Press Start: A Cross Cultural Examination Via Influential Video Games (1984–1992)

The relationship between North America and Asia took on a new dimension with the rise of arcade fighting games & side scrolling beat ’em ups which oddly enough coincided with the inner city crime rate rising as the after effects of Reaganomics and the Crack epidemic plagued major cities in America. This is a breakdown of how the lens through which Asia viewed American culture (and vice versa) played out in the evolution of video games between 1984 and 1992.

In 1984, American urban culture made its way to the forefront in the guise of a fascinating youth culture/artform known as Hip Hop. There were several different elements or aspects of this culture such as DJ’ing (the media was most intrigued by the scratching of records), emceeing (often referred to as rapping), aerosol art/graf writing (usually just referred to as “grafitti” or “bombing”) and B-Boying (which the media termed “breakdancing”). There were several television shows and films showcasing Hip Hop and it was often used in commercials. Between 1984 and 1985 both Hollywood and Madison Avenue were intrigued with bits and pieces of individual elements of Hip Hop culture, but they didn’t quite understand it as a whole.

During this time period, young people loved many different aspects of popular culture such as cartoons, toys, video games, martial arts films and music. Many of the popular cartoons of the time period were imported from Asia (usually Japan). A great deal of the toys of the early 80’s were also Japanese in origin continuing the giant transforming robot craze that first erupted stateside in the late 70’s. Video games also usually made their way stateside from Asia before being translated or renamed/repackaged for a rabid fanbase of North American consumers. In addition, few things were more popular to young kids during the late 70’s through the mid 80’s as martial arts films were.

Whether it was Kung Fu, Karate or even Samurai films, anything Asian in origin was an instant watch. Although Kung Fu is Chinese and Karate and Samurai films were Japanese they were all watched dilingently in a pre-cable television world where kids relied on between 8–12 total channels on VHF & UHF. Back then VCR’s were also rare and video rental stores hadn’t become popular like they would during the late 80’s. Conversely, in Asia their views of American culture were shaped by images and films dating back to the late 70’s to the modern day.

In 1979, several films depicting gang culture and teen rebellion/angst made serious noise in America then overseas. Most notably, “The Warriors”, “The Wanderers”, “Boulevard Nights” and “Over The Edge”. Several North American major cities were financially strapped during the Reagan/Bush Administration and economic blight resulted in several cities never fully recovering post the riots of the late 60’s and White flight plus several plants and factories shutting down across the country. Crime rates went up and films such as 1981’s “Fort Apache, The Bronx” & “Escape From New York” and the 1982 film “Death Wish II” reflected an America where crime & gangs in America’s urban centers were out of control. For that reason, much of the American influence or references made in the realm of anime or video games during that time leaned towards stereotypical depictions of inner city America.

Hip Hop culture first made its way to Asia via promotional tours for “Wild Style” and “Style Wars” in 1983. Little did we know that these films and the prevailing urban culture of the time would inspire what video games were made and sold to America increasingly more and more over the following years. Since Americans were so enamored with martial arts, they’d surely flock to video games that featured them. Thus begins the age of fighting games and side scrolling beat ’em ups…

Karate Champ (1984)

Released in Summer 1984, “Karate Champ” became the first popular fighting game to ever emerge from arcades. It’s essentially a simulation of a regulated karate match using a scoring system (consisting of 1/2 points and whole points) with a judge fought in front of an TV audience or inside a dojo between two competitors, one in a red gi and the other in white. You could punch, kick, jump kick your way to a win. First competitor to score two points wins the match. Also, you could back flip…

Kung Fu Master (1984)

“Kung Fu Master” has the distinction of the first game that popularized the concept of the side scrolling beat ’em up. It was inspired by the concept behind Bruce Lee’s final film “Game Of Death” and incorporated numerous innovations that would become staples of the genre later on down the line such as the Life Gauge/Meter & the End Level Boss. Both “Karate Champ” and “Kung Fu Master” would inspire wave upon wave of copycat fighting games.

