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Come Out To Play-yay: How Fighting Actually Ushered In Arcade Camaraderie

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Final Fight by Capcom

The arcade was a diverse place chock full of different experiences.  Looking back at the early 80s it was comprised of single screen experiences, some scrolling and some not, mostly geared around challenging a player’s skill in hopes of consuming quarters in mass quantity.  Conceptually most games were simple but addictive, which is why you see many of the programmers from the classic arcade days transitioning into free-to-play mobile games with ease.  While there were games that involved a second player or massive cabinets, they were few and far between, just another part of the arcade’s myriad of experiences.  Then one day that all changed.  The arcade was about to become a place where large groups formed around a single cabinet and no game was complete without a second player.  Instead of ridiculous challenges leveled against a lone player, it was a machine against whatever talent was walking in the crowd.  It was a taste of things to come and it all started with the basic concept of beating someone up.

Stylized Male Violence

Roger Ebert used the above phrase to describe Paramount Picture’s 1979 thriller The Warriors, itself based upon the 1965 book of the same name by writer Sol Yurick.  In the film, the gangs of New York City assemble to discuss a truce between them so that they can gang up and outnumber the police.  During this meeting, Riffs leader and meeting coordinator Cyrus is shot dead and the Warriors are framed for the murder.  The meeting and murder take place in Van Cortlandt Park, which is located in the Bronx, and the Warriors turf is in Coney Island.  Those not familiar with the five boroughs of New York should note that Coney Island is about 30 miles directly south of the Bronx and therefore the Warriors find themselves a long way from home with every gang in the city eager to kill them.  You follow the Warriors throughout the film as they battle these gangs in an attempt to make it home safe and then clear their name.  The film relies heavily on street gang culture from the 60s and 70s that predominantly involved fists and melee as opposed to guns and knives, although the latter are definitely present in some altercations.  The Warriors has an unquestionable cult status among American moviegoers and expands to a larger worldwide audience.  Of those, a young Japanese game designer by the name of Yoshihisa Kishimoto loosely gets the idea for his 1986 arcade game Nikketsu Koha Kunio-Kun (Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio), which would be renamed in the West as simply Renegade.

Kung Fu (NES) by Irem

There were games where you walked to the right and beat up guys before Renegade.  Most notable among them would probably be 1984’s Spartan-X by Irem, also based loosely off of Jackie Chan’s film Meals on Wheels, where a young martial artist named Thomas fights a sea of enemies to rescue his girlfriend.  In the West it was released by Data East as Kung-Fu Master although I’m betting far more know it under it’s NES port simply called Kung-Fu.  While games before Renegade introduced the concept, this title introduced the basic structure of the “brawler” genre, sometimes also referred to as a “beat-em-up.”  If you’re not familiar with the basic layout, most brawlers use a 4-way joystick, a punch button, a kick button, a jump button, and an isometric view.  The game is almost exclusively fist combat, although at times weapons come into play.  Renegade is responsible for a majority of these concepts, but it’s actually Kishimoto’s 1987 follow-up, Double Dragon, that popularity starts to grab hold.  Again, while most North American gamers cut their teeth on the NES port, it was the arcade version that had the most addictive feature: co-operative play.   When you were getting jumped by a large group in Renegade you were forced to navigate the crowd in a constant “all against one” battle whereas Double Dragon allowed your partner (brother if you follow the game’s plot) to watch your back.  Thanks to this symbiotic relationship the enemies were now at a disadvantage because they too had to constantly watch their backs.

