The Best Fighting Games to Play in 2021

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What are the best fighting games to play in 2021 and beyond? Following a number of bombshell releases and E3 announcements, the FGC (fighting game community) is looking to thrive more than ever in a post-2020 world. Whether you’re brand new or have been a part of the FGC for some time, we wrote this guide to help you choose a great fighting game to invest your time into.

You can skip straight down to our picks if you like, but if you’re new, I recommend reading the sections below first.

How Roster Size Can Impact Your Experience

Roster size is a big deal, especially in our modern era of fighting games.

Some players only want to see rosters expand with new characters and new opportunities as time goes on. But if you’re a newcomer or looking to compete at a high level, a large roster can seem rather daunting, especially if it’s the kind of game where knowledge of specific character matchups is of high importance.

I’ll clarify my thoughts on each game’s roster in its individual section, but roster size before and after DLC is one of the main data points I have listed for every game here.

Why Rollback Netcode Matters

Disclaimer’s first: not all rollback netcode is made equal. It is a sight better than the alternative, though, which is delay-based netcode. If a game has well-functioning rollback netcode, you may still experience occasional issues with connectivity, but you shouldn’t need to worry about severe slowdown or lost inputs in the majority of situations.

In our era of social distancing, a game offering good rollback netcode is a great way to ensure players and communities can continue enjoying their games without taking the risks associated with in-person events.

As long as you’re practicing the proper safety measures, though, I can’t recommend going to a local fighting game event enough! These events are where you’ll meet your strongest rivals and have the most potential to improve.

Do You Need an Arcade Stick?

The short answer is no, you can use whatever you like. People can win with just about anything if it suits them well enough.

Best Fighting Games 2021 Arcade Stick

The longer answer is no, but you may still want one! Even if you haven’t used an arcade stick before, they’re built for these kinds of games in a way that traditional gamepads are not. This is especially evident when you play a game like Street Fighter V, with six total punch and kick buttons. On an arcade stick, this easily fits, but on a controller, triggers and bumpers must be used to keep up with the sheer number of inputs.

Additionally, on a controller, you’ll be managing all of your face buttons with at best your thumb and your pointer finger. Many fighting games require you to push two to four attack buttons at once, and that’s much easier to do when you have five fingers to push eight buttons instead of just your thumb for four.

Our Picks of the Best Fighting Games:

1. Street Fighter V

  • Platforms Supported: PC, PS4 consoles, PS5 consoles
  • Crossplay Support: Yes
  • Rollback Netcode Support: Yes
  • Roster Size without DLC: 16, 40 (Champ Edition: PC/PS)
  • Roster Size with DLC-to-Date: 46 (Season 5)

Street Fighter V is an obvious pick for a best fighting game list. Street Fighter is the definitive fighting game series, and without it, chances are the rest of the games on this list simply would not exist. If they did, they’d be unrecognizable.

Best Fighting Games 2021 Sf5

Street Fighter V largely sticks to traditional 2D fighter design, as you would expect from a Street Fighter game. This means quarter-circle inputs, meters that can be partially or fully burned to unleash special moves, and a strong combo game. With a roster of this size and variety, you’re sure to never run out of things to learn and improve upon.

That being said, Street Fighter V can be pretty punishing, especially if you’re new to fighters of its ilk. Fortunately, the in-game training mode is decently in-depth, and the resources available online will teach you anything they don’t. As long as you’re patient and willing to put in the practice, Street Fighter V will show you an amazing time.

2. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

  • Platforms Supported: Nintendo Switch
  • Crossplay Support: No
  • Rollback Netcode Support: No
  • Roster Size without DLC: 69
  • Roster Size with Announced DLC-to-Date: 82 (Fighter’s Pass 2)

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is about as accessible as it gets for a fighting game. You only have two attack buttons and don’t have to do any kind of complicated motions for your special attacks.

Best Fighting Games 2021 Smashultimate

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is also the biggest crossover fighting game of all time. Out of the box, two Street Fighter characters are present. Later DLCs add more characters from more fighting games, including Terry Bogard from King of Fighters/Fatal Fury and Kazuya Mishima from Tekken. Even traditional fighting fans have characters to play here who can reflect their time spent learning those other games!

