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Revisiting the Golden Era of Fighting Games
BILL WOOD | APRIL 3, 2023
I came across my first Street Fighter II cabinet in the back of a 7-Eleven near the corner of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, wedged unceremoniously between magazine racks and six packs. This was actually one of the more notorious intersections in Hollywood at the time, rife with drug dealing, prostitution, even the occasional murder. I’d return to this same convenience store the following year to find it completely looted and virtually burned to the ground, a stark casualty of the Los Angeles riots. Perhaps because of its dubious location, this particular SF2 cabinet wasn’t getting a lot of traffic, and so I revisited it over and over again to hone my skills. The times would soon be changing, but in 1991 all that mattered was a Cherry Slurpee, a handful of quarters and an odd fascination with a Brazilian beast with green skin and orange fur.
Along with Nirvana and Beverly Hills 90210, Capcom's landmark Street Fighter II was the cultural zeitgeist of the early ‘90s. If you played video games at all, odds are you were playing some version of Street Fighter. Arcades, pizza parlors, and even laundromats were packed with rabid patrons, quarters lined along the monitors for “next up.” Most played for fun, but skilled players competed for cash, with real fights occasionally breaking out as a result. Sequels and updates came rolling out in short order, and with every new SF2 update (Champion! Turbo! Super! Super Turbo!!!) came a new influx of fans to the local arcade, until they finally burned out and moved on to other hobbies. The fighting game craze may have eventually drowned in its own excesses (only to be reborn many years later), but in its moment there was nothing finer.
I stuck with fighting games longer than most. I always enjoyed the gameplay, but more than anything, I appreciated the artistry and innovation. I was totally oblivious at the time, but this was the same aesthetic that eventually drew me to anime and manga. I was blown away by Street Fighter II’s look and feel, it was so far advanced from anything else I’d played. Primordial fighters such as Karate Champ (another all-time fave) offered simple graphics and even simpler controls. Street Fighter II had six buttons (three Punch, three Kick) and you needed to know how and when to use them all! The gameplay was complicated yet sublime, leagues ahead of anything else on the market. And yes, it was also far and away the best-looking video game out there. So impressed was I that I traded in my Sega Genesis console and six games for a Super Nintendo console and one lone SF2 cartridge. I distinctly remember the guy behind the counter shaking his head and telling me I was nuts, but what the hell did he know?!? Street Fighter II was serious business. If I owned a car back then, I'd probably have traded that too.
For the next two years and then some, Street Fighter II and its various iterations would absolutely dominate my gaming life. I purchased custom fighting sticks, VHS tapes, magazines and strategy guides, anxious for anything that might help to improve my skill. I diligently practiced the timing of Ryu's Light Shoryuken wake-up and Ken’s Four-Fierce, yet never truly managed to improve. No matter how much I "trained," every random I’d come across at a car wash or burger joint would mop the floor with me. Forget combos, it was usually a Guile or Chun Li player pinning me to the nearest corner with a dizzying array of traps. I once invited a family member over who played very casually, deciding to "take it easy" on him. He ended up crushing me in consecutive rounds, even after I removed the kid gloves. And then there was the time I was convinced that E. Honda's Hundred Hand Slap was an impenetrable wall of death, only to get Double Perfect'ed by an M. Bison player who spammed his Psycho Crusher back and forth across the screen. I'm sure this sounds like Greek to most folks, but those who know should get a chuckle. If all of this weren't enough, that last scenario happened at Disneyland, losing to a youngster who could barely reach the joysticks. I can laugh about it now, but I was hardly the Happiest Person On Earth that day.
Okay, so I may have been lacking a bit in the skills department, but I was hardly deterred. The neighborhood arcades were great for SF2 action, and I knew from reading the gaming mags that there was even more out there. I started venturing to Little Tokyo on weekends to check out the latest SNK NeoGeo titles, which were packed four to a single cabinet. Along with terrific side-scrollers and beat-‘em-ups, the NeoGeo cabinets were typically stocked with SNK's most popular fighting games. The earliest ones, such as Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting, really weren’t much to speak of. Stiff and unforgiving, these early fighters were strictly average and did little to capture the pixelated bliss of Street Fighter II. But I played them all regardless, even the duds.
