Sony’s enormously popular second PlayStation console was such a heavy hitter when it came to fighting games that it even launched (in North America at least) with three fighting games in the lineup.
Two of those launch titles were so highly regarded – even over the course of the PlayStation 2’s incredibly long lifespan and despite plenty of competition from other fighting games in the console’s impressively huge software library – that they still ended up making it to this very list of the best PS2 fighting games.
Note: Metacritic scores have been used to determine the ranking and for the purposes of the list, wrestling games (being not quite the same genre as fighting games – and being pretty much a genre in their own right, despite me making an exception for the Best PS1 Fighting Games list!) have been deliberately omitted.
So, to sate your curiosity and finally reveal the best PS2 fighting games, let’s get on with the show…
FINISH HIM! Mortal Kombat arrived in the arcades in early 90s and proved to be an almost immediate sensation, with its digitised graphics of real actors performing their moves and headline-grabbing, controversy-courting, deliberately over-the-top gore.
Alongside Sega CD game Night Trap, Mortal Kombat was the catalyst for the formation of the ESRB in America, the organisation which sets the advisory age ratings for video games.
When Mortal Kombat: Deception was published, twelve years on from the original game, the controversy had long since died down – and the series had moved on from the dated digitised graphics, using 3D polygonal models for its, um, Kombatants instead.
The series had also moved away from arcades too, with the fifth game in the series – Deadly Alliance, the precursor to Deception – being the first to be developed for consoles only.
Deception was full of the diverse characters, elaborate combos, gory finishing moves and dark humour that the series was known for – and, just like the previous game, also featured a campaign (Konquest mode) and generous mini-games, all of which could almost have been released as full games in their own right (with the mini-games this time around comprising the Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo-esque Puzzle Kombat and the surprisingly compelling chess-based game, Chess Kombat).
Online play completed the very generous package of features and modes in Mortal Kombat: Deception, which most definitely earned its place on the list of the best PS2 fighting games.
Though there was a bit of controversy surrounding Capcom’s usage of old, then-dated sprite art for some of the characters in Capcom vs SNK 2’s huge and varied roster, covering several franchises and eras from both companies (especially in comparison to SNK’s approach to redraw all of their characters for a much more contemporary look), the gameplay still shone through and it still stands tall as one of the finest fighting games of all time.
The game’s predecessor made our list of the Best PS1 Fighting Games – so it’s no surprise to see Capcom vs SNK 2 making the list of Best PS2 Fighting Games, given the continued, decades-long pedigree of both companies in the fighting game genre.
From fighting game companies taking each other on in video game form, we head to New York – where real world recording artists duke it out in almost wrestling-style bouts for supremacy.
Featuring not just real life rappers and other musicians (along with a few non-musical celebrities for good measure), Def Jam: Fight for NY was the sequel to the well-received Def Jam: Vendetta.
With an absolutely bonkers story mode (how they got all of the personalities involved to sign off on the insane events of the story is beyond my understanding – but money talks, which EA understands better than almost any other video game company, even today), a huge roster of fighters and fighting styles, along with tons of licensed in-game merchandise to unlock, Def Jam: Fight for NY might seem a little out of place on the list of Best PS2 Fighting Games.
But it’s actually a strong, perhaps underrated contender and these days, it’s a fascinating window into hip hop and celebrity culture just a few years after the turn of the millennium.
One of the PS2’s launch titles in North America and PAL territories, Tekken Tag Tournament may not be the most fondly remembered Tekken game overall, but it certainly made a big splash when it arrived.
Though not a main series entry, it was the fourth Tekken game after Tekken 3, which reached the top of our very own Best PS1 Fighting Games list.
It was a great, early showcase for the power of the PS2, with a huge cast of nearly every character that featured in the first Tekken, as well as Tekken 2 and 3.
The major innovation this time around is the fact that players are in control of two characters, tactically tagging one in (and allowing the other to rest) as needed.
Namco’s skill at producing fighting games was clear from their success with Tekken – and their reputation was reinforced with their weapon-based fighting game series, Soul Calibur (which began life in arcades as Soul Edge, before becoming Soul Blade and then settling on the more familiar and still-in-use Soul Calibur).
Interestingly, this entry was the first to appear on consoles before the arcade edition. Soul Calibur III featured a Character Creation Mode for players to put together their own unique fighter, as well as a ‘Tale of Souls’ story mode alongside the usual fighting game mode options.
As has always been the case for the Soul Calibur games, the gameplay, visuals and audio were absolutely fantastic – and it’s no surprise to see this entry on the Best PS2 Fighting Games list.
Despite 2D fighters being seen as somewhat passé for a time in the late 90s and early 00s, the Guilty Gear series stuck to being strictly 2D for a very long time – only recently utilising 3D graphics in-game and even then, the hand-drawn style of 2D sprites and animation was still in place, giving the game a unique look.
