August 30th was the 29th anniversary of the release of the original Street Fighter. Not the much-lauded Street Fighter II, the much-derided original. In Street Fighter, you could only play as Ryu or Ken (and Ryu had red hair). It had odd digitized speech. There were 10 World Warriors against which to compete, but… you couldn't play as them. The special moves were nearly impossible to pull off.
And the home ports were all over the place. They came in the form either of Fighting Street, a Turbo Grafx CD launch title, or the slew of middling computer ports on the ZX Spectrum, C64, and so forth. The TG-CD version is arguably the best of the entire bunch, arcade included. (Please enjoy this Let's Compare of the major releases.)
Street Fighter, arcade version.
Now, Street Fighter is called out more as the butt of jokes than as the beginning of a venerated series. Most talk about Street Fighter II as though it were the first link of that chain. But Street Fighter really was the beginning. Six buttons for precise damage control. Quarter circles and dragon punches to execute special moves. A huge cast of characters, most of which are still in use today (even if they weren't playable). Pro Street Fighter player Xian used Gen to win Evo, the biggest tournament in fighting games. Gen debuted in Street Fighter. So did Birdy, Adon, Sagat, and Eagle. Heck, even Ryu and Ken being sprite edits and palette swaps began here.
The game also took some adventurous risks. An earlier arcade version featured two giant, pressure-sensitive rubber buttons that you'd pound for a harder kick or punch. (I've personally played this version, and it is maddening and painful. You're trying to do delicate movements with the stick, and smashing away with your other hand. It hurts the brain.)
The giant buttons. Rough stuff.
And the game was a success, despite common thinking! In August 1988, it was the top earner, according to CoinSlot, above games like Operation Wolf and Super Sprint. That's one full year after release. The home ports were considered successes at the time, because they were still better than most other vs fighting games that were around at the time.
And it launched the fighting game genre in earnest. Street Fighter became one of the biggest names in fighting games, but the director Takashi Nishiyama and planner (designer) Hiroshi Matsumoto immediately went to SNK to helm the Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting series. This one game, Street Fighter, represents the beginning for both of the two biggest 2D gaming titans.
Really, the only thing that holds Street Fighter back from being a venerated title is the fact everything that came after it is just so much better.
For me, it was my first home fighting game. I bought it on the Turbo Grafx CD a few years after it came out, super cheap. I even had the unwieldy Turbo Stick, for that real home experience (in reality, the stick was extremely light, squishy, and difficult to use). I found the special moves so obtuse that I wondered whether the manual was wrong. But still, with its CD quality sound and huge graphics, it made a big impression.
I wondered, on its 29th birthday, did anyone else remember? As I polled a number of game developers, I found that there are still some enthusiasts out there, keeping the faith. And a whole lot of haters.
WHAT OTHER DEVELOPERS SAY
Chris Harback, Beardo Games:
“I liked it a lot, and I still do, despite how clunky and non-responsive the controls felt. At the time, my friends and I had just watched the movie Bloodsport, so the broad (for the time) cast was something I enjoyed a lot. I remember wishing that I could play as the whole cast (especially Geki), not just a pair of palette swaps. I can't really say it felt particularly important at the time, although the big, nicely-animated sprites were a good step up from Yie Ar Kung Fu.”
Ian Adams, Undead Labs:
“During the height of Street Fighter II, the arcade in my mall got a Street Fighter cabinet. I had heard stories about a version with two buttons that responded to how hard you pressed them, but this one had six buttons, just like Street Fighter II. With both of the SF II cabinets busy and long lines (and not being very good at fighting games, leading to short sessions) I decided to try Street Fighter, mostly because there was no wait. I don’t remember everything, but I remember thinking the characters looked small, and that they didn’t move correctly. I don’t think I was able to pull off fireballs. I know I beat a couple enemies, but when I lost I had no desire to put more money in. I just got in line for SF II again.”
Patrick Miller, Riot Games:
“I remember seeing my dad come back from the store with Street Fighter 2 when I was like, 7 years old, and thinking, 'My life changes today. Which it did. Wait, you're asking about Street Fighter I? All I know about that game is that it is bad and Ryu has red hair. I played it for like 5 minutes.”
Olivier Lejade, Mekensleep:
“I was a young teenager. Maybe 13, 14 or 15, not sure exactly. Played during my holidays in Spain in Salamanca. It was a proper arcade but a small one. I remember the game was very hard to play, much harder than SF2. I couldn't make a fireball but I saw older players do it. You played Ryu but at the time I didn't know his name. I don't recall there was any other choice.
