UK Arcades and Grime

A Brief Look at London's Fighting Game Community and it's relationship with its once-underground music scenes

Much has been said before about the cultural links between video games (particularly the likes of Street Fighter) and the sounds of urban London. One of the original grime instrumentals came from a 1994 SNES release, after all….

The cultural intersections with London's arcade legacy are, unfortunately, less acknowledged. For it is in the city that the link between fighting games and UK Grime - as well as the original social phenomenon - was forged.

For London youths born into working-class families, the amusement arcade was an escape. And the early 1990s saw several crucial things happen to the city's arcade landscape - attempts to disassociate the less than favourable reputation that many spots had cultivated— This began with the opening of Funland at the Trocadero in 1990. When launched, it was one of the earliest arcades in the capital without any gambling machines or age restrictions.

The accessibility of arcades in the inner-city environment was now better than it ever had been before. Add random cabinets in unrelated venues into the mix - takeaways, taxi ranks, leisure centres, cinemas - and you have the breeding grounds for a social phenomenon, and eventually, a community.

“Quintessentially, the arcade scene in London was the foundation for the whole [fighting game community] in the UK”

- Marc Denton, CEO of Visual Platform

When the first Street Fighter II cabinets appeared at new and old London haunts, the scene that formed around them became an overnight sensation. This led to availability in hundreds of venues; SFII was now out there for everyone, even to the young street wanderers - some of these became immersed in the London Fighting Game Community (FGC).

Reflecting both other nascent FGCs and the city's state itself, the London scene was multicultural. A natural by-product of this was the diverse tastes in music - many kids were following the ever-mutating strains of underground music, from hip-hop to breakbeat hardcore, from jungle to drum and bass.

And eventually, games made by Japanese video amusement powerhouses on the other side of the world would be reflected by these ground-breaking movements in art and sound.

After a small number of state-side hip-hop records forging the earliest usage of Street Fighter II sound effects (Hi-C - Swingin', DJ QBert - Track 10), the game's influence began to percolate into electronic dance music styles. Underground breakbeat tracks like "Fists of Fury" by Sky Joose and "Street Fighting" by Scott-Free brought an edge through their sound effect samples from Street Fighter II.

A few commercial misfires followed: The hip-hop soundtrack complemented 1995's Street Fighter: The Movie is well known but largely depended on existing songs from big-name USA rap stars, merely cementing the game's link to music on that side of the pond. In the UK, 'The World Warrior' and 'Einstein' (also known as 'MC Mario' on his previous success, "Supermarioland") attempted to make a novelty hit out of SFII. It didn't work.

Street Fighter's influence can instead be heard in the overground realm of popular music as early as April 1998, when 2-step UK garage duo 187 Lockdown released the follow-up to their previous success, "Gunman", “Kung-Fu," cycling through those instantly recognizable samples SFII samples "Round 1", "Fight!", and eventually "You Win!" at the end.

"Kung-Fu" would get as high as #9 in the UK pop charts, even earning the duo - Julian Jonah and Danny Harrison a performance on famed BBC TV show Top of the Pops. A bonafide hit record communicated London's ongoing love affair with arcade fighting games to a largely unsuspecting popular audience…

In the wake of the song's peak, tournaments continued, and future scene figureheads like Ryan Hart continued their ascendancy; the arcade era didn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

However, by 1999, turbulence had begun, as the late 1990s coin-operated industry decline was felt. Early FGC stronghold Namco Wonderpark closed it’s doors for good; cabinets slowly disappeared from other venues in the region as tax hikes commenced.

The arcade scene scattered to the remaining holdouts. As consoles rose to prominence, a contingent of players, aided by the Dynamic League, stuck to the Trocadero and Casino until their own bitter ends in the early 2010s.

But while the arcade scene died down, underground music continued to flourish. UK Garage mutated into a sound we now know as Grime, bringing it closer in touch with hip-hop.

A generation of London kids brought up on hip-hop, breakbeats, and arcade cabinets were now on the ascendancy. And as Grime developed, many critics noted its sibling-relation to video games - some musicians even used video games to make their artwork.

[One honourable mention is breakout star Tinchy Stryder - his name deriving from none other than Strider Hiryu.]

Street Fighter continued its influence. Both sounds and melodies can be heard in 2002 freestyles by the likes of a pre-fame Dizzee Rascal.

As one-on-one rap battles/clashes emerged on the UK scene, it made perfect sense for fighting games to be a part of the movement. A young DJ Charlie Sloth took it upon himself to litter his radio shows with “Fight!” and “Perfect!” samples. One crowning moment of fighting games' influence on Grime came in 2010 when D Double E dropped his "Street Fighter Riddim" - a track based around a never-ending stream of SF call-backs.

Throughout the 2010s, references to fighting games could continually be heard in tracks by some of the biggest names, benefitting off of the genre’s thrust into the mainstream: JME, Big Narstie, Giggs, all artists who’ve inserted a fighting game character or two into brief bars. Tracks where the influence is more pronounced include P Money’s “Panasonic”, channelling Guile’s “Sonic-Boom” into its delivery and production.

Cureently, with the now-aging Grime diversifying further into subgenres and fighting games prevailing quietly at independent arcades like Freeplaycity, London becomes an evermore costly landscape for both underground and arcade culture to exist in its heartlands - increasingly taken over by the expensive and the tacky. However, occasional influence from the past can still be seen.

Reflecting the state of urban London, the recent music video for PK’s “FAVELA” plays with side-scrolling fighter graphics:

Above: (A distinct ‘Cashino’ can be found in the video. (A reference that could cut deep for a London veteran). The adult gaming-center chain eventually replaced long-standing arcade icon: Electrocoin’s Casino Leisure Centre in Islington. )

The urban environment depicted by “FAVELA” doesn’t seem to be about arcades on the surface. Still, it reminds us of endless exportation of concepts, remixing of audio samples, and the urban landscapes that contain and cultivate key community centres worldwide…

Share

Leave a comment