At Holloway Road's Rocket Centre in London, an annex to the Metropolitan University next door, things are fairly quiet at 10am. Cars roll past and a few early birds filter out of the nearby train station clutching roadmaps. By this point the Neo Empire crew, the most avid contributors to the UK fighting game scene, have been setting up for hours. Battle of Destiny is their biggest event ever, and, with full support and sponsorship from Capcom, nerves are on edge.
They needn't have worried. By midday it's already an unprecedented success, the building's two floors packed to the rafters with hundreds of gamers from around the world. The Neo Empire team - founders of the web forum of the same name - have done half a dozen similar events over the last four years, but how far they've come with Battle of Destiny - a hardcore gaming spectacle on a scale to rival the bonkers back-story of many a Capcom pugilist - is impressive.
"This is easily the biggest thing we've done," Masamune, one of the Neo Empire admins, explains. "In the past the venues have been much smaller. For this one we've been here since Thursday getting things ready." Which is odd when you consider that the UK arcade scene, from which the event's biggest interactive showpieces are drawn, is "already dead". "The problem is arcade owners don't know anything about gamers, or what gamers really want to play," reckons Masamune. "We don't run Neo Empire events for profit, and we'll be lucky to break even this time, but we want to keep the fighting game scene alive because that's our passion."
That passion hangs from the wall in huge banners and a giant video screen lighting up the main hall. Plenty of exclusives are on offer, including first hands-on opportunities for the public with Soul Calibur IV (since released) and the much-anticipated Street Fighter IV. Gamers hungry for a fighting fix are spoiled. Over fifty consoles deck out the two floors from King of Fighters 98: Ultimate Match and Melty Blood to Gem Fighter and Alpha 2. On the lower floor, high definition screens are running an updated Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, tweaked and redrawn in an anime style by Udon. As the event requires you to bring your own weapon of choice, the variety of fighting sticks carried around ranges from the standard to the beautifully modified, each a passionate signature.
All of the Neo Empire admin are run off their feet. At the back of the ground level the heats for the four major tournaments are taking place; Capcom vs. SNK 2, Tekken 5, Street Fighter II Hyper Fighting, and Street Fighter 3rd Strike. Organisers with clipboards push through the crowds, shouting out names, recording wins and making calls over the loudspeaker. Upstairs in the casual gaming zone, Soul Calibur IV is played on PS3 and 360. With little in the way of Ubisoft employees to marshal things, it's testament to the good nature of the attendees that absolutely nothing gets nicked. The game's well-received, too, and draws sizeable crowds, though not quite on the same scale as those drawn by Street Fighter IV behind it.
Premiering publicly in the UK for the first time and housed in incredible Taito Vewlix cabinets from Japan, SF IV's queue rarely drops from the maximum. Roped off behind a barrier and policed by no less than five Capcom staff, the six cabinets are linked up for two-player battles. Winners gain the privilege of staying on for up to three bouts until Sunday, when a competition element is introduced. Ten straight wins gets you a software-related prize courtesy of Capcom.
The game itself is everything the crowd wants. Gameplay is on a classic single plane despite the 3D graphics, and the hit-boxes have been adjusted to match the game's 2D properties. There are still some elements to get used to, but anyone who knows Street Fighter - and this lot knows Street Fighter - is right at home. The aesthetics are bright and colourful, and have a fantastic solidity to them, especially with connecting punches, kicks, and trademark special moves. The crowd eagerly wrestles with new features like the revenge gauge, built by blocking incoming attacks. Halfway full, it can be used in conjunction with the super bar to unleash an ultra combo.
Capcom's charismatic PR and long-time friend of Eurogamer Leo Tan is here to enthuse about SFIV's "focus cancelling", among other things. "You can use it to cancel on start-up and on recovery - it acts as a linking mechanism," he points out with boundless enthusiasm. "It allows you to dash forward and keep up the pressure, but the important thing is, it's really simple to do as you only need to hit two buttons." Whether or not the game will see the same kind of enduring success as the nine-year old Street Fighter 3rd Strike remains to be seen, especially in the dwindling UK arcade scene. For now though, it's a welcome return to the fighting game arena for Capcom, and a stylish one at that.
