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'Street Fighter II': Most Racist Nostalgic Video Game Ever?

The video game magazine Polygon recently publisheda fascinating oral history of the creation of Street Fighter II, the glitchy, addictive, incredibly influential arcade game from the 1990s created by Capcom. The story rounded up all of the game's developers and artists and programmers — a group of eccentrics from America and Japan who sound like they were a bunch of HR nightmares. But despite all this, the game became a monster hit:

"According to worldwide Capcom investor relations data, the original Super NES Street Fighter 2 sold 6.3 million copies, the Super NES Street Fighter 2 Turbo sold 4.1 million and the Genesis Street Fighter 2: Special Champion Edition sold 1.65 million. The original Super Nintendo port remains Capcom's second best selling game to date."

The piece says the game even spawned a cologne. A cologne (The 1990s, ladies and gentlemen).

Street Fighter II — once the fighting game for anyone who played video games — was a touchstone for Gen-Xers and folks on the earlier end of the Millennial cohort. It spawned all sorts of sequels, quasi-sequels, and imitations, like the bloodier, even-schlockier Mortal Kombat series and the moretechnically ambitious Tekken games. And it introduced a flotilla of nonsense words into our cultural lexicon. Hadouken! Tiger Uppercut!

The grocery store across the street from my middle school had a Street Fighter console, and all the other boys and I would play it before the school day began. So, yeah. I rarely had money left over for lunch, but I was nice with Ryu, so it was basically a wash.

Polygon's piece got us talking about the Street Fighter characters that we preferred to play with (As I said before, I was a Ryu guy).

There was E. Honda, the Japanese sumo wrestler. His fighting stage was a bathhouse.

Dhalsim, a skinny Indian fighter with shrunken skulls around his neck, could stretch his limbs really far to punch or kick, because his fighting style was based on yoga. You fought with Dhalsim in a temple as elephants watched. He was fond of shouting "Yoga flame!" as he spat a fireball.

Zangief, a musclebound Russian, had scars from fighting bears.

Blanka, who was from the Brazilian rainforest, was a beast-man who growled and grunted.

Guile, the blonde-haired, camo-clad American soldier, fought on a military base in front of fighter jets.

Vega, a ponytailed Spanish fighter, was so vain he wore a mask to cover his face.

We were coming to this realization two decades too late: Street Fighter II was racist as hell.

Amazingly, this all could have been even more ridiculous. Here's the game designer Yoshiki Okamoto on Chun-Li, the game's lone female character and a fan favorite:

"You know how each character has a life bar? At one point, I wanted to make the power gauge for Chun-Li shorter than for the other characters because women are not as strong. But [another designer] didn't want to do that. We both had legitimate reasons, but then we came to an agreement to not make it shorter."

It's not hard to imagine the alternate universe in which that particular game mechanic launched a million women's studies essays and blog posts.

But, alas, Street Fighter II was hardly alone. The landscape of popular games from the late 1980s and early 1990s was littered with crazy ethnic caricatures. In Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!!, a classic from the early Nintendo days, your fighter, Little Mac, took on a constellation of opponents from around the world — note the theme — whose defining traits were somehow always linked to their putative ethnicity.

There was Piston Honda — again with the Japanese characters named Honda! — who was a stoic boxer from Tokyo. Don Flamenco was yet another vain, effeminate Spaniard. There was Great Tiger, who was from India and wore a turban on his head with a jewel that glowed when he was about to uncork his special move. King Hippo was vaguely Polynesian, obese, and threw fruit into the air when you defeated him. And Von Kaiser, a militant boxer from Germany, had a signature line: "Surrender! Or I will conquer you!"

All of your boxing matches were refereed by Nintendo's mascot, Mario, himselfthe world's most beloved Italian stereotype.

Here's where we need your help. Is there another immensely popular game that somehow surpasses Street Fighter II in racist-ness? Are you a Zelda anti-fan who argues that level three of the series' first game is really a swastika? Here's your chance to air your grievance.

And please, if you've read this far: Go read the Polygon piece! It's worth your time.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.