Street Fighting USA

Puny reader! Your feeble willpower is as nothing to my limitless skill in stylish browbeating! Submit, and read this masterful article on Capcom’s top-selling fighting game series, Street Fighter!

“Praise me! Extol me! My beauty is unparalleled!”
In the late 1980s, in testosterone-charged coin-op arcades loud with explosions, when manly self-esteem compelled you to face your rivals like a rutting stag, you played Street Fighter II. No game compared; it was exhilarating, gladiatorial.

Trouncing earlier 2-D fighting games – outstripping even its own weakling precursor, Capcom’s original Street FighterSF2 offered a wide range of fighter characters, each with distinctive moves, all (well, most) game-balanced to katana sharpness. Above all, SF2 offered combos, unique moves you triggered by pressing a certain button sequence with split-second precision. With these combos, a landmark innovation, SF2 recruited, almost overnight, legions of players vying for supremacy. The world had never yet seen such an efficient outlet for adolescent male rage.

More than many other arcade games, Street Fighter inspired a culture, a code. Among friends, you might taunt and talk trash as you played. Against a stranger, etiquette dictated an attitude of couth – a regal aloofness. To silently duck or overleap your opponent’s attacks, to pull back and then, with a light touch on the joystick and decisive stabs at the six buttons, to land three or four telling jabs and kicks – all with a cool, fated composure – that was the tao of Street Fighter. And then, having initiated with musical precision your final, killing combo, to turn from the console, silently, dismissively, feigning to chat idly with a friend while the hapless loser viewed his fighter’s humiliation … Boooo-yah!

An instant hit at its 1987 debut, Street Fighter II went through five revisions and spawned a prequel (Street Fighter Alpha, five revisions), a sequel (Street Fighter III, three revisions) and multiple console ports. Capcom says the SF franchise has sold nearly 30 million units worldwide. Then there’s the terrible 1994 movie (Rotten Tomatoes score: 29%), anime, manga, comics, art collections, action figures, a collectible card game, a tabletop roleplaying game and Street Fightersound drops,” pushbutton keychain fobs that issue trademark taunts. (Relive these Street Fighter taunts on Wikiquote.) And in August 2006, SF2 itself, now a venerable master, became the fastest-selling game yet released on Xbox Live Arcade. After 20 years, while nearly 200 other fighting games have risen and fallen, Street Fighter still holds its ground.

Yet this may not speak well for the form. Like the tournament competitors they depict, the ranks of fighting games are thinning.

“If you are not merciless, your soul will be slaughtered!”
Clearly, the ranks of devout fighting game fans remain pretty thick. Every year, more fighter fans attend the Evolution tournaments; in 2007, there are four regional Evo tourneys, ahead of August’s big championship in Las Vegas. (For a memorable battle from Evo 2004, see “Fei Long and Justin Wong” in The Escapist issue 88.) Evo’s sponsor is the leading Street Fighter fan site, Shoryuken, named for the original game’s single unstoppable fighting technique.

Evo features lots of manly self-esteem. Like fighting games themselves, the competition uses a ruthless double-elimination format: Lose two matches and you’re out, you miserable worm. As consolation, you can buy the Evolution tournament DVDs, and if you’re lucky, you may see the unreleased 2002 Street Fighter documentary Bang the Machine. (Brad King summarized the film for, and FilePlanet hosts the Bang the Machine trailer.)

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Each year, various versions of Street Fighter still hold the place of honor at Evo. The game’s near-faultless balance is proven by the range of different characters the tournament winners employ, in marked contrast to (say) Marvel vs. Capcom, where you play Magneto and Storm or you go home early.

In fact, outside the SF series, not many fighting games, and certainly few recent releases, are popular at Evo – or anywhere else. Virtua Fighter, Tekken, Soul Caliber, Super Smash Bros., Capcom vs. SNK – hello, what decade is this? Even Capcom’s own Rival Schools went nowhere. The most recent entrant to find a modicum of favor is the Guilty Gear series, which has at least produced new installments this century.

