Friday, July 31, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 14

In fighting games (and in popular culture) karate would be considered a top-tier technique. The actual versions of karate featured in games were not necessarily rooted in one school. The looser the connection with an established style the better it was for developers to adapt into a game. In this way they could invent special attacks for the cast without fear from purists calling out the technique. Before characters could shoot fireballs from their hands karate was shown in a much more realistic light. In 1984 Technos released Karate Champ. It was one of the forefathers of the fighting game genre. The "plot" of the game was simple. The main character would travel from town to town and fight the best karate practitioners there. Players earned a full point or a half a point depending on the severity of their attack. The strikes in the game were based on actual karate moves, the points based on organized tournament rules. Players could punch, kick, jump and even block by entering commands on two joysticks. It was a clumsy control setup that would not be revisited by any other company. There was a "sub-plot" in the game as well. At each location there was a woman that was torn over which fighter she preferred. The winner of the tournament would get the girl. The girl-as-a-prize would be a trope that Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency would point out in many other genres.

 

Karate Champ was notable for using different backgrounds and locations to help tell a story. The main character went from dojo to dojo and even traveled around the world challenging opponents. While the main characters wore red or white it was due to limitations in the hardware. They were supposed to represent different fighters and even nationalities. This globe-trotting fighter was a Mas Oyama-type, a karate as the superior fighting form stand-in. Even the bonus stages were reflective of the demonstrations that Oyama would put on. He would break boards and even stones with his bare hands and his fights against bulls were legendary. But I'll go into greater detail on that in a future blog. In Karate Champ players could also break boards or even ceramic pots and bottles thrown at them. It was a little silly but made the fighter look like a badass. Karate Champ was mildly popular but the runaway hit from 1984 was a different type of fighting game. Irem released Kung-Fu Master, a game based loosely on Bruce Lee's final film "Game of Death." Kung-Fu Master predated Renegade (Technos, 1986) and Double Dragon (Technos, 1987) and could actually be considered the forefather of the brawler.

The first few kung-fu games created a framework that would be followed by the rest of the industry. Konami released Yie Ar Kung-Fu in 1985. It featured masters of different forms of kung-fu against a hero named Oolong. Some of the fighters used weapons while others user their hands and feet. It was notable for the traditional locations players visited as well as being the first fighting game that featured female opponents. Yie-Ar Kung was a fast-paced, very frenetic fighting game. There were no pauses in action, no chance for the player to breathe. The focus was less on realism and more on capturing the energy and slick choreography of kung-fu action films. The slow, calculated scoring system of Karate Champ was thrown out the window. Nonstop action would become the style of gameplay that Capcom and the other studios would try to build upon. Because of this the kung-fu master would become a trope in fighting games, especially Japanese fighting games. Lee and Gen appeared just two years after Yie Ar Kung-Fu. They kept the classical costumes with them. Capcom had unveiled a game engine capable of putting larger sprites with greater fidelity and more colors on the screen than Konami had done. This engine was used as the backbone for the original Street Fighter.

 

Kung-Fu masters were so well known globally that almost every fighting game had to make use of them. Three of the greatest fighters in Virtua Fighter tournament play and also in canon were Pai Chan, her father Lau Chan and family friend and "Drunken Master" Shun Di. Sega was one of the pioneers of 3D technology in arcade games and created what is generally regarded as the first 3D fighting game. Virtua Fighter was a hit from 1993. It had realistic graphics, lighting and quasi-realistic physics as well. These were things that audiences hadn't really seen before. The game was set in the modern world but many of the fighters were presented with classic uniforms, especially the Chinese ones. Pai and Lau were in the original game and Shun Di appeared in the sequel a year later.


Not to be outdone Namco released their first 3D fighting game in 1994. The studio had a long standing rivalry with Sega. Anything one studio did the other studio tried to do better. It was seen in racing games, space shooters and especially fighting games. Tekken was the result of their work and audiences were split as to which 3D fighting game was better. The elderly kung-fu master Wang Jinrei appeared in the first Tekken. His understudy Lei Wulong, a "Super Cop" based on a Jackie Chan character, appeared in Tekken 2. A more classic villain Feng Wei debuted in Tekken 5. Again, despite being set in the modern world the characters were mostly stereotypes pulled from Hong Kong cinema.

 

While Buddhist monks were credited for introducing kung-fu to China they have actually been grossly underrepresented in fighting games. Fans of the Mortal Kombat series might mention that Liu Kang and Kung Lao from the Mortal Kombat series were monks although they did not look or dress traditionally. The series was about as inaccurate as a fighting game could be when it came to representing actual fighting arts. The purpose of Mortal Kombat was to shock players with its ultra violent moves and fatalities. It was well done but it was fairly insensitive to Asian culture and traditions. In the history of fighting games were have been only two fighters based on actual Shaolin Monks. Lei Fei, appeared in Virtua Fighter 5 in 2001. There wouldn't be another monk worth mentioning until 2008. Kuan Yin Shen was the younger of the two and he appeared in Capoeira Fighter 3 by Spiritonin. The character was actually named on a Buddhist deity. Sega was a Japanese developer and Spiritonin was a US developer. The representation of traditional Shaolin kung-fu was indeed extremely rare around the world. But why was this? Perhaps religious undertones made the monks appear less intimidating in the games. It didn't matter if they studied the iron body techniques, could run on water or knew the death touch. In western circles a person in a robe just didn't seem as formidable as say a seven-foot cyclops that practiced Muay Thai. In Hong Kong cinema this was not the case, monks of different schools could be the subjects of action films. The classic Shaolin vs Lama highlights the fighting capacity of religious followers.

 

Popular culture dictated which styles appeared in a fighting game and even how the fighters themselves would be presented. Hong Kong cinema was the root of many kung-fu tropes. Some of which were based on historical figures but the vast majority were made up. The next blog will highlight how cinema influenced the evolution of the fighting game genre. I hope to see you back for that.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 13

Capcom featured Muay Thai as the final style that gamers had to overcome in the original Street Fighter. Released in 1987 each stage told a story about the culture that Capcom was trying to recreate. The designers did not have the internet to rely on, perhaps they would watch some tapes or look at travel guides for reference material but they didn't have the luxury of digging too deep while creating the levels. Each stage was nonetheless quite memorable, especially for the final opponents in the game. The reflecting pool, sunset orange sky and seated Buddha were serene. They sharply contrasted the aggressive style that Muay Thai master Adon would become known for. A similar observation could be made of Sagat and his level. The beautiful temple backdrop beguiled a fighter that was feared by his peers. To impressionable gamers in Japan and the United States these were caricatures of Thailand that seemed true.


The designers at Capcom had done a wonderful job at setting a standard that all future fighting games would be measured against. Although both characters practiced Muay Thai both Adon and Sagat had very distinct variations on the form. Adon used leaping heel strikes against players while Sagat focused on quick punches and rising knee strikes. Like the level backgrounds themselves these attacks were caricatures of reality. From a character design standpoint both fighters were very unique personalities. Adon was not a humble understudy, he had grown tired of living in the shadows of his mentor. He hoped to defeat Sagat and assume his status as the worlds greatest fighter. Sagat on the other hand was a cold, calculating and brutal master. He had taken the life of an opponent in combat and his reputation had colored his presence in each and every game within the series. These details would become important to the evolution of the franchise as well as the genre.

