Behind the Story

Grand Master Challenge
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  • Kotaka Shoten.
  • When I’m preparing for Kemonomichi, I start discovering things I’d never done before. I realize this is something new for me.
  • // Chapter 1
  • “It all started with the first iteration of Street Fighter II. As far back as I can remember, there was a candy store in my neighborhood’s shopping strip called "Marusawa." It was one of those wooden cabinets you play standing up. You could play for like ten or twenty yen. Those graphics were what won me over. Arcades were next-level back then, you know? The graphics were unbelievable compared to home console games, to be honest. Even as a child, I could tell the difference, so that was the first thing I noticed. Street Fighter II’s graphics.

    The arcade corner of a neighborhood candy store of his youth. That was the spot of first contact between Kotaka Shoten and Street Fighter II. Shocked by the beautiful graphics of the arcade version, he begged his parents to buy him the Super Nintendo version. But for young Kotaka, he couldn’t help but feel like something was off.

    “I wondered why it was so different. It started with that suspicion. To be more precise, I didn't understand why there were no obstacles in the stage, or why the graphics for moving forward and backward were the same. I remember it quite well. It was too different and I hated it.”

    It was a pretty high-standard port for the time, but Kotaka was a mere kid, not yet old enough to understand such circumstances. The only thing he understood was that it was a different game than the one you had to put money into.
    He wanted to play on the real thing they had at the arcade. When he was in elementary school, he searched high and low for the right arcade, keeping it secret from his parents. Invariably, the cheapest places to play were the rough ones.

    “Arcades were a mecca for bad kids. I wanted to play at the rough places because they were cheap, but you could count on the bad element being there. No, really, they were there.”

    Kotaka Shoten looks off into the distance a bit. It was still those days. He had no choice but to spend what little he earned in allowance an the 100-yen-per-game stores where no one came.

    Later, even as he grew older, a satisfactory port of Street Fighter II remained hard to find. He was old enough now to go to the arcade without hesitation, but the King of Fighters (KOF) series had become his fighting game of choice.

    “KOF’s graphics were just about as good on the home version for PlayStation. X (Super Street Fighter II X, known overseas as Super Street Fighter II Turbo) was on the decline at arcades, so I figured I wouldn’t get to play it anymore. So I landed on KOF.”

    Meanwhile, something else came along to occupy the space in Kotaka Shoten's brain:

    “Pride [Fighting Championships] entered my head in about 2000. Pride pretty much took up my entire brain.”

    Pride, the mixed martial arts event where the world's best fighters gathered to compete against each other. No longer content just watching the video broadcasts, Kotaka Shoten began attending the events live.

    Matches rich with game theory. Competitors brimming with character. High-quality sets, sound, and lighting. Pride’s famous pre-fight “aori-V’s” [hype videos]. Kotaka was thrilled by these tricks that encouraged the audience's sense of unity.
    “I guess I like things that have a high degree of polish. Now that I think about it, it's the same with arcade games. Pride, too, is so obviously more polished than any other martial arts event. I don't think there’s any better form of entertainment. I like the lack of compromise, I guess.”
    Later on, Pride disappeared. Unlike games, Pride was something that could be enjoyed passively as an individual spectator, but this experience had a major impact on his later life as a fighting game player.
  • // Chapter 2
  • Kotaka Shoten's fighting game career took a major turn in 2004 with the release of Hyper Street Fighter II - The Anniversary Edition (Hyper).

    "Hyper came out right around the time Pride ended. I guess that had freed up some space in my brain. The timing was perfect, come to think of it (laughs).”

    The home version of Hyper Street Fighter II, which Kotaka Shoten sees as an "almost port," was released before the arcade version. In his own words, it was a way of releasing the "frustration of not being able to play at home since 1991." Meanwhile, he started going to arcades in Yokohama.

    Although the fighting game boom was over, people were playing Hyper Street Fighter II as a sort of revival game. It was relatively common to find in arcades, and was responsible for bringing many players back to the SFII series.

    “The Yokohama Seven is my home, I guess. I used to go there on my way home from work because I had a train connection at Yokohama Station. Whenever I went there, someone would be around.”

