Street Fighter, more than a video game

 

Street Fighter is a revolutionary video game, a bit like movies from film visionaries (Star Wars, Jaws) are to cinema. Street Fighter was a pioneer in the fighting games genre and represents the breaking point from where fighting games became something different. Seeing fireballs coming out of Ryu and Ken’s hands for the very first time was amazing.

My very first street fighter experience was in a supermarket where my mom used to shop. One bar in the gallery had a Street Fighter 2 machine that was crowded with people. I remember at the time, there was no arcade parlour near my home, so I either had to follow my mom to that supermarket or find the right bus to go downtown. It wasn’t a long bus ride (about 30 minutes) but it was almost impossible for me to get there on school days.

When the game first appeared, nobody knew what they were doing or what the game really was. Most players were attracted by the machine as it was the first one to come with 6 buttons. It was also one of the first versus games, so when walking into the arcade and towards the Street Fighter 2 machine, the air was becoming palpable and the atmosphere electric. Everybody wanted to see what you were capable of, and if you were any good, everybody wanted to beat you and be the best. In that matter, one could say Street Fighter 2 created a genre as it was not just a fighting game anymore but a versus experience.

Right from the start I wanted to be part of something like that… Maybe because the machine had 6 buttons and special moves and the game was somehow a bit more complicated and on a whole other level than any other game at the time. So every week-end, I wanted to be in the arcade and usually was one of the first ones in line in front of the machine. Another thing that motivated me was playing that game did cost money, but if you were good enough, it only really cost you your first credit then it was free as long as you defeated challengers. 1 credit was 5 Francs (0.77 Euros) and 3 credits cost 10 Francs (about 1.5 Euros). At the time, I was around 12 years old and getting 50 Francs a month (7.7 Euros) as pocket money. That was 15 credits a month and I better had to make them count.

Later, as most teenagers, I got a little bit more into music than I used to when I was younger. I was mainly attracted by hip hop music (DJing in particular). This friend of mine had been mixing and scratching for a while, he used to travel regularly to Paris to bring the latest mixtapes, he had turntables at home (Technics MK-II the one and only)… Needless to say he was really into it. I can’t remember the first time I heard Street Fighter 2 sounds in DJing. It was either in some mixtape from Q-Bert or in an Akenaton song “Eclater un type des Assedic” in which Cut Killer was scratching some mean Street Fighter 2 sound effects. It doesn’t really matter; my point is Street Fighter 2 was really more than a video game as artists started using it in their work too.

The characters in Street Fighter 2 are kind of icons in many ways. Ryu, Ken, Dhalsim, Blanka, Sagat… All had their particular stories and reasons to fight, some characters were somehow related to each other, etc… Ryu was that kid with deadly martial arts techniques who would travel the world and look for other fighters to become the best, Chun-Li wanted to avenge her father’s death… The important thing was none of them actually owned the story, so any player could pick any character they could identify with to play the game.

The characters are so distinctive, it adds some touch of personality to the game that a lot of other games don’t have. There are such strong archetypes and personalities in this game that it’s not completely cartoonish but it’s not really adult either. It’s rather in the middle.

In my mind, there are 2 different ways to play Street Fighter 2. You can either play it very competitively or play it with appreciation of the artistic and creative aspects of the game and the world Capcom built around this franchise. For example, just look at the backgrounds. Each stage is from a different country with different animations, different sounds etc… Street Fighter is filled with great art, great characters, great music… And greatness inspires greatness in others and it makes people find their own way to connect with the game.

When I was kid no one ever picked Balrog because he had no kicks and no fireballs. But it ever so happened to play against someone who’d choose Balrog, and when that guy knew what to do, Balrog turned out to be one of the most powerful characters in the game even with that handicap. That taught me one good lesson in life is to never take anything for granted and something you see as a handicap is not necessarily one.

In the old days of street fighter 2, when there was no internet, the only way to learn things was to go to the arcade and try to see what people were doing in there. Sometimes, things would just happen out of the blue, like a dragon punch or a fireball, then usually both players would stop playing and one would go “how did you do that?”. There was also that one guy who managed to do the spinning pile driver whenever he wanted to. Most people were struggling with Zangief and mashing buttons and hopefully the spinning pile driver would come off, but this guy just was able to nail it whenever he wanted to.

