Monday, December 9, 2013

The Fireballs of Our Youth

It’s 1993 in a Pizza Hut arcade. I’m decked out in the most stylish Gecko Hawaii tee that Mervyn’s had to offer, and I’m standing in front of a Street Fighter II cabinet. I’m not playing. I either have no quarters or have already spent my allotted quarters, so I’m watching an older kid play. He’s fighting as Ken — the banana blond, He-Man-looking of the game’s two main characters, if you’re unfamiliar, and a practitioner of a martial art that involves throwing fireballs. Each time he shoots one off, Ken announces it by yelling the name of the move. (In a real-life fight, I realize now, this would reduce the likelihood of taking your opponent by surprise.) Curiously, the kid playing the game does this as well: Whether as a result of a nervous tic or rampant fanboy-ism, but he also announces the move every time he performs it. Only he doesn’t say it right. Instead of “Hadouken,” the proper name for the fireball, he says “All you can,” which is what it kind of sounds like, given the crude voice samples available back in 1993 and the context of a noisy arcade.

I put up with this until I could take no more.

— All you can! All you can!

— You know, that’s not what it’s called.

— What? All you can! All you can!

— When he shoots the fireball, he’s not saying “All you can.”

— Yes he is, stupid.

— No, he’s saying “Hadouken.”

— “Ha-doo-kan”? What does that even mean?

— It’s the name of the move.

— Who told you that?

— Nintendo Power.

— Well, it’s wrong. He’s says “All you can” because he’s saying “This is what I can do.”

— No, that’s wrong. If you listen on the home version, you can totally hear it.

— Why would he be saying some dumb made-up word?

— It’s not made-up.

— Yes it is. All you can! 

— No, it’s Japanese.

— Okay, now I know you’re stupid. Ken wouldn’t be speaking Japanese.

— Why not?

— Because, stupid: Ken is American. Why would an American person be speaking Japanese?

— Because this game is from Japan.

— Then why are there white people in it? Why aren’t all the characters Japanese?

— Because they wanted people all over the world to play it.

— And you think they brought this game to America and didn’t realize that they had the American character speaking crazy Japanese language?

— Yes.

— No, that’s probably against the law. You can have people speaking a language people don’t understand. How would you know what they’re saying?

— I don’t think that’s against the law.

— I’m going to ask my dad.

At this point, the older kid has lost — apparently yelling your special move names doesn’t help you win simulated fights, either — but on his way out into the pizza-consuming area of this establishment, he taps on the shoulder of another gamer at another machine and then gestures at me: “Hey, this stupid kid right here thinks that the people who own this place went to Japan Asia to buy their Street Fighter game, and then they didn’t even get the one that was for speaking American.” And he laughs and walks away.

(While I’m taking wild stabs at what we had, two key phrases are actual, verbatim quotes that have stuck in my head all these years — “Japan Asia,” in the style of “London, England,” as if Japan were the capital of Asia, as well as that classic shorthand for ignorance, “speaking American.”)

Daniel Stern voiceover: I didn’t realize it at the time, but that exchange actually foreshadowed a great many similar ones I’d have later in life, often with people in positions of power and who I sadly cannot just leave in the arcade while I enjoy my pizza. And that, maybe, is the saddest part of all.

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