A History Of Tag Team Fighting Game Innovations

By on March 16, 2012 at 9:10 am

Taking a look at the upcoming fighting game releases for 2012, there’s an interesting trend that’s difficult not to notice.  A large majority of the fighting games coming out this year are tag team fighting games.  This year sees the home release of no less than 3 major tag team games from different companies – Street Fighter X Tekken, Skullgirls and Tekken Tag Tournament 2.  On top of that, we have a possible 4th game if Dead Or Alive 5 follows in the footsteps of its predecessors.

With such a crowded field, each one of these is looking to make its mark (and capture sales) by innovating and adding to the tag team sub-genre.  This isn’t a recent trend however. Back when tag team fighting games first broke out into the mainstream in the late nineties, developers were already trying their best to push the tag team sub-genre as far as they could.  With that in mind, it’s as good as time as any to take a look at the many innovations that helped shape tag team fighters into what we know today.

From the Square Circle to the Arcade

The concept of tag team combat originally comes from professional wrestling.  Tag team wrestling matches were first held in the early 1900’s by San Francisco wrestling promoters as a way to increase drama and boost sales. Though acceptance of this new type of match was slow at first, tag team wrestling picked up by the mid 1950’s.  By the early 90’s (when fighting games were starting to break out), tag team was one of the most popular forms of pro-wrestling around.

It makes sense then that the first tag team fighter of note borrows heavily from pro-wrestling. ADK’s Kizuna Encounter ( Fūun Super Tag Battle in Japan), released in 1995 for the Neo-Geo, borrows some of its rules and mechanics from tag team wrestling.  Winning in tag team wrestling only requires that one wrestler from the team be pinned. Similarly, Kizuna Encounter only required players to KO one opponent.  In pro wrestling, wrestlers can only tag their teammates in their home corner. The “tag zone” in Kizuna Encounter replicates that mechanic by forcing players to stand in a specific area before they are allowed to tag their partner in. This meant that, just like in pro-wrestling, players could prevent an opponent from tagging by keeping them away from their tag zone.

The players 2nd character is seen waiting behind the clearly marked tag zone near the middle of the stage.

Anyone familiar with tag team fighters can probably guess at how different this game feels when compared to modern tag team games. Indeed, just looking at whatever match videos you can find online show a fighter that feels more like a traditional 1 on 1 fighter compared to later games. This difference can be clearly seen when compared to Capcom’s own seminal tag team effort, which came out a year later.

Crossover Fever

Having planted the seeds for it with a cameo by Street Fighter character Akuma in 1994’s X-Men: Children of the Atom, Capcom finally released their own crossover tag team fighter X-Men Vs. Street Fighter in 1996.  Compared to ADK’s effort, XvSF had one very important innovation, one that would be in every tag team fighter hence – the ability to tag anywhere on screen.  Not only could players call their partner from anywhere on the playing field (even in the corner). Incoming characters burst into the screen with a flying kick before taunting and handing control off to the pplayer.

Wolverine can now get help from Ryu anywhere on screen.

In addition to this, XvSF added a few other new team elements. Performing a Street Fighter Alpha style “Alpha Counter” while blocking called in your second character to perform a counter attack.  The game even let you use both your characters supers (or”Hyper Combos” as the series calls them) at the same time.

The final difference from Kizuna Encounter was the need to KO both opposing characters to win the game. All these innovative features helped XvSF put a greater emphasis on the “team” part of tag-team. In addition to having to learn both characters, players started learning how certain characters could cover each others bad matchups. Folks then found that some characters worked together better during Team Supers. It was the humble beginnings of the concept of “team synergy,” a concept that now dominates the metagame of most tag-team fighters. That said, it would take another game before Capcom would introduce the feature that would really allow this concept to take off.

Assist Me!

1997 saw a new tag team game from Capcom, Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter. Not just content to change the cast of characters, Capcom also implemented a revolutionary new idea – assists.

While MSHvSF was not the first game to feature assists (in fact Data East’s Avengers in Galactic Storm had assists in a Marvel fighting game a whole year before MSHvSF), it was the first time they were implemented in a major tag team fighter. Instead of having your team mate wait off screen until called for a tag, players could now call for quick assistance.

