I’ve tried numerous times to “get into” fighting games over the years with varying amounts of success.
Back in the SNES era, I had a good time with the original Street Fighter II and managed to beat it with most of the characters — but my skills have gotten severely rusty since then. Beyond that, my main contact with the genre has primarily been the Dead or Alive series, which I enjoyed for a combination of its cast of beautiful people and its enjoyably fluid, reasonably accessible action.
But I’d always find myself hitting a wall. I’d never be able to pull off impressive combos, I’d struggle to reliably trigger special moves and I’d have difficulty understanding the underlying strategy that is fundamental to the fighting game experience as a whole. Oh, what to do, what to do?
I first became aware of SNK Heroines, as with so many things these days, by a bunch of super-woke games journalists getting pissy over “hypersexualisation”. The game, it appeared, was to be an all-female 2D fighter from one of the most longstanding, indisputed masters of the genre, and its initial main appeal element seemed to be the fact that it included a varied cast of female characters in cute, sexy and/or skimpy outfits. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, and these days, the insufferable woke crowd being upset about something is usually actually a pretty good signifier of something I will likely enjoy.
So I was cautiously interested, though having been burned by the complexity of Arcana Heart in a previous year’s Steam sale, I knew that “cute girls” was not sufficient to guarantee I would have a good time with a fighting game. But I nonetheless continued to follow news of SNK Heroines’ development, and indeed you’ll hear a bit of discussion of it over the course of a few episodes of The MoeGamer Podcast.
What really attracted my attention was the fact that it became increasingly clear as we approached the game’s release date that this wasn’t intended to be a super-deep, super-complex fighting game in which you need to know what “Roman Cancel” means, or what to do with multiple meters in every corner of the screen, or how to count frames. It was being specifically designed as an accessible take on the genre; a potential way in for newcomers who have, to date, found themselves bouncing hard off the genre despite honest, earnest attempts to engage with it.
I was skeptical. I’d heard the spiel about “accessibility” before; I’d previously picked up Guilty Gear Xrd on PS4 on the recommendation of several fighting game-savvy friends who told me it had an amazing tutorial feature — and to be fair, it does. But after a good three or four hours in said tutorial without ever actually feeling confident enough to start a proper fight even against an easy-level computer opponent… I’m sorry to say that I gave up. This wasn’t “accessible”; this was something you needed to study before you could let yourself loose on the game’s main mode. And as much as I respect any game with that much depth and complexity… I know myself too well. I prefer a breadth of experiences, so I knew I was never going to be able to put in the amount of time and effort necessary to master that game. So I set it aside.
Fast forward to this weekend just gone by, however, and I’m booting up SNK Heroines for the first time. I jump right into the Story mode, and the game starts off with an explicit explanation of its core systems — and the ways it differs from a conventional fighting game, which we’ll get onto in a moment. Then, we’re right into it. I’m fighting. I’m pulling off cool-looking moves. I’m winning matches. And… I’m conscious of the fact that I’m learning.
Hold that thought a moment while we discuss the core mechanics at play here. SNK Heroines isn’t your usual fighting game in that you don’t win just by beating your opponent’s life down to zero. Rather, victory is attained by knocking your opponent’s life into the red “critical” zone and then using one of your character’s two “Dream Finish” moves to knock them out. Depleting a character’s life bar puts them in a “stun” state for a few seconds, making it easier to pull off a Dream Finish, but it’s not a necessity if you time things right.
There are three attack buttons: a light attack, a strong attack and a special attack. Each of these can be “cancelled” into one another to create various combos, and the special attacks are all triggered by either pressing the Special button by itself, or in conjunction with a direction. There are no “charge” moves, no quarter-circle movements, no complicated combos and not even any crouching moves — just simple, easy to understand button presses, with occasional flicks of the right stick to make use of items that drop under various conditions.
Now, the simplicity of the controls is one of the reasons people more experienced with fighting games have been somewhat turning their noses up at SNK Heroines so far. But for me, this was an ideal situation.
I’ve always considered there to be two distinct “disciplines” required to master the fighting game genre, you see: the knowledge of the fundamental strategies involved such as making use of space, timing your attacks and suchlike; and the manual dexterity required to accurately make your character do exactly what you want them to when you tell them to. This latter aspect is what I’ve always struggled with; hell, to date I still can’t pull off a Dragon Punch reliably, even with a good quality arcade stick.
What SNK Heroines effectively does is greatly simplify that latter aspect, allowing you to focus almost entirely on the former. Because it’s so easy to trigger the exact move you want at the exact moment you want it, you don’t have to think about that aspect. You can focus on where your character is, what your opponent is doing, how much space there is between you and whether it’s a good idea to go charging in, or to hang back more cautiously in the hope of finding an opportunity to counterattack.
And this is what I mean when I say I felt like I was learning pretty much from the moment I started fighting in SNK Heroines. Because I’ve always been hung up on the dexterity aspect in the past, often getting frustrated, tense and stressed out at my inability to perform the moves I wanted to perform, I’ve never really had a chance to work on my fighting game fundamentals. With this game, I’m freed from those shackles, and it was astonishing what a difference it made. I could tell immediately that I was playing much more strategically, observing my opponent and carefully timing my attacks rather than attempting to button-mash my way to success.
Even the items, which might initially seem like a gimmick, help with this — because effective use of them also relies on observation and timing. Time a banana skin drop for the exact moment your opponent lands from a jump and laugh as they fall flat on their face. Save yourself from defeat by dropping a bomb on your opponent’s head while you’re stunned and they’re preparing a Dream Finish. Turn a match around by playing defensively rather than admitting defeat against an apparently superior opponent, and find yourself rewarded with a life restoration item.
And once you’re familiar with the basics, there’s still some depth here, too. The Spirit Gauge mechanic means you have more energy to trigger special moves the less life you have — but draining your Spirit Gauge too far also causes you to do less damage, encouraging you to tag out with your chosen partner. Despite having the same inputs, each character has their own distinct fighting style, with some being better at range than others, while some prefer fighting up close. And the use of a dedicated block button forces you to become very aware of how important blocking is, with clear visual cues to let you know whether or not it’s working.
If you’re a fighting game veteran, SNK Heroines will almost certainly be much too simple to satisfy you. But for someone like me, who has long looked at the genre from afar feeling like he’d never be able to engage with it meaningfully… it’s a great means of learning some fundamental skills and developing your confidence. And its accessibility also makes it great to bust out at gatherings of friends who are perhaps less familiar with the genre, too.
You likely won’t ever see this game at Evo. And that’s fine. What you may see, however, is a significant number of new people developing an interest in fighting games as a result of this, the most accessible take I’ve seen on them… well, ever, I think, to be perfectly honest. And that’s very fine.
And on top of that you get to dress cute girls in cute outfits and take screenshots of them, too. What more could you ask for?
More about SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy
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