Despite the expansive roster of characters, the simplicity and accessibility of Smash Bros. doesn’t make this as much of an obstacle to newer players as it may look. You don’t need to study every conceivable matchup to be good at this game – focusing on fundamentals and perfecting the characters you actually play is all you really need.

As great as Smash Bros. Ultimate is, though, I do have to mention that its netcode is bad, even by non-rollback standards. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is best played locally. Ensuring both players have Ethernet can help alleviate some of the online issues though.

3. Guilty Gear Strive

  • Platforms Supported: PC, PS4 consoles, PS5 consoles
  • Crossplay Support: No
  • Rollback Netcode Support: Yes
  • Roster Size without DLC: 15
  • Roster Size with DLC-to-Date: 20 (Season 1)

Guilty Gear Strive is the most recently released game on this list, and at the time of writing, the most-played fighting game on Steam.

Best Fighting Games 2021 Strive

First and foremost, the visuals are gorgeous. The game looks like a super well-animated anime come to life, and you may not even believe that the visuals you’re looking at are actually 3D graphics. Its system requirements are fairly low, and it will run well on any reasonably modern CPU and GPU.

Secondly, this game is easy for newcomers to get into. A lot of changes and cuts have been made from previous entries to turn this into a streamlined jumping-on point for new fans. An exhaustive tutorial and mission mode will walk you through absolutely everything you need to know about the game, including specific character matchup tips. Most characters have no more than about 20 unique moves, and the roster is small enough that you’re unlikely to get overwhelmed as you keep playing and learning.

Despite the small roster, every character plays completely differently. There’s a ton of variety here, and there’s bound to be at least one character who suits your style. Strive is also lauded for having among the best (if not THE best) rollback netcode on the market, which means you’ll have the best possible online experience with this game.

4. Tekken 7

Tekken 7 is a curious case. This is one of the most punishing fighting games you can play, especially if you aren’t used to 3D fighters. Tekken 7 alleviates this by including 2D fighting game characters with their inputs intact, and they’re good!

Best Fighting Games 2021 Tekken7

This isn’t a game where just picking a good character is enough. You have to be fairly skilled with them to succeed. Each individual character in Tekken can have 100 or more moves in their movelist and at least a few 10-hit combo strings. Add that to a large roster, and it becomes a lot to keep track of.

As punishing as Tekken can be, there are many design elements in Tekken 7 that alleviate this. For instance, every character gets a special Rage Art when near KO that can be used to steal victory from an overly confident enemy. You can also use assist shortcuts for certain powerful moves.

Compared to Street Fighter, you actually have two fewer attack buttons to worry about. What you have to do is watch, learn, and adapt in real-time to how your enemy is playing, which is really just a fundamental fighting game skill.

Netcode-wise, Tekken 7 is pretty good. While it uses rollback, it uses a far inferior form of rollback when compared to other implementations. This is understandable, though, because a 3D fighter would naturally have many more real-time calculations to keep track of than a 2D fighter.

5. Mortal Kombat 11

Mortal Kombat 11 is a 2D fighter with great rollback netcode, an exhaustive set of tutorials, and amazingly realistic graphics. Mortal Kombat is built around rapid, brutal combat culminating in gruesome fatalities and other special moves. The amazingly realistic graphics may be offputting if you’re squeamish to scenes of blood and gore in your media.

Best Fighting Games 2021 Mk

Despite the harsh aesthetics, MK11 is a surprisingly beginner-friendly game, especially with its tutorials. It also has hours upon hours of single-player story content (more if you buy the DLC), considered by many to be the best offered in fighting games. Inputs still share some similarities with Street Fighter but are largely simplified to work better on a D-Pad – all commands use four directions, and no diagonal inputs are in sight.

This game won’t hold your hand, but it won’t leave you to fend for yourself in the woods either. If you’re looking for a chunky-but-satisfying fighting game, it’s hard to beat Mortal Kombat 11.

