Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Savor Summer with Final Street Fighter II

The second the weather is anything but subzero, my mind fills with images of Super Mario, Nintendo Power, and Sega Genesis.

Summer once meant endless hours to obsess over video games, from playing and reading about them in magazines, to designing levels and original game concepts by hand. One summer I plunked down $150 on back issues of the Sonic the Hedgehog comic series, planted my ass on the floor, and absorbed hundreds of pages of Blue Blur lore. Another summer I nuked my way through an entire 1,000 level Duke Nukem 3D add-on. I mean, why not? I had the whole summer.

Time speeds up when you’re an adult. Summer vanishes in a mishmash of deadlines, bills, and what to make for dinner. Three hours with the PlayStation isn’t an epic afternoon, but time you could have spent taking out the garbage or looking for a new apartment or finding a better job.

The excitement of the changing seasons wore off a long time ago and I settled into a life of “just another day.” But the promise of summer still flicks that gaming switch in my head, and the Matt who read GamePro all day and played Nintendo all night smiles and says, “so what’s our plan today?”

And the answer on this sunny, nearly-summer afternoon is redesigning Street Fighter II.

As Capcom’s newest brawler, Street Fighter V, struggles to win over gamers who find the experience too limited, I remember the hours I spent on the Street Fighter II series on SNES and Genesis while the summer sun melted the pavement just outside my window. Later revisions of SFII added new playable characters, more attacks, and updated graphics and sound, but the core gameplay remained fresh and satisfying.

Hyper Street Fighter II, released in the early 2000s, was supposed to cram everything from the previous five games into a single, “greatest hits” masterpiece. It sounded like a dream come true for longtime fans.

Except it wasn’t. It was Super Street Fighter II Turbo with a few new features. Hyper felt rushed, a cash-in praying on a dozen years of nostalgia, similar to SFV’s current woes. So pulling a page from my younger self’s book, I got to thinking today, “what could I do to make this better?”

If you’re not a Street Fighter fan, the following might not mean much to you. But rest assured, it makes Summer Matt giddy as a schoolboy. A schoolboy with a Super NES. Who should be writing a press release right now.

I propose the last, definitive version of the game that started the one-on-one fighting craze of the ‘90s: Final Street Fighter II.


Play as all previous versions of characters, including "Old" Super Turbo and "bosses" from World Warrior.

Yeah, Hyper had a lot of character versions, but it was missing something. Remember how bad Sagat used to beat your ass way back in World Warrior when there were only eight playable characters? Remember how watered down Sagat and company were when you finally got to play them in Champion Edition? You felt cheated, didn’t you? Problem solved.

OK, so the four boss characters were overpowered as heck in Champion Edition. But not nearly as much as their World Warrior versions. Game balance be damned!

CPS1 “demixes” of Cammy, T. Hawk, Fei Long and Dee Jay. Include CPS1 light attack chains and differing properties for existing moves that are in line with World Warrior, Champion Edition, and Hyper Fighting respectively.

Back before Street Fighter went “super,” it made its home on the Capcom Play Choice (CPS1) arcade hardware. Super and Super Turbo used the power of the newest version of the board, CPS2, to add four “New Challengers.” And from that day forward, I’ve always wondered how characters like Cammy would have performed on the old hardware. What cheap tricks and unbalanced BS could players have unleashed to protect their tokens? Why not find out?

CPS1 and CPS2 music choices, like in Hyper SFII.

Here’s something Hyper got right. Cammy’s CPS1 theme is bangin’.

Include both the player and the CPU versions of Akuma, selectable without a code.

Akuma was a secret boss in the final arcade version of Street Fighter II. You could play as him if you entered a convoluted code that more often than not ended up with you selecting Ryu in a brown uniform instead, but he was pretty lame in comparison to the CPU version. Look, if you’re playing as a broken boss character, does game balance really matter anymore? Unleash the Raging Demon!

Chose any uniform color, regardless of character version.
Sure, in Hyper SFII you could play as World Warrior Guile, but he couldn’t wear his pink or purple tank tops from Super. WHAT IS THE POINT OF PLAYING AS GUILE IF I CANNOT BE PURPLE?

Toggle for boss names: English and Japanese options.

Back in the day, Capcom named the boxer in SFII M. Bison. Fearing legal action from Mike Tyson’s lawyers, they decided to change his name. So instead of just calling him “Punchy McGee” or something, they rotated the names of three characters, forever confusing the masses. Vega the dictator became M. Bison, Balrog the claw wielding Spaniard became Vega, and M. Bison, the boxer, became Balrog.

Anyway, if you want your boxer to be called Bison instead of Balrog, or your dictator to be Vega instead of Bison, you should be allowed to do so.

Include all stage backgrounds, as well as options for which version to display. Include a random mode for variety.

Hyper’s only got the art from Super and Super Turbo. Screw that.  I want to decide if Ryu’s stage is saturated in the glow of the setting sun like in World Warrior, or bathed in moonlight like in Hyper Fighting.

Allow player to pick the opponents' fighting style in arcade mode: All from one version of SFII or a randomly chosen mix.

All of the computer opponents in Hyper were their Super Turbo versions. If I wanted to play Super Turbo, I’d dig out my 3D0. Variety is the spice of life (and nostalgia), so give me that overpowered Champion Edition version of Bison and Chun-Li sans fireball in the same play though. Keep my on my toes, damnit.

Include a low tier path in arcade mode that has players fighting the weakest version of all 17 characters. End with a new, nerfed version of Akuma.

Because I want to feel like I am the best Street Fighter II player ever.

Do the same for a high tier path. End with Akuma.

Because I want to feel like I am the worst Street Fighter II player ever. 