In the arcades, there used to be this unofficial competition of who would find new special moves first, and the most sought after move was the dragon punch. At first, me and my brother found a way to do them: after walking forward for a while (like one second) we’d do a fireball real quick and there was a possibility to get a dragon punch out of that. It turned out that wasn’t the exact combination of move, but it wasn’t that far either. When you finally learnt a special move and understood how it worked, it was a feeling of having some secret knowledge of some sort because you were one of the few people who knew that. There was the power of knowing the move, but there was also the power of your opponents knowing you knew the move and they didn’t which was a great psychological advantage.

Playing Street Fighter 2, I realized playing against other players was much more fun. Human think in many different flexible ways and even the same opponent can act very differently depending on how he feels or how you make him feel (check psychological advantage I mentioned above). Human players offered many more variations than the A.I. and that was reflected in the way I and they played. That’s why street fighter 2 triggered that big change in fighting games design.

When Street Fighter 2 came out and people asked you what kind of game you were playing, you could easily answer by saying “Street Fighter 2” because it was the only one. But pretty soon, every maker in Japan was producing at least one fighting game. That is how big a phenomenon Street Fighter 2 had started. Then were born games like Virtual Fighter that later inspired Tekken and others, but they were always second to Street Fighter to me.

Playing Street Fighter 2 was a real investment, not only in money, but also in time and dedication to go to the arcades to play and learn the game. And the fact that you could throw fireballs and dragon punches showed a legacy of many hours invested in the game, and in the case you lost, you couldn’t just shrug it off and go home. You spent thousands of hours practicing that game! So there were lines of challengers wanting to take the winner on, lines of players stacking their coins on the machines to have the next game. Even that simple act of placing your coin at the bottom corner of the machine’s window was the beginning of the fight as you had to try and intimidate the guy with the winning streak. So while most players would just place their coin there, I’d look the guys in the eyes and go “I got next”… There was something about that little coin stacking thing that was great. Maybe for that reason only I prefer arcades to online play.

The arcades were a bit like going to the wild in some way. There was always a top dog who was mastering the game, a kind of villainous character who wouldn’t talk to anybody and just grunt while playing and just make fun of you while you’re picking your character. But one day I beat him, I knew what he was going to do, I could guess his every move… Then I beat him again, and again, until he had to go to the counter because I made him run out of change. At that moment, I knew I had that guy… I knew what it was to crush somebody, I knew what it felt like to figure somebody out. Somebody that I struggled against to even win one round in the past was no longer capable of touching me because I had moved to another level where he was no longer able to beat me.

I know it may sound exaggerated, but arcades were really passionate places at the time. What was great, though, is it was no one’s house so everybody was allowed in: every race, poor kids, rich kids, gangster kids, army kids, geeks, nerds, students, adults… All those people from different walks of life finding ways to get to the arcades made this whole environment incredibly rich and thrilling. Not only was I getting to play great matches against players who had thought of the game in their own way that was totally different than mine, I also got to hang out with some of them as friends and learn about different people’s ideas about life, the way they thought about the world… some of them were really great persons and that’s what really made me come back and play the game: great scene and great people.

The theme of fighting games itself stems from one of the core urges of humanity: the urge to compete with others and see who’s the best, just like in sports, but fighting is the most symbolic example of that urge. While I like sports and the competition in sports, they also automatically disqualify a huge percentage of potential players because they’re either too short to play basketball or not strong enough to be boxing… So Street Fighter opens the door to a lot more people and capitalizes on the best elements of chess in terms of strategy and thinking and creating certain types of situations for certain types of combinations, not only about combos but setting up your opponent. Trying to put him or her in a position where you can grind them down and take advantage of a positional situation. But it also gets inspiration from games like Poker which is really all about reading your opponent’s mind at its top level. However, Poker still has many variants and all these elements based on luck and it’s only after playing a thousand games of Poker that you can really determine who the best player is, but in Street Fighter if you’re the better player there’s almost no element of luck whatsoever. If you’re good at reading your opponent you will get great advantage from that. Street Fighter is like a big mix of fear and emotions and mind reading and strategy with great physical execution… All of these great elements from other competitive games/sports combined into one.

For that reason, I believe gamers should get the credit they’re due and not be called button mashers. People should try to understand that a guy who’s got 1500ppm (press per minute) is not a button masher and can do amazing things in a game. When I watch basketball highlights and a player does a cross-over then goes back round the back and spins before a slam dunk I qualify that as an amazing move… And most people will, even if they don’t know basketball, because it just looks really hard to do. So when someone does something amazing in a fighting game, it would be great to get to that point when people can assimilate that and compare it to an athletic move.

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