After finally wrapping up that big retrospective on the Street Fighter franchise, I thought to myself, “what topic should I tackle in my next article on Retronaissance?” And wouldn’t you know it: this article was the first thing that came to mind – another article about fighting games! In all fairness, this listicle is going to focus more on the entire genre as opposed to one series and thankfully, it’ll be much shorter… well, if all goes according to plan. Back in the heyday of fighting games, in those final halcyon days of the western arcade before they became either havens of nostalgia, places for kids to play giant versions of mobile games or Dave & Busters, all it took to keep fans happy was multi-player. Facing off against a seemingly never-ending string of opponents made arcades the perfect breeding ground for the genre’s explosion throughout the 1990s. However, even by that point, gamers were increasingly focusing more and more on home consoles and so fighting games needed to adapt. To make up for the lack of actual human opponents – online play wouldn’t really be feasible through official means until the advent of Xbox Live – developers would often add extra modes, focusing on a lone player experiencing the game.
While it seems that most people believe that 2011’s reboot of Mortal Kombat originated the concept of extensive single-player content in fighting games, the concept existed as early as the fifth generation, by my own recollection. Several older titles had significant content meant for solo play and it only seems reasonable for me to list my favorite modes of all-time. After all, it’s only a listicle – the perfect avenue for me to relax and recuperate from such a long series of retrospectives (and prepare for the next one).
Before we get started, I’ve decided to lay down some ground rules. If you haven’t guessed by now, giving myself criteria to work within is what makes these lists fun for me in the first place – it’s no fun when a single topic dominates an entire list. For starters, these modes should (obviously) focus on single-player play. Cooperative play with additional players as an option doesn’t necessarily disqualify a mode, but entries on this list should be possible to play from start to completion solo.
Second, I’m going to be omitting several “generic” modes: arcade mode is obviously going to be left out, as are standard story modes – be they cinematic like the ones found in Netherrealm Studios or visual novels like the ones found in Arc System Works’ games. I’ll also be leaving out other prevalent modes like Survival, Time Attack and Trial Modes – at least if they follow all of their standard conventions. Besides, it’d be way too hard to track down the best iteration of them, considering just how common they are.
Finally, it should utilize the game’s base mechanics to at least some extent. It doesn’t have to use a traditional match format, but it shouldn’t be completely removed from traditional play. In other words, Mortal Kombat X’s Krypt won’t be making the cut on this list, regardless of how much I ended up liking it. It just seems a bit insulting to consider a mode that is completely divorced from such an integral part of the game itself, as opposed to a mini-game or curiosity. I did consider adding one more rule: only one mode per game, but honestly, it ended up being redundant in the grand scheme of things. With all that being said, let’s start the list with my sole honorable mention.
Honorable Mention: Original Character – Darkstalkers 3 (PS)
They say you never forget your first, and that’s certainly the case for me and solo experiences in fighting games. By the time I got my hands on Darkstalkers 3, I’d been well versed in fighting game home conversions – familiar with modes like Arcade and Survival. But when I first saw “Original Character” listed on DS3’s main menu, I was intrigued. Turns out it was simply a mode for building a custom version of an existing character: renaming them, editing their colors and the ability to play through arcade mode to earn experience points to increase their power, life stocks and the amount of Super Meter they begin each match with. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t anything too fancy, but at the time, it blew my mind. Players were only allowed to have 3 custom characters per file, but in those days, I had one of those third-party memory cards with multiple pages on it – and you know I abused the crap out of it in this mode. You can even pit your customized characters against your friends in a versus mode, which honestly, isn’t much different from just playing versus mode in general. Still, it was an interesting concept back in the day and gave me an obsession with customizing existing characters in fighting games and creating characters of my very own.
10. Chaos Tower – Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower
Yes, this list starts out fairly Darkstalkers-heavy, but don’t worry: this is the last we’ll see of the bronze medal of Capcom’s fighting game franchises on this list. Darkstalkers Chronicle was effectively an enhanced port of the Japan-exclusive Vampire Chronicle for the Dreamcast, with some additional features added to it. Chief among them was “Chaos Tower”, a new single player mode that pit players against a 100-floor tower of opponents, armed with a team of three characters. While they receive no health refills, they do keep their meter between matches – essentially making Chaos Tower survival mode only with more steps.
