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Chapter 17. Street Fighter II (1991): Would You Like the Combo?

Chapter 17. Street Fighter II (1991): Would You Like the Combo?

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Chapter 17 STREET FIGHTER II (1991): WOULD YOU LIKE THE COMBO?



eager to demonstrate their virtual street fighting skills—or, at least

their mastery of Street Fighter II’s esoteric combat system. For

many boys (and no doubt many girls as well!) growing up in the

1990s, Street Fighter II wasn’t just a game, but a rite of passage.

Street Fighter II joins the ranks of other Japanese games that

overwhelmed American arcades: Space Invaders (Chapter 16,

“Space Invaders (1978): The Japanese Take Over”), Pac-Man

(Chapter 13, “Pac-Man (1980): Japanese Gumption, American

Consumption”), and Pole Position (Chapter 14, “Pole Position

(1982): Where the Raster Meets the Road”). All four games introduced critical innovations that would be shamelessly duplicated

and endlessly refined. Although they perhaps had their greatest

impact in the arcades, they also played a critical role in the console industry. Console makers competed fiercely for the rights

to port these titles, as they knew countless fans would purchase

their console specifically to play these games in their living

rooms. Indeed, one of the recurring standards of console excellence throughout the 1980s and 1990s was the degree to which

their ports of games like Pac-Man and Street Fighter II approximated the arcade experience.

However, there’s little argument that what made Street Fighter

II so popular was its competitive nature, which, like Pong (bonus

chapter, “Pong (1972): Avoid Missing Game to Start Industry”)

before it, made it uniquely suited to the arcade. Though it was

possible to play Street Fighter II and other fighting games against

the computer, the real challenge was facing off against a skilled

human opponent. The arcade owners of the early 1990s must

have loved these fighting games, which filled their arcades with

quarter-popping teens who otherwise would have stayed home

to play videogames on their consoles and computers. Indeed, the

only real competition that fighting games had at the arcades were

driving simulations, which benefited from specially built enclosures and cabinets that would have been prohibitively expensive to have at home (see Chapter 14). Other arcade games didn’t

enjoy this advantage, and their graphical superiority gradually

eroded as console technology improved. However, unless one

had like-minded friends to play with at home, the arcades were

still the best place to test one’s mettle against other Street Fighter

II fans. This fact helped keep fighting games flourishing in the

arcades long after shoot ’em ups and platformers had faded from

that venue to the family television.

Street Fighter II was certainly not the first fighting game, and

we’ll spend some time in this chapter describing its most influential predecessors. However, it did offer some key innovations

that came to define the genre, which we’ll discuss in turn. There is

some contention about what was actually the first true competitive

fighting game. One very early contender is Vectorbeam’s Warrior,



Chapter 17 STREET FIGHTER II (1991): WOULD YOU LIKE THE COMBO?



241



Vectorbeam’s Warrior,

shown with simulated

color backdrop.



Marc Goodman’s The Bilestoad

(1982) for the Apple II was a

superb expansion of concepts from

Warrior. Using a sophisticated

control scheme, players battle

it out on a small island with

limb-severing axes and protective

shields.



a 1979 arcade game that showed an overhead view of two dueling

knights with swords. It featured vector graphics, and the two players could win either by whacking their opponent with their swords

or forcing them into a pit (solo play wasn’t possible). However,

the machine’s hardware was unreliable, and poor collision detection and sluggish controls—two of the most critical aspects for a

fighting game—certainly didn’t help endear it to gamers. It faded

quickly from the scene.



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In 1984, John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid debuted in theaters.

This film smashed into theaters like a flying sidekick, raking in

over $90 million and inspiring untold legions of boys to seek martial arts training at one of the new dojos popping up all over the

country. Everyone seemed to be saying “wax on, wax off” in their

best Mr. Miyagi accent. Needless to say, the time was ripe for a

good karate game that would let players reprise Ralph Macchio’s

role as Daniel LaRusso.



Screenshot from Data East’s

Karate Champ.



Technos Japan Corporation’s Karate Champ, released in 1984 by

Data East, certainly gave them the chance. The original version was

for a single player who fought against computer-controlled opponents. The interface relied on a pair of joysticks for control; the

left was primarily for movement and the right for attacks. Karate

Champ also offered the familiar side-by-side perspective that

would become standard in almost every subsequent fighting game.

Technos is also responsible for Double Dragon, a side-scrolling



Chapter 17 STREET FIGHTER II (1991): WOULD YOU LIKE THE COMBO?



243



“beat ’em up” that we’ll discuss later. In addition to the nowstandard sparring mode, Karate Champ also offered a series of

minigames to further test one’s skill at the controllers.

Data East revised the game and rereleased it as Karate Champ

Player vs. Player later in 1984, with home ports for a variety of

systems following shortly thereafter. The arcade version featured

two pairs of joysticks, and, as the title makes clear, offered competitive gameplay. Naturally, the ports had to make concessions

for simpler control schemes, such as requiring players to hold

down a controller button while moving the joystick (or operating



International Karate (top) and The

Way of the Exploding Fist (bottom)

were clearly based on the earlier

Karate Champ, but courts ruled

that they were different in the

ways that mattered—such as

background graphics and scoring

systems. Both shots shown here

are from the Commodore 64.