Beyond these aged champions, there’s little to talk about. There hasn’t been a new hit property in years. Commercial fighting games have gone stagnant.

“The only way a true fighter can suffer is by not fighting.”
Is it bad that we can’t do better than Street Fighter? It probably doesn’t matter, business-wise; publishers nowadays usually won’t fund fighting games. To a publisher, they’re just another genre with a substantial yet insufficiently profitable niche. The market for cooperative games is larger. It’s also hard to make fighters work online, because precision timing is crucial to their gameplay. The clearest sign of publisher apathy came in 2004: Capcom Japan passed the Street Fighter rights to its USA division, saying the game had run its course in Japan.

But, commerce aside, it’s baffling and irritating that it’s so hard to improve on a 2-D sprite-based game two decades old. Clearly, fighters are a royal pain to balance – but so are lots of genres, yet they have evolved. Why not fighters, too?

In December 2006, fighter fan Daniel “RedSwirl” Sims offered insight in a blog entry, “Are Fighters Dying in America?“:

“When I first picked up [Soul Caliber III] last year, I’d noticed, for instance, that Kilik’s 2-1-4 Tribute stance (which I thought was really cool) had been taken out in favor of a stance that led to slightly weaker combos. On the other end, though, his classic 2-3-6 Monument Stance had a whole extra combo string added to it. The kick in his 2-3-6-K could be preceded with A and B attacks in any order. Mitsurugi’s old B+G Koreifuji throw now had to be performed in his 6+B+K Mist stance in order to make room for all his new throws. Now how many of you reading this understood all that? Fighting games actually do make significant improvements from game to game; it’s just that the only people who notice them enough to care are the hardcore players.”

Sims is talking about grognard capture. “Grognards” are a genre’s most passionate devotees, the ones who know the field down to their DNA, who order their own custom controllers. “Grognard capture” describes a development process entirely dominated by this hardcore elite.

Fighting games were captured long ago. Fighting grognards passionately seek victory, through total, personal domination of the opponent. See David Serlin’s self-published treatise Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion, an expansion of articles from his blog, Serlin, a fighting game tournament champion, describes a regimen of mental training for videogame dominance: “Those who try to win are wildly misunderstood by the masses, and all sorts of negative things are ascribed to them. In fact, the journey of continual self-improvement that a winner must walk is good, and right, and true … but it’s not for everyone, nor should it be.” The book includes close analysis of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Can designers with this outlook develop fighting games that appeal to a broad audience? You have to wonder … or, instead of wondering, you could just go to Japan.

“Get on your feet! That can’t be all you got!”
The upside of a passionate audience is a continual ferment of community activity. Each year, Japanese fans create new homebrew indie “doujin soft” fighting games, like Melty Blood and Eternal Fighter Zero. (See John Szczepaniak’s “Doujin a Go Go, Baby!” in The Escapist issue 44.)

Some of these doujin games have earned great popularity with the community. On the other hand, there are weird Japanese mutations like the girl-fighting game Line-Kill Spirits. From its Wikipedia entry: “The girls will slowly regenerate damage unless the player takes a picture of their panties. Therefore, the objective of the game is to deal damage to the enemy while creating chances to take pictures of her panties, and then repeat until she is knocked out. All panty shots are kept in a photo album the player can view any time.”

So, uh, anyway … the successful Evolution tournament scene highlights a revenue stream neglected by publishers, and thus a possible opportunity. Is there a new business model here? Could a small developer create a 2-D fighter with low-end graphics but extremely deep gameplay, release it as shareware, then stage tournaments and charge admission to passionate grognards? That business would call for good software design and good event planning, skills seldom found together. But a committed developer could view the prospect as, you know, a journey of continual self-improvement.

Meanwhile, Hyde Park Entertainment is working with Capcom on a new Street Fighter movie. The 20th anniversary of the original SF game is imminent. It’s possible we may see a new entry in the series. The old fighter climbs to his feet, ready for action.

And now, hah! I have compelled you to read this entire article! My victory is complete! Booooo-yah!

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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