Fighting games have a special place in both the past and present of gaming. It’s a genre that requires quick thinking, twitch reflexes, and vast amounts of knowledge of both yourself and your opponent’s options to play at a high level. It can often seem intimidating. But some of the most recognizable series in pop culture, such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, belong to that same genre.
So for our deliberations in assembling this list, we’ve laid out some special criteria: we’ve excluded platform fighters such as the Smash Bros series as that’s important enough to be a list on its own; we only have one game representing each series, and while legacy can play a big part, they must offer robust mechanics and still be fun to play today. Here’s our list of the top 10 fighting games.
10. Mortal Kombat (2011)
Mortal Kombat 9 marked a turning point in the history of MK. It was a reboot – not just of its story, but of everything that defined Mortal Kombat over the years. Puzzle Kombat, Motor Kombat, and weird Create-a-Fatalities were all gone in lieu of a back-to-basics approach that focused on the actual kombat above all else. It turned out to be the best possible decision for the series, because Mortal Kombat 9 brought the legendary fighting series back from the brink, thanks to its excellent story mode, copious amounts of fanservice, and redone mechanics that laid the foundation for subsequent games to follow.
It certainly was not the most balanced fighting game in the world, but that was part of its charm, and its imperfections are actually one of the reasons why many fans still prefer MK9 to this day.
Read our review of Mortal Kombat 9.
Even just a passing glance at Skullgirls in motion will tell you that this isn’t your average indie fighting game. But there’s more to Skullgirls than just its looks. Skullgirls has one of the most flexible fighting game systems ever made. Every character has a ton of different combo routes, and you can play as a solo character with increased health and damage, a balanced duo team, or fill up your squad with three characters that are weaker, but offer the advantage of extra assists and combo extensions. Add in memorable character design, art style, and music on top of silky smooth gameplay, and it’s no wonder Skullgirls still thrives 10 years later.
Read our review of Skullgirls.
8. Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown
Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown was the final arcade and console iteration of Sega’s premier 3D fighter, until Ultimate Showdown rebuilt the game on Yakuza’s Dragon Engine for modern consoles. Often credited with greatly influencing or even creating the 3D fighter genre, Virtua Fighter is foundational to video games. The likes of Yu Suzuki (creator of Shenmue and Space Harrier) and Toshihiro Nagoshi (longtime head of the Yakuza series) helped craft a series focused on grounded martial arts, vast movement, attack, and counter options, and characters that became instantly iconic.
Virtua Fighter 5 represents the peak of this design, with gameplay that still feels true to its roots, yet distinct from any other fighter out there, and improves on the series’ online features. And although some single-player offerings have been removed from earlier versions of Virtua Fighter 5, Ultimate Showdown is the easiest way to play the latest entry on modern hardware. With incredibly high ceilings for execution, such as moves that require input windows as small as one sixtieth of a second, and characters that are fun to just mash buttons on, Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown is a must-play for fans of 3D fighters and the genre as a whole.
7. Killer Instinct (Xbox One)
2013’s Killer Instinct proved the series was more than the Mortal Kombat imitator some claimed it to be. It was one of the first mainstream fighting games to integrate rollback netcode and its online play is still among the smoothest around. Its Dojo mode is the best teaching tool the genre has ever seen – it doesn’t just teach you how to play Killer Instinct; it teaches you how to play fighting games, full stop, and is required reading for anyone trying to learn the genre. What’s more, Killer Instinct is packed with great single-player content, and no matter how you play, it looks great and has a killer soundtrack by Mick Gordon.
But whether you’re yelling along with the announcer while pulling off an Ultra Combo, landing a perfectly timed Combo or Counter Breaker, or just learning a new character in training mode, Killer Instinct feels great to play and has the technical depth any great fighter needs while remaining unique. Now if only Microsoft would release a sequel…
Read our review of Killer Instinct.
6. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3
Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 is set apart by its character balance (or lack thereof) and team construction. Many of the characters are broken in a way that only Marvel can get away with, and being able to put three of these characters together, each with one of three assist options, in varying orders, creates a sandbox of possibilities.
You can be in complete control as you perfectly execute an infinite combo one game and question your life decisions as you’re stuck blocking Soul Fists nonstop without having a chance to move the next game. You can start a game off with a mixup leading to a death combo, mixup your opponent's next character into another death combo, and make one execution error on their third character just watch your whole team die to a lvl.3 X-Factor comeback. It’s brutal and unforgiving, but that feeling of being all-powerful is worth it. It’s fast, flashy, and the combo system is ridiculous. It will garner your attention and take you for a ride.
Read our review of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
5. The King of Fighters XIII
The King of Fighters series has a number of great entries, with many choosing 98 and 2002 as their favorites, and XV receiving a lot of love as the newest entry. However, for our money, it's KOF XIII that remains one of the best fighting games of all time. The super detailed pixel art, pace of play, and Hyper Drive combo system all helped KOF have a resurgence in the competitive and casual fighting game scene that continues to this day, and although the infamously difficult combo trials remain, they’re not even necessary to use while playing. The characters, team-based combat, and beautiful animation keep this particular king on the throne.