    AkaBla (Blanka), Ofuna (Guile), Ogou (Sagat), Kamera-ya (Ken), Sashishi (Ryu), Souzou (Fei Long)—many players became familiar faces at the Yokohama Seven. "It was the entrance to a den of iniquity,” he laughs.

    "I never went out except for Yokohama,” Kotaka Shoten says. The fighting game tournament Tougeki '07 (Hyper Street Fighter II 2on2) led him to the "Shinjuku MORE" arcade for the first time. According to Kotaka Shoten, the place was filled with "social pariahs and the smoke of beasts.”

    “It was a full house. The kind of ambience Ume-chan would probably appreciate (laughs). And there were two D-Guile [the SFII: Champion Edition version of Guile] players there. One with a sixty-six match win streak and one with an eighty-eight match win streak. I remember it clearly.

    The arcade roiled with pre-tournament excitement. The two players quietly racking up wins were Muteki Guile and Shiki, whom Kotaka would meet again later.

    “I didn't know it at the time, but it was Shiki and Muteki Guile. You know how Hyper shows you the number of wins when someone has a streak? I couldn’t even make sense of it (laughs).”

    After that, Kotaka Shoten began occasionally going to competition sites in Tokyo. Then, around 2011, he became immersed in the red-hot scene of Nishi-Nippori Versus.

    As a Street Fighter II player, to live this life, to be brought up in such a great environment—I don't know, I think it's quite a treasure. I started out in Yokohama. It's the foundation of Street Fighter II, isn't it? Ofuna and Ogou and all those guys.”

    The Guile player, “Ofuna.” He didn’t have any significant wins or major achievements, yet he played in a way that attracted people somehow. He was a player with an aesthetic sensibility. He was particularly influential on fellow fighting comrade Sashishi, who played Ryu.

    “If it weren't for him, Sashishi and I wouldn't even be here. Or maybe we would have gone in a completely different direction and wouldn't have ended up like this. At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. But slowly, as time went by, I started to get it.”

    After a while, the Yokohama arcades disappeared, and so too did any opportunity to meet up with "Ofuna."

    “It was 2011 when Yokohama Seven and Vision went under. Then Versus became the place to play. I’m a homebody, so I wouldn't play if there wasn't a place near me, but I guess my desire to play Street Fighter II won out, so I started going to Versus.”
  • // Chapter 3
  • "Playing at Versus was the next stage after learning the SFII fundamentals. I met the Super Invincible Immortals.”

    "Super Invincible Immortals" is the collective term for three powerful players: “Super Nukinks,” (Chun-Li), “Muteki Guile” (Guile) [note: muteki means “invincible”], and “Shiki” (Boxer).

    Super Nukinks (Chun-Li), more commonly known as "Nuki," is a familiar name to fighting game fans as he was one of the best players of the arcade era alongside Umehara. Muteki Guile and Shiki were the previously mentioned Guile players who racked up those tremendous win streaks at Shinjuku MORE. These are heavyweight players who have continued playing the Street Fighter II games for more than twenty-five years.

    An utterly strong trio of players. Kotaka Shoten, who’d only just learned the ropes of the game in Yokohama, was no match for them.

    “I felt like if I could win once a day, that was all I needed. That went on for many months. That's when I realized, you can’t win with platitudes alone. Doing the tutorials isn’t enough. Gradually, I started to think, ‘…Huh?’”

    The "Super Invincible Immortals’" play style was backed by long years of experience, provided a real-world experience Kotaka had never experienced in Yokohama. He spent his days commuting to Nishi-Nippori in between work, trying to keep up with the competition. He made up for lack of sleep by napping on the trains to and from work.

    “From 2010 to 2015, ‘Versus’ was so hot that it might have even surpassed the SFII golden age. I don’t think it paled in comparison to Umehara's era. It wasn't ‘Pride’ in its heyday, but those East versus West battles and ranked battles were awesome. I really feel this was not to be taken for granted.

    The Street Fighter II boom of the 1990s stirred the whole world into a fervor. It's not possible to make a direct comparison, but it's easy to imagine a different kind of fervor among those select few incredible players who stuck with the game after the craze was over and kept gathering to play, night after night.

    The fundamentals and keen sensibility Kotaka acquired at Yokohama Seven were put to the test at Nishi-Nippori Versus, allowing him to establish a solid core.