Karateka (PC)(1984)

An American college student named Jordan Mechner created one of the most influential games of the fighting game/side scrolling beat ’em up genre in “Karateka” after being inspired by both “Karate Champ” & “Kung Fu Master” in addition to Akira Kurosawa Samurai films. While the main character does run in one direction and fights opponents (or bosses of each stage), the innovation Jordan added was the Life Meter/Gauge for both competitors at the bottom of the screen. “Karateka” was also the first such title developed for Broderbund geared towards computer gamers as opposed to arcade gamers or those with home gaming systems like the Atari 2600 or the ColecoVision. Jordan Mechner later created another highly influential game called “Prince Of Persia”, but that is another story…

Urban Champion (1984)

Inspired the rough & tumble neighborhoods of America, Nintendo created a game for its Famicom game system where two guys brawl in close quarters throwing punch after punch while the competitor tries to block. You have a light punch & a hard punch with the potential to put your opponent on their ass. You fight outside on the street down by the corner in front of storefronts and residencies dodging flowerpots dropped from windows and occassionally even the police. The game works using a Stamina gauge that starts at 200 and the goal is to knock your opponent on his ass through 3 screens until they fall down a manhole and you get rewarded with a confetti shower. More on this later…

Yie-Ar Kung Fu (1985)

“Yie-Ar Kung Fu” is notable in the evolution of arcade fighting games and beat ’em ups because in this game the main character Oolong has a variety of moves but fights one opponent at a time. Both competitors have Life Meters/Gauges visible at the bottom of the screen. Oolong fights multiple characters with a variety of weapons, special moves and projectile attacks with various styles of fighting and speeds. If Oolong can overcome these 11 enemies he’ll earn the title “Grand Master”. The game also speeds up the closer you get to defeating your adversary. The combination of standing, leaping & crouching kicks and punches from both sides of the screen give Oolong 16 different possible strikes. Dodging projectiles, timing, learning your opponents pattern then waiting for an opening treated every stage like a Boss battle. Highly influential game to the evolution of the genre, no way around it.

The Way Of The Exploding Fist (PC) (1985)

In 1985, a programmer named Greg Barnett created a martial arts game using BASIC for the Commodore 64 for a company called Beam Software. It was titled “The Way Of The Exploding Fist”. The reason this game was so groundbreaking was because of the variety of evasive manuevers and attacks you could pull off with your joystick. If you tapped the fire button lightly, you could turn around 180º. You could do 16 different attacks like “Yie-Ar Kung Fu” but in “The Way Of The Exploding Fist”? You could do back flips and your blocks seemed way more substantial than in previous fighting games. Other than that? It was an amalgam of “Karate Champ” x “Yie-Ar Kung Fu” done with a twist involving a bonus round where you had to take out a charging bull with one hit/a special attack just like in “Karate Champ”. If you could pull that move off? You were the MAN. I played this on the Commodore 64 as a kid.

International Karate/World Karate Championship (PC) (1985/1986)

This game was created by a programmer named Archer MacLean and uses multiple elements of “Karate Champ” with the improved graphics & multiple backdrops of “The Way Of The Exploding Fist” with one key twist… The matches happened in a number of different real world locations. Landmarks from different cities all over the globe could be made out. This global fight stage idea would appear again in 1987’s “Street Fighter”. This game was so similar to the original “Karate Champ” that its creators Epyx were actually sued by Data East for copyright infringement. They spent years in court before it was decided while the games were similar they weren’t identical.

Renegade (1986)

This is yet another landmark game in the side scrolling beat ’em up/fighting game continuum. “Renegade” was heavily influenced by the 1979 film “The Warriors”, the first stage takes place in the subway just like much of the aforementioned film did. Difference is, there was no continuous scrolling in “Renegade”, you just dispatched of gang members & thugs using your numerous attacks. You could do running attacks, back kicks, grab your opponent & knee them repeatedly then throw them (this would be replicated in 1987’s “Double Dragon”). This new wrinkle was added since onscreen enemies took more than one hit to be taken out. Also, you could pin your adversary when they’re down and beat them some more. If you beat the End Level Boss before the time limit? You moved onto the next round until you beat a guy with a gun in a room of Black dudes with switchblades before you got your girlfriend back. Sounds pretty 80’s to me.

Urban Champion (1986)*

By the time “Urban Champion” was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System as its first “fighting game/beat ’em up” in 1986 it was so outdated, slow & repetitive that it was a low seller. “Urban Champion” is widely considered to be one of the worst games ever released in the long history of the console that singlehandedly saved the home gaming industry following the infamous Video Game Crash.

