Guilty Gear Strive proves the series had to change to survive

Guilty Gear Strive proves the series had to change to survive

The Guilty Gear character Potemkin is a giant shirtless man wearing a knight’s helmet and massive metal attachments on his hands
Image: Arc System Works via Polygon

Arc System Works’ long-running fighting game has opened up

Guilty Gear is one of the longest-running legacy fighting game series out there. Since the first installment in 1998, it’s been held in high regard by fighting game diehards. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean much to the average gamer looking for a new fighting game to play. To attract new players, Guilty Gear needs to learn from other fighting games and change up its formula, something it’s done with great success in the latest entry, Guilty Gear Strive.

There are a set few fight game series that are able to crack that casual consciousness. Games like Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, Super Smash Bros., and even Virtua Fighter are among the few that you may be able to have a random conversation about with someone at the local coffee shop. Guilty Gear is another story entirely.

Guilty Gear is sometimes seen as the Street Fighter of anime fighting games; it’s seen as one of the forefathers of the subgenre. An anime game, according to Infil’s Fighting Game Glossary, is “a particular style of fighting game that often employs frantic, highly aerial-based combat (including air dashing) and wild character designs, often drawn with a Japanese anime aesthetic.” The themes, quirks, character designs, and super-cartoony nature associated with the animation type aren’t always appealing to the average gamer. However, the largest barrier holding the subgenre back is the difficulty of the genre’s two flagship titles, Guilty Gear and Blazblue.

A character fires off an explosive attack in Guilty Gear Strive
Image: Arc System Works/Bandai Namco via Polygon

While general competitive fighting games can often have a difficulty curve that turns off new players, they stay relevant by reinventing themselves. Compare Street Fighter Alpha to Street Fighter 3 or 5, Mortal Kombat 9 to Mortal Kombat 11, or even Tekken 6 to 7. These series change things up regularly. Street Fighter 3, for instance, brought in parries and selectable supers instead of letting decades’ worth of ISM mechanics from the Alpha series run wild. With every new iteration these games completely change, presenting players with new mechanics, characters, movesets, and more. This is never just out of the fun of creating something new, but to reinvigorate interest in an age-old series for veterans and newcomers alike. Changes also help level the playing field a bit and allow new players to join the competition.

On the anime game side of things, this reinvention is usually non-existent. Anime fighter sequels are usually known for feeling like the further advancement of the mechanics present in their predecessors. This isn’t just the case with classic 2D fighters like Guilty Gear, but with others like the Dragon Ball Z: Budokai and Naruto: Clash of Ninja series. New installments in anime fighting game series typically keep the same familiar mechanics and either edit them or simply add more.

For example, Guilty Gear’s Roman Cancel system made its first appearance in the second game of the series, Guilty Gear X. Using it stops the player’s attack and returns them to their neutral position. In the next game, Guilty Gear XX (aka X2), developer Arc System Works added the Force Roman Cancel, which allowed players to Roman Cancel projectiles and whiffing moves. Come the next true installment of Guilty Gear in the Xrd series, players had access to three different kinds of Roman Cancels, each with their own abilities and reason for being a must-master technique.

Characters face off in Guilty Gear Strive
Image: Arc System Works via Polygon

Series creator Daisuke Ishiwatari touched on this history of building upon old titles in a recent interview with Eurogamer, stating, “For the previous Guilty Gear games, up until Xrd, they’re starting in the arcades. Because there are many fans who have been playing Guilty Gear ever since then, each game built on top of the other. So, for the fans who have been playing for a very long time, there’s a lot of things they don’t need to learn anymore. When a new Guilty Gear comes out, they’re already very familiar with it.”

While this might be good for series’ diehards, it can also turn away players who are newcomers to the genre or even those already adept in other fighting games who don’t want to learn a decade’s worth of mechanics and the metagame behind them. This can be seen in Guilty Gear’s competitive scene, where, besides EVO, the largest major tournament numbers for the previous GG iteration, Guilty Gear Xrd, were low — typically in the high 100s or lower 200s.

Coming off the heels of Dragon Ball Fighter Z’s popularity with a more casual audience and with promises of great netcode that would allow players to compete against someone states away and still feel like they’re sitting right next to you, Guilty Gear Strive became an important opportunity for Arc System Works. Strive made many changes to the Guilty Gear formula: For instance, gone is the classic Gatling system that allowed for a longer chain of normal attacks, traded in for something more simple. Higher damage was added to speed up matches, so as to make the losing process easier on newcomers. Okizeme, a term that refers to the mind games and mixups one player can use on another when they are knocked down, got heavily nerfed to put less pressure on players. As noted in an interview with various Strive devs by TheGamer, the team even went as far as to tone down the “fantasy genre vibes” of character designs to make them easier on the eyes of average gamers.

Guilty Gear character May smiles at the camera, wearing a bright orange outfit
Image: Arc System Works

As a result, Strive felt heavier and more grounded than previous Guilty Gear games. Many hardcore fans called it a nerfed entry, aimed at players more familiar with the gameplay of something like Street Fighter. While many players hoped Arc System Works would go back to the drawing board and come out with something more reflective of past titles, the team behind the game kept on, simply continuing to fine-tune their new systems and mechanics.

“In general, the Guilty Gear series up until now has become something only the core fans could keep up with. So we wanted to make something entirely new, that a new audience could enjoy,” Daisuke told Eurogamer. Strive’s developers took notes from more popular series and realized that reinvention is necessary, especially when looking to hit that broader appeal that Dragon Ball Fighter Z did, minus its mainstream IP power boost.

Guilty Gear Strive has now been released and lo and behold, it’s been a huge hit with those skeptical longtime fans of the series and newcomers bringing their controllers over from Dragon Ball Fighter Z. The game could very well be the strongest seller in the series, with 500k units sold worldwide. Guilty Gear Strive quickly surpassed all-time concurrent player peaks for Street Fighter 5 and Tekken 7 on Steam. To put it into perspective, Strive’s launch day Steam player count was ten times more than its predecessors Guilty Gear Xrd and +R’s all-time concurrent player numbers.

The series is reaching competitive numbers that it’s never witnessed before, with tons of series veterans, even the once-wary ones, enjoying their time with the game and finding the same highly technical flavor seen in +R and Xrd. There are also tons of new players, such as Nitrobros, LegendaryPredd, Hikari, and more joining in and quickly making names for themselves, thanks to the ease in access of the competition due to the amazing netcode allowing serious tournaments to be held and attended from the comfort of your home. Online tournaments for Strive are already rivaling and surpassing previous numbers, with weekly tournaments like Bum’s “City of Mayhem” and Tampa Never Sleeps consistently hitting 100+ entrants, and large events like Leffen’s “LEVO” pulling in 546 entrants.

Opening up a fighting game like Guilty Gear to a wider audience isn’t a new idea. It’s been seen with Super Smash Bros., Marvel vs Capcom, Mortal Kombat, and more. It isn’t the easiest transition for every player out there, but it is a necessary one to keep breathing life into the future of the series.