Brain Diving Street Fightin' Man
by Brian Ruh, Mar 1st 2011
I really miss video game arcades. This thought crosses my mind nearly every single day as I walk to work, since I pass three different locations where there were arcades just a few short years ago. I used to spend quite a bit of time playing games in places like that when I was college and in early grad school. (Perhaps that's indicative of why I went on to study something like anime and manga – certainly playing video games counts as research, right?)
Before anyone accuses me of waxing nostalgic for this fabled era when quarters were the universal currency of the land, let me say that I realize home consoles are now much more sophisticated and powerful than much of what we had in arcades. One of the great things about arcades, though, was that they could be a social equalizer. People young and old (well, mostly young) and of all socioeconomic backgrounds could gather there for games. All you had to have was time and a supply of change. In comparison, if you want to be up on the latest video games for a home system, not only do you have to shell out for the game itself, but also hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars for your audiovisual setup, including the console itself, a decent television, speakers, an online service subscription, etc. Of course there are certainly arcades around these days as well; they're just becoming rarer and increasingly cater to a smaller audience. I keep thinking about the difference between the lively arcade scenes in the original Tron movie and dead, dusty place shown in Tron: Legacy twenty-eight years later. Seems like there ought to be a good metaphor in there somewhere.
When I was killing time in the arcade, one of the games I kept coming back to was Street Fighter II. There was just something about it that drew me in – it had unique characters, flashy moves, and great playability. It was one of those games that could be nearly as much fun to watch someone else play as to play yourself. The original Street Fighter was a groundbreaking game in many ways, and it was the title that put fighting games on the map. In his book Street Fighter: The Complete History, Chris Carle takes the reader back to the heyday of the arcade fighting game and chronicles the development and history of the franchise from inception to the present day.
Before I get to the book, though, I'd like to introduce this week's Read This! selection. As we all know from being anime or manga fans, there are differences in how we react to something compared to how a fan in Japan might react to it. Different countries and cultures create their own takes on the fan experience. That's why an article like “Street Fighter and The King of Fighters in Hong Kong: A Study of Cultural Consumption and Localization of Japanese Games in an Asian Context” by Benjamin Wai-ming Ng is so interesting. In it, he takes a look at how gamers and creative types responded to the soaring popularity of Street Fighter and The King of Fighters in Hong Kong. Not only did the games directly inspire comics and films, but they also gave rise to a specific subculture around the games that had its own jargon and ways of interacting. I'd highly recommend taking a look at this article – it contains some really fascinating info on what happens to gaming fandoms in other countries without being too theoretical or wallowing in academic-ese.
Street Fighter: The Complete History by Chris Carle
As mentioned above, I played quite a bit of Street Fighter when I was growing up. But I never was… what's the word? Good. Yeah, I never was any good at it. Oh, sure, I could play well enough to get me through a few rounds when I was taking on the machine, but I never devoted the effort and quarters into polishing my skills. For me, playing Street Fighter was just an entertaining way to kill some time. But there were so many people who became devoted Street Fighter fans that the franchise has managed to sustain itself for nearly 25 years. (I admit, was shocked when I realized how old Street Fighter now is – the first game came out in 1987.)
Given my limited knowledge of Street Fighter (not knowing much other than the fact I used to play it and there seemed to be a quadrillion sequels and variants), I was looking forward to learning a lot more about the franchise in Street Fighter: The Complete History, published by Chronicle Books. I knew that it was a landmark game, but I really wanted to find out how it came about, the impact that it made on the gaming landscape, and how the games tie in to the spinoff movies, manga, and anime out there. With statements on the back cover promising “Exclusive interviews with CAPCOM developers!” and “Characters, culture, cosplay, and more!” I was ready to immerse myself in the world of Street Fighter.
Unfortunately, I only got some of my questions answered. First and foremost, I have to say that the book primarily seems to be an artbook, showcasing original art as well as various artists’ interpretations of the Street Fighter characters. Each page is filled with excellent illustrations, and the back cover boasts that the book includes over “200 original pieces of artwork!” So, if you're a fan of the Street Fighter characters, I can certainly recommend the book to you on this count. However, while I thought this was a nice touch, it wasn't the main reason I was reading the book – I wanted to try to figure out what this Street Fighter phenomenon had been all about. After all, the subtitle of the book does promise “The Complete History” of the franchise.