In 1991 Sagat would return in Street Fighter II' as a sub-boss. Other developers took notice of the genre and created their own version of a fighting game. Takashi Nishiyama was a Producer at SNK, he was previously a planner on the original Street Fighter. He wanted to create his own fighting game for the Neo Geo arcade platform. Instead of two main characters he helped create three main characters for players to choose from, one of which was a Muay Thai fighter named Joe Higashi. The game also featured a hot-tempered Muay Thai opponent named Hwa Jai. Fatal Fury was released at the end of 1991, the same year that Street Fighter II came out. Higashi and Jai would turn up again in various SNK games but they would not be the only Muay Thai masters in the universe. Other game studios would also try to incorporate the fighting art into their own releases. Also for the Neo Geo platform but developed by ADK there was a fighter named Shura. He was featured in World Heroes circa 1992, it was one of the first blatant clones of Street Fighter. More than two decades later the first notable female Muay Thai master would make her debut. Chompoo appeared in Capoeira Fighter 3 circa 2004. The character had a host of traditional moves, elbow and knee strikes, that were made fantastic when combined with leaping and tumbling attacks. The most recent Muay Thai master in the 2D, or rather 2.5D genre was inspired by several of the SNK icons, The blonde-haired Prayuth made his debut in 2013. The Chinese developers at Tencent had borrowed liberally from the icons created by both SNK and Capcom in their game the King of Combat.

 

Something that the most successful studios learned to do over the '90s was to add depth to their cast. Audiences might think that a fighting game character did not need a backstory, a history or even origin. Yet Capcom, SNK, Namco and Sega each learned that a memorable fighting game franchise needed more than a colorful cast or some fancy graphics. The game needed to be balanced, the control dialed in, music catchy and sound just right. The fighters needed to be memorable, they had to be more substance than flash. In order to achieve that the studios had to put as much planning into their design as they would for a AAA adventure star. The characters would not simply be just fighters, they had day jobs and families to go to. Some were soldiers, some were gang members and some were even aristocrats. These histories would not necessarily be spelled out for gamers though. The stages, the rivalries, the dialogue and occasional cut scene would reveal the motivation behind the best characters. Some of these histories would be unveiled over the course of several games, spanning 10 or even 20 years. The best fighters would become icons to the gaming community.

 

Something that contributed to the evolution of the genre was the shift from 2D to 3D graphics. As the various fighting arts were adapted to 3D they had to undergo some changes. The strikes of the artform were often simplified and some lost their presence. One technique that worked very well in 3D was Muay Thai. Namco introduced the Muay Thai hitman Bruce Irvin to audiences in 1995. The character featured in the Tekken series would gain a following. A few years later, in 1999 to be precise, SNK introduced their first 3D Muay Thai master. The character did not have the youthful brashness of Adon or rather Joe Higashi but he was still a part of the Fatal Fury universe. The middle-aged Payak Sitpitak was a more level-headed person, a fighter and family man. In canon he was talked into entering the Buriki One tournament by Higashi. Payak lacked a flashy style, to be fair the entire cast in the game was actually grounded in more realistic attacks than the 2D fighters. Payak was still a dangerous man who let his hard strikes do all the talking. The Neo Geo platform was not great at rendering 3D graphics, especially when compared to Namco's proprietary System 11 arcade board. These were the steps that the studios needed to make in order to reinvigorate the genre. Unfortunately the teams working at Capcom on the Street Fighter series were rehashing 2D sprites and falling behind the 3D development curve. Even Sega, a long-time rival to Namco would eventually add a Muay Thai fighter to their franchise. The ever-cocky Brad Burns made his debut in 2003 with Virtua Fighter 4.

 

Muay Thai was considered one of the "exotic" martial arts in early fighting games. Its evolution was unique given the region that it came from and how native customs mixed with Hindu and Buddhist cultures to shape the art. Something similar happened in the far North where different cultures adapted the fighting arts of China and Japan into something unique. The Korean system of Taekwondo (TKD) was seen as a modern striking form, it did not come into its own until the late '40s. At the same time it enjoyed an appeal almost as exotic as Muay Thai. SNK was a perennial rival to Capcom, especially in the fighting game genre. The planners and some staff working on the Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting and King of Fighters games were ex-Capcom employees. They wanted to diversify the fighting styles featured in their games and provide a bigger library of characters than what was featured in the Street Fighter series. In order to do this they looked at other popular striking arts and no form came to mind more immediately than TKD.

The style of fighting was very calculated, it reflected the nation of origin. Korea was a culture that based its language on mathematics, the importance of science was not lost on the people. In Taekwondo kicks were the main attacks. Practitioners did not only learn all the types of kicks they could perform but which were the most effective at different ranges. The form was distilled from Okinawan Karate and Chinese Kung-Fu however there was a distinct fight science to the art. Students had to learn how to angle opponents, restrict their movement, find openings and isolate weak spots. Practitioners learned to be light on their feet and remain in a constant state of movement. This was not a fighting art developed from warfare so the strikes were optimized for speed and efficiency rather than lethality. It was especially important in point-based tournaments. From a gaming standpoint the sweeping kicks looked amazing when animated by studio artists. The lion's share of TKD fighters were featured in SNK games through most of the '90s. Kim Kaphwan started the tradition in 1992. He was a new star in Fatal Fury 2. Kim was notable not just for his amazing kicks but because he was the first to have children appear as fighters as well. His sons Dong Hwan and Jae Hoon debuted in 1999's Garou Mark of Wolves. Muay Thai and Karate looked unique depending on the practitioner, the same could be said of the TKD fighters. The Kim children were not simply clones of their father but instead had their own personalities and moves.

 

Enemies and allies of the Kim family were added to other SNK games. Seo Yong Song from Buriki One (whom also debuted in 1999), Jhun Hoon from King of Fighters '99 and May Lee from King of Fighters 2001 were all distinct practitioners and proud Koreans. The layers of storytelling that went into the rivalries and relationships helped add depth to the universe and made the characters stand out. Audiences enjoyed the diversity they were presented with. Taekwondo was one of the fighting arts that made the transition from real life to 2D seamlessly. When technology allowed the form to be presented in a 3D fighting games it was a perfect fit. Part of the reason that the moves looked so well in 3D was because they were not traditionally animated. Instead there were athletes and martial artists performing motion capture animations for the programmers to work from. Baek Doo San was the first in a TKD master in a major title. He appeared in Tekken 2 in 1995. Namco went the extra mile and had an actual Olympian perform the moves for Baek and his understudy Hwoarang in Tekken 3, released in 1997. Panda from the 2008 game Capoeira Fighter 3 was the first female 3D TKD practitioner.

 

Sega's Virtua Fighter was the only major 3D series yet to feature a TKD master. According to canon Sarah Bryant, who debuted in 1993, was accomplished in Jeet Kune Do. In later iterations she added the French art of Savate and TKD to her repertoire. Rival studio Tecmo was also late in bringing the Korean fighting art to fans. Dead or Alive 5 was released in 2012 and introduced a mysterious TKD fighter known only as Rig. His moves were familiar to audiences because of the other TKD characters that came before him. The 3D mold created by Baek Doo San would not be broken until 2010. While Panda did set the precedence most fighting game fans would identify the assassin Juri Han as the most revolutionary new TKD character of the past 20 years. The character actually had many design elements pulled from Chun-Li however that was besides the point. The powerful kicks, blinding speed and brutal moves made her stand out from her peers. She became such a powerful icon that a few short years later the studio Tencent would more or less copy her design. Lee Won Hee debuted in King of Combat in 2013. She had a blend of moves from Juri but also from the Kim family and other TKD gaming pioneers. What was interesting was that there was a male South Korean Judo grappler named Lee Won-hee that was the World Champion in 2003 and Olympic Gold Medal Champion in 2004. I am not sure why the Chinese developer would use the same name.

