This is the third article in the series exploring the impact Way of the Exploding Fist on the Commodore 64 had on me, and the path it lead me down. Due to my dad’s interest in computing I’d had access to decent home computers as well as a big collection of games for years, and in 1987 he bought an Amiga 500 resulting in me being given the Commodore 64 all to myself, and then a couple of years later I was given the Amiga 500. Due to living in a seaside resort I had access to many arcades, but there was a problem I only had a tiny amount of pocket money. So when I visited the arcades with my mates I generally watched, preferring to save what little pocket money I had towards buying a new computer game. Fortunately for me whilst most of the arcade games were great I didn’t feel compelled to play them since I had so many great games at home.
The first arcade game I felt compelled to play was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT), even though it was just a variation on such classics as Double Dragon it was different, because it was TMNT! So that anomaly was understandable to me, since I was such a fan of the cartoon, but I was quite surprised to be hit by the virtual tsunami that was Street Fighter 2 (SF2) in 1991. The first Street Fighter (SF) looked okay in the arcades, I’d never played it and in retrospect it seems odd that I don’t recall anybody ever mentioning it at school. Amusingly the 8-bit version of SF on the Commodore 64 looked horrid.
After playing a few games of SF2 I was horrified to find out that somebody else could join in beat me and take over, since I had limited funds I was not keen on this design approach. I also quickly realised the financial implications of trying to figure out hidden moves. My paper-round money was already failing to cover my three main hobbies: computer games, tabletop role-playing, and wargaming, so I made the sensible but frustrating decision to watch other people play SF2, and like my days watching Way of the Exploding Fist, maybe I’d learn, but without the financial cost. I got to see some pretty spectacular players who’d said they spent quite a lot of money getting that good. Watching helped me develop a better understanding of the depth of the game, but it also gave me an appreciation of the calibre of opponents that could easily beat me. A few years later I’d finally get to play the game lots when a friend got SF2 for his Sega Mega Drive.
I had an appreciation of the diverse martial art styles that SF2 included, and although the game included mystical abilities it was cool see how they had integrated them into a characters martial arts style, enhancing them without commandeering them. Granted the plot of SF2 was extremely simple, but it didn’t matter as the playability was exceptional. A year later I was introduced to Mortal Kombat (MK), which was an impressive evening of watching a crowd of people challenge each other, it was a cool game. Personally I preferred the more in depth fighting in SF2, but I quickly became a fan of the MK universe; not that MK was an amazing story, but it seemed to have more to it, and in particular Outworld, it felt more fleshed out that SF2. Mentioning that SF 2 story is simple is a bit obvious, but the reason why I mention this is that a few years later this concept is flipped for me, when in 1994 a tabletop role-playing company called White Wolf released a role-playing game called Street Fighter (SFRPG).
At the time White Wolf was known for its flagship game Vampire: the Masquerade, one of many games set in the World of Darkness. In the various World Darkness games players could play characters with incredible powers, the games tried to focus on storytelling and role-playing, a character’s story was the priority not their powers; of course some groups focused on the power, not that there is anything innately wrong with that. So upon acquiring SFRPG I was not surprised to find that the designers had managed to lay the foundations for an interesting gaming world based off the simple SF2 story. Note, I am not claiming that White Wolf had written a masterpiece of world building, instead they had captured the essence of what had made the Street Fighter series so good. They managed to take the simple video game story that had great combat, and added enough depth without overwhelming players with a complicated history. Although a gaming group could do whatever they wanted the base focus of the game was all about a fighter’s journey to improve, set in a world of rampant crime and obscure mystics.
I was the Games Master (GM) for several groups, and I also chatted with several other gamers at my local gaming shop, overall I found that the most common response by players to this role-playing game was surprise. However, this was quickly followed by the realisation that there was something intriguing about M. Bison’s Shadoloo, the international criminal empire he ran, and just what he was up to. Crucially that despite avidly playing the computer games, none of us knew what was going on in the SF2 world. An important game mechanic was that characters used Chi to activate certain powers, they could gain Chi points back by making Honor rolls, and one player who was very mechanic obsessed suddenly became very intrigued when they realised that M Bison had no honour, therefore how could he regain Chi? Nearly every role player I spoke with was at least willing to give the game a go, and generally they quite enjoyed it.