    “If the encounters had happened other way around, things might not have turned out this way. I don't think there’s any greater joy than this SFII life. I mean, this is something that’s no longer possible is impossible in this day and age, you know? I just barely slipped into the arcade scene, just barely had these chance encounters. It like something out of a story—something money can't buy. I don't think there’s anything like it. I really think that now.”

    With a unique play style to set him apart from his predecessor, Muteki Guile, Kotaka Shoten gained recognition. Eventually, the heat of the Versus scene cooled down and Kotaka Shoten's Street Fighter II life began to settle.
  • // Chapter 4
  • The fervor of the Versus scene subsided. Sensing the stir had come to an end, Kotaka Shoten faced a turning point. For him, it was the “turbulent year 2017.”

    The “YouDeal Street Fighter AllBattle” took place on April 15, 2017. Kotaka Shoten was among the eight players selected for this double-elimination invitational tournament.

    “Muteki Guile was supposed to be in it, but he said, ‘I don’t play anymore, so you go in my place,’ and so I was chosen. I think that's how it all started. It's been four years since… I see that as the beginning. For me, that was the starting point.”

    The eight participants were Kotaka Shoten, Aniken (Ken), Ogou (Sagat), Otochun (Chun-Li), Kusumondo (E. Honda), Komoda (Blanka), Sasori (Ryu), and Yuvega (Dictator). With the exception of Kotaka Shoten and Sasori, they were all seasoned veterans with careers spanning over twenty years.

    Muteki’s face was at stake, and since it was a pay-per-view game on NicoNico, I knew I couldn't show a poor performance. You can't ignore this game, can you, Aniken-san, Otochun-san? I thought, "If those two are coming, it must mean something. It's as if one of them is sure to win whenever they play. I knew they were good, but if one of those two brothers won again, I felt like SFII would come to a halt again. Like, these guys again? (laughs). It's like, you just know it’s going to be Otochun or his brother Aniken. I thought it would be boring if these brothers won again. Of course, we all agreed on that.”

    The result of this extraordinary determination was that Kotaka won the tournament, beating the "unbeatable" Otochun (Chun-Li) in his first match. Though he didn’t know it yet, the wheel of fate had already begun to turn.

    A few months later, Kotaka Shoten once again competed in an invitational tournament, “YouDeal X League.” The eight participants were Aniken (Ken), Ogou (Sagat, Guile), Otochun (Chun-Li), Gunze (Zangief), Kotaka Shoten (Guile), Sashishi (Ryu), Fujimon (Dee Jay), and Yuvega (Dictator).

    “It was about three months after the invitational tournament. This time it was a league battle. You’ll never see that lineup again. Even Sashishi was there."

    The tournament was won by Sashishi, who is said to be the best Ryu player of all time. To Kotaka Shoten, he was also a comrade with whom he had honed his skills at Yokohama Seven and Nishi-Nippori Versus. Kotaka’s own performance ended in a paltry sixth place, but an unexpected encounter awaited him just around the corner.

    The “Kurahashi vs. Ogou" set took place in September 2017. It's safe to say that this is where Kemonomichi began. It “Pride” terms, it was the Hickson vs. Takada fight—the origin of Kotaka’s beloved fighting event. Just before the Kurahashi-Ogou fight, Kotaka Shoten had his first encounter with Umehara.

    “He asked me to do spar against him with Guile. That was the first time I met the Beast."

    For Umehara, this matchup occurred between battles across the globe as a professional gamer. Considering Umehara’s need to get in shape on a tight schedule, Kotaka Shoten, who had developed into a top-tier Guile, was the best choice. After fulfilling his role as a sparring partner, Kotaka Shoten received an offer.

    "I was approached in October or so about Kemonomichi. Umehara-san told me the basic idea he had in mind.”

    After the success of "Ogou vs. Kurahashi", Umehara made plans for “Kemonomichi 1.” Kotaka Shoten and Aniken were chosen to compete in Super Street Fighter IIX, a title that could be called the starting point for Umehara.

    Of course, we played in tournaments throughout the spring and summer. But this was beyond that. The closer we got to the event, the more I thought, 'This is the reality, I have to walk the walk. If I lose, I'm really going to lose. My opponent is also Aniken, so what's going to happen to everything I’ve done so far? I’ll be back to square one.’”

