If we consider the evolution of video games, it’s safe to say that early developers had little idea how profoundly their developmental choices would shape a generation of impressionable young minds. Consider the psychedelically tinged elements of gaming’s immortal Super Mario franchise (mushrooms make you grow!) or the gleeful gluttony of a limbed pink balloon named Kirby. Imaginative? Yes. Instructive? Depends how adroit you think one should be with a parasol, I suppose.
The completely logical argument here is that games aren’t supposed to be instructive; they’re supposed to be fun, and fun should be the prerogative no matter the age of the gamer. I largely agree with this, but my experience growing up with a controller in my hand showed me that when a game tried to express elements of the real, non-VG world within it, my nubile mind was opened to all sorts of profound misunderstandings.
Which brings us back to 1992, and to Street Fighter II.
This is the franchise that essentially birthed the fighter genre, and, as a young one, I had a special affinity for its second title. The one-on-one, power meter-based format brought a heightened dramatic tension to the gaming experience that was new to me, and the variety of characters and moves they could employ gave it a high replay value.
What may have been most notable to me, though, was that Street Fighter II’s characters came from different countries. As in, countries in the world, on Planet Earth. And when you fought each character, you would fight in a pixellated backdrop of your adversary’s home nation. It was the first game I really played that made such strong concessions to reality.
And let’s just say that I was more attuned to the intricacies of this game than I was to the lessons in my elementary school Geography textbooks.
So! Let us now go on a brief tour of the world together, as told by the places and faces of your favorite childhood button-masher.
(USA and Japan have been omitted, on the basis of the game’s dual-citizenship.)
It’s no accident that the dissolution of the Soviet Union is chronologically tied to a character who was continually pummeled whilst trying to perform a Spinning Pile Driver over and over (my left thumb aches at the memory). Such displays of overwhelming brute force have no place in a democracy-ruled era! And neither does bear-fighting, for that matter.
Sure, there’s such a thing as capoeira, a beautiful form of martial art that originated in Brazil in the 16th century and would eventually be represented in the Street Fighter series through one Elena. But first and foremost, you must know that the Amazonian rainforest is infested with magical eels that turn boys into green, mow-hawked conductors of deadly electrical currents. And that this makes complete sense with the overall character design of this game. Oh, and the mutated boys love chewing on your head.
This may the most concentrated combination of regional stereotypes in recorded history. Yes, there are temples and elephants and skinny contortionists and mystics and ritual face-paste in India. It’s true. So why shouldn’t you battle a teleporting Gumby-limbed Vaishnavite in a temple full of elephants? If only Dhalsim bore a little more of a resemblance to Gandhiji . . .
As opposed to most every other country in the world — which are revealed to not be worthy of this game’s title — people in China actually fight on the STREETS. Small children cheer on the bloodshed, bicyclists ride by with varying levels of interest, and a nameless man chokes the shit out of a chicken for the entire match. Say what you will about the other nations visited, but the developers got this one right. Plus: what well-placed skirts they make over there!
The question here is: Did the SF2 programmers know things the common man of the 1990’s didn’t? Was there actually a chain of underground booze-fueled cage matches in Spain where disenfranchised matadors sliced each other to death with metal claws? Was this an attempt to bring public consciousness to a nefarious practice? But the question that rises above all the others is: if Vega’s so damn attractive, why doesn’t he show us? And why do I want to see him so bad? And is he maybe a woman?
Because that would be awesome.
1. Both the people and the statues in Thailand are insanely large.
2. The idea of tigers is really inspiring to these folks.
3. You have to be very careful when you name characters.
The Street Fighter series has since filled in many of these strange gaps and fleshed out the fighters’ stories to make more sense when held up to fanboy scrutiny and other critical eyes. Note, for example, Blanka has been recast as a sort of Elephant Man character, mutated by an electrical-storm plane crash and fighting around the world because he feels his mother is ashamed of him. Furthermore, in the series’ latest installment — Super Street Fighter IV — the vast majority of the levels do indeed take place on streets, with civilians taking in the fight while sporting regional styles/behaviors and whatnot. (Don’t let the hydraulics on those whips in the background distract, kids!)
For my part, though, I’ll say this: The strange creative messiness of the early console cartridges held a certain charm that’s hard to find in this more polished era of gaming. For me, Street Fighter II represents that era’s effort to blend the slightest touch of realism into that trippy mix. Its amusing design choices towards that end only make me fonder for the days in which game designers had so much yet to learn, and I put the controller in my hand and gleefully learned little.
About the Author:
Drew is the guy who comes over and demands you play Mario Tennis with him. He is also a playwright, couch-surfing traveler, and sometime Internet-writer for such conglomerates as MTV Networks and Village Voice Media.
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