Editorial, The Myth of the Hardcore Arcade

By on August 24, 2012 at 11:13 am

The fighting game scene is now old enough that we have entire generation of players who never experienced what is was like to play in arcades.  Over the years the arcade scene has taken on a mythic quality among players, and it is commonly cited as having a profound influence on the way the scene operates today.

For exactly this reason, we have to accurately remember our own history, and not overly dramatize things.  I’m writing this to dispel the biggest and most dangerous myth: the Myth of the Ruthless Aracade.   You know, this is the story that that the arcade was a brutal, cutthroat trial by fire, where only the strong players survived.  Bullies today like to use this as a crutch when belittling new and casual players.  “Hey man, we’ve always been this way.  We come from the ARCADES!”

The problem with myths is, if you repeat them too much people actually start to believe they’re real, as was the case when the one and only Maximillian published a video where he talks about his role in the scene and what he believes to be the old-school culture.  Max says that fighters don’t nurture new players specifically because of our arcade roots.   He goes on to say:

You don’t welcome newbies unless they learn how to play the game.  You don’t welcome these people and you don’t give them tips and advice.  That was the arcade mentality back then…they have to earn it.  They have to earn their way through the fire and flames into the arcade scene.

For overwhelming majority of the scene, this was simply not the case.  For the entire history of fighting games, players in have supported their local players and helped level up new players who demonstrate a commitment to the game.  There is one notable exception, and that’s the So. CA scene during the 90’s.  If you played in So. CA, none of what I’m about to say applies to you.  You guys were fucking crazy.

A History of Mentorship and Camaraderie

My personal history uniquely qualifies me to discuss this point.  During the heyday of the arcade Street Fighter scene (Street Fighter II to Marvel vs. Capcom 2) I finished high school, attended college, and got my first job.  That meant I was moving around.  A lot.  From 1991 – 2003 I lived and played in probably the majority of the Street Fighter hotspots around the US: at Sunnyvale Golfland in CA, many NJ and NY arcades including 8 on the Break, Seattle, the Chicago area (which frankly was kind of dead), and the southwest.

At every stop, players loved talking about the game.  That meant talking strategy with the other top players, but also coaching players who obviously needed some help.  It is true that every player liked to keep a few secret tricks up his sleeve, but this mythical every man for himself, sink-or-swim environment is a fantasy built up by a series of exaggerations over the years.  It just wasn’t like that.

Don’t confuse help with respect though.  It is absolutely true that there was a pecking order at each arcade, driven exclusively by player skill.  To be respected as a player you had to earn it by beating other top players.   But by no means were the lower ranked players shunned or ignored.  If you asked for help and were a good guy, someone would help you.

My introduction to competitive Street Fighter is a great example of both sides of the arcade culture.  In 1994 I was a college junior coming out of Albuquerque, NM and playing in the Stanford arcade – two hotbeds of competition, let me tell you.  I was the big fish in my tiny competitive pool , so I had no problem mouthing off on the internet about how great I was.  Unbeknownst to me I was living 13 miles away from Sunnyvale Golfland, which had far and away some of the best players in the U.S. at that time.

Two guys from there, Jon Prentice and David Weissman, saw my posts and decided to pay a little visit to my arcade.  It was like letting loose two Dobermans in a room full of kinder garners.  We got stomped by things that we didn’t know existed:  link combos (Sagat low jab, low strong, low fierce), meaty wakeup combos (Guile low forward, stand fierce, super!) .  It was ugly, but it was also like an entire new game was opened up in front of me.  Up until that point I had only pretended to play Street Fighter, and now I was getting to see what the game was actually like.

If the culture was as commonly depicted today, these guys would have laughed me off and left me to my scrubby ways.  Instead, they offered to meet up with me next week at their arcade, where I saw and played against some of the other top Nor Cal players, including some guys that are still around today like John Choi and Jason Cole.  Of course I got wafflestomped, but I left that night with a head full of tips and suggestions of how to improve my game:  Stop jumping, have a reason for doing that move don’t just throw stuff out, position matters.

So here I was, a player at the very bottom of the totem pole with absolutely no respect, yet simultaneously being coached and mentored by the “arcade elders” because I was actually committed to seriously playing the game.

This was my very first experience withe competitive Street Fighter, but the pattern remained true throughout my history as a player, at every spot in my journey.  As I developed as a player and move around the country I grew from a scrub to a mentor, but everywhere Street Fighter was played competitively I found a group of guys who were simultaneously brutal in their competitive spirits but excited about learning the game together and nurturing newer players.

My story is not unique.  Many of today’s top players have a direct lineage back to the top players of the 1990’s, where player has trained player.  Filipino Champ trained with Ricky Ortiz, who trained with John Choi.   And I haven’t even touched on the Internet-based support system that has existed right along-side the arcades since day one.

Hardcore Doesn’t Mean Nasty

Yes, the arcade scene was tough.  But it wasn’t tough because people were mean or didn’t want to help each other. It was tough because the only way to play the game was 50 cents at a time on that arcade machine.  To get any serious practice time you had to WIN.  Losing meant not only paying more money, but getting in the back of the line and waiting 5 to 20 minutes for your turn to roll around.  The arcade scene was “hardcore” in the sense that most of the time you had to play to win every game if you wanted to play at all.  Over the years this has been twisted to imply that people were just mean, or cutthroat, or un-nurturing.  It’s a lie, and a dangerous one.

In every sense, the scene is strong and vibrant today exactly because the myth of the “hardcode, unwelcoming” arcade is completely false.  Had the culture actually been as depicted today, fighters would have died out when the Street Fighter craze ended around 1993.  The fighting game scene is strong because of the personal connections you make when playing the game, which is why we must always continue to be inclusive of gamers who want to be a part of this.