I was an awkward 14-year-old boy who lived across the street from an arcade. I wasn’t used to this kind of pressure. I tried to play it cool, but the sweat-soaked Chicago Bulls short set I was wearing screamed that this was, in fact, my first rodeo. I was sitting next to a friend—a guy at least 15 years my senior named Syrus. I was pretty sure he was better than me. No, I knew he was better than me. But here we were, tied at one match and one round each with less than five seconds to destiny in the Round of 32 at the Northern California Street Fighter II Finals.
Syrus was playing with Guile, the most powerful character in the game, and I was Dhalsim, the only true Achilles’ heel for a masterful Guile. The sound of Guile’s Sonic Boom still rings in my ears, eyes darting between that spinning projectile and a clock that wouldn’t tick fast enough. 3. Sonic Boom approaching and Guile following. 2. Decision made to hold out for an energy victory when time elapsed. 1. Impact. I block the Sonic Boom and at about the same time, Guile backdrops my character as time expires. The game is over. And yet, somehow, I am victorious. My young life is going to take an amazingly unexpected turn.
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Released in 1991, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior was an instant arcade sensation. It literally revolutionized arcade gaming and set the stage for every fighting game that followed. SFII was the first game where you spent more time playing against other players than the artificial intelligence of the computer. Outside of sports games like Cyberball (a personal favorite) or Arch Rivals, this kind of virtual tête-à-tête was unheard of. Now, we could play with our friends and against our friends. It wasn’t long before we realized that this competition was not only entertaining, it was extremely addictive. Following the path of Ryu and Ken, the gi-wearing protagonists from the first Street Fighter—a somewhat clunky game that was fun to watch but a bitch to play—Street Fighter II featured an additional six characters to choose from: the super fast and leggy Chun Li, sumo wrestler E. Honda, Amazonian beast Blanka, Russian bear wrestler(!) Zangief, American soldier Guile, and the Indian yogi, Dhalsim. Much like its predecessor, SFII was simply a button masher with an occasional accidental special move for the first few months until we learned the strengths, weaknesses and special powers of each character.
Much like a first kiss, I still remember the first time I played the game that was to become a large part of my life. When I walked into the arcade, I saw a crowd of people around the machine. Arcade tokens had been placed along the cabinet signifying that somebody had next, and next after that, and next after that. When my turn finally came, I picked the character that looked the most ferocious: Zangief. Obviously, at this point I was unaware that he was likely the most difficult character to play as well. So after a short time of banging on buttons, my dear comrade was dispatched by the thousand hands of the rotund E. Honda. There are no drugs on this planet that can hook you as fast as I was hooked to that game. I had chased the proverbial dragon and I wanted more.
And I would get it … oh, would I get much more of that dear game. My life was a blur of sleep, school and Street Fighter for the next four years of my life. From mastering my first character (Blanka) to playing in local tournaments and rubbing elbows with a cast of unsavory characters to a trip in 1992 to La Jolla to play in the California Street Fighter II State Finals Tournament along with the 31 other best players in the state, it’s hard to think about my high school years without SFII entering my mind. Street Fighter became part of my existence, a universal constant. In retrospect, I have mixed feelings about that. But at the time, I was finally good at something that mattered (to me, anyway). I was living in the Silicon Valley—the epicenter of Street Fighter II competition in the United States—and I unexpectedly found myself in the middle of something monumental, something far bigger than I had ever experienced in my short life. And I was good. Oh damn, was I good.
* * *
When the match ended, Syrus and I sat and stared at the screen dumbfounded. Dhalsim lay in a crumpled heap on the ground, yet Guile stood holding his face in defeat. The crowd that had gathered around us was yelling and screaming, but it all faded into white noise. I’ve been told that in a viewing area outside the playing room where all the games were being streamed onto monitors, people were floored by the ending. I had two slivers more energy than Syrus with five seconds left. His Guile threw a Sonic Boom and I blocked it, taking off one sliver of energy, and he backdropped me. But the timer expired while the backdrop was occurring. So when my Dhalsim was smashed to his death on the ground, the match was already over. I had won by a single sliver of energy in the most unlikely of scenarios.
My head was spinning. I shook Syrus’ hand and high-fived some of my friends on the way out of the playing room. I stumbled into an unoccupied corner of a large room, put my head in my hands and cried. At the time, it was the most momentous occasion of my then-short life. Though I had not yet secured my place in the state finals (Top 8 finishers got plane tickets), I already knew it was going to happen. I haven’t thought about that moment in a long time, and I just realized it still gets me a little misty-eyed. I was 14 years old and I was on top of the Street Fighter world. Fucking mindboggling.
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I’ll be writing here regularly over the next few months about my experiences during the Golden Era of Street Fighter II, from the major players and their quirks to the big tournaments, the pros and cons of liquor store gambling to my time working as a game tester for Atari, and SF II’s indelible impact on the gaming world.
Until next time, you must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance.
Jay Peepz 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.