[27 April 2005]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But it is better to be good than to be ugly.
There’s something appropriate about adding the term “evolution” to the title of any fighting game. The term evokes Darwinian notions of natural selection and the survival of the fittest, which seemingly is the goal of the tournament style gameplay.
This description seems particularly appropriate given Capcom’s historical approach to the genre. While even old school gamers may not be familiar with or even have seen the original Street Fighter, Street Fighter II may be the poster child for adaptation within this species of game with its various iterations, including Street Fighter II, Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, Super Street Fighter II, and Super Street Fighter II Turbo. The evolution of Street Fighter was a long, slow process marked by these various microevolutionary changes over the course of nearly a decade until Capcom finally released the next evolution of the game with the long awaitedStreet Fighter III.
If anything, Capcom Fighting Evolution offers us the fossil record of this subtle, gradual evolution of the genre by collecting characters from the various games that intervened between the release of the now classic Street Fighter II and Street Fighter III. In addition to some of the characters from those games (series favorites like Ryu, Chun Li, and M. Bison all make appearances), Capcom has also included characters from Street Fighter Zero (aka Street Fighter Alpha) and some from the fighting games developed while the Street Fighter II tweaks were still ongoing throughout the decade of the 90s—Darkstalkers and Red Earth (aka Warzard).
The concept behind this game then seems to be to allow players to witness the various strengths and weaknesses of Capcom’s own evolution of the fighting genre by pitting characters from one species or subspecies to the next.
If all of this metaphor seems to suggest that playing this game is a bit like playing a lesson in biology, well, there is a reason why I took breaks from the game to replay GTA: San Andreas. The same reasons I believe that a number of years ago (think the Commodore 64 era) when a well meaning aunt of mine came to visit and purchased an educational game as a gift, I promptly traded it in when she left for home for a copy of Electronic Arts’ Heart of Africa—learning can be fun, but I’d much rather do it with a machete in my hand as I whip the heads off of snakes than by gunning down aliens by solving math problems.
In that sense, Fighting Evolution is more an academic oddity, one better suited to the hardcore fighting game aficionado interested in seeing how a Street Fighter II-era Ryu stacks up against the evolved Chun Li of Street Fighter III, than a gamer interested in testing their twitchy fighting skills against a live or computer controlled opponent.
Then, again, the game was a big hit with my 10-year-old daughter. Much to my 90s-era coin-op veteran horror, she picked it up one day after school and quickly vanquished the computer with every female character. When asked what strategy she employed, my daughter responded, “It’s simply a matter of pushing buttons, Dad.” My years of training and all of the countless quarters dropped into SF II in the student union suddenly seemed wasted, particularly as I struggled once again—despite my more strategic mastery of complicated combos and special moves—against that agonizingly difficult bastard Guile.
And, ultimately, my daughter’s observations may belie the most obvious truth of this lesson in the video game fossil record. For example, the comparison of fighters from various eras not only allows you to see changes made to gameplay, but to the graphics as well. The SF II pixels sure do pale in comparison when pitted against the better developed and pixilated bodies of Red Earth. Also, if you recall, the original SF II was one of the first games to offer multiple endings based on who you chose to play with. Winning allowed you to understand the purpose that character had in besting this cavalcade of fighters—be it for revenge, fame, or world domination. While these endings were, perhaps, a bit hokey and felt tacked on, they at least hint at a reason for your fighters to fight beyond violence for violence’s sake and offered some reason to master each fighter as that was the only way of understanding the full story behind these tournaments. Instead of endings that develop the characters, Fighting Evolution chooses to show a comic book-style page for each member of your fighting duo after beating the tournament’s champion. With no explanatory text whatsoever, these pictures—while pretty—lack any kind of context to help the player understand why his character, having beaten Pyron, is suddenly stalking wolves or dressed for a Broadway show. (And if those two examples made no sense to you, I wish I could help because they equally made no sense to me.)
While evolution suggests a movement towards more complex organisms based on the strengths of the simple organisms of a prior age, Capcom’s “evolution” seems a bit regressive. From the notion that “pushing buttons” is the only strategy necessary to master these types of games to the beautifully hand drawn but nonsensical endings, Capcom’s games have clearly evolved stylistically but foundered in the substance department.