Nintendo’s fondly remembered, 16-bit SNES – seen by many as one of the very best video game consoles ever released – played host to an astonishingly varied and highly regarded library of the best SNES fighting games, with great examples of standard-setting titles in a vast range of genres, such as the best SNES RPGs.
With the competitive fighting scene in the arcades – kickstarted by the iconic Street Fighter II in 1991 – in full flow, it’s no surprise that the SNES also played host to a wide variety of fighting games over its lifespan.
Though many were arcade ports, there were also a number of excellent releases that were created especially for consoles.
It’d be very easy to fill this list full of the amazing titles brought to the SNES by Capcom or the ports of Neo-Geo fighters (published by Takara on Nintendo’s console) – and yes, many do make an appearance here – but who said we ever wanted to do things the easy way when compiling our list of the best SNES fighting games?
You want easy? As Street Fighter II’s Guile says, “Go home and be a family man!”
Arriving extremely late in the lifespan of the SNES, Gundam Wing: Endless Duel didn’t even make it outside Japan (with the game’s official title being: Shin Kidō Senki Gundam Wing: Endless Duel).
Laying a template for the 2D Gundam fighting games to come, however, Endless Duel was an impressive technical showcase for the then-aging SNES, featuring a great animé-style intro (for a cartridge-based game in any case), a great sense of scale and beautifully colourful backgrounds, all of which did the mech-based Gundam licence justice.
Though Endless Duel’s lack of a non-Japanese version – as well as the fact that it arrived when the 32-bit era was well underway – may mean that it’s been unfairly overlooked, it’s a great title and definitely one that’s fitting to kick off the Best SNES Fighting Games list.
Parodying the far-too-serious fighting game genre and showing some serious inventiveness amongst its kooky cast of characters, the Clayfighter games were a breath of fresh air and, though time has not been kind to the digitised, claymation graphics, were very visually appealing and impressive in their day.
Despite not offering a huge amount of depth for the hardcore fighting games enthusiast, the unique claymation style, endless puns and quirky characters of Clayfighter 2: Judgment Clay earn it a place on the best SNES fighting games list.
SNK’s Neo-Geo console was the stuff of dreams in the 90s, a time when arcade-perfect conversions were an impossibility on other hardware.
The only problem was the cost – with the huge cartridges being essentially an arcade board and the exact same version as the coin-op counterpart – which made the pricey console and games far too prohibitive for the average gamer.
It was good to see SNK’s games being ported to the SNES, though of course they weren’t a patch on the Neo-Geo originals from a technical perspective, they at least featured the same great gameplay for the most part.
The first Art of Fighting was a little lacking even in its original form – despite featuring strong fighting gameplay mechanics, only two characters were available for the game’s story mode.
A prequel series, the Art of Fighting titles chronicle the rise – or fall – of a number of characters from the Fatal Fury games.
They featured innovations such as ‘Super Attacks’ and ‘Desperation Attacks’ (intended to level the playing field when a player was almost out of health) and several mini-games.
Though not quite as highly regarded as other SNK fighting titles, it still deserves a place on the Best SNES Fighting Games list.
The premise and action of perennially popular manga/animé Dragon Ball, which saw numerous characters facing off against each other in ridiculously over the top battles featuring superpowers and pyrotechnics, always lent itself well to fighting games (and Dragon Ball games are still going strong to this day!).
During the lifespan of the SNES, the Dragon Ball franchise was in its ‘Z’ era, which was enormously popular in Japan throughout the early to mid-90s.
Consequently, the Dragon Ball-related video games that released on SNES all featured the Dragon Ball Z stories and characters – with this, the second of three Super Butōden titles, being by far the most highly regarded.
The Dragon Ball Z SNES games had a great sense of style and uniquely creative ways to showcase the fighting action, with a split screen effect coming into play when characters were a long distance from each other and battles taking place on the ground, in the air and even underwater.
The second game in the series is generally considered a step above the third, due in part to a story mode that branched in different ways depending on whether or not the player won or lost their last fight.
It’s perhaps a bit of an unexpected underdog in terms of placing on the Best SNES Fighting Games list, but Dragon Ball Z: Super Butōden 2 is a great fighter that brought plenty of new ideas to the table.
Now reduced to a shell (pun intended) of its former self, pumping out pachinko machines in Silent Hill garb and awful, in-name-only Contra spin-offs, there was a time when Konami could do no wrong.
During the 16-bit era, just the familiar Konami logo and chime at startup was near goosebump-inducing – and as close to a guarantee of quality gaming ahead as you could get, outside of games released by the platform holders themselves.
Konami held the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles licence throughout the 90s (losing it to UbiSoft in 2007) and produced a lot of highly regarded games in that time, many of them being side-scrolling beat ‘em ups or platformers.
