There’s something intrinsically satisfying about a good video game combat system. The way that punches or swings connect in grandiose, colorful animations; the satisfying *crunch* of a perfectly-timed hit. Whether you’re beating down CPU’s in the grimy streets of Double Dragon or taking on real players in a match of Mortal Kombat, digital expressions of close-quarters violence fill us with a sense of satisfaction that can few other things can rival. But as wonderful as a good martial arts session or boxing match is, there’s also a wonderful world of potential in the art of swordsmanship.
Sword-based combat has been around almost since the dawn of video games. Considering that a lot of early video game designers of the 1970’s played Dungeons & Dragons and read Lord of The Rings, it would only make sense that the video game industry has adopted the weapons of the fantasy setting. As violent as they are, swords and other melee weapons are intrinsically fascinating to watch, and exhilarating to wield. So ever since the mid-80’s, plenty of games have given a stab (get it?) at emulating the thrill of a sword fight. And a few have gone down as some of the greatest games ever made.
What exactly makes a “good” swordplay system? How do games like Dark Souls, Zelda, Dead Cells, and Soulcalibur get the feel and glory of a sword fight so right? That’s a colossal question to dive into, but before we do, let’s take a moment to overview some of the most influential combative swordplay games in history.
A Brief History
The Legend of Swordplay
When the first Legend of Zelda released in 1986, it primarily focused on the world-exploring and puzzle-solving aspects of an adventure game, but not so much the combat. That would be saved for 1987’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which had a side-scrolling perspective and a collection of surprisingly difficult enemies. Link’s move set, consisting of a standing, crouching, upward, and downward stab, brought with it a reflexive combat system for taking enemies on one at a time. You would be forced to balance using your shield and sword, and ducking or jumping as darknuts and stalfos relentlessly approached and dueled you. While some would argue that Zelda II hasn’t held up all too well, it nonetheless laid the groundwork for video game swordsmanship.
Modern swordplay combat owes a lot of its roots to fighting games of the early nineties. Games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat introduced the arcade scene to the nuances of an accessible yet mechanical combat system. Complex fighting games share many of their elements with equally complex sword duels. Some of these elements are hitstun, various attack powers, and shielding/blocking. Without competitive fighters, there’s no guarantee that modern sword-fighting games would be the same today.
The 3D Revolution
Fast forward to the late nineties. Home consoles were entering the 3D era, and the PlayStation was still in its infant years. A Square-developed game, Bushido Blade, released in 1997, and to this day, it remains one of the most realistic sword duel games ever made. In Bushido Blade, a battle can be over in a few seconds. Every sword swipe can be a critical blow, even though hardly any of the 8 characters’ attacks are over-exaggerated or too far-reaching. Professional sword instructors have told that this game is as close to real sword fighting as any video game they’ve seen, which is especially impressive, considering it’s over 20 years old.
One year after Bushido Blade, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time released for the Nintendo 64. Besides being a commercial and critical wonder, Ocarina of Time also implemented the lock-on-camera, which you’ll probably know from games like Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and even later Zelda games. Nintendo invented the very concept of being able to tether the camera to a certain enemy while fighting it, centering the attention of the fight on the target. At a time when 3D games and combat were still getting their bearings, this was a revolutionary concept, and would later go on to define 3D swordplay games.
Other games like Soulcalibur, Symphony of The Night, and of course Dark Souls would eventually come to define how we know video game swordsmanship. But that’s enough for our history lesson; what makes these games so special? Why does sword fighting make for such an intriguing and satisfying video game system?
The Nuances of a Swordfight
There’s an important distinction to make between a swordfight and a battle of fisticuffs. In a swordfight, the range of each weapon is the driving factor. After all, a sword, club, axe, or spear can reach a great deal longer than the length of your arm. This fact alone raises the risks and benefits of swordplay compared to, say a boxing match. The added length of a melee weapon makes the distance between each opponent relatively short, making ripostes and punishes all the simpler when one opponent whiffs.
Turns out, this simple factor – range – works incredibly well as a video game mechanic. When your opponent’s sword reaches just as far as your own (or further), you’re forced to keep your distance. You can only engage when you’re certain that you can get a hit. And how do you know when you can get a hit in? By reading your opponent’s attack animations.
I Saw That Coming
Whether it be a CPU or a real opponent, every foe you duel telegraphs their incoming move through animation. In Dark Souls, you can avoid Chaos Witch Quelaag’s devastating explosion attack if you see her whisper in her spider mount’s ear. Smart yet subtle animations like these reward the player for being attentive to their enemy’s attack patterns and are crucial for a competitive player. However, the player character has their own animations and weaknesses as well.
Every attack you’ll ever pull off in an action video game (swordplay or not) has three phases: the startup, the impact, and the cooldown. The spin attack in Breath of The Wild has a lengthy startup animation and a long cooldown time, while the typical swing only takes a few milliseconds to get going and doesn’t leave you open; however, the spin attack does more damage than the short swing. Typically, strong attacks always leave you more open than weaker, quicker ones. This balancing is essential when you’re fighting with melee weapons and shields, quickly switching from offensive to defensive.
Balanced… As All Things Should Be
That balance between offense and defense is arguably the most crucial of all. The combat system needs to provide a compelling reason to neither block nor attack 100% of the time. When the system relentlessly throws enemies at the player, never encouraging them to play defensively, it quickly becomes stale. Inversely, combat systems that encourage players to wait forever for a single weakness lose their own worth over time. Luckily, there are games that tread this narrow line excellently. Hollow Knight forces you to step back from battle every now and then to heal up, while Bloodborne gives some of your health back if you attack immediately after being hit.
Now, there’s one wonderful technique that’s both offensive and defensive at the same time: counter-attacks. Counters and parries encourage the player to pause for a moment, predict the enemy’s attack, and punish it immediately. A parry in Nioh sends the camera into an intense cinematic shot of the player back-stabbing their victim. A perfectly-timed sidestep in Breath of The Wild sends Link into a flurry of bullet-time stabs. When a game rewards the player’s quick reflexes with a satisfying finishing blow, the feeling of accomplishment is colossally high.
Flipping the Perspective
Outside of combat itself, perspective can be a key component to how you strategize your attack plan. Even something as seemingly simple as camera placement can greatly influence your perspective of any sword fight. Many Souls-likes and Zeldas have adopted Ocarina of Time’s lock-on-camera, but some do it differently than others. Dark Souls’ camera stays at a nice, comfy distance from the player, while Wind Waker zooms in nice and close. Then there’s For Honor, where the camera stays on roughly the same altitude as the player’s head.
Lock-on camera isn’t essential for a great fighting system, however. Chivalry Medieval Warfare is played entirely from a first-person perspective, using position-based commands instead of various kinds of attacks. Then there’s the Soulcalibur series, which is a beautiful blend of fighting game combat and swordplay, all viewed from a semi-2D perspective. Of course, if 3D isn’t your thing, there are plenty of 2D sword simulators that are just as mechanically deep. Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, and Symphony of The Night are all gorgeous examples of 2D combat done right.
The Wonderful World of Swordsmanship
The depth of some of the games mentioned here is absolutely astounding. Even 50 hours into Bloodborne or Dead Cells, there are tricks that you can learn from the plethora of techniques. If you haven’t given any of these games a shot, please do so. They’re shining examples of the video game medium’s artistic epitome of swordsmanship. Through over 25 years of experience, developers have been able to nail down what makes swordplay so satisfying. And with more titles from From Software and Nintendo on the horizon, it looks like swordplay will be here to stay for a very long time.
For more on video games with swords, guns, fists or kicks, be sure to stay tuned to Culture of Gaming.