Friday, February 27, 2015

Final Fight - Too Much Muscle for Consoles
Why a slimmed-down SNES favorite was forever displaced by its bulkier older brother.

I'll come right out and say it: Final Fight is my favorite arcade game of all time. For however hundreds of dollars worth of quarters I dropped over the years into machines like Rolling Thunder, Ninja Gaiden, Double Dragon and WWF WrestleFest, there were no coin slots I was more eager to overload than any of those belonging to Final Fight, whose reasonable entry fee would assuredly guarantee me access to several minutes worth of entertainment and specifically the prospect of absolutely plowing my way through crowds of enemies with the most satisfying array of strikes and slams ever collected into a single beat-'em-up!

But I reveal as much in advance of a shameful confession: My first experience with Final Fight came not via the actual coin-op classic but instead the SNES version, which for about two years was all I knew of Capcom's revolutionary arcade action game. I doubt I could offer an adequate explanation as to how I remained oblivious to the existence of the scene-changing original for all that time, so I won't even bother wasting words trying to cobble together a convenient excuse. Instead, I'll focus my energy on reminiscing about my time with the Final Fight I fondly remember as that eye-opening SNES launch title.

Now, Final Fight's is a case of a game that I slowly warmed up to as the year of 1991 drew closer to its end; before then, it lingered somewhere around my radar's periphery and only began moving closer into view as it became clear what, exactly, it was. Its first visual confirmation came to me courtesy of Nintendo Power Volume 22's "1991 Winter CES report," in which it was presented as an untitled action game, the accompanying screenshot showing a blue-jeaned protagonist throwing a jab into a face-painted monster; the problem was that the article's author identified the image as belonging to a newly announced title in the Street Fighter series, which was reason enough for me to flip the page without ever giving it a second look. 

It wasn't that I didn't like fighting games--hell, I thought Street Fighter II was one of the most brilliant arcade games ever created--as much as I didn't believe they were a good fit for consoles. If the versus modes of Trojan and Double Dragon (plus the completely inane combat system found in a rather infamous NES fighter I'll be discussing in the future) taught me anything, it was that fighting games were light on content and not much use to you if you weren't constantly surrounded by friends.

The situation was remedied somewhat by a preview in Nintendo Power Volume 28, which clarified that the mysterious action game was instead a brawler named Final Fight, the tagline describing it as "the ultimate street fighting arcade smash." I didn't read too much into the "arcade" qualifier, since it was a term often used to communicate to readers that a game featured no-frills action or "arcade-like" attributes, and was intrigued by this "unique" SNES creation; by the time I'd finished reading the preview, I was suddenly a lot more interested in Final Fight--particularly since I was now certain that it was instead a beat-'em-up, which was still one of my favorite genres. 

Sure--the magazine, in what turned out to be strangely limited coverage, did its best job to continue misrepresenting the game by depicting Haggar as a black guy and Cody as a deeply depressed Paul Orndorff, but how it visualized the game's action was ingratiating enough to where it made sense to entertain the idea of including Final Fight as a throw-in on my soon-to-be-made Christmas list, which I could already tell was going to be pretty light on entries that year outside of the highly desired Super Castlevania IV and Metroid II: Return of Samus. Final Fight seemed like as safe a choice as any, really, since it was made by Capcom, which I always associated with quality, and I'd rarely been disappointed by a console beat-'em-up, so I added it to my list.

I didn't have high expectations for the game, but it grabbed me by the collar right away; I was immediately impressed with the visual quality of Final Fight, which most noticeably had these considerably large, detailed character sprites that were previously the exclusive property of all of those turbo-charged arcade games I'd frequently play. Another thing Final Fight had going for it, as I'd gauged before even moving past the starting area, was its strikingly rendered cityscape, which could be seen menacingly populating the background layer, its clustered assemblage providing some of the most meaningful definition for the game's world (and you know how much I love my world-defining cityscapes). 

In fact, Final Fight was loaded in this regard, with every other stage featuring a glorious blue-tinted city backdrop that scrolled along with the action, its tailing omnipresence adding an important context--a persistent sense of scale and that in-the-shadows atmosphere I recently described in my Master System Renegade piece. More so than the admittedly endearing graphical stylings of the colorful Super World World, this right here was what I was expecting from the next generation of Nintendo.

