By Mr. Saint
I love fighting games. There’s just something about that particular video game genre that has always captivated me. The intersection of theorycrafting and practiced mechanical execution have always kept me coming back. I still watch the Evo Championship Series every year and follow the Capcom Pro Tour whenever I have time. While I can enjoy 3d fighters (and had quite a proficiency in Soul Calibur 2, back in the day), and marvel at the skill ceiling and execution requirements of the anime fighters, my favorites will always be the classic 2d fighters, especially the Street Fighter franchise.
But, I must confess, I haven’t actually played a video game fighter in over five years. Now in my mid-thirties, my reflexes aren’t what they once were. I also don’t have the time to spend hours in training mode practicing combos and special moves to play fighting games at a competitive level. Instead, I have been looking for an analog fix to my digital woes. We started by dusting off Yomi (read our review here), a game that we already owned but hadn’t played in a long time. More than anything, revisiting Yomi reignited my interest in exploring the plethora of two-player dueling games. After some research and deliberation, we settled on Level 99’s Exceed Fighting System as the next game to try.
The Exceed Fighting System (hereinafter Exceed) is a two player card battler. The goal of each game of Exceed is to reduce the opponent to zero life. To that end, players will take control of a character from an ever growing roster of intellectual properties. Recognizable cultural icons from the Street Fighter universe may be joined in battle with the magical and monstrous denizens of Level 99’s own Seventh Cross. Shovel Knight, from Yacht Club Games, might find himself facing off against Motion Twin’s Beheaded. New characters are getting added all the time, and while individual IPs have their own unique styles, they all work seamlessly within Exceed’s system.
Each of Exceed’s characters is represented by a deck of thirty cards. Half of each deck is the same, composed of two copies each of eight different Normal attacks. These attacks represent the type of things most any fighting game character can do, like a sweep, blocking, or throwing their opponent. The remaining cards in each deck comprise a character’s Special attacks and Ultras. Often, these are a character’s signature abilities from their source material, such as Ryu’s Hadoken. Each deck has a reference card which details the Special attacks and Ultras of that character, which should be given to the opponent at the start of a game.
A game of Exceed occurs in a nine space arena, with players taking turns doing various actions. These actions include things like moving, changing out cards in hand for others, or putting a boost into play. Boosts are temporary bonuses, which usually last until after the resolution of the next strike. Some actions require force, which can be generated either by discarding cards from hand or by spending gauge (gauge is primarily earned from successful strikes).
One of the most important actions a player can take in Exceed is initiating a Strike. When a Strike is initiated, the attacker sets one of their attacks facedown on the table. Then the defender does the same. Both cards are revealed simultaneously, and the attack with the highest revealed speed is resolved first (ties go to the person who initiated the Strike). All attacks have a range, determining at what distance from the enemy fighter your attack will be effective.
As an example, an attack with a range of 1-3 will hit the opponent if they are one, two, or three spaces away from you, but will miss if they are further. If an attack hits, it deals damage to the opponent equal to its power minus any armor the opponent has. Then, if the opponent isn’t stunned (a character is stunned when the damage they take from a strike is greater than their attack’s guard value), their attack now resolves. Any attacks that successfully hit go to their player’s gauge, which can be spent later on powerful Ultra attacks or to flip your character to their stronger Exceed mode.
It’s all pretty simple. Some attacks have Before, Hit or After triggers which might complicate things a bit, but the triad of speed, range and power form the basis for how most strikes will resolve. Players will continue taking actions in turn until one of them is victorious.
I have to admit, when I first heard that every character’s deck in Exceed contains the same number and distribution of Normal attacks, it was not a selling point. Rather, I was concerned that having fully half of each character’s deck be the same would result in an overall feeling of homogeneity. Especially after playing Yomi, where virtually every card in each character’s deck was unique to that character, it was hard to look at Exceed’s Normals as anything but a negative when forming my preconceptions of the game.
