Evo 2019 Preview - Fighting Games for All

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By many metrics, Evo – or the Evolution Championship Series – is the biggest community event in all of gaming. Sure, there’s the likes of E3, the various PAXes, and other industry events, but as the single largest open-bracket fighting game tournament in the world, drawing crowds of thousands to the seductive gleam of Las Vegas’s skylines and hundreds of thousands around the world over its livestreams, Evo is something entirely divorced from the hardscrabble fight among corporations to convince you to spend money on their games.

Here, champions and legends are forged – forced to face all eager competitors to prove their worth in their arena of choice.

Granted, it may be more than a little hard to keep track of all the ongoings. With thousands of competitors every year and nine games to keep track of, the viewing experience for Evo is helped significantly if you actually know what’s on the broadcast, and who’s looking to make a name for themselves. And that in itself is a daunting task when the lineup this year features so many new titles – or, if not new, then at least obscure to all but the hardcore fans. 

Here, then, is a primer on all nine games, and what to expect from them come this August.

The Old

Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition

If you haven’t heard of Street Fighter, you probably haven’t heard of fighting games. The franchise is as definitive a bedrock game as you can find– whether it be the very concept of a two-player, two-character, two-dimensional competitive game in general, or in more involved factors like quarter-circle inputs and holding back to block. Even if you don’t play the genre, the likes of Ryu, Ken, Bison, and Guile are likely as familiar to you as Mario and Sonic.

That said, SFV is having a bit of a rough go of it. The fifth generation of the franchise is not its most popular, dwarfed last year as it was by Dragon Ball FighterZ. This year it’s already facing a stiff uphill battle for attention by the likes of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Tekken 7.

Its decline in popularity goes back all the way to Street Fighter V’s initial release, where a dearth of content and unpopular mechanical changes discouraged the fighting game scene from embracing it as wholeheartedly as its predecessor during SFIV’s peak. Their dissatisfaction was further tempered by character releases and patch changes that were unable to satisfy a sufficient plurality of Street Fighter competitors (big boy Abigail’s era, especially, was arguably cheesier than a French platter). 

But the results from last month’s Evo Japan 2019 are promising. Veteran Momochi’s victory was off the back of the ninja Zeku and ice queen Kolin, and the Top 8 results featured players specializing in 10 different characters, with more represented the farther down the results list you go. The state of Street Fighter V in 2019 is the most diverse it’s ever been.

Tekken 7

If Street Fighter V is the grandmaster of the fighting game genre as a whole, Tekken 7 is the successor school, garnering infamy and honors through its own unique virtues. As the foremost 3D fighting game title, it had a long bout as the only representative of its kind – it wasn’t until recently that the likes of Soulcalibur and Dead or Alive were even mentioned as active titles, even as Tekken kept the torch burning on their behalf.

And it certainly kept the flames well lit. The heavy-hitting, wall-smashing brawler is as irreverent as it is brutal – masked luchador wrestlers and kung fu pandas share the stage with Final Fantasy’s Noctis, and The Walking Dead’s Negan is one of the most recent updates. Demon lasers and robot girls clash with sometimes literal Iron Fists (hence the franchise’s name translated from Japanese), waging a war of martial supremacy upon burning volcanoes and crumbling cityscapes.

It’s also a game where grit and determination is well-rewarded. South Korean ace Rangchu’s victory at the previous Tekken 7 World Championship was with Panda, of all characters – a cuddly black-and-white furball not usually considered among the game’s best characters. Even developer Katsuhiro Harada was taken aback by the ascendancy of what was supposed to, at the end of the day, be a joke character.

Tekken 7 may very well have the lion’s share of the community’s eyeballs attached to it this Evo, thanks to the rivalries it’s built up in these last few years and the success of its competitive circuit. It might be too much to hope for Rangchu to repeat his Panda performance, but the heavy hits will rain down all the same.

