Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Representation Matters! Or, what happened to Birdie, part 2...

 

In the previous blog I talked briefly about the influence of Street Fighter around the world. There were many reasons why the franchise was so successful. From a move selection, balance and control standpoint Capcom had done a superb job. The controls were experimental, many developers thought that anything more than two buttons might confuse players, six was going to be overkill! Despite the fears of the industry (and the extra expense to Capcom to put in all those extra buttons) players seemed to quickly pick up on the nuances of multiple buttons and joystick combinations. From week to week gamers were becoming exponentially better at the title and were uncovering secrets and techniques over months. The studio had a hit on their hands with Street Fighter II and decided to refine the game. Unlike other companies that would publish a title and move to something else Capcom was looking to fine tune Street Fighter II and offer arcade owners more repeat business. They would release upgrades to the game, known as the Hyper, Turbo and Super versions. The changed the way certain characters played and modified the balance accordingly based on location tests and feedback from player. Each upgrade to the arcades was met with great success.

From a technical standpoint the developers at Capcom were unparalleled. Yet with certain updates and sequels the characters introduced into canon did not have the staying power of the original Street Fighter II "World Warriors." The designs of the subsequent characters did not evolve as greatly as the game engine had. In some cases the characters were ill informed, if not crude and stereotypical. Birdie had started out as a typical punk character in the original Street Fighter but turned into an icon in Street Fighter Zero. It had been 17 years since Birdie was last featured in a Capcom game. In Street Fighter V the years had not been kind to him.

 

Actually it was the designers that were not kind to Birdie. They turned the character into a slob. A fat, junk food craving shadow of his former self. I wondered why Capcom would do such a thing. The other characters announced thus far had not changed at all. Ryu (who happens to be friends with Birdie in canon) was still muscular, Chun-Li was as beautiful as her previous incarnation, and Cammy seemed a minute older than her previous appearance but was still beautiful. None of the characters were fat or out of shape.

 

The Dictator, known as Vega in Japan and M. Bison in the USA, leader of the terrorist organization Shadowlaw was the main villain in Street Fighter II. He had also returned for Street Fighter V. He appeared very much the same as he did in Street Fighter IV only that now his hair was white. It didn't seem to go white due to his age but instead due to his mysterious "Psycho Power." The surprise announcement was that of Charlie Nash asa  returning character. Charlie had last been seen in Street Fighter Zero. Like Birdie it had also been 17 years since his last major role. Nash had changed somewhat as well. The character was presumed dead following the events of SF Zero, he had been shot in the back by Shadowlaw soldiers and thrown off a cliff. Revenge spurred his military friend Guile to enter the SF II tournament and track down the Dictator. In canon Nash was brought back from the dead, brainwashed and turned into an assassin. His discoloration and Frankenstein's monster-like appearance were done deliberately. Of course neither the Dictator or Charlie had returned fat and out of shape.

 

I wondered why Birdie had been turned into a slob. What did the character do to deserve such a disservice from the  new developers? Did the team of artists and animators not like him? Was it because they did not like punk culture? Was it because they did not like minority characters? Perhaps they simply didn't understand the appeal of the character in the first place. Unlike the radical redesign of Birdie from the original game to Street Fighter Zero the designers used the Zero version and tore him down. They did not even bother to use the cues that were placed on him in his previous incarnation. For example he didn't wear chains on his wrists because it was his primary weapon but because they were attached to a pair of handcuffs that he had broken. The newest version is missing the handcuffs as well as some other details that I will let you figure out.

So what exactly did Birdie's new point of reference come from if it was not from previous games? I would say that the new Birdie is now a mash up of SNK's Jack Turner and Duck King. Both characters appeared in 1991. Jack appeared in the Art of Fighting. He was a mob enforcer in South Town. The character was modeled after the stereotypical fat bikers from the West. He hung out in bars and seedy back alleys looking for trouble. His costume and fat belly had a lot in common with the Birdie redesign.