 

Pop culture had a lot to do with which styles would be featured in fighting games. The more well known arts would be included in almost every franchise developed. The games that deviated from the formula, or made up their own fighting arts were hit or miss with audiences. Muay Thai and Tae Kwon Do were standout forms from the early days of the genre. So how did the classic fighting arts remain "untouched" even as technology changed? Find out about this shift on the next blog.

Monday, July 27, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 12

In every culture and in every story tradition a myth would sometimes be rooted in reality. It helped our ancestors cope with the unknown, the mysterious and bizarre. When it came to the martial arts the tradition of myth was supremely important. It helped turn local fighters into legends and military warlords into god-kings. Imagine how word of mouth helped create the fables of men that were able to break stones with a punch, were able to kick down trees and even run over water. The impossible was possible to a handful of people. It's secrets became highly sought after. As the martial arts spread throughout Asia the mythologies of each culture helped shape its evolution. The Buddhist monks of India and China were some of the strongest forces that helped shape the history of the martial arts. In the previous blogs I had mentioned how Kung-Fu travelled through China and reach the shores of Japan where it was adapted and transformed into Karate. But what happened to the art form as it went through South Asia? How did it differ from the other fighting arts? How did its founders become legend?


Something that contributed greatly to the development of the fighting arts in South and South East Asia was actually the terrain and weather. The further south in Asia had a much higher level of precipitation. During the monsoon season rainfall could be measured in meters rather than inches. Portions of Japan and China were well within the monsoon belt as well but the majority of the rainfall was concentrated over areas closer to the ocean, such as Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma). Of course the surrounding islands and peninsulas of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines were no strangers to wet climates. This heavy rainfall translated into lush vegetation, thick jungles and heavy forest canopies. Travelers had to be wary not only of wild animals but also of bandits that could be hiding at every step of a journey. This terrain also changed the way wars were fought and won. Larger armies from the North used to controlling massive areas of space with the aid of advanced long-range weaponry such as catapults and crossbows were at a loss in jungle settings. Due to the dense vegetation the wars in the South were fought in close quarters, man-to-man. The armies that combined practical close-range weapons with deadly martial arts training were all but guaranteed victory. The way men fought and trained in the martial arts in the South was much different than what Bodhidharma took with him into China. Heavy armor favored by Chinese, Mongolian and Japanese forces were too cumbersome to use or even wear in the hot tropics. Fighters had to be free to move, use the terrain to their advantage, and strike whenever and wherever an opportunity presented itself. As Budhhism traveled through Bangladesh, into Myanmar and Thailand the fighting forms of the monks were dissected and portions were combined with native techniques. The hybrid of systems worked extremely well with stick, sword and shield fighting. Even without weapons the forms that grew from the tropic regions was deadly in its efficiency.

 

The art of "Eight Limbs" had a lineage that went back thousands of years. The bare hand fighting forms which made liberal use of elbows, knees and clutches were brutal. They were dangerous in the arena as they were in the battlefield. The form known as Muay Boran in ancient times was practiced by the personal bodyguards of the kings. It eventually went beyond the walls of the imperial palaces and changed into what the modern world now knows as Muay Thai. There were countless regional iterations of the striking arts, called Mai Mae, Luk Mai Muay Thai, Bokator, Kun Khmer and Pradal Serey. Each one could be identified for its many victories on the battlefields as well as in the fighting arenas.

Yet that was not the only offshoot fighting art that evolved in Asia. In Indonesia Pencak Silat, sometimes called Silat was a word used to represent the indigenous martial arts of over 800 styles from the thousands of islands that make up Indonesia. Betawi for example is an aggressive striking form whereas Cimande is focused on flowing combinations. The main forms originated in Sumatra and Java. Silat was used to defend the natives from Northern aggressors as well as from foreign invaders. It incorporated many unique stances, tight sweeping strikes and rapidly changing angles. These kept opponents off guard, baffled invaders and made sure that the Indonesians enjoyed their independence for centuries. The style, like those from the other coastal countries in Asia would not have worked while wearing armor or yielding heavy weapons. It was about being light and fast so swords were more like daggers and shields were light and portable. When the British, Dutch, French and other imperial armies began to colonize the port towns the Indonesians did their best to preserve the art form. The would-be conquerers from the West did their best to supplant the languages, temples and cultural icons of the Asians but this did nothing more than make them dig in deeper to preserve their heritage. As a result Silat not only survived into the modern era, its practitioners were still considered some of the most lethal fighters in the world. Pencak Silat, like Muay Thai was descended from combat, it was not a form for sport, exercise or self-improvement. It was meant to kill and thus retained its dangerous overtones.


Silat could not necessarily be considered one of martial arts directly influenced by the Buddhist monks traveling through Asia. Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation on Earth and has been for some time. The evolution of Silat was nonetheless influenced by traders and settlers from Northern regions. Kung-Fu developed striking arts that were inspired by the grace and beauty of nature however the fighting arts in South East Asia were inspired by centuries of bloody conflict. As such the fighters from South Asia gained a reputation for being dangerous combatants. The masters of kung-fu and karate could find a way of having a friendly sparring match, perhaps the first to drop an opponent or even the first to land a solid strike could be declared the winner. By contrast those that fought in Muay Thai tournaments were looking to break opponents. Blood was the measure of success, fighters would wrap their knuckles in cord and sometimes crushed glass so that they would be able to tear the flesh off opponents. Even modern matches have lost little of the lethality of ancient rules. Some strikes have been outlawed in organized competition but even without these strikes only the most dedicated fighters could hope to achieve a level of champion. For those that want to see what sort of brutal punishment the top fighters could unleash against each other take a look at the infamous "Elbow Fight" between Sakmongkol and Jongsanan at Lumpinee Stadium in Bangkok. It was the fifth time that the two had fought each other. Round after round the two ate elbows like a kid eating candies at Halloween. Fans of this level of fighting could be considered sadistic while the fighters were clearly masochists. No amount of punishment could satiate either group. The spectacle of professional competitions and the legend of underground Muay Thai tournaments spread far and wide throughout Asia. Only the most foolhardy martial arts master would dare seek out these men in a fight. More "refined" cultures like those in China and Japan looked down on the barbaric combat from the South. This repulsion for the hyper-violent Southern eventually turned into legend. The only way that a master of the "modern" arts could prove their skill was to seek out new challengers, especially those from Thailand.

In cinema kung-fu had become a mainstay of fighting forms. Action films the world over relied on the classic Asian arts to make heroes appear unstoppable. Yet every decade there seemed to be an artist to come out of nowhere, using a different art and redefine how movie fight should look. Muay Thai rose to prominence on the heels of the film Ong Bak in 2003. In it director Prachya Pinkaw made a moderate-budget film that highlighted the fighting and stunt abilities of Tony Jaa. Tony became an overnight sensation in action film circles and created a buzz that was comparable to the early days of Jackie Chan and even Bruce Lee. Almost a decade later director Gareth Evans featured Silat through the skilled hands and feet of Iko Uwais, The Raid which was released in 2011 demonstrated how an art form at least a millennia old could amaze audiences that had grown up on expensive special effects.