Dragon Ball FighterZ

Though still popular, and bolstered by the recent Dragon Ball Super: Broly movie, the once-and-future successor to Marvel vs Capcom-style tag-team combat has suffered a bit of a decline, due to a combination of growing pains with its mechanics and balances, and the simple fact that its first World Tour’s been over for a while now, with the legendary Kazunoko taking top prize despite the likes of Goichi and the proudly flamboyant Sonic Fox dominating the narrative for much of last year.

But a second season and a sweep of major balance changes makes its second go-round at Evo Las Vegas a must-watch, as does the promise of an even larger roster of old anime favorites. With Videl and Jiren both added to the game, fans of every era of the anime series will have something to look forward to – as well as team-ups they’d never considered before. 

Blazblue Cross Tag Battle

Blazblue Cross Tag Battle, or shortened as BBTAG, is extremely hard to explain to anybody not already into the air-dashing anime fighter subgenre. Strip away its crossover properties, and it’s still a bewildering exercise in incredulities – a punishingly fast, lethally explosive tag-team game superficially similar to DBFZ, except that you can conditionally control up to two characters on the screen at the same time. Small wonder, then, that Evo has seen fit to allow best-of-five matches throughout the entirety of BBTAG’s schedule – something that would make any other game fall fatally behind schedule.

If you do include consideration of what titles are actually represented in the game, the best way to describe it is Japanese developer Arc System Works borrowing their friends’ IP to make the 2D fighting game equivalent of Smash Bros. The plot doesn’t matter – something about Blazblue artifact shenanigans -as Blazblue already has a plot so convoluted as to make Kingdom Hearts’ conspiracies look straightforward. What matters is that this is your chance to see if a Persona protagonist can give Rooster Teeth’s RWBY a run for its money.

Strangely, the game is actually fairly accessible on the learning-to-play side of things. Though individual characters have specific and unique quirks, everybody shares what is effectively a single list of general inputs. Firing Ruby’s overengineered gun-scythe is exactly the same as throwing a fireball out from any other character with a ranged projectile, and slamming two buttons triggers the same get-off-me invincible counter for the gross majority of the roster.

That doesn’t make it any less confusing to actually watch, of course, when a pro player combines a screen-filling blast of special effect particles with a virtuoso’s simultaneous command of two characters to rack up the damage. It’s fun once you get used to it, but first you gotta get your eyes to stop unfocusing.

The New

Soulcalibur 6

A tale of souls and swords returns to the limelight after the relatively cold competitive reception for Soulcalibur 5, published back in 2012. SC6 also brings in existential dilemmas like how much of a soul a robot can have, thanks to NieR Automata’s 2B making a surprise debut on the roster. 

Unfortunately, post-apocalyptic robot girls can’t quite hang with magically powered swords – especially not ones warped and mutated by eldritch forces. It was French player Keev’s Nightmare that wreaked havoc at Evo Japan 2019 versus Singaporean Shen Chan’s Cervantes, bringing the game’s competitive forefront back to the very start of its canon as well – as extremely befitting SC6’s franchise reboot.

At this time, however, the game is better known for its character creator shenanigans than its competitive play. It certainly doesn’t help that Bandai Namco’s questionable decision to allow custom characters in online play means that hitboxes and attack distances can often differ in important ways from what you’ll find in formal competition, making the game less accessible than it might otherwise be.

Mortal Kombat 11

The game that prompted the creation of the ESRB in 1994 is back for its 11th iteration, with all the gore and splintered bones we’ve come to demand – all lovingly rendered in modern high definition. Is it actually realistic for a grown man to split apart in a shower of blood when kicked in the crotch, leaving only his skull and spine to shoot up into the air? Hardly the point! The modern-day video game successor to the tradition of Grand Guignol theater delights a certain baser instinct that no other game dares to approach, even long after its shock value stopped being controversial.

It’s just kind of too bad that, as of right now, little else is known other than how lovingly crafted its finishers are. As of this writing, the game’s not even out yet. We do kind of all expect Sonicfox to make it to finals, though – it is, after all, basically his home turf.

