Friday, June 26, 2015

Street Fighter II - The Shaper of Worlds
Capcom's masterwork transformed arcades and sent out reverberations whose aftershocks were felt across the entire industry.

I've previously discussed how the younger me believed that arcades, consoles and computers were largely separate entities operating from within their own distinctly formed universes, with little crossover outside of the odd port of, say, a Donkey Kong or a Mario Bros. It was that line of thinking that blinded me from the fact that there existed a symbiotic relationship between my beloved consoles and arcades, which I didn't yet recognize as both the medium's birthplace and the testing ground for the ideas that would undoubtedly influence the direction of software-creation across all sectors of the video-game industry.

And for emerging companies like Atari, Sega and Nintendo, arcades (or any of those social venues where you could find a small collection of arcade machines) represented an ideal setting for establishing new brands and planting the seeds for future market conquests. In the early days, such companies were quite successful in using this formula to drive consumer interest toward their newly introduced home devices: People would go out and buy themselves a Pong machine (or any of those shameless knockoffs) because they remembered all of the fun they had while playing it with their friends at the bar. Space Invaders and Pac-Man lit their world on fire, so they'd eagerly anticipate a day when they could play either title from the comfort of their own homes, even if the only viable platform was the noticeably inferior Atari 2600!

I remained oblivious to these facts because things had changed significantly by the time I became a frequent arcade-goer in the mid-80s, when the console sector was well into the process of establishing itself as independent--or, at the least, far less reliant on arcade trends--and the NES and its competitors were now defined more by their own specially tailored games and the quirky traits of their unique hardware.

That's why it was a phenomenon to behold when Street Fighter II: The World Warrior took arcades by storm in 1991 and reignited that old flame, the entire experience providing me valuable insight into the synergistic nature of a past era I couldn't fully comprehend at the time.

It came from out of nowhere, really. All I remember was walking into an arcade one day and seeing a huge crowd of people concentrated around its center portion, where the newest games were commonly positioned; the pack surrounding the machine was so dense that I couldn't even catch a glimpse of what it was they were playing. So I decided to make my usual rounds--play some WWF Superstars and Arch Rivals, fail miserably at Spy Hunter and the like--and come back later after the crowd dispersed a bit. Surprisingly, the activity hadn't settled down even after a half hour had passed, so I had to settle for peeking through the cracks and observing what I could; from what I had gathered, kids of all ages were zealously competing in a game called Street Fighter II (I didn't notice any subtitle, nor would I for the longest time), which didn't sound familiar.

I saw the game in action that day, but I didn't get the chance to play it; there were simply too many people waiting for their turn, and I wasn't the type to aggressively push my way through a group of onlookers to get my shot. Besides--I didn't even know what it was. Back then, none of us had ever heard the term "fighting game." The much-played Street Smart and its ilk were more comfortably slotted as brawlers or beat-'em-ups, and the competitive-combat modes in the NES versions of Trojan and Double Dragon--the closest we'd seen to the tactical action in Street Fighter II--were too shallow in design to inspire discussion about a proper designation for their type; they were fun for a couple of minutes at best, neither making a strong case for one-on-one fighters standing alone as their own genre.

"Also," I wondered, "how is this 'Street Fighter II'?" I couldn't recall there ever being a "Street Fighter I," which logically had to exist in some form ("Maybe it was an obscure 2600 game?" I imagined). Granted, retrospect has taught me that I somehow missed the appearance of quite a few iconic arcade games, but it didn't appear that I was alone in my ignorance.

But, really, no one cared to dwell on the issue for too long. It was clear to us that Street Fighter II didn't need to ride on the shoulders of a popular predecessor. Such was its power that it scoffed at ideas like "continuity" and "logical progression." 

Not only did Street Fighter II do well to stand on its own--it summarily earned itself the rank of instant classic.

And that was the scene for many months in following: No matter which arcade I was visiting, all of the traffic would be centered around this one machine, the players never able to make progress in the actual single-player campaign because they were too busy fending off the endless versus-challenges of their fellow arcade-goers. Even when I'd finally get a crack at the game, I could never come close to reaching the boss characters due to the steady stream of patrons who would continue to rush in with their quarters in hand, their minds focused on victory and their fingers ready to furiously mash away at the panel beside me.

