Thanks to COVID-19, most of the international fighting game community has been forced to cancel tournaments and move its events online. However, that comes with another problem: most of the biggest fighting games in the world are still using yesterday's netcode. Here are some of the best fighting games right now that are actually playable online, and why that's such a problem in the genre right now.
The Best Online Fighting Games Ranked
Nobody actually likes lag when they're playing games online, but fighting games are particularly hampered by it. The modern state of the genre revolves around fast reactions, with moves measured in frames, or sixtieths of a second. Even a few frames of lag can mean the difference between winning or losing a round, particularly on the professional circuit.
On May 1st, the organizers behind the Evolution Championship Series in Las Vegas announced that the 2020 tournament was officially canceled thanks to COVID-19, marking the first year off the tournament's had since 2002. The organizers' follow-up, though, was to promise to set up online events in place of Evolution, which has ended up highlighting a problem that fighting games have had for some time. 7 of the 9 main-stage games planned for this year's Evolution tournament--Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Tekken 7, Granblue Fantasy Versus, Soul Calibur VI, Samurai Shodown (2019), Dragon Ball FighterZ, and the newest version of Under Night In-Birth--use what's called delay-based netcode for their online play, which is the current standard in Japan.
Under delay-based netcode, the game client waits until both participants in a match input a command before it updates what's happening onscreen, which delays the onscreen action by a few sixtieths of a second. If the system encounters lag, it shows up as extreme slowdown. Over relatively short distances (i.e. when both players are in Japan) and under ideal circumstances, delay-based netcode works well enough. However, it necessarily causes a delay of a few frames between input and action, and as we've just discussed, any dropped frames at all can make a difference in the outcome of a match. Samurai Shodown, by way of an example, is an old beloved fighting franchise, but its 2019 reboot (below) has been crippled by its netcode.
The alternative model is what's called rollback netcode, which has been used by shooters for years. With rollback, both players' systems are constantly running a simulation of the events of the match, and update that simulation based upon the inputs that they receive. It's more system-intensive than delay-based netcode, and when it encounters lag, it does cause the "teleportation" errors that you've probably seen in shooters and MMOs. It still offers a better, smoother online experience than delay-based netcode.
A number of fighting games are built to use rollback netcode at time of writing, whether it's through their own implementation or GGPO middleware. Street Fighter V upgraded to use rollback back in February, albeit with mixed results, and Western-developed fighters like Mortal Kombat 11 and Killer Instinct (2013) have always used rollback. However, as the Evo 2020 situation illustrates, Japanese fighting game developers' insistence on using delay-based netcode is getting increasingly awkward in an online world, which can limit your options as a player.
If you're a fighting-game fan who's stuck at home during this pandemic, and you're looking to get some matches in via online play, you've probably noticed before now that many of the most popular games use delay-based netcode. If you want a smoother experience, try out one of these rollback-based fighting games, ranked in order from best to... not quite as best.
Mortal Kombat 11
Starting at the top: MK11 has been focused heavily on online play from the start, with tons of brutalities, skins, and other rewards locked behind performance in its Kombat League. While some characters are decidedly better online than off, with Sub-Zero at the top of this particular pile, MK11 is the current king of online fighting, with regular updates reportedly planned out to the end of 2021. Its next big update, Aftermath, is scheduled to add stage fatalities, three new characters, and the long-overdue return of Friendships.
Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid
Absolutely nobody expected this to be any good, and for the first few months of its existence, they were right. Battle for the Grid is a licensed fighting game featuring 3v3 fights between characters from several different versions of the Power Rangers TV franchise. It got lukewarm reviews at launch, but has slowly grown its fanbase through patches and season passes until it's become a low-key sleeper hit. It'd probably help if you're a fan of the Power Rangers, but if you're looking for something to fill the Marvel vs. Capcom 3-shaped hole in your heart, Battle for the Grid is there for you.
Garou: Mark of the Wolves
If you're into fighting games and you haven't played Garou--I've run into a lot of people like that at my locals--you have some explaining to do. Garou is the last game in the classic Fatal Fury series, both in-game and out, featuring an older Terry Bogard and the debut of his adopted son, Rock Howard. Its matches are fast and furious, with a great cast of characters that would go on to appear in many later King of Fighters games. Garou also features some of the best pixel art in video game history along with a jazzy soundtrack, and on Steam, it was upgraded with solid netcode in January courtesy of Code Mystics. This is a bucket list game; you should put an evening into it at some point before you're too old to hold a joystick.
Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection
Or, as most of my fighting-game nerd friends refer to it, Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Street Fighter III: Third Strike, and a Bunch of Other Stuff. Both games fell into a weird black hole in the franchise where arcade-perfect home versions were weirdly hard to come by for decades before now, and with the Anniversary Collection, you can get these all-time arcade classics with GGPO-powered online play. You can also go back and revisit the original Street Fighter, the one that no one ever talks about, and marvel at how it actually managed to start a billion-dollar franchise.
Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite
Yes, it's ugly as sin; yes, it was marketed badly; yes, the character balance is still pretty bad. (They fixed the Spider-Man Reality Gem infinite, but didn't remove Dormammu from the game? Priorities, Capcom!) Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite is still worth another shot, if only under these circumstances. The unique team construction means you've got a lot of flexibility to create your own weird attacks on the fly, and it's got solid online play. Besides, you can have Frank West beat up Thanos. That's not nothing.
The Last Blade 2
Like Garou, this is an SNK all-time classic that deserves more love than it gets; also like Garou, the Steam version got its netcode updated earlier this year. It's a sort of stripped-down, more realistic version of Samurai Shodown, set in late 19th-century Japan, with a full cast of swordsmen and mystics fighting for the survival of the nation. Side note: Last Blade 2 features early scenario-design work from Hidetaka "SWERY" Suehiro, who'd go on to make notoriously weird cult games like Deadly Premonition, Spy Fiction, and The Missing.
Don't sleep on Pocket Rumble. It's a GGPO-powered love song to the fighting-game library on SNK's late, lamented handheld, the Neo Geo Pocket Color. It's designed for newer players, but has enough depth for veterans; all characters have 12 health, all hits do 1 damage, and there are only two attack buttons. While its player population is pretty dead, it's also only $10, so you can buy copies for a few of your buddies and get together over voice chat for some head-to-head brawls.
We're not getting hype over MK11: Aftermath and other upcoming fighting games here at Prima; instead, we remain at a state of permanent, simmering hype. It is beginning to be a serious problem. Check out some of our other articles, like:
- So yeah, Robocop's in MK11 now, and that's the world we live in
- All the hype's on Valorant right now, but Riot still has "Project L" waiting in the wings
- How to unlock the 16-bit retro characters in Streets of Rage 4