On January 26, Bandai Namco will release Tekken 8 for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC. While there will surely be multiple seasons of DLC for the game, the first season will end right around the 30th anniversary of the series. 30 years of eight mainline titles, two tag team offshoots, a Nina Williams spinoff, some mediocre-at-best movies, a pretty decent Netflix animated series, and a handful of weird-ass comic tie-ins.
In those three decades, Bandai Namco gave us what might just be the best fighting game series to ever exist. If the fighting genre had a Mount Rushmore, surely the titles carved into it would be Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, and King of Fighters. I mean, I suppose you could argue Super Smash Bros., but the fighting game community treats it like Anakin Skywalker in the Jedi Council. It’s there, but is treated like an outsider.
But why is Tekken at the top of the top tier?
Ruling with an Iron Fist
In late 1993, Sega’s Virtua Fighter made waves by being this flashy, polygon-based 3D fighter. In a time when everyone was aping Street Fighter II, this was perhaps the most revolutionary evolution to come out of it. Some of the people who worked on it eventually moved to Namco, where they went to work on what would be the PlayStation’s answer to Virtua Fighter. The first Tekken, released in arcades in 1994, was rough around the edges and could not truly escape Virtua Fighter’s shadow, but it was successful enough as a first entry.
Tekken 2 built on its success and gave the series some serious momentum. The timing was perfect as in 1997, both Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat lost their hold on mainstream interest with Street Fighter III and Mortal Kombat 4 respectively. Then in 1998, Tekken 3 hit the PlayStation, becoming such a big deal that it’s the fifth biggest seller on the console. More people shelled out for Jin Kazama than Lara Croft or Crash Bandicoot.
In a time when 3D gaming was the rising fad in all of video gaming, Tekken reigned supreme. It not only had a better grasp on the concept than its traditionally 2D contemporaries, but soon overshadowed Virtua Fighter. The fighting game genre started to weaken in the 2000s, but Tekken stayed strong with its continuous releases. Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat eventually regained their household name statuses with 2008’s Street Fighter IV and 2015’s Mortal Kombat X, but Tekken never truly faltered. Though Tekken’s modern-day success is second to Mortal Kombat, Tekken 7’s sales have shattered Street Fighter’s recent releases.
The Consistent Gameplay
Previously, I have written articles that ranked every Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter game up to that point. There was juice in there because of how scattershot their titles get. As the years go on, their games each go in very different directions in terms of graphical style, gameplay, and overall quality. Tekken, on the other hand, continues to build upon itself.
Ignoring Death by Degrees, the Tekken games feel like a consistent product. The first game was rough, but there was something promising in its engine. Then Tekken 2 improved upon it. Tekken 3 improved on that. Soon each game was adding more ideas that were built on what came before it. Despite how far the series had evolved with Tekken 7, there are those who had not played since Tekken 3 and had no problem picking it up like it was riding a bike.
With Tekken, we get a satisfying formula that feels incredibly easy to pick up, but is difficult to truly master. Controlling the characters feels satisfying. Nailing a lengthy combo that involves crushing your opponent into a wall feels satisfying. Landing blows after the round has already ended feels satisfying. The tackles, sidesteps, reversals, and extensive movesets give you so many options in battle. Even watching it feels incredibly satisfying. When it comes to esports, Tekken tournaments are almost always the most hype matchups at fighting game events.
Thinking about it, what really separates Tekken from the rest is how it has the right balance of grounded martial arts bouts in a fantastical world. The usual fighting game has anime physics where fireballs are a dime a dozen and anyone on the street can simply jump 15 feet into the air to dodge them. It took a couple games to figure itself out, but Tekken characters aren’t that cartoonishly acrobatic. There’s a sense of…I’m not sure if “realness” is the right word, but the kind of fighting that feels at home in an awesome movie fight scene without breaking the suspension of disbelief. Yes, certain characters have outlandish attacks like lasers, fire breath, and crazy robot shit, but they pop and feel more special because it goes hand-in-hand with the MMA stuff.
Whether playing or watching, it’s so easy to get invested.
The Wild Bunch
Which fighting game series has the best overall cast of characters? Guilty Gear! But after that? Tekken!
Street Fighter is burdened with some lame characters from the very first game. Mortal Kombat’s PlayStation 2 era has more misses than hits. Virtua Fighter is a competition for who is the blandest martial artist of all time. King of Fighters has everyone on the Psycho Soldiers team. The Marvel vs. Capcom games have some iffy repurposed sprites. As for Tekken? Outside of maybe the middle-aged taekwondo instructor, everyone kicks ass.