To make things even more interesting, many rungs on the ladder actually have special objectives: winning a match normally sends the team to one point but specific finishes (like a Perfect victory or using an ES Move to strike the final blow) sends them elsewhere. In fact, some matches even require performing these missions to progress properly. Otherwise, the player is left with various punishments, like having all their kick buttons disabled. There’s also an interrupt save option, which somehow felt revolutionary at the time and was likely added due to being released on the PlayStation Portable. The Chaos Tower isn’t necessarily a mind-blowing twist on the traditional Darkstalkers gameplay, but it is an interesting little diversion when the only other options are the typical Arcade Ladder and local multiplayer.
9. Shadow Lords – Killer Instinct (2013)
As far as I can tell, Shadow Lords appears to be the crème de la crème of single-player modes in fighting games. At least that’s what everyone keeps telling me. Now, prior to writing this article, I had yet to play it. But as I lacked a tenth pick anyway, I decided to let my curiosity get the better of me and give it a whirl to get a feel for what it was. I’m going to be honest: I don’t think it lives up to its hype.
I hate to sound like a downer on such a widely acclaimed mode, but in the end, the basic premise is something I’ve seen many times before – but I’m getting ahead of myself. Players load up a team of three and face off against various threats that spawn across a world map, attempting to prevent the hordes of Gargos from taking over the world by protecting various continents from falling to the Shadow Lord’s (ha ha!) influence. The map itself works on a turn-based mechanic, with various missions appearing for a limited set of turns and each character only being able to perform one per turn. Matches are fought between the player’s characters and various “mimics” sporting unique looks that can actually be unlocked for use in other modes by progressing through the game. Other unlockables include in-mode power-ups, various dossiers and video clips detailing the mode’s story and even the ability to level up both individual characters and the player’s profile with experience points.
Unfortunately, while Shadow Lords does take inspiration from some of my favorite single-player modes of the past, it also seems to take the worst from both free-to-play mobile games and rogue-lites. The former means that players have to choose between grinding endlessly for in-game currency or paying actual money for a much more efficient one. The team’s health also doesn’t replenish regularly, leaving players with the choice of allowing low-health characters sit out a turn, exhausting a small inventory of health items to keep them ready or risking their defeat, which requires an even more expensive item to bring them back into the fray. Which brings us to the rogue-lite’s “contribution” to Shadow Lords: it’s possible to lose a playthrough entirely, forcing players to start back at the beginning – though fortunately, they do keep many of the perks, abilities and items they accrue in previous attempts. Still, the loss of concrete progress, coupled with an almost-predatory currency scheme, has left me with a poor first impression: maybe if I continue playing, I’ll finally understand what the big deal is.
8. Fight Lab – Tekken Tag Tournament 2
I mentioned earlier that I’d had a fascination with the concept of customizing my own fighting game character – specifically something in line with the Create-A-Wrestler mode found in WWF games like WWF Attitude, WWF Wrestlemania 2000 and WWF No Mercy – but clearly, the logistics of creating such a mode back in the heyday of sprite-based 2D fighters made it impossible. You’d think that shift to 3D models pretty much across the board would’ve rectified that – but it took until 2012 for a company to come even remotely close to what I wanted. And ironically enough, it was the company that broke my heart several times with “Create-A-Soul”.
Fight Lab places players in command of the latest (and greatest) iteration of the Combot android, a bit player in Tekken 4 who acted as Mokujin’s replacement, fighting with a random choice of another roster member’s moveset. This new version is different, capable of equipping individual attacks taken from most of Tag 2’s gigantic roster on an individual basis, thus creating an original moveset. In order to unlock new attacks to add to Combot’s repertoire, players must complete a set of trials that veer from an outright tutorial to wacky mini-games. At one point, Combot even manages to face off against some opponents garbed in familiar (yet legally distinct) outfits.
Admittedly, when I was coming up with entries for this list, I considered using the Character Edit mode from Street Fighter EX3 instead. It’s more or less the same exact concept as TTT2’s Fight Lab and it came out a decade earlier. In the end, I gave the nod to Fight Lab for two reasons. First, it has a lot more in terms of customization. That applies to Combot’s moveset potential, but most importantly, in terms of the ability to customize Combot’s look. Ace always looks the same – and his design is pretty generic in the first place – but Combot also manages to exploit Tekken’s inherent costume customization to allow for some outlandish looks. The second stems from the feeling of progression: in Character Edit mode, completing trials unlocks currency which can be used to buy new special attacks and only by progressing through a set number of trials can more techniques be unlocked… for purchase. Fight Lab, on the other hand, just outright unlocks moves after completing each stretch of Fight Lab.