   

Duck King appeared in Fatal Fury. Despite the Mohawk haircut he was not supposed to be seen as a punk character. He was instead based on party kids, ravers and b-boys (break dancers) from the USA. His bright colors and costumes were pulled from trends in the West. There was a difference between how he was put together versus J and Two-P. In the early character art we could see that his costume, especially sunglasses and fat pants was inspired heavily by MC Hammer. He was never meant to be seen as any sort of gang member. As dance trends and pop culture changed the look of Duck King evolved. He was still a colorful character but now dressed in more street appropriate costumes. I would argue that neither Duck King nor Jack Turner were ever as popular as Birdie. In fact I remember the first time that I saw Duck King in the game I thought to myself that SNK was trying to create their own Birdie. I mean even the name was similar.

 

Yet anything that SNK did was nothing compared to what Capcom would do to their legacy character. Everything the designers did to Birdie in Street Fighter V reinforced what a slob he had become. For example some of his "attacks" consisted of him sneaking a donut from his back pocket or guzzling an energy drink. In fact in his character animation after winning a match he would pull a gigantic donut out of thin air and bite into it. It was an odd visual that nothing but demean him. Not only that but unlike previous representations of punks in the series the team did not seem to have the insight as to what Birdie would have eaten to gain so much weight. Donuts were considered more of a USA treat than a British one. Perhaps fish and chips and a warm beer would have made more sense.

 

Having Birdie drink and eat and throw his garbage at opponents would hardly be considered "punk." He was just being crude and nasty. The most absurd of his mid-match snacks was a hot pepper. It would cause Birdie to breath fire, have his skin glow red hot and do more damage to his opponents with each hit. Birdie had never had any moves in previous versions of the game that were similar to these new food-based attacks. I could not figure out what made the developers think that this radical direction was appropriate for the character.

 

When I saw his last food-based attack it raised a red flag in my mind. Birdie would eat a banana and throw the peel on the ground. Opponents could slip on this banana. It was supposed to be a funny attack that also helped keep aggressive opponents at a safe distance. It was an ill-informed choice to make a black character enthusiastically eat a banana, There were heavy racial overtones that Capcom could have done without. In many parts of the world black professional athletes are often called monkeys and bananas are thrown at them from the stands. Seeing as how Street Fighter V is going to become an international title then I would strongly suggest avoiding anything that could even remotely be taken in the wrong context.

 

Since Birdie had never had these types of silly attacks before I wondered why the studio would start adding them now. If they are giving Birdie absurd attacks why not do the same for Ryu, Chun-Li, Cammy, Dictator or Charlie? If Birdie is now fat and sloppy but none of the other characters are why is that? All of the other characters seem to be played very straight. The way they were in previous games is the way they are now. I would hate to think that Capcom is doing this because of the color of his skin or the minority status of the character but it just might be true. Consider for a moment the previous nationalities represented in Street Fighter IV. There was a lot of diversity in the lineup but the new characters created for the game were very odd as well. The Mexican wrestler El Fuerte for example was obsessed with cooking and named several of his moves after plates. There was also a Turkish wrestler with beet red skin and bright blue hair named Hakan that practiced the art of Yagli Gures, or Turkish oil wrestling. That character was obsessed with finding the perfect oil recipe to help him dominate in his matches. Players could splash themselves with oil in the game and slide across the floor. The gimmicks placed on El Fuerte and Hakan were done to give the characters a personality and make them more interesting. Yet gimmicks and throw away attacks were not something that was used with the original Street Fighter II cast. Those characters were far more interesting without being silly or sloppy.

 

The trend was becoming apparent in the more recent Capcom fighting games. El Fuerte, Hakan and Birdie had something in common. They were all minority characters. The designers had no point of reference for the characters, their cultures or their specific fighting arts. So instead they gave each of them a gimmick and made them silly. I sincerely doubt that the developers would have done the same to a Japanese character or one of the female characters. Before Birdie had the silly food attacks applied to him the developers had done something similar in Street Fighter IV. The Native Mexican character T. Hawk  was given an update to his "Raging Typhoon" special attack. In Super Street Fighter II the character would grab an opponent by the head, spin them in the air and slam them into the ground. In Street Fighter IV an extra animation was added where T. Hawk would then sit cross-legged on top of the opponent making a stereotypical "how" pose for Native Americans. This was a trope used by television to depict the ways that Native North Americans would greet each other.