NetherRealms’ brand of hyperviolent fighters is a staple of the Evo circuit, of course, with prior years featuring the DC Comics-focused Injustice, pitting Superman and Batman against friends and rogues galleries alike. While lacking MK’s sheer delight in viscera, they too were bloody affairs. Getting stabbed through by Aquaman’s spear isn’t exactly like getting blown back by a Hadouken, after all.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

In decidedly sharp contrast to Mortal Kombat, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is… mostly… bloodless fun. Oh, sure, Ripley’s spear-like tail definitely sends a chill down the spine when it connects just right, making its victim crumple over, but Nintendo’s platform fighter, with its bright ink sprays and radishes doinking comically against an overly-serious swordsman’s forehead is about as far from the MK aesthetic as you can actually get.

But just because the game is comical doesn’t mean the competition isn’t bloody serious. With Smash Melee out of Evo for the first time in years, Ultimate stands as the sole torchbearer for the platform fighter subgenre. Though initial competitions suggest heavily that it’s more than worthy as a successor to the Wii U edition of the franchise, and balanced well between a range of diverse frontrunner characters, the shadow of its Gamecube-era predecessor still looms large over it – as do the unfinished rivalries from the Wii U era’s only recently closed chapters. Mexico’s MKLeo, fresh off his victory at Smash Ultimate Summit, is considered the frontrunner of this generation, but his leadership is nowhere near as undisputed as Chile’s ZeRo at his Wii U prime.

The game’s competitive scene is fierce, and fiercely independent – it is a common point of contention as to whether Smash Bros. actually falls under the Fighting Games Community at all, or if it should be considered its own thing despite obvious gameplay and design influences. There is, however, no denying the intensity of its practitioners’ passions – or its sheer popularity.

The Wha?!

Samurai Shodown

Samurai Shodown was a dead and buried franchise until SNK’s shocking 2018 announcement – more than 10 years since a new non-mobile game was made under the franchise’s name. In other words, even FGC devotees may be excused for never having heard of it, much less pressed buttons for it – an entire generation of contenders had grown up without its influence.

It will also almost assuredly trip them up, as even its limited trailer footage demonstrates. Shodown, though superficially an orthodox 2D fighter in the vein of Street Fighter, is a radical departure from the combo-heavy gameplay the genre has evolved toward. Hits are sparse and brutal – it was among the first of the genre to feature a parry system to punish the reckless - and its damage scaling is unforgiving to the extreme. 

Just like you’re probably not going to survive more than a couple stabs from a sword, Shodown doesn’t believe in letting you get back up from a big hit. Whether that makes for compelling viewership in the modern era of spectator-driven fighting games will be tested for the first time at Evo 2019. 

Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st] (UNIST)

UNIST’s inclusion at Evo 2019 was already surprising enough on its own – that it replaces Guilty Gear, the most popular “anime”-style fighter was outright shocking. Beyond anything else, UNIST is decidedly obscure. Though its community is unusually diehard by even FGC standards, the Japanese-published spiritual successor to Melty Blood is burdened twice-over by an indecipherable name and a lack of mainstream exposure.

There’s no helping the name, but that exposure is now forthcoming, and about time. Despite its obscurity, its reputation among the FGC has always been stellar, and not just for the intricacies of its gameplay. Beyond its rough first impressions, it may very well be the best fighting game to get a newcomer started with, all thanks to a tutorial so comprehensive you can build a college course around it.

That is only a very mild exaggeration.

As a visual spectacle, it lacks the big-budget affairs seen from other mainstream fighting games. Japanese indie developer French Bread may be slightly removed from their early days of making amateur doujinsoft games as a circle of gaming devotees, but they are still very much a tiny outfit compared to Capcom and Bandai Namco. They also lack fellow Japanese developer Arc System Works’ pioneering expertise in cel-shaded 3D graphics, opting instead for traditional 2D sprite art. 

Yet, for all of that, UNIST’s dark urban fantasy aesthetic and soundtrack is undeniably stylish, as are its fighters’ supernatural gimmicks. Its old-school approach will be far more charm than detriment for its Evo debut.

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