Final Fight had certainly set a benchmark for character sprites and scrolling background work on the SNES, but there was also something about the way its world was presented and how its strong visuals invited me to contemplate that reminded me a lot of Trojan with its desolate streets, deteriorated buildings, neglected underground facilities, and that air of desperation that painted every inch of its landscape. The two games share a similar spirit, which I guess makes sense when you consider that both were created by the same company; though, I'm surprised that it's taken me this long to see just how closely the experiences matched up for me--how Final Fight essentially was my Trojan equivalent in this new generation of consoles (also, coincidentally, there are broken-down buggies depicted in its first stage!). Perhaps it's the kind of Capcom magic you can only appreciate in deep retrospect.

I tried out both characters but took more to the burly Haggar, whose bruising wrestling style was much more appealing to me. Though his laggier punching speed was intended to be a detriment, I never felt that he was too slow on the draw or prone to become inescapably overwhelmed by those sandwiching enemy onslaughts (his overpoweredness probably more a byproduct of the concessions that were made for this version of the game); basically, it was more fun to play as Haggar, and I enjoyed suplexing the hell out of the Mad Gear ruffians and slamming them into each other any time the opportunity presented itself. Once I learned how to effectively execute the jumping piledriver, I became quite a master at crowd control, and I established a winning formula for dealing with groups of enemies: Grab onto one of them, deliver two headbutts, and then either suplex or piledrive the poor victim into the rest of the pack. Truth be told, I found this strategy so effective that I almost never played as Cody, whose moves lacked significant finishing power.

Final Fight continued to impress me in new ways. If it wasn't in regard to the sheer amount of activity that could be happening on one screen at any time--bodies flying around and colliding with each other almost in perpetuity--then it was the enemy cast, which I thought was one of the most diverse among beat-'em-ups. You had your basic grunts, irritatingly evasive street thugs, high-flying punkers, bull-charging fatties, and a few other distinct-looking hoodlum types--all appearing in varying shades with different names and slight alterations to their offensive maneuvers. The most intimidating of their bunch were the giants named Andore and Andore Jr., whose devastating throwing power quickly made it clear to me that I wouldn't be able to approach them in my usual reckless manner lest I'd get a taste my own medicine, suffering the effects of a brain-scrambling, energy crippling one-armed piledriver. The Andores, I figured, were pretty much Final Fight's Abobo analog (though, they reminded more of pro-wrestler Andre the Giant, both in name and physical appearance).

An interesting, visually diverse cast of enemies is an important ingredient in any top-tier beat-'em-up, and Final Fight featured what I felt was the most memorable assortment of foes since Double Dragon. I especially liked that each enemy had a specially tailored energy meter that would momentarily appear any time you engaged one of them; in past brawlers, you could only guess as to their remaining health.

For everything I liked about Final Fight, though, there was one rather large problem: The game was really tough. If one thing was obvious to me, it was that Final Fight exhibited what appeared to be clear arcade values, like bosses who enjoyed a ridiculous amount of invincibility time as they recovered from knockdowns and a substantial amount of damage being taken from even light blows. Five lives didn't seem like nearly enough to endure through a game where a multi-metered boss could drain your entire health bar with a single move (it didn't help that clear-out moves, your only real counter, subtracted slivers of health from your total!); I could only reach as far as Round 4, the insanely long Bay Area stage, and advance a few screens in before succumbing. Oh, I continued to try my luck at progressing further in, but I did so with a sense that this was one of those games I probably wouldn't be able to finish.

On a good run, I could make it to the stage's boss, Abigail (who as the manual correctly predicted had to be tough with a name like that), with all of my lives intact, but the mohawked fiend (who looked so much to me like Road Warrior Animal) would still promptly wipe me out with his throwing move, which had unfair priority, and that fearsome angry punch. I could do well to counter his red-faced lunges with dropkicks, but I couldn't maintain the effort anywhere near long enough, since he simply had too much health. "How many times do I have to hit this guy before his meter's shade turns yellow?!" I'd mutter to myself, angrily. And that's the way things went for the longest time: After I'd finish up a round of Super Mario World, F-Zero or Super Castlevania IV, I'd load up Final Fight and attempt to finally reach the game's final stage, often falling short by way of Abigail's infuriating, stock-clearing offense.