Streets of Rage by Sega

Despite developer Technos’ large strides in the brawler genre with Renegade and Double Dragon, not to mention the popularity of the series that both games spawned, the mass appeal of the brawler didn’t reach its apex until 1989.  I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to mention that many franchises started life as a brawler, including Ninja GaidenGolden Axe, and my personal favorite Capcom’s Final Fight in 1989.  While all of these games contributed something to the genre, the formula was still nearly identical and in hindsight was a better seller on consoles.  While only a single game in the arcade, Golden Axe saw several sequels on consoles as did Final Fight, which also received a clone series from Sega by the name of Bare Knuckle or Streets of Rage.  Ninja Gaiden also celebrated many sequels on consoles, but the game had an entire genre switch to more of a platforming action game akin to Castlevania than its brawler roots.  On the other hand, developer and publisher Konami decided to double down on the genre by introducing pop culture icons from the West and larger player counts.  In doing so the genre went from something to be enjoyed in arcades to an experience sought after by audiences of all kinds eager to drop endless quarters into machines.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Konami

The first release of Konami’s brawler catalog was 1989’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  It was a 4-player co-operative game where players could take control of their favorite turtle and fight against the evil foot clan in an attempt to save April and bring down nemeses Krang and Shredder.  At that time Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had migrated from an underground comic by writer/artist duo Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird into a multimedia powerhouse.  When the arcade game premiered the tamed cartoon series was in its third season, merchandise invaded entire shelves of big box retailers, and I was begging my parents for any magazine that had info on the live action movie in production.  I have no idea what criteria we used, but in a group of friends you would often stake your claim on a favorite turtle and focus solely on them when playing pretend at a park or with action figures.  Sure, Michelangelo with his California accent and party attitude was more popular than the intelligent Donatello who also dawned purple for his color, but in the end each friend had their exclusive turtle.  That’s why the release of the arcade game and designated locations for the turtles was so significant, because it was basically your spot on the arcade game.  Not only that, but the game had a short campaign of just around 30 minutes, which means that dedicated players could complete it within a single trip to the pizza restaurant if they were on a wait.  As you got later into the levels, the game predictably raised the hit points of bosses and spawning of enemies in an attempt to drain more money from the player as the stakes raised.  Your final battle with Shredder includes a move he can perform that instantly kills any player in its path, which means that a single attack may be responsible for earning another dollar (4 players x 1 quarter) for the owner in the final stretch of the game.  This may seem like a cheap ploy today but back then it was expected in all games, especially arcade cabinets.  It was also important that the graphics were so beautifully close to the cartoon’s animation and the sounds were authentic clips from the show itself.  The cartoon had come to life and it only cost a quarter per life.  I couldn’t find any concrete numbers on how much revenue Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was responsible for, but most said over $1,000 per week per location in a busy area.

X-Men arcade cabinet

From there Konami continued the formula with Aliens in 1990, although that had more of a Contra vibe and was really intended for single players.  It wouldn’t be until a massive double header in 1991 with Turtles in Time, the sequel to the 1989 title above, and the spring release of The Simpsons.  By this time there was a home port of the original arcade game on microcomputers and a rock solid expanded edition on NES and the SNES was already set to get Turtles in Time that holiday season.  While there was no doubting the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were still a powerful force, the popularity had dwindled.  Simposons, on the other hand, was the popularity of Turtles but exponentially greater.  In 1991, anything featuring Bart Simpson was a license to print money.  Konami assembled four protagonists – the Simpsons family sans baby Maggie – and had the missing Maggie Simpson as the damsel in distress with Mr. Burns and assistant Smithers as the antagonists.  Honestly the Simspons wasn’t as good as the original Turtles arcade game, and nowhere near as good as the fantastic Turtles in Time, but I was drawn to it at the time.  Even if I didn’t want to play it, especially if Marge was the only available character, somehow my quarter still found its way to the slot.  Although The Simpsons was widely available and can probably still be seen today at old truck stops or Dairy Queens, the genre and formula were starting to show their ages.  We needed something new.  Konami attempted one last time with 1992’s X-Men, a dual-screen ultra wide 6-player co-op brawler based on the popular Fox TV show, but that started to lose popularity faster than the Simpsons despite the mesmerizing cabinet.  There was also another distraction.  A sequel for a game no one had played, which ironically also featured people beating other people up.  It even had a nearly identical art style to the popular brawler Final Fight, but this was different.  It wasn’t friends teaming up against the computer.  No, this involved human foes against one another involved in a fight seemingly to the death.  That game was 1991’s Street Fighter II.

