Street Fighter II is perhaps the most influential fighting game of all time. The 1991 arcade game introduced ideas that became standard across the genre — getting to choose from a number of characters, using six buttons and eight joystick directions to create a multitude of combo attacks. The game sold more than 15 million copies and became a phenomenon that other video game developers couldn’t help but notice.
But there’s influencing other games, and then there’s really influencing other games to the point where one has to wonder if they have any original ideas for themselves. At a certain point, the studio heads at Capcom felt like they had to put their foot down. They decided to sue Data East, makers of a game called Fighter’s History that had come out in 1993, the third year of SFII’s complete dominance of the sales charts.
Akira Nishitani, who had designed SFII, told Polygon in 2014 that Fighter’s History had crossed the line, almost feeling like a personal insult to Capcom.
“A lot of people would come up to people at Capcom, come up to Mr. [Kenzo] Tsujimoto, and say, "Are you sure you're going to let this go? You can't really let this go. This is really bad."
So Capcom sued. And it lost. You can see what the fight was all about right now if you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
The argument that Fighter’s History ripped off Street Fighter II makes a lot of sense when you play it. The game features nine diverse characters who can be pitted against each other in one-on-one combat, eventually taking fighters to secret characters who aren’t initially selectable. These fights take place in a variety of mildly interactive backgrounds around the world, from in front of the White House to European palaces to villages in Thailand.
Several of the fighters are extremely similar to those found in Street Fighter II. As IP law blog Patent Arcade notes, the courts found that the Fighter’s History characters “Matlok, Feilin and Ray, were similar to Guile, Chun Li and Ken.” Playing Ray, it’s easy to see why. Ray is clearly an American who knows karate, he shoots projectiles out of his cupped hands, and he screams “Yes!” after a win. After the victory, a blue screen appears showing both characters, the loser beaten up, and the winner giving a pithy taunt.
While Matlok Jade is undeniably a Guile rip-off with his blonde mohawk, at least the character’s been given a fun biographical reboot. Instead of being just another military guy, Matlok Jade is British punk. A bobby watches as you fight, and when Ray defeats him, he says something along the lines of, “I’ll never slam dance with you!” That’s pretty fun.
The fighting in Fighter’s History is pretty simple, and again, very similar to Street Fighter II. Samchay Tomyamgun, the game’s Thai fighter, bears a strong similarity to Dhalsim. The backgrounds, which feature cheering crowds, resemble SFII backgrounds. Speaking to Polygon, Data East’s lawyer on the case, Claude Stern, said that the ”fact of the matter is the Data East artists were copying Street Fighter. The ultimate work wasn't a slavish copy — a pixel-by-pixel copy — but they had evidence that we were copying things.”
So how did they get out of it? “Our response was, well, what we were copying wasn't protectable,” says Stern. “If a character like Ray or Matlok Jade kicked like Ken or Guile, the Data East response was ‘Well, wait a minute. Those are conventional moves within the martial arts field. You can't own that.’"
Stern and Data East argued that while Street Fighter II was undoubtedly influential, Capcom couldn’t own the idea of a one-on-one martial arts fight taking place on a street. Out of the 650 moves possible in SFII, the vast majority of them amount to various punches and kicks. The court didn’t see the case for making such moves the exclusive property of Capcom.
Fighter’s History has a few unique characteristics. Probably the most creative fighter is Clown, an evil clown who fights in a bizarro clown world and juggles enemies with his feet. I would have loved to see more of Clown, but it wasn’t in the cards.
As it stands, Fighter’s History is a fascinating part of gaming history, and fun enough to play. It’s a Street Fighter II clone after all, how bad could it be?