Whenever people ask me how to get started playing fighting games, my usual reply is to tell them to find the game that got them interested and ask the people who are playing it where to begin. If your interest is piqued because you watched LI Joe's Evo run in Street Fighter V, then go play Street Fighter V; if it was Hungrybox that did it for you, go play Melee. Every now and then, however, I get people who are asking me this because they're interested in diving into the genre, not a specific game, which I think is funny. Imagine spending decades of your life playing baseball over basketball because I said you should on the Internet.
That said, I think it's actually a great question! And really, starting with Smash because you saw it on a Twitch stream isn't any less arbitrary than starting with Street Fighter because you stumbled across this column. So, to the best of my ability, I will walk you through a tour of different fighting game experiences and see if any of them catch your eye.
Street Fighter V
If you ever pay attention to the story in a Street Fighter game, you'll find that the world feels small--just a couple dozen martial artists wandering the world, testing their strength against old friends and new rivals and learning more about themselves in the process. That's basically the Street Fighter experience at its best; SF is the common language of the worldwide fighting game community as it exists presently. I've met people playing Street Fighter in San Francisco and seen them ten years later at an arcade in Tokyo.
Street Fighter games change from series to series, but the games tend to emphasize mid-range engagements, where players get to feel each other out and jockey for positional advantage in the dance of death we call "footsies." Learning to play (and love) footsies is central to fighting games in general, but few games go as hard on them as Street Fighter, and I think this is a key part of SF's status as a genre staple; you learn more about your opponent through footsies than you do in any other part of a fighting game match.
SFV does have some downsides, though. Compared to the rest of the genre, SFV characters don't have much diversity in playstyle or range, and the game's built-in eight frames of input delay make it a little harder to have rich, interesting conversations. (If SF is the common language of fighting games, SFV is speaking that common language through a laggy Skype connection.) Sometimes, it feels like SFV simply isn't worthy of the same love you put into earlier games.
So, it's not uncommon for people to get started with SF and then migrate to another game, like King of Fighters, Killer Instinct, or Tekken, each of which take the core of a Street Fighter-ish game and add their own spin; KOF games give you more ways to move your character (running, rolling, several different jumps), Killer Instinct's Combo Breaker system essentially gives you a chance to rock-paper-scissors your way out of a combo if the attacker is being predictable, and Tekken adds a third dimension to the playfield, letting you sidestep attacks and rotate around your opponent.
Every genre has a game that is better than the humans that play it; for fighting games, that genre is Guilty Gear. Where Street Fighter tries to walk the line between complexity and accessibility, Guilty Gear isn't afraid to give you a lot of things to do and make some of them very, very hard. I started playing with Guilty Gear XX in 2003 and I am not surprised to find that many of the people I played with since then are A) still playing fighting games or B) now in the business of making fighting games. I've long had a pet theory that everyone who loves 2D fighting games eventually becomes a Guilty Gear player. Guilty Gear is like landing your dream job and realizing that sometimes it still sucks to wake up and do a thing even if you love it.
When you lose in Street Fighter, it's not always easy to figure out why you lost and how you can get better. Leveling up often requires digging deeply into abstract concepts, like recognizing patterns in your opponent's behavior or learning to identify and control your opponent's space. Every single Guilty Gear character's toolset is so rich that you'll always have multiple possible answers to any of your opponent's tactics, and the challenge lies in quickly finding an answer and successfully executing it. If I'm defending an attack in SFV, I can block it; in Guilty Gear, I can block, Instant Block, Faultless Defend, or Blitz Shield. I'm not even going to explain the differences here. You just need to know that GG has four different kinds of blocking.
Learning a Guilty Gear character is a lifelong investment. (I learned Chipp combos 13 years ago that still serve me well.) The path to mastery is endless, and you'll never be short on things you can improve on. Because of this, it can be less frustrating to lose. I get less salty about losing in Guilty Gear than any other fighting game because I know just how much work it takes to get good. Which is useful, because you'll probably lose a lot before you ever start winning.