And then came Samurai Shodown. WOW. Here was an SNK fighter that looked better than Street Fighter II, featured plenty of hard-hitting swordplay and even a touch of Mortal Kombat’s grisly delight. But perhaps most importantly, for the first time ever, here was a fighting game that openly embraced its Japanese heritage. In fact, the game could not exist without it! I dreamed of owning a NeoGeo home console and a Samurai Shodown cart, but at $750 for the console and $250 for the cart (yes, a single game), that would have to remain a dream. (Note: These same games now regularly go on sale for two bucks.) Instead of forking over a cool grand for a makeshift arcade on my TV set, I found myself making the pilgrimage to North Hollywood's legendary Game Dude, a game store where they had a NeoGeo system rigged to a wall timer. Here you could buy 15 minutes of game time for a couple of bucks and play to your hearts content, or at least until the timer switched off and you were left staring at a blank TV screen. Cruel? Perhaps, but it was better than sinking quarter after quarter into an arcade cabinet and risk getting knocked off by a decent player. Which happened often.
As much as I appreciated the technical aspects of fighting games, as a budding artist I found myself even more attracted to the aesthetics; graphical detail, character design, etc. The entire design philosophy seemed to come from a strange new planet (turns out it was Japan). Take ADK's World Heroes for instance, a game which conjured up loose—and I do mean loose—interpretations of various icons throughout the course of global history and threw them into a winner-takes-all martial arts tournament. World Heroes had its share of cookie-cutter warriors, but it also featured a version of the Mad Monk Rasputin who did Marilyn Monroe poses. Another character was a take on Street Fighter II final boss M.Bison, only with Inspector Gadget arms and some serious National Socialist leanings. And then there was Johnny Maximum, the American football player whose favorite hangout was apparently an "underground" bar (what J. Max was doing hanging out in such a place wearing full pads and uniform is anyone’s guess). Most fighting game rosters were filled with uninspired stereotypes, but World Heroes actually left you scratching your head wondering who came up with this stuff.
With the runaway success of Street Fighter II came a wide variety of knockoffs, and I played every one I could get my hands on. Most were sub-par fighters such as Sega's Eternal Champions, EA's Shaq Fu and Data East’s Fighters History. (The latter copied SF2 a little too closely, as Capcom saw fit to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement, which they lost.) There were also the previously mentioned SNK NeoGeo titles, several of which gave Capcom a serious run for their money. Capcom themselves produced a brilliant new fighting series in the middle of Street Fighter-mania. Titled Darkstalkers (Vampire Savior in Japan), the game combined classic SF2 gameplay with a horror-themed cast of characters. And then there was Midway's Mortal Kombat and its gory sequel, although that game’s art direction and gameplay seemed far enough removed to create its own blood-soaked sub-genre. Still, MK was definitely a fighting game, and you cannot pen an article about '90s fighters without acknowledging the sheer brilliance and runaway success of Mortal Kombat II, which came closest to capturing the original hype and glory of Street Fighter II.
You’d think my fighting fandom would have eventually cooled like everyone else’s, instead it grew. I made regular trips to the Japanese bookstore in Little Tokyo to pick up import strategy guides for Fatal Fury Special, World Heroes Perfect and The King of Fighters ’95. Keep in mind I couldn't actually read these guides, but at least I could decipher a combo chart or tier list here and there. I imported several Japanese-only fighting games, including a really terrible Dragon Ball Z game for Super Nintendo that was getting a lot of hype at the time. From there I started buying unsubbed manga and anime TV shows, taped straight off of Japanese TV and imported to America. I couldn’t even tell what shows were on the VHS tape, the spines were printed in Japanese. Out of necessity, I started dabbling in language study until I could at least read the katakana, hiragana and a very small amount of kanji. None of this made me a better fighting gamer, but at least I was well informed.
When the fighting game craze finally flickered out, it was partially due to customer burnout from a flood of uninspired updates, sequels and copycats. Arcades were filled with a glut of "me-too" knockoffs that attempted to cash in on the success of Street Fighter II without a shred of that game's sky-high quality standards. Capcom eventually released a proper sequel in the form of Street Fighter III, but barely anyone was left around the arcade to take notice. Most gamers had moved on to the newest trend, the first-person shooter, which is a real shame as Street Fighter III: Third Strike stands out as one of the genre’s finest offerings.
I don’t mess with fighters much these days, I’m lacking the reflexes and never really had the skill or competitive spirit. I'm actually amazed that fighting game competition is now big business and that good players can make a decent living off the prize money, that's something I'd never have imagined (or attempted). Still, the world of Street Fighter II opened up new doors of understanding and opportunity for me. Exploring Asian martial arts and language study led to a newfound admiration for various nations and their people, I even took up martial arts and earned a black belt in Taekwondo. That's another thing I'd never have imagined, and to think it was a video game cabinet on the corner of Highland and Santa Monica that lit the fuse. - BW