Now you can let young girls help Wolverine out in the middle of battle, just like in the comics.

In the previous game, tagging out was the only way to cover a character’s weakness against another character. Assists allowed players to build a team in such a way that a character’s chosen assist move could help mitigate these problems.   Characters now seemed as if they really were fighting as a team.

Sadly, despite introducing such an innovative feature, Marvel Super Heres vs Street Fighter isn’t as fondly remembered as its predecesor.  X-Men vs. Street Fighter was known for being very broken, with every character having access to one or more infinite combos. Capcom’s attempts to rectify this in MSHvsSF ended up going a bit too far. This resulted in a game that offered less freedom and, once certain characters were broken in, less balanced.  That said, the concept of greater teamwork stuck and Capcom would take this to arguably its ultimate expression in their next game.

Double Team

For Marvel vs. Capcom, Capcom decided to change the assist system they introduced in the previous game. Players now chose from a selection of assist characters, separate from the playable characters. To limit spamming, each assist character could only be used a certain number of times in a match. That said, the true innovation in MvC wasn’t this. That would be the game’s amazing new feature – Variable Cross.

One of the most ridiculously broken things in any fighting game ever.

When activated, Variable Cross allowed the player to have both their characters on screen under their control. This was both MvC’s most revolutionary feature and also arguably its most broken. In a game that was less restrictive than MSHvSF, certain teams could be built that abused Variable Cross for some really nasty combos.  This was exacerbated be the fact that the mode gave infinite super meter, allowing certain teams to spam hyper combos for massive chip damage.  The mode was a bit too much for some players and Capcom took it out for the sequel.

Mahvel Baybee!

With a decade long history of competitive play, Marvel vs Capcom 2 is arguably the pinnacle of the Marvel Versus series. For the purpose of this article however, MvC2 is important for one thing – 3 on 3 tag combat.

With the addition of a third character, the roles each character played in creating team synergy were further defined.  Teams were now built around point, assist, and battery characters.

Assists in particular became very influential in MvC2.  Similar to MvSF, assists could once again be called any number of times as long as that character was still alive. This allowed them greater influence in the match. Unblockable setups where a defending player had no choice but to take an attack, lockdown strategies, and more became important concepts that were enabled by assists in MvC2.

To counter these, anti-assist strategies were devised. The most well known of these is the “double snap,” a tactic that used a glitch in the game’s snap back mechanic to keep juggling an assist character until they were KOed.

Meanwhile, the battery character made sure that the team had enough meter to pull off these tricks and tactics.  Having a separate character for meter building also had the benefit of allowing the point character a breather to recover some red health. This is in contrast to previous games where meter building had to be shouldered by either the point or assist character.

Team Clockw0rk is a perfect example of good team synergy. Sentinel is an excellent battery to build meter for Clockw0rk’s Strider & Doom traps.

Combine all these together and you come up with something that can only be described as precision controlled chaos. The top MvC2 players took not only the tag team genre, but competitive fighting games in general to a whole new level.

3D Tag

With tag team being the big trend, thanks to Capcom’s Marvel Vs. series, it wasn’t long before other companies started bringing out their own tag team fighters. In 1999, the first 3D fighters with tag team mechanics were finally released in arcades – Tekken Tag Tournament and Dead Or Alive 2.

Coming off the massively successful Tekken 3, Namco took the base game and added their own take on tag team fighting. The most apparent difference from Capcom’s games is the fact that instead of having to beat both opposing characters, players only had to beat one to win the round (similar to Kizuna Encounter).  This meant that players now had to be more mindful of their character’s health.

As for tagging itself, this was assigned to a fifth button (on top of Tekken’s usual 4 buttons). Instead of the canned flying kick and taunt animation of Capcom games, characters now ran in towards their opponents when tagged in. This allowed player to perform tags in the middle of combos, as long as they could keep their opponent juggled or stunned long enough for their second character to come in.  In addition to this, certain special throws would also tag the second character in.

Jin "running away" is actually him tagging out.

The game also introduced a tag-based comeback mechanic called “Netsu Power.”  If the point character took a really bad beating, the off screen character would receive a damage boost. With this, a match could easily be turned around with a well timed tag.