Honestly, the only real downside here is that the mode is short but considering that it leaves players with what is essentially a custom character, it’s definitely worth it. Too bad TTT2 performed so poorly: we’ll probably never see anything like this ever again.
7. Abyss Mode – Blazblue Continuum Shift EXTEND/Chronophantasma
While I said at the beginning of this article that I’d be avoid clichéd modes like Survival, but I didn’t say anything about modes that clearly improved upon tired concepts. Abyss Mode first debuted in the 3DS release of Continuum Shift II but managed to worm its way into the EXTEND release on other platforms, as well as both home conversions of Chronophantasma. It also, somehow, manages to use many of the concepts present in both Shadow Lords and Chaos Tower but presents them in a way I like significantly more.
For starters, it’s essentially a Survival take on the Chaos Tower concept – except players are descending deeper and deeper (fitting given its name). As the player performs better, the depth continues to increase and at certain depths (ranging from 20, 40, 60, 80, every 100 depths, Depth 999 and Depth 666), a boss encounter activates: forcing the player to fight a character using their “Unlimited” form, which is powered up and often given unique moves and abilities. After defeating the boss, the players are given a choice of four rewards, generally consisting of an increase in attack strength, speed, defense or meter build, currency that can be used in the shop, special abilities like healing items and various power-up auras or the ability to skip up or down a certain number of floors.
Originally, Continuum Shift simply consisted of four difficulties – Easy with 100 Floors, Normal with 500, Hard has a depth of 999 and ∞, which actually only has a mere 99,999 levels. The version found in Chronophantasma rebalances things with a total of 11 dungeons: ranging from 100 to 100,000 floors. Players can also unlock special abilities which can be equipped in Abyss Mode, either by leveling up or buying said upgrades in the Shop. Some power-ups are character-exclusive and certain bosses also have special abilities which are inaccessible to the player.
Of course, the next game in the series, Blazblue: Centralfiction has their own twist on the mode, retitling it as “Grim of Abyss Mode”. This iteration focuses more on customizing Grimoires with their own special abilities and leveling them up using character points. I honestly have no opinion on this mode – I’ve yet to play BBCF in any form – but this does sound like it’s on par with its predecessor. Regardless, it’s good to know that the legacy of Abyss mode will likely continue on in some form with later installments.
6. The Challenge Tower – Mortal Kombat (2011)
When it comes to single-player content in fighting games, I still think that Netherrealm’s 2011 reboot of Mortal Kombat is at the top of the heap. They had a cinematic story mode that acted as the genre’s pinnacle for years and didn’t even need to skimp out on the traditional arcade mode in the process. While NRS has experimented with various other modes in their later games, I still think that they managed to knock it out of the park with the Challenge Tower in “Mortal Kombat 9”.
Challenge Tower evokes the classic Mortal Kombat tower aesthetic, consisting of 300 individual challenges, forcing players to use a whopping majority of the cast. These consist of standard fights, side games like Test Your Might (or Sight, or Strike, or Luck…etc.) and even fights with special mechanics and unique opponents. Of course, the PS Vita version had an additional 150 challenges – an unfortunate consequence of Sony’s early strategy to get gamers to adopt their little handheld that couldn’t – bringing the total to 450. I really wish they would’ve brought this mode back in one of their later games, but Netherrealm seems dedicated to innovating with every new release, for better or for worse.
5. Quest Mode – Tobal No. 1
Ooooh, it’s our first genre-bender! Tobal No. 1 is a lesser-known fighting game – developed by the fine folks at DreamFactory and published by Square (back in the days where they occasionally did stuff besides RPGs) and with character designs from Akira Toriyama – and for me, another bit of nostalgia. After all, like Street Fighter EX+α, it was lent to me by a friend back in grade school.
Tobal No. 1 was one of many 3D fighting games to come out on the original PlayStation and it handled the concept perfectly, even incorporating full freedom of movement. In fact, I want to say that’s part of the reason why Quest Mode was possible in the first place. Rather than the traditional one-on-one fights of Tobal, Quest Mode was a full-on dungeon crawler, recontextualizing the gameplay into something of an action-RPG. As such, players not only fight random NPCs, but also has to contend with traps, navigate the game’s complex labyrinths and even purchase power-ups with crystals found throughout the mode.
