Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Representation Matters! Or, what happened to Birdie, part 8...

 

Past the mid '90s Capcom was a completely different studio. The rise of 3D and the 32-bit consoles had changed the gaming landscape. Successfully publishers could no longer ignore home systems market. The arcade market had yet to decline but the writing was on the wall. Studios had to branch out or they would fail. Capcom found success with new franchises such as Breath of Fire and Resident Evil. The fighting game genre was starting to peak and the studio wondered if they had one more great title left in them. Street Fighter III tried to use the elements that made Street Fighter II work. The project began by starting off by deciding who should return. Ken and Ryu were selected to be the only familiar faces and an entirely new cast would fill out the roster. I would argue that there was a lot of redundancy in the new faces. There were a pair of Chinese twins named Yun and Yang that played similarly to each other. They were meant to be a sort of younger Chinese equivalent to Ken and Ryu. Their red and white uniforms were reminiscent of Ken and Ryu's. There was also understudy of Ken called Sean that had similar moves to the stars of the game. I think the team was having too much fun with the names of the new faces. There was the obvious Yin and Yang jab but also the more subtle Sean-Ryu-Ken which was a play on the fireball attack or Shoryuken.

   

The three karate fighters in all and two kung-fu fighters ate up a lot of the space in the roster. The only duplicates in the original Street Fighter II lineup were pro wrestlers and those were dropped early on so that the team could fit in different styles. Sean was well received, especially as a black minority character. Unfortunately he lacked the impact of Sakura when she debuted. The rest of the cast was more unique. Alex was the star of the new game. He represented an entirely new style of fighting, MMA actually, and was somewhere in between a striking character and a grappler. He actually had elbow attacks similar to Adon, headbutt attacks similar to Birdie and suplex throws similar to Zangief. His size, speed and strength were unique in the genre. The rest of the cast took some chances with the character designs and forms represented. A heroic boxer had finally made it into the series. Moreover Dudley was a very positive black role model. He was not the only minority in the game. Elena was an African that had studied abroad, in Paris first and then Japan. Her dark skin was contrasted by bright blue eyes and white hair. Her costume left little to the imagination. She didn't have the same forethought into her design as Chun-Li. Instead Elena was very much like the characters in anime, pandering heavily to fan service, which was a trend that Akiman was trying to break when he finalized Chun-Li. This was odd considering that the lead artist on this project was Kinu Nishimura, she was heavily influenced by Akiman. Elena did have a unique form of fighting. She used capoeira and there had been some rotoscoping work by the animators to make sure that the moves looked as fluid as possible. Capcom designer Daigo Ikeno was a capoeira practitioner and helped with the reference work.

The game also introduced a female ninja practitioner named Ibuki. Her look was unique and not as grounded in history or anime making her a fantastic addition to the title. The game was not without its own Blanka and Dhalsim, or two extreme characters. An elderly one-armed Brazilian (he actually kept his other arm tucked inside his gi) was a master of a unique fighting art, it was a mix of psychic attacks and judo throws. He was very strong and fast despite his age. Oro was based on Helio Gracie, the co-founder of the Gracie school of Brazilian ju-jisu. The character design was unique because he was the oldest character in Street Fighter mythology, almost twice as old as Gen, the previous elderly character. He demonstrated that age did not make some fighters less dangerous. The other unique character was Necro. The young Russian teen had been experimented on by a mysterious group of religious and scientific zealots. The various experiments they did to him left his muscles, skin and bones like rubber and gave him the ability to shock opponents like an electric eel. Meaning he had some of the best qualities of both Dhalsim and Blanka,

 

The game did well with audiences. The upgraded arcade engine allowed for larger sprites, a broader color palette and more frames of animation. Having three black characters, including a woman of color was a tremendous credit to Capcom. They were showing an active interest in inclusion and diversity with their lineup. Unfortunately for many audiences and arcade owners this was not the game they had expected. The lack of returning characters and redundant new characters gave the game an unfinished feel. Capcom had established a president in Street Fighter Zero that was tough to beat. They could bring back classic characters and make them work again and again. Upgrade kits were in the planning stages. Each one could introduce a new character if not classic character. Before long Chun-Li and the giant Hugo were put in the game. Hugo was actually meant to be in the first release but the team didn't finish his animations in time. There was no doubt that the time spent creating the redundant Yun, Yang as well as Sean may have been better spent on entirely new figures. Hugo was representing the Final Fight cast as Chun-Li was a return to the SF II lineup. Gouki / Akuma had returned as well but was a hidden character in the first few builds.

The new characters Urien, Q, 12, Remy and Makoto were a mixed bag. Urien was a pallet and head swap for the new final boss Gill. Meaning that another redundant character was also featured in the title. Q was a nonsensical masked secret agent that moved and fought like a robot. Remy had many of the attacks from Guile and Nash but with a look that was pulled from the rival King of Fighters series. 12 was a shape-shifter that was reminiscent of Necro but was also heavily anime-influenced. Of the final new characters added Makoto had the most traditional design elements applied to her. She was a karate fighter, yet her form was completely different than Ken, Ryu, Sean and Gouki. This meant that for audiences she also controlled differently and required some new strategies to use.

