Insomnia | Commentary

Domination 101: 2D vs. 3D

By Seth Killian / July 1, 2008

This article is part of a series of articles originally posted on the Shoryuken forums sometime before the Great Crash of 2003. In an effort to bring them to the attention of a new generation of players, we will be re-posting them here in the coming weeks and months.

Notice: For the faint-of-heart, dandies, pimpernels, pretenders, hard-heads and the other subspecies of scrubs -- we're starting to tackle a biggish question this week, and the going gets a little rough. This will be your only warning. Try and keep up...

When you think about it, it's kinda strange that the 2D games have managed to hang around (much less remain superior) for as long as they have. It seems like the advent of 3D fighters should have really blown them out of the water. How could their characters' vastly more complex movement not add up to a better game?

Of course part of the answer is that the first generation of "3D" games (like Virtua Fighter 1) were hardly 3D at all. Although the characters were rendered in three dimensions, the actual fighting took place almost entirely along a single plane, just like in the old 2D games. That, coupled with the minimized role of jumping, actually resulted in less of a real range of motion. The only thing actually 3D about these games was the camera.

Coming from the other direction, 2D games also had (and have had, since the beginning) genuinely 3D elements -- not so much graphically as in terms of mechanics. For instance, when Cammy does a spinning backfist through a fireball, from a mechanics perspective, it's as though she's moving (at least in part) in the third dimension, effectively sidestepping the attack. There are obviously lots of examples of this kind of rudimentary 3D stuff in 2D games, and they were all the better for it.

So the initial explanation of why 3D didn't wipe 2D out immediately was that 3D wasn't really 3D, and 2D was more like "2D plus". But that explanation won't get you very far today. Modern Tekken, VF, and Soul Calibur all boast truly 3D motion, and the 2D games haven't really changed much at all. And yet 2D remains an interesting, viable format for great games. What gives?

Usually, when people attempt to weigh in on the side of 2D against 3D games, they repeat some vague nonsense about better "style", or embarrass themselves by trying to complain about 10-chains (so stupid). I, however, think that there's something real to be said on the subject. I even have a theory. (Editor's note: big surprise.) It's a theory about what makes Street Fighter so damned good. It's a very simple one. What makes Street Fighter so good is not the animation. It's not the sound. It's not the artwork, or the character personalities, or even the combos. So what is it then? It's the fireball. That's what fundamentally sets it apart. This isn't to say, of course, that everything else doesn't make critical contributions to the overall package -- obviously it's all important. But if you want to reduce what makes SF stand out (in a now crowded field) to its very essence, that's my candidate for the best answer. Fireballs, baby.

The history (and greatness) of Street Fighter is deeply entwined with the history of the fireball. So much so that it's usually thought of as just another "special move"; such a part of the ordinary gaming landscape that it's hardly noticed (even the basic fireball motion now embodies a standard for most other specials, even in non-SF games). But I think it's different. It's what defined the mechanics of good matchups for years, as well as setting the Street Fighter series apart in ways so subtle that they went unnoticed (or at least unappreciated) for years by the competitors, perhaps even by the original designers themselves in some regards.

There are at least two very cool things that fireballs do:

First, fireballs enable real combat at a distance. The game isn't restricted by how far your character's limbs reach -- with a fireball, there can be real threats even from opposite ends of the screen. They control space and threaten at any range. When there's a fireball on the screen (or a beam, or worse -- multiple fireballs!), it fundamentally changes the dynamic of the match. And the kind of dynamic change depends on all sorts of crazy things, including (but not limited to): how fast the fireball is moving, the size of the fireball, the angle at which it's traveling, etc.

This is something that's almost entirely missing from the true 3D games. Once you get sufficiently far away, there's not a lot to do, because there just isn't anything you can really do to one another, apart from running back together. The game sort of collapses (unless getting away was the point, i.e. you're trying to turtle/run away). This is also why (when I'm in one of my nastier moods) I have a problem with the SFIII series. When you're more than half a screen away (at most), there's just not much game to be played, since any projectile can be easily parried (re: it fails to control space, or to effectively threaten). It's like taking time out or something. Whereas before every inch gained or lost could dramatically affect the match, the only thing you can really do at a distance in the III series is to charge up your meter by whiffing moves (weak), or (again) just be turtling for its own sake. This adds up to a betrayal of one of the primary advantages of 2D games, and doesn't give a big enough return in terms of other tricks/fun offered up close. Tekken, VF, etc. all do a better job at making the up-close "in your face" game interesting and complex. SFIII is a dumbed-down up-close game, minus the good parts of distance strategies in other 2D games, which is a step in the wrong direction. The universal value of parrying coupled with the disgraced role of fireballs helps to contribute to an overall "flatness" in which a lot of matches consist solely of trading (the same) high-priority pokes, over and over again.

The second key role of the fireball is as a setup. A well-placed fireball acts as a surrogate; an intermediary. It's an obstacle. It sets up an initial challenge that must be overcome before you have any chance to actually deal out damage to the opponent. Dealing with it can be as simple (or as hard) as avoiding it (jumping, ducking, canceling it, invincible special, etc.), but it must be dealt with, because it's directly threatening you. Whether it hits, or even if blocked, it's going to do damage, as well as pushing you around. It must be dealt with because it stands between you and your opponent, and no matter the beating it takes, hurting it alone won't affect him. Once away, a fireball's fate is entirely distinct from your own. This type of threat can prompt your opponent to put himself in more vulnerable positions (like trying to jump over it, etc.), so it's a setup in that way, but in some cases it can also be followed in, like a kind of shield (or jumped over, used to cross-up, etc.), making all sorts of otherwise untenable attack approaches possible. It's an ally that works independently.