    The Street Fighter II series blazed a trail for competitive fighting games. The so-called "legend class" of players were mainly in their forties, and their stronghold stood high. The new generation of players, which includes Kotaka Shoten, have been working hard to catch up and surpass them. Kotaka Shoten felt that if he were to lose to Aniken, he would lose all the experience he had accumulated and be back at the starting line.

    “It’s win or lose, you know? If it were just a matter of my own frustration, I’d be fine either way, to be honest. But honestly, I didn’t think it was just about me anymore. I knew I had to win this no matter what. I didn’t want to win the other Kemonomichis either, but this was probably the one I couldn't stand to lose the most. And frankly, character tiers were no excuse.”

    Kotaka’s subsequent participation in Kemonomichi 2 and 3 were only possible because of Kemonomichi 1. If we didn't win here, nothing would happen—worse, the hands of the clock would actually move backward. For Kotaka Shoten, it was truly a tightrope walk.

    “I think it's interesting that there are opposites in martial arts. Kansai versus Kanto. Offensive versus responsive. It's hard to separate the different types of martial arts, no matter how far you go. I also thought the matchmaking was good. After that, it’s my job to just do it and win. Man, when I think back now, I really did think I had to win, even if it killed me. The very idea that people all around the world would be watching Street Fighter II was unbelievable. I really think the future was resting on this. Maybe it’s not my place to say that (laughs).”
  • // Chapter 5
  • Kotaka Shoten’s long history of spectating martial arts events had a non-trivial impact on his life as a Street Fighter II player. There’s an inalienable link between Street Fighter II and martial arts.

    “My history with martial arts is longer than my history with SFII. I’ve been watching since the year 2000, so twenty-one years. Martial arts and SFII are always linked in my mind when I’m viewing or playing.”

    Kotaka Shoten boasts one of the most polished Guile games of all time. He says this is due to the influence of modern mixed martial arts, where “anything goes.”

    “I thought, ‘These things are actually the same.’ Every fighter has their own strengths and weaknesses. There aren’t a lot of all-rounders who can do it all—striking and groundwork. But in modern mixed martial arts, it's a matter of course that the higher-level fighters can do everything. And you also have to have a specialty. In the mixed martial arts of long ago, you could get by to an extent even if that wasn’t the case. I don't know what it is that makes it unacceptable now. There's a major link between the gaming of a long time ago, which I guess may have been its heyday, and the martial arts of ancient times. You didn’t have to be able to do everything; as long as you specialized in something, you could fight to a certain extent. But the bar has risen with modern mixed martial arts, and if you can't do everything, it's like, "Well, maybe you’re not cut out for this.” There is a serious link between the two. I'm sure of it.”

    The professional scene in Street Fighter V is one of the most competitive in the history of 2D fighting games. The top players are all on essentially the same high level. Each player has his or her own strengths, but they only amount to minor discrepancies in ability. But those discrepancies are vital. The reality now is that the players with distinct, unique styles who existed during the nineties boom are nowhere to be found.

    “People who stick out have a certain allure, but I don’t think they can keep up. To be honest, I think you have to think more realistically.”

    To add to this, the early boom in the nineties wasn’t even mixed martial arts—it was more like "alien martial arts.” When you heard there was a strong player the next town over and you went to fight them, you didn't even know what fighting style they would use until you tried facing them. It was like Antonio Inoki vs. Muhammad Ali; you never knew what you were getting yourself into. It was an innocent time where it took many years to consolidate the best solutions, but it was also an exciting and stimulating time. Some honed their punches and kicks, some focused on constant throwing, and others focused on mastering the art of ground fighting. They were all dedicated to the techniques and styles they believed in. Such players were not rare, but rather the norm. Arguably, this way of playing was not only viable, but in some respects the cornerstone of the evolution of fighting games. Some players even carried a sense of pride that they were creating a new way to play. I want to highlight this point.

    Kotaka Shoten notes that there were other aspects of mixed martial arts that overlapped with his SFII life.

