Nostalgic Nintendo Switch owners got a treat this month thanks to Capcom’s Ultra Street Fighters II: The Final Challenges, a retro release timed to coincide with the series’ 30th anniversary. Three decades ago, the original Street Fighter was unleashed into arcades. But the real landmark was in 1991, when Street Fighter II was born.
Although Capcom has released several ports of these original games on older systems, the Switch version feels true to the original in all the right ways. You can switch between the original but still-attractive graphics or a beautifully-upgraded HD overhaul. The gameplay feels perfectly responsive either way. For those waxing over the halcyon days of the arcade, this is a great port.
Of course, Capcom didn’t invent the fighting game–we’d been playing Karate Champ and SNK’s original Fatal Fury for years before Street Fighter–but they did make it a sensation. Few remember that first Street Fighter as anything but a minor curiosity. Depending on your arcade, it was either a radically new six-button fighter with terrible, sluggish controls leading to a punishing level of frustration or it has two giant squishy buttons that, supposedly (if they actually worked) measured the pressure of your button smash to dictate between the game’s light, medium and strong attacks.
It didn’t matter which version you played. The original was an awful game with some great ideas. Those great ideas culminated several years later with the iconic Street Fighter II: the World Warriors. If you never got into fighting games, it might be hard to understand the massive tsunami wave the game sent through the industry. This will help: Street Fighter II had made over $1.5 billion by 1993. Home versions for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis sold in excess of 14 million copies.
Street Fighter II created a phenomenon that would guide not just the direction of Capcom for the next decade but also spawn a whole cadre of scrappers looking to cash in on the multi-billion dollar category. Looking back, it’s almost funny just how hard Capcom held onto this one game. Over the next several years, the company would release numerous upgraded iterations of Street Fighter II while carefully maintaining the core tenets of the game.
There was Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, where you could play as the four boss characters. SFII Turbo: Hyper Fighting sped up the action, among other minor updates. Super Street Fighter II: the New Challengers added more characters and a graphic overhaul. They even created a Turbo version of Super SFII after that, which is the version on which this new Ultra Street Fighter II is actually based. A running joke at the time went that Capcom pretty much only made Street Fighter II games.
But Capcom wasn’t entirely resting on their laurels. They were actively taking that same winning Street Fighter II formula and adapting it to other characters, ranging from the wonderfully bizarre horror-themed Darkstalkers to Marvel Comics with X-Men: Children of the Atom and then Marvel Super Heroes (both of which sucked up my quarters like a vacuum cleaner). In 1995, they actually took Street Fighter in a slightly new direction with Street Fighter Alpha, a sharp and slick fighter using better arcade hardware to introduce a whole new set of fighters that existed outside the story of the original game. Sharply influenced by anime style, Alpha wowed gamers with better graphics and deeper mechanics.
Capcom would try all kinds of things to keep the series relevant through the 90s, from Street Fighter EX–their first (but only semi-successful) attempt to bring the series into the realm of 3D to compete with Tekken and Virtua Fighter–to licensed cross-over titles like Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter. An amazing amount of these games ended up only available to home markets in Japan, which broke the import gamer market wide open. Diehard fans learned that, unlike the original Sony PlayStation, the ill-fated Sega Saturn system could run arcade-perfect ports of Capcom’s releases with a memory upgrade cartridge. Despite their popularity, neither the games nor the cartridge were ever officially released in America.
It wouldn’t be until 1997 that a true sequel to Street Fighter II was released. Street Fighter III: the Next Generation was gorgeous, complex, and hampered by the impossible standards set by the earlier games. It would also mark the downward trend of mainstream popularity of fighters. Capcom released several different iterations of SFIII and even sequels right up to 2010 but fighting games had become just a tiny niche in a market dominated by open world action titles. There were still plenty of them around from a horde of mostly Japanese companies, but that magical explosion of the original Street Fighter II would never be matched.
As home console machines finally outpaced arcade hardware, arcades–always the first home of Capcom fighters–began to die a slow death. An entire era of gaming died with them. Fighting games are nothing more than a curiosity for most gamers but a thriving professional scene proves there are plenty of people who still love the simple joys of beating the crap out of strangers with animated martials arts masters.
Capcom is still pumping out fighters, of course. Street Fighter IV (2008) and the recent V (2016) are fully 3D with gorgeous HD graphics and pulse-pounding action but there’s an undeniable joy in playing that original groundbreaking game. While the Switch controllers can’t match the feel of an arcade stick, Ultra Street Fighter II brings those feelings back with aplomb.