Saturday, January 24, 2015

Street Fighter vs. Street Fighter


Super_Street_Fighter_II_Poster recently posted a translation of an old Japanese interview about the making of Street Fighter II. A vintage postmortem of sorts, the interview with designer Akira Nishitani dates back to 1991, the year that Street Fighter II: The World Warrior was released, and it’s full of interesting trivia about the seminal fighting game’s conception, bugs that plagued development (some of which infamously remained in the finished product), and ideas that didn’t make the cut.

Nishitani did not work on the original 1987 Street Fighter. He got the job on the sequel after first designing Final Fight (1989), which itself was at one point planned as a sequel to Street Fighter, beginning life in development as “Street Fighter ‘89,” before Capcom decided it had diverged too significantly from the original game. Many hardcore series fans have probably heard that story before. New to me, however, is the revelation that Nishitani was never much of a fan of the first Street Fighter:
After that some time passed, and I was relaxing, not doing much after having finished Final Fight. At that time management approached me and talked with me about doing a sequel to the original Street Fighter. I had all these ideas [...] but what management wanted was a straightforward sequel to Street Fighter I. They didn’t want me to change the basic elements of the game. [...]

I realized I had hardly played the first Street Fighter at all (maybe once or twice at the game center). Final Fight, though, I had played a lot of. Since I had so much Final Fight experience, I actually won the in-house Street Fighter I tournament at Capcom. It then occurred to me: why didn’t I play Street Fighter I at the game center? Because it wasn’t a very good game. “That’s it! I’m going to make a game so good, it will make the original Street Fighter look like a knockoff! I’m going to make a GOOD game that satisfies ME!” With that pledge in my heart, I began work on Street Fighter II.

Sure enough, Nishitani’s game far eclipsed its predecessor in design and influence. Despite being a sequel, Street Fighter II is widely regarded, much more than the original, as a landmark first in the fighting game genre. I remember, when Street Fighter II first landed, quickly becoming a phenomenon, many young gamers (those who started with Nintendo and not arcades) scratched their heads at that number in the title, because they could not recall ever having heard of a "Street Fighter I." Some even thought that Street Fighter II was the sequel to Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight (1990) for the Nintendo Entertainment System. That was how relatively insignificant the first arcade Street Fighter was—that even this obscure series sidebar for the NES was more readily recalled.

But the most interesting bits in the interview deal with the scrapped ideas. Dhalsim’s backwards drills are especially intriguing in hindsight. The forward drills have always been more useful for mobility than attack, and, while it had never occurred to me before, reverse drills now seem like an obvious tool that the character has been badly missing the last twenty-plus years (well, not really… but still it would be cool!).

Many ideas didn’t make the final cut due to time or technical limitations, but it’s curious that nobody ever thought to bring them back in later editions. The one that really caught my eye was M. Bison/Vega’s “Deadly Throw”:
Finally, there’s Vega’s Deadly Throw. Being the Evil Emperor and all, we wanted to have him grab your fist and say something like “is that all you’ve got?” before he threw you. I really wanted that to be in the game. But it proved too difficult to actually show all that in-game, so we abandoned the idea.

This immediately stuck out to me, because it sounds an awful lot like the “Atemi Nage” technique used by Geese Howard, the archvillain in SNK’s Fatal Fury games. This is the move where Geese blocks the opponent’s incoming punch or kick, then counters by grappling them to the ground in one fluid motion, traditionally accompanied by him shouting his signature line, “Predictable!” (or sometimes “Too easy!”). Similar “counterattack” moves did make their way into the Street Fighter series eventually, examples being Dudley’s “Cross Counter” and Gouken’s “Kongoshin,” and it’s just a commonly recognized type of technique across 2-D fighting games in general now. But Geese Howard’s was definitely the first and most memorable. Anybody who ever fought against the final boss version of Geese in any SNK fighting game surely remembers that first time having your jump attack intercepted by Geese throwing you to the mat.

