The follow up is always harder than the original. The expectations, the real ones from others and the ones we place on ourselves, weigh down on us. And the unfounded expectations, the ones that come from a place of fear and uncertainty, the ones that we think everyone else is thinking whether we know those thoughts to be true or false, are sometimes worse than when we know that someone has placed an expectation on us.
It’s like that old Fairly Oddparents episode where Timmy Turner becomes a professional basketball player. He’s balling out the gym the entire time, right down until the 2:00 minute mark. Then the pressure is on, and suddenly, the magic isn’t working anymore. It’s all hard work and honestly, a little bit of luck at that point. In the world of sneakers, design is important, but sometimes, timing is even more important. And in most cases, luck can make or break anything brought to the drawing board.
So where does that leave the Air Max 96, a shoe approaching its 20th birthday after its older brother just celebrated its own 20th with much fanfare? The 96 can’t get even get a proper retro. Well…
Saying that Nike’s Air Max running line has a large amount of models is a bold understatement. We really only think of the flagship or yearly iterations when we consider the genealogy of the Air Max line. But I have an even better comparison: Capcom’s Street Fighter. Look at it like this…
If the Air Max 1 is Street Fighter’s Ryu…
and the Air Max 90 is Ken, and so on and so forth…
…then the Air Max 95 is probably Akuma.
Meanwhile, the Air Max 96 is Sean.
Sean is a Brazilian fighter that fights using the same fighting style as Ryu and Ken. He was introduced in 1997 in Street Fighter III: The New Generation and was intended to completely replace both characters. He had all the basic tenets of their style, but when it came to using Ryu and Ken’s special moves, he could only apply them as a Super Art. A Super Art is a move only available to fighters under the condition that their super bar is completely filled. In Street Fighter III’s storyline, Sean was young and inexperienced but he was hardworking and looked up to Ken. Ken treated him like an annoying little brother anytime he came around asking to be trained, repeatedly telling him that he wasn’t ready to be trained by him yet.
In the eyes of the fans, Sean was a downgrade from what made Ryu and Ken so great. He had the foundation, but he wasn’t built for the execution. A lot of casual players barely remember Sean (to be honest, casual fighting game fans don’t remember much about Street Fighter other than Ryu, Ken, and Guile), and a lot of Sean’s story reminds me of the Air Max 96. It might seem unfair to say, but when comparing the design for the 95 vs the 96, it seems like the pressure got to Sergio Lozano. I think the pressure would get to any one though. Lozano caught lightning in a bottle with the 95. Its influence is not only felt in sneaker culture, but in pop culture as well. Catching lightning in a bottle is already hard enough the first time — attempting to do it a second time is asking for trouble.
In a similar way, Akuma became a huge character after he was introduced in Street Fighter II, so big in fact, that he’s going to be a playable character in the next Tekken game. Yeah, that Tekken. Sean on the other hand hasn’t been seen since the 90’s, just like the Air Max 96. Sad to be honest. To some of you reading this, it may seem like I’m bashing the 96 here because I’m in love with the 95 so much, but trust me when I say that I’m not. The 95 and the 96 are both great shoes in their own right, but when compared directly, the 96 is the little brother of the two. It can’t fill those same footprints left by the 95. It literally can’t because they changed the outsole, but we’ll get to that.
I would never say that I’m an Air Max expert, or even the most knowledgeable Air Max fan on Sneaker History, but I like to think that I understand the design logic behind sneakers. So in my opinion, the Air Max 96 is the Air Max 95 redesigned to be a better shoe for runners.
Strategic mesh placement on the upper for breathability; the adjusted PSI in the Air bags in the heel; an upper design that seems to be designed to be a bit more aerodynamic than the previous shoe. All of these elements come together into a package that just screams, “Beat me into the pavement.” While it’s very possible that the 96 was a much better shoe to run in than the 95, Sergio Lozano designed a shoe that failed in surpassing the great aesthetics of the previous shoe.
I would love to be able to actually confirm for you that the 96 feels better to run in than the 95, but the last time 96’s were on store shelves, I was just learning how to walk and talk. There has not ever been a proper retro of the 96’s, just “upgraded” designs that poorly conveyed the energy and style of the shoe. So all we really have to go off of are images of a shoe that came out over 20 years ago.
Capcom released an updated version of Street Fighter III a couple of years ago which allowed many great characters from that generation another chance at relevancy. A few of those characters will be in the new Street Fighter V game that just released. Oddly enough, Sean isn’t included. He’s not even downloadable content (yet). However, Capcom did create a new character who is his older sister and she’s awesome — they haven’t completely forgotten about him yet. I don’t think Sean was topping any of the lists ranking veteran characters that people want to come back in anticipation of the new game, but I don’t think the fighting game community hates him either.
Sean doesn’t come anywhere close to my top five favorite Street Fighter characters, just as the Air Max 96 doesn’t even break my top five when it comes to favorite Air Max models. But I do honestly think Nike should give the 96 a proper retro, just like I think Capcom should give Sean another chance to step into the ring. At least let the little brother take a shot at greatness.