Tekken Tag wasn’t the only 3D tag team fighter released that year.  Tecmo’s Team NINJA was also busy adding tag team to the sequel of their surprise hit Dead or Alive.

Previously, Team NINJA had already experimented with 2 character battles in the limited team mode found in Dead Or Alive ++.  In that game however, players only switched their characters when the first member of the team was knocked out – there was no tagging involved yet. Proper tag team finally came to the series in October 1999 with the release of Dead Or Alive 2. The game came with the option of either tag team and singles play (this would eventually become something of a series trademark).

Dead Or Alive 2 took the Capcom route of having to KO both opposing characters to win. In terms of tag mechanics however, it followed a similar philosophy to Tekken Tag, allowing you to tag in the middle of combos and use team throws. What was different from TTT was the fact that Dead Or Alive 2’s stages had walls (something that Tekken didn’t have at that point in time.). This affected how a player’s second character could come into play. Stage positioning was now something players had to be very aware of. Tagging in the middle of a combo would be different (or wouldn’t work at all) depending on a characters relation to the wall.

Kasumi about to catch Bayman after being launched by Ayane.

Another interesting concept that Dead Or Alive 2 tried was giving certain character combinations unique tag throws. Certain character pairs had a specific tag throw that was not only flashier, but also more damaging than a normal tag throw.  DOA players have dubbed this the “tag chemistry” between characters.

Later Dead Or Alive games kept tweaking the tag mode and former Team NINJA head Tomonobu Itagaki was planning to make the series tag team focused. Online numbers for DOA2’s XBox rerelease (as part of DOA Ultimate) seemed to indicate that singles play was what most players preferred, so the series never fully went in this direction.

In the middle of all this, Capcom created yet another tag fighter, this time outside of the Marvel Versus series.  For the 3rd iteration of the hybrid “2d fighter on a 3d plane” Street Fighter EX series, Capcom followed in DOA’s example and added a tag team option.  The main element that Street Fighter EX3 borrowed from 3D tag-fighters was the concept of tagging in during combos. What was different was the way that the game allowed this. EX3 allowed the on screen character to perform one last attack, based on whatever button was held after the tag, to keep the opposing character in hitstun long enough for the incoming character to continue the combo. This was the birth of what would eventually be known as “Tag Cancels.”

Desk demonstrating why EX3 is a good way to train for SFxT (which we will get to later).

“Cricital Parade” mode, on the other hand, revisited the concepts seen in MvC’s Variable Cross mode.  Interestingly enough, Capcom put in the option to have the second character controlled by the AI via an “Auto” option.

Finally, there were “Meteor Tag Combos.” These were unique super moves performed by both characters in a team – something made possible thanks to the versatility of 3D polygonal models.

EX3 was Capcom’s last new tag fighter for quite some time. While the sub-genre boomed for a while and others also made their own tag team games, the drop in the popularity of fighting games during the mid-2000’s put a stop to the development of any major new tag team fighters.

The New Class

With Street Fighter IV bringing fighting games back into the mainstream, it wasn’t long before Capcom started making tag team fighters again. In 2009, Capcom decided to create a totally new branch of the versus franchise with Tatsunoko vs. Capcom.

Despite crossing over with a different company, TvC (and its update rerelease TvC: Ultimate All-Stars) stuck closely to the formula set by the earlier Marvel Versus games.  New to TvC was an extension of the concept of tagging during combos seen in 3D games and EX3. TvC‘s “Variable Air Raid” allowed players to switch characters in the middle of the series’ trademark air combos. This idea would be further refined when Capcom decided to work with Marvel once again.

TvC tested another interesting concept – the ability to play as a single character team using “giant” characters. Giant characters compensated for the lack of assists by having more health and better damage output. While the idea was stillborn (with some players citing balance and matchup issues with the giants), it did explore the possibility of uneven teams in versus mode in a tag-team game.

Giant character PTX-40A takes on Ryu and Ken the Eagle.

In the spring of 2010, Capcom finally announced one of the most awaited fighting game sequels of all time, Marvel vs. Capcom 3.  Immediately, one of the things that stood out was the game’s “Aerial Exchange” system. Expanding upon the “Variable Air Raid” concept from TvC, Aerial Exhange in MvC3 goes a step father than the “Variable Air Raid” by adding a guessing game to it. When performing an Aerial Exchange, players could choose to slam their opponent in one of three directions to set up the tag combo. The defending player then had a chance to guess which direction they were being exchanged to. If they guess correctly, they will burst out of the combo.