Pro Wrestling (1987)*

Whereas “Urban Champion” is one of the most derided games in the history of the NES, “Pro Wrestling” is one of the most beloved. It was the closest to a fighting game Nintendo had since their previous wrestling titles were godawful & “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!” which was released later that year didn’t really count. Learning the ins & outs of Fighter Hayabusa, Star Man & King Slender were crucial to beating this game. The Back Brain Kick is one of the most damaging attacks in “Pro Wrestling” & Great Puma is one of the most difficult final bosses to defeat in NES history. Hands down. Even when you use an NES Advantage or an NES Max controller.

Double Dragon (1987)

1987 is the most crucial year in the evolution of side scrolling beat ’em ups & fighting games for one key reason. This was the year a specialized culture began to emerge not from kids who played video games at home, frequented the arcade or both but the kids who came to the arcade specifically to play games of this nature/genre. These kids use to challenge other kids who did the same and they often formed crews. At the beginning of Summer 1987, “Double Dragon” was released and it became the game they all gravitated to as it was an updated version of 1986's “Renegade” which was still popular in arcades and hood sub/pizza shops at the time.

Whereas in “Renegade” there was limited scrolling, only one player could play at a time & when you beat an opponent with a weapon they just disappeared? You could scroll, climb ladders & jump down in “Double Dragon”. You could disarm your adversary (the elbow strike was an effective method), pick up their weapon then use it against them! Players lost their minds at this advancement. Also in two player mode you could grab an enemy while the other player beat them up. In “Renegade” you could be ganged up on this way. You each had a Life Meter/Gauge, 3 lives and a time limit to complete each stage.

At the end of the 4th stage, if Hammer & Spike/Billy & Jimmy Lee beat the final boss with his machine gun playing a 2 player co-op game they have to fight each other to finish the game & get Marian. That was pretty savage, it also further fueled the competition amongst gamers who frequented this cabinet. At the end of that Summer another monster game entered the arcade that upped the ante…

Street Fighter (1987)

In late August 1987, “Street Fighter” was introduced to arcades in North America. It featured one on one battles versus opponents in different parts of the world like in “World Karate Championships” but each opponent had a different fighting style & a specialized move set much like in “Yie-Ar Kung Fu”. Each fight was best of three rounds to advance and there was an Life Gauge/Meter with a time limit in place for each fight. There were 6 attack buttons, 3 a piece for punch & kick ranging from Jab/Medium/Fierce but there was yet another innovation added… If you did certain movements with the joystick in conjunction with pressing a particular button your character could pull off special attacks. Namely the Hadouken (Fireball), Shoryuken (Dragon Punch) & the Tatsumaki Senpu Kyaku (Hurricane Kick). This new element changed the game, both figuratively & literally. At least it did when it actually worked. Controls weren’t all that responsive back in 1987.

You were tasked with controlling either Ryu or Ken. You fought a total number of 10 competitors from 5 different countries, USA (Joe & Mike), Japan (Retsu & Geki), China (Lee & Gen), England (Birdie & Eagle) & Thailand (Adon & Sagat). “Street Fighter” probably had the best blocking technique of any other previous fighting game. To give you an idea of how much of a quantum leap both “Double Dragon” and “Street Fighter” were to the side scrolling beat ’em up/fighting game genre compare them to the Capcom fighting game “Avengers” that was introduced in February 1987 and was all but forgotten about by that Summer.

Shinobi (1987)

The 1987–88 school year was one for the ages, lemme tell ya. In November 1987, Sega’s “Shinobi” appeared in the arcade. “Shinobi” wasn’t neccesarily a fighting game, it was more of a platformer over 5 missions/stages that involved three action buttons: Jump, Attack & Ninja Magic. The main character had to dispatch of his enemies, save hostages & find power ups. Using shuriken, a katana blade or regular kicks you made your way through the game. The shuriken throwing bonus stage was fairly popular. “Shinobi” was notable because of its popularity & the fact and the next game denoted the popularity of ninjas and their emergence as game protagonists in this era.

The Ninja Warriors (1987)

This title was set in a not too distant dystopian future in an alternate reality where an evil dictator named Banglar has become President Of The United States & declared martial law in 1993. The US military has taken control of the major cities in the United States so a team of anarchist scientists led by a man named Mulk decide to unleash two android ninjas on Banglar’s soldiers & fight their way to the White House in order to murder the POTUS & blow up the White House. Each android had individualized combos & special attacks. They could backflip, throw shuriken and they walked fairly slow. The crouching attacks looked the coolest. This game was heavily influenced by 1984 film “The Terminator” and came out around the same time as 1987’s “RoboCop”. To say it captured the flavor of the times is an understatement.

