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Obscure Pixels: Street Fighter II: Rainbow Edition

I was five when I saw my first hadouken.

On my tiptoes in a local video store, three teenagers were wasting away their afternoon on a Street Fighter II machine. Whoever won the round jumped off to let their friend finish — that was the rule of the day, after all.

A fourth person stood in the back, arms folded like the lead henchman in a Lethal Weapon film. He’d nod approvingly at what was going on, but say nothing. Little did I know that he held the secrets of the universe in his hands.

I was already mesmerised by the game: I saw a green-skinned beast flipping about at a Soviet wrestler, or perhaps a sumo furiously palm-striking a soldier with an absurd crew cut. It was all impressive to me, but I wasn’t allowed to play. Plus, I couldn’t see over the lip of the cabinet to hit the buttons, so I’d simply watch before renting out a Bruce Lee movie for the fifteenth time and go home.

After a few games, the kid in the back walked up to the machine and bumped his friend out of the way. He picked Ryu, the gi-clad karate-ka. The round started, and with a (retrospectively, very awkward) movement of his hands, Ryu threw fire across the screen, and it blew my mind. It was, to date, the coolest thing I had ever seen.

Street Fighter II from the Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection

It may not sound like much these days, but that was a formative moment that canonised a love of fighting games for an entire generation of nerds. Kids at my school would start running around the playground, posing at each other while shouting the same garbled “adooget” they heard at the video store. I started going to the video store not to rent anything in particular, but just to watch people play Street Fighter II. In an era before the internet, special moves were the kind of guarded secrets that only a privileged few knew about, so to see one in the wild was like spotting a unicorn.

Cut to a few months later: I visited a fish & chip shop near a friend’s house, and spotted yet another Street Fighter II machine. It was a beat up old thing — spray painted jet black with a torn marquee, maybe a repurposed cabinet meant for another game — with a colour shifted, busted CRT screen and joysticks that look like they were chewed on. I didn’t play, but I did watch the demo mode, and what I saw blew my mind all over again.

Ken threw two fireballs from his hands. And they bounced around.

I naively assumed it was Street Fighter III, and so I convinced my parents that despite not even liking seafood at the time, there was nothing I wanted more for every meal than fish & chips, just to go back there and play it.

Of course, it wasn’t Street Fighter III: that game wouldn’t drop until 1997. It was, in fact, a variant of a little-known, but widely-played romhack known colloquially as Street Fighter II: Rainbow Edition, and though you wouldn’t think it at the time, it would go on to become one of the most important bootlegs in videogame history.

Capcom, during the peak of Street Fighter II’s boom period, didn’t have the means to keep up with the demand that was present for their game. As such, industrious bootleggers took to filling the gap with knock-offs. It was a simple enough procedure of placing a circuit board in an existing compatible machine — and so much like the fish & chip store I frequented, people were repurposing otherwise derelict cabinets into the hottest thing going. It was a cheap and effective solution to a very real problem, and it kept the Street Fighter brand at the forefront, even if Capcom themselves weren’t seeing any of the revenue.

Over time, the bootleggers would insert their own changes into the game. One such company, Hung Hsi Industries, would make a version of the game with a “rainbow” coloured logo, hence the name, and the sheer quantity of boards they would go on to produce would see it go on to become the one true Street Fighter bootleg. In fact, it’s speculated that there were likely more bootleg versions of Street Fighter II in local haunts than there were the real thing, which is a staggering thing to consider.

In Rainbow Edition, every character was absolutely broken beyond recognition: moves tracked across the screen in milliseconds, walk speeds were tuned up to absurd speeds, and of course, you could fill the entire screen with projectiles (which could be thrown in the air, if you felt inclined). Some tracked the opponent’s position, others flew across the screen like rockets, or in my case, two of them would bounce across the screen instead of one. And if all of that wasn’t enough, pressing the start button would immediately switch out your character for the next in the roster. It was an unbalanced mess, but it was fun in its own way.

However, the real kicker came not from any specific character change, but rather, something that laid beneath the surface. Hung Hsi turned up the game speed by about 25%.

James Goddard, a former community organiser for Capcom, and later development lead for Capcom USA, said this about the change in the fantastic Polygon article Street Fighter II: An Oral History:

“He picks Guile; I pick Zangief. I go to play, and oh my God, the game felt like it was underwater. […] I had just spent the last four to six hours playing Rainbow Edition at 25 percent speed increase, so Champ Edition felt like s**t. It was so slow. For the next two hours, I could not shake that. And it threw my timing off. […] It was just kind of this oh my God moment where I went, ‘The real threat of Rainbow Edition is not all the fireballs in the air and the craziness. The threat is the speed is addicting, and it changes everything.'”

Subsequent to this, Goddard championed a version of Street Fighter II that was similarly sped up, and even contained certain moves dragged straight from Rainbow Edition such as Ryu and Ken’s air hurricane kicks, Dhalsim’s teleport, Chun-Li’s double jump, and more. Capcom Japan hated what would become known as Hyper Fighting, thinking it was too fast, but fighting game fans the world over loved it. What was once solely the domain of bootleggers became Capcom certified.

It was a game speed that became standard for the series — up to and including its fifth main-line release in 2016 — and with Street Fighter being the reigning monarch of the genre, it created a halo effect that spread to every other franchise as well. People didn’t just adjust to the improved game speed, they preferred it. Moves were too fast to be reactable consistently, which put an emphasis on prediction as well as reaction. It was the gameplay dynamic that became the bedrock of the genre. From King of Fighters to Mortal Kombat and more, future fighting game releases would quite literally keep the pace that Hyper Fighting set — but without Rainbow Edition to pave the way, who knows where we’d be?

All in all, it’s somewhat amazing to think that one of the most iconoclastic releases in the fighting game genre apart from Street Fighter II itself came from an opportunistic Taiwanese developer that Capcom would sue into oblivion. However their legacy lives on, quietly revered by those in the know, but ultimately never officially credited nor acknowledged. Although Capcom had to chase them, as it turned out, Hung Hsi Industries was the hero that fighting games deserved.

From time to time, I still fire up the innocuously titled “Street Fighter II: Champion Edition (M5)” on my retro box to see that rainbow logo and relive those halcyon days at the fish & chip shop. It’s as dumb now as it ever was, but Zangief shoots flames from his feet, so there’s that.

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