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Arcade Gaming in the early to mid 90's

Old Skool Gamers - The REAL Bad Asses!

By Billy Pitt

Arcade Gaming in the 1990's

The years 1991 - 1995 have come to be known by today's fighting game crowd as the old skool gaming era. For those of us who were there from the very start of the one-on-one street fighter gaming genre, most of today's fighting games just come up short. Modern day gamers can't seem to grasp the concept that people used to actually play games in 2 dimensions! (And still do for that matter) But for old skool purists, there simply is no 3rd dimension in the world of video games. Truth is that although most of today's fighting games center around a 3-D playfield arena, the gameplay is still very much 2-D at heart.

1991 - 1992 Street Fighter 2 - the trendsetter

Were not here to split hairs guys. Obviously there was a first chapter to Street Fighter. But the roots of the fighting game craze truly began with part 2. The first game did not really encourage the excitement (nor the revenues) of the competition element. It is that single most important factor that made this genre what it is today. Furthermore some historian purists will argue that the concept itself existed long before...Karate Champ, Yeir Kung Fu, and other similar titles. But Street Fighter 2 simply put it all together properly and threw it all out there at just the right time. The game was quite an amazing achievement. Never before had a game given us so many reasons to keep playing. As a single player game, it gave us 8 characters to choose from, each with their own individual game ending story. It also gave us 3 bonus stages and 4 bosses. And as a two-player game, the endless challenge of competing with other human opponents never seemed to grow old. This game always kept us coming back for more!

In the late seventies to early eighties, all that mattered in the video gaming world was the "high score". Achieving the high score, and in some cases placing your initials in a game, were what drew the attention and spotlight at the game rooms. Then, in the late eighties the focus shifted...the "side scrolling beat em up" was the run away hit with gamers and operators alike. Double Dragon racked in the quarters week after week. Soon after it became a formula for guaranteed success... toss a fighting engine, a popular theme, and an ending goal requiring lots of coins to reach into a blender, and the end product would yield positive results. Over & over again we saw this genre recycled through all the manufacturers. Konami (crime fighters, the teenage mutant ninja turtles, the Simpson's) Capcom (final fight, the punisher) Sega (Golden Axe) SNK (Burning Fight, Mutation Nation, Sengoku) etc.

Eventually people simply got tired of beating up on a seemingly endless barrage of enemies in these me-too games. The glitz was beginning to fizzle out. Both gamers and operators were looking for something new. And that's when it finally happened... like a shot through the arm of the arcade gaming industry...we got street fighter 2.

Gamers were engulfed in a "who's got the bigger dick" competition, which took, place every night and every weekend at these machines all across the country. Some battles would reach levels of intensity that would simply defy explanation. Real life fighting would sometimes take place as a result of a disgruntled players unchecked anger! And guys would drool at the sight of ANY female player with her hands on the joystick of a street fighter machine. Things were not always this serious of course, most of us enjoyed the sharing of tips and tricks such as "special moves" & "combos" which thoroughly enhanced the gameplay and more importantly the "show" for the spectators watching the on screen fight. In fact it is this particular characteristic that made the formula so successful. Sometimes the crowd of spectators at game rooms would grow so big, that operators would enforce "watching game rules" at their locations! It was also not uncommon to see "slave monitors" being utilized for the really popular games in order to maintain both breathing room for the players, and satisfaction for the curious onlookers.

The gamers also thrived on this "spotlight" as well. This is a formula that has and always will "draw in business". The spotlight gives the player a boost of confidence (or arrogance in some cases) the likes of which could be compared to a piece of their 15 minutes. The spectator crowd which forms then peaks the curiosity of passerby's, many of which in turn decide that they simply must give it a shot as well. This all then serves to make the location a hang out, the game a legend, and the operator a very rich man!

As a side note, we have seen this "spotlight phenomenon" many times before. It is usually most notable in the cases of games that require particularly fast reflexes or skills which in turn impress those watching. Games like Dragon's Lair, R-Type, Killer Instinct, and Dance Dance Revolution had this exact effect on spectators. A unique set of circumstances where it is almost more fun to watch the game then it is to play the game!