The Crack Era x rise of gang culture and its role in the appeal of side scrolling beat ’em ups & fighting games amongst inner city kids circa 1987–1992

It’s no secret that the late 80’s and the early 90’s were a particularly dangerous and violent time to live in American inner cities. I grew up in the heart of Boston, it’s South End/Lower Roxbury neighborhood which was right next to Chinatown during the end of an era where it was called The Combat Zone. Boston is a densely populated small city of side streets and it was teeming with gangs fighting over petty disputes and drug corners during this time period.

The film “The Warriors” was so popular in Boston it was shown on WSBK’s TV 38 show “The Movie Loft” once a year. In Roxbury’s Mission Hill neighborhood a gang of kids dressed like the Baseball Furies every Halloween for years on end and terrorized folks.

I was part of the last generation of kids that got to fist fight then shake hands afterwards. By 1988, a fight could’ve escalate to getting jumped, getting stabbed then retaliation by way of a shooting. The run down neighborhoods and large gangs wearing similar gear rolling together fighting people I saw in arcade and cartridge based video games between 1987–1991 didn’t register as the stereotypical view of what’s happening in America from a world away to teenaged me. It more reflected the times we were living in. Back then, my friends and I had MANY a side scrolling beat ’em up experience in real life between these years. Did art imitate life or was life imitating art? I know how “Colors” (1988) affected my community once we saw it in theaters but can you imagine what it did to their views of America’s inner cites and the people who lived there overseas where they lack the full context to understand why these conditions exist in the first place?

NARC (1988)

The Crack Era was in full swing as was the so-called War On Drugs. Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign and Ronald Reagan’s anti drug measures which included celebrity involvement in the National Youth Anti-Drug Media campaign borne from 1988’s National Narcotics Leadership Act. “NARC” is a direct byproduct of America’s inner cities being ravaged by drug related violence and the need to spread an anti-drug message to the youth using the same hyperviolence borne of the popular culture of the late 80’s.

You play as one of two narcotics officers, Max Force or Hit Man… or both as you mow down drug dealers on urban streets and in drug dens with automatic weapons with unlimited ammo. This game is included because it perfectly reflects the year and time period for which Williams created it.

Vigilante (1988)

Irem’s “Vigilante” was essentially an amalgam of “Kung Fu Master” x “Renegade” x “Double Dragon” all in one. Your girlfriend gets kidnapped by a street gang (sounds familiar), you have to fight your way through multiple stages where gang members wield melee weapons and attack you relentlessly (old hat) until you beat an End Level Boss (again?). However, in “Vigilante” you only have a jumping punch, regular punch combo & a crouching punch then a jump kick, regular high kick & a crouching kick. No grappling. No knee attack & throw combo. You can only wield one weapon, nunchaku. Did I forget to mention you look kinda like Bruce Lee?

In “Vigilante” there are guys with chains, sticks & guns but you don’t have any special attacks. None whatsoever. This is a rare side scrolling beat ’em up where it’s straight forward but still great. The jump kicking guys on motorcycles from “Renegade” was a nice touch. I loved this game and the way it looked. Even without the extra bells & whistles it was an arcade favorite. Easiest End Level Bosses once you discover their patterns or the tricks to beat them, tho.

Ninja Gaiden (1988)

AH. “Ninja Gaiden”! This was a hugely popular arcade game at the beginning of the 1988–89 school year. It was a major draw because you had an 8 direction joystick next to three buttons, Grab, Attack & Jump. You could pull off interesting techniques like throwing the enemy, flipping, hanging from things above you and even walking on them. It was possible run up walls, backflip off them then hit enemies with three hit combos. Swinging your sword was almost secondary. The sideways split flip was something I’d never seen before. I couldn’t get that into “Ninja Gaiden” in the arcade because it was harder than copping a pair of Yeezy Boost 350’s on release day. It was yet another ninja game (which were hot at the time, the next game is proof of that)…

Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja (1988)

