Raised By Screens is probably the closest I’ll ever get to a memoir – glancing back at the games I played as a child in the order in which I remember playing them, and focusing on how I remember them rather than what they truly were. There will be errors and there will be interpretations that are simply wrong, because that’s how memory works.
It was me. I was the one who bought Street Fighter II on PC.
Coming of age and Street Fighter II are inexorably linked for me, as I suspect they are for a great many men my age. Games had been steadily grabbing a greater share of our consciousness for perhaps three years by that point, but with Street Fighter II they became a religion, one which could briefly unify the divided tribes of sportsman and nerd, rebel and square.
The game about punching. The game about kicking. The game about fireballs. The game about bruised and battered faces. The game about Chun-li's knickers. The game of transgression, the game of becoming a man. Sure, Mortal Kombat would later generate more controversy and far more classroom cackling, but by that point our minds had already opened to a certain degree of nastiness. Street Fighter II had made us put away childish things.
Games weren't jolly retreats into colourful fantasy any more. Games were now about comparing our testicles, and about feeding our new hunger for simulated violence. We had to beat each other. We had to make what looked to us just like real people beat each other senseless. We had to brag about it. We had to have a favourite character. We had to master it.
First, though, we had to find a way to play it. The most privileged or rebellious kids found their way to arcades at weekends and evenings while the rest us were chained to homework and chores, and reported back exaggerated claims of SFII's violence and special attacks. We listened to their boasting and their lies with awe and envy - they'd found the promised land.
They got away with their distortions in the end, because by the time we proles got to experience SFII for ourselves, on one of the cheap arcade cabinets (always with a different game's logo printed on its sides) in a newsagent or swimming pool foyer, the game had splintered into both official updates and bootleg versions which were almost as wild as our alphas had claimed the original was was.
Still, Street Fighter II was a drug to us all by then, and five minutes once every week or two was nothing like the fix we craved. SFII's pushers knew this too. Soon enough, the rumour mill began to churn: it was coming to console, we could play it whenever we wanted, it would be better, faster, more violent than ever. The SNES version would be better than the Megadrive version would be better than the SNES version would be better than the Megadrive version would be better than that bootleg one in the bowling alley where Ryu could throw three fireballs at once.
"Is it coming out on PC too?", I'd ask, wide-eyed, hopeful, pathetic, of the kids who bought gaming mags. Their GamesMasters and CVGs were our scriptures. "Meer," they'd sneer, "you're such a queer." Not a good surname to have an in all-boy's school at that age, and in the less enlightened early 1990s. Not a good gaming system to have either. Back to Dune II with me. My old love now seemed hopelessly square, hopelessly antique.
But, thanks to Games Workshop - and that's another story for another day - I'd begun to fall in with a new crowd. They were more freaks than geeks, and while they might be interested in the die and the tape measure, they were just edgy enough to have consoles. And they let me visit their houses.
I was Blanka at first, because his electricity attack was easy. I simply wasn't co-ordinated enough for classroom favourites Ryu and Ken (Ryu players stoutly maintained that Ken was 'gay', and Ken players stoutly maintained that Ryu was cheap). I moved on to Chun-li, whose lightning kick was just as straightforward but she seemed a more responsive character. Eventually, though, I settled on Dhalsim, because his stretchy legs meant I could occasionally emerge victorious thanks to frenzied button-spamming. I was mocked for it, and hated for it. Such a queer.
If only there was some way I could have the time and seclusion to learn the other, more respected characters.
STREET FIGHTER II: THE WORLD WARRIOR
DEVELOPED BY CREATIVE MATERIALS, PUBLISHED BY U.S. GOLD
Side-on, competitive fighting game in which two characters attempt to reduce each other's health metres to zero with various punches, kicks and special attacks. An enormous hit in arcades and on console.
Late to the party, and deeply unfashionably so. In arcades and on console, Street Fighter II was now deep into Championship, Super and Hyper Fighting editions, and classroom attentions had turned to the gorier Mortal Kombat. There it was one day though, in the local Electronics Boutique. My Holy Grail. I couldn't possibly afford it, but I had to have it.
I borrowed money from somewhere, bought the game, copied and it and returned it next day, claiming that my PC wasn't powerful enough. I remember the pony-tailed, rake-thin, cruel-looking cashier scanning my flushed, spotty face for a lie, clearly deciding he'd found one, then rolling his eyes with what's-the-point resignation and returning my cash. Then, victory! Today, guilt.
God, it was awful. It looked fabulous, its characters far crisper and chunkier than their blurry, squat console incarnations, but it felt so slow that I wanted to scream. The controls had been gimped. I couldn't get the music to play. You couldn't even play as the four bosses. It wasn't any fun, and it didn't feel right in ways I wasn't yet able to understand or articulate but I had to keep playing, beat the campaign with every character, learn every special move. I did. I felt no triumph, because I knew I wasn't playing the 'real' Street Fighter II. Even so, that which I had once craved more than anything became worse than ordinary. Street Fighter II was long dead to me by the time the apparently much-improved Super Street Fighter II Turbo arrived on PC two years later.
There was a silver lining. For some reason, in Street Fighter II PC, Dhalsim was a stone-cold killer. Best character in the game. I could beat anyone without breaking a sweat. Vindication.
I will meditate, and then destroy you.