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The Secret History of Street Fighter II
Anyone who spent time in the arcades during the 90’s can attest to the power of the fighting game. So many rivalries were kindled, expert players who had mastered all the game’s combos were held in reverence, and kids everywhere were eager to blow their entire week’s allowance in quarters to play the game and test their skill against others in an epic battle of pixels.
While it might be hard to believe, previous to the fighting game boom of the 90’s the genre was all but obsolete, using the most basic of controls and pitting one character against hordes of martial arts masters in one-on-one combat. There was no 2-player option, no roster of characters, no super moves, and not nearly the same amount of depth as their successors.
That is, until Capcom changed the game with one of the most iconic and important fighting game franchises ever released: Street Fighter.
THE EARLY YEARS
In the mid-80’s, fighting games like Karate Champ were mere brawlers that pitted one hero character against enemies in one-on-one battles. The moves themselves were as simple as one button to punch, one to kick, and the games featured little by way of story or depth. As such, they enjoyed modest popularity in arcades and were more niche than mainstream.
It wasn’t until the late 80’s that Capcom hired designer Takashi Nishiyama to lead the creation of a new fighting game franchise. Nishiyama had been one of the minds behind Kung Fu Master, a side-scrolling fighter that tasked a player with taking out groups of enemies. The game wasn’t the most successful, but it managed to impress the bigwigs at Capcom enough to bring him on and put him in charge of the company’s burgeoning fighting game franchise.
Despite his creation in Kung Fu Master, however, Nishiyama wanted to do something different with this new fighting game. Instead of a faceless fighter, players wold take control of a hero named Ryu (a name adopted from the symbol for the first syllable in Nishiyama’s name), a Japanese martial artist traveling the world and fighting a number of different martial arts masters in one-on-one combat. In the game, each of the characters had their own distinct look and were illustrated by none other than Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune in his first ever video game project.
Aesthetic and premise aside, what really made the original Street Fighter unique was its use of brand new mechanics. A second playable character was later added in Ken, Ryu’s longtime rival. With the addition of Ken, the game introduced multiplayer gameplay for the first time in the genre’s history, allowing players to take on each other in one-on-one combat. Of course, both characters had the exact same move set, a fact that Capcom attributed to both characters training under the same master. But while they may have been carbon copies of each other, what they accomplished was more important: they showed us the value of local multiplayer.
Furthermore, Nishyama wanted to do something radically different with the game’s controls in Street Fighter. Rather than adhere to the two-button standard of fighting games that came before, he wanted to implement a six-button fighting system that would offer players different attack options, including a variety of punches, kicks, and special attacks. Capcom execs weren’t hot on the idea in the beginning, worried that the inclusion would confuse players who had grown accustomed to a two-button system. Nishiyama argued that, although it was a bit more complex, any button press would still see players attacking offensively. The argument managed to sway the top brass, and the idea stayed in the final product.
When it was released in 1987, the game enjoyed popularity within arcades and quickly became a staple in the fighting game genre. It looked great, offered a fair amount of challenge, and was enough to keep players coming back for more time and time again. But for all its success, it still hadn’t revolutionized the genre in the way we know Street Fighter has today. That, of course, would have to wait for the game’s proper sequel.
NUMBER TWO ON THE WAY
Sequel talk for the original Street Fighter didn’t start until a few years after the game’s release.Many ports and unofficial spin-offs and sequels to the game were released, but none were proper sequels to Nishiyama’s classic. Nishiyama himself left Capcom not long after Street Fighter hit arcades and worked on Fatal Fury, a game he claimed to be the true spiritual successor of the fighting darling he had created.
But alas, no word of a true sequel was heard from Capcom until 1989, when the company released the franchise’s official follow-up, aptly named Street Fighter ’89. But despite the name, there was little that was actually Street Fighter about it. Instead, it was a standard side-scrolling brawler that saw players moving through environments and taking on multiple enemies in combat, given the name Street Fighter in an effort to cash in on the brand’s popularity. Arcade operators cried foul, insisting that the game was not an actual Street Fighter sequel and demanding that the name be changed, which Capcom honored by re-naming the game Final Fight.
With that, they found themselves in a peculiar position. Final Fight did well enough in arcades, but it had yet to reach the success of the original Street Fighter. Still wanting desperately to make the next installment in the series, they tasked the Final Fight team with creating a proper sequel to the 1987 original, which the team started work on right away.
This time, the game wouldn’t be called Street Fighter ’89. It would instead follow the first game chronologically by being named Street Fighter II, and would take the groundbreaking conventions of the original to the next level by allowing players a variety of options they’d never had in a fighting game before. Instead of only one hero, players could choose whichever character they wanted to play as for the campaign. Where players before had stuck to the same set of moves, each individual character in Street Fighter II would have their own move set ripped straight from different fighting styles across the world. Furthermore, each character would have their own distinct backstory and ending, and two players would be able to select their characters and pit their skill against each other in one-on-one combat.
The result was sheer brilliance. The game became a hit almost overnight, quickly becoming the hot game in arcades as players fed quarters into the machines like candy in order to experience all the game had to offer. It was the first game to really attach players to individual characters, sparking debates about which character was the best within the arcade community.
But probably the most important thing Street Fighter II did was introduce local multiplayer and show the power of letting live players interact with each other in the virtual space. Even back in 1991, the game’s popularity served as a testament to how successful games with a great multiplayer infrastructure could be.
Street Fighter isn’t the first fighting game ever created, but it’s the one that steered the genre into becoming what it is today. After the release of Street Fighter II, the fighting game genre boomed, introducing a number of franchises that still persist today.
But despite the success of so many others riding on the Street Fighter II formula, the game remains the great-grandaddy of the genre, the one that changed the landscape of the fighting genre forever. For what it managed to achieve and innovate, the game is not only one of the greatest ever made, it’s also one of the most important.