Culture | Viennoiseries and vengeance!

Street Fighter makes unlikely splash at Montreal café

R eaders of a nerdy persuasion need not proceed with this article; the rest of you, take note. On March 1, 1991, the worldwide network of nerdosity was swept by the tidal wave which was Capcom’s release of Street Fighter II. Nearly overnight, the game became an overwhelming sensation. Arcades everywhere found themselves awash with quarters as dozens of young men and women left their jobs and spouses for the sake of fulfilling their long-forgotten warrior fantasies.

Within months, the game became ubiquitous, to the point where defeat in Super Turbo—as Street Fighter quickly became known—held a dozen different meanings. The capture of one’s manhood, imminent seppuku, the end of a gang war, the reshuffling of the map of Europe— all were viable explanations. A game though it was, none of its players took it lightly; with every quarter collected, the best would get better, forcing everyone else to step their game up.

Today, though the best have gotten perversely good, the rest are curiously absent. I’ll avoid launching into the complex socio-political causes here, but in essence, the close of the century brought a wave of bankruptcies for American arcades, whittling Street Fighter’s considerable following down to a devoted few. Up until last April, that is, when Capcom released Street Fighter IV to a surprisingly strong reception, capturing the attention of a whole new generation of fans, while resurrecting many long-dead Super Turbo scenes— Montreal’s included.

Anthony Kennedy was oblivious to all this when he began dragging his friends and X-Box down to Café Ciné-Express every Tuesday at 7 p.m. to play Street Fighter. Kennedy is a “new blood,” a term that differentiates him from those who’ve witnessed the inception of the series — the “OGs.” But in a most excellent instance of right-time, right-place, Kennedy and his partner-in-geekery Woolie Madden have awoken many a Montreal nerd’s dormant warrior fantasies. Their weekly “Street Fighter IV Meet-Ups” are on the rise, regularly drawing turnouts of more that 40 people.

Last Tuesday’s crowd was a diverse set, running the gamut between small bespectacled men wearing skull-caps to Michael Moore dead-ringers, sporting everything from nerd-garb to urban-chic. Yet they held a few telling things in common: most importantly, they shared an unmitigated thirst for Street Fighter and a virtuosic command of the joystick. Though the more easy-going players stuck to the event’s friendly exhibition matches, more competitive attendees were drawn by the weekly Meet-Up tournament, where a staggering $35 was up for grabs. Their matches, needless to say, were tense.

At its basest, Street Fighter can be a straightforward exercise in button-mashing. Two players select one of the game’s many “world warriors”— each possessing hilariously inappropriate sets of skills and idiosyncrasies—to act as their avatars in a 2-D arena. Following a necessary ready-set-go, their duel commences.

At the press of a button, the avatars approach, retreat, jump, kick, and punch. Pressing many of those buttons in sequence, however—and this is where the game gets complicated—triggers fireballs, flying uppercuts, and such, as well as “combos,” which consist of intricate and unblockable series of attacks.

The game’s potential for complexity is immense. Players frequently dissect past matches in hopes of better understanding their opponents’ strategies and combos, relaying their findings in a jargon all their own. “EX Shoryu to FADC to EX Tastu” goes one combo. Another, “cross-up MK to CLK to CHP to EX Hadouken,” roughly translates to “dude makes other dude burst into flames.”

And though the finer points of the game frequently go unnoticed by the uninitiated observer, die-hards know that the level of manual dexterity required to play the game is stunning. Seasoned veterans’ hands hover over custom controllers, elegantly inputting complex button commands with surgical precision—turning button-mashing into a fine science.

Take, for instance, the professional-level practice of frame-counting, which boils recipes for success down to the game’s elementary components—its individual frames of animation. Indeed, some study the game so thoroughly that they count and memorize the exact duration, in frames, of each individual move. Or, alternatively, note the complex mind games that colour most professional matches, through which players mislead their opponents into preparing for a certain style of play, setting up weaknesses which they can easily exploit.

Put into practice, these tricks can make for some exhilarating viewing, such as when Street Fighter III World Champion (yes, you read that right) Daigo Umehara miraculously defeated the rival Justin Wong at the 2004 Championships. The recording of the match is the most astonishing combination of underdog sympathy and nerdy virtuosity since the ending of The Karate Kid. It’s become a YouTube sensation, clueing its audience in to the understanding that Street Fighter may actually be more sport than game.

Curious as that sounds, nearly everyone at Ciné Express agreed: short of tennis, Street Fighter may be the fastest paced “strategy” game around. It is a sentiment echoed most strongly by the night’s tournament winner, who distilled the keys to winning down to “knowing one’s opponent, being patient, and sticking to your game-plan” — a recipe curiously similar to every other sport.

Ciné Express (1926 Ste. Catherine O.) holds its weekly Street Fighter IV meet-ups at 7 p.m. on Tuesday nights.

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