Something we’ve talked about before in this project is the way that, at roughly the date we chose as our starting point, video games moved from being played in arcades to being played at home; moved from a public experience to a private one. But like so many things, this change didn’t happen instantaneously. The arcades didn’t die overnight. In fact, some of them are still around even now. And so we come to Street Fighter II, a game that, more than any other we’ve covered so far, feels like it belongs to the arcades.
It’s not just that it started out there, though of course it did; the same is true for many of the games we’ve seen; Bubble Bobble, Ivan ‘Iron Man’ Stewart’s Super Off-Road, Golden Axe, to name a few. No, what really keeps Street Fighter II tied firmly to its arcade roots is that it is a game that positively demands an audience. It doesn’t require one; obviously, you can play Street Fighter II by yourself, at home, beating up (or, more likely, being beaten up by) AI opponents, but it’s not where the game truly shines. Certainly, my personal memories of experiencing Street Fighter II are more from the position of a spectator than a participant. Occasionally watching actual human beings playing, perhaps, but more often than not, just watching the video demonstrations that would play on a loop, trying to entice you to INSERT COIN(S), and being absolutely entranced.
It is a game overloaded with visual spectacle; it doesn’t just look good, it goes out of its way to draw attention to how good it looks at any given moment with touches like the slow motion effect when a player delivers a killing blow, clearly inspired by the instant replays of sports broadcasts and the like. And sports broadcasts are an excellent point of comparison, with the fighting game genre birthed by Street Fighter II (and make no mistake, though it is by no means the first, it is the progenitor of the genre. Super Mario Bros. wasn’t the first platform game either) being one of the first to have a real presence in the burgeoning ‘eSports’ scene. Or, y’know, definitely NOT ‘eSports’, if you prefer. The point is, Street Fighter is fun to watch, and, more importantly, it’s fun to watch even if you don’t have the first idea how to actually play it. I don’t need to fully understand the intricacies of how the moves in this video are performed to grasp what is going on or why the crowd is going wild. Hell, it’s fun to watch even if the players you are watching don’t know what they’re doing. You might not get any of the big flashy finisher moves, but two people mashing buttons at random still produces a thoroughly entertaining spectacle.
But what exactly is this spectacle that we are enjoying? There’s a fascinating incongruity to the world of Street Fighter II; its characters travel to and from the ends of the Earth in order to… well, fight each other. In the street, no less. And the quotes each character comes out with at the end of the bout, like “go home and be a family man!” or “next time we meet, I’m going to break your arms!” do little to shed any light on the situation. It seems to be once a structured, organised sporting event and a spontaneous, chaotic brawl, depending on which way you turn your head. Which is, of course, the key to its success; depending on the skill level of the players involved, it is actually both of those things, and all things in between.