But I would never stay mad at Final Fight for too long. That I couldn't finish it wasn't even a sore spot because it occurred to me that treating it as a normal action game was missing the point; what Final Fight could do for me, instead, was to provide fast-paced, satisfying arcade-style action and every combination of the excitement, visceral pleasure and fun I remembered from my time in arcades. I knew even early on, before I'd ever seen the game's second stage, that this "Final Fight" was doing well to replicate the arcade-style beat-'em-up formula and was already one of the best of its class.

But, yeah, I still wanted to see what that final stage had in store for me, and I got what was the biggest boost--my best shot at ultimate success--when a current issue of Nintendo Power arrived with "Classified Information" about a code (hold L and press Start) that unlocked a secret options menu wherein you could manipulate the number of lives (and a few other selections I didn't full understand), instead beginning your campaign with nine per continue. Even then, it was still quite a while before I could put together runs effective enough to reach the end of Round 4 and take out Abigail without using continues, which I thought were important to conserve in full when I had knowledge that the proceeding stage was just as insanely long. 

After a great many of my attempts ended in failure, I was certain that the process would repeat--that I'd only able to advance an area or two into the final stage before running out of juice; though, with enough practice and resiliency, it wasn't long before I could reach the final boss, Belger, and even defeat him with some regularity. The key the victory, really, was my discovery that Haggar had a built-in combo that allowed him to execute a suplex immediately after landing two punches, without having to grab (Cody could do the same after landing three punches, but his throwing moves of course lacked the same oomph). It was just one technique, but it made for a completely different ballgame when I could use a quick suplex to remove the enemies' ability to cheaply take shots at me from the blindside.

If there was one thing that made my painstaking efforts feel worthwhile, it was that ending music, man. I thought that Final Fight had great tunes in general, but then it hit me out of nowhere with one of the saddest ending themes I'd ever heard in a game. "Where did this come from?" I wondered, still a bit perplexed by the trend of wistfully evocative music in games that were otherwise high-spirited. After I'd seen the ending sequence numerous times, I'd instead take the opportunity to look away from the screen and let this melancholic ending theme serve as punctuation to any of those heroic daydreams I could imagine on the spot.

It was during all of those futile play-throughs where I made some of my best memories of Final Fight. For one, I loved in particular the inspiring stage theme heard in the final area of Round 2, and I'd often switch on the SNES only for the sake of activating the game's sound test and listening to it; I even recorded the theme using my tape recorder so I could listen to it in our den whenever I needed accompaniment to any of my "workout sessions" (which for me was any instance of jumping around like an idiot while on an emotional high). Also, I remember how my friends and I would always find amusement in mocking that gangster who lamented the destruction of his vehicle with the painfully uttered but horribly-sampled expression of "Oh, my CAH!" Even in a new generation of audio quality, it seemed some things weren't going to change.

With minimal success, I'd try to personalize the experience by inventing my own moves like Haggar's "scary dive," as I called it, executed by using his alternate aerial move after diving off a barrel. What most fascinated me about Haggar's moveset, thought, was how closely it matched Zangief's; I remember dedicating page after page of my school notebooks to the meticulous comparisons of their every movement while theorizing as to a possible relationship between the two and which one was plagiarizing the other.

But the most fun I had with Final Fight were all those times I'd pretend that Haggar was a wrestling trainee trying to vie for a roster spot in the WWF by clearing its "test," which involved running through fives "obstacle courses" and convincingly beating up the company's most beloved Superstars. I even likened every enemy to a current or past WWF wrestler. Bred, Dug and Jake were the jobber crew consisting of Barry Horowitz, Bob Bradley and the like. Two P and J were the Nasty Boys. Punkers Sid and Billy were the Rockers. Slash and Axl were the Hart Foundation. Wong Who, G. Oriber and Bill Bull were assorted fatties like King Kong Bundy, the One Man Gang and Yokozuna. Hollywood and El Gado were Tito Santana and Carlos Colon. The Andores were Andre the Giant and Giant Gonzales. Thrasher was Sid Justice. Katana was Kato. Edi E. was the Big Boss Man. Abigail was Road Warrior Animal. And Belger was Vince McMahon (sans the wig we all believed him to wear). 

