Capcom & SNK: Best Frienemies
It is almost impossible to overstate Street Fighter II’s influence over the gaming world, arcades in particular, in the early 1990s. In just about every arcade the world over, gamers flocked around the cabinet – some to try their hand, others to simply watch the local experts make light work of all challengers.
A good part of the appeal and lasting success of the game, in my opinion anyway, was twofold. The first was that it made the act of gaming in the arcade a legitimate competitive event in a way that had been only hinted toward prior. Becoming good at the game equated to legitimate bragging rights. In a strange way a successful bout in the game became akin to an alleyway brawl or winning a backroads drag race on a Friday night. Neighborhoods, schools, blocks or even in-game characters could all be represented competitively without any real risk of violence.
Secondly, the learning curve was steep enough to where presentation, in addition to simply winning or losing, was a factor. The addition of elusive combinations to unleash powerful and visually stunning special moves (don’t forget this was before the internet) made being good a very exclusive club. Mortal Kombat, it could be argued, took this concept to the next level with Fatalities. Unlike some of the SFII cabinets, which actually had basic moves integrated into the artwork, MK took an even more secretive and complicated path to special movedom. These were games that thrived on rumor, magazine scrutiny, and the careful study of those able to make it happen in dimly lit arcades.
Time and again we witness Street Fighter II’s influence over the field but how did Capcom manage to do everything right? Surprisingly enough, they weren’t alone but it is a story seldom told now. Never told then. It begins with the original Street Fighter, which was released in 1987 and centers on the name Takashi Nishiyama. Many of what have since become one-on-one fighting game standards are in fact miscredited as Street Fighter II innovations but let us start at the beginning.
So omnipresent and viral was Street Fighter II’s arcade presence upon release by middle 1991 that many gamers began to question whether or not the game was a sequel at all. In fact, rumors began to circulate that the stylized “II” in the logo was chosen for effect and that there has never been a Street Fighter I.
There was indeed an original. Street Fighter, designed by Takashi Nishiyama and Hiroshi Matsumoto, appeared in arcades in 1987. In it, the player takes on the role of martial artist Ryu, who competes in a global fighting tournament spanning five countries and 10 opponents.
A second player has the ability to join in the action as American martial arts rival, Ken. At his disposal, the player had three punch and kick attacks (each varying in speed and strength) with either character and three special attacks: Hadouken (fireball), Shoryuken (flaming uppercut), and Tatsumaki Senpu Kyaku (spinning aerial kick). Each of these powerful attacks was performed by executing joystick and button combinations. A second player entering the game did not allow both characters to advance through story mode together but instead interrupted the first player’s progress to a one-on-one match that would determine who got to continue playing.
The game arrived to arcades in two cabinet options – a standard stick and 6-buttons on each side (one for each player) and a touch sensitive version with rubber coated sensors that required players to literally hit in determining the strength of their attack.
Though nowhere near as popular as the sequel that would follow 4-years later, Street Fighter did receive many home console and computer ports (sometimes renamed to Fighting Street) and ultimately established many of the conventions that would eventually become standard in one-on-one fighting games; 6-button control schemes, combination special moves, best two out of three match format etc.
This would probably be the end of the story but a strange split occurred shortly after the first Street Fighter’s release that makes tracing SFII’s success a bit less cut and dry than expected. It begins with Takashi Nishiyama and Hiroshi Matsumoto leaving Capcom after having developed the original game and landing at SNK. There they continued developing and refining the concepts of the game they had created at Capcom.
Capcom, meanwhile, had intentions of continuing on in the Street Fighter franchise on their own but not in the way we’ve since come to expect. In fact their next entry into the fold was going to do away with the one-on-one fighting aspect altogether and instead become a belt-scrolling beat ‘em up in the tradition of Double Dragon.
They completed this game in 1989 and, running on CP system board hardware and decked out in its fancy new cabinet for presentation at arcade trade shows that same year, the name of the game was Street Fighter ‘89.
However, arcade managers were quick to note that this new “Street Fighter” had very little in common with the original and Capcom was quick to rename the title so as to keep the two franchises distinct. The new name it was given was Final Fight and development of a genuine Street Fighter sequel would again be shelved.
In the meantime Takashi Nishiyama and Hiroshi Matsumoto, now at SNK, were working on a bigger, better Street Fighter to capitalize on increasingly powerful arcade hardware. They wished to retain as many of the traits that made their original title appealing (combo move special attacks, a global scale with fighters from all over the world, two out of three falls matches and so on) but had to leave all of the licensed elements of the original they created with Capcom.
Rather than two playable characters, their new game would have three and they would fight against eight computer-controlled opponents. When a second player joins in, this time, they would have the option of either playing cooperatively with player 1 against the CPU or competitively against each other. This game would be known as Fatal Fury and contrary to common misconception, it was developed simultaneously as Street Fighter II and released within months of Capcom’s official sequel to arcades in 1991.
