Street Fighter 2 is one of the most well-known fighting games ever made, and for good reason: It either invented or popularized many of the base mechanics modern fighting games use today. But one of those mechanics created a paradigm that even its own developers worried would become dangerous. As it turns out, blocking was, and still is in some ways, pretty controversial.
It sounds silly to say it, but just like someone had to invent three different strengths and speeds of punching, or the fireball input motion, there had to be an intent behind blocking. In Street Fighter 2, holding back blocks attacks, dealing chip damage but decreasing the overall amount of damage taken. Seems pretty straightforward, but it sounds like the concept of block was a problem in and of itself.
In a conversation between renowned Street Fighter player Daigo Umehara and one of the creators of Street Fighter 2, Akira Nishitani—translated by the excellent FGC Translated channel—the two discuss how blocking was developed.
Umehara points out how blocking has always been a subject of discussion. In the eternal struggle of offense vs. defense, someone holding back and blocking everything is frustrating. He asks Nishitani if he thought it was dangerous incorporating that idea when Street Fighter 2 launched.
"So what I was told by others was, 'So... if you block, you never die,'" Nishitani says. "You know the shooting game R-Type. It has something called 'Force,' which basically makes it invincible to attacks. So people told me, 'Oh, it's like that? So, you basically never die?' And I did think it was dangerous too."
Nishitani brings up characters like Guile, who can excel at playing a defensive game using their Sonic Booms to keep opponents at bay. It's so well-known that in the anime series High Score Girl, a Guile holding down and back becomes a joke about "lame" techniques.
So to counteract, mechanics like throws, which can't be blocked, or chip damage, which is damage taken when blocking, end up balancing out the defensive playstyles. The latter was an idea Nishitani says he didn't want to do, as it's all about the feelings the player gets from a move. "I wanted the players to feel like 'block' was a good bargain," Nishitani says.
This ended up creating the familiar rock-paper-scissors paradigm with attacks, guards, and throws. Over the years, blocking has increased the risk of turtling players, but it's also led to parries and some of Street Fighter's biggest moments. As Daigo puts it, the measure of a good player is in their blocking.
"Those who win are those who are good at blocking," Umehara says. "Ever since the mechanic was incorporated in 1992... It's profound. Because if you only block, you're just weak. But here and there, with block, you can deal with things without losing health. My impression of fighting games is that if you're good at blocking, you're strong."
Years later, Street Fighter 2 still has a lot to teach us about fighting games. If you want to read more about how one simple mechanic can completely change a game, check out contributor John Learned's story about how parrying saved Street Fighter.