   

With the exception of Makoto, the last new faces added to SF III were lacking. They didn't have enough time to be evaluated or redesigned. In fact the original plan for Urien had once again fallen on old stereotypes. Had the studio not gone with the pallet swap of Gill who knows how audiences would have reacted to the afro-sporting, disco pants wearing antagonist. I don't think it would have been a warm reception. When development began on Street Fighter IV the approach for new fighters was completely the opposite of SF III. The studio started with Ken, Ryu and the original World Warriors from SF II as all returning members. Then they had a small group of new faces that they would introduce to fans. The characters were designed mainly to appeal to the West, where Capcom had hoped to gain a lion's share of the games profits. The sexy spy Crimson Viper was meant to appeal exclusively to US players. Despite the pandering most gamers in the US ignored the character. Of course the fatty Rufus was forced onto audiences because he was funny. The final two spots would be taken by a judo-ex-military fighter and a masked Mexican wrestler.

   

The lead designer on this game was Daigo Ikeno. He could not seem to find designs that worked as well with audiences as the SF II cast had. I think that the choices pushed by producer Yoshinori Ono had something to do with why the characters were lacking. A few blogs back I mentioned how there was a strong black character planned for the game that was eventually turned into Rufus. Something similar happened with El Fuerte the enmascarado, or masked luchador. In the early planning stages El Fuerte had a unique costume that was inspired by actual lucha libre livery. He had the mask, the tights and even a cape. Which was something that performers had worn to the ring since the earliest days of pro wrestling in Mexico, which would be over 80 years ago! In the earliest stages the design was every bit as good as something that Tetsuo Hara could have come up with for the Muscle Bomber series. In fact I would say that the original El Fuerte was a better design than El Stinger, the Mexican wrestler created by Hara. El Fuerte did not necessarily poach and designs from a masked wrestler living or dead. The star on his mask was even a nod to the masked wrestler that had been planned for SF II. But then something happened…

 

It was decided that El Fuerte was not unique enough. At least not unique enough to be ranked against the World Warriors. So his costume was redone, his mask was redone and even his purpose for fighting was redone. The team decided that it would be great if he was a masked wrestler that was obsessed with cooking. In this way they could name his attacks after food. The Habanero Dash, Tostada Press, Fajita Buster, Gordita Sobat, Calamari Slide Propeller Tortilla, Picadillo Jump, Quesadilla Bomb and Guacamole Leg Throw. The names were an insult to the fantastic and dangerous moves that Mexican pro wrestlers performed on a weekly basis. To add insult to injury, the mask, which is sacred to the performers was even stripped of its origin to reflect the silly obsession with cooking. There were forks coming out of lighting bolts in the early redesigns. The tights were turned to chef pants, at one point El Fuerte even had tattoos or a fork and knife on his back. The three stars that adorned his mask was meant to mimic the Three Star Michelin rating given to the top restaurants around the world. Each decision that the team made took away from the character, it did not add to him. It was as if the designers were bypassing the lessons from previous generations and were focused on the punchline.

 

It was up to the team to decide how the tone of the game was supposed to be. The new graphics engine allowed for some realistic 3D models. When the majority of the cast fought each strike looked like it had weight and power behind it, giving the game a serious tone. But then all of the models had silly expressions applied to them when certain characters performed super moves. It was a mix of cartoon and realism that was sending a mixed message to audiences. Either the game was a return to the classic challenging Street Fighter II, or it was more anime influenced like SF Zero and SF III. Being caught somewhere in between did little to improve the game itself. The only signal that was not missed was how minorities and their fighting arts were being presented. Mexican and later on Turkish wrestling was seen and shown as an absurd form of fighting not to mention that Americans were stupid, morbidly obese participants.

 As the reception to the new characters were met with a lack of interest the team went back in time and started putting in as many classic characters as they could with each update. The majority of characters from SF III and SF Zero had returned by the time Ultra Street Fighter IV. In the rush to return to fan favorites the designers missed a number of important details. The characters from Zero had not matured. Remember that in continuity Zero happened shortly after the events in the first game. Ryu, Ken and Chun-Li were still young adults and Cammy and Sakura were girls. In Street Fighter III Ryu, Ken and Chun-Li were adults. During this timeline Sakura and Cammy would have been adults as well. Instead Street Fighter IV was pitched like the Zero series. It would tie together the events of SF II and SF III. Only this time Daigo Ikeno would not go out of his way to redesign the cast so that they were all unique to this continuity. Instead the team picked and chose the various incarnations that would appear in the game even if their designs were from two or three different games.

 

It had been almost 10 years since the last Street Fighter III and the first Street Fighter IV had appeared. In that time audiences never forgot what the series meant to them while growing up. Seeing a diversity of male and female characters in SF IV was fantastic. It was also nice to see different nations represented, mainly because they were the original World Warriors. Audiences from around the world would be able to identify with a character or two, including the new ones. It would go a long way in making kids feel validated, especially when they were being underrepresented on television and movies. I only wish that Capcom had done a better job at presenting minorities. They were never as disrespected in any previous version, why did the team start now? Street Fighter IV had missed the boat with new faces and after seeing what was done to Birdie in Street Fighter V I shudder to think what else the studio had planned for non-Asian and non-White British characters.

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