For fighting game aficionados, the Guilty Gear series always feels like the best kept secret of the genre; despite its quality and how highly regarded the games are, they’ve never quite broken into the mainstream consciousness like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat or Tekken.
Guilty Gear X2, like the other games in the series, feels like a fighting game made by and for fighting game fans, with over-the-top characters, moves and storylines to complement the excellent, fluid and responsive gameplay.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that more than one Tekken game is deemed worthy enough for the Best PS2 Fighting Games list (the recently published Best Fighting Games list also had multiple entries from Namco’s series too), especially how closely intertwined Tekken is with the PlayStation brand.
After all, the Tekken arcade machines were initially produced on Namco’s System 11 arcade board, which was based around PS1 hardware.
By the time of Tekken 5, however, the arcade hardware had moved on to System 256 boards, which were based around PlayStation 2 architecture, albeit with slight upgrades over the home console.
In any case, this demonstrates exactly why Tekken as a series was so synonymous with PlayStation and why the ports were so impressive in their day.
Tekken 5 was another hugely well received entry; though the slight deviations from formula that were Tekken Tag Tournament and Tekken 4 (the latter of which made some unpopular changes to the basic gameplay) weren’t quite so universally adored, Namco clearly returned to form with the fifth mainline entry – which went back to basics while also introducing cosmetics for players to customise their fighters with. As well as this, a sidescrolling beat ‘em up called Devil Within was included, much like Tekken 3’s Tekken Force.
With more than 8 million units sold, it came close to reaching the heady heights of Tekken 3’s sales record too, though the third game still stands tall as the best selling game in the series so far.
Another launch title for the PlayStation 2, DOA2: Hardcore is an enhanced version of the sequel to the arcade/PS1 fighting game smash hit, Dead or Alive.
The first game was infamous for its boob physics, though the attention this ‘feature’ garnered slightly overshadowed the fact that Dead or Alive was a really solid fighting game, with some neat ideas that set it apart from the other big 3D fighting titles of the time.
The sequel was equally well received (thankfully, the novelty of the hyperactive breasts had worn off by the time it had released) and the PS2’s ‘Hardcore’ edition of the game was much enhanced, with cutscenes and gameplay running at a silky-smooth 60fps – as well as this, there were more characters, a bigger selection of costumes, extra arenas and other cosmetic enhancements that made this the definitive version of the title (though the Japanese release saw even more improvements added).
Welcome back to the stage of history! The first Soul Calibur is most closely associated with the ill-fated Dreamcast console – due to Sega’s machine playing host to a fantastic port of the arcade original (with a ton of extra content and enhancements; Namco always seemed to go the extra mile with their arcade ports).
However, the sequel arrived at a time when there were three new competitors duking it out in the home console arena, with the Dreamcast already – sadly and prematurely – out of the picture.
With the second Soul Calibur game, Namco took the very unusual step – perhaps encouraged by the game’s appearance on multiple formats – of adding in a single bonus fighter to the roster that was unique to the platform in question.
The GameCube version got The Legend of Zelda’s main character, Link, the Xbox edition had Todd McFarlane’s 90s comic book character Spawn and the PS2 port had Tekken’s Heihachi Mishima as the bonus character. Each console version also featured a new character designed by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane: Necrid.
Regardless of format, Soul Calibur II was critically lauded and commercially successful wherever it appeared – and for good reason; it still stands up as one of the most enjoyable fighting games ever made. Like the first game, Soul Calibur II is accessible enough to be played by complete newcomers, but also has enough depth to be appreciated by more hardcore players too.
Perhaps controversially, first place is occupied by two separate titles that were released a year apart. However, there’s not really enough to distinguish the two games and justify completely separate entries for both – let’s face it, given the choice (with hindsight), you’re likely to opt for the Evolution version, which featured two extra characters and lots of minor enhancements to the game’s Quest mode, as well as an audiovisual upgrade.
In any case, Virtua Fighter 4 was an entry in Yu Suzuki’s brilliant fighting game series, the first of which had wowed gamers with its innovative 3D graphics in both arcade and home versions in the late 90s.
By the time Virtua Fighter 4 came along, Sega had pulled out of the hardware market and become a third party publisher, allowing Sony’s players to see what the fuss was about with the previously exclusive series.
Like Soul Calibur II, Virtua Fighter 4 is an accessible game that still manages to be satisfying for more serious players, with a back to basics approach taken with the gameplay compared to the Dreamcast exclusive Virtua Fighter 3.
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Jason – who lives in the UK – has had a lifelong interest in video games, which all started when he discovered Space Invaders in the early 80s. The first game he ever completed was Wonder Boy in Monster Land on the Sega Master System – which remains one of his proudest gaming achievements. Jason is a passionate writer – and has been writing about gaming since the late 90s. He currently runs pop culture blog midlifegamergeek.com, which he updates on a daily basis (and has written more than 700 articles on the blog alone!).
Outside of video games, Jason is a keen tabletop gamer, film buff and comic book fan.