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The never-ending appeal of Street Fighter


Woolie Madden’s lifelong obsession with “Street Fighter 2” was inevitable.

Growing up in a house with two brothers, five cousins and only one Super Nintendo console, nobody had any time for long, involved, book-length video games. And “Street Fighter 2” was the perfect quick-hit entertainment, with its 99-second rounds of one-on-one combat.

“We would go rent a game every weekend and our parents were like, ‘Well you’re going to rent something that’ll make everybody happy,’” said Madden, 37, who lives in Montreal and now competes professionally in various fighting games. The family would always pick “Street Fighter 2.” “If you wanted to play more, you have to get good. If you won, you stayed on the controller. That was just your best bet of getting to play more.”

The 1991 game was a pop cultural phenomenon that decade. “Street Fighter 2” cabinets filled not only arcades but billiard halls, bowling alleys, dive bars and laundromats with its bright colors. Since the game features stages from across the world, its trumpeting digital elephants from India and bongo beats from Brazil were as much a part of our collective soundtrack as Dr. Dre and Nirvana. It laid the foundation for modern professional video game competition.

As arcade machines fell out of favor at the turn of the century, devout Street Fighter players like Madden would take road trips or even flights to play each new sequel, much in the same way a Taylor Swift fan would cross state borders for a concert.

“It is the type of game that sees a dedicated following playing for the rest of their lives,” Madden said. “I’ll never forget going to Japan, walking up to [the Tokyo neighborhood] Akihabara, see a ‘Street Fighter 2’ machine with dudes in suits, middle-aged men, getting a few rounds in before they go back to the office.”

The series has culminated in “Street Fighter 6,” released earlier this month to critical and commercial success, boasting a million copies sold in the first weekend, plus positive word-of-mouth from the fighting game community’s biggest stars, such as Madden and Twitch streamer Maximillian Dood. In some ways, the new version epitomizes the reasons the series has endured, including its ever-updating game mechanics and its aesthetic roots in street culture and hip-hop.

Street Fighter has had its ups and downs. The third iteration barely made any money in the arcades, but in recent years has been recognized as the best fighting game ever made. In a 2004 match during the Evo tournament, Daigo Umehara made a surprise comeback against Justin Wong, parrying his hits with split-second timing — an ending known as “Evo Moment 37,” often called the greatest moment in competitive gaming history.

The fourth game introduced polished online play for the home consoles. The fifth game struggled again with lackluster features at launch, with a focus more on monetization schemes than its gameplay. But each game is typically updated and improved in the months after its release, with the developers sharpening the series fundamentals.

“The most appealing and important element are the unique and interesting characters,” said “Street Fighter 6” director Takayuki Nakayama of the series. “It’s the enjoyment of the individuality and worldview of each of the characters, and being able to experience the fun of versus fighting through various methods.”

Big, bold characters from different ethnicities and nationalities distinguished the series from other video games. Blanka was the green beast man from Brazil. Chun-Li was the femme fatale Hong Kong detective. Zangief was the Soviet-era pro wrestler who danced with Mikhail Gorbachev. The sixth installment adds new characters such as Manon, the French supermodel and judo master, and Kimberly, the African American ninja and tag artist. Every fighter has different fighting styles, such as kung fu, Muay Thai and capoeira. The series initially posed a question that players still ask each other three decades later: Who’s your “main?” Which character is the best avatar for your expression of aggression?

“Street Fighter requires you to be self reliant, completely understand who you’re fighting as, and against,” Madden said. “There are no other factors to consider except for the person you’re playing against, and the characters you’re both using.”

The game is credited with fueling the start of mixed martial arts as entertainment. The first UFC tournament in 1993 was pitched as a real-life version of a fighting game such as “Street Fighter 2” and “Mortal Kombat,” since its organizers wanted to distance themselves from the theatrics of pro wrestling. The Street Fighter series is now reciprocating by making its new main character, Luke, an MMA fighter.

“The change from 2D to 3D visuals [since “Street Fighter 4”] also makes it easier to convey grappling and throwing techniques,” Nakayama said. “Where these types of moves might look bland in a 2D setting, additional camera work helps make these types of grab and locking techniques more dynamic.”

