Watching the Street Fighter II anime movie was perhaps the first time I truly understood what makes the series so beloved in the eyes of its most dedicated fans.
It’s easy to look at gameplay for Street Fighter and get a pretty good idea as to what to expect when you choose to pick up a controller and play it for the very first time. The core gameplay of the series as a 2D 1v1 fighter has remained remarkably unchanged ever since its late-80s debut. Watching just a few minutes of gameplay makes it very easy to understand what you have to do and how to play, and though you probably won’t be very good the first time you pick up a controller, it helps to give you enough of a grounding into how Street Fighter works that you can at least give it a try.
I was similarly inspired in the past, playing the series for the very first time during the Nintendo 3DS’s launch thanks to a portable release of Super Street Fighter IV. Admittedly this is not an ideal introduction to the series, but the game’s touch-based accessibility options ensured I had a decent introduction to the series and enjoyed my time with the game more than this unusual entry-point into the game (and indeed the genre) would suggest.
For all I enjoyed it, though, I still never came to embrace the series more broadly. Dipping into the series here and there since this time hasn’t changed that either, and in fact soured these early positive impressions; not because I wasn’t having fun, but because I never felt a connection to the game or became invested enough to want to put in the time required to master its complexities. It was fine, I guess, but I was unable to play at a high level, and I was never able to understand the intrinsic appeal that helped the game connect with people on a much deeper level. People would put thousands of hours into these titles, dedicated their careers to playing the game professionally. There has to be more to it for someone to dedicate their life to it in such a manner.
It was by watching Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie where I think I began to understand this deep connection that these most dedicated fans had for the series. More than any piece of media within the series, before or since its release, it was perhaps the best at portraying what Street Fighter meant to many, a feeling which went beyond the action shown on screen.
Adapting to the Big Screen
How do you create a movie based on a video game without a story? Street Fighter technically has a barebones plot underpinning its action (defeating opponents in order to win the fighting championship), but that plot isn’t one that would lead to a compelling film that took advantage of the new medium. Changes would be a necessity to create an enjoyable adaptation. This movie goes beyond what was ever capable or even desired within the original arcade and home console releases of Street Fighter II with a story far grander in scope and scale focused around the actions of multiple popular characters from the original game. The evil villain, M. Bison, was expanded upon, with the fighting tournament stripped away to replace it with an international investigative adventure that brings our characters together to go against a common enemy by the story’s eventual endpoint.
A plot such as this was simply not possible within the original game, while character development as shown within the movie was similarly not possible before. The personality of characters only hinted at through unique designs and their country of origin are fleshed out and allowed to flourish. All characters from the original release of Street Fighter II at least receive some recognition within the anime, while the story of the film chooses to predominantly focus on Ryu, Ken, Guile, Chun-Li and M. Bison. With these being the most popular characters from the arcades it makes sense to put them at the center of a film adapting the experience, and it’s the ways in which the movie elevates and expands upon these characters where the film is strongest.
There’s only so much you can do to showcase a character within the constraints of the fighting game genre in the early 90s. You can inject personality into a character through their design and fighting style to create a variety of unique characters, but it would have been difficult to go beyond that within the game itself at the time of release.
The movie gives these characters a voice and agency in the way they hadn’t before, exploring their motivations while further adding to their intrigue. M. Bison, for example, had always been a bit of a flat villain and endgame boss within single-player tournament fights within the original game. It’s understandable since there’s no way to explore his evil intent without breaking with the pacing of the arcade or home experience and distracting from the reason people chose to play the title in the first place (the gameplay). The issue is, without this, Bison isn’t all that intimidating. Other characters have a similar issue. Ryu, for all he holds a place as a poster child for the game, is rather basic in terms of fighting style and power which made him little more than a blank slate to project onto, with Ken his Americanised color palette swap with minor differences.
Within the Street Fighter II movie, this is explored in much greater depth, the anime taking small flavor text and designs and transforming it into more interesting takes on these characters. Seeing M. Bison’s base of operations and design in action here makes him a genuinely terrifying villain to come up against, his initial introduction onto the screen as he walks out of the shadows a tense introduction to the main villain who only becomes more intimidating as time goes on. Meanwhile, the rivalry between Ryu and Ken is explored in a way which only deepens their mutual respect, and makes viewers more invested in their rivalry because of it.