When similar moves showed up later in Street Fighter, some fans considered that to have been one of the few cases where Street Fighter borrowed an idea from SNK and not the other way around. This interview suggests, however, that maybe Capcom did independently conceive of the idea way back before Street Fighter II even came out. But what makes it all so fascinating is that, although SNK’s many 2-D fighting games have often been considered among the most unabashedly derivative of Street Fighter II—what with their fireballs and uppercuts, their circle motions, and their similar Japanese manga aesthetic—the truth has always been more complicated than that.

The original Fatal Fury: King of Fighters (1991) for Neo Geo was actually in development at the same time as Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. And guess who designed Fatal Fury. It was none other than original Street Fighter co-creators Takashi Nishiyama and Hiroshi Matsumoto. So, all along, perhaps any similarities between Capcom and SNK’s games have not so much been due to the latter copying the former, but rather on account of both having a common ancestor in the first Street Fighter—a Capcom game that SNK could not rightly be said to have ripped off. Since Fatal Fury was just Street Fighter’s actual creators following up their own work, to call it a knockoff would be rather like calling Street Fighter I a knockoff of Street Fighter II! If you go back and play the first Fatal Fury, it’s even in many ways a lot closer to the original Street Fighter than is Street Fighter II. Fatal Fury has a similar stiff, floaty feel, and, like the first Street Fighter, it was clearly designed as principally a single-player game.

So, Street Fighter and Fatal Fury have always truly been brothers, in a way, though that does not make them rivals any less. From the beginning, as we saw in that earlier quote, Nishitani approached Street Fighter II with an attitude of wanting to outdo the original. Of course, many other designers have since presented their own takes on both Capcom and SNK’s fighting games. Street Fighter III was certainly its own beast, quite a bit different from the games by either Nishitani or Nishiyama and Matsumoto, none of whom are still at the same companies.

Akira Nishitani was minimally involved with the revisions to Street Fighter II and left Capcom before Street Fighter Alpha (1995) to found his own company, Arika. Arika developed Street Fighter EX (1996), arguably a not-so-graceful first attempt to translate Street Fighter II’s 2-D fighting gameplay to 3-D polygonal graphics. The Street Fighter EX games were not bad at all, although they were never as well-received as the contemporary and purely 2-D “main” Street Fighter Alpha and Street Fighter III titles. Again, here was a game that, although considered apocryphal to the series, was actually, in some ways, more directly related to Street Fighter II than were Capcom’s own sequels.

As for Takashi Nishiyama and Hiroshi Matsumoto of the original Street Fighter? They went on, sometimes together and sometimes separately, to create most of SNK’s celebrated fighting game series, including Art of Fighting, The King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, and The Last Blade, before leaving to found Dimps in 2000. Dimps was the studio that, wouldn’t you know it, Capcom contracted to co-develop Street Fighter IV (2008), when the series was resurrected after a long dormancy. Thus, things came full circle, as it fell to the almost-forgotten creators of the original Street Fighter to help relaunch the series some twenty years later.

Fittingly, Matsumoto had this to say about the project in an interview for the SF25: The Art of Street Fighter book in 2012:
We had initially planned to create a sort of sequel to “Street Fighter I,” but since most fans considered “Street Fighter II” to be the series’ origin, it was decided that we would design a game that took its cues from “Street Fighter II.” As you know, “Street Fighter II” wasn’t our game, so there really wasn’t a lot of opportunity for us to be feeling nostalgic about anything. [...]

Personally, I wanted to evolve the series beyond what fighting games had accomplished up to that point. [...] Unfortunately, the rest of the team had grown up on “Street Fighter II,” and seemed less willing to make major changes. It took us a while to find a happy medium in terms of evolution and change.

Matsumoto and Nishiyama may not have been able to get out from under the shadow cast by Street Fighter II, but they did get to one-up Akira Nishitani in another way. Successfully marrying classic 2-D mechanics to modern 3-D graphics, Street Fighter IV was arguably the game Street Fighter EX was supposed to be, much in the same way that Street Fighter II fulfilled the promise of the original Street Fighter.

No comments: