Games nobody talks about anymore: 1987‘s Street Fighter

Everyone remembers Street Fighter II, but what about its 80s forebear? We find out how Street Fighter paved the way for a classic sequel...

It’s 1991. The dwindling fortunes of arcades, eclipsed for years by consoles, have been reversed by one solitary game: Street Fighter II. With its immediately recognisable line-up of characters and complex move set, Capcom’s game defined the fighting genre, and rapidly became one of the most popular arcade machines of all time.

The Street Fighter story began in 1987, when the original game appeared in arcades to relatively little fanfare. Back then, long before Street Fighter II and – later – Resident Evil propelled it into the big leagues, Capcom was best known for such arcade machines as Commando, 1942, and Ghosts N’ Goblins. They were solid hits, and widely ported to home computers and consoles, but Capcom was still a relatively small company when compared to such Japanese giants as Konami or Nintendo.

One-on-one brawlers were also thin on the ground in the 1980s. Such trailblazing games as Karate Champ (1984) and Yie Ar Kung-Fu (1985) had established some of its conventions – the energy bars, and colourful roster of characters in the latter’s case – but the genre was still in its infancy during the first half of the decade.

Street Fighter serves as the half-forgotten link between those early 80s one-on-one games and the revolution Street Fighter II would usher in just four years later. The title screen is set in the same distinctive brush stroke style as the games which followed. The game itself takes the form of a globe-trotting fighting tournament, with locations ranging from the far east to Mount Rushmore. There’s also a varied range of characters, though you can only fight as Ryu (or Ken, if you’re player two in a versus match), and the opponents entirely lack the imagination and personality of those in Street Fighter II.

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Early versions of the Street Fighter arcade machine were recognisable for the pair of pressure-sensitive buttons mounted on the front; the idea was that, the harder the player struck them, the more powerful the character on the screen would strike at his opponent. In practice, the system was unwieldy and, when arcade owners began to worry that their customers were damaging their hands by hitting the cabinet too aggressively, Capcom had a bit of a rethink.

“I remember when I first saw [Street Fighter],” Capcom USA’s head of consumer games told Polygon. “It had those big rubber [pads] that you punch with your fists. That had to come off the market because everybody was getting injured.”

Interestingly, Street Fighter II‘s control system had its genesis here, as Capcom replaced the pressure pads with a six button layout in a revised version of the Street Fighter coin-op. The overhauled control system immediately earned a more positive response from players, though the machine was still only a modified success; it’s thought that between 2,500 to 3,000 Street Fighter coin-ops were distributed globally.

Less fluid in terms of character animation and controls than its successors, it’s clear that Street Fighter is the work of a design team still getting to grips with its own concept. By the 1990s, the Street Fighter franchise would be prized for the strategic depth afforded by its range of defensive moves, combos and counter-strikes, with each character offering his or her own strengths and drawbacks; what Chun Li lacked in brute strength, for example, she made up for with speed and agility. 

There’s no evidence of that in the original Street Fighter. Although Ryu looks broadly the same as he does in Street Fighter II, his Dragon Punch (or Shoryuken) move is ridiculously over-powered, to the point where it’s possible to defeat almost every opponent by executing the same move over and over again.

Although by no means a classic, Street Fighter was soon ported to a number of home systems, ranging from the PC Engine in Japan to 8- and 16-bit computers in Europe and America courtesy of US Gold. 

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In the wake of Street Fighter, two of the game’s key personnel were spirited away by rival developer SNK. Producer/director Takashi Nishiyama and planner Hiroshi Matsumoto were among them, and would ultimately end up creating the Fatal Fury and Art Of Fighting games, which were hits in their own right.

Capcom, meanwhile, didn’t exactly rush into making the Street Fighter sequel. Instead, it concentrated its energies on making Final Fight – a scrolling beat-em-up made in the wake of Double Dragon, which also launched in 1987 and proved to be a sizeable hit. Final Fight actually began life under the title Street Fighter ’89, and even appeared at trade shows under that name.

(Producer Yoshiki Okamoto recalls that the name change was due to Street Fighters poor reputation, but other accounts suggest that it was simply because the links between the two games were too tenuous to justify linking the two.) 

With the staff behind the original Street Fighter gone, Final Fight producer Yoshiki Okamoto and designers Akiria Nishitani and Akira Yasuda stepped in to create Street Fighter II. Capcom, experiencing a worrying financial wobble in the late 80s, had been bolstered by the unexpected success of Final Fight, and had ordered Okamoto to create a sequel to that game. Okamoto, being a contrary soul, decided he wanted to make Street Fighter II instead.

Viewed together, it’s easy to see the creative stamp of Final Fights designers on Street Fighter II. The global fighting tournament concept remains, along with details like the special techniques and training mini-games, but Okamoto and his team brought with them an eye for memorable character design, distinctive colour and dynamic animation. Where Street Fighter‘s battles felt leaden and inert, Street Fighter IIs felt fast and dramatic.

Street Fighter IIs brilliance utterly eclipsed its predecessor, and the original Street Fighter is more an interesting footnote than a game worth returning to in its own right. But beneath its muddy graphics and garbled sound lurked the concepts that would one day be refined into a truly world-conquering arcade classic. Capcom would be propelled into the big-leagues, and fighting games would never be quite the same again.

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