As for the game, itself: The environment was so competitive that I was only able to enjoy Street Fighter II in short bursts--two or three minutes at most during any session--but that was about all the time I needed to conclude that it excelled in all measurable categories and captured every bit of the essence that made the arcade-going experience feel so magical. Street Fighter II was a masterpiece both technically and aesthetically: It controlled brilliantly. Its directional-input system, which would have sounded intimidating to me on paper, immediately made sense and was fun in practice. Its action was briskly paced. Its graphics were vibrant and richly detailed. Its fighting animation was smooth and flowing, the characters' stringed combo attacks at times symphonic. Its subtle parallax effect provided stages an engrossing sense of depth. And its striking and slamming sound effects had strong visceral appeal, their overpowering reverberance the type of feedback that made the game stand out in a noisy arcade setting (which to me was always an important attribute).

And yet it might have been the little touches that best defined the game's personality: The way the music would change in tone, increasing in speed and urgency, when one of the fighter's health meters was close to expiring. How the finishing blow would elapse in slow motion, the defeated party hanging in the air for a prolonged period before spectacularly crashing to the ground--the pleasingly violent, bone-crushing impact only amplified by the dramatized motion and the cold silence that allowed it space. The verbal jabs the winner would toss at his fallen opponent ("Seeing you in action is a joke!"). And the announcer's iconic speech samples (like "Jah-paaaaan!" and "Round One. Fight!"), which evoked from the player a sense of stimulus both pre- and post-fight.

Console and computer owners had ready access to information about their favorite platforms' upcoming successors, but the average arcade-goer was hard-pressed to determine the point in time when a new era of arcade technology had been firmly established. Street Fighter II was the game that bucked the trend, its very appearance a loud and clear message to arcade-goers of all stripes: The next generation of arcade entertainment was here, and every one of us was a witness.

I was shocked, frankly, by the quality of the soundtrack; based on my experiences with previous brawlers, I was expecting the composer to mail in that aspect of it--to lean heavily on generic hard-rock and heavy-metal tunes--but I was surprised to discover that each tune was specially crafted to communicate the ambiance of its respective stage. Ryu's was serious, no-nonsense dojo. Chun-Li's town was perpetually active yet underlyingly peaceful. Ken's harbor was vacant of aesthetic warmth and welcoming to only those with steely determination. And Guile's air-force base was a battleground for men of bravery.

My favorite tune, though, belonged to the opening title sequence, wherein a white-shirted fellow could be seen punching out another fighter in advance of the camera panning up a building to reveal the game's logo. The music had a deeply nostalgic quality to it that I could never put into words--an aura whose mnemonic spirit I'd carry with me into the action beyond; I'd deemed that it was a requisite that I listen to it at least once before pumping in that first quarter. It might be that the music reminded me of my older arcade favorites, or perhaps it resonated with me because it could always be heard resounding throughout halls and waiting areas of my family's long-traditional hang-out spots. 

I don't know--maybe some feelings weren't meant to be described.

The cast featured your stereotypical martial-arts characters, yes, but also a number of unique and interesting combatants who I couldn't have imagined appearing in a game such as this. You had your electrically inclined man-beast Blanka, whose ferocious attacks included scratching, biting and pouncing. The stretchy-limbed Dhalsim (or "Dahl-ism," as I repeatedly mispronounced it), whose limbs could somehow extend far across the screen (which I was certain would make him an incredibly cheap character until I, you know, actually tried him out). The rapid-striking sumo E. Honda, whose inclusion I figured had to be a tribute to WWF wrestler Yokozuna. And the menacing pro-wrestler Zangief, who became more interesting to me over time due to his uncanny resemblance to Final Fight favorite Mike Haggar.

In fact, many pages of my school notebooks were dedicated to theories as to their possible relationship plus meticulous comparisons of their similar movesets. I was always waiting for the arrival of a game in which I could pit Haggar and Zangief against one another, but it never came, so I had to wait an additional decade and settle for matching them up in M.U.G.E.N.

I stuck mostly to Ryu and Ken, since their button-combinations were the easiest to execute. The truth was that I was never fully comfortable using an arcade stick (you could say I was more of a "d-pad man," inferring any sick innuendo you wish) and had trouble pulling off timed moves, which sometimes wouldn't register properly, and those that required more than a basic quarter-circle motion. Otherwise, Dhalsim was too weird, E. Honda lacked the quickness to successfully leap over a succession of fireballs, and using Zangief was out of the question considering he was both lumbering and bereft of a projectile attack in a game where spamming their type was heavily encouraged. If I was feeling frisky, I'd bounce around between Chun-Li, Guile and Blanka, but I'd immediately return to the safety of my Hadoken-Shroyuken strategy whenever anyone of actual skill would show up.

