Requiem for the Coin-Op Arcade Multiplayer Can't Replace An Audience
Published Mar 26, 2009With a low roundhouse kick, a quick jump backwards and a little stick waggle, Ryu tosses his trademark hadōken fireball at the exposed thighs of Chun-Li, knocking the grande dame of Street Fighter IV to the ground. Ryu pumps his fist in victory as some random someone, somewhere in the world, curses into a headset.
It's gratifying(ish) but not nearly as much as it would've been in the early '90s, playing Street Fighter II in some seedy arcade, grubby quarters lined up along the game counter, a crowd of pimply-faced peers shouting encouragements and mockeries as they wait their turn to wipe that smile off my face.
Multiplayer may be a modern gaming watchword, but for all the technological whiz-bangery of Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, they're still as anonymous as a chat room compared to the in-your-face-offs of an old-school video arcade.
In deference to its retro pedigree - Street Fighter IV, for all its pretty pixels, cell-shaded character design and deep, detailed environments, is still a side-to-side 2D throwback - the series' long-awaited fourth iteration did debut in an arcade cabinet. But outside of Japan, or maybe a Chuck E Cheese, hardly anyone will play it anywhere but their couch. Gaming has simply moved on - and at the risk of sounding like Oldie Olderson, it's a cryin' shame.
For a good long while, arcades were the locus of youth culture, a place far away from adults' prying eyes, a place that wasn't a McDonalds or 7-11 parking lot, a place where the various teenage tribes could converge. To a degree, that is. The jean-jacketed burnouts always topped the arcade food chain. They were the dudes selling dime bags.
Not surprisingly, most parents hated arcades. Long before Columbine, games were being blamed for juvenile delinquency and if they worried when their little kids spent Sunday afternoons there en route home from the comic shop, they were scared shitless of the Friday and Saturday night crowds. Cigarette smoke, curse words and the stink of sweat and Clearasil mingled in the musty air with the incessant blare of arcade games, the bleeps and bloops, gunshots and revved engines. Arcades were a teenage wasteland, in the good sense, where you could get drunk or high, pick up or strike out and happily spend quarter after quarter after quarter.
There were plenty of solo games way back then - the coolest being that old sit-in Star Wars game that used minimalist vector graphics to recreate Luke's Death Star run - but arcades were largely about multiplayer.
Everyone's been making a fuss over the "new" co-op craze led by Left 4 Dead and Gears of War 2, but Gauntlet, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men pioneered four-person beat-em-ups decades ago. And the cooperative gameplay was a lot more fun with the other three players madly mashing buttons right there beside you. (Yes, I walked uphill, both ways, to school.)
But even they had nothing on the arcade fight club. Around 1991, Street Fighter II exploded onto the scene with enough force to spawn a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. The game's one-on-one, three-round battle royals would attract mass audiences and impromptu tournaments. SFII would go through countless upgrades - the best of which, SFII Turbo, got an HD download re-release last year - and eventually be usurped by Mortal Kombat, which infamously allowed you to rip out your opponent's spine, to the cheers of a bloodthirsty crowd.
But soon home consoles would become powerful enough to rival arcade games. Operators tried to survive going upscale, but these sprawling, heavily supervised arcades festered without the anarchic Lost Boys vibe that had made them so attractive to an entire generation. They, too, soon disappeared.
So Street Fighter may be back and as popular and addictive as ever - though I hear the new movie with that chick from Smallville as Chun-Li is even worse than JCVD's version - but removed from the rowdy arcades from which its cult was spawned, the game may never again boast the same visceral thrill of the kill.