The films of Tony and Iko were two examples of how the fighting arts were still integral to pop culture. This was not a new trend. In the late 19th and early 20th century pop culture would take the regional biases against different fighting forms and the stereotypes about their practitioners and turn them into fodder for stories, comics, movies and eventually video games.

It was not enough for a video game that the Muay Thai master was just an average person. As the final opponent in Street Fighter he had to become much more imposing figure and present a genuine challenge to audiences. The designers at Capcom made the one-eyed fighter into a seven-foot giant. He had a reach advantage, a strength advantage and used a fighting form that was considered more dangerous than karate. The name Sagat was based on Sagat Petchyindee, a Muay Thai fighter that dominated tournaments in the early '80s and undoubtedly made its way into the psyche of the Japanese developers. Although Sagat has always been illustrated as an incredibly muscular man in Street Fighter II he was much lankier. There was another Muay Thai legend that likely inspired this design. Dieselnoi Chor. Thanasukarn was 6' 2", possibly 6' 3" tall, and had a considerable reach and size advantage over most of his opponents. Although he was thin he packed a powerful knee, a "Sky Piercing Knee" according to legend. The character of Sagat was known for his knee strikes as well so it is entirely possible that Dieselnoi had a hand in influencing the developers on Street Fighter. Dieselnoi was such a formidable champion that after several years at the top he was forced into retirement when he could not find an opponent in his same class. Although to be fair Sagat Petchyindee was one of the few to ever defeat Dieselnoi.


There was something about Thailand that kept designers returning to the region. It was romanticized in comics, its location considered exotic and mysterious to the more industrialized nations in Asia. The inclusion of Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines presented the perfect backdrop for the Street Fighter game series and even the animated films and television shows. Adon, the cocky understudy of Sagat had stages built on the Chaopraya River. The temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom were also used in the backgrounds for Adon's stages as well as the secretive location of the dictatorship Shadowlaw. The reclining Buddha of Wat Lokayasutharam, whose weathered features were awe-inspiring in real life looked fantastic when adapted to the game series.


Ryu was the star of Street Fighter and karate was presented as the ultimate fighting art but the genre would never have been the same without the inclusion of Muay Thai. This survey of the real world fighting forms will take a closer look at the Muay Thai heroes and villains from gaming in the next blog.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Necalli, a first look and second take on the new Street Fighter V character...

Okay friends let's talk a little bit about the new guy, Necalli, recently announced for Street Fighter V. I'll break this blog into my initial reaction, and them my thoughts as I saw him in action and then my early observations for his reveal. In case you haven't seen the character here he is in his two "modes."


Teenage me would have been all over that design. I mean he's got long dreads and tattoos! How cool is that? Then when he goes into Beast Mode his tattoos glow and his hair becomes big and red. That is crazy! Clearly this is going to be a popular character with guys that like rampaging all over opponents. When I first saw him I had two thoughts cross my mind and that you might not expect. The first was that this character was in response to Gigas, one of the new fighters in Tekken 7. Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono was friends with Tekken series producer Katsuhiro Harada. Was this a jab at the new fighter?

 

When I saw the hoses sticking out of Gigas all I could think was how distracting they were. The dreadlocks on Necalli seemed a little bit distracting as well. They were very thick and lumpy yet they bounced all over the place as he moved. The yellow eyes, red and black braids in Necalli's hair mirrored the color scheme of Gigas as well. Of course it could also be a coincidence.

The second thing I thought of was who this character was designed to appeal to. Was he designed for Japanese players? Young audiences? Older fans? Perhaps he was designed to appeal to players in the West. However I had a feeling he was designed to appeal to Chinese audiences.

   

The reason I say this is because in Chinese manhua, comic books, the characters are often very over-the-top. They tended to combine many contrasting elements into the designs of a fighter, you know like, masks, tattoos, super powers, dreadlocks... Some of the more memorable designs from Japan and the US usually focused on a few defining elements. In China the characters can sometimes be overloaded with multiple cues. Such was the case for Sean from the Street Fighter series. The Chinese comics featuring the character took great artistic liberties with him. He was a sidekick character that looked similar to his game counterpart. He was young with short hair early on in the comics. Many issues later artists then made an "evil" version of the character that was slightly older with long braids. This version was decapitated and came back as a cyborg with metallic braids. I can't make this stuff up! I wondered if Necalli's various elements, the braids, the tattoos and transformation were combined in order to make him appealing to Chinese players.

 

The next thing that I thought of after that was his costume and ability to transform. The tribal costume and hair color shift made me think of two distinct franchises. The first was the obvious one… Dragon Ball. The glowing red hair was very reminiscent of Gojita and the ability to manhandle opponents came from Broly. The colors on the clothing may also have been inspired by these fighters.

 

However the shredded clothing and leg bands were a staple for jungle fighters, for "noble savages" like Cham Cham and Tam Tam from the Samurai Spirits series. When I saw Necalli's hair I actually thought of Cham Cham. Characters from the jungle were often presented in a type of pre-Columbian native wear. Perhaps with a loin cloth or some sort of animal skin as the costume. The designers at SNK and Capcom didn't invent the trope. These images were as old as pulp comics in the US and stories from the "exotic" locations from around the world printed in Victorian newspapers. The Japanese were instrumental in making the jungle fighter uniquely animé.

   

What I looked at next were the moves that Necalli was given. It consisted of mostly slashing attacks, stomps and throws. To make a crude comparison he slashed with the ferocity of Wolverine.

 

Anyone that has been playing fighting games for a few years could point at many other characters that slashed at opponents as well. Some were dressed in plain clothes such as Tiger from Martial Masters, some were dressed in regal uniforms such as Vold Ignitio from Fighting Layer. There were also those that were cool guys like Iori, Freeman and Tsukikage respectively from the King of Fighters, Garou: Mark of the Wolves and King of Combat. Each of these characters also slashed at opponents with their bare hands.

 

The template for the long haired slasher was older than Street Fighter itself. The hero Rei from Hokuto No Ken / Fist of the North Star, could cut his opponents to shreds using his fingers. The series debuted in 1983 and was highly influential on the artists at Capcom and their designs for Street Fighter, Final Fight, Street Fighter II and a few other arcade hits from many other studios.

 

What concerned me about Necalli wasn't as much his design as it was his moves and how this character would effect the balance of the series. Necalli had a design that was very much boss-like. The fact that he could transform into a more powerful character with long flowing hair, glowing eyes and neon tattoos pretty much cemented the qualifications for a boss character, see Gill from Street Fighter III as an example. If he weren't a boss then he certainly was a sub-boss with those attributes.

 

The thing was that we had seen the long haired, brightly colored, overpowered boss so many times in fighting games that it was starting to become predictable. In games from SNK, Capcom, Sega, Namco and various other studios there had been at least one boss character that fit the bill. He was humanoid but not necessarily a human. A demon or alien was the most popular type of long haired, omnipotent boss.

 

When you want to show how powerful the boss is then you have him manhandle his opponent with ease. With one hand if possible, and in the case of some bosses no hands are needed!

 

Even though Necalli is a playable character the idea that he can transform into a more powerful being concerned me greatly. Not because of what it did to the canon of the game but because what it did to the core mechanics of the game itself. A character with more than one style had been done before and done well, see the kung-fu master Gen. Players could with between his forms with the press of a button. But in Street Fighter IV and now V we have seen a shift in the game balance. One that requires the character to build a special meter in order to unlock the full potential of an attack or a library of moves.