Sometime during the midst of all this foolishness, I finally got a chance to play the arcade version (maybe I missed it because our local arcades had an anti-Capcom bias pre-Street Fighter II? I don't know!). And for the second time in my life, Final Fight managed to amaze me. One session with the original work was enough to prove that we console owners had been given the short end of the stick--that our wimpy SNES version was missing vital elements like co-op play, much of the audio/visual intensity, and, most egregiously, the playable character Guy and an entire stage! This version had hordes of enemies spilling in from all directions at once (compared to only three in the SNES version) and was wonderfully chaotic for how there were always large masses of humanity being tossed about everywhere. Haggar bellowed angrily with never-before-witnessed ferocity as he cleared away foes with his spinning clothesline! Even the dismayed vehicle owner spoke with clarity as he mourned the loss of his ride, appealing to his "God" and not his "CAH."

Well, OK--I wasn't much of a fan of Guy, who I felt was too similar to Cody, and I found Round 4, the Industrial Area, to be terribly annoying with its relentless flame bursts and the obnoxiously evasive Rolento, but this stuff still should have been in the home version! I mean, I still had a fondness for the SNES game for all of the memories in provided me in the console's early years, but it now seemed like such a lesser creation; once the arcade version muscled its way into my life, I never snapped that cartridge in again, and I certainly had no inclination to ever want to go anywhere near the "compensating" Final Fight Guy, which cut out Cody and still managed to suffer from all the same issues.

It was inexplicable to me how Capcom could cut a feature as important as co-op play, harkening back to the days of the NES version of Double Dragon, which was at least reconfigured into a somewhat-unique single-player game. It was also frustrating to me how Nintendo of America once again meddled in a game's development, forcing Capcom to unnecessarily change characters' names and appearances (the punkers Sid and Billy were originally the female duo of Roxy and Poison, and Belger's was a wheelchair and not a mobile recliner) in its continuously arrogant pursuit of acting as the morality police. What level of incompetence due you suffer from, really, when you're willing to sacrifice a game's quality and authenticity in order to appease people who you've deemed as such to have no ability to think for themselves? Welcome to Nintendo of America circa 1991.

The recurring issue I run into when detailing my history with arcade games is that huge gulf of time that occurred between 1995 and the mid-2000s, when all of the arcades started to disappear and I lost access to just about all of my favorites. I'd see an occasional Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or WrestleFest machine in the odd entertainment center or sports park, but Final Fight and the rest went completely missing from my life, with nothing in the way of a viable substitute. Sure--my friends and I had a great time with the SNES-exclusive Final Fight II, which had an actual two-player mode, and we thought of it as a rock-solid console beat-'em-up, but we wouldn't deny that it lacked the raw aesthetic intensity of its arcade progenitor. Mainly, I started to miss my Final Fight.

All I can say, then, is thank goodness for MAME, which reunited me with an arcade classic that was without a home for almost a decade. I'm glad I got the chance to play it in a more personal setting (though under questionable circumstances), which for the first few weeks felt surreal ("Who would have thought that we'd one day be able to play those technologically advanced arcade games in our homes?!"). Since then, I've revisited Final Fight roughly once a year, and it continues to be the best beat-'em-up currently available to me. What amazes me about the game is its hidden depth, which I've uncovered as time has gone by; I was floored, for instance, when I discovered that Guy could rebound off the screen's edge just like Chun Li in Street Fighter II! That's wild. And I'm still finding out new things about it to this day! That's an old Capcom game for you.

 Calling a game "perfect" should be a sparingly used accolade, I feel (reserved for exemplars like Super Mario Bros. 3, Tetris, Super Metroid, Mega Man X, Doom and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night), but I think it's a descriptor that suits Final Fight very well. It revolutionized an entire genre, seizing the mantle from Double Dragon and its clones, and became the beat-'em-up to emulate; almost 25 years later, it's arguably still the best in its class. And, frankly, that's exactly what I would expect from Capcom, a company that once king--untouchable as a video-game maker as far as I was concerned. Now, I'm not really interested in owning arcade machines, since they're difficult to maintain and take up too much space, but if I ever were to decide that I should have one in my home, my first choice would most certainly be Final Fight.

Final Fight is like an old friend who comes along to throw a string of jabs into your face whenever you lose sight of the things that are most important in gaming, like throwing thunderous haymakers into the guts of grossly obese people and knocking 90-year-olds out of 10-story windows. But more so, I think, Final Fight serves as yet another thankful reminder that the old classics refuse to go silently into that good night.

No--they just keep on punchin'.

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