The games follow the struggles of the students of the Kyokugen Karate Dojo, Ryo Sakazaki and Robert Garcia, in 1978. Ryo is the son of the Kyokugen Karate discipline’s creator, Takuma Sakazaki, and Robert is the wayward son of a billionaire family from Italy. The initial two games are set in South Town, a common location in SNK games that is also the setting for the Fatal Fury series, while the third appears to take place in a fictitious area of Mexico. The Art of Fighting series follows the conventions of the time in the sense that the player faces a variety of opponents in best two-out-of-three matches.
Each of the game’s characters have a unique fighting style and set of special techniques. The player has two basic attacks—punch and kick—as well as a utility button that switches between punches, kicks, and throws. A fourth button is used for taunting. Art of Fighting’s contribution to the genre was the inclusion of a “spirit gauge” underneath the character’s life bar. When characters perform special techniques, their spirit gauge is depleted and their special attacks become weaker. Players can also drain their opponent’s spirit gauge by taunting them.