Capcom once filed suit in an attempt to get Fighter’s History pulled from arcades. And today, you can play it on Switch! So, clearly, the lawsuit didn’t work out.
The explosion of the fighting game genre after the release of Street Fighter II in 1991 raised some legal questions. The avalanche of one-on-one martial arts games was due to the popularity of Capcom’s game. Also, most of these games took design cues from Street Fighter. For example, in most of them, if you picked the main character and did a quarter-circle followed by a punch button, you were pretty much guaranteed to throw a projectile not dissimilar to a Hadouken.
The legal question was, in a nutshell, how much “inspiration” was too much? Even if a game didn’t copy the artwork, music, or character names directly, did the totality of it constitute a copyright violation? Capcom decided to go to court to find out.
While there were many Street Fighter II imitators in arcades, Capcom was particularly irked by Data East’s game Fighter’s History. Like Street Fighter II, it depicted a world-spanning martial arts tournament with fighters using different styles from different regions. But to Capcom, some of the fighters and moves seemed a little too close for comfort—fighters with blond hair and green tank tops doing moves that were executed similarly to Guile’s Sonic Boom and Flash Kick, a Muay Thai fighter that looked similar to Sagat and threw fireballs, a young woman in traditional Chinese dress, etc.
“Fighter’s History was pretty similar, and during that time a lot of people would come up to people at Capcom, come up to [president Kenzo] Tsujimoto, and say, ‘Are you sure you’re going to let this go? You can’t really let this go. This is really bad,’” Street Fighter II designer Akira Nishitani told Polygon in 2014.
In 1994, Capcom and Data East went to court. Capcom showed that Data East’s design document for Fighter’s History made numerous references to Street Fighter II. Data East argued that Capcom itself had based its characters on real-life fighting styles and real-life costumes, which were elements that any martial arts fighting game would necessarily have to use, and that control inputs like “quarter circle” were not protectable by copyright.
Gaming journalist Bill Kunkel was called in as an expert witness, arguing on behalf of Data East. Kunkel had already testified in a similar trial years ago, arguing that Magnavox’s dot-eating maze game K.C. Munchkin was not violating the copyright of Pac-Man. Magnavox won in district court but ultimately lost on appeal, and Munchkin had to be pulled from shelves.
Fortunately, Data East prevailed in court this time around. I say “fortunately” because I believe that had Capcom prevailed here, it would have had a chilling effect on video game creation. Imitation and iteration are how game genres develop. Would the first-person shooter genre have developed like it did if Id Software was able to sue everyone else who created one? The court ruled that anything that Data East did take from Street Fighter wasn’t copyrightable expression, and Fighter’s History was free to be sold—to arcades in 1994, and to Nintendo Switch owners in 2019, too.