Back in 2021, we got surprising news: Fight’N’Jokes was coming back. This was a huge deal for many reasons:

  1. the original game was released in 1997
  2. it was made by a small group of Italian friends located in Barletta, making it one of the first Western indie fighting games
  3. the remaster was going to have rollback netcode

If I were a bookmaker, I would have given spectacularly low odds of all of this happening. Yet, here I am, proven wrong: Fight’N’Jokes was released four days ago on Steam and, at the time of writing, it still has a 20% discount.

Vs screen: Maggilla (left) vs Lampaddin (right) on an Arabian background

Let them fight! [Steam edition, 2024]

The long way home: 1997 to 2024

For a deep dive in how the original Fight’N’Jokes played, I’ll leave you this previous article of mine, which came out when the remaster was announced. The article contains also a full interview with the lead programmer, Antonio Lattanzio.

Fight’N’Jokes — rolling back, 25 years later

For those that, instead, want a quick primer, Fight’N’Jokes is a classic 2D fighting game with a two button layout, simply named A and B. Pushing A and B together triggers a ki charge that raises the Heat meter. Once a character’s meter is capped, the character start shining and the meter slowly depletes. During this state, a player can perform each character’s own super or a stunning low attack (“il pugno sul mignolo”) that leaves the opponent unable to move for a couple seconds on hit.

Each character has access to several command normals, performed by pressing a direction plus a button, and two to six special moves. Some characters have more than one supers, but most of them just have one. After winning a match, a player can also input a secret sequence of inputs to trigger a “Dementiality”, which is a joke on Mortal Kombat fatalities. Each character has exactly one of them, all with a different input.

The cast includes eight starting characters (Miopinja, Rainbow, Ryno, Arturo, Maggilla, Judy, Duke, Wildrocket, Darkgun) and four unlockable ones (Evil Miop, Tamburyno, X-Stranger, Dark Father – called Dirty Fat in the 1997 original).

Screenshot from Fight'N'Jokes, Steam edition. A green dinosaur (Maggilla) hog-tied on the right side of the screen. A man (Wildrocket) on the right side. The word "Dementiality" is shown in the middle as an overlay.

In his Dementiality, Wildrocket hog-ties his opponent using their own limbs as ropes. All Dementialities share this level of nonsense. [Steam edition, 2024]

Flavor over balance

In its current state, after a day 2 patch, Fight’N’Jokes is perfectly playable almost without itches. I’ve tested the online modes (which currently make use of Epic Online Services for crossplay with console) with a shaky Wi-Fi connection, from Germany to the U.K.. In my almost fifteen matches, I just had one disconnection because my Wi-Fi died. Overall, the game was extremely responsive and didn’t drop frames or showed slowdowns.

Overall, though, the matches I played against the game’s very own spriter Francesco Lupo brought up a couple funny interactions that hearken back to the DOS version.

In short, the balance of the game is all over the place, perfectly faithful to the original. One one side of the spectrum, you have characters like Miopinja and Tamburyno that sport one-move-infinites or one-combo-stun setups, such as the one in the following clip:

On the completely other side of the spectrum, you have characters like X-Stranger and Darkgun that have either low damage, terrible specials, terrible supers or both. The developers are aware of it and are going to add a more balanced revision, but for the moment, it feels like playing the original 1997 game, 90%-damage-on-hit supers included.

Which isn’t a bad thing per se, since the game feels just the right amount of chaotic for a quick bout with friends. As a side note, figuring out all the Dementiality inputs was kind of fun, thanks to an indicator that shows you which directions and buttons you have correctly inputted.

My only gripe with the current status of the game is that Arcade Mode has only a limited number of continues, after which it’s GAME OVER. Fortunately for the weakest characters, there is indeed a difficulty selector that makes the task of unlocking the extras and endings less painful (looking at you, Darkgun).

Ryno (top) being KO'd by Duke (right) using his super. Yellow background.

