Modern fighting games, whether obscure Japanese imports or games as mainstream as the Mortal Kombat series, are almost always designed as esports. These games are extensively tested by genre veterans and tournament champions to make sure their systems can bend, but never break, to offer an equal playing field to serious competitors.
That’s the modern style, and it’s led to a decade-long genre renaissance of fighting games. Best not to knock it; fairness is an honorable goal.
But Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid (on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One) is not such a well-oiled machine. It feels a little bit … off, even at first touch.
Hits don’t land when they feel like they should, or they actually do hit when they feel like they shouldn’t. I can’t play for long without some kind of weird glitch popping up. I notice the grenade that stays in the floor, the camera tilting off-center, or the way the game sometimes gives the win to the wrong player.
You can see how a player accidentally glitches a new attack into existence in the above clip from the Michigan Masters tournament, and he wins the match as the crowd chants “bullshit!” at him.
Clips in this article were performed on older builds of Battle for the Grid; a very recent patch has toned down the most egregious combos.
And that patch almost feels like a shame. The game is fun because it’s a mess, not in spite of it.
Battle for the Grid is specifically a tribute to Marvel vs. Capcom 2, an old favorite that becomes wild and broken in the hands of experts. Combos that loop indefinitely into themselves? Characters who can kill with a single touch? Bring ’em on. Mysteriously glitchy and defying common notions of “good” or “bad” game design, Battle for the Grid is, as a teammate put it to me at my last tournament, “held together by duct tape.”
Yet a certain sub-niche of fighting game players rejoiced when it was released, and I continue to share their enthusiasm, even as updates wipe away some of what made the game so interesting.
What is this game?
Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid is a fighting game by NWay, the developer of the Power Rangers: Legacy Wars mobile game.
Battle for the Grid aims for ease of play by adding a single “special” button for all special moves, just like the Smash Bros. series, eliminating the use of Street Fighter-style “hadoken” special move commands. This lowers the barrier to entry significantly, welcoming beginners in and letting them do cool stuff right from the beginning.
Being welcoming is a noble goal, but Battle for the Grid is still basically Marvel vs. Capcom at heart. Like the Marvel series games, this three-on-three tag-team fighter has a solid variety of character types — despite only having a roster of 12 fighters — and wide-open systems that allow for a lot of player creativity.
High-level play is incredibly cutthroat and brutal as a result. Expert players can stage an offense that their opponents literally can’t see coming, and then land combos that kill from a single hit.
The video above is from my own matches on the current patch. The Mastodon Sentry player puts down cover fire, predicts and counters my first move before leveraging it into the first of two combos that kill my character in seconds.
There are two sharply divided camps playing this game: big Power Rangers fans — the characters come mostly from the dark alternate universe comic Shattered Grid, something only serious fans would even know exists— and competition-oriented fighting game fanatics. The moves are easy enough for casual players to have fun button mashing, and the merciless nature of the game’s high-level play appeals to the latter group.
Ranked online modes deliberately keep the two groups apart, lest the pro ruin the fan’s fun. Both sets of fans should, ideally, be able to enjoy the game by playing against others in their skill group.
I rushed to buy this game as soon as I could fit it into my schedule; I was hoping to try it out in its early state before the developers patched out the broken techniques I was seeing all over Twitter. Sure enough, I was pulling off the nearly endless loop combo with the Green Ranger you see above within 20 minutes of trying the training mode.
My fears were also validated the next day when a patch toned this loop down, along with several other obvious infinite combos. Even so, the original combo was emblematic of how the system still works: find some moves that loop into each other, and repeat until the game stops you. Sometimes the game won’t stop you, however, or it’ll stop you too late. Either way, finish with a super move and your opponent is mostly dead. But it also won’t always work. Good luck!
You can see an “average” combo with the powerful Magna Defender above. The current patch has not touched this combo or this character’s high damage.
Just a little bit of basic combo research sent me careening up the ranks of the online mode into Platinum rank, where I would find and play against the truly merciless players. The sheer, overwhelming amount of damage output players gain by learning just a few basic combos puts them permanently ahead of the newbie.
This only scratches the surface, however. In a race against the developer — who could patch out even more tricks at any moment — players are still actively finding new combos and setups in the month or so since the game’s release, working their hardest to further break the game. They’re also doing free quality assurance work, but that comes with the territory for high-level fighting game players.
