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How Street Fighter 2 Shaped The Console Wars

In the contentious console war between Nintendo and Sega’s 16-bit systems, most of the attention was focused on the elements that the two warring factions directly controlled: the hardware and first-party games, and especially the dueling mascots, Mario and Sonic. But third-party support varied wildly at the time, with entire series like Final Fantasy pledging loyalty to just one of the two major competitors. And there was hardly any single game that made a bigger impact than Street Fighter 2. Today marks the 30th anniversary of the first Street Fighter 2 home release on the Super NES–a move that would shape the console competition, and the industry, for years to come.

It’s hard to overstate how massive a hit Street Fighter 2 was when it first hit arcades. By 1991, coin-operated arcades were starting to dim, falling short of the heyday of the golden age of arcades in the 1980s. The arrival of Street Fighter 2 heralded a revitalization of the arcade industry, driving foot traffic to arcades and attracting countless imitators. It quickly created a burgeoning competitive scene, with each arcade community knowing its own top players and others placing their quarters on the edge of the box to challenge the champs. It also, not surprisingly, dominated the cash flowing into the arcade business. David Snook, editor of the arcade trade magazine Coin Slot, estimated that Street Fighter 2 accounted for around 60% of the total coin-op market in a 1993 edition of the UK magazine Mega. Street Fighter 2 was one of the biggest games ever made in a genre with few rivals.

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At the time, an arcade-faithful port seemed like a pipe dream. Players had become accustomed to arcade machines far outpacing the power of home consoles. Home ports of arcade games on the Nintendo Entertainment System were often slightly compromised or even just rebuilt from scratch to fit the system specs. The Super NES had released near The World Warriors in 1991 with relatively impressive specs, but nothing on the system looked quite like Street Fighter’s screen-filling sprite artwork. The occasional console game that matched its arcade counterparts was the exception, not the rule. Fans at the time had every reason to presume that any Street Fighter 2 port would be compromised at best.

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The Genesis controller, by comparison, only had three buttons by default. More than any issues with the software itself, this made for an extremely awkward compromise, forcing players to hit a separate button to toggle between punches and kicks. The toggle was mapped to the Start button, which had the odd side-effect of removing the ability to pause when playing with a 3-button controller. Needless to say, this was not ideal. Foreseeing this problem, Sega released its six-button controller. This removed the awkwardness from Street Fighter, and was even closer to a traditional arcade stick since it had no shoulder buttons. It also served as the controller of choice for players of other games like Mortal Kombat and Streets of Rage. But it also represented another accessory purchase to get the full experience. And if you wanted to beat up your younger sibling–in the game, of course–you’d have to buy two.

As the years passed, the Street Fighter 2 phenomenon faded, but Capcom had one more trick up its sleeve. Another, final version of Street Fighter 2 released in 1994. Super Street Fighter 2: The New Challengers was to be the definitive version of the game. It included four entirely new fighters: T. Hawk, Dee Jay, Cammy, and Fei Long. The classic fighters got new moves that would ultimately become iconic character traits, like Ryu’s flaming hadouken and Ken’s flaming shoryuken. Stages and portraits were given a facelift, and it introduced a scoring system to track elements like combos and recoveries. All of the fighters had a much larger variety of color schemes, and it brought back the speed options from Turbo. It also finally included a detailed animated opening like the arcade original–though instead of two nameless men punching each other, it was Ryu firing a hadouken straight at the screen.

This time, Genesis wasn’t left behind. Capcom developed and released the two versions simultaneously, and even produced its own six-button controller for consistency across platforms. Though fans say the audio quality on Genesis was lacking compared to its SNES counterpart, the two were roughly an even match.

Sega still did very well for itself in the 16-bit generation, especially in North America (which accounted for almost half of its total lifetime sales), no doubt thanks to the Genesis’ image as the “cool” system with attitude. It gained a respectable amount of market share against Nintendo compared to their competition in the 8-bit console wars. But by 1994, when Super Street Fighter 2 released, Sega had lost significant ground thanks to a steady stream of acclaimed releases on SNES, including but not limited to Street Fighter. Sega arguably fractured its market with add-ons like the Sega CD and 32X, while Nintendo just kept putting out first-party software buoyed by third-party support. By the end of the generation, Nintendo had sold 49 million Super NES systems to Sega’s 29 million Genesis units, worldwide.

It’s impossible to say what may have happened if the Sega Genesis version of Street Fighter 2 hadn’t come more than a year after the Super NES version, and without significant compromises to its graphics and control scheme. But it is safe to say that this disparity contributed to Sega’s troubles. Without Street Fighter 2’s much-stronger showing on Super NES, Sega may have been a closer match for Nintendo’s sales, or even surpassed them. It may have made different decisions in the intervening years. It might even still be a console manufacturer. In the bitter rivalry between Nintendo and Sega in the mid-’90s, it may have been Capcom who threw the fiercest punch.

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