On a recent stroll through the arcade in The Strong’s eGameRevolution exhibit, I recalled a favorite childhood memory of my hometown arcade. During the early to middle 1990s, even as arcades declined, young gamers like me hurried to our local arcades after school to pick fights. No, these weren’t real fights, but some players left with sore fingers from mashing buttons and injured egos from too many lost battles. During these years, video arcade fighting games such as Capcom’s Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (1991) and Midway’s Mortal Kombat (1992) dominated the arcade landscape. Yet long before these games turned arcades into virtual battlegrounds, Cinemetronics’ (under the Vectorbeam name) 1979 vector graphics-based masterpiece Warrior (1979) introduced gamers to one-on-one arcade video game combat.
When designer Tim Skelly began work on Warrior in 1979, there were few arcade games in which two players could fight each other by manipulating human-shaped figures on a video game screen. Sega’s 1976 boxing game Heavyweight Champ, perhaps the first true one-on-one fighting game, was largely overlooked, while Taito’s Gun Fight (1975) focused, not surprisingly, on shooting and dodging gun shots from one’s opponent. Yet for Skelly Gun Fight’s model of competitive two-player combat proved just as influential as the setting of author Michael Moorcock’s 1965 fantasy novel Stormbringer and Cinematronics’ vector graphics-based game Space Wars (1977).
Merging one-on-one game play with fantasy themes and vector graphics, Skelly produced a game with vibrant graphics, dazzling background artwork, and a new kind of video arcade experience. Warrior’s game play instantly set it apart from other games. Instead of firing at computer-controlled alien attackers in single player games such as Taito’s Space Invaders (1978), two players each chose to control one of two equally powered armor-clad knights set in a beautifully rendered neon castle. A typical game resembled a Star Wars light saber battle—a delicate dance of swinging, glowing swords and side-stepping, bottomless pits. Because each player wielded the same weapon and navigated the same terrain, only the player’s skill level mattered. Warrior, then, created a new kind of game space where an empowered young gamer might beat up a grown up in a virtual fight.
Skelly’s new kind of game did well commercially, but unfortunately, it was a two-player-only game during an era when player versus machine games such as Space Invaders, Asteroids (1979), and Pac-Man (1982) filled arcades. During the 1980s arcade games such as Data East’s Karate Champ (1984) and Capcom’s Street Fighter (1987) renewed interest in fighting games and laid the foundation for a new sub genre of martial arts fighting games. By the early to middle 1990s, arcade fighting games such as Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter (1993), Tekken (1994), and weapons-based fighting game Soul Edge (1995) invaded arcades. Arcade goers regularly huddled around these cabinets or waited in lines for the chance to exchange virtual blows with friends and strangers alike.
Ultimately, Warrior didn’t draw long lines at arcades or spur many game designers to immediately create similar fighting games. Instead, Skelly’s pioneering effort opened a door to a one-on-one virtual fighting experience that became massively popular a decade later.
This summer, The Strong’s Boardwalk Arcade exhibit will celebrate and examine the history of arcade games, pinball machines, and other forms of public amusement. The show will feature several rare games such as Warrior, not ordinarily available for guests to play. Tell us about your favorite arcade fighting games, and this summer, visit Boardwalk Arcade to play one of the first.