Almost every genre that you care to name had a good to great year, but fighting games — head-to-head tournament fighters, as opposed to “platform” fighters like Nickelodeon All-Stars Brawl 2 — had a virtual renaissance. These are the best fighting games or 2023.
Fighting games in the 2020s are dominated by a handful of big franchises. This year, all of those franchises either put out new games, have a new game coming in early 2024, or are still actively supporting their last release.
Guilty Gear and The King of Fighters are still putting out new seasons of content for their last games, including the return of fan-favorite characters like Kim Kaphwan and Sin Kiske. Both Tekken and Grandblue Fantasy Versus are in full hype mode for their next entries, coming early next year, with 2023 marking a final competitive farewell for Tekken 7.
Most importantly, this was the first year since the arcade days when both Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat put out major new releases, with SF6 and MK1. Even Melty Blood has managed to go mainstream, somehow.
At the same time, a few other, older games have gotten a new lease on life due to the implementation of rollback. This is the type of netcode that most other games use to power their online play, but fighting games were notoriously reluctant to adopt it until the 2020 lockdown forced developers’ hands. The 2019 reboot of Samurai Shodown and Dragon Ball FighterZ are both testing rollback at time of writing, which ought to reinvigorate both games’ audiences.
The Best Fighting Games of 2023
Going into 2024, here are the best fighting games of the year. Four are newcomers, one is a new edition of an old favorite, and the last one is a seemingly immortal game from the 2010s that’s exploding due to the fans.
Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3
This one’s about the power of grassroots effort. UMVC3 is 12 years old and its pro circuit got wrapped up in its short-lived sequel, Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite. That game didn’t have a fraction of UMVC3’s staying power, though.
The turning point was the “UMVC3 Lives” online tournament in 2020, where organizers used the remote desktop app Parsec to compensate for the original game’s relatively poor netcode. In turn, that got a number of fighting-game communities like Tampa Never Sleeps to host weekly brackets, which steadily rebuilt UMVC3’s audience. As a result, UMVC3 has been a streaming favorite for much of this year, and made its return to the Evolution main stage in August 2023.
More importantly, the modding scene for UMVC3 has exploded in the last couple of years. PC players have added a few dozen new characters to the roster, which range from straightforward ports (Thanos and Captain Marvel from Infinite) to long-time favorites (Captain Commando, Cyclops, Psylocke) and brand-new entries (Asura, Gene from God Hand, the Thing).
The only limiting factor was the number of character slots that were coded into the base version of the game, but modders were able to find a way around that in June. The floodgates are now officially open for UMVC3 to have all the new characters its community can cram into it. Some of those characters are absolutely broken in significant ways, sure, but the UMVC3 scene is still well on its way to making its own MVC4, since neither Capcom nor Marvel seem inclined to bother.
King of Fighters XIII: Global Match
The King of Fighters is a series that’s defined by its high points. While it never took off in most of North America, a lot of people in Brazil, Mexico, Korea, and Japan still play KOF ‘98 and ‘02 like it’s their jobs. 2010’s KOF13 was the last entry in the series to use sprite graphics, is still considered one of the best-looking KOF games, and is a dark horse contender for the title of the best KOF overall.
KOF13 had a dedicated scene of hardcore players for quite a while, but the new Global Match edition took the game worldwide by adding rollback netcode. This has given one of the most popular entries in the series a new lease on life, although it did come at the cost of replacing most of the animated stage backgrounds with static images.
Don’t sleep on KOF13. It’s one of the most explosive entries in the series, with big plays that lead to bigger damage and a solid roster of new and returning characters. If you got into KOF15 in the last couple of years, KOF13 is as good or better. Now its new netcode gives it a chance to retake the spotlight.
Something about Hololive just brings it out of people, I guess. The free fan project HoloCure: Save the Fans is deeply silly and packed with in-jokes, but it has the same genuinely addictive design as other top-shelf bullet heaven games like Vampire Survivors. Now there’s Idol Showdown, free on Steam, a 1v1 pixel-art fighting game with a cast of Virtual YouTubers that plays a lot like an early Melty Blood.