But the highest point of Guilty Gear is the community; if SF evokes the camaraderie of the dojo, Gear adds a little special something on top of that. To be a Guilty Gear player is to weave together two things: the pride that comes from knowing that you have chosen what is objectively one of the hardest games to master, and the self-awareness that comes from acknowledging that you're a mature adult human being worshipping at the altar of ridiculous heavy metal anime. The result is a community that is sincere and welcoming and warm, and honestly, if I had to recommend a game based on the quality of the people who played it, Guilty Gear would win out in a heartbeat.
Let's be honest: If you're interested in playing Smash, you're probably already playing it actively. I've never heard of anyone on the fence about playing Smash as if it were a major life decision. "I'm thinking of taking up Street Fighter" is the game equivalent of making a New Year's Resolution to work out more. That's the beauty of Smash: You just sit down and play it, and you decide how seriously or casually you want to take it.
I had a Melee phase in college. (There's a time and a place for everything.) My roommate had been playing Smash for years, and I didn't have anyone to play Street Fighter with, so I decided to learn how to play just so I could beat him (and in doing so, demonstrate the power of a super.) So I did that, and that felt good, but then he started to adapt. Which meant I had to crush him again. That continued for about half a year, then we both entered a tournament at a dinky local anime convention. I beat one person and then went over to win the Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike tournament. The prize was a set of Street Fighter anime DVDs which I already owned. That was it for my Smash phase. (Until they put Ryu and Little Mac in Smash 4, anyway.)
The fundamental difference between Smash and traditional fighting games is that Smash emphasizes the player's ability to move quickly and efficiently, and other fighting games are more about how each player's attacks interact with each other. Both kinds of games reward your ability to predict your opponent's behavior, master difficult techniques, and build your understanding of characters and matchups--they're just expressed in different ways. Perhaps the coolest thing about Smash is that screen position, not health, is your core resource, so as you navigate the screen to attack, you're also making bets that affect your character's ability to survive a hit. The risk/reward calculations are very tightly woven to each player's actions, making it easier for new players to tell when they're at an advantage or disadvantage. If you grew up playing 2D platformers, Smash is a fighting game written in your native language.
First-time Evo attendees often describe Marvel vs. Capcom along these lines: "I didn't understand what was going on, but it was really fun to watch."
Here is a description of what goes on when you play Marvel.
Marvel is obsession. Marvel is the highest highs and the lowest lows. Marvel is the largest predictor of unemployment, underemployment, and semi-professional poker-playing among my friends. Marvel is the battleground between the cosmic forces of Order and Chaos, and if you play Marvel, you might just learn where you stand. You don't quit Marvel, you recover from it. The spirit of Marvel is in you.
I chased the spirit of Marvel for about two years, practicing Zero lightning loops daily and driving out to console sessions and tournaments whenever I could. I practiced with a good friend of mine a few days a week. We'd play for hours, wordless except for occasional exclamations of salt. One day he left for Korea and didn't come back for a year. When he did, my Zero tore him apart. He didn't play much after that. The spirit of Marvel had left him.
A few months later, I found myself beating up some kid at Frosty Faustings, a tournament in Chicago. I was up 2-0 and about to close out the third game, and then my hands stopped, seemingly of their own accord. I tried to press buttons and move the stick, but everything felt late, as if I had suddenly found myself playing Marvel underwater. The kid came back to win that match. I stared at the Rematch screen and realized that I had stopped caring whether I won or lost that match. It felt meaningless. I half-heartedly played through the rest of the set. The spirit of Marvel had left me.
At the end of the Marvel finals at Evo this year, a shirtless man spontaneously appeared on stage, as if to challenge the newly-crowned Evo champion Christopher "NYChrisG" Gonzalez to defend his title. Most onlookers were confused; Marvel players were not. We understood that Chris G's win had opened his soul to the spirit of Marvel. As security hustled him off stage, we smiled, knowing that Marvel was alive and well within our hearts.
Fighting games are an adventure. Each one will take you to new places, introduce you to new friends, and give you a new language to communicate with them. And if you're just starting out, it really doesn't matter which one you try first. No matter what, it'll give you some new stories of your own.
Patrick Miller does a lot of thinking, talking, and writing about fighting games. When he's not working at Riot Games, he's tweeting inane stuff @pattheflip, teaching fighting games on YouTube and Twitch, and writing on Medium. You can download his book on how to learn to play fighting games for free at Shoryuken.com.