Duke dearest, could you stop winning the match with a YOLO full screen 90% damage on hit super, pretty please? [Steam edition, 2024]

A whole lotta references

On May 19 2024, I had the pleasure to talk with Francesco Lupo, the artist behind the original version of Fight’N’Jokes, who shared several development anecdotes about what inspired the game. We played around fifteen matches online while chatting (of course in Italian), guiding me through the plethora of small nods to other games and series. I’ll report his words in a slightly edited and translated form, since our conversation was mostly in Italian. While editing this part of the article, the lead programmer Antonio Lattanzio added some of his personal memories.

On the influence of Dragon Ball

Francesco: “The team loved Dragon Ball. At that time, the manga was in full serialization [in Italy] and we were literally fighting to decide who was going to read it first. Dragon Ball is an underlying inspiration for many characters and moves. You can see a whole lot of Dragon Ball references in the game, including the Tenkaichi tournament stage [Ryno and Tamburyno’s stage], Tamburyno going Super Saiyan and having a kamehameha. The character of Maggilla was inspired by Giran, while Rainbow was a direct reference to Upa’s father, the big native guy that is killed by Mercenary Tao. It was amazing to see a couple Japanese players trying the game and shouting MAKANKOSAPPO [Special Beam Cannon] when playing as Duke.”

MAKANKOSACANNON! [Steam edition, 2024]

Fighting games a go-go

Francesco: “During the development of Fight’N’Jokes, we were playing a lot of Tekken and Street Fighter, so we hid several references to them. Ryno’s original concept was basically ‘Bald Ryu, but uses cats instead of fireballs’, which complemented the fish ninja Miopinja – the first character we designed. Of course, Evil Miop is a play on Akuma and the final stage in Arcade mode is a full-on reference to the grassy field in the storm from Street Fighter Alpha 2. Maggilla’s stages include a lot of them: Heihachi and Paul from Tekken, Zangief and Akuma from Street Fighter, Iori and Kyo from The King of Fighters, and Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat. Wildrocket’s design was inspired by Kazuya Mishima. We even gave him an uppercut special with a kick after to mimic his dragon uppercut in early Tekken.”

A screenshot from Fight'N'Jokes. X-Stranger and Dark Father fight on Maggilla's stage, full of references to other games.

Lots of well known faces here! Can you spot them all? [Steam edition, 2024]

’97 pop culture and Barletta

Francesco: “The stage references aren’t limited to fighting games. One can spot a dinosaur version of Bart Simpson, Slash from Guns’n’Roses, Bruce Lee, Charlie Chaplin and a couple more. While obviously Lampaddin is a play on Aladdin’s genie from the Disney movie and Dark Father is, well, Darth Vader, two characters were inspired by games that were going hard at that time: Arturo is a play on Ghosts’n’Goblins, of course, while Darkgun was modeled after Caleb from the game Blood [released in 1997]. One of our team members was totally absorbed by that FPS at the time, so we decided to go for it and add a character based on that dark gunslinger. There’s also some obscure reference to our home town, Barletta. The guy who sells ‘PNINI’ in Maggilla’s stage was inspired by a local sandwich maker that couldn’t speak Italian very well and tended to mispronounce that word.”

Canceled games and guest characters of sorts

Antonio: “We had four game pitches at the time: Public Enemy, Angel of Death, Amazing Adventure, and Fight’N’Jokes. The only one that seemed interesting to anyone was Fight’N’Jokes, and we didn’t even have a working demo!”

Francesco: “You might have noticed that X-Stranger has a completely different style compared to all other characters. The reason is that he was originally drawn for a game made by friends of ours, which unfortunately never saw the light of the day. X-Stranger was actually inspired by Spawn’s Violator and we decided to add him to Fight’N’Jokes as a sort of extra.”

X-Stranger might be a guest of sorts, but he still looks dashing in Lampaddin’s arcade ending. [Steam edition, 2024]

Judy

Francesco: “At some point during development, we realized that our game was a ‘sausage fest’, so we decided to add at least one female character. We opted for Judy, a plus-sized housewife fighting with a rolling pin, while wearing Chun Li’s spiked bracelets. Her win pose shows her from the back, turning thin much like Lara Croft, another video game icon of those times.”

