If Arnie from the 80s or Hulk Hogan in his heyday starred in a movie featuring them as an ass-kicking mayor, Final Fight could have been the greatest tie-in ever.
Capcom’s famous beat ’em up was the brainchild of Yoshiki Okamoto. Although his name might not be as familiar as Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, his games could also be found in the same arcade as Donkey Kong and Super Mario during the rocking 80s. Games like Time Pilot, Gyruss, and 1942 competed for tokens and quarters in the same way that Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong did alongside scores of others.
In an archived interview for Videogamespot by Steven Kent, Okamoto reveals his history, starting out at Konami as an artist in 1982 and then eventually moved into game design making him wonder if he were hired under “false pretenses” as that was what they wanted to him to be after all.
In that role, he was tasked to create a racing game. Instead, and under his boss’ nose, he created what he had proposed in the first place – a flying-type of shooter game. In an interview in 1997 that he did with Shinsuke Nakamura who was part of the shmup dev house, Psikyo, archived by GSL (Japan) and hosted over at shmuplations.com, he recounts being inspired by Namco’s Bosconian. This became Time Pilot (you can see the influence in how the time traveling plane flies around the screen like you also can in Bosconian). And, luckily for him, was a solid hit in the arcades.
It arrived in Japan first in 1982, then internationally in 1983 thanks to distributors like Centuri who handled the North American end. In the interview, Okamoto shares an anecdote in seeing his boss talking to Konami’s president, being called over, and hearing how his boss’ “guidance” was responsible for the big hit, taking credit for the game. Okamoto stood by and backed him up on his version of the truth despite knowing the real story to avoid disgracing him.
The next game for Okamoto was Gyruss and this came out in ’83, a year that arcades were also experiencing their own recession though arguably weathering it slightly better than what the Video Game Crash handed consoles like the Atari 2600. It didn’t sell quite as many units as a result, but it was still a strong hit. Then Okamoto asked for a raise slightly more than the “really small raise” they offered him and the next day, he was fired. If only he and David Crane could have met up.
Fortunately, he landed on his feet at a small company called Capcom. It was really small, Okamoto recalls, though the president told him “that in the future, Capcom would be a really big company.” During his time there, Capcom stormed the arcades with a variety of games ranging from Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to Commando. Okamoto’s titles, 1943, Gunsmoke, and Sidearm, were also a lot of fun — but weren’t quite as successful.
Okamoto was worried about his future there when he discovered Taito’s Double Dragon II. He liked the concept, but the graphics and the gameplay didn’t quite grab him, so he thought he would try and do better. With a full team of programmers under him, and with an idea on just how to outdo Double Dragon II, Final Fight came together.
At this time, Capcom’s arcade prowess was well known thanks to a battery of hits. In 1988, they also had an innovative hardware solution that many of their later hits would run on — the CP System aka the CPS-1.
Back then, arcade cabinets often had specialized hardware supporting only one type of game at a time making it an expensive investment for both arcade operators and manufacturers. Capcom’s solution was a standardized hardware platform that more than one game could use, cutting down on costs for both themselves and their clients. It had at its heart two extremely flexible and highly popular chips — the Motorola 68000 (or 68k) and the Zilog Z80 which, among many other things outside of the arcade, also became the heart of Sega’s Master System and a part of Sega’s Mega Drive a few years later.
Now if operators wanted a cabinet to run a different game, they could swap out the ROM board for a new one instead of having to replace everything. It was like having a console in a cabinet.
In 1989, Final Fight became one of the latest games to use the hardware in its debut. It was initially shown off as a sequel to Street Fighter which is what Capcom wanted (as Street Fighter ’89) — one of the main characters in the game, Haggar, even refers to himself as a former Street Fighter — but after arcade operators saying it was nothing like the fighting game, the title was finally changed to Final Fight.
It wasn’t hard to see why. Final Fight wasn’t a fighting game though it did share a few things in common with Street Fighter such as the great art style, the concept of selecting different characters, health bars, and bonus stages. Outside of that, it wasn’t player vs. player — it was one player (or a second one working cooperatively) against everything in the game.
In a setting that could have been at home in an 80s action flick, Metro City is a corrupt slum controlled by the Mad Gear Gang. Newly elected mayor, Mike Haggar, has vowed to clean things up. Bad news for him is that the Mad Gear Gang have an issue with his platform. So, they kidnapped his daughter, Jessica, and are threatening her life if he doesn’t let them run things the way the previous mayor did. Of course, he’s not going to let them get away with it. Jessica’s boyfriend, Cody, is also coming along with his martial arts friend, Guy, and the three set out to finally dole out some street justice the old fashioned way.