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Chapter 17 STREET FIGHTER II (1991): WOULD YOU LIKE THE COMBO?



the d-pad) in a certain direction to execute a move. For instance,

the rather inadequate Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

port required players to move right on the d-pad and simultaneously press the A and B buttons to leap right. All versions but

the NES have the players fighting over a woman, who seems to

prefer a boyfriend who can pulverize his rival. The NES version

removed this aspect of the game, though it’s unclear whether

this was a move to make the game less sexist or simply to get the

coding done faster. The sloppiness of the collision detection and

control schemes suggest the latter.

A British company named System 3 developed and released a

computer game in 1986 called International Karate. The game was

quite similar to Karate Champ, but was available on far more platforms, including British computers like the ZX Spectrum. The game

was published in the United States by Epyx. Data East sued System

3, accusing them of a complex set of copyright and trademark violations. The case was eventually decided against Data East, though

the reasoning behind the judge’s decision was somewhat complicated. Essentially, he believed that the many elements the games

had in common were essential to the sport of karate and could not

be copyrighted. On the other hand, the elements of Karate Champ

and International Karate that were “creative contributions,” such

as scoring and background scenes, were quite different and did



Konami’s Yie Ar Kung-Fu (1985)

was a very popular single-playerversus-the-computer arcade

fighting game. Though it lacks the

depth of most other one-on-one

fighting games, Yie Ar Kung-Fu

was heralded for its fast action

and colorful cast of opponents.



Chapter 17 STREET FIGHTER II (1991): WOULD YOU LIKE THE COMBO?



not violate copyright. Data East seemed to have learned from the

experience, and tried something similar in 1993 with Fighter’s

History, which Capcom felt was similar enough to its Street Fighter

II to warrant another trial. Again, the courts ruled in favor of the

clone-maker, and Data East emerged victorious in the struggle.2

There were several other notable fighting games made in

the Karate Champ style, such as Beam Software’s Way of the

Exploding Fist (1985), a popular Australian game that made its

way to Britain and the United States for the Commodore 64 and

most British computers of the time. However, arguably the best

of the lot is Jordan Mechner’s Karateka, a methodically paced

1984 side-scrolling fighting game for the Apple II published by

Broderbund and ported to most other platforms of the era.

Karateka, like Mechner’s later hit Prince of Persia (1989), was

known for its realistic graphics and convincing animation of the

human body. Unlike most fighting games, Karateka featured a

comprehensive and cinematic storyline—the player must face

a series of increasingly difficult fights to rescue princess Mariko

from the evil Akuma. Interestingly enough, in most versions, the

box art portrayed the player’s character and Princess Mariko as

blond Europeans; only Akuma looks Asian.



Screenshot from Karateka

(the Apple II version).



Another early approach to the fighting genre is represented

by Technos’s side-scrolling Double Dragon (1987), often called

the definitive “beat ’em up.” Double Dragon and its imitators differ from competitive fighting games in several key ways. Most

2

These legal battles are discussed at length in Steven L. Kent’s The Ultimate History

of Video Games (Three Rivers Press, 2001).



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significantly, instead of all the action taking place on a single screen,

the screen scrolls horizontally as the player (or players) progress

through the game, battling increasingly tougher or more numerous enemies. Second, the controls are greatly simplified, with

much fewer moves—a fact compensated for with the ability to pick

up and use a variety of weapons (baseball bats, whips, and so on).

Third, players usually cooperate with each other to fight computercontrolled thugs rather than duel one-on-one. Beat ’em ups like

Double Dragon were popular in the arcades, but were also a hit on

home platforms.



Screenshot from

Double Dragon.



Double Dragon saw several sequels and even a typically mediocre film treatment in 1994. It also inspired a slew of quality clones,

including Capcom’s Final Fight and Sega’s Golden Axe, both in

1989. There have also been several successful beat ’em ups based

on comic book and cartoon characters, such as Konami’s Teenage

Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, yet another bestseller

of 1989, and Konami’s X-Men (1992), a quarter-gobbler that

offered simultaneous gameplay for up to six players. The popular

TV show The Simpsons also served as the basis for a classic beat

’em up, with Konami’s unlikely The Simpsons: The Arcade Game

in 1991.



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There was a cavalcade of computer, arcade, and console games

based more or less on Karate Champ released in the mid to late

1980s, but most of these were quickly forgotten. One such game

that might have ended up in the dustbin of history was Capcom’s

Street Fighter (1987). Though it offered better audiovisuals than

Karate Champ, the controls were inaccurate and often frustrating, and players only had two virtually identical playable characters to choose from (Ryu and Ken). The original controls were a

joystick and two pneumatic pads. The idea was that the characters in the game would execute a strong or weak move depending

on how hard players smacked these pads; needless to say, these

machines were quickly ruined by abusive players. Later versions

replaced these pads with the six-button setup that afterwards

became a staple of the genre. It also featured three secret techniques (special moves) that players had to learn on their own.