1993's Mortal Kombat 2 - the perfect game

Of course after the tremendous success of Street Fighter, the manufacturers soon began their rinse & repeat cloning: Data East had Fighter's History, Konami had Martial Champion, Strata had Time Killers & Blood Storm, Namco had Knuckle Heads, Sammy had Survival Arts, etc. While SNK managed to become well known for exploiting this genre with several successful ideas, the most notable and successful individual clone by far was Mortal Kombat. And again, just like with Street Fighter, MK's "greatness" was not truly recognized nor achieved until Mortal Kombat 2. Ask ANY serious old skool MK player what THE best fighter in the series was, and they will always say MK2. Mortal Kombat's main draw was not just the blood & violence (although that did help tremendously with its popularity) but rather it was the concept of the "ending move". The fact that it was a fatal death (fatality) was again somewhat inconsequential. This ending feature gave players more of a "victory" feeling when they won a match and also gave the onlookers some great eye candy. MK2 was also the last (and perhaps greatest) game that relied on a player's own abilities to put together combination attacks for increased damage and game play superiority. Last but not least, with so many hidden secrets and codes, it made players frantic. Players would spend hours on end parting the cash from their wallets trying to figure out these codes and secrets. The game simply never got boring!

1994's Killer Instinct - you know you liked to watch!

By the end of 1993 the direction of these games was beginning to change. Software companies realized that they had to come up with new concepts and ideas to keep the games interesting or they would suffer the same fate with this fighting genre as they did with the double dragon-fighting genre. While Capcom and SNK did have some innovative concepts and new ideas from one game to the next, they pretty much relied on the "sequel" approach. Adding another chapter to existing hits was a sure thing and so they went with it until the bitter end.

Killer Instinct was in essence the crossing point for the gaming community. Although it appeared to be a 3 dimensional game, it still functioned as a 2 dimensional game. The game utilized a hard drive as well to be able to handle the large amount of memory that it required running the graphics & sound. The game had full screen / full motion individual characters dossiers, cinema intermissions, and game endings. It introduced a crazy combo system, a multitude of ending moves, and more secrets then could be imagined. Many people actually became addicted to just watching others play the game rather then playing it themselves!

1995 - What Happened?

While Capcom & SNK were able to play psychology games on their audiences by selectively choosing how to name the continuing chapters of their games, other manufacturers were not so careful. Games like Mortal Kombat 3 & Killer Instinct 2 were more the subject of ridicule then praise. However other companies did set their own mark through extreme innovations which pretty much laid the path for where modern day fighting games are today.

Sega and Namco decided to go all out "3-D". Their Virtua Fighter & Tekken titles introduced gamers to a more involved and realistic environment. Some of us were drawn by it, others were not, and that is pretty much where the dividing line was formed between the old skool gamers and the mainstream fighting game fans. Those who didn't or couldn't make the jump to 3-D stayed with Capcom or SNK for their gaming outlets. The rest of the gamers, which was in essence the majority, went down the path of 3-D.

By the end of 1996 things turned sour, and the allure of fighting games no longer brought the same level of excitement & satisfaction that it used to bring for some gamers. 3-d gaming had taken over, and the old skool gamers were left behind. By the time Capcom finally did learn to count to three, much of the gaming crowd had thinned out and moved on. The new games were targeted at other demographics. Capcom's versus series became the new staple of 2-D fighting games.

Some of us learned to play these new games and continued down the path they were headed. An endless array of chapter after chapter of the same old thing in a new package was the way things went. It became another joke…Capcom versus anyone with a chip on their shoulder! Others simply walked away from the scene when it ceased to be even a shadowy reflection of what it once was.

Today the SNK NEO-GEO and CAPCOM CPS-2 "systems" provide the majority of the 2-D fighting game titles that made the nineties old skool era what it was. These two companies by far have provided us with more games in that genre then all of the other manufacturers combined. So in a way, these games continue to live on in the homes of us old skool gamers who cherish the Neo-Geo's and Super Gun's on which we play them on. Most of us also own an arcade cabinet or two to help create that long lost game room feeling in our own homes!