Tournament Fighters, however, took advantage of the early-mid 90s fighting game boom – and was a fantastic game, with colourful, cartoony visuals and a great selection of characters, some of which were less familiar than others (mutant shark Armaggon, for example).
Female ninja Aska was also a playable character, created especially for this particular game and never seen in the franchise again.
With a robust story mode and unique mechanics (as well as speed that was adjustable to a ridiculously fast level), it was a great use of the TMNT licence and another Konami hit; more than deserving of a place on the list of the Best SNES Fighting Games.
Another late entry to the SNES library, it’s a miracle (not to mention slightly baffling) that Street Fighter Alpha 2 even made it to the aging console – especially given that Capcom decided not to port the first Alpha due to the technical limitations of the machine.
Though limited in terms of character selection compared to other versions of the game and suffering from the game pausing while sounds are loading at the beginning of fights, this custom chip-enhanced title is still hugely impressive and features all of the excellent gameplay that the Capcom fighting games are infamous for.
It’s a testament to both Capcom’s development prowess and Nintendo’s hardware (as well as the custom chips that could be added to enhance games that would have otherwise been impossible to port to the console) that Street Fighter Alpha 2 on the SNES not only exists, but also that its animé-esque character art has aged so well.
Though of course the arcade and 32-bit (and beyond) versions of Street Fighter Alpha 2 are the best ones to play these days, back in ‘96 if all you had was a SNES, you wouldn’t have been disappointed with playing this port at home.
Much like Street Fighter Alpha 2 is a much more than competent fighting game for the SNES and only suffers in comparison to versions on more technically competent formats, the Fatal Fury games were also underrated on the Nintendo console, mostly due to the superior versions available for the arcade and Neo-Geo.
If you consider the ludicrous cost of the Neo-Geo console and its arcade-board-on-a-cartridge format, however, the SNES version represents both an incredible achievement and great value.
Though of course the SNES port can’t compare from a technical standpoint, SNK’s innovative fighting game – a refinement, rather than full sequel, of Fatal Fury 2 – is still excellent from a gameplay point of view, with the clever two-plane arena (with foreground and background available to fight in), a great variety of characters to choose from and nicely detailed visuals.
It’s a tough game to master – as with most of SNK’s fighters, it’s definitely one for fighting game aficionados rather than genre newcomers – but that just makes it all the more rewarding to play.
The arcade version of Killer Instinct stated that it would be ‘available for your home in 1995 only on Nintendo Ultra 64’.
However, Nintendo’s SNES successor would be delayed until December 1996 (and of course ended up being just ‘Nintendo 64’, dropping the ‘Ultra’) – which resulted in the SNES version being released in 1995 instead.
Though audiovisual compromises were inevitable in the conversion from arcade to console (including, understandably, the removal of FMV sequences), new modes were added and the game’s ridiculously over-the-top, combo-heavy gameplay remained largely untouched.
Killer Instinct’s roster of characters was bizarre and incredibly varied – and the game’s speed, along with those aforementioned combos, was a big selling point.
Despite the downgrade, it was still visually impressive for a SNES game too – and was released as a striking black cartridge, a nice change from the dull grey cases that the vast majority of SNES games came in.
Despite its nature as a stopgap before the N64 version was ready for release, Killer Instinct is nonetheless one of the Best SNES Fighting Games of all time.
Yet another game that arrived when 32-bit consoles also saw their own – superior – versions of arcade games being ported for home play, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 on the SNES may have been overshadowed by the Saturn and PlayStation versions at the time, but it’s a solid port in its own right, particularly given the limitations of the 16-bit system.
Though numerous cuts in content were made to fit the game onto a cartridge, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 still features a superb roster of fighters, along with the violent gameplay the series was known for (and, unlike the very first Mortal Kombat on SNES, the blood and gore was on full display here – the US-led moral panic having died down a few years beforehand).
Criticised at the time for being more of an upgraded Mortal Kombat 3 than a game in its own right, in isolation it is the definitive Mortal Kombat game for Nintendo’s console and as such, makes the Best SNES Fighting Games list on that basis.
Though the top three spots of the best SNES fighting games list could easily have just been the three SNES Street Fighter II games, I decided to give some other titles a fighting chance (pun intended).
Though not blessed with the speed of Street Fighter II Turbo, Super Street Fighter II, with its large roster of playable characters, wealth of options and even an eight-player tournament mode, is the definitive version of Street Fighter II for the SNES.
There’s a reason that Street Fighter II kicked off the 90s fighting game boom and is still so highly regarded today: it’s a game that offers so much for newcomers and hardcore players, with a huge selection of playstyles and movesets amongst the characters available and great variety (and ambience) in the lively backgrounds that set the standard for the genre.
It’s far from the deepest fighting game in terms of its mechanics – but to this day it remains one of the most enjoyable.
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.