I’m happy to report that this is one of the many times in my life where I got it absolutely wrong. Exceed’s Normal attacks are the glue that binds the whole system together. Their ubiquitous inclusion instantly makes Exceed more approachable than Yomi, as, even if you don’t know what your opponent’s character is capable of, you know they have 2 Assaults, 2 Grasps, etc. in their deck. Starting with this shared framework across all of the characters, players can quickly internalize Exceed’s systems and start to make informed, tactical decisions in relatively few plays.
As an example, let’s say it’s your turn, you’re at Range 2, and you’ve decided you want to Strike. Your opponent only has 6 life left, so connecting with the Sweep in your hand should close out the game. Looking through the opponent’s discard pile, you see that neither of their copies of Cross are present. As such, you know it is risky to commit to an attack with less than 6 Speed at this range, as anything slower may potentially be met with one of those previously unseen Crosses, damaging you and catapulting the opponent’s character to safety before your attack has a chance to land (an attack with 6 Speed would win a tie against your opponent’s Cross because you’re initiating the Strike). Maybe you aren’t initiating a Strike with Sweep this turn after all.
After only a handful of games, Mrs. Saint and I were able to intuit whether a given attack was more or less likely to be successful by comparing it to the normals that are effective at that range. Because the Normals are present in every character’s deck, they form the baseline by which other attacks will be evaluated against. Digging deeper into the world of Exceed, I later found out this was a design principle known as the “Speed Curve”. But I think it speaks volumes to Exceed’s approachability that we were able to internalize this concept before I had ever heard of it.
While the Normals are the core of Exceed’s gameplay, Level 99 has done an admirable job of making each fighter feel different and exciting through their Special attacks and unique abilities. Most of Ken’s Specials allow him to close distance with the opponent and are better if you are the one initiating the strike, giving you the sense that he is an aggressive brawler. By contrast, the bevy of defensive stats and low speed on Geoffrey’s Specials indicate you will be playing a more reserved game, trying to trade favorably rather than win strikes outright. With a constantly expanding cast of characters derived from various gaming IPs, there’s an Exceed fighter to fit anyone’s personal style.
And you know what? Exceed does feel like the best parts of a fighting game to me. Gone are the execution and reflex based barriers to mastery, but the tactical play of the best fighting games remains. Controlling space, proper positioning, understanding your opponent’s options and reading their intent: it’s all there. Like its source material, Exceed is quick and punchy. And like the best moments of its video game predecessors, it’s incredibly gratifying to get into your opponent’s head, correctly predict what they want to do, and cut them off at the knees with the perfect counter.
One might argue that, when compared to digital fighting games, there is less player agency in Exceed. In digital fighting games, all options are always available to you (barring things like super moves which usually rely on some type of resource that must be accumulated). It’s up to you to correctly analyze a situation in order to determine the best play and then follow up with the necessary mechanical execution in order to realize your plan. Because Exceed uses a randomized deck of cards to represent your fighter’s available moves, and because you do not have access to the full deck at all times, your choices are limited by comparison.
And I think that is a fair criticism. But I also think it’s a bit overblown. In our experience, judicious use of the Change Cards and Reshuffle actions significantly reduce variance and help players find relevant options. On occasion, you may legitimately have a game where you feel like you can’t do anything because you’re not getting the cards you need, but this has probably occurred once in thirty games for us. And with the average game of Exceed lasting around fifteen minutes, the next exciting match is literally only a handful of minutes away.
We initially bought a couple of boxes in order to give Exceed a try. While our collection started out with only eight fighters, it has quickly grown to a roster of over forty. Exceed fits a niche in our collection as the perfect game to squeeze in when we have thirty minutes or less but still want a rich gaming experience. It captures the best parts of fighting games while simultaneously being more accessible than its digital counterparts. So far, it’s our most played game of 2020, a trend I expect to continue. And at this point in time, it’s easily my favorite two-player game.