    “One fighter who can do it all was the mixed martial artist Kyoji Horiguchi. He was in Kid Yamamoto's gym, but then he went to America all by himself. He didn't know anyone and couldn't speak the language. Normally, an environment like that would be enough to send someone back home, but I guess he felt that he had to change something. I really understand that. I was able to build a foundation in Street Fighter II in Yokohama. But when I started going to Versus in Tokyo, I couldn't compete with them at all. I wondered what I was missing. I still have a lot of things to work on, but there are lots of things that need to be changed, you know? …I don't think I should be lumped together with someone like that (Kyoji Horiguchi), but I think we are very much linked.
  • // Chapter 6
  • “I had to think about it a lot, because “Kemonomichi 4” was already in the pipeline. It’s a competition, so there’s a possibility I could lose. So I’ve been mulling over Kemonomichi all this time.”

    The "Special FT10 Round.4: Super Street Fighter II X" event was held at the Game Newton Oyama arcade on October 23rd. Kotaka Shoten wasn't sure if he wanted to participate in this event, which had the same “first to ten” rules as Kemonomichi. If he lost, it would put a damper on his participation in Kemonomichi 4, which was already in the works. He’d wanted to participate in the event to help out the struggling arcade in the wake of COVID-19, but he could not give an immediate answer.

    “I told Umehara-san over LINE, ‘There’s this event coming up, and if I lose it might create trouble for you.’ His reply began and ended with, ‘ok’ (laughs). I felt like there was a lot packed into those two letters. ‘Ok’ was all he said.”

    “If you’re entering, you’d better win.” That was the meaning by which Kotaka Shoten took those two letters. He says it was far more effective than being told what to do. The matches that played out on the day of the event seemed to reflect just how strongly Kotaka felt that he “absolutely mustn’t lose.”
  • His opponent in Kemonomichi 4, Yuvega, is one of the oldest players in the game, with a career spanning almost thirty years. But if career and tournament experience was all it took to win, it’d be simple, Kotaka Shoten notes.

    “I think he’s been at it for thirty years, but that won’t get him far in Kemonomichi. I’m going to show him it doesn’t work that way. Kemonomichi isn’t a Street Fighter II tournament in the first place. If he thinks it’s just an extension of the SFII tournaments we’ve done up until now, he’s grossly mistaken.

    “If there’s even a small hole in your feelings, it’s guaranteed to be your downfall. Your feelings are all you have to rely on, so you have to be prepared without running away.”

    He explains that due to the simplicity of the game, there is an aspect of Street Fighter II where you can somehow win just by doing what you are good at and what you like.

    “When I’m preparing for Kemonomichi, I start discovering things I’d never done before. I realize this is something new for me. I’d been running from something. Like with Guile it’d be ninety percent footsies. That was all was doing, just because it was fun for me.”

    For Kotaka Shoten, "Kemonomichi is a place where he must confront such softness. Just as with his beloved mixed martial, it is essential to have the mindset of "I can do anything, I will do anything.” If he doesn’t prepare by confronting the things he’d somehow been avoiding, he’ll be “defeated by feelings” when the time comes.

    Finally, I would like to end this article by introducing Kotaka Shoten's thoughts when he first participated in Kemonomichi. The “Kotaka Lexicon.” It's a phrase that's familiar to fighting game fans.

    “I really understood that desire to back-to-the-future those old bygone arcade days at those crappy dens of iniquity (laughs). I knew he wanted to portray that bewilderment, to bring out that age of catharsis. You know, it’s 2018, it’s all about internet now. This is simply what’s become of the arcade era. But in the end, Umehara-san’s roots are at the arcade. I really feel that he wanted to bring that out in a legitimate way.”

    Who knows what he’s saying, but I know what he’s trying to say. As long as he keeps winning, the “Kotaka Lexicon” is here to stay. Will he win and let the Kotaka-isms fly? Kotaka Shoten, who has participated in this event more than anyone else, heads for the battlefield for a fourth time.
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  • // Other Story
  • ・SUPER STREET FIGHTER 2X :: Kotaka Shoten.


    ・DODONPACHI DAI-OU-JOU :: fufufu


    ・PUYO PUYO TETRIS :: kazu

    ・PUYO PUYO TETRIS :: Amemiya Taiyou

    ・STREET FIGHTER 5 :: Kawano

    ・STREET FIGHTER 5 :: Tokido