Most of the combos you see in this article are not my original inventions. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was beaten senseless with them, recorded my matches, and immediately departed to training mode to copy my opponent’s technique.
See the vicious setup with Ranger Slayer above: Setting up a bomb at just the right time, Slayer can effectively kill the opponent in one hit from a single instant jump attack that hits crouching opponents before they can see it coming. The two-move loop that ensues should by all rights trigger the game’s infinite combo prevention system but, until the most recent patch, it didn’t. After all, the developers might not have even known it existed.
The game ends the combo after a set number of repetitions in the most current patch, making this strategy no longer something that will give you an instant kill. Part of me thinks a bit of the fun has been removed from the game.
Battle for the Grid works when it’s broken
Ranger Slayer is hardly the only character who packs that kind of punch: The name of the game against skilled players is basically death in one (or two) hits. I stuck with Goldar, both because of my childhood nostalgia for the old villain and the fact that it used to be trivially easy for the character to kill from a single hit at point-blank range.
These kinds of tactics would present problems in most modern fighting games, and developers and fans would view them as issues to be patched out. Players who paid good money for the game would likely upset at having to deal with Goldar running around, insta-killing everybody. Indeed, Goldar is drastically weakened in the current patch.
But I think there’s a better way to look at this game’s situation: as an experiment in old-school chaos.
Developers couldn’t easily patch a fighting game before online updates became common. Plenty of games were released “broken,” and it was already too late to fix anything once the disc shipped. Players in those days had no real option but to adapt to the bugs and glitches of each game. The players who became the most skilled at each game came to understand, and even love, the idiosyncrasies of these glitches and exploits.
Even classics like Capcom vs. SNK 2 and Street Fighter Alpha 3 had bugs that were so powerful they dictated the high-level play. This has led to a general “let it rock” attitude in the community, and a niche who cut their teeth on so-called “broken” fighting games. The unfair nature of fighting those who knew the arcane tricks and rules was part of the draw; you either learned by being beaten by those better than you or you never learned at all. Learning how to use, and protect yourself, from the weirder stuff in each game was almost like a trial by hazing.
And this was fun because power feels good. “Unfair” advantages can be fun to wield, if you’re willing to accept that “unfair” can happen to you just as easily. Games like this can be downright hypnotic as spectator sports; they can feel like watching a poker game between two sleight of hand magicians who both know the other is cheating, but who aren’t allowed to do anything about it.
I find it really refreshing to see a new, broken fighting game after a decade of “clean” games. Balance by itself does not necessarily mean fun, and broken mechanics can be a howling good time in the right context, and often way more fun than a fixed version could ever be. Today obscure games with broken mechanics like Sailor Moon S and Fist of the North Star are played at extremely sophisticated levels by players who revel in wielding unfair levels of power, and new players who try to tackle those games know exactly what they’re getting into.
Solo TOD from jump in. 1 bar start. #BFTG_GDR pic.twitter.com/7dTPSAtV4p— GoofyHatMatt (@GoofyHatMatt) March 26, 2019
A truly well-balanced version of Battle for the Grid would just be an average fighting game with little to differentiate itself but its characters. Indeed, the whole point for many Grid players is to actively work to make the game as busted as possible by finding new tricks before they’re patched out. And the game is transcendent as an arms race between players searching for glitches and a development team trying to patch them out.
And make no mistake, post-patch players are already working on saving my guy Goldar.
The beginning of a scene?
There isn’t exactly a formal Battle for the Grid tournament scene that I’m aware of yet, but we do have the full footage of this wonderful “Poder Rangers” event from the Michigan Masters tournament series, where the most important rule is that players have to drink a shot after each win.
Everyone involved is drinking and hollering, and the technique isn’t exactly perfected yet, but the sheer energy from this basement crowd is contagious. Watch the whole thing and tell me you’re not yelling “Call the police!” and making machine gun noises as Mastodon Sentry fights his way to the top. The crowd has more fun, and gets more rowdy, as things get stupider, and they mock Goldar on principle and chant “bullshit!” at glitches.
Both the winner and the loser are often laughing at the end of each match due to the sheer absurdity of the whole thing. Who cares if you lose if the game isn’t fair? Who cares if you cheat if those same cheats are available for both players to find and use?
As Battle for the Grid play reaches higher and higher levels, and these exact same people get in a hotel room to scream drunkenly at it, it might accidentally create the ultimate spectator esport, or at least the most fun esport.
So save me a seat when they do; I’ll bring a six-pack.