To further hammer home the popularity of ninjas in the late 80’s is a game where two street fighters from what I’d guess are the same gang (named Blade & Striker) are recruited by the Secret Service to save President Ronnie (Ronald Reagan) who’d been abducted by Dragon Ninja & his organization. This side scrolling beat ’em up included the innovation to charge up a special energized punch through channeling Chi as well as a spinning kick as a jumping attack. You have a lot of star throwing ninjas attacking you that can be taken out with one hit. The available weapons to pick up & use against enemies include knives/sais and nunchakus. This was also a popular machine in the arcade between 1988–89, we totally missed Ronald Reagan subliminally trying to appeal to young people. Which brings us to 1989…

1989’s unique role in the evolution of gaming culture x the exchange of Asian & American cultural influence

What made 1989 a watershed year in regards to gaming culture in respects to mostly Japanese companies developing games inspired by American urban and pop cultures for consumption both in Asia and America is this was the year anime and manga began to first gain traction stateside. A combination of several factors I’ve previously covered (and broken down in detail) in my December 2014 piece “Tetsuo & Adulthood: The Influence Of “Akira” 25 Years Later” led to American kids becoming the first generation of otakus, anime nerds/snobs and manga geeks.

While Asia was always fascinated with urban American culture, kids in North America became increasingly more interested in Japanese urban culture/pop culture in addition to Asia’s other metropolitan areas and urban centers more and more between 1989 and 1991. AnimEgo, Central Park Media/US Manga Corps & Viz Media LLC in association with Epic Comics’ “Akira” run were to thank for arcade games like the “Area 88” inspired “U.N. Squadron” to be released stateside in 1989. During this time, American high school & college aged kids were reading Eclipse/Viz translated copies of Masamune Shirow’s “Appleseed” in the comic book store. This is when the cultural exchange between Asia & North America began to finally stop being one sided. And don’t you forget it like Glenn Lewis…

Crime Fighters (1989)

By Spring 1989, arcades were required to have this message visible while arcade cabinets were on Attract Mode per the US government. Konami released a 4 player side scrolling beat ’em up inspired the arcade hit games “Gauntlet” (1985) and “Quartet” (1986) implementing the innovations they utilized in their hit 1988 wrestling sim “The Main Event”. The game was called “Crime Fighters” and it (of course) starts off in the subway then a bombed/tagged up train. Four identical characters had the option of hitting a fellow player to pick up their weapon/item then using it themselves. Since there were so many characters on the screen at once, the characters are rather small. While it IS possible to beat this game alone it was clearly made to be played with at least 2 people much like “Gauntlet”, “Quartet” or 1989’s “Cadash”.

Street Smart (1989)

The late 80’s were the era of Jean Claude Van Damme films such as “Blood Sport”, “Black Eagle” (w/Sho Kosugi), “Cyborg” & “Kickboxer” so SNK decided to throw its hat into the proverbial ring with a “Street Fighter” meets “Double Dragon” style one on one fighting tournament game titled “Street Smart”. This is one of the first arcade games where I ever saw the phenomenon later called “air juggling” occur. The game play was around two available fighters the martial artist in a gi (fake ass Ryu) or a blonde wrestler/brawler (fake ass Ken). “Street Smart” is a notable fighting game to the burgeoning community because it was a certified button masher just like “Bad Dudes” was with only a hint of strategy involved for beating certain challengers. Due to that, oftentimes people just picked up the game & played it without prior knowledge of what buttons did exactly what. Lack of a plot or innovative controls/attacks aside, it was far more entertaining and had more replay value than lesser regarded 1989 arcade fighting games like “Violence Fight”.

TMNT: The Arcade Game (1989)

Where previous 4 player arcade fighting games like Konami’s “The Main Event” and “Crime Fighters” pioneered, they innovated in the controls, graphics and game design for 1989’s arcade smash “TMNT: The Arcade Game”. Using the Jump + Attack button allowed for special attacks and the Turtles could throw enemies using their weapons. They could also jump then using the joystick, execute directional attacks in mid air. They game didn’t lag even when 4 people played at once which was quite new considering the size of the characters on screen. The graphics were amazing and at the time “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” were especially huge in the Boston area due to the fact they started out a local creation nurtured by New England Comics in the mid to late 80’s before becoming a syndicated TV cartoon series and a toy line. Also, it was so much better than the godawful NES game a gang of people went out and bought that Summer

Final Fight (1989)