Read our review of King of Fighter XIII.
4. Dragon Ball FighterZ
Not only is Dragon Ball FighterZ finally a good Dragon Ball game, but it’s an amazing fighting game in its own right. The first thing you’ll notice is the presentation: It is absolutely stunning to look at, and the sounds of haymakers, super dashes, and energy beams give the action the punch it really needs. You can freeze nearly any frame and you might think it’s straight from the anime.
Combine its presentation with a deep roster of fan favorite characters, 3v3 tag system, an approachable auto-combo system that makes doing flashy combos easy for beginners, and you have one of the most fun to play fighting games in recent memory, with competitive legs that still endure to this day. And with the recent announcement of rollback netcode, Dragon Ball FighterZ has a very bright future ahead of it. Even with less than stellar netcode, the clear love knowledge for both Dragon Ball and the genre comes through in every fight.
Read our review of Dragon Ball FighterZ.
3. Tekken 7
Tekken has always been known as one of the most difficult fighting game franchises. Its 3D movement adds layers of complexity, there are over 50 characters each with well over 100 moves apiece, and the simple act of moving backwards properly requires practice. Its depth and complexity make it every bit as demanding as it is rewarding, and those who put in the time, will be rewarded.
What sets Tekken 7 apart from other entries in the series, and earns it a spot here, is how much it improved in accessibility without cutting back on its depth. The series returning to 1v1 from the 2v2 format in Tekken Tag Tournament 2 cuts the amount of moves you need to remember in half, but all the characters are individually just as complex as they were, if not more. Rage Arts and Rage Drives are exciting comeback mechanics but will never beat out solid play. And while the slow-mo finishers don’t change much of anything to the gameplay, they have created some of the hypest moments in tournaments. Tekken 7 hits the balance of attracting a new audience without alienating hardcore fans perfectly.
Read our review of Tekken 7.
2. Guilty Gear Strive
The Guilty Gear series has been pumping out excellent fighting games for more than two decades, but Guilty Gear Strive is where Arc System Works’ flagship title finally found mainstream success, and for good reason. Strive sports the best rollback netcode in the business, something that was largely unheard of in a mainstream fighter even a few years ago.
But good netcode alone does not a great fighter make. Strive also refined the series’ notoriously technical gameplay, making it easy to pick up and understand without losing the depth or the diversity of Guilty Gear’s gonzo cast. Every single one of Strive’s twenty characters – whether its series poster boy and rushdown monster Sol Badguy, or the coffin-swinging Goldlewis Dickinson – plays completely differently from one another, so there’s an enormous amount to learn and discover even if you only ever play a single character. Add in Roman Cancels, which lets you cancel any action into another action, and Strive has an almost limitless level of player freedom and expression.
Combine all that with an excellent story mode, detailed teaching tools, tons of concept art and customization options to unlock, a rockin’ soundtrack spanning nearly every game in the franchise, and some of the most impressive visuals in the genre, and it’s easy to see why Strive has taken the fighting game community by storm.
Read our review of Guilty Gear Strive.
1. Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike
Picking a single game to represent the most storied fighting game franchise was a tough ask. After all, Street Fighter II popularized the genre when it hit arcades in 1991; and Street Fighter IV resurrected it when it hit home consoles in 2009. But Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike is something special. It gave us Evo Moment 37, the Daigo parry, and inspired an entire generation of players. But there’s so much more to it than that. The sprite work is still some of the most beautifully animated around; the backgrounds ooze style; and the jazz-inspired soundtrack features some of the best music in any fighting game. Even the roster, underappreciated at the time because of how few characters carried over from Street Fighter II and how weird several of the characters are, holds up remarkably well with options to suit any playstyle.
But the real highlight is the parry system. The decision to make any attack, from Hadoukens, to Super Arts parryable adds almost limitless depth to a series already renowned for it while keeping it fairly easy to pick up and play for newcomers. 3rd Strike showed us what was possible, bringing the genre’s most important series up to speed with its contemporaries while simultaneously elevating it to new heights. More importantly, all of it holds up today, something most games from 1999 can’t say, and recent re-releases even support rollback netcode. Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike is, quite simply, the greatest fighting game ever made.
Upcoming Fighting Games
There are plenty of fighting games coming up as well that are worth keeping your eye on. 2023 sees Street Fighter 6 making its way onto the scene June 2 and Tekken 8 is also coming down the pipeline, though the release date for that is still to be determined.
And there you have it, our choices for the top 10 fighting games of all time. Which games do you think belong on the list? Make sure to let us know in the comments below, and for everything else gaming, you’re already in the right place, IGN.
List collectively chosen by: Ronny Barrier, Mitchell Saltzman, Emeka Nwosu, Kate MacPherson, Tate Fiebing, Aaron Smith, Will Borger
Blurbs written by: Ronny Barrier, Mitchell Saltzman, Emeka Nwosu, Tate Fiebing, Aaron Smith, Will Borger