Guilty Gear Strive has fantastic visuals, but should not be established as the standard for 2D fighters of the modern era

Guilty Gear Strive and its potential impact on future 2D fighting games (Image via Arc System Works)
Guilty Gear Strive and its potential impact on future 2D fighting games (Image via Arc System Works)

The biggest feature of Guilty Gear Strive that distinguishes it from its peers is the outstanding visual design. The animation and character models of Guilty Gear Strive are critically acclaimed, and the outcome of years of refinement and experimentation by Arc System Works since they made the jump to 3D in 2014 with Guilty Gear Xrd.

The specifics of how Arc System Works birthed these visuals and implemented them in Guilty Gear Strive are the subject of many video essays on YouTube and have been discussed by the graphic design team of Arc System Works themselves in GDC 2015.

The fiery innovation has since influenced a number of games Arc System Works worked on through the rest of the decade, including Dragon Ball FighterZ and Granblue Fantasy Versus.

Both of these games have risen to critical acclaim just like Xrd did, and Dragon Ball FighterZ is perhaps the game that brought Arc System Works to the mainstream market.

But perhaps to push it any further, and for Guilty Gear Strive's visuals to be interpreted as the modern standard for 2D fighters, would be undesirable for fighters in general.

A common idea expressed in the community today after the release of Guilty Gear Strive is, “I wish ‘X’ fighting game would take Arc System Works’s visuals and be rebooted”, or “I wish Arc System Works would take control of ‘X’ IP.”

Guilty Gear Strive and its potential impact on future 2D fighting games

Before we get further into the graphics of Guilty Gear Strive, let’s look into what exactly the “graphics” of a game entail. It’s important to understand that graphics do not always refer to the textures and resolution of the game, but consist of a number of visual elements such as the color palette, visual diversity (or clarity), animation, and most important of all: aesthetic.

Street Fighter V & Mortal Kombat XI: 2D fighters that pursue different interpretations of 3D graphics

To explain this with an example, let’s compare Street Fighter V & Mortal Kombat XI. Both games are 2D fighters with cutting edge 3D graphics, but the similarities end there. Street Fighter V has 3D models that blend photo-realism and anime-esque design.

On the other hand Mortal Kombat XI is incredibly dedicated to extreme amounts of photo-realism.

Street Fighter V’s animation does emerge from motion capture, but is still to a huge degree generated through setting up key-poses and manually animating them.

This is done to ease up the motion, and keep it consistent and elegant across different phases of the animation like the start-up, follow-through and recovery.

Mortal Kombat XI on the other hand seems to be overly dependent on motion capture that is stitched together with animation cycles recycled for every character model in the cast.

This gives the game a very clunky feel, despite the characters seemingly being more animated than in Street Fighter V.

Street Fighter V has a color palette that seems to be created with the intent of making characters stand out from each other and is for this reason very bright and mildly saturated.

On the other hand, Mortal Kombat XI has way too many colors to support the photo-realistic look, and characters and stages look extremely cluttered at times.

Even so, to generalize that one is better than the other is impossible. Both games attempt to achieve a different look despite being 3D. Some will prefer one over the other, and it’s hard to tell which approach is more successful as both games see enormous amounts of play.

What does Guilty Gear Strive do that has impressed so many people?

As mentioned above, there are multiple essays on the animation of Guilty Gear Strive so this article won’t explore it in the same amount of detail.

But to summarize, Guilty Gear Strive uses 3D graphics, but animated and designed said graphics in a way that made it heavily resemble old 2D fighters.

What this means is that motion capture is completely absent in Guilty Gear Strive and the models are animated frame by frame with extremely distinct key-poses. How Guilty Gear Strive improved on this formula, first pioneered in Xrd, is by vastly improving the number of key-poses and using a more cinematic camera to give the game an extremely smooth feel.

To get a better idea of the animation of Guilty Gear Strive, watch the video below:

The reason why the fighting game community noticed this is because Guilty Gear Strive looked incredibly fluid in comparison to all its peers, even during gameplay.

It didn’t try to deceptively give off a cinematic feel in cut-scenes alone like Mortal Kombat does, and unified the gameplay and cut-scene animation seamlessly.

Perhaps Mortal Kombat is being criticized too harshly here though, as it’s hard to say if it’s even feasible for the developers to even implement the same visual techniques used in Guilty Gear Strive whilst retaining the photo-realistic feel of Mortal Kombat.

One of the main reasons Guilty Gear Strive was able to do what it did, was because of its nature as an anime game. Anime characters do not have to respect the physics and biology of human beings in the real world.

Guilty Gear Strive can get away with over-exaggerating the effects of the attacks on its characters.

A good example of this is Faust's overdrive super in Guilty Gear Strive.

But what about a game that is overly dedicated to making characters function as per their anatomy and trying to retain their compliance with the laws of physics.

Yes, Mortal Kombat is a 2D fighter like Guilty Gear Strive, but the characters cannot have the same freedoms and versatility as most other characters of 2D fighters simply because of the design philosophy.

This brings us to the next point, the most important ingredient of a fighting game: aesthetic.

Aesthetic: The flavor of a fighting game

Mortal Kombat

At the end of the day, despite games like Guilty Gear Strive having seemingly better animation and visual appeal than others, what keeps people drawn towards a game is their preference for a certain aesthetic.