It started with having to continuously pour oil on yourself for Hakan. Now we have Birdie that has to keep eating and drinking junk food in order to receive the benefits of a "V-Meter." It might be a "buff" or "armor" or some other bonus that the character earns once they fill the meter. I mean where does it end? Should Ryu be able to reach into his pocket and break some boards to get his armor started? Or should Chun-Li eat some dumplings to make her kicks more powerful? What if Akuma does 10 ShunGokuSatsu's in a row, will that allow him to become Shin Gouki?


Will the game will suffer because players are forced to fill the special in order to play the character at their full potential? What if Necalli only had one form and full access to his abilities from the get-go? Would the character be more or less interesting? Would the game be more balanced?

I'd rather enjoy the game rather than focus on who can fill a special meter the fastest. Ultimately what concerns me is how the designers at Capcom are missing the lessons of the shows and titles that they are influenced by just so they can get a cool looking character in the game.

   

Dragon Ball was a highly influential series. It completely rethought the way that super-powered characters were supposed to fight. The fact that Son Goku could transform into a Super Saiyan was revolutionary. He was already a powerful character but then he could become 100 times more powerful. His hair would even turn to gold just to highlight how powerful he had become. This visual went on to influence every aspect of the entertainment industry. It was certainly not missed by the developers working on Sonic the Hedgehog.

But what many people forget was that it took a generation for Son Goku to grow up. There were many memorable adventures with his friends, and countless battles before he reached the point and was able to become Super. Once the proverbial super genie was let out of the bottle then it became a gimmick that was used again and again within the span of a few years.

 

Once Son Goku could become Super, then his opponents had to become more powerful as well. It got to the point where Son Goku kept on evolving, his hair and costume becoming even more outlandish. Goku would outclass all of his robotic and alien opponents and soon could only fight gods. This formula became stale after a while. All of Son Goku's friends were so pitifully outclassed that there was little reason for them to be in the comics or cartoons. They either had to evolve or simply be written out of the plot. After 20+ plus years the creators went back to the drawing board and "rebooted" the franchise to the timeline where he could only turn Super Saiyan and even then it was barely enough to keep pace with his rivals. In doing so his supporting cast was able to return as well and join him on his adventures.

 

When I see what the team at Capcom is doing to Street Fighter I wonder if they missed the part where characters can only become so powerful before audiences begin to lose interest in them. Gouki was a fantastic character. He had the features of a lion. He was evil incarnate and had the attacks to prove it. But then came Shin Gouki, a more powerful incarnation. Audiences accepted the change, seeing it as a sort of Super Saiyan version of the character. Then there was Oni, and even more powerful version. I began to wonder what was the next transformation after that. Would he fuse with his back-from-the-dead brother to become Goukita? Would he become a god too?

Perhaps it would take another 20 years or another Necalli before the team realized that putting overpowered characters in a lineup was a flawed design approach. If they kept on that path then Ryu, Ken, Chun-Li and the rest would have to become boss-like characters as well or be replaced by Necalli-like figures. Or perhaps I was over-analyzing his introduction and Necalli was designed to be the extreme character, the Blanka or Dhalsim for this version of the game. The studio says they have at least three more new characters yet to debut, so we'll have to wait and see where Necalli fits in. I'd like to hear what audiences think of the characters revealed so far.

Friday, July 24, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 11

There were other cultural elements that influenced the martial arts in addition to Buddhism. In Japan the native religion, or what Westerners would call a religion was Shinto. It was grounded in the physical world, a world that says there were spirits that took the forms of all things. The four elements and nature itself were made up of spirits made manifest. Humans lived, worked, grew and died within a world filled with spirits. When they passed on they too joined the spirit world. They became part of the elements or part of nature and could still shape and influence the world we lived in. Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto shaped the world that the martial arts were born into. These martial arts thus carried on many of the same philosophies and traditions. The designers working at Capcom, SNK and Data East, three of the oldest Japanese game studios working in the fighting genre, had grown up in a culture that held onto ancient traditions and spiritual beliefs. They also grew up in a culture that celebrated legendary fighters in real life as well as in fiction.


Spirituality was an important part of the martial arts from Japan. Karate was not a series of attacks and defenses, it was a path to a higher state of consciousness. Shinto did not believe in absolute good, evil or even perfection. People were inherently good and bad things were caused by evil spirits. The only way to combat the evil were through purification, prayer and offerings to the kami or spirits. The philosophies of Shinto have been featured as characters, levels and plot of Street Fighter EX and Samurai Spirits. This blog already made mention of how the kami and shimenawa ropes had been featured in the Street Fighter series. Gouki and Gouken were not the only characters that used a heavy dose of spiritual design cues. Kairi and his sisters and even antagonist Garuda brought a large dose of the spiritual aspects lacking from other SF games. The characters debuted in Street Fighter EX, the first 3D SF game. These new heroes and villains tapped into the powers of the ancient world. They predated the legends of fighters like Mas Oyama and Tatsuo Shimabuku. They helped add a new dimension to the world of SF, one that had only been hinted at in prior games. Kairi and Garuda were memorable characters because they were based on the fantastic origins of the karate fable.


Energy or chi was what gave all people life and allowed them to perform amazing feats of strength. As this concept was adapted into Japanese culture it would be called ki. It was something that appeared magical and the best fighters were blessed or cursed by the gods with excess power. Such was the case for Kairi, a possessed person that had more power flowing through him than even Gouki. Like the main villain in the SF mythology Kairi was becoming consumed by a power he could not control. Garuda was the concept of a possessed fighter taken to the extreme. Garuda was a faceless character, choosing instead to fight under the armor of an ancient warrior. Spikes would protrude from his body and then vanish, as if in some sort of macabre magic trick. It was assumed that whomever was possessed by the dark energy, whomever wore the armor of Garuda, had died long ago.

In the Street Fighter series the way the characters appeared, were dressed, moved and even abilities were pulled from many classic elements. In previous blogs I had mentioned the influence of the Nio and even Fudo Myo-o, the spiritual guardians of Buddhism, had on the development of the Street Fighter and King of Fighter icons. The modern versions of these gods and demons had to be believable to audiences. Certainly Kairi and Garuda could have been incredibly blessed martial artists that were simply eccentric. Gouki was certainly a believable character. He was a fighting master that murdered his master and brother in a fit of rage. Mr. Karate was a believable character as well, he was a master working for the mafia and he hid his identity behind a mask.The various fighting games allowed for the realistic and supernatural to coexist. Masters of the fighting arts could throw fireballs made of chi energy. Some even had the ability to perform a dim mak or "death punch." Kairi very much followed in the footsteps of Gouki and Mr. Karate. Like those figures he was based on ancient traditions and spiritual beliefs. Garuda was a different type of creature altogether. He was created to make physical manifestations out of spiritual elements.


One of Garuda's attacks, the Kizan, had spikes appear out of the hands and feet of the character. He would spin through the air and shred his opponent to ribbons while holding a very awkward pose. Sharp-eyed players noticed that the pose looked very much like a Swastika. This was not an accident. Each of the special attacks of the character had him in a symbolic pose. Sometimes he would move in a way that that made him appear like a statue that could be found at an entrance to a Buddhist temple. Sometimes he would spin outstretched in the shape of a lotus, a Buddhist symbol for purity and spontaneous birth.

