, it didn’t matter what the graphics looked like. They were the real deal and knew how to lay the smackdown better than the Rock did!
Killer Instinct even made it to the N64 in the form of ‘Killer Instinct Gold,’ giving fans of the franchise a chance to see their heroes in glorious colour at home for the first time.
It’s one of the best N64 games we’ve ever played and great for couch-multiplayer battles!
Of course, Killer Instinct is one of the arcade classics, the great fighting games that swallowed up quarters faster than a Kirby on heat (do Kirby’s even…you know…mate? Let us know on Facebook).
This franchise will forever stick with us as being one of the great button-mashing classics that pulled us into the fighting genre. And whenever anyone asks who the greatest boxer is of all time, remember the name ‘T.J Combo’.
SoulCalibur II takes the 2nd spot in our list of the best fighting games of all time!
It’s fair to say that SoulCalibur houses some of the greatest range of fighters on any game.
Bar Primal Fury: Bloody Roar for the GameCube, SoulCalibur 2 had some of the most weird and wonderful characters, from the gimp Voldo to the giant Astaroth.
And yes, seeing those two fight really is a sight to behold.
I first got into SoulCalibur back on the GameCube when Link joined the fray. Since then, I’ve collected all of the variations and still can’t decide which one I like the best!
SoulCalibur 2 released on Xbox, PS2, and GameCube, each with different bonus fighters. The PS2 got Heihachi Mishima, Gamecube gamers received Link, and Xbox users got Spawn.
If I’m being honest, however, the Dreamcast port of this game is one of the first titles that really outshined its arcade counterpart. It gave gamers in living rooms an even more immersive experience than the kids queuing up with a pocket full of quarters ready to smash each other to a virtual pulp.
With multiple weapons and changeable costumes to change into (we know which of you readers have a thing for Ivy!), this fighting game is the gift that keeps on giving.
The Neo Geo is, without a doubt, one of the best consoles for fighting titles, and the King of Fighters series has provided the Retro Dodo team with more sore thumbs and callused hands than we can count!
It’s why it made our list of the best Neo Geo games!
The game was, and still is the Neo Geo’s answer to Tekken, Mortal Kombat, and One Piece Grand Battle Swan Colosseum. If you like any or all of those games, then you’re in for a real treat!
Just what is it about these games that makes them so appealing?
The stages are all nicely thought out and designed, and the control setup borrows heavily original arcade set up. It’s not just that the levels are interesting to play, but this game makes you feel like you’re back in front of the flashing arcade cabinet, desperately trying not to look crap in front of your mates.
And the opponents in the King of Fighters series seriously take some beating. The ultimate KOF boss, Rugal Bernstein, who rears his ugly head in King of Fighters ’98 is an absolute MACHINE!
Thank’s for checking out our list of the best fighting games of all time! This scene is rich with great titles and continues to grow each year, especially with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia buying 51% share in SNK.
Fingers crossed we get some more gems heading our way in 2021!
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Retro gaming is in Seth’s blood and has been since the day his parents brought home an NES in 1980-something. He loves the narrative, artistry, and technology as much as the people and stories behind the games themselves. When he’s not thinking about a new angle to look at gaming, he can be found attempting a creative culinary twist in the kitchen or playing with his dogs.