These things put together help to explain the historically dominating tendencies of fireball characters. Fireballing gives you the power to instantly change the dynamic of the match, and safely firing one off always hands you (at least temporary) control. A fireball means you've instantly got some additional approaches/setups, as well representing the potential to do damage while not being capable of being hurt itself. While not always ranked number one (though they are often enough), fireballers usually take up the bulk of the top tier spots, and are virtually never seen slumming in the bottom tier.

So what the best 2D games (the SF series) have that the 3D games don't, is fireballs. You can't just stick fireballs into a 3D system -- it would be far too easy to just dance around them. Of course 3D games also lack a lot of other random junk (and vice versa, obviously), but the fireball is the key. It enables unique, complex kinds of additional strategy that just aren't there in the other games.

After talking about the greatness of fireballs, if I were to praise MVC2 as a major advance for the Versus series (as I think it is), most of you would probably think I'm referring to how beam-crazy it is, and that I'm lumping beams in there as just another kind of fireball. After all, they look a lot the same, right? Thinking this is pretty natural. I mean, look back at X-Men vs. Street Fighter -- Ryu's super is a beam, and isn't that just a beefed-up version of his old fireball? Bzzz. A beam is a bird of a very different feather. Here's why:

Fireballs play two essential roles. The beam only meets one of these. Beams in MVC2 really do control space, and enable combat at a distance. But they really don't act as setups, in themselves. That's why they're not the full equivalent of the fireball -- they're more like the equivalent of one of Dhalsim's limbs (the historically simplest example of distance combat). That's actually a fairly decent litmus test for whether you've got an adequate fireball analog -- would the move be effectively the same if it had just been a super version of a Dhalsim limb? One that could cut through fireballs, perhaps came out very fast, etc.? If you could effectively substitute the Dhalsim limb, it's not an adequate fireball analog, and won't play the same role. You can't initiate another attack while the beam is still on screen -- so it doesn't act as a setup. Firing one off commits you to it for the duration (special into super canceling decreases the degree of this commitment, but the basic point remains).

So beams are helpful as far as making the game play at a distance, which is good -- ranges really matter -- but this isn't the whole story. As I've said, fireballs are also key for the way they can open up multiple options for your attack. You can do something else while the fireball is still onscreen and threatening the opponent. This can set up a whole new world of approaches. So why if beams don't really count, and actual fireballs tend to be relatively limp by comparison, then how does MVC2 retain the advantages of the best 2D games?

It's the helper system. Yes, those friendly little pals that pop onto the screen on command. "But hey! Those things don't look like fireballs!". Calm down, scrubby. In terms of the theoretical role they play, helpers in MVC2 are strongly analogous, and act like a sort of quasi-fireball. They constitute an attack that doesn't involve your body directly -- a means of attacking from more than one angle. An attack that you can initiate, but one during which you (the point character) can still do something else while the assist continues to be a live threat. That's the basis of complexity. Depending on the type of assist you're dealing with, they may also fill the role of enabling combat at a distance (since assists can also be, for instance, beams).

What keeps MVC2 helpers from being complete fireball analogs is that they aren't a completely safe attack once initiated. Just surviving the initial calling process isn't enough (as opposed to a traditional fireball, where once you've recovered from activation you're no more vulnerable than you ever are). Since your helpers can be hurt, and factor into the assessment of your overall life, they don't play quite the same role as was previously outlined. They can be protected, of course, as well as being able to heal entirely whatever damage they've taken once off-screen, but that just serves to make things more interesting -- it adds depth. Helpers in MVC1 were actually more strongly analogous to fireballs for that reason -- hurting someone's MVC1 helper didn't hurt them. The designers realized, however, that fireball analogs like that were too powerful -- instant activation, no lag, and no threat of real punishment. Free offense. So, while they did contribute a lot to the overall complexity and created a lot of setups, the designers were forced to put a lame kind of absolute limit on how many times they could be used, lest the game degenerate entirely into helper (fireball) fests (of course, it eventually degenerated into something at least as bad, but for unrelated reasons...).

Thus, MVC2 makes real progress in reintroducing these key advantages of 2D games to the Versus series, which had previously focused excessively (if not exclusively) on pixie-ism. Pixie-style chaining and rushdowns, while cool to an extent, just aren't the best (most strategic, involved) part of the SF series, or 2D games in general. While MVC2 is pretty far from perfect, the combination of beams and helpers re-establishes major 2D strengths: effective play at a distance, and the possibility of multifaceted setups and approaches.

The challenge for 3D games is to find a way to meaningfully involve a greater variety of ranges. Make the game really play when you're at a distance, instead of simply degenerating into unpunishable backdashing, etc. Do ranges matter in 3D games? Obviously they do, but not in the same ways, and not to the same degrees. The ubiquity of fireballs in SF games opens avenues for play beyond the characters themselves, and a richer game overall.

P.S. Virtual On (and its successor, VOOT) seems to be the best example of a 3D game that attempts to recognize the supremely important dual values of the fireball. The best new 3D games will follow its lead.

P.P.S. Thanks to everyone who wrote telling me to "feel better, asshole". You're all in my heart and prayers.