A Quarter Century of Quarter Crunching.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time in arcades. Usually accompanied by my long-suffering grandmother, I'd run around playing all the games I could with my limited amount of tokens, which cost a quarter each. I was more concerned with quantity over quality: One token games were great, a two-token game was a reality I had to cope with, but machines that took 3-4 tokens were simply unacceptable.
Despite being a grumpy and furious lady for most of her life, Grandma was pretty good-natured about our arcade trips. I think she must have found the lights and sounds as dazzling as I did. I distinctly remember not being able to parse the font of a certain machine's logo, so I asked her to read it to me. She struggled for a bit before finally deciding "It says Waltz, but I don't see anybody dancing". We only uncovered the game's true identity as Cadash years later when I rented the Genesis version and saw it printed in the instruction manual. "Waltz" became something of a running in-joke between us after that.
I was six-years-old in 1991, when the phenomenon that was Street Fighter II started to sweep the nation. On one visit to our favorite arcade (the long-closed Fun Factory at Oak Park Mall), I saw that a few game had been removed from one wall to slot in a single cabinet with a giant screen, offset a few feet behind a podium that housed two sets of controls. Even though we'd arrived first thing in the morning when the arcade was usually barren, there was a group of at least ten kids crowded in front of the cabinet. I couldn't get near it but I could see the screen, thanks to its gigantic size. I immediately identified the game as Street Fighter II, recognizing the characters from overly-hyped game magazine articles.
I was interested to try it out, but there was no way I could get near it. I needed to stand on a padded stool to reach the controls on many of the standing arcade cabinets, and the rowdy boys crowding around Street Fighter were all much bigger and older than me, with more and more flooding in as the day went by. I was too intimidated to wait in line for a turn, so Grandma and I took my padded stool over to the lonely Neo Geo MVS Cabinet in a back corner, upon which I'd play Fatal Fury, only able to beat Duck King before getting trounced by every other CPU opponent. I thought, it couldn't have been that different, right? But the fact that nobody was crowded around Fatal Fury made it obvious that it was quite different indeed, for reasons I couldn't understand.
A year or so later, Street Fighter II Championship Edition finally got a Sega Genesis port, which my father brought home to me as a surprise gift one evening. I was thrilled, but I couldn't shake the intimidation that I felt in the crowded arcade. I had an unnatural fear of the CPU wiping the floor with me, so before I attempted to actually play the game, I systematically tried out every single character in VS mode against a non-existent second player. With the exception of E Honda's Hundred Hand Slap and Blanka's Electricity (both the same, simplistic move), I wasn't dexterous enough to pull off a single special move, but that didn't hamper my enjoyment of watching animations play out and observing how each character moved. Dhalsim's stretchy limbs were especially pleasing, and I loved how backgrounds would change as matches went on. The overflowing tub and heavy-breathing kabuki painting at E Honda's bath house cemented that stage my personal favorite.
Eventually, I started my first "real" game of Street Fighter II, going against the CPU as Guile, because he had the coolest hair. Although I had played on the easiest difficulty setting, my inability to use special moves would prove to be my downfall. I made quick work of sluggish bruisers like Zangief but quickly hit a roadblock when I came up against series' icon Ryu. CPU Ryu employed a dirty trick in which he would assault me with an endless barrage of hadoukens, spaced perfectly apart so I would get knocked down and hit again as I stood up to recover. Ryu was a fearsome (and cheap) opponent indeed, and I spent the afternoon trying to conquer him to no avail. The home version had no pause feature, so to this very day I don't know how my bladder held out.
Eventually I did beat Ryu, but it was another all-afternoon affair that saw me switching between every character in the game to defeat him. It was fairly smooth, if not slow, sailing after that. I'd only need to continue once or twice per opponent, and I was thankful that doing so in the comfort of my own home wouldn't cost me any tokens. It was a different story when I reached end boss M Bison, though. CPU Bison employed a similar tactic to Ryu before him, flying across the screen to catch me in a furious cycle of Psycho Crushers, draining my stamina and making quick work of me. Still unable to activate any special moves, I was forced to brute force my way through, learning animation patterns little by little, and observing when to attack and when to fall back. I'd slowly cherry tap at Bison while employing evasive maneuvers, but he'd usually get the better of me regardless.
Somehow I ended up beating Bison as well. I don't remember how, or with who, but I guess it was a combination of just how much time I spent against him, along with dumb luck. I jumped up and punched the air with a shout of triumph, but I didn't get a cool ending animation. I'd used too many continues, so my reward was nothing more than the word "Congratulations". It was anti-climactic to say the least. I shut the game off, went to relieve my bladder, and never played Street Fighter II single-player again.
I'm not sure if the lame ending that followed my hours of effort soured me on Street Fighter, but I was never very enthused by the series' future entries. Fighting games weren't exactly my bag, and playing them nowadays is a bit murderous for my carpal tunnel syndrome. When I do feel like playing one, I'm usually drawn to King of Fighters, because its roster includes many fashionable and effete men, with hair even more amazing than Guile.