Of course to clarify the swastika symbol was ancient and had appeared in cultures all over the world. Only in the 20th century when Adolf Hitler adopted it for his Nazi party did it become regarded as a symbol of evil. The Nazi version actually had the marks going counter to the traditional symbol. In Buddhism the symbol was associated with success and fortune. It was a symbol for good that could often be found on statues of Buddha in India, China and Japan. In many countries maps of the cities often had the swastika placed wherever there was a Buddhist temple. Similarly the map may have a cross to denote where a Christian church was. Even through the 20th century there were still social activist groups, like the Chinese Red Swastika Society, that preserved the good origin of the symbol.


The Kizan did not mean that Garuda was a good character but it was used to demonstrate that he was a divine creature. He was a supernatural force that turned into a physical manifestation. He looked like an ancient warrior, faceless, so that he preserved the symbolism of ancient fighting roots. He was a sort of demonic creature that would have been fought by Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, rather than Bodhidharma. Fans of the Street Fighter series either loved or loathed the character. The same could be said for many of the other new characters introduced through the EX series. There was possibly no other version of the game that was as polarizing to audiences. Supernatural creatures were not new to the genre. Where they worked best was when they were presented in a quasi-believable fashion. Part of the success of many fighting games was how the supernatural was intermixed with the plausible. Great karate fighters were made even better with the advent of the fa jin or "fireball" type attacks. Some even had a dim mak or "death touch" strikes at their disposal. In the story of Street Fighter and other games there were scientists that extracted these metaphysical abilities and turned them into weapons. The spiritual gave way to science and power hungry dictators could harness these techniques to destroy their opponents. Garuda was not the only villain in Street Fighter mythos that had traits that were connected to Buddhism. Seth was the new boss introduced in the Street Fighter IV series. He could absorb the attacks of his rivals and use their techniques against them.


At the core of the character was a yin / yang sphere that generated his power. It was known as the Tanden Engine and allowed him to expel and absorb tremendous amounts of energy. Seth was a grotesque character. His skin tones were flushed out, a dull gray, signifying that perhaps he was either dead or more machine than man. The villain was after all nothing more than a husk for the Tanden Engine. Just as Gouki had been consumed by the Dark Hadou so too was Seth consumed in his quest for more power. The character art and design for Seth were intentionally gruesome. He was supposed to be intense and menacing even while wearing a tailored suit. He was the opposite of the serene image that people thought of when they imagined Buddha. The mechanical core in his belly was a twisted mockery the beliefs cultivated by Eastern Medicine. It robbed the martial artists of what they had worked for and twisted it for his nefarious purposes. Seth was perhaps visually the most extreme Street Fighter villain introduced, with the possible exception of Gill, the demigod. Gouki or Garuda could have existed in the real world. They could have been dangerous martial artists whose legend became inflated to the point where it was hard to distinguish fact from fiction. Yet for other characters in the genre, they were supposed to have supernatural origins as well. They were supposed to be accepted at face value. Take the female martial artist Ameth from Xuan Dou Zhi Wang / King of Combat. She was based on a mythical character from Asian story traditions.


According to the game Ameth was a 998-year-old shape changer. She was a trickster of sorts personified by the Fox. In Native American legends the Coyote was a contemporary character, also known as a trickster and a shape-shifter. Although in some stories the Fox was a temptress that would kill men that she seduced. The divine or demonic Fox creature appeared in many Asian mythologies. In Chinese stories Huli Jing was a divine fox mischievous but also ill-tempered. In Japanese tradition Kitsune was also a divine fox but with nine tails. The fox mask of Kitsune had been used on female ninja characters in manga, animé and video games for decades. In Korea there was Kumiho, possibly the creepiest of all the fox legends. She was an evil spirit that seduced and killed men. A lighthearted version of the legend could be seen in A Fox Tail. The animated short with character designs by Chao Ma demonstrated how some of the best fighters used their heads instead of their hands. Then again, many of the greatest strikers used everything but their hands while developing the ancestor to kung-fu. Hinduism and Buddhism helped carry the martial arts through Asia, but the forms of striking that Bodhidharma had brought to China were not the only styles that influenced the development of kung-fu or karate. There were styles that had reached the southern shores of Japan that were very interesting. The next blog will look at how South East Asia created parallel fighting arts that would rival the legacy of karate.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

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

 

This whole series was sparked after seeing what the Street Fighter V team had done to Birdie. Obviously I did not like it. Nowhere in the legacy of Birdie's previous appearances was he ever presented as a fat slob. Why would the studio start doing this to him now? In an interview with EventHubs Matt Dahlgren the Director of Brand Marketing & eSports at Capcom said of the updated designs "A good example for our tone is Birdie… I don't think anyone really saw him coming, but we had this really cool character design — he's practically a new character in himself — but he doesn't take up one of the slots we have for brand new fighters." If Birdie is "practically a new character", with mostly new moves then why not introduce a new character in that spot? Why would they force Birdie into a template that was not his original? My friend challenged me to redesign Birdie so that he would make sense in Street Fighter V. I said that was not why I was upset with the design. Capcom did not redesign Ken, Ryu, Chun-Li, Cammy or the Dictator for the game. Granted they discolored the skin of Charlie Nash and left him with scars and staples but that was part of his return. If the studio did not need to change any of the other returning characters why would it be acceptable to do that to Birdie? I saw two reasons why, because he was black or because he was a punk. If there was a third reason I'd like to hear it, especially from the producer.


Representation was one of the most important things that defined society yet was also something rarely spoken of. We lived in a post-racial world where every member of society had an equal opportunity to advance. Or so that was what we were taught. It was something that the majority, the people at the top of the social ladder, did not necessarily see or understand. Minorities by comparison could feel the effects of representation on a daily basis. They did not always see themselves in television, movies or games. If they did the people were often portrayed with negative stereotypes. These images added up. They effected the psyche of consumers, they became subconscious biases. Years of seeing minorities in only one light, of hearing about minorities spoken about in only one way, especially in the news, had a detrimental effect on society. Just see how divided the USA was when the words "illegal immigrants" or "thugs" were spoken on television. They were trigger words. Those words caused a reaction far greater than their original meaning. This post-racial society was not as inclusive and welcoming as we would like it to be. The images that audiences were bombarded with on a daily basis could be toxic. Pictures and videos could be laced with layers and layers of subversive messages. The way minorities were visualized was more powerful than any derogatory term.

 

Fans had supported Street Fighter for almost 30 years because it introduced us to a library of fighters of every color and from every nation. These characters were not all heavy-handed stereotypes and that was part of the reason why they were so popular. During the early days of Street Fighter II's development Anabebe, Great Tiger, Zhi Li and Vodka Gobalsy were a sampling of stereotypes that the studio designers had identify and break. In doing so they were freed from preconceptions, they were able to create a title with more diversity and inclusiveness than any other fighting game ever made. Only in later revisions was it decided that the fighters should come from different walks of life. The musician from Jamaica and the chef from Mexico were two of the weakest reasons to introduce a new character. The fighter became secondary to the profession. Which was an odd choice considering what the name of the game was.

