Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Copycat Culture, part 7...

The easy thing for most game “journalists” to do is make up a controversy. For example bring up a list of images from the cast of Xuan Dou Zhi Wang / King of Combat and say which character the company Tencent was poaching. I’ve already talked about how King was basically Ken from Street Fighter with a chance of clothes. The character could also have been called a clone of Ryu.

Audiences were upset that the King introduced in King of Combat was not the same King from the King of Fighters universe or even King from the Tekken series. The character looked instead like a blend of various KOF characters including Rock Howard and Shen Woo.

Fighting games weren't the only sources of inspiration for the King of Combat characters. Simca, one of the stars from the manga and animé series Air Gear was part of the basis for Ciel.

What modern fighting game wouldn't be complete without a weird long haired character? There's no doubt that Freeman from Garou: Mark of the Wolves and Remy from Street Fighter III: Third Strike were the sources used for Tsukikage Arashi.


SNK had a well established history of using male and female Tae Kwon-Do practitioners in their Fatal Fury and King of Fighters games. When rival studio Capcom finally decided to add a TKD fighter into the lineup they made a very unique design choice. The revealing costume of Juri Han was anything but traditional, unlike the clothing featured on the SNK fighters. The character became a hit and it was only a matter of time before Tencent answered with Lee Won Hee.

These characters were just a sampling of the parallels that could be drawn between King of Combat and the other fighting games. Pointing out the similarities was not hard at all. Any fighting game aficionado could do the same. The more important question was why did Tencent do this? Why did they feel that it would be acceptable for their game to take so many elements from other sources? Money was the primary reason. They could follow in the footsteps in the longest-lived and most successful franchises and make a quick buck. By going with free-to-play and selling costumes and other upgrades via micro transactions they could make their money back on the millions and millions of Chinese gamers that loved the genre. There was another reason for why the studio thought it was acceptable to poach so many ideas.

When it came to pop culture, especially comics, cartoons and toys, the Chinese had an ingrained concept that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. It was part of the reason why the nation pursued the creation of counterfeit goods. The western world idolized many brands, turning Nike, Prada and Rolex into the labels that everyone wanted. When the genuine article could not be had the Chinese economy rewarded counterfeiters for making the next-best thing at a reasonable price. This way of thinking was very pragmatic. It extended to many levels of society especially in major cities. The residents of the big towns like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong wanted to be recognized as having the same sophisticated tastes as their global counterparts. The best way to do that was by imitating the buying patterns of their western brethren. In the entertainment front it also meant copying what the rest of the world was into. Street Fighter II was a smash hit in China and fans wanted anything and everything with the characters in it.


The nation began adapting the legend of the World Warriors into comic book format. The Chinese actually had the first licensed Street Fighter comics in the world, before the US and even Japan! Of course the comic industry in China also produced tons of unlicensed comics as well. But I digress... Many of the best panels and covers featured in the comics were based on the official character art from Capcom. To western comic book fans this was clearly more poaching from a nation of counterfeiters.

If only those comic book fans would have looked a little closer though, they would have seen some tremendous material. Some was silly but most was sincere. Many of the licensed comcis had well written stories and superb art. The best authors and artists treated the material with as much respect as it deserved. They certainly did much more for the franchise than the horrid Malibu comics did in the US. There was a generation growing up in China that identified with the SF characters as much as those in the US or Japan did.

Imagine how difficult this perception of imitation and fraud was on the Chinese nationals and even Chinese-Americans that had migrated to the US centuries earlier. They were the ones who built the railroads and factories and did the work once the slaves had been freed. Their culture was up for grabs, their labor welcome but their opinion wasn't. Chinese culture had been appropriated by Japan and the US. It did not matter if it was accurate or insulting as it was being put in television and gaming. The Chinese were not allowed to contribute to this presentation for most of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Chinese wanted to show the world that they too knew a thing about the popular trends. They could make restaurants that looked just like fast food franchises in the West. They could make television shows that matched the popular titles in the West. They could make apparel that looked like the hot fashion labels. They could even make comic books that looked every bit as good as the official art from the studios. When they produced these things in sweatshops under a license then they were contractors, when they did it on their own volition they were thieves. Instead of being acknowledged as contributors to pop culture they were called copycats. The line between homage and rip-off seemed arbitrary. It was hypocritical especially when the creators were passionate about the projects they worked on unlike those in the west that took the license and ran it into the ground. It was a slap in the face to the audiences saw a lot of their own culture within the context of the Street Fighter series.

The Chinese fans did not readily have access to the arcade boards produced in the US or Japan. They were often playing a bootleg copy of Street Fighter II. Specifically a version that had been modified to adjust the speed up the gameplay and allow players to perform special moves mid-air where the original version did neither. These bootleg copies would make their way to the US and the rest of the world, known as the "Rainbow" kits. These releases would influence the direction of the franchise. Gamers and arcade owners would demand legal upgrade kits that had the same elements of the bootleg roms. Capcom listened and released the Hyper, Turbo and Super upgrades for SFII in the early '90s. The Japanese courted their western partners while stealing in the design elements created by the Chinese. This portion of history was glossed over in most retrospective articles concerning the evolution of the franchise.

Here was where I take exception to most game "journalists" I was willing to argue on behalf of the "pirate" and not take history as it was presented by one side. The Chinese developers weren't acknowledged for their contribution to the fighting genre and worse yet, the Japanese were glorified for theirs. When Xuan Dou Zhi Wang came out many considered it a wholesale rip-off of the King of Fighters. Even I called it the Frankenstein approach to fighting game design. What audiences did online, myself included, did was have a knee-jerk reaction to the title. Now that it has been a few months the game deserves a second look and with it the industry as well. Looking back on the evolution of the fighting game genre I saw how important imitation was to the biggest franchises. We'll look at this more in the next and final blog in this series.

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