 

I would hate to think that the developers at Capcom were being racist with the characters. I like to think that these choices were made out of ignorance (which is a root cause of racism) rather than racial bias. Unfortunately the silly makeover was a trend that was becoming more and more apparent for the series. Something that could be measured over the past few years were how odd the character selection had become. What was done to Birdie was part of a pattern. The next blog will question the choices from the developers.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Representation Matters! Or, what happened to Birdie, part 1...

 

Capcom has to do a better job at representing minority characters in their gaming franchises. In recent years the quality of the design choices have been questionable.

 It's just a game. 

 

No. 

Street Fighter is the definitive fighting game series. The genre that it represents is now over 30 years old. The series did not appear out of thin air moreover, the developers at Capcom were following a new trend and trying to improve on it. The forefathers of Street Fighter were Karate Champ and Kung-Fu Master by Data East, released in 1984, as well as Yie Ar Kung-Fu by Konami, released in 1985. Street Fighter, released in 1987, was developed by Takashi Nishiyama. He happened to be the producer on Kung-Fu Master, and after his stint at Capcom he went on to work at SNK and help develop the Neo Geo arcade platform as well as Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Samurai Showdown and the King of Fighters series. Nishiyama should be remembered as the godfather of the fighting game genre. Street Fighter set itself apart from the crowd early on. It had amazing graphics, unique controls and a fantastic library of characters. It became one of the few titles played by several generations and is one of a few franchises that is currently being enjoyed by kids, parents and even grandparents.

   

When Street Fighter II was released in 1991, produced by Yoshiki Okamoto, it became a global sensation. The series made over $2 billion in sales with arcade and console versions added up. Over 14 million copies of Street Fighter II were sold on the consoles and sparked the love of an entire generation. The more recent version of Street Fighter, Street Fighter IV released in 2008, has sold over 8 million copies. These are global sales. Each copy of the game may be played by a friend or family member, in essence double or tripling the audience. Every revision of the series, including Ultra and Super Street Fighter IV may have easily reached 20 million people or more. Now imagine how much of an impact the series as a whole has had on the global community.

If you were to count every game featuring Street Fighter characters, including the crossover titles, Capcom has sold over 30 million copies. In three decades how many people have played or even been influenced by Street Fighter? Perhaps 50 million, maybe  even 100 million? It is possible that the game has reached many more people than that. The genre may rise and fall in popularity, just like any other genre, but it seems to have reached a plateau where it has finally reached a permanent following. When a country hosts a fighting game tournament players from around the world are invited and often attend. The biggest matches, like Evolution in Las Vegas, draw thousands of participants from dozens of nations. They bring in thousands more as fans and draw hundreds of thousands of spectators online to watch as the matches stream live. The majority of the time the most viewed tournaments are those where Street Fighter is played. Even non-game players are familiar with the franchise. Very few gaming companies could claim to have created a brand with as much recognition.

 

I get worked up when people try to patronize the franchise and say that Street Fighter is only a game. That somehow the game is not worth discussing, debating and even criticizing. Street Fighter has been around for decades, from a pop culture standpoint it has paid its dues and is deserving of some respect. The series has influenced the entertainment industry, it has transformed game players into celebrities, and has even introduced new words into our language. To say that Street Fighter is only a game is akin to saying that Mickey Mouse is only a cartoon mascot, or that Captain America is only a comic book character. Those figures are icons, they are global ambassadors and represent something much more than a drawing. In a similar way the fighters in Street Fighter represent the pinnacle of the various fighting arts. They are snapshots of a particular culture and could teach developers a great deal about making universally recognized figures. The fighters are such popular figures that many fans (myself included) often dress up like them at conventions and events. The characters are so well regarded that men and women from every ethnic group dress up as the icons. Sometimes women dress up as male characters and sometimes men dress up as the female characters. What other series could claim that level of devotion? The love of the franchise is so deep that few within the community question this level of dedication.


