For close to ten years, not one other fighting game tournament mattered quite so much to many players across the world as Tougeki – Super Battle Opera. Once the biggest eastern ying to the western yang of EVO and others, Tougeki’s ubiquity over the course of the 2000s is ultimately hard to overstate. Its story is a short rise, a glorious near-decade long run, an equally short fall – and an arguable prelude that remains a curious artefact of the confused era that the tourneys were borne out of. All of which are vital to understanding the legacy of a complete fighting game icon, one worth remembering and celebrating to this day for its precipitation of esports as much as its operatic namesake.
In tracing Tougeki SBO’s inception, one can arguably find themselves at the most unlikely of origins for an event which came to be among the biggest ever fighting game competitions. The humble grassroots beginnings seen with many western initiatives are not evident here, Tougeki instead comes from an experimental, unusual time for some factions of gaming culture in Japan. The catalyst for this: the rise of a new arcade game magazine, out of the ashes of what had been a beloved print icon over a period of 13 years in Japan.
In September 1999, the final ever issue of Japan’s most popular arcade game magazine, Gamest, was published. A worsening decay within the country’s coin-op industry certainly did not help its fortunes, but the main culprit was parent publisher Shinseishiya’s strident over-expansion and capitalisation on its assets – scores of Gamest merchandise, mooks, and even chain stores were produced. Plagued with poor business planning, the company went bankrupt as a result, ending Gamest’s run rather abruptly.
Such a sudden cut off to the legacy of a vital, central publication in the country’s arcade culture could not end it there; after all, the magazine’s ubiquity had already fended off countless others which hoped to share it. And soon enough, many of its discarded editors found work at Enterbrain, working on a new title with a similar format and spirit: Arcadia.
The first months of the magazine in 2000 gave them a chance to branch out, including genres and styles that may have not been suggested before. Coverage of music, prize, and medal games became more frequent, special features on topics such as the history of arcades added variety. Particularly unusual was an offbeat tournament, for a fitting game.
The Typing of The Dead should require no introduction. Miraculously released at a time when Sega was in crisis, even the most cynical could admire WOW Entertainment’s unique combination of the second game in the HOTD series with typing and absurdist humour. Its existence is a testament to the strange times it was borne out of, and Arcadia seemed to pick up on this. Within its third ever issue, coverage was published of a typist tournament held for the game under the name of “Arcadia Cup”. Even the game’s director appeared.
With only office ladies participating, this first Arcadia Cup was far removed from what would come later. But in a roundabout way, it planted the seed in Enterbrain’s collective mind for a more expansive, competitive event. Something with which it could energise the players of fighting games, a genre which had been affected in the background decline of the arcade industry – despite some popular titles and a less pronounced downward trend in Japan, ailing signs were appearing. SNK went bankrupt, Capcom reallocated R&D resources to consoles, officially sponsored fighting game tournaments started to decrease.
Fortunately, Enterbrain knew the demand and competition among many fans was to stay for some time yet, enough to provide the basis for a huge, theatrical-scale production. Gamest had held its own tournaments in the past too, however, this would trounce them.
In 2003, the Opera finally commenced. On March 22 that year, the first ever Tougeki SBO tournament went underway at Makuhari Messe, Tokyo. No longer an exclusive competition between a few typists, the Arcadia Cup was now for the many. Setting itself apart from the EVO championships on the other side of the world through its greater emphasis on its finals, team battles, and single elimination brackets at qualifying arcades, some of the most seasoned Japanese players now had a mainstream outlet to showcase their prowess.
Given full official support from Enterbrain and many of their developers, the 1v1 games featured at the first act included Capcom Vs. SNK 2, The King of Fighters 2002, and Soulcalibur II. Over the course of the two days at the famous Messe venue, eventual victors ranged from a young Tokido, continuing his winning streak after EVO 2002, to lesser-known Japanese heavyweights such as Dekachō and Ōgosho. 3v3 games like Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution meanwhile were won by teams such as Hikone Fight Club and Otochun Gundan.
And perhaps the most well-known moment of Tougeki 2003, “Umehara ga Kimeta”, came as a result of these 3v3 battles. Whilst participating in the Ore to Omae to Daigorou team for Guilty Gear XX, an already momentus Daigo Umehara as Sol won a second round against Kazutoshi Sekine as Faust – to which the commentator, fighting game event organiser Gama no Abura, overreacted with considerable glee. Daigo’s team would ultimately go on to place 3rd, but this comical moment of giddy excitement could not go unnoticed.
A few months later, official DVDs of the tournament were released by Enterbrain. Though Tougeki’s significance was all but ensured by this point anyway, the home video release would later allow another famous Umehara moment to eventually spread and proliferate in many a remixed form online.
Tougeki’s strong start sent it out fighting. A commercial juggernaut from the first ever year, it could only get bigger from here on out. SBO 2004 thusly moved to be held at the now-closed Differ Ariake martial arts arena, a venue which had previously been used as a concert hall and visited by such musicians as Paul McCartney. Its concept of cyber battles gelled ironically well with a destination which was ostensibly now intended for real life fighting, and the setup constructed allowed the showmanship and theatrics to be intensified.