Not only are the main Mishima characters all awesome in their own ways, but the cast of Tekken is this amazing, eclectic cast of badass oddballs who jibe with each other. There’s Bruce Lee, but he’s a perpetually broke chef. There’s a gruff biker in the midst of an endless midlife crisis. A couple of karate bears. A cybernetic Robin Hood whose sword’s origin dates back to the events of Soul Calibur. A boxing velociraptor. Rutger Hauer from Blade Runner. A bounty hunter who believes the secret to the perfect fighting style is to be really, really fat.
Then there’s the jaguar-masked grappler King and his rival/mentor Armor King, which gave me the false impression that I would be seeing more “Armor” variants in real-life pro wrestling. Where’s Armor X-Pac? Armor Orange Cassidy? Armor Giant Haystacks?
Tekken takes place in this strange world where everyone speaks their own language and everyone is universally fluent, even if it means a Chinese girl having a conversation with a panda who speaks in growls. There are strange characters, but nobody is too strange to coexist with the rest of this roster. Not even when they threw in Negan from Walking Dead with a guest spot!
The Ridiculous Story
If you’re one of those weirdos like me who actually cares about the lore of a fighting game, Tekken is probably the best long-running series. Maybe King of Fighters, but those years dedicated to Ash Crimson were kind of dire. Tekken started things off with a cool twist and built a whole insane world around it. They took a martial arts revenge story between father and son and decided that the protagonist’s son was not only evil, but he was arguably more of an asshole than his megalomaniac father.
The big origin story of Kazuya Mishima is that his father decided to throw him off a cliff when Kazuya was a little boy and over time we’re left to wonder, damn, maybe he had a point!
With the third game, the series succeeded in something that rarely works out with this genre: the time jump. Various series have tried moving forward 10-30 years and it’s a gamble. You’re aging most of your cast while adding either legacy characters or a handful of new names from whole cloth. Tekken 3 did that while taking Kazuya off the board completely and replacing him with a brand new protagonist in his son Jin Kazama. And it was great! People really seemed to dig Jin and the rest of the new cast while the new setting and direction added a fresh coat of paint to the mythos. It’s why the Netflix animated series was a retelling of Tekken 3 specifically.
Then things got more dramatic when Kazuya was resurrected in Tekken 4. Suddenly, it became this three-way war between these three generations and over time it escalated with Heihachi’s father, his demonic wife, his secret son, and so on. Now we’re at the point where there’s a world war going on centered around Jin and Kazuya and despite all the robots and demonic genetics, everything is fairly streamlined and coherent.
That’s the problem when these games go on too long. Mortal Kombat is in a rut of constantly rebooting itself. Street Fighter has great character work, but unless M. Bison’s trying to take over the world, everyone is just casually getting into fights with each other. BlazBlue and Guilty Gear are…man, I can’t even begin. But Tekken? It has its issues, but it at least seems to have focus.
In fact, here’s Brian Cox talking about it because we live in a strange timeline.
The big problem with Tekken’s story, especially in the later games, is that the focus is a bit too narrow. The Mishima family gets so much attention that nearly all the interesting characters making up the roster are thrown to the wayside. Paul Phoenix was initially portrayed as Kazuya’s rival and now he’s treated as an obscure joke and a loser. If they could copy Mortal Kombat’s ability to give nearly everyone something to do in the narrative, then they could fix all of that.
Presentation with No Equal
Fighting games need a strong package to appeal to everyone and Tekken rarely fails. For one, the act of beating arcade mode (in the consoles) rewards you with some of the best endings in any fighting game series. The CGI cutscenes in the first two games were groundbreaking at the time, though they’ve become laughably dated over time. Starting with Tekken 3, they still look impressive and have led to some amazing short movies over time.
Sometimes they’ve given us cool action sequences. Sometimes it’s ridiculous comedy. There are even a handful that are genuinely touching. There’s a reason why Tekken 7 lets you unlock every ending and intro from all the previous games as a bonus. They make beating the game feel truly rewarding.
Speaking of bonuses, Bandai Namco tends to knock it out of the park with the extra modes. Certain releases have beat ‘em up side games. A couple of the games have bowling because why the hell not? Then there’s Tekken Ball, a fighter/volleyball hybrid that will be making its return in Tekken 8.
Tekken rules down to its unnamed announcer, who sounds all gruff and cool whether he’s saying, “GET READY FOR THE NEXT BATTLE!” or, “CHICKEN!” Speaking of which, the Tekken 8 trailers have been using ring announcer Lenne Hardt and her passionate yells of each character’s name goes a long way in making this whole project feel epic.
With the addicting and satisfying fighting engine, excellent character designs, and iconic bells and whistles, the Tekken games just come together as this consistent stretch of quality. When it comes to picking up the controller and playing a few rounds, it really does feel like the brand name you can trust.