To Live Is To Fight, To Fight Is To Live!

Street Fighter II by Capcom

Probably one of the oldest jokes in the Street Fighter II days was the fact that no one questioned the title.  I had never played Street Fighter – and living in Chicago it was hard to find an arcade game that hadn’t shown up somewhere – and no one I ever played against had either.  To a certain extent it became part of the ongoing urban legends of fighting games, a beloved part of the genre itself that I will get to later, but there were many of us that thought Street Fighter just didn’t exist.  I think it was Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM) that later mentioned that Final Fight‘s original title was Street Fighter ’88 so I just drew my own conclusions and started telling people that Final Fight was actually the original Street Fighter but it had a name change when it moved to America.  In reality Street Fighter did come to America in 1987 and Final Fight was originally called Street Fighter ’88, but that was because it was supposed to be the sequel and new direction that Capcom had intended.  Regardless of the naming convention, Street Fighter changed the rules of the arcade completely.  It wasn’t about beating the computer anymore, it was about beating humans and paying for the privilege.  It made spectating an arcade game more than a casual thing you did in passing, but rather an essential part of the experience.  There were days I went to the arcade and didn’t spend a single quarter, instead just watching as the skilled players at 7-Eleven mopped the floor with anyone who came in.

Karate Champ by Technos Japan

The origins of the fighting game, much like the brawler, goes back to a much older and less popular game.  Yet again Technos, the developing force behind Renegade and Double Dragon, are responsible for the earliest example with 1984’s Karate Champ.  I don’t know the designer behind this title since back then names were kept anonymous to prevent rival companies from poaching talent, but this title set the basic structure for fighters before Capcom solidified them with the original Street Fighter.  It was originally released as Karate Do (The Way of the Empty Hand) but the definitive version of the game and the basis for all home ports was the Karate Champ: Player vs. Player edition of the arcade game.  It allowed two players to compete against one another in a karate tournament and featured digitized audio for phrases like “fight!”  The controls were two 8-way joysticks that would be used in conjunction for a variety of moves that were posted on the bezel surrounding the monitor.  I remember seeing this arcade game when I first started going to arcades in the late 80s and even then it was an aged dinosaur in the back that had a very intimidating interface.  My fear of dual joysticks prevented me from appreciating Robotron 2084 and Smash TV as well, but while avoiding Karate Champ was merely a casual oversight the other two were flat out tragedies.  While Karate Champ may have established the genre, it just wasn’t that great of a game.

Street Fighter by Capcom

Street Fighter eventually became a basic blueprint for the established fighter, but it too suffered from the fact that it wasn’t much fun.  The first design for the cabinet had a joystick and two pressure sensitive plungers for punches and kicks.  A light press would perform a light attack, regular press a medium attack, and hard press resulted in a fierce attack.  This concept made sense, especially when the game premiered in 1987 and may have even been a preferred control method with the interest in arcade gimmicks from that time.  Eventually the somewhat hitchy control response and vague attack scheme was met with negative response both in print and in the arcades, which saw Capcom overhauling the control scheme.  The final result was an update to Street Fighter that had an 8-way joystick and six attack buttons, three punch of various strength and three kicks with the same setup.  In the original you play as Ryu, a Japanese fighter entering a fighting tournament to become the ultimate world warrior.  He travels the globe complete with the signature airplane animation and fights a series of enemies.  In addition to the many attacks that can be performed on the ground and in the air with both control schemes, there are also hidden special attacks that are performed by moving the controller in a particular rotation and then pressing an attack button.  As iconic as the “Hadouken fireball,” “Shoryuken fist,” and “Tatsumaki kick” may be, they were nearly impossible to pull off in the arcade game and heartbreaking when your AI opponent dodged the attack.  Two player battles would have Ryu fighting an American counterpart, Ken, who had the exact same moves but featured a red gi instead of Ryu’s white gi and blonde hair to contrast Ryu’s red hair.  Since both players were basically clones of one another, it wasn’t diverse enough to feel like real competition, a complain understandably also leveled against Karate Champ.   So while all the pieces were there, the game just didn’t feel right.

