I have been awake for 36 hours. That is an estimate. I do not know what time it is anywhere anymore. Maybe it is fewer hours. Maybe more. I played Street Fighter 2 on an aeroplane. This is the story of that.
I haven’t played Street Fighter 2 in, what, ten years? It feels like that long since I slept. I have a big day ahead of me, after landing. I start to get The Fear. My stomach is trying to claw its way out of my abdomen. There are games on the in-flight entertainment system and one of them is Street Fighter 2. I load it up.
There are eight characters to choose from. I choose Ken because he is five percent more interesting than Ryu.
DUBAI IS STRANGE
I always mispronounce Ryu. I don’t know how to pronounce it properly. I just know that whatever I say is wrong. Ken flies from the USA to Japan, which is confusingly in the centre of the world map. This is nonsense. Everyone knows Britain is slap bang in the centre of the map. Centre of the world.
(I am flying to Australia to go and try to find work for a year; I’ve never been there before. Ken wears blue pyjamas. He always wore red in my version on the Mega Drive, brought alongside the special six-button controller which was specifically built to play it. I push every available button on the character select screen but blue it is)
The game takes a full minute to load, but that sort of thing pales into insignificance when you are on a fourteen hour flight, itself taking place after a six hour transfer to Dubai. Dubai is strange; every other country I’ve been in ever has green as the default palette colour, but it’s a dusty yellow-brown in Dubai. It looked like the textures weren’t fully loaded in yet. Even the sky was the wrong colour; brown and distant and featureless like some 32-bit era fog cloud obscuring the Middle East’s shoddy draw distance.
In Dubai, I have a cigarette in an airport smoking lounge. This is a new experience for me; the smoking lounge bit, not the cigarette. I smoke those all the time.
It is awful. It is like spending an entire night in a nightclub circa 2003 but sped up to a ten-minute period. I am feeling high off the ambient smoke before I even spark my lighter. When I leave, I stink, and the prospect of the next sixteen cigarette-free hours becomes increasingly easy to deal with.
Street Fighter 2 is played using the entertainment system remote turned upside down – there is a keyboard on the rear, flanked by a d-pad, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons. The gang’s all here. I am fighting E Honda, sumo supreme. I celebrate the presence of the shoulder buttons by performing a heavy kick as a matter of urgent business. It looks good. Ken’s sprite spins on his left foot, his right swung out at head height.
I leap towards E Honda and heavy kick again, very much up in his grill, as the kids say. The fat man recoils from the impact. I feel powerful right up until the point when he shoots forward like a cannonball and knocks me to the floor, then leaps into the air and drops arse-first on me. I struggle to my feet. Fuck, but this game is harder than I remember.
The old rituals to summon special moves do not come easily. I spin up a hadoken, the satisfying mimicry of quarter-circle-towards-punch translating through Ken’s arms gathering power and blazing it across the steam baths where we are, for some reason, fighting. The first one works; after that, it’s every other, Ken ducking and shuffling forward and and middle-punching the air rather than ripping blue fire out of the roiling elemental power in his soul.
I do a combo; air light punch to point-blank heavy fireball. It feels good. Not good enough to defeat him by a long shot. He performs the Hundred Hand Slap. I die. Street Fighter 2 has many moves like this – Blanka’s electricity, the multikick powered by Chun Li’s impossibly powerful thighs (which were the subject of perhaps more than one unironic pubescent fantasy). Moves where you hammer a button to attack a whole bunch of times. Cheap shit. Moves to give newbies a way of beating other newbies, to channel a knockback into a juggle if you time it right.
Ken doesn’t have that kind of move. Ken has the dragon punch and the hurricane kick, both of which require the user to input frankly unintuitive button combinations to pull them off. I have no idea what you’re supposed to do with the buttons are the for the hurricane kick, and while I’ve got a pretty good concept of what you need to do to pull off a dragon punch, I wouldn’t testify on it in a court of law.
(I remember buying the game long ago and coming home with a friend and looking through the manual at the list of special moves, selecting a pair of characters each in turn and trying them out for weight. Even under stress-free conditions, we could perform maybe one third of all the special moves. There is still something so elementally complex and unsolvable about Zangief’s spinning suplex drop that I feel to eventually achieve it in the heat of battle would be a major life achievement)
The second round lasts a little longer, because I remember that blocking is a thing. I absorb his attacks and fire fireball after fireball downrange, my only tool being a hammer and all my problems looking very much like nails. It fails to work.
I die. The fighting games I play these days are all double-tap-towards-and-kick or hold-a-direction-and-push-an-attack-button, and that can ruin you. You can feel too powerful. Too much in control. Street Fighter 2 is a hard lesson in how little a shit the world gives about you. You don’t deserve to get past level one without proficiency. This is not a learn-as-you-go experience, a gentle curve to surmount. This is a trial.
I turn off the game; our flight time has been extended by an hour and the lights switched off to calm us, just after I necked two cups of coffee in an attempt to be high enough to get through immigration and baggage claim with a smile on my face. I am wide-eyed, staring at the bright screen of the word processor app in the darkness, getting ready to crash for the fourth time since I woke up.
I have not slept in thirty-seven hours.