Fans of Mortal Kombat probably wouldn’t care too much for Guilty Gear Strive despite the superior animation simply because they dislike anime character models.

Mortal Kombat boasts a roster of characters and a plot that supports the photo-realistic aesthetic it strives to achieve. It will focus on making characters move and attack brutally and realistically (teleports, cryomancy and human augmentation aside), rather than making them move and attack fluidly.

Anime Mortal Kombat seems kinda off (Edited, original image via NetherRealm)
Anime Mortal Kombat seems kinda off (Edited, original image via NetherRealm)

If Mortal Kombat suddenly picked up an anime art style like Guilty Gear Strive's and ditched the gore-focused gameplay it wouldn’t just be a loss for fans, it would be a loss for fighting games in general.

Why? Because in the grand scheme of things, a game will not be respected just for the amount of effort put into its visual design, but more so for the identity its visual design tries to achieve.

Yes, it would be ideal for every fighter to be extremely refined visually like Guilty Gear Strive is, but if it’s at the cost of losing its identity then it is simply not worth it. Does this mean that fighters shouldn’t experiment at all with new visuals? No, but experimentation shouldn’t be so loose as to allow a game to completely lose touch with its legacy.

Street Fighter

An interesting piece of trivia about Street Fighter V’s development is that the game was initially planned to be heavily photo-realistic, with the anime designs being completely left behind.

Ryu was supposed to be an outcast of society with overgrown facial hair, and Bison was supposed to be some half-cyborg weirdo.

But the idea was ditched almost two years into development. Why? The developers said it best, because it simply didn’t feel like Street Fighter without the comical and anime-esque characters.

Instead, they struck a decent balance between photo-realism and an oil-painting-like anime look.

Early concept art for a photo-realistic version of Ryu from Street Fighter V A Visionary Book (Image via Capcom)
Early concept art for a photo-realistic version of Ryu from Street Fighter V A Visionary Book (Image via Capcom)

There’s no doubt that Street Fighter V is creatively bankrupt in comparison to previous installments, but development dodged a huge bullet to preserve the legacy of the game.

This brings up another question. Since Street Fighter has an anime visual design like Guilty Gear Strive, does that justify Capcom copying Arc System Works’s animation techniques?

This is just another piece of the puzzle as while it’s true that Arc System Works has done something incredible with Guilty Gear Strive, just like all art, it’s completely subjective if it’s a mark of progress or just another branched out path in visual design.

Maybe Street Fighter can find a new balance by retaining the anime look but using a completely different art-style for their games that functions better with photo-realistic movement.

Maybe they can return to the inky aesthetics of Street Fighter 4 (although SNK sort of now capitalizes on this route). The possibilities are endless.

The King Of Fighters

The King Of Fighters has experimented even more than Capcom has with 3D visuals. It has jumped between 2D and 3D visuals on whims in the past, but they don’t have a reputation for releasing only masterpieces.

They’ve made enough successes and failures to help us analyze what balance developers should try to strike to appeal to the masses while also trying to innovate.

Just like Street Fighter, KoF has a very anime-esque feel to its characters but their 3D interpretations were generic and life-less.

Many complained that King Of Fighters 14 had horrible textures and backgrounds that resembled games from the PS2 era.

But the bigger problem the game had was that the textures and backgrounds had no distinguishing features that expressed the personality of the game.

The models looked like simple modifications to generic templates you’d find in game engines.

And it seems SNK noticed this, as they didn’t get discouraged and go back to 2D design again. Instead with the new Samurai Shodown, and now with the highly anticipated KoF 15 they are once again using 3D models that are by no means cutting-edge like Guilty Gear Strive's, but extremely flavorful instead.

The textures, background and shading take a unique spin on Street Fighter 4’s inky comical look, and have knocked the ball out of the park in terms of being appealing to look at.

There’s also the fact that the game has an over-saturated color palette that makes it look multiple times more colorful than most other fighting games out there.

Once again, whether this is progress or a branching path in visual design is subjective, but make no mistake.

When people see a clip from King Of Fighters 15 in the future, they won’t need to see some iconic character to recognize the game, all they would need to see is the art-style. And that’s what it means to have flavor.

What should fans of 2D fighters look forward to then?

Well in the simplest of terms: something different, something new, something awesome. Hopefully the brain-dead opinion that every 2D fighter with 3D graphics should look like Guilty Gear Strive doesn’t discourage developers from remaining loyal to what they’ve built already, and from experimenting with something different.

This decade is an exciting era as it’s been set off by the end of support for many prominent fighters like Street Fighter V and Mortal Kombat XI.

At the same time, there are releases of Fighters like Guilty Gear Strive and KoF 15 that are shattering all expectations.

Fighting games especially, have a tendency of being artistic masterpieces amongst video games (and Guilty Gear Strive is a masterpiece) due to the excessive emphasis on visuals and experimentation.

And players should never discourage this culture by being overly enthusiastic about one game that managed to innovate something new.

Hopefully Guilty Gear Strive only opens up new doors in visual design for developers instead of closing old ones. And hopefully, even though there are exciting new doors to go through because of it, developers aren’t discouraged to attempt breaking the walls to find a new path.

Edited by Sijo Samuel Paul
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