Street Fighter II righted all of these wrongs and emerged as a nearly perfect video game.  Graphically the game had a mild cartoon-like vibe but were still impressive against everything else at the arcade and the animations were fast and smooth.  Coupled with the visuals was a series of high fidelity sound effects and a memorable soundtrack from composer Yoko Shimomura, the legendary composer of franchises including Super Mario RPG (Mario & Luigi), Mana (32-bit onward), Kingdom Hearts, and Xenoblade Chronicles among many others.  The classic joystick with six buttons control scheme returned and became a staple to fighting games that exists even today and gave way to the culture of the super move.  Whereas Street Fighter was a single player experience that supported two players to compete, Street Fighter II was based around the concept of fighting an opponent, human or computer controlled, in a consistent barrage of challengers.  To adapt for this, 8 fighters make up the roster, all of which can be selected by players and feature diverse moves and attributes.  Ryu and Ken are present and remained virtual clones of one another, so in truth only six new characters are introduced.  That said, the six fighters include a hulking Russian wrestler named Zangief, a female Chinese Interpol officer Chun-Li, a Brazilian beast-man Blanka, an Indian fire-breathing yoga master Dhalsim, militant American Guile, and Japanese sumo wrestler E. Honda.  It was an impressive cast of characters and most of us who grew up in arcades with Street Fighter II can immediately identify the core eight.  When I first saw Street Fighter II at a roller rink (yeah, we had those back then, too) it was a multi-stage process of observing, testing against the computer, getting obliterated by other players, and eventually starting to master my favorite (Chun-Li).   Never before had I been so focused on a single game, especially one that I couldn’t play at home (yet).  It was like the 90s equivalent of an ARG (Alternative Reality Game) but with a killer video game included.  The arcade started to branch out and stopped being about the place where you went to play the newest games or celebrate a birthday party, it was now a beacon where you could find your friends and people of similar interests.  An archaic version of a chat room (or maybe the chat room is the online equivalent) if you will.  You weren’t just playing a game where you were a hero saving the princess, you were instead part of an endless war where gladiators competed for popularity among peers.  It was bigger than a game, bigger than a building, it was literally a worldwide phenomenon.

Attack Of The Clones

Street Fighter II Rainbow Edition

When Street Fighter II hit all of the other games melted away.  Not at first, mind you, even brawlers like X-Men were draining wallets in early 1992, but many of us regular spenders were moving over to hang out at the Street Fighter cab and not pumping as much into machines.  I specifically remember being surprised at how long my standard $5-$10 lasted me once I started hanging out with my friends by the Street Fighter II row.  There was too much money involved for clones to not start arising and the arcade owners probably begged for it because they needed more machines for us to start spending at than standing around.  Even though rounds would only last a couple of minutes, the lines would grow to six or seven people in constant rotation.  I bet even Capcom couldn’t keep up with cabinet demand in the beginning, which probably explains why the current market is flooded with conversion cabs to Street Fighter II and a plethora of original machines as well.  Magazines kept talking about Capcom’s plans to release an updated version of the game, common for arcades of the time, but details were slimming outside of potentially adding the four overpowered boss characters as available fighters.  On the West coast, especially in California, we heard stories of modified cabinets called “Rainbow” cabs that had all kinds of crazy mods like speeding up the animation, adding a fireball for Chun-Li, and air fireballs for Ryu.  Rumors were rampant and unsubstantiated so no one ever knew if they were true or not, but the believer in me wanted to believe they were.  As we eagerly awaited the Street Fighter II follow-up and the home port on SNES, a new bright red cabinet with a Van Damme lookalike dropped into local arcades.  It featured digitized actors instead of animated characters, bright red pools of blood that burst from people when they were hit, an odd fantastical theme, and the opportunity to kill your opponent in creative and ultra violent ways at the end of a round.  Mortal Kombat had arrived.