The difference with “Final Fight” vs. the typical beat ’em up/fighting game was each enemy on screen also had a Life Meter/Energy Bar, if you pressed the attack button repeatedly you automatically performed a combo and all you needed to do to grab or grapple an opponent was to make contact with them, eliminating the need for a grab/throw action button. There were weapons and power ups revealed to be hidden throughout the game’s 6 stages. You had the option between the quick martial artist Guy, the balanced fighter Cody & the massive Haggar who had a wrestling style. Oddly enough? Haggar was a former street fighter turned newly elected Mayor of crime ridden Metro City. Bigger coincidence? The Mad Gear Gang kidnaps his daughter whose boyfriend is a street fighter who has a best friend who just happens to be a ninja.

Oh… And the game happens “in the 90's” which was a reference to how the general public was already convinced the 90’s would be crime ridden based on the previous 10–15 years far before social scientists of the early to mid 90’s spoke of “super predators” or “hyper crime”. Also this game dropped at the end of 1989 so it made sense to set it in the near future…

River City Ransom (1989/1990)*

“River City Ransom” might possibly be the most influential NES game to the evolution of the sideways scrolling beat ’em up/fighting genre. You kick, punch, throw, block, use enemy weapons, buy power ups from storefronts, restaurants & malls that give you key skills and techniques to beat various gang leaders and End Level Bosses. The manner in which you have to criss cross enemy turf was more like a platformer than a side scrolling beat ’em up or fighting game with set stages. The coolest thing is when Ryan & Alex fight Billy & Jimmy Lee AKA Hammer & Spike, The (Double) Dragon Twins before reaching the End Level Boss Slick in River City High on the way to save Ryan’s girlfriend Cyndi. “River City Ransom” was a must own NES title through out the early to mid 90’s leading up to the 5th generation of home video game consoles.

The Combatribes (1990)

By Summer 1990, Technos Japan were regarded as leaders, innovators and experts in terms of developing hit arcade beat ’em ups. They brought the world “Renegade” and “Double Dragon” plus they ported the NES game “River City Ransom” over from Japan at the top of the year. How would they follow them up? With the brutal game “The Combatribes”, that’s how. You can choose from one of three powerful gang warlords to lay waste to a multitude of attackers with. You can smash two enemy’s heads into each other. You can swing them around and toss them. You can body slam your opponents. You can straight run them over. You lift heavy objects & toss them at people. When the enemy was down you could smash their faces into the ground to finish them! The controls were extremely responsive which appealed to both strategic/sophisticated beat ’em up fans and well as button mashers. Extremely fun with anywhere from one to three players.

Pit-Fighter (1990)

By comparison? Atari’s “Pit-Fighter” lacked the creativity, move sets, graphics, replayability, polish or fun factor of 85% of beat ’em ups and fighting games of the the late 80’s but it was an arcade hit none the less. Its look using real life models for the characters and the brutality bonuses prepared people for when it they’d be used in future games like 1992's “Mortal Kombat” but I always considered the success of this game a mystery since it was mediocre as hell.

Fatal Fury: King Of Fighters (1991)

The SNK Neo Geo was a high priced 4th generation gaming console that was a status symbol for South End/Lower Roxbury/Chinatown drug dealers to own. This was further fueled by my neighborhood arcade Teddy Bear Arcade having a Neo Geo cabinet. The first quality fighting game released for the Neo Geo that everyone can agree on is “Fatal Fury”. Terry Bogard filled the Ryu AND Ken role in this game but his brother Andy and their best friend Joe Higashi, a Japanese Muay Thai fighter are selectable players as well. This was a must have game for Neo Geo owners as well as an alternative when other popular games were occupied. Especially the last game on this list which it had quite a bit in common with…

Spider-Man: The Videogame (1991)

This is one of the best efforts Sega produced in the early 90’s without a doubt. Marvel’s resurgance in 1991 was headed by young talent such as Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane & Erik Larsen plus veterans like Fabian Nicieza. Sega’s Spider-Man game was gorgeous with bring colors inspired by comic book art. It was also a 4 player game with Namor, The Sub Mariner, Hawkeye of The Avengers & Black Cat as playable characters, adding to the fun factor significantly. This beat ’em up x button masher x platformer starring Marvel characters couldn’t come at a more perfect time, the birth of the modern fanboy/fangirl years before they’d have something to even call themselves. Thanks Kevin Smith!