If you were not a member of a minority group it could be hard to explain what the images in media meant to us. For example it was hard for me to find positive Mexican-American role models on US television when I was growing up. I think officer Poncherello from the show CHIPs was the only person I could remember. Everyone else that remotely looked like a member of my family was usually a bad guy that spoke broken English and had no redeeming qualities. There weren't any Latino game characters that I could think of while growing up, let alone in a popular game. Many years ago when I heard that a Mexican would be added to the roster of Super Street Fighter II I was elated. It was as if the people at the top of the ladder were validating our culture. T. Hawk had some unique moves and a distinct style that worked well compared to the other fighters. More than 15 years later when a masked Mexican wrestler was announced for Street Fighter IV I was over the moon with excitement. Pro wrestling was something that Mexico was known for, now would be our chance to shine. Or so I thought. Then I saw El Fuerte, then I listened to him, then I played as him. This was not what Mexican wrestling was about. This was not the best masked wrestler that Capcom could have come up with. At least he was not the best masked wrestler that the previous designs teams could have come up with. El Fuerte was a joke and when T. Hawk returned he was a joke too. Then a Turk was introduced and he was a joke. Then a fat character was introduced and he was a joke. I wondered what had happened in Street Fighter IV. The diversity in the cast was an excuse to point and laugh at those that did not have traditional Asian fighting roots.


The best example on the importance of positive representation came from actress Whoopi Goldberg. “Well, when I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.” The television show Star Trek was a very progressive show, especially for 1963 sensibilities. There was more diversity in that series than in just about any other show on television. Nichelle Nichols played Lt. Uhura, the communications officer that Whoopi spoke of. She carried herself with great dignity and was never written as a second-class citizen. It was a very promising look at the future, one in which all minorities were represented and they all had equally important jobs. Whoopi would find herself playing a character called Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was role that influenced a whole new generation of fans. The thing was that Whoopi's performance did not only effect black audiences but also white ones as well. Whoopi was joined by black actors Michael Dorn as Lt. Worf and Levar Burton as Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge (who was also playing a blind character) in one of the most inclusive casts on television. But that level of representation had fallen by the wayside in recent years.

Today young minorities were not watching television, they were playing video games. They were learning what society thought of them based on the games they played. Since the majority of game heroes were white males then it was pretty obvious who they should look up to. When they saw a minority in a game then they were usually bad guys. However on that rare occasion when they saw a powerful minority in a game it went a long way towards how the audiences saw themselves. Now imagine if each time a minority turned on a fighting game the black character only knew how to box or that the Mexican character only knew professional wrestling. What did they think of when White and Japanese characters could do everything? There were some truths and some untruths to the character designs in all fighting games, not just Street Fighter. The most idolized karate champions in history were Japanese and the pro wrestlers that wanted to learn the art of high flying were trained in Mexico. That was basic understanding of fight culture but the thing was that the culture was not set in stone. Like all cultures it was constantly changing. It turned out that there were many black kung-fu and karate champions. Some of the greatest masked wrestlers were Japanese and Brazilians shaped the history of ju-jitsu. But that was rarely, if ever, shown in games.


 


Blacks had been a major force in professional boxing for more than a century, this was true. But there had also been boxing champs from Latin American countries, from Eastern European countries, from Asia and Oceana. Those fighters were not often represented in games. Instead audiences were shown the extremes of one color. This decision was often made at the design stage because it was just easier to present one ethnicity with one fighting art. This pattern was repeated by every other studio. The rude and aggressive black fighter as well as the calm and gentlemanly black fighter had both been seen in Street Fighter. The comparisons between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson to Dudley and M. Bison were valid. But then there were the details that the developers and even audiences didn't completely catch. Dudley was patterned on people like Holyfield but also Joe Lewis, Jack Dempsy and UK boxing champ Lennox Lewis. Like many fighters in the series Dudley was painted as a heavy-handed stereotype of a nation. Lewis was always polite and cordial in his interviews but Dudley was on a completely different level. His butler would bring him tea in between rounds, he tended to a rose garden on his country estate and he drove vintage Jaguars in the game. Of course he did all of this while wearing boxing gloves which was absurd but made sense in the Street Fighter universe. After all, Ryu wore the same uniform everywhere he went, even when he was not fighting. This could certainly be argued as being a stereotype and it was. But like a cancer a stereotype could be benign or malignant. Dudley was benign.


When Capcom gave Dudley an alternate costume in Street Fighter IV it was modeled after the jacket, shirt and striped pants worn by Freddie Mercury during his famous Wembly Stadium concert. The legendary singer / songwriter from Queen was considered to be one of the greatest pop music voices ever. Freddie was synonymous with British culture. His fair skin and broad mustache made him appear like a true Cockney. The thing was that Freddie wasn't from England. Freddie was born Faroukh Bulsara in Zanzibar (Tanzania) and followed the ancient Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism. His heritage was a world away from Queen Elizabeth and the Church of England, yet his talents were embraced by an entire nation.

The Japanese admired the aristocracy, they admired refined culture and idealized the Victorian era. This was part of the reason why characters like Elena from Street Fighter III had to be educated in Paris and why the not-too-delicate Emilie "Lili" De Rochefort from Tekken was from France as well. Being a member of the rich elite were some of the reasons why Dudley was painted in such a positive light. The idealized images of England and Europe were sometimes met with heartbreak when Japanese visitors traveled abroad. For example when they discovered that France was nowhere near as soft and pastel as the Studio Ghibli films had them believe it caused a nervous breakdown for some known as Paris Syndrome. Japanese audiences had been fed a fable about Paris and England being the peak of refined society, it was too much to bear that they were as dirty and unkempt as any other major metropolis. If the Japanese could be wrong about European nobility then they could be wrong about punk culture.

 

Punks were not supposed to be upper class like Dudley and therefore punks were not supposed to be admired, this message was loud and clear from the designers at Capcom. But it also showed how little they knew about the culture. Punks were not fat and lazy slobs, those would be politicians. The reason punks looked and dressed a certain way was because they were counter-culture, they were trying to be seen and heard. They represented the masses that were disenfranchised with society, especially with politics and classicism. They were keenly aware of what was going on in society and despite the shocking haircuts and attire they could be well spoken and intelligent. Dudley was a member of the elite and while he did fight for and earn his championship he had the luxury of never having to fight in the first place. He was born into money and power and could have done anything he wanted. A punk did not have that freedom, they were often born into poverty and had to fight for everything they had. There was an interesting dynamic at work between British punk culture and the aristocracy. The majority identified with the Royal Family in England however kids, especially minorities, could identify more with the punks because nothing came easy for them. Everywhere a punk went they were stared at and judged. In media they were vilified and demonized. It was something that minorities had become used to.

Imagine a young minority playing Street Fighter and seeing Dudley presented in such a positive light. Someone that not only outfought but also outclassed the bully boxer. Imagine how important it was for a young Iranian to learn what a profound influence Freddie had on the world. They too could become anything that they wanted if they worked hard enough at it. It would help make them fans on a completely different level. Now imagine that a minority punk was turned into a fat slob. The message was clear, the aristocrat should be emulated, not the guy from the streets. Punks had no redeeming qualities, they were not cool at all according to Street Fighter V. Kids that identified with Birdie were pretty much fat shamed at that point. Sure Freddie Mercury could represent British culture but he was not the only musician to do so. Punks and "shock rockers" like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols and the enigmatic David Bowie could have also fit the bill. Also unlike Mercury, the three aforementioned musicians were actually from England. Just imagine how different the series could be if the team treated Birdie with the same level of respect they had for Dudley.