It would’ve been just fine, maybe even expected, if this was a meme project that barely functioned. Instead, Idol Showdown has had some genuine attention and care put into it. This isn’t good for a doujin fighter; it’s just a decent fighting game.
Even if you aren’t sure what Virtual YouTubers are — and that’s a rabbit hole you might not care to go down — Idol Showdown is worth checking out on your next fight night. What’s really crazy is that it has rollback netcode, which means AAA fighters like Tekken 8 are officially out of excuses.
The Neo Geo Pocket Color didn’t stay on the market for long, but while it was around, SNK published maybe a dozen fighting games for it that all qualify as all-time greats, most notably SNK vs. Capcom: Mark of the Milennium. Most of those games are now available on the Switch via the Neo Geo Pocket Collection emulation packages, but for a while, they were virtually lost media.
Pocket Bravery, like 2016’s Pocket Rumble, takes its style but not its aesthetics from those NGPC games. Frankly, I’m not entirely comfortable with its art, which makes me think a bunch of Cabbage Patch Kids are beating the hell out of each other. Aside from that mild (major) issue, PB is solid. It’s easy to learn, stuffed with content, and will instantly feel like second nature to anyone who’s put any time into a KOF game.
More importantly, PB is a genuinely new IP. Most of the major players in the modern genre have been running for decades or are licensed adaptations of another franchise. There’s a real need for new blood here, and PB brings enough new ideas to the table that it’s worth checking out.
Mortal Kombat 1
With the benefit of hindsight, Mortal Kombat 1 was released at least six months too soon, is plagued by microtransactions that range from obnoxious to predatory, and is coming off its third story reboot in four games. Like everything else underneath the WB umbrella, there’s a real sense that whoever’s making decisions for Mortal Kombat right now is drunk, desperate, or both.
Fortunately, the fundamentals on MK1 are about the best they’ve ever been. The new Kameo system, which brings a host of familiar faces and B-listers back into the fray as rechargeable assists, means every character in MK1 is as broken as anyone else… or at least they are now that they’ve nerfed Cyrax.
If you weren’t entertained by the last few MK games, MK1 won’t change your mind. However, it’s a great distillation of many of the best features of the last three entries in the core series. It’s fast, fun, bloody, and has a ton of characters who are all fun to use. The core gameplay is absolutely there. It’s just a shame WB seems intent on running it into the ground.
Street Fighter 6
Speaking of predatory microtransactions, Capcom caught hell for that with the Outfit 3 DLC for Street Fighter 6. It isn’t just overpriced, but thanks to the wonders of premium currency, it’s also annoying. Sure, it’s all unnecessary cosmetic gear, but what am I supposed to do, not buy Zangief’s classy suit? I need that in ways I cannot conveniently express.
Anyway, part of the reason why everyone’s so angry is that SF6 has done almost everything else right so far. It feels like the natural culmination of everything Capcom’s learned over the last 30+ years of making Street Fighter games, with fast moves, fluid graphics, and some elegant character redesigns.
More importantly, it’s the best gateway game Capcom’s ever made. Its two additional control schemes come hand in hand with the most elaborate tutorials in fighting game history, and the World Tour mode lets you explore Street Fighter’s strange universe as a new-to-the-scene brawler in Metro City.
You can argue with a few of SF6’s decisions, like how Zangief needs buffs or how Drive Impact is actually kinda’ dumb, but 90% of the time, SF6 just feels great. It’s the best fighting game of the year in a slow walk, and is on the short list for the best fighting game of the 21st century so far.
A realistic list of a top 10 fighting games of 2023 would have to include games, as noted above, that aren’t technically 2023 releases. We settled for putting together a list of the six games that had the best year. Looking forward, it’s possible we’re headed into a new golden age, with games on the horizon like Tekken 8 and Riot’s Project L. Granblue Fantasy Versus Rising came in just under the wire, too, in the middle of a quiet December, but is rapidly turning into a game to watch in 2024.
The real reason to watch fighting games next year, though, is down to the money. A number of new players like Sony are putting a lot of cash into the pro tournament circuit for SF6 and Tekken, which is already drawing old pros and new players back into the scene. As crazy as 2023 was, 2024 could be crazier still.