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Street Fighter II led the way for games as a medium of self-expression

From the box art of Street Fighter II on Super NES. Photo: Capcom Unity.
From the box art of Street Fighter II on Super NES. Photo: Capcom Unity.

The kill screen is the perfect embodiment of the arcade’s limited reach before Street Figher II. For anyone who hasn’t spent thousands of hours mastering a Donkey Kong cabinet or hitting a perfect score of 3,333,360 points in Pac-Man, a kill screen is what happens when an arcade game reaches its peak, when a technical limitation prevents it from going any further. Technically speaking, there’s an integer overflow and the machine simply can’t calculate higher values with its available memory.

In the evolutionary history of games, though, the kill screen is an avatar of what games themselves are. They had limits—boundaries that the player had to work within. And while scads of games had broadened the emotional, conceptual, and storytelling landscape for players, none had yet created a space where players could express themselves through action. Today, we have Red Vs. Blue and the oceans of other machinima on the internet, or tool-assisted speedrunners manipulating a game’s underlying code to completely rebuild it from the inside out. The moment that games started opening themselves up to that kind of performance, when the kill screen shackles started to loosen, was Valentine’s Day of 1991, when work on Capcom’s Street Fighter II was finally completed.

“In Street Fighter II, your opponents are also player-controllable characters,” explained Akira Nishitani, director and designer of the Mitochondrial Eve for the modern fighting game, in an interview shortly after the game came out. He was struggling with creating a game that felt vibrant and lifelike. The original Street Fighter didn’t just suffer from abysmal controls that made pulling off special moves, such as Ryu’s famous fireball, feel like a matter of luck. Its computer-controlled characters also felt stiff and brutally unfair to fight.

Nishitani’s solution in the sequel was to both revamp the AI and build the game’s roster of 12 characters—eight playable and four bosses reserved as AI opponents—to be versatile and usable for every player. The AI won’t be pulling off ridiculous maneuvers that you can’t replicate—all the sweet jump kicks and fireballs will be yours to deploy. Street Fighter was still a game with rigid boundaries. Street Fighter II was conceived as something more. “It won’t feel right if the characters have a different moveset when the computer controls them,” Nishitani said. “I wanted to create a system that was different than what had come before. Now that time has passed I can admit this, though: It was a huge gamble. The gamble of a lifetime.”

The idea of a competitive video game was obviously nothing new in 1991. Multiplayer games—Pong, Spacewar, and other protozoa of the late ’60s and early ’70s—actually preceded single player ones. Even Street Fighter II’s competitive contemporaries like Konami’s vividly drawn sports games, Double Dribble and Blades Of Steel, were as rigidly defined as earlier games. There was only so much you could do in skill-based games. Winning was the only goal whether you were playing with a friend or not. The only sign of progress was getting better, not how stylish you might be within it.

In creating this flexible roster of eight different characters, Nishitani made Street Fighter II into something that was played as much like a musical instrument as it was a skill-based video game. Basic muscle memory plays into your success, but it’s individual flow that makes for a truly great Street Fighter player. Superficially, Street Fighter II was just a particularly gorgeous variation on what had defined video games for the last decade: the pop-culture obsessions of ’80s America filtered through Japanese anime. The interplay and variety between its characters, however, transformed it into a palette for players to inject their souls into the game itself.

From the box art of Street Fighter II Turbo on the Super NES. Photo: Capcom Unity.

The structure facilitates improvisation as well as the development of personal patterns. All eight characters control identically at a fundamental level, with three punches and three kicks of varying strength, the ability to block by holding back on the joystick, and to jump by tapping up. Each one is given greater specificity even beyond their powerful signature moves, though. E. Honda takes up more space and is easier to hit but dishes out far more damage than the smaller, slower Dhalsim, whose freaky long limbs let him keep a heavy hitter at a distance. The characters are outwardly built around inherent checks and balances.

But those balances are deceiving. A diligent student can measure each character’s hit boxes—the invisible, pixel-precise spots where the punches and kicks land and cause damage—and learn combinations of moves that can’t be blocked if they’re performed in succession. (Frame study and combos, both fixtures in all competitive fighting games today, have their roots in Nishitani’s great gamble.) That sort of exacting precision is possible, but it and the seemingly balanced variety of characters belies a vast malleability.

A tournament player like Wolmar may use E. Honda like you’d expect, staying grounded and trying to use heavy attacks to crush aggressive opponents. But Kusumondo (seen playing in the video above), at one point considered the best E. Honda player in the world, busts out aerial maneuvers to get a win. The sumo wrestler isn’t an obvious pick for acrobatic jump attacks, but Kusumondo made it work. The Frenchman Wolmar finds a different approach to the exact same character as the Japanese veterinarian Kusumondo. Honda might be built to compensate for the long reach of an opponent like Dhalsim, but all that matters is who is actually controlling him.

That sort of idiosyncratic ownership of computer programmed cartoon characters isn’t the exclusive purview of tournament champions, though. People who play a game so much they can do it for a living aren’t generally representative of the vast majority of people who play it, and they’re certainly not the people that make it a global phenomenon. But the core of their relationship with the game is shared with anyone who walked up to the original cabinet and popped in a quarter.

Box art from the Japanese Super Famicom release of Street Fighter II. Photo: Capcom Unity.

I played Street Fighter II obsessively on Super NES primarily because my brother played it in the arcade and I wanted to crush him. He favored Guile and leaned heavily on his ability to pull off flash kicks, a special move where the American Air Force pilot flies straight up in the air while a shock of light projects outward like a shield. I played and played until I was comfortable with Ryu, the eternal best friend of beginners, tailoring a strategy of staying on the ground and unleashing carefully spaced sweep kicks was my route to absolutely destroying my brother. It was sweet, but also not replicable when I moved on to later games and new opponents. Stagnation in Street Fighter, as in all things creative, is death.

This is the heart of Street Fighter II’s success 25 years ago. It was beautiful, it sounded amazing thanks to Yoko Shimomura’s mad manipulation of the CPS-1 arcade board’s sound chip, and it controlled perfectly, but it was the eight variations on a theme, the space for improvisation, that made it a phenomenon. It was the first truly great game without perfection as the ultimate goal. Skill was never the end game—or at least not the only end game. It was, and is, potentially infinite. It is the anti-kill screen, a canvas for every new player. Nishitani’s gamble at Capcom codified a new style of game and an instantly recognizable roster of characters. It gave arcades a second life, and it founded a global network of tournaments, big and small, that continues to grow. Its most lasting innovation, though, is that it didn’t force us to play within the confines of winning and losing. Street Fighter II let us express ourselves.