While the recent announcement of Street Fighter X Tekken was met with applause from legions of dedicated gamers who stuck with the series or many who returned with the revival of Street Fighter 4, as someone who fondly remembers spending countless hours at arcades in the late 1980s and feeding quarters "borrowed" from his mother's purse playing Street Fighter 2, I can't help, but to think somewhat cynically of this new partnership between two classic fighting franchises that in different era of video games didn't need this sort of gimmick to stand out. For me, it highlights how the series and genre no longer hold the iconic status of an entire generation of video games.
Inevitably, there are a multitude of reasons and factors that contributed to the rise and decline of the Street Fighter series from that iconic status, but the one that I find most fascinating relates to its connection to the martial arts and exactly what role did martial arts play in Street Fighter's success. Games that reach a level of mass popularity aren't just technically great games. There are plenty of technically great games that fail to capture the imagination of audiences and fail to make an impression in the marketplace. Games that become über-popular are often ones that tap into a greater collective subconscious and appeal to our most popular fantasies.
Take Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3) for example. Prior to GTA3's release, an entire generation of consumers had been exposed to films and TV shows like The Godfather, Pulp Fiction and The Sopranos that mythologized the behavior of gangsters and made the act of behaving badly look cool. The technical aspects of the game did it no favors. The gameplay of GTA3 was far from polished and the graphics were just plain ugly. What catapulted GTA3 into a cultural phenomenon was in large part because it tapped into our desire to act out those media-fueled criminal fantasies without fear of any legal repercussion.
Street Fighter II also found similar success due to Kung-Fu movies like Enter the Dragon and Blood Sport, which defined the aesthetic for which the game was based on. Such films usually revolve and culminate around some form of a martial arts tournament, but despite its predictability, this formula continually gets rehashed time and time again because as a society we are competitive by nature and value physical superiority. No one cares if you're the best in kickball or hopscotch. The most fundamental way to prove one's superiority over another is by way of a good ass-kicking (martial arts universally representing the highest levels of ass-kickery) and we're willing to pay good money to either participate or witness such contests.
When Street Fighter II was released in 1991, it was at the time, a near perfect synthesis of what we come to expect from a digital version of Blood Sport. Unlike the original Street Fighter, the cast of playable characters in the sequel was more vibrant and diverse. The action was also faster and more accessible, which meant more people could be their own Frank Dux and test their mettle against everyone in the neighborhood willing to lineup a quarter. Many players accepted this challenge and arcades flourished by devoting a majority of its floor space to the game to meet the demand.
So if Street Fighter II taps into our innate desire to prove our physical superiority, why did subsequent parts fail to achieve the same level of success? That in large part has to do with the changing perception of martial arts in society. We use our perception (not necessarily the practice) of the martial arts as the universally accepted vehicle/platform in which we prove our physical superiority against one another. But in 1993, a real-life PPV martial arts tournament dubbed the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) forever altered our perception of the martial arts.
The once ideal image of Hollywood-stars like Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal gave way to the image of an unassuming and scrawny-looking Royce Gracie, who used Brazilian Jiu Jitsu grappling and submission techniques to defeat larger men in the first four UFC tournaments. Those Brazilian Jujitsu techniques served as the foundation for the hybrid fighting techniques that would evolve into what's now known as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Overnight, traditional martial arts schools, that often perpetuated the cinematic stereotypes for profit, were forced to rethink the effectiveness and validity of their combat systems.
Despite rapid growth in popularity and revenue, the UFC and MMA have yet to achieve mainstream recognition, but that hasn't stymied its perception in pop-culture entertainment as the new de facto standard for what we now consider to be the pinnacle of martial arts. When people debate who the strongest and toughest fighter in the world is, no longer are matinee idols like Jackie Chan and Jet Li considered in the running. MMA fighters like Anderson Silva and George St. Pierre are more likely to be considered. In a recent interview on Letterman, even Sylvester Stallone acknowledged that none of the many action stars featured in The Expendables, including Steven Austin, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren and Sly himself, would be no match against the sole MMA practitioner in its cast, a 47 year-old Randy Couture.
Looking at the latest version of Street Fighter (Part IV), the martial arts in that game bares closer resemblance to the hyper-stylized fighting that you might see in the polarizing anime, Dragon Ball Z, rather then something that you might find in the UFC, there is a disconnect between the game and its subject. Street Fighter is ultimately a game about kicking and punching each other in the face and that is the foundation that players are able to relate to. When the game no longer represents the perception of fighting that is expected from players, then the game becomes meaningless as a competitive game of hopscotch.
Competition is a major motivating factor as to why so many people played Street Fighter, but that doesn't explain why Street Fighter II surpassed other two-player competitive games before it. What people compete in is also a large part of the equation that is often overlooked. Gamers need to feel connected to the content and gameplay in order for it to be considered worthwhile. Martial arts are the basis by which these games define their connection and value to the world and our lives. If players no longer feel like they are competing in something that at least resembles martial arts in their mind, then the connection is lost and they'll seek out other games that might satisfy their thirst for meaningful competition.
Would the Street Fighter series have remained consistently popular had it adapted its game mechanics to match the evolution of MMA? This is difficult to say because while UFC and MMA have forever changed our perception of the martial arts, it still hasn't achieved a level of mass acceptance that would result in instant popularity. More realism in fighting games may not be what consumers are craving for as even the latest game based on the UFC, UFC Undisputed 2010, has stumbled a bit in terms of sales. Ultimately the allure of a romanticized version of Blood Sport may have simply passed it's time as the world is now aware of what actual street fighting looks like and we know it doesn't involve fireballs and hurricane kicks.