Street Fighter II was released 30 years ago this month, on 6 February 1991, becoming the biggest arcade game since the days of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, and spawning dozens of console versions and spin-offs.
It would go on to be one of the most influential video games of all time (and certainly the most influential in the ‘fighting’ genre), would inspire a myriad of artists and musicians (Kanye West infamously sampled the game on 2016’s Facts), and even gave rise to a cinematic outing starring Jean-Claude van Damme and Kylie Minogue… although the less said about that the better.
While the game’s matchplay format undoubtedly added to its allure – “You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance!” – it’s the in-game music that helps the action unfold at a riotous pace, from the funky J-Pop of Ryu’s temple home to the Chinese chimes of Chun-Li’s stage and jungle rhythms of Blanka’s Brazil base.
The music for the game was the work of Japanese musician Yoko Shimomura, who has since gone on to be recognised as one of the most famous video game composers of all time for her work on the Kingdom Hearts series and Final Fantasy XV – performing packed-out concerts in her native Japan and overseas.
When asked to compose the music for Street Fighter II at the start of the 90s, however, she was a relative newcomer to the video game scene – her first composition was for Samurai Sword on the NES – and had to choose between a promising early career in classical music or a step into the unknown.
“Several video game companies were recruiting students back then and I applied with barely any hope of getting accepted to any of the companies,” she told RocketBaby in 2002. “However, I got accepted! Although my path was already set to become a piano instructor, I chose the path of video games instead. My parents cried, my friends were worried and my teacher was stunned – we’re talking about way back when game music wasn’t as popular as it is these days.”
Her first encounter with Capcom, which would go on to make Street Fighter II, was when she took a job at an entertainment centre during her first year of junior college, where she was handing out flyers for Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins.
“However, I never dreamed that I would make game music at that time,” she told Pasonacareer earlier this year.
Taking up a ‘sound creator’ position at the software house in 1998, while her first few months were “tough”, as she told Red Bull Music Academy in 2014, it helped that the top video game composers at the company were also female, making life a little bit easier for the then-21 year old.
“When I joined Capcom originally, the top composers were kind of split into corporate and consumer projects. And both of the top composers were women, then,” she said. “They were talented and made great music. I felt that since the head staff were women, it was easier for other women to join the department.”
The opportunity to soundtrack Street Fighter II came about somewhat fortuitously, as Shimomura was presented with the option of soundtracking one of several forthcoming video games at Capcom.
“At that time, when one job was finished, I felt like I could start the next job without a pause,” she told Pasonacareer. “When I happened to be free, I was asked, “I have A, B, and C next, but which one should I choose?”
Following a chat with game designer Akira Nishitani, who was also behind the Final Fight series, she opted for the now-legendary fighting game, and set about composing tracks to match its international flavour.
“Mr. Nishitani would come up to me and show me designs of the characters and explain the personalities of the characters and ask me to make theme songs for each character,” Shimomura told Polygon some years back. “I would look at the backgrounds and the character descriptions and all that, and I noticed that each character had a unique background. And because of that, I suggested making each theme song based on their background country and culture.”
Inspiration for each track came from unusual sources, with Blanka’s theme reportedly inspired by the a visit on a morning train and an encounter with a paper bag the same colour as the jungle fighter.
“I was standing near the door, and you can see the rack on the top where you put your luggage when you sit down,” she told Red Bull Music Academy. “There was a yellow and green paper bag on top of that, and as soon as I saw it, I thought about Blanka’s color, and the melody just came into my head like that. ‘Tararirarin’ was in my head and I thought, ‘This is it!’ After that I was humming “’tararirarin, tararirarin’ the whole time on the train.”
Shimomura’s classical training also enabled her to incorporate some intelligent musical passages into her work – in the aforementioned Blanka’s theme, the main rhythm is in a major key, but the melody is in a minor key, creating an unsettling feeling for the player. “That strange, broken feeling is what made the song for me,” as she put it.
While not all the music for the game was composed by Shimomura – Sagat’s theme and the ‘Here Comes a New Challenger’ interlude were among the pieces composed by her colleague Isao Abe – there’s little doubt that the game and its impact helped foster what would turn out to be a lengthy career in video game music, and set a high standard.
As Kazunori ‘Ippo’ Yamada, who joined Capcom shortly after Shimomura departed in 1993 (taking up a job with Square) told Polygon, “When I first heard her tracks, they blew my mind. The great thing about her work is not that it’s particularly complex, but the way she creates a very catchy tone, kind of like Michael Jackson. In a short segment she’s able to describe a lot.
“Once you hear a bit of Ken’s theme or Chun-Li’s theme, you instantly feel like you’re in this special place.”
Hausu Mountain label boss Max Allison similarly praised Shimomura’s ability to create musical masterpieces with what was at the time a fairly crude set-up, in an interview with Vice in 2019.
“Among SNES games, the arrangements for both the CPS1 and CPS2 versions of the Street Fighter II soundtrack pack so much power in the drum programming and instrumentation,” he said.
“You can hear Shimomura’s ear for orchestral arrangements starting to shine through, which she would explore more in-depth on later OSTs, but the little bite-sized one-minute loops here are all perfect and present so many discrete ideas in so little time.”
As for Shimomura herself? She appears to be equally proud of her work on the game, as she told VGM Online in 2009, “Street Fighter II really was my baby. […] I really didn’t expect the music to create quite as much impact as it did and still follow the music of the series quite closely. I have lots of great memories about the project.”
Video game compositions have come a long way since Street Fighter II, but 30 years on from its release, the now-familiar soundtrack can’t help but evoke happy memories… which is the reason why we play games in the first place, right?
“I don’t think the actual process of creating music has changed one bit,” Shimomura told Vice. “There is a difference between having three sound channels and having an entire orchestra, but the difference manifests itself in the final product itself, rather than what goes behind the music.”
All of which begs the question… Ryu or Chun-Li? 🙂