Street Fighter vs Mortal Kombat by deffectx

There are two camps in the fighting genre world and they still exist today: the Street Fighter camp and the Mortal Kombat camp.  Both games were, and still are, wildly popular but they are also distinct from one another.  Street Fighter II was a highly technical fighter that had damage balances, counting of animation frames, and nearly instantaneous response time.  No doubt about it, from a purely performance-based perspective it is a vastly better fighting game.  Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, had gusto.  It’s moves were limited, everyone’s damage almost identical, the moves are clunky, and the characters are oddly similar to one another.  But Mortal Kombat had far more style than Street Fighter II.  Also it was bloody.  We started to memorize what had the most blood-spurting effect like roundhouse kicks, high punch face hits, and the infamous uppercut.  Then there were the finishing moves, dubbed “fatalities” that allowed you to literally kill your opponent.  Some were on the weaker side, like bursting them into flames and leaving a burnt skeleton behind or Liu Kang’s pathetic double kick uppercut that appeared to spare the person’s life.  The remaining four, however, were brutal.  Johnny Cage would uppercut a person’s head off complete with a shower of blood from emitting from the stump.  Kano would reach in like Mola Ram from The Temple of Doom and rip his opponent’s still beating heart right out of their chest.  Raiden, god of lightening, would super charge a person’s neck with so much electricity their head exploded.  Finally Sub-Zero had the most popular fatality as he ripped off his enemy’s head with the spinal cord still attached and presented it like a trophy.  Forget mechanics, give me senseless violence.  Oh yeah, it was the 90s.

Nudality from canceled Data East fighter
Tattoo Assassins

From there these fighting games started to head home with Street Fighter II getting very little attention on its violence and Mortal Kombat being the poster child for anti-violence campaigns across the US.  Even when these titles finally hit home markets, and despite being close to their arcade counterparts, the trip to the local arcade didn’t stop.  We were a club, a posse, and there was far more value in joining people at the arcade than sitting at home and beating your sibling at the game.  Along with the social atmosphere there was the predictable rumor mill where you would all tell stories like unlocking Sheng Long in Street Fighter or your buddy who really did know a kid that unlocked Ermac in Mortal Kombat.  Midway had a ton of fun with Mortal Kombat but updating the games in the series regularly and loading them with secrets that seemed ripped right from rumor mills.  The first time I saw a friendship actually performed I thought I was dreaming.  You never knew what was true and what was complete myth with these franchises.  I’m sure someone out there still swears that the infamous “nudality” is actually possible.  There was also social justice.  If you cheesed, especially if it cost someone a quarter that you couldn’t replace, it was your ass.  I’ve seen plenty of kids at the local arcades and shops getting knocked around for doing something that they shouldn’t.  We’d even watch guard so that the beating could be fully delivered without interruptions from “nosy” shop owners.  As with the games, there were rumors, like the older kid who already smoked was liable to pull a knife on you if you didn’t win fair and square.  Heck, some said he may still do it even if you did win fairly.  Whatever keeps you playing, right?

From these humble beginnings the arcade was brought back to life in a much larger social phenomenon from the late 80s to the mid 90s thanks almost solely to video games where you beat people up.  There’s an endless sea of clones out there that vary in quality, either taking from the book of Capcom’s Street Fighter or Midway’s Mortal Kombat.  Later in time games went 3D thanks to Virtua Fighter and eventually gave way to powerhouse franchises like Tekken and Soul Calibur.  The list goes on an on, some of which we covered in a podcast.  It was an incredible evolution that is akin to when video games finally went online on a massive scale in the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 generation.

Written by Fred Rojas

June 30, 2017 at 11:00 am

Posted in Arcade, Features

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