In the early '90s, the rivalry between fighting franchises Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter was nearly as important to gamers as the Mario-Sonic standoff. But with one-on-one competition at the core of the gameplay, the fighting genre quietly lost its luster in the core market as arcades declined.
The Street Fighter brand was able to make an unchallenged return to prominence last summer with the acclaimed launch of Street Fighter IV -- which Capcom calls the first "true" SF in eight years.
Now that embattled publisher Midway has been scooped up by Warner Bros. in a $33 million acquisition this year, it looks like Mortal Kombat is on its way back, too. The IP was a primary factor in Warner Bros. buy, and it's to be expected the company makes the most of its purchase. Job listings recently revealed, for example, that Warner's ready to take the franchise into the next generation at last.
Will the old brand rivalry re-ignite? Perhaps surprisingly, Capcom hopes so -- the strength and continued vitality of the fighting genre stands to benefit.
Don't Call It A Comeback
Aside from collections and smaller releases, the Street Fighter franchise lay largely dormant for nearly a decade because the competitive play environment established by arcades went on the outs once home consoles became so prolific.
"The company was like, well, we can't really break SF out anymore, because there's no way for people to really come together and compete," Capcom senior director of communications Chris Kramer tells Gamasutra.
"And we put it on the back burner until the current generation of consoles -- where you don't need an arcade anymore, because everyone's Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 is essentially now an arcade, because they're all connected to each other."
With Street Fighter IV, a large-scale and well-received reintroduction of hardcore fighting game mechanics, Capcom hopes to be the harbinger of a return to the genre's heyday. "I think, and I hope, that we've kind of reintroduced the idea of fighting games back into the gaming lexicon," says Kramer.
Aside from Soulcalibur, there have been precious few contenders for the fighting game throne over the years, especially as game design began to favor accessibility and universal appeal over the skill-based, competitive play at the core of the genre.
"Fighting games... can actually be pretty shallow if you don't have that competition," Kramer says. A return for SF "all came down to being able to actually get people to be able to challenge each other. That's kind of the secret sauce for fighting games, and we're now in an era where that's not even a question anymore."
A Challenger Appears?
Now that Mortal Kombat is likely poised to shoot for a reintroduction to the present era, too, it's a good time to recall the old days. "Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat really were the Coke and Pepsi for that era," says Kramer. "Basically it came down to what do you prefer: the kind of precision and depth of Street Fighter and the idea of the fighting engine, or did you like the gore and comedy and sort of over-the-top nature of Mortal Kombat?"
"Do you love the precision of leaping forward with a flying kick and then going into a dragon punch? Or do you just want to pull out somebody's spine?"
Capcom has perhaps become the Japanese publisher best known for Westernizing successfully, adapting core brands and new designs for North American audiences far more quickly than some of its Eastern rivals. But it's actually Mortal Kombat that's historically succeeded most at matching Western tastes, Kramer points out.
"One of the things they did really well with Mortal Kombat is they established really outlandish, kind of ridiculous characters that had these crazy movesets... I think Mortal Kombat had a really great foothold in North America because the attitude and essence of that game is geared very much toward American sensibilities, sense of humor, and love of all things over-the-top and super-violent," Kramer adds. "So that definitely was a built-in appeal to teenage boys."
In terms of assessing audiences, the playing field is much more level -- in fact, as the first to return to the genre, Capcom may have something of an advantage now. "SFIV has just killed this year," says Kramer. "It was essentially a play to return this genre to the Western market... it was very much designed for Western audiences, to re-engage this new generation of console gamer with the brand."
And as connected consoles effectively mean an arcade in every living room, the time is right for the rivalry to return. Is the publisher ready to go head-to-head again?
Return Of The Rivalries
"I think we'd welcome the return of a rivalry like that," says Kramer. "It would be good for and fun for both companies. We've had excellent traction with the gamers, and now what would be good for us would be to continue to get the fighting game market to grow again, to get it larger, and the way to do that is to have more games of a good level coming out."
"It can only be good for all of us to have really high-quality games like Soulcalibur and that level of stuff coming out, and getting the current gen of gamers to engage with one-on-one fighting games again."
A return for Mortal Kombat -- and other brands like Tekken, which will reintroduce itself to a new generation of gamers this October -- will only spice up what has been an "interesting transition" for companies like Capcom, says Kramer.
"The genre was really in trouble when arcades up and vanished in North America and Europe," he recalls. "It really depended on people wanting to go and compete, smash opponents and show off."
This spirit fuels the Street Fighter Evo Championship, still going strong today among the hardcore's hardest. "It's these guys who, even though it's very hard to find an arcade, these dudes are still spending hours and hours in the last few remaining arcades in order to get better and come together and compete," says Kramer.
"I think now that with SFIV hitting the Xbox 360 and PS3, and with the ability to go out and get one of these joysticks that are essentially the same parts that were in the Japanese arcade machine, I think we're going to see a whole new generation of fighting champs coming up," Kramer says. "It'll be good if there are some other quality games out there to help grow the market."
Quality's the watchword, of course. "It needs to be a great game first and foremost," says Kramer. "I can't think of how many crappy fighting games we saw back in the SNES era."
...As Long As The Games Are Good
There were even a few of what Capcom considered "knock-offs." In 1994, Capcom attempted to sue developer Data East, attempting to prove the latter's 1993 Fighter's History was too similar to Street Fighter II (though the court sided in favor of Data East).
Explains Kramer: "Part of the lawsuit was, we took a joystick and we split the controls and wired it to a Street Fighter board and showed that literally, [Fighter's History] ripped off all the moves in Street Fighter, all the same inputs."
"You need an awesome game," he says. "And then it definitely helps to have a brand that's recognizable." Capcom is thrilled with the performance of Street Fighter IV, which has sold twice as many copies as the last three SF games to hit consoles combined. But a strong license can do very well, too -- Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is "tearing up," according to Kramer, having surpassed Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix sales within a week and a half.
"Arcades are no longer these dirty, weird places where you're gonna get rolled in the parking lot or catch something from touching the buttons," says Kramer. "It's now in your living room, which is pretty awesome."
All the pieces are in place for the genre's grand return, and the broader it is, the better it will be for all contenders. Fight!