"Never take your eyes off your opponent... even when you bow." - Bruce Lee, Enter The Dragon
It's not as crowded as I remember.
The arcades of my youth were claustrophobic spaces of beeps and boops, pitch black except for the glow of the monitors. Filled with that warm silicon smell you only get when you cram a room wall to wall with electronics running full speed for hours at a time. The aisles at GameWorks, in contrast, are wide enough for groups of small children racing to their parents or the zig-zag pattern one of my peers would follow after enjoying the bar's $5 margarita special.
Even the games are different, bigger, grouped around specific themes. One room on the second floor houses eight different varieties of rail-shooter, a constant symphony of gunfire and undead groans. The far wall on the first floor is dedicated to an immense Indy 500 simulation, complete with moving cars and a live, chronically bored announcer.
I am not here for those.
Cloistered behind a row of Japanese drum and keyboard simulators is the section I seek. Past ancient towers of fighting games yellowed from neglect, ignored by the rest of the patrons. There, two Street Fighter IV cabinets are shoved together with a row of stools behind them, occupied by a small group of average looking guys. Everyone stares intently at the screens in front of the two current combatants. The machine lets loose a digitized shout of "Hadouken!" and I follow their gaze.
The current king of the cabinets, a twenty-something dude with braces in a black zip-up, has been using one of the SF4's new characters, Abel, to demolish the competition. Abel's not very flashy, but Zip-Up's mastery of at least a few of the moves has kept him on the same credit for at least five matches. I keep expecting each defeated challenger to slam down on the buttons or throw their soda, some sudden outburst of nerd rage. Instead, everyone is all smiles. Why isn't anyone upset that they've lost?
Zip-Up is finally dethroned by a tall guy with a scruffy beard and infinite amounts of cool. I knew a guy in college just like this, the James Dean of gaming dorks, that should have been out getting heroic amounts of tail but would rather hang out in the computer lab and play Unreal Tournament with us. Zip-Up leaves to get another soda, while a chunky Asian kid with a neon grin takes his place. Everyone on the stools shifts to the right, like musical chairs.
Our little group is diverse. Some of the kids waiting to play appear just out of high school, the ones who probably know all the right combos. What binds us is something more primal than excitement for a flashy new video game. What pre-teen boy didn't want to suddenly commando roll through the halls of his elementary school, tossing shuriken three at a time at would-be kidnappers and assassins? It's this same impulse that made me take exactly two karate classes in my life, want to wear a pair of Chuck Norris Action Jeans and stand in line at the arcade for a chance to play Street Fighter II. My competition - my compatriots - are no different.
Chunky Neon picks Sagat as his weapon of choice. He cracks his neck like a tough guy, then turns back to his friends for encouragement. James Dean stays cool, calm, like water. Bruce Lee would be proud. He's playing as M. Bison and only knows a few moves, namely the high flying punch attack and charged Scissor Kick, but he's got them down. Chunky Neon holds out for a while, throwing numerous Tiger fireballs both low and high, and even connecting with a few Tiger Uppercuts, but eventually can't keep up. He crumbles in a 3 - 1 match. I'm up.
I swipe my play card - even the quarters of old have been replaced - and choose Ken. I'm normally a Ryu guy, but these other players are obviously pros and I don't want to look completely noobish in front of them. James Dean nods at me and smiles while the arena loads, a stereotypical American drive-in. Chunky Neon whoops in the background, letting the excitement overtake him. Zip-Up takes a long slurp of his soda.
I take a deep breath and think about dragon punches.
I launch into a series of flying kicks that James Dean's Bison successfully blocks. A tornado kick does a little damage, but leaves me open for Bison to pummel me with quick 5-hit combos and throws. The animation is so fluid that I'm almost more interested in getting hit than throwing punches. Which works, since I'm taking punches like a pro.
Suddenly the camera angle changes and James Dean launches me into the air in a burst of Bison's psycho energy, then stomps me back down into the ground while his character mocks my pathetic skills. The crowd behind us cries out its approval. It's brutal and humiliating and the perfect way to lose a round. I'm not at all angry, and now I understand.
I don't win even a round and I don't care.
It hits me as I give up my spot at the cabinet to the next challenger, as vicious as that uber-combo: When I buy SF4, I will almost assuredly play it alone. Long gone are the days of inviting people over to stage round-robin tournaments, while the console version's online play will quickly prove too competitive for my meek level of talent. My experience with Street Fighter IV will be solitary, and these games are no fun alone.
Like films in a crowded theater, they have their intended environment.
There will be more characters and content in the home versions of Street Fighter IV when it launches on February 17th. Online play will connect players across the country whenever they want to pummel each other, while DLC will add expandability and new modes. I don't care about that. As I walk away from my glorious defeat to catch a bus home, I realize that the fights that matter aren't waged on comfortable couches or plasma screens. The true World Warriors are sitting in the ruins of the arcades of old, sodas in hand, waiting for their turns to be kings of the cabinet.