by Brandon Melendez
There are few rules. No referees. No witnesses, save one, the record keeper. The giant statue behind them lies indifferently on her side, as if watching the scene before her as she might watch an ant scurry off with a crumb. The man before him is a figure much more imposing; much taller, much wider, and with a meaner look to his face. Sweat is glistening on his confident, smug brow as he dances with his taped fists up. His muscles bulging, his exposed chest baring the body length scar the quiet, collected fighter dealt him in their first encounter.
The young Japanese man in the white gi, with his red bandanna holding back his unruly brown hair, stands still, eerily still, as he sizes up the monster before him. This rematch was long in coming, and his opponent has done little to better himself. The young man stares at the imposing beast before him and looks him in his one eye. Muscles trained to obedience and discipline over a lifetime of chasing perfect explode as the young man takes to the air, whirling like a hurricane of kicks; the taller figure leaps amazingly over his head. Ryu comes to a stop and stares at Sagat. Sagat snarls and attempts to catch his opponent’s jaw. Ryu dodges, squints defiantly, and enters a world within his own soul. Ryu is calm, collected, serene. He cups his hands together and gathers all his qi into a ball made manifest and hurls it at Sagat. “HADOUKEN!” Sagat slumps to the floor with a loud thud, and then there is only Ryu and the rustling of the wind in the blades of grass.
Street Fighter. It’s the definitive fighting game. It is without a doubt the archetype for the success of the entire genre. I don’t care what franchise, what spin on the genre, weapons, no weapons, whatever—with the notable exception of boxing games—there is no fighting game that exists today that doesn’t owe Street Fighter its life. Initially, the franchise of fighters was really nothing to get overly excited with. Punch, punch, kick, punch. The games with the best fighting action were usually sidescrollers like Double Dragon or River City Ransom.
Honestly, even the first Street Fighter wasn’t really anything special. In my life, the game is something of a rarity…I always remember myself wondering why I never saw it in the arcade. As a matter of fact, I distinctly remember from all of my bowling alley and skating rink experiences as a young lad, wondering if, in fact, the name of Street Fighter II actually had more to do with the number of possible players than a designation in a series (though in much simpler terminology). The reason most people probably didn’t see it at the time was because, for some unknown reason, the game was ported to the US as “Fighting Street” which, for me, illustrates a very different game in which you control an earthquake. The other reason the first Street Fighter is so rare is because, well, it’s not really that good. Its OK, at best. You control Ryu through the game, unless you are challenged by a second player, then a clone named Ken shows up. So there was no choice, the only difference between Ryu and Ken was aesthetic. What was unique to Street Fighter, and would eventually revolutionize the genre in its sequel, were two distinct innovations: The six button configuration (three intensities of punches and kicks) and a system that allowed certain button combinations to bring forth “special attacks”.
In the form of “special attacks”, the genre was changed twofold—combinations and shooting shit from your hands. Before the original Street Fighter, nobody did that in fighting games. Mario did it when he ate that trippy flower, Mega Man and Samus did it—but they had guns attached to their arms. This was groundbreaking. It created a situation where you could have true long range attack in the game, and it added a mystical element. It remains, to this day, an intriguing choice to add magical balls of energy to a genre that, besides football, was most heavily entrenched in reality. All the same, even with these innovations, Street Fighter was not as successful as it might have been, and, for the most part, was never mentioned again.
Street Fighter II on the other hand…well, Street Fighter II was a force to be reckoned with. It still is. I think I will get little argument from the masses when I say that Street Fighter II is the standard to which all fighters afterwards have to be compared. The game set the standard so high, had such a replay factor, such a competitive edge, and such a variability of play that it is still ported to every system that comes out. There are actually many versions of this game, as it seemed Capcom was an amazingly stubborn beast and refined the game engine over the duration of my childhood.