While the mode itself is fun, it’s also somewhat brutal. There’s no way to save progress and dying means starting over from the very beginning. On the plus side, defeating specific opponents in this mode unlocks them as playable characters. Of course, the mode also returned with various improvements in Tobal 2, but considering the sequel was only released in Japan, I’m not really familiar with it. It’s kind of a shame, really: Tobal 2 was originally planned for a North American release, but all those involved decided to pass on it as they determined that the first game only sold well due to its pack-in bonus: a demo disc for Final Fantasy VII.
…and people wonder why I’m so bitter.
4. Chronicles of the Sword – Soulcalibur III
And the hits just keep on coming. Few would argue that the third game in the series, Soulcalibur II – Soul Blade (née Edge) was the first game, you poseurs – was the pinnacle of the franchise, but I think SC3 doesn’t get nearly enough love. Sure, it was a step down, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It introduced popular characters like Zasalamel and Tira, had some pretty awesome designs and some fantastic setpieces. On the other hand, it introduced us to the “Create-A-Soul” character creation tool: an outright forgery that allowed players to simply create outfits for pre-existing movesets and would go on to eating up more and more resources as the series continued.
Fortunately, when Create-A-Soul started out, it was fairly simple. But best of all, it launched alongside Chronicles of the Sword, a real-time strategy/fighting game hybrid with its own unique, self-contained story. Players send a troop of soldiers – consisting of the player’s chosen custom character, as well as several prefabricated ones – across the game map to overtake enemy strongholds or defend their own. Sending soldiers to a territory causes them to attack it and once the settlement’s “health” is whittled down to zero, the player takes control of the characters and fights the soldiers set to protect it in standard combat. If they win, they take over.
Chronicles’ unique gameplay comes across to me like a cross between traditional real-time strategy games, Risk and Fire Emblem, though that last bit may simply just be due to Soulcalibur’s similar medieval setting. Out of everything on this list, I’d say that Chronicles of the Sword is the most unique mode out there. Honestly, I’d love to see someone else – whether it’s just a mode in an existing fighting game or even an entirely separate game – explore this concept again.
3. World Tour Mode – Street Fighter Alpha 3
As we ascend to the top 3, we’ve finally happened upon the benchmark – the fighting game single-player mode I judge all others against. Out of all the other modes on this list, I probably have the fondest memories of World Tour Mode. Sure, it hid a lot of the PS1 version of Alpha 3’s unlockables behind it, but I actually like unlocking stuff.
World Tour Mode effectively allowed players to choose one character, along with their preferred style and tour the world, fighting various battles – many with their own unique special gimmicks – to level up their characters and unlock various power-ups that could be equipped to properly customize them. Better still, you could even use their personalized characters in various other game modes. In many ways, it is essentially the mode that the previously mentioned Shadow Lords mode completely ripped off, but frankly, I think World Tour mode handled it way better over a decade ahead of time.
Personally, I’ve been hoping ever since the Street Fighter franchise resurfaced, that we’d see a new take on World Tour Mode. Maybe even expand on it in some ways: add a color edit, allow for a much more in-depth level of character customization. Huh, maybe that’s why I liked Street Fighter X Tekken so much…
2. Tekken Force Mode – Tekken 3
Tekken 3 was a literal masterpiece when it came to extra content in a fighting game home conversion. Not only did the PlayStation 1 add new characters, it also added several new features. While its predecessor Tekken 2 had a host of cheat codes that allowed for things like a first-person wireframe view (resembling the arcade versions of Punch-Out!) and the then-ubiquitous big head mode, Tekken 3 included Tekken Ball Mode – which blended together the standard Tekken gameplay with a mixture of volleyball and dodgeball for something truly unique – as well as a fully-featured Theater Mode that even allowed players to view the cinematics and listen to the soundtracks of the first two games through the magic of disc swapping. It’s a shame that various rights issues have prevented it from being re-released in any legitimate capacity.
My favorite addition – if you haven’t guessed by now – was Tekken Force Mode, which essentially recontextualized the franchise into a traditional beat-‘em-up. Admittedly, compared to the previous two genre-benders I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t much of a shift. Beat-‘em-ups and fighting games had been linked for years: after all, Street Fighter begat Final Fight, which in turn begat Street Fighter II. Regardless, coupling the Tekken cast’s vast array of fighting techniques with a standard multi-plane sidescrolling beat-‘em-up was a genius move.
