Everybody has preferences. I, for one, can’t stand NetherRealm games — while I think they’re incredibly polished and deserve the following they have, I just flat out can’t get into them. Maybe its a weeaboo complex of mine, or I’ve just grown up with different fighters — but no matter how it is, I’ve chosen my side on the matter. Everybody does: it’s impossible for a single game to appeal to the whole world. Each game has its own pros and cons that appeal to different players, and that’s just how the industry works.
So why, then, can everybody seem to agree on Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st]?
I know not everybody plays it primarily, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone actually dislike UNIST. It’s definitely likely that there’s an anti-UNIST community out there, but gosh — are they outnumbered. Something about that game has such a wide appeal. No matter how nichely “anime” the audio-visual presentation is, I see Street Fighter players, Guilty Gear players, Marvel vs. Capcom players and more, all singing “kumbaya” under the Hollow Night. So, what did French Bread do so differently?
I’d like to say that UNIST is just that much of a good game, but I think there’s a clearer phenomena at the hands of its success. After years of diving headfirst into different fighting games, I’ve come to conclude that the ability for a game to be fresh (and stay fresh) is the most key factor for its long term success, as the global response to “freshness” is what shapes a fighter’s shelf-life.
ON THE TRUE MEANING OF FRESH
It’s difficult to define what freshness means when discussing games; put simply, a fresh game is something new, different, and exciting. With this in mind, freshness can be quantified in how uniquely a game is played and presented, along with how much there is to be discovered. Freshness is attractive — fighting game players (new and old) are naturally drawn towards new ideas, and developers reflect that in their design and marketing.
What makes things complicated, though, is the balance within freshness. If a fighting game is so different in its conventions that it feels like something else entirely, then players may separate said game from the fighting genre, minimizing its appeal as a “fresh fighting experience.” All-new experiences — such as titles like ARMS — or games built on older models that share fighting game principles — such as Gundam Versus or For Honor — may break into the fighting game genre temporarily or gain some side-attention from fighting game players, but are often too different for the FGC to fully adopt, feeling foreign rather than fresh. The universally “fresh” experience is one that still finds itself in the formula of its genre, deviating just enough to feel like a new game.
Deviations can be found in almost every modern fighting game, being the factors often remembered the most. For example, when I think of the Street Fighter IV line of releases, one of my very first thoughts is the Focus Attack. Because of it, each exchange in that game has an added layer, all because there’s that extra option. A Focus Attack could be the answer to a safe-on-block maneuver, turn risky positioning into a powerful call-out, or even open up frame-data-savvy defense. More than any aesthetic glamour could, the Focus Attack made Street Fighter IV unique from any other fighting game, outlining the appeals of the game it defines. The mechanics that make games fresh are what give them identity, and that strong identity is what players will gravitate to.
THE SINGLE-PLAYER OF MULTIPLAYER
To divulge a little, I’ve spent lots of time playing Under Night. I have roughly 300+ hours logged across all home versions, heralding it as my favorite series since the PS3 release of exe:late. Though, as hard as it is to admit to all of SRK’s readers… I’ve actually never played UNIST in a bracket. There just isn’t a large enough scene in my own area to frequently get matches, and my academic-focused budget doesn’t exactly accommodate trips to SoCal yet. So why, despite my geography and bank account begging me to steer clear of this game, am I still so enamored?
I think fighting games allow a single person to play out versus scenarios more than any other genre of game could. All across the internet are combo videos, tech discoveries, and even comical glitches — the results of hours spent playing against a training dummy. Despite the goal of preparing for real battles, nobody would spend that much effort playing a two-player game by themselves if the process was as boring as it sounds.
Labbing UNIST is really fun. Particularly, 300+ hours of fun. There’s such a volume of cool things to learn — I could work on Carmine pressure for hours, placing subliminal mix-ups in the rhythm of his specials, then jump over to Vatista and wrack my brain over her insane input-execution. I could grind out tightly stretched Linne conversions, trying to somehow cash out at least 2500 damage from each of her moves at midscreen — then remember that Yuzuriha has fullscreen rekkas with a teleport stance and start all over again. The satisfaction of exploration has been enjoyable enough to validate my time and money, allowing UNIST to remain my favorite game, despite spending a majority of my time with it in solitude.
So long as a game can keep itself fresh, then something new can always be done, learned, or found, tacking on to the player’s repertoire of knowledge and skills. Players can grind out new possibilities for hours, attempting to master every piece of what the game gives them, driven by the gratifying experience of growth. Self-development is a major part of the fun of fighting others, occurring before you even take the time to fight them. In the fighting genre, training has become a core piece of the package, and its because they present new ideas that this is possible — put poetically, freshness creates the single-player aspect of multiplayer.
CHOOSING TO DIVIDE
While freshness definitely enhances time spent training, it would be nonsensical to gloss over the multiplayer experience. After all, competitive multiplayer is why people take fighting games so seriously, and the conversational exchange of versus definitely feeds off of freshness. I mentioned the possibilities related to Focus Attacks earlier, but that only scratches the surface of what fresh mechanics can do to a fight. Sometimes, all a game has to do is make something impossible possible.
For those of you who haven’t played UNIST, there’s a universal movement technique that changes the way the entire game is played: the Assault. By pressing 6D, players can initiate an arced airdash-like motion with minimal effort — in the air, or on the ground. Because a grounded Assault is possible, every character has a significant increase in footsies-range, changing the way players observe their opponents, as well as their own possible actions. Have other developers considered this possibility? Maybe, but I’m sure it seemed redundant compared to the pre-existing Instant Airdash. Because UNIST retooled a familiar motion into something else entirely, a healthy dose freshness is present in just its movement alone.
UNIST has a lot more than just good movement, too — I’d like to put the spotlight on a confusingly simple meter at the bottom-middle of the screen: GRD. When playing a fighting game, its very easy to play “lame” and simply wait for good opportunities, but the GRD system encourages otherwise. By finding active success, either in dashing, Assaulting, attacking, or even blocking, players are given amounts of GRD, and whoever has more in 16.5 seconds is rewarded. The prize for the GRD war is Vorpal State: a buff for additional damage with access to a single Chain Shift, a move similar to Guilty Gear‘s Roman Canceling (with the added benefit of giving meter.)
Not only is the Chain Shift a dangerously potent tool for the user, but fighting for access to it adds a layer of depth only UNIST has to offer. Fighting an overall battle while managing an underlying struggle isn’t just tough, but incredibly fun. With GRD, Assault, and even more to offer, the versus landscape of UNIST gives its players an accessible platform of fighting, while setting itself at a far distance from other styles of play — it’s attractive on both of the ends of “classic” and “innovative.” It’s because UNIST gives out so much for the player that it’s such a fresh game, and it’s stayed fresh for so long that it’s still alive and thriving to this day.
I implore all reading this to at least look into UNIST. Enjoying the Under Night series has really made me appreciate what’s fresh about the other games I play, and with the current climate of wildly different options, I’m glad they’ve all found their own fresh flavor when put side-by-side. Fighting games are a genre that will never stop changing, adding more and more to experiences we know and love — that’s why they’re so darn great.
Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st] just released on Steam, and is also available on the PlayStation Store. Just play UNIST. You’ll understand why everyone loves it as soon as you do.