Back in the ’90s, Golfland USA was a magical place. On the surface, it looked like any other miniature golf course with a small arcade and ticket counter, but it had one thing going for it that most did not: proximity.
Located in Sunnyvale, California, it was surrounded by many of the companies running the U.S. arcade video game business. Sega was about 20 miles away. Atari was about 10. Capcom just a few. And when those companies needed to test their games, they often dropped them off at Golfland while they were still in development. It wasn’t uncommon to walk in and see games that were not only unreleased, but hadn’t yet been announced.
For a kid obsessed with video game news, this meant everything. I lived a few hundred miles away, but always made a point to stop there when I was in the area. And frequently, I saw games that hadn’t yet been officially unveiled. X-Men vs. Street Fighter. San Francisco Rush 2049. I’d try to take photos for whatever amateur fanzine or website I was working on at the time, and the employees would yell at me to stop. Which might have been more of a liability concern, but it always made it feel like I was seeing something top secret.
On one of those visits, I stumbled onto Red Earth, a new game from Capcom that looked unlike anything I’d seen before. It was a fighting game, but featured an elaborate story mode built around boss battles. It had a versus mode, but only four playable characters. It took place in a strange fantasy world, but with masterful character sprites and animations.
As I learned later, it was the first game for Capcom’s new CPS-3 arcade hardware, which allowed a level of detail unmatched by other 2D games at the time. But more than anything else, it felt like a game built for people like me, who loved fighting game mechanics but were less invested in the competitive element that had made the genre so successful.
Asked about the game’s origins now, more than 25 years after the initial release, producer Takashi Sado tells Polygon the idea behind it all came about due to a desire to level the playing field for different types of players.
“When I started working on the proposal for Red Earth in the mid-’90s, fighting games were enjoying a great deal of popularity,” he says. “As a matter of course, I followed this trend and planned the game as a fighting game, but at that time, I was feeling that the skill level [difference] between players was growing. It wasn’t easy to bridge this skill gap, so we thought, Can’t we compensate for this to some extent by changing the parameters, equipment, etc.? This is why we decided to incorporate a character progression element.”
Sado cites early-’90s Capcom action games like Magic Sword and The King of Dragons, which share loose thematic fantasy connections with Red Earth, as inspirations on how to implement that sort of progress, which let players level up their characters and use passwords to continue where they left off.
That day at Golfland, however, I only had about an hour with the game. I played what I could, and snapped photos on the way out, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I loved the style and the approach, and it felt like there was so much more to see. That was the last time I saw the game in a U.S. arcade.
Somewhat infamously, Red Earth went on to test the limits of what qualified as an official U.S. arcade release. It was localized — Red Earth is actually the Western title, while it goes by War-Zard in Japan — but given how few units even established brands like Street Fighter were selling at that point, the difference between an unknown quantity on expensive new hardware being officially released or not seems almost like a matter of opinion. I reached out to two former sales reps who worked at Capcom at the time for this story, and neither remembered the game existing.
Despite the game’s limited reach in the West, it’s managed to stick around in various references and appearances over the years, and it continues to have fans at Capcom Japan. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Red Earth characters made their way into Super Gem Fighter Mini Mix and Capcom Fighting Evolution. More recently, in Street Fighter 5, fortune teller Menat holds a crystal ball named after Red Earth’s half-man, half-lion king Leo. And there have been a number of Red Earth references in the Monster Hunter series thanks to Monster Hunter series director Kaname Fujioka, who worked as an artist on Red Earth ninja Kenji earlier in his career.
As it turns out, Red Earth also inspired Capcom to put together the upcoming Capcom Fighting Collection — a package due out June 24 that includes Red Earth in its first console release, the Darkstalkers series, Cyberbots, and Street Fighter spinoffs Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo, Super Gem Fighter, and Hyper Street Fighter 2.
As Capcom Fighting Collection producer Shuhei Matsumoto tells it, the collection came about when longtime Capcom programmers, who go by Kobuta and Muumuu, approached him, saying, “Matz, it’s time to bring Red Earth to current-gen consoles!”
One thing led to another, and the collection filled out with other games. But the team hasn’t let Red Earth get overshadowed. On the collection’s box art, for example, rather than established characters like Ryu appearing front and center, Red Earth’s Leo gets the majority of the real estate.
For many, the draw of Capcom Fighting Collection will be the Darkstalkers series or Puzzle Fighter — games that reached a certain level of success the first time around and have proven commercial appeal, or at least enough to headline a collection of beloved leftovers.
But for some at Capcom, it’s a chance to revisit a game that was a victim of tough circumstances the first time around. And for me, it’s a perfect chance to finish what I started playing more than 25 years ago.