These two key aspects to the atmosphere would set Tougeki’s tone, accentuated by its stagecraft. With cabinets placed front and centre for many of the most significant bouts, all eyes would be on the competitors as they made their grand entrances. Some would take the chance to fool around and revel in the excess – for example Mago, seen here in 2004 kicking with gleeful abandon whilst making his way to play the final 3v3 match of Capcom vs. SNK 2 with his team, DQN Trio, representing Sega amusement towers in Tokyo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9Y1CnIJ-9Y Tournaments pushed on at Differ Ariake, with the country’s most talented heads regularly outclassing all international entrants who had qualified. That didn’t stop numerous overseas publications taking note of the competition emanating from the Japanese fighting game scene’s fulcrum throughout the late 2000s. Following reader persuasion on the Rllmuk forums, the UK’s niche juggernaut Retro Gamer magazine built hype up for its 2007 iteration. Over in the US, Hardcore Gaming Magazine gave incessant, near-monthly coverage.
After moving again for a singular brief spell at JCB Hall in Tokyo Dome Arena, the tournament would then be given its most prominence upon returning to Makuhari Messe in 2010. This time, however, it would be as part of the famous Tokyo Game Expo, held since 1996 at the venue for the gaming industry. Though costly, this further solidified its importance to the country’s video game culture; one of the biggest fighting game championships, ran in conjunction with a prime congregation for staples of the video game business.
Dissenting voices about Tougeki did become more visible during the early 2010s, with some players preferring the easier way into western championships, bristling against paid access to its first streamed events, and team slot organisation errors seen in the 2011 edition. For now, though, it remained fighting game community royalty, an edifying presence for Japan’s contingent. In a testament to its sheer ubiquity, a parody series, Ura Tougeki, even began at Try Amusement Tower in Akihabara during 2010. The sendup was based around more obscure, esoteric titles like The Outfoxies and Street Fighter II: Rainbow Edition.
Sadly, the tournaments would meet an undignified end in 2012. Not without good intentions – feeling the financial brunt from declining sales of Arcadia, and with a desire to perhaps galvanise its steadily shrinking readership, Enterbrain sought to make Tougeki one component of a bigger, excessive event. The result was GAME SUMMER FESTIVAL 2012, held during August in Narita. Here, it shared space with the Ongeki ~Game Sound Impact 2012~ and Wasshoi 2012 Summer events for music and shooting games.
Enterbrain, fostering apparent hopes of the biggest competitive arcade scenes coexisting in harmony under the summer sun, did not receive what they were expecting. With the aforementioned Narita location two hours away from Tougeki’s usual haunts in Tokyo, many baulked at the idea of travelling further, some simply choosing to not make the effort and run the risk of arriving late at all. Worse still, the venue was not even indoors. And on the day of the event, those that did turn up were inevitably met with a scorching hot scene.
The problems that came as a direct consequence of this heat were numerous: screen glare, connection breakup, hardware failures. Attempts to solve these with makeshift tarps and tents made two steps forward but one step back, with spectators then unable to see the main action. By holding the tournament outside, the organisers seemed to want some sort of an outdoor festival/concert atmosphere; unfortunately for them, fighting games did not lend themselves to an event style more suited towards rock music.
Players at the tournament did the best they could, with some fine bouts occuring nonetheless. The alternatives were to get drunk, catch beetles, or play Jenga in the park. But many denounced the poor organisation immediately – a number, perhaps wisely, took their leave early before overrunning rounds left some participants without transport and a place to stay. Some went to the lengths of sleeping rough that night in Narita. Many other flashpoints appeared too, but all could be traced back to the farcical planning of the festival.
The atmosphere after the end of Tougeki 2012 was one of bitter disappointment. High profile figures – players, participants, even game franchise creators – were highly critical of the event. Several spread rumours of collusion as causation. Some still praised the efforts of the best Japanese players, voicing hopes of next year’s going back inside. But there would be no next year. At the end of 2012, chief organiser Masashi Saruwatari resigned from his post, then, on March 28, 2013, it was finally confirmed that Tougeki was suspended indefinitely.
Years and months that would follow this offered little consolation for fans. Mere months later, organising company Enterbrain was subsumed by parent company Kadokawa, and the associated Arcadia magazine became a bi-monthly publication from its June 2013 edition. What had been claimed to be a temporary closing in official quarters was seeming less and less likely, as the corporate structure that supported it was shrinking. And soon enough, Arcadia would fold altogether in early 2015, ending a near-30 year strong legacy grouped together with Gamest. An era was now truly over. The final act of the super battle opera had completed long ago, the audience could go home. Encore
Though none could be called true spiritual successors, big new fighting game events for Japan eventually started to appear in the wake of Tougeki’s absence and the rise of esports. In 2015, Taito started the Toushinsai – Fighting God Festival championships. Though not seeing the same level of ubiquity as what came before, it has been organised almost every year since, even expanding in recent years to include other competitive arcade games such as Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune. And after years of being compared to its biggest Japanese contemporary, the first ever EVO Japan was held to much attention in 2018.
In addition to fresh new imitators riding the crest of the esports wave, the late 2010s media buzz around its rise led to some recognition of Tougeki’s place in history. In an interview with 4Gamer.com, Yasuaki Matsuda, owner of the legendary Game Newton locations in Tokyo and co-founder of the tournament itself, even expressed interest in staging the Super Battle Opera again for Tougeki, still acknowledging the challenges faced by arcade fighting games. A pipedream which seemed far away then, the prospect of another huge Japanese tournament bringing in players from around the world seems almost alien now.
As the scene shifts further away from arcades with little pushback, and a future is mapped out for online professional gaming, it is regrettable that a tournament which used them as its launchpad could not sustain itself or come back from a poorly managed outing. The loss of its long-standing magazine companion has added further insult to injury. However, in the current era, perhaps the best thing to do at the moment is remember and reinforce Tougeki’s legacy – the drama, the showmanship, the fighting play of what was once the most exuberant video games tournament in the world.