Vendetta (1991)

“Vendetta” was essentially a sequel to Konami’s 1989 game “Crime Fighters” with improved specialized move sets for all 4 combatants, had much better graphics and was far more enjoyable to play than other 1991 beat ’em ups like SNK’s early Neo Geo titles Sengoku” or “Ninja Combat”. Kicking an opponent when they’re down is a necessity in this game. So is finding an End Level Boss’ attack pattern down so you can constantly attack if at all possible. Why is this necessary? Because after you “beat” the game you have to fight EVERYONE ALL OVER AGAIN in order to really beat it. This game allows you the usage of a shotgun on certain stages. I mean, DAMN! Splatting people against the wall after hitting them with the bat was clearly inspired by a cross between The Warriors fight scene vs. The Punks in the subway station bathroom x 1988 arcade hit “Splatterhouse”.

The urban decay and grafitti in this game is extremely memorable. On the 5th stage you see references to graf crew Partners In Crime, a BLADE tag, references to the (in)famous “Grafitti Died” piece, a reference to the legendary “Hand Of Doom” train plus The Death Squad graf crew. Only real heads caught those references in 1991, it was clear that those early tours of Japan to promote “Wild Style”, “Style Wars” & “Beat Street” really stuck with them.

I most often saw this game played with Blood (the Black guy) or Boomer (the martial artist). Back then, if a game had a Black playable character? It was getting burn (i.e. Bullova from “The Combatribes” or the unnamed Black guy that’s Player 2 in 1988 Capcom arcade classic “Forgotten Worlds”). Representation matters… Which is why always having to save a woman in distress got hella old by 1991 seeing as how so many girl gamers were active joystick jockeys both at the arcade & at home gaming on 3rd or 4th generation systems. Speaking of which…

Streets Of Rage (1991) **

If 1990’s super popular NES port of the Famicom’s Kunio game “River City Ransom” is considered the most influential NES only game in the entire beat ’em up/fighting game continuum? “Streets Of Rage” holds that same distinction except for the Sega Genesis. It stood out because it had both a woman as a playable character (Blaze) and a Black dude (Adam). Adam joined Blood from “Vendetta” and Bullova from “The Combatribes” as Black playable characters. I think there was another option in “Violence Fight” but NO ONE was trying to play that bish in the arcade.

Why was “Streets Of Rage” so important? Aside from the innovative attacks, the fact was it introduced a younger generation of kids to the beat ’em up genre who had yet to venture to arcades. In addition, it was accepted by hardcore arcade gamers even as a Genesis cartridge which was extremely hard to do at the time.

Street Fighter II (1991)

What can be said about “Street Fighter II” that hasn’t already been said before? It is the fighting game that not only consolidated the already steadily growing beat ’em up & fighting game communities but also created an alternate specialized culture related to just one on one fighting games. Players began to focus on these games after “Street Fighter II” rather than lumping beat ’em ups and fighting games into the same category more or less. People began to practice playing JUST “Street Fighter II” and “Fatal Fury” in order to challenge each other in arcade tournaments. Once “Street Fighter II” made it to SNES in Summer 1992, it spread even more as younger kids and casual gamers were introduced to it.

Art Of Fighting (1992)

“Art Of Fighting” served as a prequel series to “Fatal Fury”. It was set somewhere between the late 70’s to the early 80’s in South Town involving characters that set the stage for the events in “Fatal Fury”. The special attacks and desperation attacks made this game stand out from the competition. Seeing Ryo kick off his sandals before each match was also iconic although nothing came close to “Street Fighter II” in terms of resonating with fighting game fans. John is a fake ass Guile…

World Heroes (1992)

This Alpha Denshi x SNK Neo Geo classic fighting game appeared in arcades after “Street Fighter II: Championship Edition” had amassed a cult of players in arcades all across the nation. While so many people were focused on SF II, there were younger kids and those who couldn’t get next on that cabinet which as reserved for advanced players who gravitated towards “World Heroes” on the SNK Neo Geo. Far and away, everyone’s favorite character was Kim Dragon the Bruce Lee clone. No other usable characters were nearly as memorable.