The game was eventually ported to many home platforms of the

day, though sometimes with modifications, like the release for the

NEC TurboGrafx-CD as Fighting Street.



Screenshot from Street Fighter.

This unremarkable fighting game

was the unlikely precursor to one

of the most famous videogames

of all time.



Capcom more than redeemed itself four years later with Street

Fighter II: The World Warrior. The sequel represented a vast

improvement over its prequel. Besides the expected improvement in audiovisuals, Capcom made some innovative changes

to the gameplay that revolutionized the genre: eight unique

playable characters, each with an extensive set of attacks, some

of which could be combined into multihit combinations, or



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“combos.” It also offered four AI-only “boss” characters and

borrowed the competitive “loser pays” game system from the

previous game; the winner of player versus player match could

play another bout for free, but the loser had to ante up another

quarter. This design gave gamers yet another incentive to master the combos!



Screenshot from

Street Fighter II.



The huge number of moves made Street Fighter II the most

sophisticated game of its kind. Players enjoyed trying out the different characters and devising strategies to deal with every possible situation. Although of course there had been strategy involved

in earlier fighting games, Street Fighter II was substantially more

complex. Players had to work hard to learn all the moves and

then the right circumstances to execute them. Furthermore, the

super-tight controls and detailed graphics made the game fun to

play and impressive to watch. Players could either compete headto-head or take on the game solo, in which case they’d fight all the

other characters and the four bosses. Later versions made these

bosses playable characters as well.

Although arcades had always been veritable arenas of competition, Street Fighter II took things to a new level. Dedicated players

discussed moves and strategies with their friends, read magazines

and guides, and spent countless hours practicing and tweaking

their performance. Naturally, novice players facing a seasoned

veteran often found themselves hopelessly outmatched, unable

to last more than a few seconds or get off a single attack. Although

some such players might accuse the other of cheating or playing



Chapter 17 STREET FIGHTER II (1991): WOULD YOU LIKE THE COMBO?



“cheap,” for the most part even the nastiest attacks and combos

had their appropriate countermove.

Street Fighter II: The World Warrior was a staggering success for

Capcom and the arcade industry as a whole. Capcom released

multiple variations over the years, adding or revising content and

tweaking or speeding up the gameplay. The game was also ported

to most computer and console platforms. A Super Nintendo version appeared in 1992, but the NEC TurboGrafx-16 and Sega

Genesis platforms didn’t see the game until 1993 with the arrival

of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition. Late 1993 saw the arcade

release of Super Street Fighter II, which upgraded the audiovisuals and added new characters but slowed the gameplay down. In

1994, Super Street Fighter II Turbo added “super combos” and let

players adjust the game’s speed. Street Fighter II aficionados endlessly debated the merits and limitations of each port, sequel,

and remake. Fans would have to wait until 1995, however, for the

first true sequel with all new content—Street Fighter Alpha, which

was set chronologically before Street Fighter II and had a younger

cast of fighters. This was followed in 1997 by Street Fighter III: New

Generation, which revamped the gameplay and got rid of all the

original characters except Ryu and Ken.



Screenshot for Super Street

Fighter II Turbo.



The enormous success of Street Fighter II spurred a huge number of clones and spin-offs. SNK added several key games to the

genre, including Fatal Fury: King of Fighters (1991), Art of Fighting

(1992), and Samurai Shodown (1993). A comprehensive list (much

less description) of each such game would strain the energies of



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the authors and the patience of even the most devoted reader.

Through it all, however, Street Fighter II remained the standard by

which all others were measured.

Perhaps the most notorious of all is Midway’s Mortal Kombat,

a 1992 arcade game that aroused almost instant controversy for

its cinematic realism and over-the-top violence.3 It looked more

realistic than Street Fighter II, because it was made with live

actors who had been filmed over a bluescreen and digitized—a

technique utilized in Atari Games’s otherwise insignificant

Pit-Fighter, released two years earlier.4 Word quickly spread of the

game’s “fatality” system, which allowed victorious players to perform some particularly gruesome finishing moves on the fallen

competitor. Perhaps the worst offender was a “spine rip” fatality

performed by the character Sub-Zero. As we might expect, the

publicity made the game even more popular.



Screenshot from

Mortal Kombat.



The excessive violence made for plenty of drama when it came

time to port Mortal Kombat to consoles. Nintendo had long had

a decidedly family-friendly policy when it came to its games, and

naturally Mortal Kombat would need a serious scrubbing before

it satisfied their censors. For the 1993 Super Nintendo port, the

fatalities were toned down or taken out completely, and the blood

3



Though beyond the scope of this book, politicians such as U.S. Senator Joseph

Lieberman conducted hearings during the 1990s regarding violent videogames,

which––to his thinking––included titles like Mortal Kombat. It’s partially from this

sometimes unfounded political and social hysteria that today’s Entertainment

Software Ratings Board (ESRB) ratings and advertising guidelines came about.

4



An even earlier example of digitized graphics is Gottlieb’s Exterminator (1989), an

otherwise forgettable shooter game that used 100% digitized graphics.



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