However, let’s not pretend that this movie is anything amazing. While certainly more in-depth than any media in the series before it, it’s still mainly present as an excuse for set-piece fighting sequences. The pacing slows to a crawl and the movie is less interesting as a whole when the story takes precedence over the animated battles. It leaves a movie that feels disjointed and lost at times, while animation outside of battle can feel frustratingly static, even when placed against other anime released at the same time. Meanwhile, certain scenes, such as a shower scene featuring Chun-Li featured in the original Japanese release and later uncut releases, feel like unnecessary fan-service additions that serve little use worth other than to act as eye-candy for heterosexual male viewers which objectifies and demeans her otherwise important and powerful role within the movie.
To solely discuss the contents of the movie only tells half of the story. What makes it so memorable, even today, especially in the eyes of long-time series fans, is the ways in which the movie effectively captures a moment in time, accurately representing the emotions of fans and the confidence of a Capcom development team handling a series at the height of its popularity.
Capturing a Mood
The Street Fighter II movie is memorable in part not just because the anime accurately depicted the series’ signature mood and tone within a new medium, but also because it’s a film that’s able to accurately recreate the mood which surrounded the series at the time of its release. The Street Fighter II anime movie effectively captures the excitement surrounding the franchise at this point in the early-to-mid 1990s. The original arcade experience, and by extension the various home-console ports it received in the years which followed, brought people together through its misleading simplicity which masked a technical experience worth mastering in order to defeat friends and strangers alike. The title created rivalries and turned arcades into battle arenas.
Street Fighter II saved the arcade, in many ways, bringing people back to the communal spaces when many were on the verge of closing. The home experience existed, but the true experience required you to venture out. Strangers would meet in arcades and bond over their experiences. Friendships, rivalries, storylines, Street Fighter (and its competitors which soon sprung up on the backs of its success) not only dominated but redefined the arcade.
For the Street Fighter II movie, the anime shines by not only bringing life and depth to the characters within it but capturing the emotions felt by its players outside of the pixels on the screen. Arcades that helped Street Fighter II to flourish and bring the series to the mainstream also formed a shared identity and solidarity with its patrons, and this is emulated in the movie through the anime’s approach to the material it is adapting. Arcades brought people of all classes and social backgrounds together, while the anime replicates this by creating a universal experience that tells a story representing this ideal. The movie tells a story where all these rivals and reluctant allies come together to defeat a common enemy in M. Bison, just like how strangers from all walks of life would meet within the same dingy arcades to take each other.
Thanks to Street Fighter, people came together, regardless of their personal upbringing, where they were from and who they were. You see this in the modern eSports scene for the series too, where people from all walks of life and all corners of the world compete on the highest level as millions of people watch on either in person or online. The reason why the Street Fighter II anime was able to connect with people in ways the Hollywood movie adaptation never could, not just because of the quality of the work itself, its strong animation or its characters, but for the way it was able to tell a story relatable to series players by representing their lived experiences with the game.
How Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie Captured a Moment in Time
The Street Fighter II movie was an anime made at the peak of the series’ popularity at a time, leading Capcom to take risks and expand brand recognition beyond the arcades and communities which defined it until that point. The Hollywood adaptation became a point of ridicule for many years and, even now, is still mostly remembered as a point of satire than for its creative merits. Far from perfect, the movie is remembered fondly thanks to how it told a story that represented the experiences people had with the game, not just the characters within them.
This month, as Otaquest seeks to look back on the Street Fighter series through interviews and recap coverage of the recent eSports event for the series, the Capcom Cup, the one constant in every personal anecdote on the series is how the community surrounding the games are just as important to understanding its appeal as the games themselves. While this movie may only be able to represent the emotions felt at the time of its release, the communities still found at places such as the MIKADO Game Center in Japan around these games even now are similar to those arcade communities formed in the early 1990s at the time the movie was released. The Street Fighter II Animated Movie is perhaps the only big-screen adaptation to truly understand this. Perhaps that is why this casual observer of the series was finally able to understand why the fighting game series is so beloved even after 3 decades in the public spotlight.