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How Tekken became the last arcade fighter standing

Tekken 7 is the next fighting game to go from arcade to console -- but it looks like it's also one of the last.

Something terrible happened to me four years ago. My local arcade closed down.

For years, I was a dedicated Tekken player. I'd spend countless hours each week in the arcade trying to master the craft of virtual close-quarter combat. I never got close, but I have fond memories of learning the intricacies of a deep game and meeting plenty of friends doing it.

When my main arcade shut down, I fell off the bandwagon. I was an embarrassment to the scene. But others kept on, and Sydney still has a small but dedicated community of fighting game fans, as do many cities in the US.

Nowadays, there are two fighting games you'll find in an arcade: Tekken and Street Fighter. Street Fighter V, released on PS4 and PC last year, became the first game in the franchise that didn't get an arcade release. Since this is where fighting games are traditionally first released, it's unclear how much longer the franchise's arcade scene will live on for.

Arcades aren't dead, but they're dying. And that's bad news for all gamers.

Fallen king

In the '90s, the golden era of the arcade fighter, people flocked to arcades to play games like Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter, Tekken and particularly Street Fighter -- Street Fighter II is estimated to have grossed over $2 billion just from arcade plays.

Now, America, Europe and Australia are devoid of arcade fighting-game communities.

"I started playing around Tekken 5 [in 2005]," said Youssef Faddoul, the official manager of the Sydney Fighting Game community, organising tournaments around the country. "Back then, just [one arcade] had something like 16 Tekken cabinets.

"Skip forward to today, we have two Tekken 7 machines in all of New South Wales."

Only 14 arcades across seven states in the US have Tekken 7 machines, according to Namco, while there are a big fat zero in Europe.

Tekken 3 was released in 1996, amid the golden era of arcade fighters.

Bandai Namco

The situation is even worse for Street Fighter players. New arcade releases breathe life back into the scene, but with Street Fighter V being console-only, the arcade community will be playing outdated games, which can only be corrosive to the community.

"The Japanese arcade isn't what it used to be," said Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono in 2015, lamenting Street Fighter V not getting an arcade release.

"[Bandai Namco and Capcom] run arcades in Japan, but the Capcom ones are going towards crane catchers and one-off cabinets," he explained. "There's not much space for the typical arcade cabinet. That's the situation."

Tekken and Street Fighter are the most popular fighters out there, having sold 42 and 38 million games on consoles respectively. Those outside of Japan who play less renowned Fighters, like Virtua or The King of Fighters XIV, have no arcade option at all.

For people who fell in love with playing their game of choice at an arcade, this sucks. But it isn't just they who'll be feeling the burn.

Everybody hurts

No arcades means it's harder for studios to make good fighting games.

Developers typically release their games in arcades months before they port them over to consoles. Take Tekken 7: That hits store shelves on June 2, over two years after it made its debut in Japanese arcades.

For Tekken developer Bandai Namco, this period serves as a beta test. The Tekken 7 that'll be played on the PlayStation 4,

Street Fighter V was the first main game in the franchise that didn't get an arcade release.

Capcom

"There was a lot that was changed based on feedback from the players," Katsuhiro Harada, executive producer of Tekken 7, said to CNET. The arcade release, he said, was key to balancing out the characters.

This is crucial. One overpowered character can ruin a whole game. Akuma was so strong in Street Fighter II: Turbo that he was banned from all official tournaments in the US. In 2002's Tekken 4, almost every tournament match up would be Jin vs. Jin, because he stood head-and-shoulders above all other characters.

But balance is something that typically only impacts serious players. Tekken is known and loved for its accessibility and most casual players won't understand the game enough to feel the difference between a middling B+ and a top-level S-tier character. But they will notice Tekken 7's distinct style. Harada added that little details, like costume overhauls and graphical changes to stages and backgrounds, were made based on player feedback.

With Street Fighter V not getting an arcade release, Tekken stands as the last blockbuster fighter to get arcade play. It's a shame, because arcades help developers.

"It's hard to say we can continue this for the coming years," Harada admitted, "if we didn't have that arcade base for Tekken we could have not made it to Tekken 7."

Cause of death

It was the one-two punch of infrequent releases and increasingly popular home consoles that spelled the end of the arcade scene.

As Harada points out, Capcom didn't release a new Street Fighter game for nearly a decade. 1999's Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike was followed in 2008 by Street Fighter IV. In that time, almost all franchises other than Tekken fell by the wayside.

Virtua Fighter, a fixture in the scene in the early '90s, fell off due to Sega's infrequent releases -- just two got arcade releases since 1996. Similarly, Mortal Kombat 4, released in 1997, was the last game in the franchise to hit arcades. Guilty Gear still gets arcade updates, but has little presence outside of Japan.

In that time, home consoles became far more popular, with Sony's original PlayStation becoming the first console to sell over 100 million units. After that, online play started to become the home of multiplayer. Take Microsoft's Xbox Live: In 2003, there were 350,000 gamers subscribed to the online gaming platform -- now there are 48 million.

With more players at home and less at the arcade, operators gravitated away from video games. A local arcade manager told CNET that physical "skill" based machines, like crane games, bring in more money for less of an investment.

"The arcades [didn't exist] because of fighting games, fighting games were born of the arcade," Harada points out. "Times have changed and the way people play games have changed. There's a lot of free-to-play games out there now, so people feel different about the value of a game, whether it's worth a dollar per-play... even getting a consumer to buy a [game] is more difficult than it used to be."

So when you can stay home and play in your underpants, is there really any point in venturing out to an arcade?

No substitute

There sure is, say fighting game players. Shooters and MMORPGs may feel at home online, but not fighters.

"Literally one frame makes a massive difference," said Faddoul, who's played multiple fighting games at tournament level.

Take Tekken: It has what's called a "punisher" system. If you block an attack, your enemy will be left at "minus frames," and you'll be able to hit them with a 11-, 13- or 15-frame "punish" that they won't be able to block. Players study frame data to know how many "minus frames" their opponents are left at after having different attacks blocked, and use different punisher attacks appropriately.

With a laggy connection, this entire element of the game is removed, as a quarter-second of lag can correspond to 10-15 frames. Street Fighter players are impacted just as much.

"Some Street Fighter combos require frame-specific inputs," Faddoul explains. "You know the combo, when to hit what button at what time, but sometimes the game will drop your input or register late."

In either case, you lose out on huge damage you'd otherwise have inflicted, and there's less incentive to play with precision or even learn how to play properly.

Sydney's Tekken scene with Harada, circa 2012.

Aris Suwirto

But even if offline play could be technically recreated online, there would still be a massive elements missing: atmosphere.

"Why do you watch a football game live when you can just watch it at home?" Faddoul asserts. "Yes it's the same football game, but the environment makes a big difference."

After the arcade scene dies in the west, a fate seen as inevitable by most, offline meetups will still happen. But the authentic arcade experience won't be replicated, and it'll be difficult for an offline community to grow -- strangers can't just waltz into peoples' homes like they can an arcade.

Tekken 7 will be the latest in a long line of fighting games hitting consoles after being born in the arcade. But it's likely one of the last, with the storied arcade era of gaming truly nearing its end.

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