All of the playable characters were available to use in this mode and characters could mow down various grunts from Heihachi’s Tekken Force (oh, so that’s why it was called that!) before facing down other playable characters as stage bosses. What was really cool about this is that the player’s character selection actually determined the boss characters of each level – a nice touch that Namco didn’t necessarily need to add, but that’s what makes all the difference.
Of course, Tekken 4 also had its own take on Tekken Force Mode, but this was more of an early take on the 3D character action genre that emerged during the PlayStation 2’s heyday. Barely a year removed from the genre’s codifer – the original Devil May Cry – the attempt at trying to meld Tekken’s fixed fighting mechanics with the free-roaming movement typically found in this new genre felt awkward at best. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily bad per se, but it needed significant polish beyond what we saw in the final product and the concept probably would’ve worked better with a free-roaming fighting game like Virtual On, Power Stone or even Namco’s own Soulcalibur (given its “8-Way Run” mechanic).
1. Edge Master Mode – Soul Blade / Mission Battle – Soulcalibur / Weapon Master – Soulcalibur II
You’re probably wondering if this is a cheat or a three-way tie or something like that. In truth, all three of these modes are more or less the same – just given different names in each of the first three entries in the series. Personally, out of these three, Edge Master Mode is my clear favorite, but to leave the other two unacknowledged just because I felt the need to play favorites with my nostalgia felt unjustified.
Edge Master Mode was a pretty impressive concept when Soul Blade was released on consoles back in late 1996. It’s not unlike World Tour in many ways: players take on the role of one of the game’s characters and travel throughout the game’s world, searching for the blade of legend. In a sense, it’s kind of a story mode, but any and all backstory is told through text-only passages in a book chronicling the player character’s exploits. The focus is clearly on the fights – often including unique objectives. But the aspect of the game that excited me the most was that progressing through the mode often gives the character new weapons with different stats and special abilities. This was absolutely mind-blowing for me when I played it in the late ‘90s and is one of the key reasons I tracked down a copy of the game years later. In fact, it’s one of the few PS1 games I still own.
Soulcalibur had its own take on this mode: Mission Battle. While we lost out on the awesome weapon customization – all you could do was shift between the 1P, 2P and “Edge Master” variants and all three were mechanically identical – Mission Battle expanded on the length of the mode itself. The rewards had changed as well: completing missions granted players in-game currency which could be used to unlock gallery items. Mechanically speaking, Mission Battle feels way more advanced than its predecessor, but the loss of the additional weapons hit me hard back in the late ‘90s. Call it nostalgia blindness, but this one’s still number two in my book because of that.
Finally, we come to Soulcalibur II’s take on it – personally, it’s my least favorite of the bunch. It does attempt to split the difference between its two predecessors, which is a noble effort. Unfortunately, trying to satisfy fans of both modes lead to concessions. The unique weapons return, but they are purchased through an in-game store with currency earned by completing areas, as opposed to being earned through sheer progress. Likewise, while Weapon Master probably has more missions overall than Mission Battle, there are no longer any unique paths for each individual character. SCII does add one unique concept I really enjoyed though: certain stages are menu-based dungeons, where players face off against a gauntlet of enemies while trying to reach its boss. The characters also level up as players progress in the mode, though this mostly just unlocks additional bonus chapters in the mode.
Alas, SCII was where this mode’s line ends. I already told you about Soulcalibur III’s replacement, but Soulcalibur IV had Tower of Lost Souls, which is another Tower mode much like the aforementioned Challenge Tower, hiding several unlockables. SCV decided to focus on a story mode and SCVI appears to be following in its footsteps with two different story modes. I didn’t play much of IV and V, so I’m not really well-versed with their single-player content. Maybe Bandai Namco will consider adding a true successor to these modes as DLC in Soulcalibur VI down the line.
And those are my picks for the best single-player modes in fighting games. But what do you think? Do you agree with my picks? Was I too hard on Shadow Lords? Is there a particularly good fighting game mode you think I missed? Feel free to sound off in the comments. I might consider doing a follow-up article based on unique fighting game multiplayer modes down the line… if I can think of enough of them for a decent-sized list.0