I loved arcades growing up. From the 1980s into most of 1990s, the arcades provided gaming experiences that you just couldn’t get at home. The graphics were better and the sound was superior. The joysticks, steering wheels, and guns made it an experience like no other. One thing console games did have over arcade games was how they were made to have greater longevity than arcade games. The notion behind arcades games was to give you a shortened, condensed experience for each quarter you were spending. So a role-playing game like Final Fantasy would have never fit the arcade model.
Street Fighter II‘s heyday in the arcade was insanity. Where I lived, the game brought more people to arcades than any other game I had ever seen. There were lines of people waiting to play the game, which sometimes made playing through it as a single player impossible. How many times was I interrupted when someone came up next to me on the Player 2 side, inserted a quarter, and then treated me to the message, “Here Comes a New Challenger?” Too many times to count. Some people were so serious about the game that they brought 3×5 cards with them to the arcade that had all of the directional and button inputs for special moves. Then the original Mortal Kombat was released and the arcades were just jam-packed. It was the place to be with a wide assortment of games ready to relieve you of your coins.
So what happened? And why do I believe the very game that caused the boost in attendance at arcades worldwide was also responsible for its decline? The answer is that as long as Street Fighter II and its counterparts (Street Fighter II Champion Edition, Street Fighter II Turbo Edition, Street Fighter II Special Edition) remained in the arcades, then business would have stayed booming. If those types of games were always arcade exclusives, I don’t believe we would had seen old school arcades weakening and losing money as rapidly as they did. The same could be said for games such as Mortal Kombat and its sequels.
One year after its arcade release in 1991, Street Fighter II was brought to home consoles. The ability to legitimately play the most popular arcade games at home began with the ports that came to the SEGA Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System. I use the word “legitimately” because arcade games being ported to home consoles started well before the 16-bit era. But I can remember those games (i.e. Popeye and Pac-Man on the Atari 2600, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Arch Rivals on the original NES) could not come anywhere close to reproducing the graphical and audio fidelity of their arcade counterparts. Once the 16-bit era arrived with its enhancements in graphics and audio capabilities, things started to change.
While the home versions gave the Street Fighter II brand more exposure than ever before, it inevitably led to gamers asking for the first time if they would rather leave the house and constantly spend money on their favorite games in an arcade or pay for them once and play it as long as they desired and exactly how they wanted to play it. Once I had games like Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, and all of the NEO GEO arcade classics on my SNES, I no longer saw the need to continue going to the arcade to play those games. This became even more apparent with arcade ports on the original Playstation such as Tekken, San Francisco Rush, and The King of Fighters. SEGA Saturn and SEGA Dreamcast had many fantastic arcade ports. But I remember the home ports of Street Fighter II being the start of the “play arcade games at home” trend.
Unfortunately for arcades, the tide turned with the 16-bit systems. Gaming companies recognized the potential money that could be made by focusing on home consoles rather than arcade units. So the attention and the money went to the consoles. It was a wise decision. When Street Fighter II released for the Genesis and SNES, we started seeing that technology gap closing. By the time we hit the era of SEGA Dreamcast and Playstation 2, we were seeing what was referred to as either “near perfect” or “perfect” arcade ports. Today, most gamers don’t even think about arcades because we are now gaming at resolutions of 4K and 8K from our sofas. Although, there is a movement going on where people are buying arcade cabinets. That’s a topic for another post.
It’s amazing that in my lifetime, we went from arcade games being a step up to what we had at home to arcade games now being looked at as retro gaming or something we would find in a Dave and Busters. And I stand by the opinion that Street Fighter II’s home release had much to do with it.