Russian wrestler Zangief has been part of the Street Fighter universe since he made his debut in Street Fighter II, the game which truly turned the franchise into a global phenomenon. He's traditionally been seen as one of the game's expert-level characters, primarily because of his slow speed, lack of projectile attacks and the fact that his most deadly moves require complex button and directional inputs. To get the best out of him, you really need to know your stuff.
However, back in the early days of Street Fighter II's development, Zangief was actually a much easier combatant to use because he was even stronger, and it has been revealed by designer Yoshiki Okamoto that the team at Capcom nerfed the character because one expert player was so good with him.
Back then, when arcade games were in development companies would often place them in local arcades for location tests to see if they would find an audience, but also to highlight any faults or balancing issues.
In order to properly balance the power of each character, Capcom placed a Street Fighter II cabinet in an arcade called Chateau EX in Kyobashi, Okamoto explains. This arcade was frequented by a player who would always pick Zangief and therefore became an expert with him – so much so that when Capcom employees were sent to the arcade to report on the findings in a secret stakeout, it was claimed that this player had won a staggering 85 bouts in a row with the character and that other players were afraid of challenging him; Zangief was simply too strong. "Regardless of how much we balanced Zangief in-house, this one Zangief expert would win all the time," Okamoto says.
To properly test the player's talents, Capcom deployed three of its own strongest players to the arcade to take on this seemingly unbeatable Zangief expert. Okamoto reveals that they reported back to him, claiming that "we're getting our butts kicked." Enough was enough, and under Okamoto's instruction, Zangief was immediately toned-down to make him less powerful. This process of slowly reducing his potency continued for several days until the arcade's Zangief expert began to lose more regularly.
The end result? When the game actually launched, Zangief was considered to be weak compared to the other fighters. "We had actually adjusted him fairly," says Okamoto. "But players felt it was an unfair balance."
Even so, it's clear that it was a single person who caused this proud, bear-grappling Russian to be so comprehensively nerfed, as Okamoto definitively states:
Assuming that player is watching this now... It's your fault Zangief became weaker. But thanks to you, he has become a specialist character throughout the series.
Okamoto adds that the same thing happened with series favourite Chun-Li, who was made weaker because she was so popular.
Street Fighter II would go on to become one of the most successful arcade games of all time, and spawned several sequels on consoles, as well as an ill-fated Hollywood movie. The first SNES port, released soon afterwards, would become one of the key titles in Nintendo's battle with Sega for the living room.