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I Wish ‘Tough Love Arena’ Was the First Fighting Game I Ever Played

It's perfect for beginners yet challenging for experts.

The fighters from Tough Love Arena go on a road trip.

In 2016, I decided to start playing fighting games. Or rather, I decided to start getting good at playing fighting games.

Before then, I had played a little bit of Skullgirls and a little bit of Street Fighter IV, but I was utterly terrible at both. After taking up Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and getting repeatedly bodied by two incredibly experienced friends over Fightcade, I realized button mashing wasn’t going to do it. It was time to learn the basics: How to block, how to combo, how to use footsies, and how to play mind games with my opponents.

I learned how to play fighting games the same way everyone does: By getting KOed. A lot. But in retrospect, I wish I had cut my teeth on Tough Love Arena, a free indie fighting game designed with simple button inputs.

Sporting a cartoony, solid color aesthetic like loose leaf doodles, Tough Love Arena isn’t deceptively simple to learn. It’s just simple to learn.

What is Tough Love Arena?

Two fighters engage in combat in Tough Love Arena.
Image via M. Paul Weeks and Amy Xu

Developed by M. Paul Weeks and Amy Xu, Tough Love Arena launched in beta in early 2021. The game offers six different fighters players can choose from, each with their own unique moves.

Attacking is as simple as possible in Tough Love Arena. The game only features two move keys and three basic attacks (light, heavy, and special). All six characters’ move sets are easy to learn and easy to execute, often by combining the left or right move buttons along with one or more attack presses. There are no awkward full circle or zig-zag moves here, just straightforward abilities. This lets players focus instead on learning the meat and potatoes of any fighting game: Stringing together combos, countering opponents’ attacks, and playing mind games mid-fight.

Don’t get me wrong. Tough Love Arena isn’t a fighting game on training wheels. It’s a full blown competitive fighter in its own right. But it’s designed for simplicity and ease, making it a great introduction for new players while still providing a challenging and unique experience for long-time FGC players.

What’s it like playing Tough Love Arena?

Before I went to PAX East 2022 this week, I tried out a human/CPU fight in Tough Love Arena at my Brooklyn apartment. I found the experience engaging, but I wasn’t sure if I would seriously consider matching up against my FGC friends for online multiplayer. Why learn Tough Love Arena when other beginner-friendly fighters already exist, like Skullgirls, Them’s Fightin’ Herds, or Street Fighter V?

That changed when I played against another attendee at PAX East. There, we duked it out across two matches, battling each other the way all fighting games go: Pokes and blocks, air initiations and anti-air counters, analyzing each others’ go-to combos before stringing together improvised plays that gruelly punish mistakes. We ended with a 1-1 split across five or six rounds.

Unlike Skullgirls, I didn’t need to spend a couple hours learning a character’s move list and practicing combo executions. I could just pick up and play. Hell, I could even figure combos out on the fly, trying new ideas as if I was in a live training session.

By the time our playthrough ended, I was convinced. Tough Love Arena has accomplished something rare in the fighting game community: It’s truly easy to learn, yet difficult to master, with plenty of potential for both casual and competitive multiplayer play.

Two fighters duke it out in Tough Love Arena.
Image via M. Paul Weeks and Amy Xu

If you remain unconvinced, just know that Tough Love Arena supports rollback netcode, which allows for precise online gameplay without extensive lag interference. It’s the gold standard in online multiplayer fighting games, one that allows competitive communities to prosper.

Time will tell if Tough Love Arena becomes popular across the fighting game community. But I suspect it will. There are very few fighting games that are just as fun for experienced players as they are beginners, and Xu and Weeks seem to have come up with something to bridge the gap.

If you want to see for yourself, Tough Love Arena is available now for free via the game’s official website. The game’s upcoming Steam release, which is paid, supports faster load times, offline gameplay, and special Steam skins. The latter hits Steam Early Access on May 13.

(Featured image: Amy Xu)

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Ana Valens (she/her) is a reporter specializing in queer internet culture, online censorship, and sex workers' rights. Her book "Tumblr Porn" details the rise and fall of Tumblr's LGBTQ-friendly 18+ world, and has been hailed by Autostraddle as "a special little love letter" to queer Tumblr's early history. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her ever-growing tarot collection.