This Week in Gaming History: The early fighting games0 Comments
The original Street Fighter II: The World Warrior has turned 25 years old. First unleashed in gamerooms across the world between February 6, 1991 and February 14, 1991, Street Fighter II sparked the second "Golden Age of the Video Arcade" while inspiring a seemingly endless wake of similar titles. For millions of players, it was the title that introduced them to the genre. However, it existed well before Chun Li and E. Honda did battle, going as far back as the 1970s.
There will be hundreds of articles on the internet this week about the legacy of Street Fighter II. For gamers of a certain age, that game is as important as Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. are to those who might be a little bit older. With plenty of coverage of what happened after Capcom unleashed their beast of a classic, we're going to go in another direction and dive into what got us to that point, instead. Here is a look back at some of the early fighting titles that led to Ken and Ryu becoming household names.
Heavyweight Champ - Sega, 1976
To go back fully to the roots of the fighting game, you cannot overlook the importance of Sega's 1976 coin-op. Heavyweight Champ stood out in a field of Pong clones and simple graphics by using two giant on-screen characters who actually looked like people. Players would take hold of one of the two 'boxing glove' controller and go at it one-on-one.
While there were a number of other early games where players engaged in head-to-head battle, including Cinematronics' Warrior and Activision's own Boxing game for the Atari Video Computer System, those early games used a top-down perspective. Heavyweight Champ, however, used the side-view perspective that makes this game instantly recognizable as the great grandfather of the fighting games we have today. It made little impact when it released, making the game nearly impossible to find today.
Karate Champ - Data East, 1984
In a lot of ways, Data East got lucky with the timing of Karate Champ. Even with sports-based games such as Track & Field, Birdie King and Pole Position doing well in an otherwise struggling North American arcade market, few industry experts were convinced a karate tournament game would find an audience. Then, help arrived from an unlikely source in the form of a feature film that few expected would succeed.
The surprise popularity of The Karate Kid movie brought gamers to Karate Champ in droves. Seizing on the opportunity, Data East responded with an updated version that allowed player-on-player battles. The quarters practically leapt from people's pockets and into Karate Champ arcade machines nationwide.
While the game is more realistic than the over-the-top moves made popular in most later fighting games, Karate Champ was the first video game to introduce the idea of player-versus-player fighting to a wide audience. It also contained a variety of bonus rounds and challenges, a feature that was used by Street Fighter II in 1991. Perhaps the most famous Karate Champ bonus stage involves a large bull.
Like the later Capcom classic, Karate Champ also sparked a series of clones and copycat games, most notably Epyx's International Karate/World Karate Championship for the Commodore 64. Data East sued over the similarities between the Epyx release and their arcade hit, eventually losing the case since both games are based on a real-life sport. This lawsuit would be referenced in later suits filed by Capcom against various Street Fighter II clones, meaning the game set important precedents for the genre both on and off the screen.
Yie Ar Kung Fu - Konami, 1985
It didn't take Konami long to develop and release a response to Karate Champ, one that would have far more influence on later fighting titles than it receives credit for. Yie Ar Kung Fu put players in the role of Oolong, a martial arts expert who probably isn't happy about being named after a beverage. By any name, he's tough, facing off one-on-one against an increasingly more difficult set of fighters, many of whom use weapons and special attacks. The game was capped off with an over the top soundtrack and a variety of elaborate backgrounds for each opponent.
While Karate Champ often gets the credit for "starting the fighting game genre," a fair assessment of Yie Ar Kung Fu should make it impossible to deny the influence it had on everything that followed. From the KO meter to the wackier characters, colorful backgrounds, soundtrack and wacky martial arts moves that simply don't exist in the real world, Konami's 1985 classic clearly set the tone. While it is not an easy game to find today, I highly suggest any young fighting game fan gives it a try so that they can fully understand the roots of the genre.
Street Fighter - Capcom, 1987
Why this is here might be obvious to most, but not to everyone. The original Street Fighter was released in 1987, and went somewhat unnoticed in an era where side-scrolling beat-em-ups such as Double Dragon and Bad Dudes ruled the land. Most players who got hooked on Street Fighter II had never seen nor heard of the original game. In 2005, I actually saw a young couple laughing about the game at an arcade auction, calling it a "cheap knock-off of Street Fighter II," as they apparently mistook it for a bootleg. I know Capcom's numbering system for the Street Fighter series has always been a bit off, but Street Fighter II really was a sequel, folks.
While far clunkier and more goofy than its famous sequel, Street Fighter did introduce characters such as Ryu, Ken and Sagat, as well as some characters who would appear in later games in the series. It also introduced the control scheme the series became known for, but it wasn't used at first. Many of the original Street Fighter machines were outfitted with pressure-sensitive rubber punch pads. The power of your attack depended on how hard you punched this pad, something no arcade operator wanted to deal with. The majority of machines with this feature were converted to the famous six-button control scheme that became a staple of the series — and to a larger extent, the genre — as it continued.
Younger players who never played the original Street Fighter are encouraged to do so. You won't like it as much as you like pretty much any of the titles that came after it, but to know your history and respect the roots of the series, you might as well go all the way back. Before Street Fighter II lit the world on fire, these were the games that kicked off the genre. Understanding where it all started can only help players fully respect where it is today.