By 7pm the hallway upstairs is cleared out and blocked off while things are set up for the day's grand finale; the culmination of the blood, sweat and tears shed during the heats on the ground floor. Everyone files onto the street outside for a well-earned break and some much-needed fresh air. Badges hang from their necks, arcade sticks and posters bulge under arms, and it's an opportunity to discuss the day's events before being ushered back inside for the finals, where the auditorium has been decked out with hundreds of chairs. The audience, now packed in close proximity, are treated to sauna-like heat while the giant video screen goes through minor technical hitches.
The finals themselves are the defining moments of Battle of Destiny. The prizes for the four victors are seven-day trips to Las Vegas to compete in Evo 2008, a major US fighting game tournament. Street Fighter II is first up, enthralling the audience. Professor Jones from France eventually takes first place. Tekken 5 practically empties the room by comparison, and although the 14-year-old marvel known as Devil from Poland wows all by winning the final, it still proves the least engaging of the four play-offs.
Elsewhere, Justin Wong, the Marvel vs. Capcom 2 world champion, has flown to Europe for the first time. He takes part in a grudge match against 24-year-old Sinity, who, weeks earlier, had taunted his way through a thirty-five page forum thread in which he had boasted of his abilities to tear Wong apart at his own game. (Brilliant.) On the day, the match is up on the big screen as a special bonus, and Wong utterly humiliates Sinity in a breathtaking exhibition, ripping him to pieces over three matches of unparalleled technical mastery. Showboating after two stunning one-man victories, Wong even allows the audience to pick his final characters: the weakest team in the game. To rapturous cheers and laughter, Wong uses the three, with the comedy antics of the little Kobun character taking centre-stage.
Wong tells us later that Battle of Destiny is a lot more organised than some of the tournaments he's attended in the US. Good work, Britain. He's modest about the quality of UK competition, although he does point out that he's been playing 3rd Strike on Sunday afternoon and breezed past all his opponents very comfortably. As for SF IV, "It looks good and I've enjoyed playing it, but I really need to give it more time to get into it." Worth a rental, then. "It's all about 2D," he says when we ask about his gaming preferences.
Of all the finals, Capcom vs. SNK 2 is the most impressive from a spectator perspective. Showing a lot more depth in play than we expect, its balanced ratio system works flawlessly in a series of close matches brimming with over-the-top, crowd-pleasing combos, until Yamazaki 93 claims a well-earned victory. The Street Fighter 3rd Strike finals, which round off the four tournaments, aren't quite as engaging, as tactics are pretty uniform. Despite all the contenders being thoroughly masterful, Zak, a fantastic Oro player, claims victory.
The Neo Empire team doesn't let things end there though, and brings US champion Justin Wong back to the stage to play 3rd Strike against Ryan Hart, the highest-profile fighting game player the UK has ever produced. Hart, playing Yun against Wong's Chun Li, makes a good go of things, taking the lead in the best of three matches, only for Wong to equalise in the second. It's edge-of-the-seat stuff when, in the first round of the final match, Wong backs Hart's Yun - now with only a sliver of energy - into a corner and lets rip with her super art combo. People are already standing when Hart parries the first few hits, cheers rising as he goes through some more, and then the roof practically tears itself off as he parries the last of all seventeen hits and reverses the match in the most memorable moment of the weekend, going on to claim victory. Wong, who famously lost in the US to Umehara Daigo under near-identical circumstances, will be having nightmares about that one.
As Battle of Destiny draws to a close it's clear Neo Empire has done wonders for health of the UK scene. Without their undying love for this, it would be easy for the community to have disbanded with the closure of arcades like Windmill Street's Namco Wonderpark. What Battle of Destiny revisits is a far cry from abusive online competition, where players are separated by headsets, a hundred thousand miles and manners. Here you really feel a social aspect that's been forged in the arcades of yesteryear, where gamers sat side by side, shook hands, and really understood each other. Some argue 'hardcore gaming' is a myth these days, but nothing could be further from the truth at BoD. As the venue empties back onto Holloway Road, it's obvious no amount of Halo frags comes close to the depth of ability exhibited by the beat-'em-up veterans we're walking alongside.