In the arcade dark, desperation blazed.
Late 90’s: Everyone knew the trade was dead, that arcades were unsustainable.
That didn’t stop new ones from opening.
Like the euphoric hallucinations of a dying hermit, the hardware was twisting.
It became about size, flash, otherness, heat.
Some cabs grew large, some lit up like Vegas, some flowed with murals.
Arcades became desolate cities, the hardware became the graff and the alleys.
Before this, my passion had settled in the rapid flows of STGs.
As the death knell grew louder, STG cabs stood unchanged.
Smooth and fluid, they understood themselves better than other games.
They were simple to understand, beautiful to look at, exciting to engage with.
Their fundamental design was perfect and exhilarating.
For almost a decade, STGs colored the base of my arcade experience.
As the late 90’s began, as stranger and more surreal cabs manifested, I celebrated the end by expanding.
I understood what the other genres were. I waded in their ideas enough.
Light gun games, fighting games, racing games, puzzle games.
Arcades gave us multi-game literacy.
Shuffling through the exposed subconscious of the era, I came across a new kind of fighting game.
But in this time and place, I had lost the self-consciousness that had driven me away from the fighting genre.
Marvel vs. Capcom was strange, brash, and flashy.
It did not care what you thought about it or yourself.
It had something to say and it celebrated the end like a lone tank crew charging down an enemy battalion.
Marvel vs. Capcom was not the first crossover title to combine the two universes.
None of the arcades I went to had either, making MvC the first crossover fighting game I was exposed to.
MvC1 released in two variations: a large screen format and the standard cab format.
The local arcade had the large cab which lit up like white phosphorous in the dark.
The first thing you notice about MvC is how much it flashes.
How bright it burns.
The colors are simple and bold, searing.
The levels are dynamic and had more verticality than I was used to in a fighting game.
It was a fireworks show lighting up the heart of a dying industry.
When I got a chance to engage with it, I had no understanding of tiers.
With fighting games I had always assumed that the developers gave all the characters asymmetric, but equivalent tools.
I chose my team based on looks.
The assists were chosen at random (sort of).
MvC is a physical game.
The characters have real weight and density, they have honest friction.
The physicality of the game reminded me of SFII.
Its speed and difficulty of Strikers 1945.
While I found some success in the single-player campaign, I failed competitively.
Looking back, I just didn’t know enough about fighting games.
I enjoyed my time in that world.
I enjoyed the end of that time.
Marvel vs. Capcom 2 was released two years later.
One of the most anticipated releases in the arcade world.
The large cab was enormous, with a screen that swallowed everyone’s field of vision.
The graphics were improved and the character roster had expanded to levels never before seen in the genre.
With the breadth of character choice, Capcom also expanded from a tag-team fighting system to a full trio.
MvC2 was more explosive, faster, more chaotic than its predecessor.
It suffered for this.
I still had no idea about fighting games so I ended up sticking with my MvC1 team: Strider/Jin.
Something was off for me the second my first match started.
Something was lost.
While the art and levels honed the original’s bold, bright aesthetic, it lost its physicality.
The characters felt lighter, faster, less fricative.
This made MvC2 a better game to watch than 1, but not as necessary to play.
It was a social game before the era of mobile internet.
It was a prophecy.
It was a game you stood around and discussed in awe of what you were seeing.
The initial shock value of the game was high. With 56 characters to choose, it seemed like a game of true expression.
Over time, it became evident that along with Capcom not honing the movement, they hadn’t really taken the time to balance it.
In going for a faster game, a more chaotic game, Capcom had only made a handful of teams viable at high-level play.
MvC1 had been broken as well, but proportionally the player had more, real options with less than half the selection of 2 (22 characters).
MvC2 was bright and empty, like the place it was born into.
Marvel vs. Capcom 3 wouldn’t come out for another 11 years.
Capcom lost the Marvel license after MvC2.
By the time MvC3 released, the arcades were gone.
Many of the last remaining, best known arcades in the U.S. had either closed or were on the verge of closing.
MvC3 had no understanding of the time that had spawned its predecessors.
MvC3 was more ‘floaty’ than either of the first two games.
There was even less friction, less density than MvC2.
It also lost a lot of the brightness, a lot of the flash.
The art style was altered, creating a dark, murky, muted world.
This was Marvel vs. Capcom for the home generation.
In spite of its poor physics and boring style, Capcom did mange to improve in a few areas.
MvC3 produced more viable teams.
The game doesn’t just boil down to variations on the same team at high-level play.
Almost every year since its release, the meta-game has changed.
This made it even more watchable than MvC2.
Capcom understood the social draw of MvC2 and honed it further.
MvC3 is a fighting game that generates an enormous amount of discussion and collaboration.
It is often touted as being ‘fun to watch’ by the fighting game community even for those who don’t play it.
While the first two games in the MvC series were about chaos and explosiveness, MvC3 was about experimentation.
In the arcades, a person didn’t have the time or money to poke around inside a game.
Either someone was going to challenge you or someone was waiting for you to finish.
There was always a sense of urgency: You had to be able to develop and pick up technique in repeated bursts of play and in carefully watching the competition.
By turning away from the urgency of its arcade roots (there is no Marvel vs. Capcom 3 arcade cabinet for instance), by increasing the viable options available to the player, Capcom transitioned a series which grew out of the brash, colorful dreams of a dying market to a darker, colder era more geared towards experimentation, technicality, and discussion.
I miss the flash and physicality of MvC1.
I miss the chaos and breadth of MvC2.
But in making MvC3 more social and more open to experimentation, Capcom pivoted the game for a new market.
While the changes may have left MvC3 with a less satisfying aesthetic experience overall, the series has adapted and will survive in a new era instead of going down with the place and the time that birthed it.
Watching STGs struggle outside of arcades has been painful.
With all their elegant design and beauty, to see them collapse cuts deep.
But they are able to change and yet carry on the seeds of arcade tradition into new futures and technologies.
The collaborative and competitive nature of fighting games is what made the communities around them strong enough to survive the collapse.
Strong enough to celebrate the beginning and the end without weeping at the ruins.
Something has been lost.
That can’t be denied.
The death of the arcade was tragic and infuriating.
It was a slow decline, like watching someone you love whither away from some terminal illness.
But rather than mourn the loss, MvC embraced it.
The series celebrated what was and what was to come.
The FGC did the same:
Not always with grace, but with an endurance that can only come from profound loss and the enigmatic, joyous love of competition.