If anybody needs me, I’ll be at Golfland

Photo by Paul Kobayashi Growing up in the 80s and 90s was an amazing experience if you were into video games. The technology curve took a steep incline as Pong and other floating-dot favorites gave way to Super Mario Brothers in your own home and Street Fighter in the arcade in less than a decade. Video games were becoming a way of life for late-Gen X/early-Gen Y folks like myself. I was given my first gaming system by my parents at the tender age of six—a Colecovision. Kids from around the neighborhood would come to my home to sit in front an old, large wooden furniture-style television to play games like Donkey Kong, Zaxxon, Ladybug and Venture. It was a while before I jumped on the Nintendo train when they started appearing in homes in 1985. But eventually, when the price dropped a bit, my folks bought one, and any chance of me going anywhere in sports (or any outdoor activity) pretty much evaporated. I became enthralled with games like Baseball Stars, Tecmo Bowl and Captain Commando. For the sports games, I would create “seasons” in a notebook and keep statistics far before those modes existed in the actual games.

As far as home systems, I ascended the technological ladder as the systems were released: Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Playstation, Playstation 2, PSP and the Wii, which was the last system I actually purchased. But the home system games were really just the mistress to the wifey position arcade games held in my life. An arcade was a place you could lose all day inside. I lost about five years. From early memories of trips with my father to the arcade in the basement at Weberstown Mall in Stockton to the first time I walked through the doors at Milpitas Golfland, I have a lot of fond memories associated with arcades. But it wasn’t until 1990, when I moved across the street from Golfland, that I became a regular at one. I was a 14-year-old boy, living a two-minute walk from about 200 of the latest and greatest video games out at the time, plus pinball and pizza. It should come as no surprise that I became a fixture there.

It was when the first Street Fighter II machine arrived at Golfland, sometime in early-1991, that everything changed. Crowds would literally form around the game while people were playing, mesmerized by the characters, the music, the occasional special move, and the competition that was ongoing. When the game first arrived, I think there were two cabinets in Golfland: one in each building. I dedicated myself to learning more about the game. I’d show up when the arcade opened at 10 a.m. and play the computer by myself for an hour before people started to show up. I wanted to know all the special moves and master every combo.

It got to where I started noticing a lot of the same people at the arcade playing Street Fighter every day. I’d associate them with the characters they used, their demeanor at the controller, and their style of play. Walking in, I’d wonder who I’d see this time. Would it be Mike Knowles, the affable bearded white dude whose Blanka was tough competition? Or perhaps Ben Danabar, the older dude from my high school whose Chun Li still ranks as one of the best I ever saw? Maybe Max Castellanos, the always funny, short and flat-topped Ryu player? Or maybe Kevin Nguyen, the super-quiet Vietnamese dude with the massive underbite who drove a high-end BMW and always had some porcelain beauty standing beside him at the game? Since I lived across the street, I was there pretty much anytime I wasn’t at school or sleeping. I started to learn what times of the day people would be likely to come around. It got to be my Cheers. I knew that no matter the time, if I went to Golfland, I would see somebody I knew, and who knew me.

When the Street Fighter II tournaments started in the summer of 1991, I really met the great players. The tournaments, which I’ll cover extensively in my next piece, were a big deal. Everybody who thought they were the shit at SF II came to play in the tournaments. The first few months, we were all sorting out the Milpitas Golfland hierarchy. Then, outsiders began coming to Milpitas for competition. On weekends during the late summer and fall of 1991, there were always a couple of us regulars at each machine in Golfland. We’d play against each other, talking shit and trying out new moves, but the real fun was when newcomers would come to test their chops. A couple of us would start trading off rounds as we picked apart our opponents. It was commonplace for somebody to run up on me at a game and tell me about how some new dude was ripping through a few friends, and how I needed to come get a piece of it.

When outsiders came for a challenge, we’d line up to break their spirits. And we would laugh when they got fed up and left. The rare folks that came and gave us a challenge usually started coming around more often. They either were accepted into the group as one of us, or they served as capable adversaries … foils that would come around for the competition. I came to enjoy playing some of these Street Fighter mercenaries.