In recent years, this practice has become increasingly apparent on the part of Capcom as they release a highly anticipated game, and then re-release it annually with a slightly tweaked system and a few new characters. While nowadays this is formulaic, expected, and something of a blatant money grab, back in my day, each new iteration of Street Fighter II actually did have something to offer. The control responses got tighter. More special moves were added. Yes, characters were added, too, but most of all, the game got better. Playing straight-up Street Fighter II was a different experience than, say, Street Fighter II Turbo (which is the SNES version of the game I had), or eventually in Championship Edition or the New Challengers.
The game also had something of a story to it—in this game, the evil M. Bison (or Balrog if you live in Japan) has set up a Street Fighter tournament in order to help him take over the world somehow. In order to complete his nefarious plot to somehow take over the world in this way, he has enlisted the help of washed up boxer named Balrog (or M. Bison if you live in Japan—get it? M. Bison?? Sounds kinda like George Forman doesn’t it?); a vain, masked cage fighter by the name of Vega (who uses a Wolverine claw); and Sagat, the boss from Street Fighter (aka Fighting Street). With his forces so well stacked to, umm, beat people up in the street, M. Bison squared off against an group representing at least six flags from IHOP (E. Honda and Ryu are both Japanese, Ken and Guile are both American).
Each character had their own little story to tell. Chun Li was an Interpol agent with a vendetta. Guile was a U.S. Military man with a vendetta. Blanka was a…Blanka, probably with a vendetta. Dhalsim was a yoga master who also fought for some reason and had stretchy powers. There was Zangief (from the USSR, even after it was just Russia) a wrestler (WITH A VENDETTA). E. Honda a sumo wrester who can turn himself into a torpedo. And there’s still more! There is, of course, Ken and Ryu. Ken, no longer a mean clone of Ryu, now handled a little faster than Ryu and had a more powerful dragon-punch (SHORYUKEN!) whereas Ryu was more powerful and dealt a harder Hadouken (HADOUKEN). Ken’s story was, I think, to get back “in the game” while Ryu’s remains the same as it always has…to be the best.
Later games would introduce playable versions of the bosses, and the new challengers would even bring Cammy, T. Hawk, Fei Long, and Dee Jay. Each was a racial or cultural stereotype that was sorely lacking in the game’s programming and inherent narrative. The addition of a silent and powerful Mexican Native American, a would-be Bruce Lee, a blonde white girl, and a dancing Jamaican finally brought SFII to where it needed to be in its political correctness. Except, of course, for the missing element.
I’ll say it again.
Akuma was the third character in the series to be introduced that used the style of fighting that Ken and Ryu practiced—in fact, he is the younger brother of their Sensei. While later additions like Dan and Sakura would also produce their own variations of the style (and Chun Li would produce her own bastard Hadouken technique), Akuma’s version was downright brutal and unmistakably dark. Having succumb to what would later be described as “The Dark Hado”, his name is Japanese for Devil or Demon, and in Japan he is known as Gouki—great demon. Akuma was a bonus character that appeared when a specific set of criteria were met in Super Street Fighter II Turbo—he shows up right before the M. Bison fight, fucks him up before the fight starts, and then squares off against you before there’s enough time to process the event. It’s always a thrill (and in later games like Marvel vs. Capcom I’ll sometimes choose Akuma, Ken, and Ryu as a team just for fun).
All in all, there’s really nothing in the fighting world that can claim to have the impact of the Street Fighter series. Mortal Kombat may lay its claim to blood, Virtual Fighter to 3D scenarios, Soul Caliber may lay its claim to Yoda, and Tekken to combos and chains, but all those games would be for naught if not for Street Fighter—the Street Fighter II sub-series specifically. To be completely clear, this game was so over, so mainstream, that it had an awful movie starring Jean Claude Van Damme and Raul Julia (sadly in his last role). It was so over, so mainstream that the movie based on the game had a game based on the movie based on the game. The game based on the movie based on the movie based on the game had a cartoon based on the game based on the movie based on the game. You get it? It’s pop culture…when people say fighting game, they think Street Fighter II.