The evolution of Street Fighter: How combat game has survived almost three decades
The Street Fighter series, first released in 1987, has enthralled gamers with its many spin-offs and updates. Its new chapter is set to be a winner too, writes Pavan Shamdasani
Fighters meet in an exotic location for a battle to the death. They hail from all parts of the globe, from Japanese warriors to American brawlers, Russian wrestlers and Indian mystics. Their fighting styles are a combination of the brutal and the supernatural, where fast-paced martial arts and street-fighting moves are mixed with massive fireballs and flaming uppercuts.
This is Street Fighter, arguably the most renowned fighting game series of all time. Last week saw the physical release of Ultra Street Fighter IV, the latest in the long-running series. For diehard fans, it marks the culmination of every Street Fighter entry before it. For the rest of us, it's a testament to the series' immense staying power: nearly 30 years, with many well-received spin-offs and updates.
"There's no doubt that Street Fighter created the fighting-game genre and then helped it mature," says Capcom's Ayano Tomoaki, a longtime producer of the series. "We believe that there's a responsibility for Street Fighter to lead the fighting game genre itself and make it grow."
First released as an arcade game by Capcom in 1987, Street Fighter didn't immediately set the world alight. The game was a minor release made up of a mishmash of influences: character designs were inspired by Japanese manga of its day, the name was borrowed from a 1970s Sonny Chiba movie, and the gameplay was shaped by long-forgotten games such as Karate Champ and One-Two Kung-Fu.
Street Fighter wasn't wholly unique, but what it lacked in originality it more than made up for in creativity. The game stood out for its clever blend of great graphics and competitive gameplay: 2D animated character designs sent the player deep into a comic book-like world, while the ability to battle it out against either the computer or a second player brought an additional level to the contest.
More than all that, though, were its special moves - complicated button combinations that when timed right, allowed your fighter to dish out such devastating attacks as the hadouken fireball and the shoryuken uppercut. A fighting game had never gone to such inventive lengths before, and it became an impressive hit, immediately calling for a sequel.
No-one could have predicted the worldwide phenomenon that was Street Fighter II. Released four years after the first game in 1991, the sequel took all that was great about the debut and raised the stakes: graphics went 16-bit, sound effects became realistic, and the skill level of the gameplay was considerably increased. Instead of two characters, now eight were playable, each fully realised with their own individual stories, unique fighting styles and dozens of special moves.
"While the 'versus' mode was one of the reasons for the game's popularity, it wasn't the only reason for it," says Tomoaki. "The structure of the player-versus-player mode was another reason, with the numerous characters being one of the tools for gamers who had the same interest in fighting battles."
This wasn't a mere button-masher anymore and it all added up to a fighting game that truly challenged fans. Soon, dozens of copycats flooded the market - Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter, King of Fighters - and the Street Fighter multimedia franchise was born, expanding to include live-action movies, animated TV shows, instrumental music albums and a long-running comic book series.
Over the years, Capcom has released just two more "sequels"; however, there are more than 15 Street Fighter games spanning add-ons, spin-offs, updates and re-releases. Characters may have changed, graphics improved and techniques tweaked, but one thing has stayed the same: the core fighting mechanics, which require players to use timing and skill to defeat one another.
On every release, the Street Fighter series has consistently created the blueprint for what a modern-day fighting game should look and play like. But despite that, it might surprise readers to hear Street Fighter is not one of the most popular games of all-time. It's not even the biggest seller in its own genre, that honour being taken by Tekken 3 - but what it lacks in numbers, it more than makes up for in dedicated players.
"An important reason for the game's success has been the support from the fans. Without them, we would not have been able to create the history of the game," Tomoaki says. "Our team is eager to listen to players' opinions. We believe that introducing new functions that players want is an improvement element that makes this game different from other titles."
Nowhere is that idea of standing out from the pack more apparent than in Ultra Street Fighter IV, the fourth release of the fourth entry. "The series has Street Fighter IV, Super Street Fighter IV, Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition and now, Ultra Street Fighter IV," says Tomoaki. "Having various updates for the title is the characteristic of the series. The reason is that the game has to improve its battle balance and system, to increase number of characters, as well as add new functions that players want."
Producers are more than eager to listen to fans, who make the game's creation a back-and-forth exchange that engages each party and allows the developers to keep up with the ever-changing times. For the latest entry, the developers decided to take major steps in growing the series, both in its actual size and its much-demanded online abilities.
" Ultra Street Fighter IV provides the perfect fighting environment for players: the number of characters has significantly increased, with 44 characters joining the battle, which has never happened before," says Tomoaki. "The substantial online function is also a big difference: of course, players can fight online, but online training with friends is also possible. There is also a feature where battles can be uploaded to YouTube and players watch rivals around the world."
While the current gaming sector might be dominated by open-world adventures, ultra-violent first-person shooters and obsessively realistic sports simulators, there's something about the intense competition of an arcade-style fighter that appeals to every generation of gamers.
As for what the future holds for the franchise, Tomoaki is evasive: "I believe the appeal of Street Fighter is providing players a one-on-one battlefield," he says. "But we're positively adopting the concept of playing online, and we'll keep studying in order to enhance the online features."
Not a word about the long-awaited Street Fighter V then, even though recent rumours have said it's in development for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One. Street Fighter certainly takes its time between major releases, but that's because it can: the game has long been a household name, a go-to title alongside Tetris, Super Mario and Grand Theft Auto when people think of video games.
Like all of those franchises, it's Street Fighter's consistent approach to releases - its dedication to putting out the best possible game in its genre - that has allowed it to stay current in players' minds. Whatever the future might hold for the gaming world, this is one game that won't give up without a fight.
Five of the best games in the 'Street Fighter' family:
Street Fighter X Tekken (2012)
How do you compete with your biggest rival? With a massive crossover, of course. The game was highly anticipated before its release and it didn't disappoint, balancing both series' mechanics.
Available on: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, PS Vita
Super Street Fighter IV (2010)
The latest solo Street Fighter game and an impressive addition to the series, building anticipation for the new Ultra edition, Super truly brings the game into the modern world, featuring classic fighting alongside impressive updates and strong online capabilities.
Street Fighter III Third Strike: Fight for the Future (1999)
The third update for the third game, Third Strike has long been considered the best of its era, featuring a number of fan-favourite characters and bringing in a Judgment system that gives out grades depending on players' skill at the game. Its popularity was such that it gained a considerable online-only update for the last gen of consoles.
Street Fighter Alpha 3 (1998)
Also known as Street Fighter Zero 3, this instalment is often considered to be the greatest in the series so far. It skilfully blends the best of old and new, featuring classic characters alongside new favourites, along with three different playing styles that brought a much-needed additional dynamic to the series.
Available on: PS2, PSP, Playstation Network
Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (1991)
The first Street Fighter looks dated - and fairly so, after nearly 30 years - but this game-changing sequel holds up despite its age. This was the instalment that set the template and it remains the best remake of the game. The Turbo HD Remix edition allows players to choose between the nostalgia-tinged Classic or hi-def modes.
Available on: Playstation Network, Xbox Live Arcade