Like its similarly influential forerunners, Street Fighter II was everywhere, machines bearing its name showing up not just in arcades but in every corner shop, diner, bowling alley, and movie theater lobby. And it could draw crowds like no other; the arcade center at the driving range, for instance, might feature ten games, including hot new titles like Captain America and the Avengers and WWF WrestleFest, and yet nine of them would remain vacant, the interested parties instead lining up to get a shot at the Yoga Fire-spamming dink with the spiky hair.

Street Fighter II was on the minds of kids everywhere, its popularity generating endless discussion within our neighborhoods and schools. It was the popular thing for us to mimic the characters' moves and while loudly shouting the accompanying voice samples ("Haaa-doooo-ken!" "Shrooooooy-yuken!" "Sonic Boom!") in addition to the announcer's punctuating quotations. Our teachers weren't thrilled by this behavior, particularly when the random cry of "Tigerrrrrrr!" would echo throughout the hallway during class.

Street Fighter II's popularity was such that arcade-goers demanded more of it. It was said that fans wrote to Capcom requesting the release of a new version of the game wherein you could play as the boss characters, three of which players dreamed of controlling (no one really cared about poor ol' Balrog). I remember how all of us were blown away when Champion Edition started appearing in arcades so soon in following, Capcom's latest meeting all expectations. It was mind-blowing, really; I mean, to play as the seemingly overpowered boss characters felt almost taboo! I mean, where else could you play as bosses, especially the type who came equipped with two sets of fireball projectiles and an almost-undodgable flaming-missile charge? 

"You can even climb on the fence in Vega's stage!" we discovered. "How awesome is that?"

Thereafter, any time I spent with Street Fighter II was dedicated to experimenting with the boss characters--particularly Sagat (no relation to Bob) and M. Bison. They weren't as overpowered as I hoped--nothing close to what their CPU counterparts conveyed--but they were certainly fun to use!

Now, I was a fan of Street Fighter II, but I only played it occasionally and less so as time went on; this wasn't a statement about the game's longevity as much as an admission that my heart still lay with side-scrollers, beat-'em-ups and wrestling games. However, it was still monumental news to me when it was announced that Street Fighter II was coming to our 16-bit consoles! Everyone I knew who owned a current console was going to get it--the majority of them for the SNES, since Nintendo had procured timed exclusivity and they needed it right now. 

This was good news for me, since it guaranteed that I could have constant access to the game without having to buy it for myself; and it made sense because I'd begun actively avoiding the arcade versions, since (a) they were becoming hyper-competitive, drawing in those psycho-lookin' types who liked to bang at the sides of the unit as they played and scream at the monitor when things didn't go their way, and (b) I was starting to get confused by all of the new revisions and their mechanical alterations. "What's the difference between 'Hyper' and 'Turbo'?" I struggled to understand. "And what the hell is a 'Rainbow Edition,' anyway?" It felt as though the scene had left me in the dust.

Fortunately, I could continue to play a more accessible version at the homes of my closest friends, who in comparison to those arcade folk were only slightly off-kilter. The plainly named Street Fighter II is where I found my groove. I could never claim to be a master of fighting games, but I possessed a certain aptitude for picking them up quickly and holding my own against even the most skilled of players (more so on consoles, whose controllers featured the more desirable d-pads). I played it safe at first and continued to split my time between the familiar Ryu and Ken combo, but I gravitated more toward Blanka once I realized his potential. My favorite trick was to surprise my friends with rolling attacks right at a match's start, since most of my them were slow to catch on that you could begin charging a move during the announcer's countdown. 

I don't remember much else about my time with the original SNES version other than the huge wave that was made when Nintendo Power arrived with news of a doppelganger code that allowed two players to select the same character. It sounded exciting in print, but a Ryu-versus-Ryu match in practice wasn't quite as interesting as I imagined it would be.

For a long time, it seemed, I was the only one who didn't own a copy of the game. I held out as long as I could, but peer pressure plus the allure of the upcoming Street Fighter II: Turbo was simply too much for me. "My friends have the version where you can play as the original cast of eight? So what?" I figured. "I'm going to buy the version where you can play as the bosses!" Well, they all wound up buying it, too, but I didn't mind; that just expanded the amount of places I could go to abuse Tiger Shots and Psycho Crushers!

Playing alone wasn't much fun, but it gave me the opportunity to become more intimately familiar with the game in the most personal of settings. I had time to read about the characters' backstories via the manual (and finally find out who this copycat Zangief truly was) and wonder about the series' connection to Capcom's other combat-focused games. I spent time honing my skills by facing off against the highest-level CPU opponents. And I enjoyed tinkering with the "Music Test," which allowed me to listen to the game's excellent soundtrack, including the surprisingly excellent credits theme, without the interference of the usual grunts and thuds.

Most of all, I was able to better absorb the breadth of its content and ruminate about how transcendent Street Fighter II truly was. Here I was playing a game that had completely transformed the arcade scene, and now it was doing much the same to our consoles. I felt lucky to be a part of it.

For the rest of the 16-bit era, Street Fighter II held a top position in our list of favorite multiplayer games, which included Altered Beast, Golden Axe, Super Mario Kart, Final Fight 2 and Saturday Night Slam Masters). As always, my best memories of it derive from the times my friend Dominick played it together. I recall arriving at his house one day when he was in the middle of a self-imposed challenge to finish Street Fighter II's single-player mode on the highest difficulty. He made it to M. Bison without breaking a sweat and was feeling pretty good about himself; that's when the trouble began.

Mainly, I watched Dominick suffer through a range of negative emotions as he repeatedly failed to secure the ultimate victory, his every match with Bison playing out the same way: He'd absolutely dominate the first round, wiping out Bison without taking a single hit, and perform just in well in round 2 right up until Bison was down to only a smidgen of health. Right then, Bison would mount his patented superman comeback: Head stomp, flying fist to the face, Psycho Crusher, throwing move, round over. Bison would then take the final round in convincing fashion.

Dominick grew angrier and angrier with each failure, his teeth clamping ever tighter and his mutterings growing louder and more unhinged ("Yeah? Yeah? Is that how you want to play? OK--we'll see! We'll see!"). As the losses mounted, he began shifting closer and closer to the TV, leaning in so that the apparently sentient SNES could could better discern his increasingly serious threats; he promised to destroy the console with his bare hands if it didn't soon cooperate, and he furthermore swore to become a game programmer for the express purpose of hacking into Street Fighter II: Turbo and deleting all of its M. Bison data.

Neither the game nor the SNES was impressed.

After about the 12th loss, Dominick snapped and yanked on the controller so hard that the SNES fell off the shelf, all of its wires disconnecting. He then frantically stompedabout the living room, his tantrum now including a threat to fly to Japan and confront the game's creators; to keep up the act, he even stormed into the hallway and plucked out the Whitepages, which he began furiously flipping through without any idea of what he was actually looking for.

I'd seen enough to know that it was time for me to go home, so I can't tell you how the story concluded. I'd like to imagine that he did fly to Japan and accost one of the designers, who would naturally respond with a head stomp, a flying fist, a Psycho Crusher, and an over-the-shoulder toss right through the front door of the Capcom building.

Street Fighter II: Turbo was also the source of a potentially friendship-breaking conflict. See--I was a little better than Dominick at Street Fighter II, and I don't think he was particularly happy about that. This sentiment became apparent during the events following a series of bouts where I matched up my Chun-Li against his Guile. During one of the fights, he got pissed because I caught him with two or three air-throws in a row when all I was trying to do was land a simple jumpkick; to him, throwing moves of any kind were "cheap," especially when executed in succession. I tried to avoid doing it in subsequent matches, since it was clearly upsetting him, but it just kept happening, and Dominick's temperature was rising more and more each time.

I plead my case--that all I was trying to do was deliver standard aerial strikes--but he wasn't having it, and he kept lobbing accusations of "cheapness" in my direction. In fact, the whole of his commentary was essentially "Cheap! Cheap! Cheap! Cheap! Cheap! Cheap!", which I was certain wasn't a bird call.

After losing several matches by way of accidentally spammed air-throws, he'd had enough. He lowered his controller and turned to face me with an angry scowl whose meaning was clear. It was a challenge, as if to say, "My character, Guile, also has a midair throwing move, so let's dive toward each other repeatedly and see who has the superior reflexes!" I was tired, and I didn't want to play anymore, but I acquiesced. Now, I swear to you that I didn't know what triggered air-throws, nor was I confident that I possessed skill enough to pull them off with any consistency, but it worked out that every single one of the rapidly occurring clashes resulted in Guile being slammed to the ground until the round was over and I was declared the winner. It happened so fast, in fact, that I barely had time to digest what just happened.

When I turned to share a reaction with his brother, Joseph, who had been watching all of this unfold and couldn't contain his laughter, Dominick lost it: He shouted "That's it!" and yanked the console off the shelf (again), leaving it in an unplayable state. He then began to stomp around the house and loudly rant about his alleged superiority, his rationalization being that I was only capable of "cheap victories" and that he'd win every match if throwing moves didn't exist. I couldn't stand to be berated like that any longer, so I followed his brother's advice and went home (Joseph had witnessed many of his brother's outbursts and knew that there was no way to calm him down). Following the incident, I didn't talk to Dominick again for a long while. 

Of course, we eventually reconciled our differences, but we did so under the condition that we never again play Street Fighter II together.

Good times, I tell you.

For whatever reason, I decided that I needed to own all three SNES versions of Street Fighter II. I bought Super Street Fighter II within a week of its releases and immediately regretted doing so; I didn't find the four new fighters (Fei Long, Cammy, T. Hawk and Dee Jay) all that interesting, and none of my SNES-owning friends were interested in playing a new version. I later requested that my brother pick up the original Street Fighter II when its name appeared on a list of titles available at his friend's store, which was clearing its SNES inventory. I played it for maybe five minutes before remembering that I already owned a better version of it. It only cost a few bucks, but I still felt icky.

I think I did it because Street Fighter II's ubiquity was such that it was worth experiencing in multiple formats--just to see how its aesthetics translated to all of the different platforms. In fact, in that year-and-a-half period when I owned a Genesis, I went out and rented its version of the game, the Special Champion Edition, for a little over a week. I didn't like that you had to hit the Start button to switch between punches and kicks (I don't believe the six-button Genesis controller was available yet), but I appreciated its strong interpretation of the music--particularly its rendition of Guile's theme, which I found so striking that I'd turn on the game and start up a match at the air-force base just to listen to it.

I don't know if film versions count, but we even took our friend Steve to see the Street Fighter movie when it appeared in theaters during the week of his birthday! And, well, that's pretty much all I have to say about that.

What's most important is that the seminal Street Fighter II popularized the fighting-game genre across every sector of the industry and opened up opportunities for companies to capitalize on its success with their own take on the formula. Personally, my interest in the genre never expanded much beyond Street Fighter II; I mean, I enjoyed playing some its clones, including some of the SNK titles and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters, but none of them could come close to reproducing the original's shine. For that matter, I found Street Fighter II infinitely superior to Mortal Kombat, its closest competitor, whose fighting system had little actual appeal outside of fatalities, which were silly but admittedly fun to execute. Still, give me Hundred Hand Slaps and Tiger Uppercuts any day.

I'm writing this a few days after series icon Ryu has been added to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, which I think is wild even if I don't play the game much. It's good to see him in there mixing it up with Pac-Man, Mario, Donkey Kong, Link, Sonic, Mega Man and other gaming pioneers who certainly welcome his presence. Actually, it's kind of surreal to see him featured so prominently in a series that was said to be created for people who were too intimidated by "serious" fighting games like Street Fighter II. Though, considering how Smash's character roster has been expanding beyond Nintendo's own, I guess the two series' worlds were bound to intersect eventually.

It doesn't appear that Ryu will be climbing to the top of anyone's "tier list" anytime soon, but that's OK; I'm just thrilled that series creator Masahiro Sakurai thought to include him as a way of honoring the game that inspired his prized Smash Bros. franchise.

And honor it they should. Street Fighter II is one of the best, most influential games ever created, and arcades, consoles and computers are all the better for having it. The fighting-game genre thrives to this day because of it, and its legacy otherwise endures via an endless stream of sequels that carry with them every possible permutation of subtitle. The modern Street Fighter games might not hold quite the same weight as the cherished original, but people still love the series' formula and enjoy competing against each other in the newest iterations.

And it's all because of the monumentally groundbreaking Street Fighter II, which appeared out of nowhere one day and wasted no time in working to change the world. Had our younger selves thought to write a letter to Capcom expressing our admiration for its amazing effort, the message would have been best summarized in three words:

"You win."


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