Over the years I have run several SFRPG campaigns, all were fun and some were quite good. I think it is noteworthy to consider that the majority of people know little to nothing about martial arts in real life, and even those that do know some things tended to only trained for a few months of training. What is great is that SF2 had educated its players enough that they know what different styles roughly look like, as well as what sort of techniques are used; granted SF2 added fireballs and the like to the mix, but did so without ruining the martial arts. This SF2 education was an interesting bonus, as it generally affects their ability to role-play, and many SF2 player trying out SFRPG is pretty much a veteran when it came to describing their character’s attacks. The combat mechanics in the role-playing game were surprisingly effective (but not perfect). They allowed players to quickly learn how to play, and with the combat cards a bout could be carried out quite quickly, all in all very efficient just like SF2. Interestingly the combat mechanics had some key differences to the other World of Darkness games, a few years later an optional book was added to the World of Darkness beautifully entitled Combat.
Debates about tabletop role-playing game systems is a major part of that hobby, mechanics matter and add to that so much of what we know is from movies/games/books and not personal practice; conversations do tend to end up acknowledging that there is no perfect system. The designers of any role-playing system need to acknowledge the fact that truly simulating reality is far too complicated, never mind the fact that so much is not understood, therefore a game needs to be easy to understand, and usually quick to play whilst not sacrificing too much realism.
I personally found SFRPG to be overall good, unfortunately the expansion books for SFRPG seemed to ignore these crucial design complexities. The expansion books threw a ton of garbage into the game, whilst a few ideas had potential they were poorly designed. Worse, they added some extremely ridiculous techniques to the game that didn’t even really fit. The most famous is the: Cartwheel kick, in was so clearly broken it took most players only a few seconds to figure out that it was godly. This lack of playtesting really does stand out, and is a disgrace to the quality of SF2 combat. Fortunately all role-playing game mechanics can be altered by groups introducing house rules, and generally a good gaming group can run a good campaign despite any rubbish game mechanics or bad story/world design. Whilst I agree with these fixes, I personally prefer there to be as few problems as possible.
The SFRPG rulebooks were full colour, which was very unusual for that time. Although the books had a distinctive White Wolf design with the flavour text and story snippets, the layout of the SFRPG books were more exciting/dynamic looking than their other games. The artwork was mixed, whilst there were some good pieces, there were far too many awful ones; another disgraceful point due to the quality of artwork in SF 2.
At least character creation was quite straightforward, particularly for players familiar with other White Wolf games. Choosing a character’s special moves list was an interesting and fun part of the process, since it would be a major part of the character’s abilities and development. Interestingly the game encouraged players to shout out names for their moves, just like Hadoken in the computer game. Whilst not everybody chose to do this, nobody complained about it being silly, I put this down to the fact that SF 2 had taught players that this was a somewhat normal the thing to do.
Even after writing several of the negative points about the tabletop role-playing game I still think that overall the core SFRPG was brilliant, providing players with a great toolset to explore the intriguing world of SF2. Along with the animated movie it is nice to know that some game tie-ins aren’t complete garbage. Whilst there have been other good martial art role-playing games my players and I still fondly recall so many great Street Fighter gaming sessions, and occasionally there is talk of updating the mechanics playing it again. Ideally a really good computer RPG will be made set in the SF world, but I really doubt that will happen.
The Street Fighter series has millions of fans, but a few of us crave more than just the fights. We are also nostalgic about the espionage of the World Warrior circuit, rising up in rank, to more epic stories of training under Ryu, discovering new/lost techniques, and I suspect in a few cases usurping Bison to take over Shadoloo!