The plot of Fatal Fury centers on a martial arts tournament known as the “King of Fighters”, held in the fictional American city of South Town and sponsored by known crime boss Geese Howard. Ten years prior to the event, Geese murdered a rival martial artist named Jeff Bogard. Now, Jeff’s adopted sons, Terry and Andy, along with their friend Joe Higashi, enter the tournament in the hopes of battling their way up to and getting revenge on Geese.
When comparing Street Fighter II: The World Warrior with Fatal Fury: King of the Fighters, it’s remarkable how similar the two finished products ended up being despite the fact that they shared no common development teams, or, for that matter, even knew about the other’s development.
One of the major differences between the two stems from Fatal Fury’s two-lane battle model. Unlike SFII, whereby battles are fought entirely on a single 2D plane, Fatal Fury features both a background and a foreground row. Players have the ability to “jump” between rows at any time except when battling against the computer, in which case the CPU essentially determines when it’s time to move into one lane or the other by moving its character there first.
The second difference stems from Fatal Fury’s attempt at simplifying the control scheme compared to that of the original Street Fighter. Rather than 6-attack buttons (high, medium and low punch and high, medium and low kick), Fatal Fury uses only three attack buttons: punch, kick and throw.
Still, there were combination moves aplenty. There were even characters with uncanny similarities – one need only look at Balrog and Michael Max to conclude that while they didn’t realize it, the two companies were thinking along the same lines when developing what each deemed the successor to the original Street Fighter.
Running on SNK’s Neo Geo MVS hardware, Fatal Fury shared arcade space in 1991 in countless locations with, and was largely overshadowed by, Street Fighter II. It did, however, still earn attention. So much so that within a year, SNK would release an entire sequel game by 1992 along with another fighting game developed by the other gentleman who had worked on the original Street Fighter (and is credited with coming up with the famous Hadouken); Hiroshi Matsumoto. His title would be called Art of Fighting.
Art of Fighting also ran on the Neo Geo MVS arcade hardware and could often be found inside cabinets containing both it as well as Fatal Fury. Art of Fighting took many of Fatal Fury’s attractions and added with them a unique scaling function during the onscreen action to help distinguish it from the quickly-flooding genre.
Interestingly, the game is set in the same fictional universe as serves as a prequel to the Fatal Fury series. Players here have two basic attacks (punch and kick) as well as a utility button that switches between punches, kicks, and throws. A fourth button is used for taunting. Taunting was used to charge a meter that allowed for more powerful special attacks.
The game follows a pair of students from the Kyokugen Karate Dojo, Ryo Sakazaki and Robert Garcia, in 1978. Ryo is the son of the Kyokugen (translated to “Extreme”) Karate discipline’s creator, Takuma Sakazaki, and Robert is the wayward son of a billionaire family from Italy. The game is technically documenting the rise of Fatal Fury’s Geese Howard from corrupt police commissioner to crime boss of Southtown.
While all of this was going on, ADK & SNK were developing another one-on-one title, World Heroes; whereby a time traveling Doc Brown (no DeLorean, though) organizes a tournament for various fighters throughout all of history to square off against one another. As such many of the fighters on the roster are based on actual historical figures. The game was released in July of 1992 – right alongside Fatal Fury 2 and Art of Fighting; again often sharing an arcade cabinet with its brethren.
The early to mid 1990s will be forever remembered for birthing the one-on-one 2D fighting game and while a majority of the credit goes to Capcom for Street Fighter II: The World Warrior and Midway for Mortal Kombat, the truth of the matter is SNK built an entire empire of fighters (to date over 60 of them and counting) thanks to two individuals who never stopped tweaking their Street Fighter vision.
Nishiyama and Matsumoto would eventually bring their two SNK fighting franchises together in 1994 with a new series called King Of Fighters. This mashup, which allowed for team dynamics, would go on to become SNK’s flagship fighting franchise. In fact it took a chapter out of many traditional sports games books by coming out with annual updates adding new fighters to the roster and game mechanics to keep things fresh.
Then five years later a new type of mashup would manifest, one that saw the two longtime rival companies set aside their collective differences on a collaboration that was nothing shy of a fighting game aficionado’s dream: SNK Vs. Capcom (and Capcom Vs SNK; the first company in the title denoting the company behind the game’s development). The series pitted rosters from both company franchises in a battle royale’ for ultimate bragging rights.
Sadly SNK would file bankruptcy in 2000 while Nishiyama and Matsumoto would found an independent development studio they called Dimps. The ultimate coming full circle moment would then occur for the two men who had started it all when Capcom hired Dimps to do development work on Street Fighter IV and V.
As for SNK – new life has been breathed into the brand on account of the global resurgence of retro mini classic edition console interest. After producing the successful Neo Geo Mini in July of 2018 to commemorate the company’s 40th year anniversary, they followed it up with the Arcade Stick Pro in November 2019 and have announced plans for a third modular mini Neo Geo console at the time of this article’s writing.