Yet in recent years Capcom has steered away from the elements that made their original "World Warriors" such iconic figures. Let's take a look at one of the returning characters announced for Street Fighter V and see what the current group of developers has done to the him. Birdie was a British punk character from the original Street Fighter. He was a non-playable character and absent in Street Fighter II. He did not return until Street Fighter Zero / Alpha in 1995. When players saw him again he had received a radical makeover. Of course one of the biggest changes was his skin color. Birdie had gone from white to black. There were many other details that set apart the new Birdie from the old Birdie. His costume retained the boots, pants and vest but each had changed slightly. His pants were now leather instead of denim and not torn, his boots were very exaggerated with an upturned pointy toe and his vest had a long spiky collar. He now sported jewelry, including a large number of rings that doubled as brass knuckles. A pair of over-sized handcuffs were worn as bracelets, and apparently Birdie had broken the chain on them and wrapped them around his massive forearms. Birdie now sported a tattoo, a large heart on the side of his head. He retained his trademark Mohawk hairdo, only now he had a circle cut out of the middle of it. He was certainly an attention grabber from a visual standpoint but Birdie had much more depth to him.


Players discovered that Birdie had a unique collection of brawling and grappling attacks that complimented his frame. He had a powerful headbutt attack in the original Street Fighter and a new library of moves was built around that attack in SF Zero. In the game endings players could see him breaking down steel doors using his head. This was nothing to laugh at. To round out his moves he could wrap up opponents in his chain and slam them to the ground. For a large person Birdie was fairly quick. He balanced out characters like gang member Sodom and the Russian wrestler Zangief. Birdie developed a following among players for his moves as well as for his personality. In game animation and official character art Birdie had a light side. He would comb out his hair as an in-game taunt and sometimes even lick the chain on his arm. His character art used very exaggerated proportions to make him appear freakish. He had a powerful upper torso but his legs looked very skinny by comparison. These exaggerated proportions would be applied to every character in the game. The designs were created by Bengus, my favorite Capcom artist. These designs influenced many other fighting games by rival studios.


Punks were not a new concept in the gaming, especially not for Capcom. In the 1988 game Forgotten Worlds there was a futuristic soldier (known only as Player-2) that was also dark-skinned and sported a Mohawk. A year later Capcom released Final Fight, originally titled Street Fighter '89. In it there were two punk characters, J and Two P (a send-up of the name Player-2) that fought the heroes. They were members of the Mad Gear Gang and had very bright costumes which were very over-the-top for gang characters. During this time the Japanese developers were experimenting with Western character designs. They were incorporating costumes and trends that they had seen in cult action movies like Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981) and Streets of Fire ( Walter Hill,1984). Jumpsuits, leather jackets, hoodies, long coats, and neon color were not usually seen on the streets of Japan. While the point of reference was a little dated by the time the games came out the characters were a unique contribution from the designers.


Capcom never forgot the influence of punk culture on the Street Fighter series. When Street Fighter III debuted in 1997 there were a few punks loitering on the streets of London. The stage was designed to bring in heavy British themes. The cobblestone road, bridge and buildings were Victorian in appearance. A silhouette of Sherlock Holmes, advertising the Sherlock Holmes pub was on a sandwich board sign. Some of the characters standing in the background looked like they had come from a Charles Dickens story. Only a few elements put the city in a modern context. The Mini Cooper parked on the side of the road and the punk characters hanging out near a post box. Even with this long-running tradition of showing punk culture Birdie was the first and in my opinion the best punk character in any series.


The popular fighting game site asking fans to vote on which character they would like to see in Street Fighter V. Birdie was actually #15 on the list, ahead of 50 other popular characters.  Over the past few years Capcom has released surveys in the US and Japan to find out which characters fans like best. These surveys have undoubtedly influenced which characters get to return in a franchise title, like Street Fighter V. When it was announced that Ryu and Chun-Li would be returning characters most players were not surprised. They were the first two characters that were in development with the announcement of Street Fighter IV a few years earlier. The big surprise came with the announcement that Birdie would be returning. I was elated at the news. I was always a big fan of Birdie and looked forward to his inclusion in the newest game. Unfortunately that elation would quickly turn to disappointment. It seemed that Birdie had become a joke character for the new developers.

 

I would reserve my final judgement until I saw and played the character in person. Thankfully I would get a chance to do so at the 2015 E3, the first playable unveiling of the character. I will highlight my issues with the redesign in the next blog.