Xuan Dou Zhi Wang / King of Combat was not all about characters and gameplay that were poached from the King of Fighters. The developers went out of their way to incorporate influences from Street Fighter, Guilty Gear and other franchises. One of the most blatant characters that they poached was a panda bear by the name of Wojownik. At first sight audiences knew that he had been based on the character Po from the animated film Kung Fu Panda. His alternate costume actually turned him into a red panda with the costume stylings of Gouki / Akuma from Street Fighter. The characters were certainly cute but many players couldn't get over how shameless Tencent was about poaching ideas from other studios.
Yet to be completely fair and objective those same gamers failed to identify the origins of Kung Fu Panda. The film series debuted in 2008 and was produced by DreamWorks Animation. The Chinese-influenced martial arts panda in a video game had appeared a few years prior. In 2003 Blizzard released some screenshots of the next expansion pack for Warcraft III. It was an elaborate April Fools joke revolving around a race of characters known as the Pandaren. It took the publisher more than a decade to actually put the race into the series. By the time the expansion pack his the World of Warcraft MMO many fans thought it was too little too late.
Even then Blizzard was not the first to put a martial arts panda bear in a video game. In 1999 DreamWorks Interactive developed a game called T'ai Fu: Wrath of the Tiger. The game featured animal characters taking on the roles of kung-fu masters in ancient China. One of the supporting characters was a panda bear named Ping. If anything the game was the roots that the film grew out of. Yet that was not the whole story. According to rumors within the animation community the concept art of a young artist named Stephen Silver (Kim Possible / Clerks) were poached by DreamWorks. Some of his portfolio, which had been shown around the DreamWorks offices had included a martial arts panda bear and several other Chinese-themed animal warriors. These were shown years before T'ai Fu or Kung Fu Panda were in development. I can't say if the rumors had any validity because I've haven't gotten Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Silver in a room together to ask.
Yet even if Stephen Silver did create the template for Po, Ping and the other animal martial artists he was in no way coming up with an original idea, a least not when video games were concerned. Before T'ai Fu there was a game called Tekken 3, you might have heard of it. The 1997 hit introduced a fighting panda bear named Panda and a grizzly bear named Kuma. Both characters had roots in kung-fu forms and fought while standing on their hind legs. Of course even Namco's Panda was anything but original. A smaller studio called Psykio, known for their shooters, was trying to cash in on the fighting game craze. They had created a title called Battle K-Road. The little-known game from 1994 had a final opponent called Mr. Bear. He was a very difficult opponent and by many estimates one of the hardest bosses ever created. Even Mr. Bear was not original.
The game Ranma ½ Hard Battle for the Super Famicom / Super Nintendo had debuted in 1992. The game was based on the popular animé and manga series titled Ranma ½. The panda bear in the series was actually a human named Genma. He was the father of Ranma and changed into an animal whenever he got wet. The character retained all of his human memories and even ability to fight. Both Ranma and Genma were Chinese martial arts masters. The series debuted in 1987 and unless Steven Silver was living in a bubble then chances are he was familiar with the work of creator Rumiko Takahashi.
Genma would communicate as a panda bear by holding up wooden signs with a message on them. In the comics, cartoons and games he would sometimes attack his opponents with the sign. Wojownik actually did the same thing in King of Combat, making him a perfect blend of Po and Genma. Despite being a poached character he was also somewhat endearing to audiences.
While reading the message boards online about reactions to King of Combat I saw how selective many gamers were in remembering the legacy of fighting games. The studios in the US and Japan had been poaching ideas off of each other for decades. Worse than that they often used classical Chinese elements without actually allowing the nation to be reflected accurately. It was cultural appropriation for the sake of entertainment. Was it defensible or discriminatory? The next blog would look at this a little closer.