Judy posing like Lara Croft in her win pose, before turning back into her usual shape. [Steam edition, 2024]

Twenty-seven years later

Francesco: “Fight’N’Jokes was very much a product of passion. Almost thirty years later I still laugh at some of our jokes, like the ‘pugno sul mignolo’ mechanic [inspired by hitting the pinkie toe against something hard]. That was extremely idiotic, but in its simplicity I find it brilliant. Technology has evolved too: When working on the sprites, I actually drew them on paper, then digitized them with a hand scanner connected to an AMIGA, before moving the files to PC. Today, my pipeline would be very different. Antonio has worked on implementing rollback netcode for the past three years and I can’t commend him enough for this. He is the only one that can touch the code and rebalance the character, so if you have any requests about it, please send them to him!”

On rollback and development challenges

Antonio: “When we embarked on this game, the concept of online gaming was not yet in our purview. Without internet access, we painstakingly crafted the entire engine from scratch, drawing insights from articles and demo scenes.

Throughout the two-year development journey, we encountered a multitude of challenges. We faced internal conflicts and external pressures that often tested our resolve. To showcase our progress, we made regular trips to Milan, lugging along a stack of CDs. I distinctly remember a lighthearted incident just days before submitting the gold candidate for publishing in 1997: we discovered we had no intro! In a race against time, we managed to create the entire intro in just 2 days! Surprisingly, that very same intro remains a part of the game today.

The idea of integrating online play originated from the gaming community, particularly the FGC. While we initially explored reusing the GGPO code, we ultimately decided to develop a new rollback system with self-synchronization. This implementation adheres to modern C++20 standards, making it easily adaptable to various engines, including Unreal Engine 5. Furthermore, giving the rollback source code to the community is our way of showing gratitude to those who supported us during the development process. It allows them to update, optimize, and reuse the technology that helped bring our game to life. My final suggestion to all other developers out there is to never give up and listen to others’ opinions. If you have a plan and you’ve started it, you shouldn’t let anyone stop you. We should have done this re-release a long time ago!”

A black and white picture of Dark Father's ending in Fight'N'Jokes, showing him behind the assembled cast of the game and the word "Fine" (End) hovering in front of them.

We almost had a bad ending, due to the challenges of implementing rollback netcode. Fortunately, the game came out just fine!

A time capsule of a time long gone

Overall, Fight’N’Jokes might not be perfect, seen from the lens of a fighting game player of 2024. Its balance is weird and the gameplay might feel a little old styled, but the presentation is still top notch and the game feels super responsive. One has to consider it as a true treasure, a time capsule of an era where tools for game development were limited and yet could allow passionate people to build little gems like this one – now finally available to modern players too to enjoy.

How to play it

Fight’N’Jokes can be bought on PC Steam for 9.75€ and has fully functional rollback netcode. The console version will include rollback netcode too with EOS-powered cross-play. You can get in touch with the developers through their dedicated FNJ Discord server.

Summary

Name: Fight’N’Jokes
Developer: Nasty Brothers (original MS-DOS version), Mental Drink Ltd (re-release, Discord server)
Available on: MS-DOS (original), Xbox, Nintendo Switch, PC (re-release)
Price: 9.75€ (PC Steam)
Year of release: 1997 (MS-DOS), 2021/2022 (re-release), 2024 (Steam)
Publisher: Event (MS-DOS), Mental Drink Ltd (re-release)
Netcode: none (original), rollback netcode (re-release, implemented at the moment of writing)
In one sentence: A game from the 90s with accessible gameplay, coming back with a vengeance and a wealth of welcome quality-of-life improvements, who sports a unique cartoon-y style and lots of pop culture references.

Special thanks to Antonio Lattanzio and Francesco Lupo for telling me so many anecdotes about the development of the game