6. Soul Calibur VI

Soul Calibur VI is one of the more unusual picks we’ve placed here, but we stand by it. Like Tekken, Soul Calibur is a 3D fighting series, but unlike Tekken, the focus is on melee combat with various weapons. If you’ve been looking for a fighting game with swordplay and fancy circle-strafing, Soul Calibur is probably what you’re looking for.

Best Fighting Games 2021 Soulcal

In addition to excellent weapon-based combat, Soul Calibur VI also has a super in-depth character creation tool that can be used to make all manner of art and abomination. For the wider gaming community that isn’t dedicated to Soul Cal full time, its character creation tends to be the main draw.

Unfortunately, the game doesn’t have rollback netcode. My experiences playing it online have been generally fine, but playing overseas or at other very long distances is definitely not recommended with netcode like this.

7. Skullgirls 2nd Encore

  • Platforms Supported: PC, PS4 consoles, PS5 consoles, PS Vita; Xbox release announced years ago but has yet to happen
  • Crossplay Support: No (unless between PS consoles)
  • Rollback Netcode Support: Yes
  • Roster Size without DLC: 14
  • Roster Size with Announced DLC-to-Date: 18 (Season 1)

Skullgirls 2nd Encore is a traditional 2D fighter with a unique hand-drawn aesthetic. As the name might imply, the roster is largely dominated with a variety of female characters, ranging from nurses to zombies to demon nuns. In addition to a unique artstyle and an extremely diverse roster, you also have superb rollback netcode to wrap a nice bow on the experience.

Best Fighting Games 2021 Skullgirls

While Skullgirls isn’t as popular as the entries we’ve listed above, it’s kept a dedicated following over the years. That “2nd Encore” in the title is actually the result of a crowdfunding campaign that revived the game from a long period of dormancy. Now that 2nd Encore is on, support has officially restarted with Season 1, which at the time of writing is slated to introduce four more characters to the roster over the next two years.

8. Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid

Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid is the only fighting game out right now that supports both rollback netcode and full cross-platform support. As long as you and your friend both have this game, you can play it online together (regardless of the platform) and have an amazing experience, and that by itself is an astounding achievement.

Best Fighting Games 2021 Powerrangers

There are no complicated motion inputs to worry about remembering here. Plus, if you’re a Power Rangers fan, you’ll see a lot of deep cuts from the various versions of Power Rangers released over the years.

This is a tag team fighting game, so you aren’t controling just one character. You cycle between controlling one to three characters during each match, with one player cycling between their characters as they lose health or are KO’d until one of the players has no characters left.

This is our main tag-team fighting game recommendation due to the full cross-platform support and excellent netcode, but there are a few others worth checking out! Marvel vs Capcom 3 and Dragon Ball FighterZ both provide excellent tag battle gameplay, though they won’t have either the beginner-friendliness or superb netcode of Battle for the Grid.

9. Killer Instinct

Killer Instinct is a 2D fighting game with a free-flowing combo system. It’s easy to rack up pretty insane combos with basic button combinations once you figure out how Killer Instinct works, but the big twist of that system is the combo breaker system. Basically, if you press the same button your enemy is pressing while they’re comboing you, you can break out of it. This is different from most fighting games, where getting combo’d pretty much means you put down the controller until they’re done.

Best Fighting Games 2021 Killerinstinct

The Free-to-Play business model does leave some things to be desired, but most of the time, it’s fine. If you just pay the asking price for the game (or get Game Pass), you can get all 29 characters and not have to worry about who’s on the rotation this week.

Beside being Free to Play, the game also has crossplay between PC and Xbox consoles. As long as you and your friends have a PC or Xbox, both of you could start playing it together without spending a penny.

Parting Words

I tried to look at all the big fighting games on the market and really narrow down the best picks. Ultimately, I can’t tell you which game or even which character in that game is best for you, but part of the fun of fighting games is learning that stuff about yourself.

Meanwhile, check out the best gaming console in 2021 and whether a gaming laptop is worth buying.

Image Credit: unmatched value on WikiMedia Commons

Christopher Harper Christopher Harper

I'm a longtime gamer, computer nerd, and general tech enthusiast.

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