The last great arcade era returns; or, Don’t be surprised if Street Fighter II explodes

Sorry for the light blogging last week; I was on vaca and had minimal Interweb access. But I return with a thought from Dave and Busters: Everyone loves Street Fighter II.

I went to D&B with four other guys whose video-game-geekdom ranged from moderately heavy gamer to had-an-original-Xbox-but-it-got-stolen to still-plays-Mario-Party-on-Nintendo 64. We played all the newer racing and shooting games and all that, but the game we played the most was Street Fighter II: Championship Edition. Even the guys who don’t play games much anymore and couldn’t remember the SFII moves kept playing. The way they responded to the old game made me think that Microsoft could have a huge hit on its hands with Street Fighter on Xbox Live Arcade.

Microsoft has been presenting Xbox Live Arcade as a way to capture new gamers by reviving an old-school arcade atmosphere. To many people — especially those whose arcade experiences are limited to the early to mid 1980s — that means bringing back the high-score rivalry. In the days of Frogger and Pac-Man, arcades were big because you couldn’t play those games at home. But the arcade games were so simplistic that they didn’t offer much point or much interaction with other people beyond trying to beat the high score. I’m skeptical that reviving this aspect of arcades will attract new gamers, as I explain in this post.

But Street Fighter II is different. It’s part of another important arcade era — one that nurtured many of today’s core gamers by going beyond the high score. Games like Ikari Warriors and Double Dragon previewed this era, but it really started in 1989 when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out. Plenty of games had offered two-player co-operative play, but TMNT was one of the first to let four people play at once. Combine that with then-amazing cartoony graphics and the TMNT craze, and you had an arcade machine that attracted crowds of kids waiting to cram their quarters in. Final Fight, The Simpsons, and X-Men kept the TMNT spirit alive for another few years.

But those games were basically all the same, and they weren’t enough to sustain the new blood that TMNT brought into arcades. That’s where Street Fighter comes in. Fighting games had been an arcade staple since the beginning, but games like Karate Champ and Yie Ar Kung-Fu were too basic to become big hits. Street Fighter was something different. The characters were fully controllable, the graphics unheard of, and the moves 10 times more complex — though not difficult to pull off — than anything the arcades had seen. The game was even bigger than TMNT, and seemingly everybody knew how to do Ryu’s fireball or a dragon punch. Mortal Kombat built on Street Fighter’s popularity when it arrived in 1992, and NBA Jam (the third pillar of the ’90s arcade renaissance) came out in 1993 to fill arcades further, but the arcade boom wouldn’t last much longer. Super Nintendo was already catching up with arcade graphics, and within two years the PlayStation would make home gaming as good as anything the arcades could offer.

That’s an era worth going after. A surprising number of kids played Street Fighter II and the like, and the nostalgia for that era — as I saw at Dave & Buster’s — is high. I told the guys about SFII on Xbox Live, and a couple said they’d have to go get an Xbox 360. They probably won’t. But then again, if Microsoft goes on a Street Fighter ad blitz and lets everyone know it’s there and that they’ll be able to (virtually) put quarters on the arcade cabinet to put themselves in line to show off their Chun-Li skills — well, who knows. A lot more people than you’d think know what “Hadouuu-ken!” is from. If Microsoft is smart, they’ll remind us all how much fun it is to beat up on Dhalsim.

— July 23, 2006

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