After the glow of the state tournament wore off, things changed dramatically at Milpitas Golfland. Many of the Street Fighter regulars stopped coming around. A number of top players were thrown out and 86’d from the arcade for a variety of reasons. It wasn’t long before I found myself as the only SF II top-tier tournament player even allowed in what was our home arcade. At 14 years old, I learned that sometimes magic moments end and there’s nothing you can do about it. You just put your head down and keep moving forward.

Of course, with all of my colleagues now gone, I was pretty much the best SF II player left. My ego grew exponentially. I used to write little slogans on my tournament IDs demanding the return of my banned compatriots. What a snotty, little fool I was. Audacious to the core. And now, I was the old man at the club.

A new generation of gamers came to Golfland. I refer to these guys as the second generation of Street Fighter. Many of them learned how to play by watching us (the first generation) play. I mentored some, treated the rest with derision and continued to hone my craft. I started working as a game tester for the first time with Atari Games at this point, in what is another path my life took as a result of my Street Fighter career. I’ll write on a later date all about my four years at Atari and getting paid to play video games.

The new generation got their chance to shine when Street Fighter II: Championship Edition was released. In what was really just a way to squeeze more money out of the franchise was pitched as an opportunity to play using the four boss characters, new special moves for existing characters (Chun Li’s fireball!), alternate character colors and the ability for both players to use the same character. My high school chum, Quy Nghiem, quickly rose to the top of the food chain with his double-dizzy combos using M. Bison. He had the juice now, yo! Alas, he got a big head about the whole thing, thus completing the cycle that we had started during our heyday. And Championship Edition never had the energy that SF II had. Even in the large tourney they had at Golfland, the feeling was subdued. I don’t remember who won, but it wasn’t me. I finished somewhere in the middle, not horribly destroyed but not at the top of the heap anymore.

Championship Edition turned into Hyper Fighting and SF III, then we moved on to Mortal Kombat 1, 2, and 3 and Killer Instinct. My reputation among fighting game players meant that most up and comers were looking to take me down. I really was the only one left from the First Generation. These fools were maybe a year or two younger than me, but I was the crafty, old vet. So silly. I was always competitive in the latest and greatest game. I may not have been the best at anything after Street Fighter, but I was among the top 10 players in all the games I listed above. I certainly didn’t have the super skills on a lot of the games, but I managed to stay competitive and relevant because of my experience playing fighting games.

Once you reach a certain level on anything, you get used to a world where the baseline skill level is higher than with the general population. So, as you got better at SF II or other games, you began to expect a certain level of play out of people. The people who didn’t really know what they were doing, folks who banged on buttons and never blocked—they gave you bigger fits than anybody else. More so than people who had skills at the game. I tried to take advantage of that idea. I taught myself to play with an unorthodox style. I got into my opponents’ heads, thought about what they were likely thinking and made my moves. I learned to play characters nobody liked and exploited their advantages while people tried to figure out their weaknesses. Simply put, I evolved my play to compensate for my shortcomings.

Once I started taking myself less seriously, my visits to Golfland were a more social sort than before. I’d go hang out with the people who worked there, folks who by that point I’d grown up with. We’d bullshit the night away and I’d play games here and there. By the time I was going to college, I still went to Golfland, but playing games was really only to pass the time.

These days, at 35 years old, the most I play video games is on my phone or the occasional Mario Kart session. Every once in a while, I’ll get a few games of Street Fighter II in at my friend’s house (where my machine lives). When I start playing, it’s almost like I never stopped. It takes about a round to shake off the rust and perhaps a couple games to get my timing right. And then, it’s magic again. My fingers dance to imaginary beats as I press buttons to routines and subroutines just as I did 21 years ago. And Guile performs the most beautifully devastating combos you’ve seen this side of 1991.

And nobody appreciates the beauty but me.

Jay Peeples placed fifth in Northern California and 17th in the state in Street Fighter II in 1992. He was the youngest competitor in the California State Finals. Look here for his reflections on the Golden Era of Street Fighter II in the months to come.