Representation had been a part of the greatness of the designs in Street Fighter. Any fighting game could have men, women and minority characters. In fact many fighting games did have a tremendous amount of diversity. It was how that diversity was represented that was more important than the inclusion. The Tekken series for example had dozens of female characters from around the world. Yet these women were either young or played up sexually. They were poured from the same mold with only the costume and color of their skin making them different. It was a superficial change that was seen in many 2D and 3D fighting games. Juri and C. Viper from Street Fighter IV were very sexualized as well but they were also the two newest faces. They didn't necessarily represent the legacy designs. Look at how women had been portrayed in Street Fighter prior to 2008. Women could represent the major fighting arts. A karate master could be a man but could also be a girl. A kung-fu master could be a man but also a young woman.

 

The developers working on the newer Street Fighter games needed to re-evaluate the role of their characters before the first 3D model was even built. They needed to work harder on their designs and consider the ways that they were representing different cultures and different arts. I do not think that making a minority character the star of the next game would automatically make the series better. The game had always revolved around Ken and Ryu and that should never change. The way that the game presented minorities could be done with more consideration though. Consideration was something that stopped the team from putting Anabebe, the Great Tiger and Vodka Gobalsky in SF II. In their place were three iconic fighters that were not necessarily a slap in the face to the nationalities represented. When Turkish oil wrestling or yagli gures was put in Street Fighter IV the Turk was presented beet red with a blue dome haircut. Players had to constantly oil themselves up so they could slide across the floor and perform silly attacks. How was this representation of the culture and fighting art different than the Great Tiger? The designers were not able to make a Dhalsim-like change to Hakan before he debuted. When I saw T. Hawk sitting on opponents and going "How" when I saw El Fuerte making Quesadilla Bombs, when I saw Birdie stuffing his face with donuts and bananas I got a distinct feeling of disrespect. I saw the ugliness of stereotypes become malignant with those representations.

Did the developers in Japan simply have no confidence in creating a serious minority character? We saw how a powerful black fighter was turned into a fat white guy during the development of SF IV. It was as if the team could not wrap their collective heads around a black not being a boxer or a silly karateka. So they erased him from the lineup, took his costume away and gave it to Ken as an alternate uniform. Instead of creating Blanka out of Anabebe they went backwards. As a life-long fan of the series that decision would never settle with me. When I thought about what the team did to Birdie in SF V I could see shades of that same misrepresentation. The consideration that the team missed was seen on how different body types could be represented. The cancer had returned.

 

I had mentioned where fat body types had been done well as fighters and adventurers in other games. Fat characters used to represent strength, power and success in ancient stories. In modern fighting tournaments there were boxers, mixed martial artists and wrestlers that were both fat and successful. It was up to Capcom to think about their own legacy and where they wanted to go with it. At one point many years ago they were able to create fat characters that were powerful instead of goofy. At one point long ago they were able to present wrestlers and punks that were unique instead of jokes as well. Why did the team move away from those designs? Were they unaware of what they had done previously or did they choose to ignore it? When did sticking with classic designs become taboo at Capcom? Or did ignoring the rules only apply to minority characters? When popular fighting game YouTube commentator Maximillian Dood made a personal list of five people that should not return in Street Fighter V it consisted of Street Fighter IV characters Rufus (in the number 1 spot), Hakan, Seth, El Fuerte and Abel. Maximilian had his finger on the pulse of gamers and said what they were thinking. He knew that the designs, their control and place in the series were not as well done as the earlier fighters. Hopefully Capcom would listen to him if they wouldn't to me.

 

I "get" that Street Fighter was a series filled with fantastic characters that had impossible abilities. There were martial arts masters could kick with the force of a tornado or split boulders in half with a punch. They lived in a world where science fiction and fantasy were real. Yoga masters could float in the air, mad scientists could bring the dead back to life and beast men were real. This mix of different genres was refreshing. It was another reason why audiences kept coming back. On one side of the spectrum there were fighters that had realistic punches and kicks, they could have existed in this world. But on the extreme end there were fighters that could breathe fire and even "teleport" these things were improbable if not outright impossible.

In the extended Capcom universe there were characters every bit as fantastic and as well done as those in Street Fighter. Take the Indian wrestler Wraith from Muscle Bomber / Saturday Night Slam Masters. The game actually took place in Street Fighter continuity. The character from New Dheli was 7' 2", a certifiable giant. He was equally mysterious with pasty green skin and covered in a hood and rags. He moved erratically and seemed to be some sort of ghoul. He had long red nails that he would use to slash the throats of opponents. He also had sharp jagged teeth which he used to maul opponents like a rabid dog. Similar to Dhalsim he could even breath fire and had some sort of connection to the supernatural. One of his special attacks was absolutely bizarre. Snakes would burst from underneath his hood to bite opponents. It was a perfectly impossible attack that also made him memorable.

 

Here was the thing that made the Capcom fighting games unique when compared to every other studio. There was often a hidden truth, some basis in reality in the most memorable fighters and in their arts. It gave the character designs a bit more staying power in the genre. Ryu was inspired by the life and times of Mas Oyama and Yoshiji Soeno. Chun-Li was most likely inspired by Wing Chun and Bruce Lee. Ken Masters was most likely inspired by Joe Lewis and Bill "Superfoot" Wallace. We saw where Zangief came from, where even Dhalsim and Blanka originated from earlier in this blog. The special attacks also known as the "Fireball" moves had been written about in Chinese myth for years. Those attacks were called fa-jin and some kung fu masters claimed to be able to perform such moves to this day (granted they were invisible to the naked eye). Even the ShunGokuSatsu, or "Instant Hell Murder" of Gouki was based on the dim mak or death touch from Chinese legend.

A character as macabre as Wraith could never have existed in real life, or could he? Stop and think about it. A giant of a man, somebody with an undead gimmick that was impervious to harm and both frightened and delighted audiences. Yeah, I wonder where Tetsuo Hara could have based his design on…

 

We knew that Wraith was an absurd character but he did not have to be presented silly in order for us to get that. Part of the charm of professional wrestling is how gimmick performers try not to break character so that the audience can stay entertained. We all know that pro wrestling matches are pre-determined and the stories shown on television are scripted, yet the fans choose to believe that this is real combat and these are real characters. Masked wrestling is an even more absurd concept, I think we all get this, but it is also a great form of entertainment. But to take the masked wrestler out of context and turn him into a silly chef then you dismiss the entire culture. These changes were done because it was the quick fix to make the character "different." By the same token we know that beast men were not real. If they were then they would look like the Amazon or Blanka. As it stood Blanka was a ferocious monster in his original incarnation, he did not have to become dumber as the series progressed. Birdie already had a shocking appearance, the studio did not have to go out of their way to make him fat and gross. When I saw what the studio did to him in Street Fighter V I knew that they took the shortcut, they took the low road. They went for the quick laugh and used a minority to reach the punchline. When it comes to representation these things are important, young audiences can see a powerful minority in their game and be inspired, or they can see a silly character and be disheartened.  If you do not think there is an ethnic bias at play ask yourself this question, would Capcom make the main characters fat, gross or silly?

Capcom would probably not address any of the issues that I had brought up over the course of this series. After all they never responded to my other blogs. But I hope that my readers think about the importance of representation and challenge Capcom when something does not seem right for Street Fighter. I will always challenge the studio to try harder. To be better ambassadors to the world and stop thinking so insular about their designs. It would not hurt to revise, review and represent cultures with a modicum of dignity. If they could not introduce a minority character without giving them silly attacks or of stereotypical appearances then maybe they should not be in the game. My hope is that they get rid of the nonsense and bring back the real Birdie and look at how they are representing minority characters. Thank you for reading and I hope you share your thoughts with Capcom!