Carle begins his history of the game by putting it in context. In the late 1980s, the home gaming system was beginning its ascent. The original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) had been introduced to the US public in 1984 and many gamers had begun to spend more time at home rather than in the arcades. However, there was still quite a bit of life left in the Aladdin's Castles of the world, as the introduction of Street Fighter was to show. Unlike most two-player games at the time, Street Fighter featured competitive rather than cooperative play. This means that rather than finding someone who could help you in your gaming quest, if you were good enough you could take on anyone who would come your way to try to become the king of the local arcade. This completely changed the dynamics of how the video game arcade worked, Carle claims.
However for a “complete history” there is relatively little explanation of how the Street Fighter games evolved across multiple versions over the years. Carle talks quite a bit about the changes that were made to the games themselves, but we don't get a good feel for what else was going on in the gaming world at the time. For example, why did CAPCOM decide to make a competitive fighting game like Street Fighter in the first place? What were the internal decisions CAPCOM made in order to produce these games? What were fans reactions to the changes over the years? All seem like they would be important questions to address, but for the most part they're just glossed over. Another question the book barely touches upon is how the games were received in Japan and how they were localized for gamers in the US. As we saw from the Read This! article above, there can be many changes in how such a game is interpreted and received outside of its native country. Given that the book claims to focus on the “culture” of Street Fighter on the back cover, I would have expected a bit more on this point.
Another element that is slightly disappointing is the book's section on cosplay. Although it's extolled as a feature on the back cover as well, it gets only one single page toward the end featuring three shots of Jessica Villarreal dressed as Chun-Li. Most of the text on this page is devoted to explaining what cosplay is, and doesn't really get into why some people choose to dress up as Street Fighter characters. I probably wouldn't have expected so much here if “cosplay” hadn't been on the cover in bright red letters.
The cosplay explanation highlights the fact that it's a little unclear who the intended audience for Street Fighter: The Complete History is supposed to be. Judging from the large amounts of art, I would have assumed that the book was intended for people who were already familiar with the Street Fighter franchise and who wanted to see more images of their favorite characters. However, the text seems to be written to introduce newcomers to the game, such that I would think that a lot of the information would be familiar to fans. At the same time, though, very little detail is given to explaining the characters, their backstories, and the overall plots of the games. This is particularly problematic when the many Street Fighter II spinoffs are mentioned, and Carle throws out tons of new characters and names without really explaining who they are or why they were relevant. If part of Street Fighter’s longevity is that it gave players a varied and fascinating cast of characters they could play and interact with, then it would have been useful to readers to describe them in more detail. Some of the main characters like Ryu and Chun-Li get thumbnail sketches of their backgrounds and motivations, but I would have liked to have seen this extended to all of the playable characters. I think Carle does a good job when he highlights animator Jorge Gutierrez's attachment to playing as Blanka when he was growing up. Since Gutierrez was Mexican, he says he would have preferred to play as a Mexican character; Blanka, a green monster from Brazil, was the closest which was why Gutierrez decided to use him, even though he knew Blanka was not the strongest fighter. I would have liked to have seen more of these kinds of examples throughout the book in order to show the relations that developed between fans and the characters they used in the game.
I also wish the book had focused a bit more on the non-game aspects of the Street Fighter franchise. This is touched on toward the end of the book, where Carle has some deservedly harsh words for 1994's Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Street Fighter: The Movie, but the slew of anime and manga related to the series is only mentioned in passing. However, toward the end of the book Carle makes a really good point about the complementary ties between Street Fighter and anime in the 1980s and ‘90s. The time when Street Fighter came out was also the same time that US anime fan culture began to take off. With its unique characters and settings, there was no mistaking that Street Fighter was a game from Japan. At the time, there was a kind of a synergy between the game and the increasing number of anime titles that were becoming available to American consumers. I know I probably first decided to give Street Fighter a go because I was attracted to its anime-esque aesthetics. Still others may have been turned toward the otaku lifestyle because they had become fans of the game Street Fighter and wanted to find other things out there that looked like it.
So now, nearly twenty-five years after the first Street Fighter came out, I can now fork over a few bucks and play Street Fighter IV anytime I want on my phone. Technology and the ways people play have obviously changed a lot since that initial groundbreaking fighting game, but it's great to see the fanbase for something like Street Fighter soldiering on. If you're looking for a full account of how the franchise has developed, Street Fighter: The Complete History is unfortunately a bit underwhelming. It has a lot of great images and everything comes together in a nice looking package, but I couldn't help but feel that the written parts were just barely scratching the surface of what is out there.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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