I found the game the game super exciting. I would have played it a lot more if I had more money. The graphics were great for the time, the sprites looked huge. The concept of a game with martial artists throwing ki fireballs and flying kicks and a ninja was super exciting to me at the time.”
AJ Ryan (ONLYUSEmeFEET)
“Something I think a lot of people forget when looking back on the original Street Fighter was how revolutionary it really was. 1 on 1 fighting games before it weren't very fun to play because they had little to no complexity. Street Fighter introduced a variety of punches and kicks that made gameplay more interesting and is the basis for every fighting game today. Every game developer interested in creating or playing a fighting game should play through the original Street Fighter to understand the absolute basics of a fighting game.
Special moves, while really difficult to pull off in Street Fighter, gave the game even more complexity and mystery. Whispers between gamers on how to pull off special moves started with Street Fighter. Because Street Fighter is one of the most rigid six button fighters today, people love to hate on the game, but you can't deny its legacy or what it did for fighting games. Personally, while I'd never normally play Street Fighter at home today, if I see it an an arcade, you bet I'm putting a quarter in the machine!”
Daniel Boutros, Soul Arcade:
"I remember playing it after SF2, as a curio. It was placed in the relics graveyard of the London Trocadero. It wasn't officially called that, but that's where you'd find the long forgotten old stuff.
This cabinet had the pressure sensitive buttons, and I remember getting one fireball to roll out for every five times I tried. You really had to slam the button to get the fierce version of it to come out too. My fingers ended up sore, and it seemed a bit of a failed mash of Sonic Blastman but with buttons, and the terrible, super-jerky Amiga port of Streetfighter 2.
I remember leaving the machine thinking it wasn't very good, and contrasting red-raw finger tips with the Streetfighter thumb ailment that people who played the SNES version would have to endure.
I'm glad it was made though, because if it never happened, we wouldn't have had Street Fighter 2, and all the amazing SNK fighting games that bettered it. Or the eventual SSF2 Super Turbo that bettered everything else."
Greg Kasavin, Supergiant:
“Street Fighter's been a big part of my life since some of my earliest memories. I played the hell out of the first one at the time. Nothing compared to the sequel of course, but still.
I played the six-button arcade version. I played the arcade version with the two giant novelty pressure-sensitive rubber buttons, which was terrible but I did it anyway. Later I played it a bunch more for the Turbo CD. I believe the Japanese Turbo CD version of Fighting Street bears the distinction of being perhaps the world's first CD-ROM game, copyright 1988 -- only a year after the 1987 arcade debut. And that copy I got when I was like 18 or so is still sitting here right in front of me on my desk at work.
I don't know what it was about games with people beating each other up but they always called to me. Karate Champ, Yie-Ar Kung Fu, Kung-Fu Master... I played all that stuff as a kid barely old enough to reach the controls on an arcade cabinet. But Street Fighter really stood out, at least visually.
Even at the time I knew Street Fighter wasn't a great game. The controls were clunky and unreliable, while the best games of the day were extremely precise. You could fail very suddenly and almost inexplicably. But the good qualities outshone the bad by a lot. Here were these great big characters of all different shapes and colors. I think I'd never even heard of Thailand before playing Street Fighter. I loved that there was a button labeled 'Roundhouse.'
The other thing about Street Fighter that was so alluring was this idea of it having these complex command moves that were very powerful but also very difficult to perform. If you could somehow pull off a fireball, or God forbid a dragon punch, it was practically a game-winning play. The controls were really rough, though, so doing these moves consistently was next to impossible. But for a game to have this kind of learning curve around execution was really fascinating to me, and I got terrible blisters practicing.
The original Street Fighter paved the way for its sequel, one of the greatest games of all time, and one of my personal favorites. It's been rightfully eclipsed by the legend of Street Fighter II. But I love how characters from the original game -- Ryu, Ken, Sagat, even guys like Birdie -- are still making appearances in new games almost 30 years later. I love that I'm still playing those games.”
I'm with Greg, here. It's clunky, it's awkward, but it's important. I think we can learn a lot from the failures that paved the way to success. You really do feel amazing when you pull off one of those impossible special moves and take off 2/3 of an opponent's life. You imagine the possibilities that arise from this cast of world warriors. The music gets you pumping. The inane, unintelligibly voiced win quotes make you laugh.
And you can still play it, it's out there. Fire up MAME, your copy of the Capcom Classics Collection, or get on your Wii Virtual Console, and give the game a spin. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wonder how it ever became anything, but you'll probably learn something important about fighting game design along the way.