Two buttons, one attack and one for jumping, were all you needed to with the eight-way joystick to wreck all of the thugs coming after whoever you picked. Cody was a balanced character with street fighting skills coupled with decent damage and okay speed. Guy was super quick with martial art themed moves, and Haggar was tops in power and used wrestling moves though wasn’t quite as fast as Guy or Cody.
Enemies with names like Axl, Holly Wood, Andore Jr., Bill Bull, and J filled out a colorful roster ranging from coat wearing, spikey haired punks to leopard leotard top wearing muscle men. There were also a lot of palette swaps, too, where sprites were cloned and colors — such as those for their clothes — were changed along with their name to give these legions a slight degree of variety.
One of the more controversial characters were Poison and Roxy, two women that featured in the game as baddies. Concerns on how American audiences viewing hitting women in the game kicked off a string of answers creating a legendary ambiguity to their gender depending on who you talk to. In the arcade, both Roxy and Poison presented themselves two scantily dressed bad girls that had no compunctions about killing Haggar, Cody, or Guy — and that’s all the exposition anyone got. However, at Capcom, they were referenced as transvestites.
Later, Poison appeared in 1999’s ill-fated Final Fight Revenge with a romantic interest in Cody which the book, All About Capcom, suggested as that she may have had a sex change. In 2005’s Capcom Classics Collection, it acknowledges Poison’s transvestite characterization with Roxy disagreeing with it. Akira Nishitani, who worked on Final Fight, opined that the character could be male but left it to you to decide.
Then Street Fighter IV’s Yoshinori Ono answered in an interview that she’s a post-op transsexual in North America. In Japan, “she simply tucks her business away to look female.” Later, he changed his mind saying that she’s a post-op transsexual and then hopping onto Nishitani’s “leave it to the fans” train as the better answer.
The controversy didn’t end there, either, with an LGBT group petitioning Capcom about quotes that they felt were insensitive towards transsexuals demonstrated in early footage for Street Fighter X Tekken, quotes that Capcom agreed to change. So in the end, it’s no surprise that everyone is still confused to this day.
Nevertheless, during the early 90s, all of this wasn’t common knowledge though there were “rumors” here and there. When the game finally ported over to the SNES, both Roxy and Poison were simply replaced by two manly thugs named Billy and Sid. To most players that experienced the arcade version, that was an odd change before possibly surmising it was due to the issue that brought it up in the first place — how American audiences would react to women being hit in Final Fight.
Regardless of gender, everyone was out to grind Haggar, Cody, and Guy into pulped meat. Curb stomping the thugs of Metro City took place across six stages — each representing a section of the city such as the Slums (separated from the rest of the city by barbed wire fencing) to the fancier streets and penthouse in Up Town. Two bonus stages, a neat feature that also came up in Street Fighter games, gave players a chance to score bonus points first by smashing up a gang member’s car to breaking panes of glass, both of which were timed.
In addition to the detailed backdrops, the bosses also demonstrated Capcom’s tradition for memorable character designs that would carry over into later beat ’em ups such as their adaptations of Dungeons & Dragons. Characters also had a special “power move” that drained a bit of their health but inflicted damage all around them in case they were in a tight spot. Haggar’s , for example, was a spinning, yelling fist move. Power ups found by breaking open things like phone booths and barrels included staples such as a giant turkey on a plate, ham, a katana, lead pipes, or extra-point goodies like a wad of cash.
Final Fight punched its way to a huge number of platforms from the Commodore 64, the SNES, PS2, Amiga, and eventually over to the Wii’s Virtual Console and even iOS. It’s been included in compilations and continues to be remembered today on numerous beat ’em up lists and polls. Two more sequels (both of which did not show in the arcades) and two spinoffs followed later with varying levels of success. Characters from the series would also show up in other Capcom games such as the Street Fighter series.
Today, it still holds up especially if you’re a big fan of old school beat ’em ups where button mashing beat downs are still as satisfying as they were in the arcade. The detailed sprites, sound effects, and music aren’t so much nostalgic as they are fitting for a game like this one hearkening back to the kind of distilled directness that films such as Commando and The Warriors wore on their sleeves when it came to dispensing justice the only way two fists, a turkey hidden in a barrel, and a piledriver could deliver.