You didn’t know it at the time — neither did I! — but the week of December 14, 1987 was quite possibly the single greatest display of creativity the industry has ever witnessed. Not one but three franchises launched that week in Japan, three franchises that would endure two decades and go on to be some of the most beloved series ever made.
In the space of three days, Japanese gamers were introduced to Rockman (aka Mega Man), Final Fantasy and finally Phantasy Star. Sure, we saw some colossal release dates this past autumn, but most of those were sequels (even BioShock, really). But that fateful week 20 years ago was packed with completely new ideas — one a platform/shooter hybrid with an innovative power-up system and a clever chain of enemy weaknesses, one a Japanese take on RPGs offering a more western approach to design than Dragon Quest (thanks in large part to its heavy lifting of elements from CRPGs and Dungeons & Dragons), one a more narrative take on role-playing with a strong female lead.
So this week, we’ve been focusing on the history of… Street Fighter? Yeah, well, we’re awesome like that. Besides, we’ve already done the whole Mega Man thing. And the Final Fantasy thing. And our Phantasy Star retrospective is written, but we’re holding it back a few weeks to help keep you warm in the bitter cold of early January.
And anyway, Street Fighter is timely, what with the whole Street Fighter IV dust-up currently dividing the Internet. Nadia’s done a fine job with parts one and two of her series retrospective, and an amusing look at the best and worst (mostly worst) of the licensed goods the franchise has inspired. I pooled together the bulk of the office’s serious fighting game talent for a very good episode of Retronauts (featuring the best closing theme ever). And then there’s the WTFiction!? article in which I try, perhaps with some degree of futility, to dissect and distill the series’ plotline. I actually did more research for this one than I did for the Resident Evil WTFiction!? — and I’ve never played more than an hour or two of Resident Evil, so I had to work from scratch for that one. But no, I pored over the obvious sources (GameFAQs guides and Wikipedia), studied every last character ending from every game at VG Museum, and then spent a ton of time digging up conversations at places like Shoryuken, MM Cafe and other forums. I figure this article is about as precise as it gets with Capcom explicitly laying out the facts. And concise, too — I left out most of the characters who have no real impact on the story… no slight to the vast-but-irrelevant cast of 3rd Strike intended.
Epic thanks to Gary Lu for making it all Flash-y. I normally hate Flash, but with something like this it’s pretty necessary.
For me, Street Fighter is very specifically Street Fighter II. Yeah, I’ve played them all, but only SF2 was a genuine phenomenon — and its timing coincided perfectly with my high school career. My friends and I spent ridiculous amounts of time hanging out at arcades and pizza parlors refining our fighting techniques; our high school let seniors leave at noon for the final week or two of the school year, and every single day a bunch of us would end up at the Copper Caboose (a local sports bar that doubled as a kid-friendly no-booze arcade during the day) hanging around the Street Fighter cabinets. And, of course, we had the inevitable debates about whether or not Mortal Kombat was superior to SF2; opinions varied, but of course the correct answer was “Ha, not even!”
As the only one in my peer group nerdy enough to have actually paid for a Super NES at launch — my friends didn’t want to shell out, but they were happy to freeload — I officially became the hero of the city in the summer of 1992 when SF2’s home version arrived. This was back in the days of cartridge shortages (it used to be Nintendo games that were impossible to find, not the systems), and SF2 was a bear to track down. And when I did find it, Toys ‘R Us wanted an unbelievable $75 for it. In 2007 money, that is $110. I was lucky enough to have a job that paid $8/hour, twice the minimum wage, but that was still more than a day’s wage.
But I paid it, and definitely got more than my money’s worth if you want to consider how many quarters I would have dropped for the equivalent amount of arcade time. Simply beating the game with Zangief on maximum difficulty (with all the Bison cheesiness that implies) was probably $75 of continues. And if you want to count all the times my freeloading friends would come over to my house to play while I was at work, why, it was a tremendous value! Jerks.
Considering how much the Super NES version cost, though, I felt pretty burned by all the incremental not-quite-a-sequel releases that followed. In fact, by the time the Genesis version arrived I felt I had sort of played the game to death as it was. When Capcom churned out Super Street Fighter II — effectively the same exact game with a handful of new characters — I gave Fei Long and Cammy a try, found them lacking, and called it a day.
Although the legendary Fight of the Fei Longs that I mentioned in the podcast almost made me reconsider my interest in the game.
But no, it wasn’t until the Super NES was on its last legs that Street Fighter rekindled my interest. I had blown off Street Fighter Alpha because at first glance all I saw was Ryu, Ken, Chun-Li, Sagat and a dude who was basically Guile in orange. The sheer variety of the Alpha 2 roster drew me in, however, and for the last month of my first senior semester in college my roommates and I would spend hours trying to defeat one another with unfamiliar characters. It was right around this time of year, too, so the lull before Christmas often reminds me of those good times. (As good as times can be when you’re renting a crappy house in a Texas winter cold enough that you could walk into the unheated, uninsulated living room in the morning and see your breath in a massive puff of vapor, anyway.)
We never got the hang of Rose or Gen, but I found Sakura startlingly effective — her incorrect mimickry of Ryu’s ansatsuken style made for a fairly unpredictable fighter, since her attacks constantly subverted all your expectations from years of beating up Ken and Ryu. And one my roommates was a deft hand with Adon. In retrospect, sure, the Super NES version dropped frames of animation and suffered, bizarrely, from loading times (presumably because the data had to be crammed onto the cartridge and decompressed before each match). But we didn’t care! We’d ignored the arcade version, we didn’t own a next-gen machine, so it was good enough. We had a crazy good time.
Then my roommate bought Donkey Kong Country 3 and I never spoke to him again.
Naw, just kidding, but his obsession with what looked like the most boring platformer imaginable effectively killed our Street Fighter sessions.
Unfortunately, I never really caught the Street Fighter bug again — I tried getting into Alpha 3 (to the point where I bought all sorts of bizarre controller attachments to turn the D-pad into a hadouken-friendly thumbstick), but my roommates had moved along. And without anyone to compete again, Street Fighter just isn’t as fun. My last girlfriend (hi, Pamela) was ferocious with Chun-Li to the point where I never had a chance of winning… which isn’t much fun for entirely different reasons. Besides, it was always much more entertaining to step back and watch her tear up the Capcom Vs. SNK machine, especially when some cocky college kid would drop in a quarter confident in his ability to beat some stupid girl — only to have his character’s teeth handed to him in a little baggie after two quick rounds.
Once I discovered 3rd Strike, I really started to regret letting my fighting skills lapse — it’s a beautifully animated game with great characters. But then I watched that video of the dude parrying Chun-Li’s blazzilion-kick combo and realized that I will never ever have the dedication necessary to be a competitive fighting game player. Or any game, really. I want a breadth of gaming experiences, not focused mastery of a single title. That jack of all trades thing really crimps my chances of being a tournament contender.
Still, I hope that SF4 works for people like me — casual fans with fond nostalgia for hanging out in arcades 15 years gone by — as well as for the more dedicated players like Richard and Greg. If any fighting game can get me to dust off that arcade stick, it’ll be this one. We’ll see, I suppose. But at least I’ll always have my memories, right? (Until I go senile, anyway.)