The Essentials – Street Fighter II

by Jeff Cork on May 17, 2015 at 08:00 AM

The Essentials is Game Informer's weekly feature that looks at the most important games the industry has to offer. These games aren't just a ton of fun: Their quality, innovation, and industry influence make them must-play experiences for anyone who wants a greater appreciation of our interactive medium.

This weekend, we take an in-depth look at a blockbuster that transformed arcade fighting games from a novelty to a worldwide phenomenon. Without the Street Fighter series, the genre may never have evolved past the shallow offerings of the mid-‘80s. Street Fighter II laid the foundation for an incredible string of follow-ups, as well as nearly every other fighter since.

Release Year: 1991
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom
Released For: Arcade, Sega Master System, SNES, Genesis, TurboGrafx-16 (Japan only), PlayStation, Sega Saturn, PlayStation 2, Xbox, PSP

Street Fighter II defined the fighting game as we know it. Don’t let that “II” in its title mislead you into thinking that its predecessor deserves the credit, either; that’s like thanking George Lucas’ dad for Star Wars. Before Capcom’s 1991 game hit arcades, one-on-one fighting games were an obscure novelty at best. Street Fighter II planted its flag on a new genre in 1991 with its unbeatable mix of memorable characters and unprecedented gameplay depth. Just as Nirvana’s “Nevermind” made an immeasurable impact on music later that year, it’s difficult to overstate how influential Street Fighter II is to gaming.

Street Fighter II arcade machines were a constant presence in the early ‘90s, and each was an invitation. If one wasn’t occupied, that was your cue to pop in a quarter and start playing against the A.I. Those fighters put up a decent-enough fight, but it was like shooting pool alone in a bar. You were waiting for a player 2 to come along and test your skills with the onscreen flourish of “Here comes a new challenger!” Wander across a match in session? No problem. Snap your quarter on the marquee, which was the unspoken shorthand for, “I’ve got next.”

Note: Sceens and the embedded video were taken from Capcom's Street Fighter II Collection on PlayStation 1.

First-timers could get a sense of each fighter’s personality from the character-select screen alone. Players who cycled through the eight world warriors were shown a large close-up portrait of their prospective hero in the bottom corner – images that were used later to great effect post-match. Each tap of the joystick revealed another steely-eyed fighter, ready for action. Before the game’s follow-up entry, Champion Edition, only one player could pick each character at a time; Ken and Ryu were the closest the game came to including palette swaps. That limitation made the character-selection process a game in itself, with players darting their cursors around, waiting for their opponent to commit before swooping in themselves.

Each character had their own fighting style and personality, which gave beginners something to latch onto as well. Wild man Blanka paralyzed foes with an electric charge and chewed on their faces. Chun Li was a spry photojournalist who overpowered opponents with lightning-fast kicks. Zangief’s habit of wrestling with bears left him covered in scars, but his powerful grapple attacks made it worth the pain. Dhalsim’s yoga training gave him the ability to stretch his limbs (but who knows why he could blow gales of flame?). 

Once the match started, it was a best-of-three battle for superiority. Unlike fighting games of the past – Karate Champ and the original Street Fighter – battles were smooth and the input reactions precise. It was even more impressive considering the amount of detail crammed into every moment. Guile could fake out E. Honda from across the stage with low flash kicks and slow sonic booms, while an assembly of elephants roared their approval behind the action. The large, detailed sprites made the impact of every hit feel real, an effect sold by now-modest sprays of blood and an occasional quick gush of vomit. It was accompanied by one of the most memorable soundtracks in gaming, with Guile's stage theme inspiring its own meme.

If you found yourself on the receiving end of too many consecutive hits, your fighter would reel back and forth helplessly, an animated series of cartoon chicks or stars circling their bruised heads. It was humiliating, second only to losing and having to worm through a cheering crowd in defeat. 

Street Fighter II wasn’t flawless, but it was fair. Just when you wrote a character off as useless, someone would jump into your game and mop the floor using it. Dilettantes could have a good time learning every character’s special moves and being good enough with the majority of them, but this game rewarded dedication.  Button mashers could walk away with a few fluke victories, but consistent wins required a solid understanding of where each of your six basic attacks would land. 

People have described Street Fighter II’s underlying mechanic as being akin to rock-paper-scissors, only with punches, kicks, blocks, and throws. It’s a great analogy. Attacks carried their own priority, and knowing when a high kick would be the best move against a mid-air foe versus blocking was critical.  At the same time, it was accessible enough for new players to at least get in a few shots and have a good time. 

To be completely fair, the first Street Fighter included the familiar hadouken (fireball), shoryuken (dragon punch), and tatsumaki senpukyaku (hurricane kick) moves, but the sequel added a host of joystick motions that are now just part of the gaming language. Pick up any fighting game, and odds are you can instantly pull off a few special moves by trying the hadouken inputs or an E. Honda-style charge. 

Capcom also successfully introduced the idea of variation between the characters. Before, you were lucky if your karate outfits were a different color. In Street Fighter II, each fighter was unique and the game was balanced accordingly (Ken and Ryu remaining the exception). Chun Li was formidable in the air and at close- to mid-range, but she didn’t have any projectile attacks. Zangief lacked projectiles as well and he was slow, making him an easy target for fireball-chucking champs like Ken and Ryu. However, when players used Zangief’s spinning lariat move, hadoukens passed right through him. Characters were balanced, with some showing an advantage over one fighter, while demonstrating a weakness toward another. There really hadn’t been anything like it. 

Street Fighter II’: Champion Edition was wheeled out a year after, in 1992, and it addressed a variety of complaints. Finally, players could both pick the same fighter, allowing players to determine who the best Chun Li at an arcade was. And, even more notably, the four boss characters were playable. These were all great additions, but they were iterative changes to an outstanding template. Capcom has continued to revisit Street Fighter nearly 25 years after Street Fighter II was released, and each entry owns a debt to the game that truly established it as a powerhouse franchise.

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