“Street Fighter 6” now allows players to create their own fighter. Nakayama said the team also developed an alternate control system that’s simpler, to address the long-standing issue that fighting games are too complicated for most people. Now, instead of spinning the joystick around to throw a fireball, you could just press it forward while also pushing a single button. Plus, the “World Tour” mode features an original story where different Street Fighter characters train you in gradual steps.

“The important concept for us was to not force players upon a series of tutorials, but to provide an interesting experience where you happen to improve in the game simultaneously,” Nakayama said. “Rather than forcing all players to play ranked matches, we wanted to create an experience that would make them fall in love with ‘Street Fighter’ from a variety of perspectives.”

Like MMA, hip-hop music has had a two-way street of influence with fighting games over the decades, even as recently as this year’s “Princess Diana” by Ice Spice, which kicks off with a reference to Mortal Kombat.

Street culture has been part of the Street Fighter identity since the introductory screen of the first arcade game in 1987, which featured graffiti art on a brick wall. The soundtrack for the 1994 “Street Fighter” movie included Ice Cube, Nas, The Pharcyde and Chuck D. Today, Lil Wayne is the marketing face of “Street Fighter 6.”

L.A.-based rappers Randy Marx and Rocco808 wrote the new game’s theme song, “Not on the Sidelines,” and starred in its music video released last summer, alongside dancer Sumi Oshima and paraplegic graffiti artist Benny Diar. The song’s lyrics broadly talk about never giving up a fight.

Genta Jamal Hammani, the 28-year-old Hawaii-born rapper who goes by Rocco808, said his friend and music producer GRP reached out to him for a secret project in 2020.

“GRP texted me, ‘I need help,’ and I thought he was in trouble so I drove over to his studio right quick,” Hammani said. “Once I get there, the executive producer and GRP just told me we were going to be part of a very big project. They never told me what I was going to be a part of, so the writing process was super hard. They just said ‘fighting game,’ so I used the context clues of that. I couldn’t go too deep with it.” He only discovered what it was for last summer, when he and Marx flew to New York City to promote the video through a partnership with Rolling Stone magazine.

Growing up, Hammani would play “Street Fighter 2” at a mom-and-pop video game shop in Honolulu, so he’s also grown up with the series. “To be honest, I’m still pretty baffled to be a part of it.”

Marx, the other rapper on the SF6 theme song, whose real name is Randy Mark Irigoyen Jr., said the series’ street credibility shines because its creators choose to elevate independent artists like him. “The energy and vibes were right,” Irigoyen said. “I was graciously welcome by the team and praised for my contributions to the project. It has truly changed my life.”

Shuhei Matsumoto, the series producer, is responsible for the new game’s hip-hop aesthetic, as he’s a lifelong listener. He’s able to rattle off tracks from artists who have sampled the series, such as DJ Qbert, Kanye West, Metro Boomin and Future. Lyrics site Genius documented the game’s presence in rap verses throughout the decades, including Megan Thee Stallion’s “Got the moves like I’m Ryu, yellow diamonds Pikachu” in a freestyle performance in 2019.

Matsumoto said “Street Fighter 6” is a tribute to this three-decade-long feedback loop.

“I strongly believe that ‘Street Fighter’ is similar to hip-hop culture, evolving and respecting the past works and artists,” he said. “The game and this culture have been growing together.”

“Street Fighter 3” had the heaviest hip-hop presence, with composer Hideki Okugawa writing several tracks with jazz-infused beats that evoke the boom bap sound of A Tribe Called Quest. The series later moved away from the street aesthetic in the early 2000s, instead adopting an Japanese pop-inspired art style. Its return in “Street Fighter 6” has delighted fans.

“The decision to go back to hip-hop, to the street as the title implies, was the best thing they could have done,” Madden said. “In the arcade, it was that kind of environment, hanging out with people that listen to hip-hop. That whole vibe was very much a part of it. Even when Street Fighter wasn’t about hip-hop, hip-hop is always about Street Fighter.”


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