At first glance, you wouldn't guess that Todd Cutler is dangerous with a joystick. When he sat down for a chat at Heaven Sent Desserts in North Park recently, the 37-year-old accountant looked about as calm and composed as any middle-class guy his age.
Put him behind an arcade booth, however, and he's out for blood. The reigning champion of Soda Bar's Street Fighter II tournaments, he's mopped the floor with dozens of foes in the six tourneys he's played during the past year (he's won three and went to the finals in the others). In April, he even vanquished tournament organizer Peter Graves, the manager of the City Heights venue. Playing as Zangief, a burly Russian wrestler, Cutler dispatched Graves' powerful M. Bison character with a spectacular spinning piledriver.
Thinking back, Cutler couldn't help but gloat a little.
“Peter's seen me in action before; I've seen him in action. He kind of expected it,” he says. “Plus, I think he had a couple of beers before the end. Maybe more than a couple of beers.”
A 20-year fighting-game veteran, Cutler has played every version of the Street Fighter series on pretty much every console—he even once had an arcade cabinet of his own. He honed his fighting skills when he attended San Diego State University in the early '90s, taking on well-known players like Tong “Genghis” Ho at the arcade in the Aztec Center.
Cutler doesn't compete professionally, and he was no match for the mighty Genghis when he competed at Soda Bar earlier this year. He mainly likes going to Soda Bar because he can meet new players and play at a real-life arcade booth—a novelty these days.
But it's also fun to sip a Guinness while serving some newb's ass on a platter. Though, sometimes it's Cutler who's getting served.
“Usually, I'm playing against some super high-level people,” he says, “these people that are going to the world championships.”
Still, he comes across like a young Mr. Miyagi. At his first Soda Bar tournament, he quickly learned that the bootleg “Rainbow Edition” they were playing had wacked-out physics that give an advantage to high-jumping characters like Chun-Li and Vega. In the final round, fighting against another Chun-Li, he worked out a strategy to confuse his opponent with differently timed spinning bird kicks, finally delivering a deadly air throw.
The arcade's halcyon days may be over, but Street Fighter is as popular as ever. Cutler's imparted his wisdom to Graves, who, like an eager Karate Kid, knows there's more to the game than a good shoryuken.
“He's learned how to fix switches, fix the monitor. He knows the mechanics of the physical machine,” Cutler says. “He now knows how to operate it if anything goes wrong, which is so important. You can't have a machine where the stick doesn't work.”