Author: John Legendoffzelda
A great video game presents immaculate execution of its ideas for interactive entertainment, and a great video game sequel uses this feat to override its existence as a follow-up. When the sequel reconfigures its established gameplay concepts with enough skill and perhaps even some accidental genius, it changes the whole series from the inside out. The changes it presents start a new chapter in the medium’s whole history.
Over two decades since debuting in the arcades and codifying the entire fighting game genre, it’s plain to see that Street Fighter II is one of the great video game sequels. The heart and wit it presented with the display of two on-screen sprites reducing each other’s health bars started nothing less than a new entertainment epoch. And it continues with every one-on-one fighter created since. It is without question one of the most important games ever created. At over six million copies, the biggest home title Capcom would ever release for the next twenty-one years, this game’s status as the best-selling Super Nintendo fighter further proves how its significance can never be understated.
It begs the question about this relatively small genre effort: what makes it so special, anyway? This is far from the first one-on-one fighting game ever made, and in effect much of what it accomplishes has been done before by its predecessors. You have two characters standing on a screen underneath a time limit and two bars indicating their respective stamina. The characters are to fight each other with every available move they have until one of them loses his/her health entirely and falls to the ground. At this point, the one left standing wins the round. The winner of two rounds out of three moves on to the next opponent to do it all over.
What video game critics and anthologists have often noted of this game is how, in addition to the regular control mechanics established by previous fighters, it had the fortune to stumble upon the iconic combo system. The ability for the player to hit his opponent more than once in a single motion was a technical ink-stain the developers noticed and decided made things better, which it ultimately did. Not just rendering the gameplay immortal, this feature opened a new dimension to consider for both you and your opponent.
The entire gameplay framework here feels so staunchly archetypal, and this sense of déjà vu extends to specific parts like the light-medium-heavy dynamic of punches and kicks, and the balance of characters that can move fast or hit hard. But this overfamiliarity is really the secret to this game and its high quality; everything about it has been done before, and it also hasn’t. The entire game taps into this archetype of human competition and the desire to come out on top, an idea which goes back to at least the first games of rock-paper-scissors. It’s the human notion of examining the person across from you and the various moves he makes to see if you can think of precisely the right moves to counter him.
This human instinct is the foundation upon which fighting games have always built themselves, yet none of the early ones tap into the archetype quite the way this game does. There’s an outside element at work, an X-factor which goes beyond the solid structure of pressing “up” to jump upwards working in favor of Street Fighter II. It may just be that this game was released at exactly the right time. In 1991, the year of its debut, fighting games had existed without a definitive title to represent them and the world as a whole was changing. Perhaps the game’s most genius move was to subtitle itself “The World Warrior” and have its characters represent several different countries, in a time when the face of global politics was shifting. America was exiting a recession; the Soviet Union was in decline; the Gulf War was ending and the Cold War had ended for over a year. In the sense of how art reflects life, this increased awareness of international goings-on could best be reflected in a video game with multiple characters each representing different parts of the world.
The broad characterizations given to each available fighter might not add up to a microcosm of international relations, but the cast of characters here is still among the most well-known of any popular work of the 20th century. The key to their appeal is how they represent nations, not exact people, and each of these individual’s participation in this in-game tournament signify a cross-continental desire between people to compete with each other. There’s no overbearing conflict behind this, either.
In the peaceful world of this game, characters travel to other countries by flying on passenger planes, and each fight is held in an unorganized location and sometimes spectated by non-specific crowds of people. The Japanese sumo wrestler E. Honda fights in a bathhouse and the Chinese martial artist Chun-Li fights in a street where pedestrians pass by on bicycles. American pilots leisurely sitting around on an Air Force base watch Guile fight, while Zangief is cheered on by the Soviet crowds who come to watch him wrestle. There’s already a blind optimism to making a man from the USSR just as playable as the rest of the free world, but the developers had the good faith to look forward into history and decide all current conflicts would be resolved. With all of these unorthodox fighting arrangements, it could be said they add detail and personality to the proceedings, but more importantly they bring humanity. They unify each fighter in the single goal of proving themselves to others around them; it’s a goal that can logically extend to the person playing.
This game becomes a means of measuring popularity, and works as shorthand for examining people; what moves they use the most, what character they’re most comfortable playing as, and so on. The ability to carry this desire for competition into a private setting, between friends and family (the exclusive two-player versus mode is a gift), is what makes it succeed as a console title as well.
The unified worldview Capcom delivers in Street Fighter II lends itself to scholarly rhetoric fans and critics who can think of some thoughts of their own. Maybe there’s a message about cultural relation in the way the Japanese Ryu and the American Ken are the exact same character. In any case, many other people with much more passion for this title have explained in more concise words what makes it a quintessential video game. They’ve noted its personality and lively colors and immense playability, all of which is retained on the Super NES. They talk eagerly about performing hadokens and shoryukens, and the greatness of Guile’s theme, and the sheer memorability of everything; it’s all deserved. Here’s a game accessible enough to work as a person’s first fighting game, with a crystalline depth which could make it the first fighting game. The best-selling classic Street Fighter II bears dual marks of success: it’s a video game that inspires a following, and a sequel that starts a franchise.
Five out of five stars.
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