X-Men: The Arcade Game (1992)

Konami swung for the fences with one of the most ambitious video game cabinets ever devised. There were three different versions built, a 2 player cabinet, 4 player machine and a mammoth 6 player version that boasted two 25" screens put side by side in order to accomodate all of the characters on one huge monitor. You could play with X-Men Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Storm, Dazzler, Colossus and Wolverine… Or all of them simultaneously depending on which cabinet your particular arcade had. The game utilized a regular attack button, a jump button to execute a jump attack and a third button to use a mutant power that could take out a bunch of enemies but take 3 points off of your life meter. Good looking game, fun to play but quite repetitive.

Mortal Kombat (1992)

When “Mortal Kombat” appeared in arcades in Fall 1992, the school year was already underway and we were approaching the holiday season and Winter months. This game became a breakout sensation that further packed arcades and generated a disgusting amount of revenue for Bally/Midway. It sold close to 25K cabinets and made so much money arcade workers sometimes had to empty the machines every 2 to 4 hours because the coinboxes might overload. The gory fatalities, sprites made up of real actors doing motion capture and the unique characters like Liu Kang, Sub Zero, Scorpion, Raiden, Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade, Kano, Shang Tsung & the four armed Goro really pushed this game over the top.

Everyone was trying to figure out how to fight Reptile, it was before the Internet so he was sort of an urban legend until it was discovered exactly what you had to do to unlock that pit fight. It required a double flawless victory (“Perfection Is The Key”) and a fatality (“Fatality Is The Key”) in a match where you never pressed the block button (“Blocking Will Get You Nowhere”) after a match where a silhouette goes past the moon (“Look To La Luna”) in one of the stages. This occurence only happened every 6th playthrough in the arcade supposedly. Imagine us all trying to figure out how to fight Reptile using these Ghost Writer ass clues?

Streets Of Rage 2 (1992)

“Streets Of Rage 2” would actually go on to surpass the original in every way imaginable after its release in December 1992 (SKATE!). This was one of the most iconic, fun to play, dynamic fighting games of the era which a plethora of options, special attacks, power ups and playable characters with incredible music & effects. What’s even more insane is it was made for a home console and took twice or even triple the amount of time to beat than your average arcade fighting game did. Imagine preferring to play your Sega Genesis at home during the Winter than trek to your local arcade? Fact of the matter is the fourth generation of home gaming consoles hadn’t really managed to significantly cut into arcade profits. However, beginning in 1993 the fifth generation of gaming systems would pretty much bury the arcade in North America by the mid to late 90's.

The fighting game culture grew by leaps and bounds then exploded following the release of fighting games like “Samurai Shodown” (1993), “Virtua Fighter” (1993), “King Of Fighters ’94” (1994), “Tekken” (1994), “Darkstalkers” (1994), “Killer Instinct” (1994) and “Soul Edge” (1995) amongst others in following years but it all started with the release of “Street Fighter II” & Street Fighter II: Championship Edition” (1992). While “Street Fighter II” sold an impressive 60K cabinets it was the refixed Championship Edition that moved more than double that amount so their combined sales reached 200K. Capcom caked up off the strength of Ryu, Ken & the nonexistant Sheng Long.

“Street Fighter II” would become the game that galvanized a community & ultimately the one that both North American and Japanese die hards & experts would play each other in gaming tournaments for years to follow as competitive professional gaming became increasingly more acceptable into the mid to late 90's. Once the Internet was introduced, everything had come full circle. Now if you’d like to relive this era of fighting game innovation all you have to do is download MAME, a gaming system emulator or cop games via the Virtual Console or the handheld device of your choosing. The future is the past and the past is the future.

*Nintendo/NES/Famicom cartridge **Sega Genesis/Mega Drive cartridge

Dart Adams just felt the need to take a full month to write about whatever subject came to mind without wondering if he could explain it well enough to an editor to pitch it somewhere else. Oftentimes, doing something solely for the purpose of receiving compensation stunts your creative process.

Had I tried to sell a 6000+ word piece about the relationship between inner city kids who consumed pop Asian culture which was inspired by American urban & pop culture and the correlation between the two as it related to popular video games spanning 1984 to 1992 before I even knew what the angle was it would’ve been a nightmare & I would’ve been told to pare it down & narrow the focus. Which is why i just said “Fuck it” and wrote it anyways. Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude, after all…

Want more from CineNation?

Subscribe, Like, and Follow us on iTunes, Facebook, Twitter, and Flipboard