Up or down or side to side, exchange will take you for a ride.

The Future

With tag team fighters back in vogue, we are now faced with a year where we have multiple tag team fighters slated for release. The resurgence in popularity of fighting games has opened the door for developers to once again bring tag team fighting to the forefront.

The class of 2012

As it stands now, the recently released Street Fighter X Tekken seems to be a mashup of several ideas from previous tag team fighters. Its “Cross Rush Attack” system borrows the concept of tagging after a launcher to be able to continue a combo after the tag (first seen in Tekken Tag).  At the same time, it also features an updated Tag Cancel system from Street Fighter EX3. Then there’s the “Cross Assault” system, which is basically the Variable Cross system from Marvel vs. Capcom. However, early impressions of Cross Assault as well as bad memories MvC have led to Capcom removing the ability for one player to control both characters, bringing it closer to EX3’s Critical Parade in Auto mode.

However, Street Fighter X Tekken has one major innovation, one that may change the way tag team fighters are played. Unlike previous tag team fighters, SFxT allows for 2 players play on the same team. Instead of simply switching characters, any of the game’s tag options actually changes which player is in control of the game. This now places a higher demand on team synergy in real life as well as in the game. The only question now is whether or not the competitive community can actually find value in this mode.

SFxT is, of course, not the only tag team fighter coming out in early 2012.  After having been delayed from late last year, indie fighter Skullgirls is finally coming out as well. On top of an already impressive list of great ideas and innovations, Skullgirls adds a few new wrinkles to tag team fighting. Players can now select team size and charge into battle with one, two, or three characters.  This expands on the idea of asymmetric teams first explored in TvC. Instead of having specialized “giant” characters, Skullgirls uses a ratio system similar to the Capcom Vs. SNK series, modifying health and damage values based on team size.

Skullgirls’ other tag team innovation has to do with assists. Whereas previous tag team games with assists have limited players to a select number of moves, Skullgirls allows for custom assists. This means that players can now have their assist characters do just about anything they’re able to (within a certain limit). Players simply input the commands they want a character to do in game at the select screen.

Now the next entry on the list has technically already come out – in the arcades that is. Most of the western gaming world has yet to get a taste of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 which is due on consoles later this year. As is the trend, TTT2 improves on the ways that tags can be used in combos. Tag Assault and Direct Tag assault call in the second character for an assist combo. Meanwhile, Tag Crash is a quick get off me type tag that allows knocked down characters to call in their partner for help.

Tekken Tag 2 was also recently updated to an Unlimited version. Following the lead of Skullgirls, players can now choose between using either 1 or 2 characters.  This also facilitated a change in the way the games comeback mechanic works. Originally, the game only used the “Netsu” system from Tag, where the 2nd character would be “enraged” by having the point character beat up. With the option for a 1 person team, Namco added in the rage system from Tekken 6 for those playing with only 1 character.

The dark horse in all this is Team NINJA’s Dead Or Alive 5. At this point in time, we don’t even know if the game will have a tag team mode like previous DOAs.  Tag has been an feature of Dead Or Alive games since DOA2. With the current resurgence of tag team fighters, there’s a good chance that Team NINJA will be retaining the mode for DOA5.

With all these new tag team fighters coming out, it’s tough to make a call on which one will be the best. Based on what we know of their history, it is safe to assume that as long as tag team fighters are being made, developers will do their best to innovate to keep their game one step ahead of the rest.

[The author would like to thank the ff.: Desk whos SFEX3 video led me to researching that games similarities to SFxT (which planted the seeds for this article); Mischie – ミスチ for the MvC Variable Cross combo videos; Mr. Wah and Allan Paris from FreeStepDodge for explaining the ins and outs of Dead or Alive’s tag system (I could write a whole article based on what you told me) and last but not least everyone who makes these tag team games).]

Shoryuken's long time news hound. When not writing for SRK's front page, D3v spends part of his time helping run tournaments in the Philippines, including the country's biggest fighting game event, Manila Cup.