My enthusiasm for Street Fighter II never should have been.
This is a game that was popular in the arcades right around the time where I really didn’t have time for arcade games – during my college years. By the time it came out on consoles, I was a junior at Washington & Lee, strapped for cash and ostensibly without the extra money to afford the luxury of a console gaming habit.
Street Fighter II also rubbed me the wrong way. From what I understood about the arcade game, the controls were complex – a joystick and six buttons. There were a bunch of “secret moves” that needed to be learned across eight characters, all of which required sequences of joystick moves and button presses that produced attacks you would need to know in order to be any good. The learning curve was steep for a fighting game. I wrote it off due to the learning curve, but I also didn’t like this trend in fighting games where there were all these hidden moves that might not be discovered during normal gameplay. It struck me as just another exploitive way to get kids to pour quarters into arcade cabinets.
But holiday breaks home from school were what they were – boring. Christmas break was bookended with family get-togethers, but had a stretch in between where we had little to do but hang out with friends who were also in college and were home for the holidays. The break was too short to get a job, but long enough that my friends and I needed to kill some time.
I’d find myself hanging out with my friend John Allen. He had a Super Nintendo console he’d bring home with him from school when he was on breaks. We’d find ourselves in his basement a lot, playing console games as sort of a background to our banter about girls, bars, future plans – stuff like that.
Street Fighter II was a phenomenon in John Allen’s social circles at SUNY Binghamton. The game was so popular that Alpha Epsilon Pi, John Allen’s fraternity, had a regular habit of naming pledges after game characters. (How much would it suck to have all your fraternity brothers calling you “Zangief” for two semesters?)
So even though I didn’t like the game much, I started to learn it, just to kill time and hang out with my best friend.
And it hooked me. At first, it was an exercise in frustration. I’d try a move, foul up the execution, and want to launch the controller through John Allen’s TV screen.
But I did learn how to execute all of the game’s special moves: Ryu and Ken’s “Hadouken!” fireballs, dragon punches and whirlwind kicks, Guile’s flash kicks and Sonic Booms, Dhalsim’s Yoga Fire and Yoga Flame – all of them. Just out of pure boredom and time to kill.
Breaks during college were disorienting as hell. We’d come home from these environments where we were studying pretty intensely and partying in the spaces between, and then we’d be home with our parents, suddenly needing to hide our blossoming drinking habits from public view and having no studying to do. Amusing ourselves at the bars would cost money we didn’t have, and while we did our fair share of sneaking into bars hoping not to get carded, we were more likely to send one of our Over 21 friends to go get a case of beer and chill out in someone’s basement. I spent a lot of time on college breaks in John Allen’s basement. And thus, playing Street Fighter.
The end of junior year came, and I found myself home for the summer faced with the challenge of Filling the Tank. This was an annual ritual that involved structuring the summer so that I could extract maximum earning potential out of it. It sucked to be a college kid with no money. Aside from work/study and campus jobs, which paid sub-minimum wage, the real opportunity to recharge my bank account came from summer jobs.
Thankfully, I had the old standby of my job with my Dad’s sprinkler business. It wasn’t good for 7-day-a-week employment because the volume of work had slowed down. But on the days I could work, it was good for $100 a day. We’d start work at 8AM and if all went smoothly, be done by 2 or 3 PM.
The prior summer, I had worked a second job at Pergament, a now-defunct home improvement store. John Allen worked with me. That job had been a complete shitshow, and had wrapped up at the end of the prior August with my being placed in charge of Pergament’s plumbing department, despite being untrained. My boss having been led out of the store in handcuffs, courtesy of the Suffolk County Police Department and a domestic violence charge, may have had something to do with that. I had left that job on bad terms, due to the store manager’s inexplicable difficulty in digesting the fact that I didn’t want to quit college so I could work full-time at a home improvement store.
Pergament was out, Dad’s business was a bit slow, and I couldn’t find anything else to supplement my income that summer. So I just decided to take what I could get from the sprinkler business and get another job on campus when I returned in the Fall.
And that meant a lot of hanging out in John Allen’s basement playing Street Fighter.
By then, Street Fighter had been out a while, I had mastered many of the characters in the game, and it was time to master the less-popular characters – the sumo wrestler E. Honda and his slaps, Blanka and his rolling attacks and electric eel defense, Chun-Li’s and her aerial attacks. I got really good at the game and could even kick John Allen’s ass on occasion. All the while, we were bullshitting about summer romances, plans for school in the Fall, and how things would be different once we turned 21. (John Allen and I were born a week apart in August of 1972, and much of the summer rolled by before we were old enough to legally drink.)
A funny thing happened during that time period. While playing Street Fighter one day, John Allen wondered aloud whether he’d still be listening to Freestyle music – his favorite - in his 40s. At the age of 20, our vision of 40 was that it was the age our lives would basically be over, and we’d succumb to lameness forever.
“Why not?” I asked. “Your Dad still listens to Led Zep and disco.”
“So,” John Allen asked, “am I going to still be listening to George LeMond and TKA?”
“Shit. We’ll probably still be playing this game.”
After that embarrassing incident freshman year, followed by seeing all of my new friends at school playing consoles, it suddenly occurred to me. Maybe we will still be playing video games.
Through my teen years, I had always thought of video games as something I would outgrow one day, like Star Wars figures or Dungeons & Dragons. Video games were a toy that I’d eventually get tired of, or something I’d not have time for at some point.
But what if we were never supposed to outgrow video games? What if they grew with us?
That day in John Allen’s basement, I stopped treating these fun and challenging little distractions like toys, and I started thinking about them in a whole different way. And I’d stop being embarrassed by wanting to play a little Super Mario Bros. or Asteroids in my spare time.
As the threat of the return to school loomed in late August, I suddenly found myself really liking Street Fighter II but having no way to play. To my knowledge, nobody in my fraternity at school even had an SNES console. At the time, I thought that studies and my new duties at the Ring-tum Phi (our school newspaper) would keep me busy. And then I remembered that I wasn’t a very serious student, and yeah – there was plenty of time to kill between newspaper columns, tests and keg parties.
When I got back to school, I snagged an old TV from a friend, swung out to the Lexington, VA Wal-Mart and bought a Super Nintendo console. And the first game I played on it was Street Fighter II.
All the guys in my fraternity loved it. I’d frequently come back to the fraternity house from campus to find that they’d picked the lock on my door and were in my room playing against one another.
Yeah, this wasn’t something we were supposed to outgrow.