Thank you for playing! Presented by Capcom (I wish).

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The 23-year Itch: A Super Mario Land Story

It’s about minus 300 degrees outside and the wind has blown more than a few aloof geese clear into outer space. But still the children file outside for recess. Bundled up like tiny artic explorers, some have footraces, some play basketball, and others, hopscotch.

Huddled in a forgotten entryway near the edge of the soccer field, young Matt’s icy fingers clutch his well-worn Gameboy while his friends, Tom and Joey, watch the tiny screen as best they can over his shoulder.

It’s the final level of Super Mario Land 2: The Six Golden Coins, in all its green and grey glory. Mario suffers death after death: falling down pits, bursting into flames, taking 4,000 pound bullets to the face. The recess bell rings, and Matt and his friends walk back to class, slightly dejected. “We’ll beat Wario’s castle tomorrow,” Matt says.

That was the last time I played my copy of Super Mario Land 2.

Everybody’s got something they wish they could go back and change: The one who got away, the last thing you said to a friend before parting ways, a college presentation that looked so good on paper, but fell flat in front of the class. I think that’s part of the reason entertainment products like Back to the Future are so popular. Except Back to the Future preaches that time travel is always the problem and never the solution. So we learn to live with our old shortcomings, even if they do nag us once in a while.

For me, one of those things was never finishing Super Mario Land 2 back on that chilly day in 1993. There’s a heap of other things I would do differently if given the chance, but for some reason, that’s always stuck out in my mind. I only recently figured out why: unlike when I stuffed the family cat into the trailer of a toy truck or when I let one rip in front of the girl I liked, finishing Mario Land 2 would not require a time-hopping DeLorean to rectify.

For the last five years or so, my cousin James and I have gotten together each week to play video games. We’ve had a few great victories over the years, like beating Jason in Friday the 13th, killing Jaws, finishing Super Mario Bros. 3 half a dozen times in one night, and getting past that accursed spike puzzle in Beggar Prince, a little known Sega Genesis/Mega Drive RPG.

So when I started thinking about my unfinished Mario Land 2 cartridge for the 1,000th time in my life, I got the itch to finally take down that bastard. And I knew just the guy to help me do it.

James loaded up a Mario Land 2 ROM on his hacked Wii, and the game sprang to life on a television approximately 700 times the size of my original Gameboy screen. We quickly discovered that Super Mario Land 2 is “piss easy,” as James said. With every completed level, my confidence rose. Maybe my younger self just wasn’t very good at this game. Maybe this will be simple, I thought.

Finally, Mario stepped into Wario’s castle and I promptly guided his face into a massive fireball. I took a deep breath. It was go time.

That’s when I told James about my vendetta. He knew that save states where out of the question. He knew I was going to be the one to take us home or lead us to destruction. And he gave his blessing.
As I relearned the layout of that accursed castle, our stock of lives dwindled. Drowning in lava. Eaten by piranha plants. Careening into endless pits. It must have been nearly an hour later and I was getting frustrated and fatigued. Why does such an easy game have such a ball-busing finale?

The Angry Video Game Nerd once said that playing a difficult section of a game many times can cause the skill one had acquired to fade away. Maybe that was happening to me?

I gathered my wits for one last serious go at the castle. Of course if I lost, I’d have kept trying. But that’s “trying” with quotation marks. We all know that feeling where your willpower drains away like summer rain on scalding pavement. I had one more good run left in me.

In fourth grade, I had said that I would beat Wario’s castle “tomorrow.” Yesterday was 23 years ago. I knew if I told James that we would beat Wario next week, it might mean “never.”

About a billion rooms into the castle, farther than I had ever been, a massive, disembodied face sped towards our tender, exposed plumber. I stomped it and cleared the screen.

“Wario’s just up ahead,” James announced. “Two more faces to go.”

While I had been having a serious internal crisis over a decades-old video game meant for small children, James had looked up a video walkthrough. Back in the day, I’d have killed a man with a Slap Bracelet for even a few tips in a dog-eared copy of Nintendo Power.

With James’s guidance, I stepped into the final room. From his pixelated throne of age-old regret, Wario eyed me disapprovingly. He looked much more psychotic than in later games. It was actually kind of disturbing. I wondered if anyone had written a sub-par creepypasta about it yet, for YuriofWind to rip apart on his YouTube channel.

“Stand on the statue!” James yelled. Sure enough, in the middle of the room was a statue of Mario, and I hopped on top of it as directed. I provided a convenient perch from which to whack my longtime nemesis.

I don’t really remember how it happened after that, but what I can recall is my heart pounding out of my chest. That kind of thing used to happen at the end of every video game I played. Not so much anymore, what with save states and infinite chances.

As the protagonist of Silent Hill 2 once said, “The old Gods haven’t left this place.”

One last stomp, and Wario was defeated. James gave me a giant high-five as the credits scrolled. I snapped a photo of him in front of the screen for posterity. 

See? Doesn't Wario look crazy weird in this game?

After 23 years, I could put this tiny piece of my past out to pasture. It doesn’t seem like much, I know. And you’re right, beating an old video game with your cousin isn’t going to make headlines, or earn you more money, or look good on a résumé. Hell, it’s barely fodder for a post on a sporadically updated gaming blog. But for me, it was proving that yes, I do follow up on my promises. And it was a big ol’ eviction notice to the tiny space this loose end had been renting in my skull.

We don’t often get the chance to change the past. So even if it’s something small, doesn’t it make sense to take the opportunity?

As I waved goodbye to James and headed to my car that night, I wondered if I should tell him that I never finished the last level of Link’s Awakening on Gameboy either.