Thursday, October 22, 2015

The road to Rising Thunder, final part

Rising Thunder, the fighting game from Radiant Entertainment was a long time coming. It was offering something that had been lacking in the genre for a long-long while. It was one of the few all-robot fighting games and had the most potential of any previous title. Some long-time fighting game fans hoped that it would undo the legacy of the horrendous Rise of the Robots from more than 20 years prior. Yet like the modern crop of fighting games there was the challenge of what platform it would appear on. Would it be PC-only, or a console exclusive title. Radiant Ent. took a good look at the market and decided that it should be a PC title that could be downloaded for free, at least the beta-version. It would support online and local play as well. The fighting game was born in the arcade but that era was long gone. Radiant had to bring the game to the people and not convince them to leave the house in order to play. Other web-based fighters had found success with the community.

 

The 2013 game Divekick by One True Game Studios spread like wildfire. It was an insanely addictive web-based fighting game that had all the momentum of a viral meme. It was easy to play, audiences really only needed one button and some strategy to win. The purpose was to be the first person to hit the opponent. Players did not have to worry about learning complex combos, they did not have to learn secret moves or anything else. They only needed to learn how to pace themselves and be the one to deliver a kick to their opponent. Now audiences could "buy" upgrades to make their character react faster or move in different directions while kicking, but for the most part audiences enjoyed the rudimentary gameplay. They enjoyed it so much that it became a featured title at the EVO fighting game championships.

 

Rising Thunder would be far more robust than Divekick. It would have far more features, greater graphics, tighter balance and a control scheme reminiscent of the best fighting games. The stars of the game would be sentient robots about 2-3 stories tall. They were humanoid in their construction and moved very much like people. It would be easier for a gamer to learn effective ranges and strategies if the robots controlled like people after all. Some of these robots could make use of ranged gun-type weapons, not unlike Vector and Omega from the Star Gladiator series, and others had use of close range weapons like energy swords. What appealed to me were the designs used on the robots. They did not have to have "genders" but I'm glad the designers at Radiant Ent. decided to do just that.

 

The idea of gendered robots has been around for centuries. In pop culture these ideas were often repeated in movies and animation. Mickey Mouse after all built a mechanical "man" in 1933. Also the first full length feature was a 1927 expressionist movie called Metropolis. Director Fritz Lang introduced the world to a female robot named Maria. Comic books were not immune to the idea of gendered machines either. Astro Boy was presented as a child but his origins were parodied years later. The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot was a post-modern send up of the robot genre. Writer Frank Miller and artist Geof Darrow did a great job at reinventing the robot myth in 1995. It was far more graphic and disturbing than Osamu Tezuka had ever presented. Around that same time Sega was incorporating boy and girl robots in their Virtual On fighting series. Hints of these characterizations could be seen in the cast of Rising Thunder.


The characters in Rising Thunder were reminiscent of the square-jawed Rock 'em Sock 'em robots, and Atom from Real Steel. The classic anime robots like Tetsujin 28 and the modern EVA Units were also reflected in these new robot designs. Yet they also had their own unique look, a very smooth and seamless aesthetic that had one foot in Japan and one foot in the USA. The figures lent themselves very easily to a toy line or at the least a series of collectable statues. I would only hope that Radiant Entertainment had plans for merchandising should the game become as big a hit as they anticipate.


Of course the game was not all style without substance. Radiant Ent. was experimenting with the play mechanics, since these were robots and not human martial arts masters they wanted to introduce some new ideas to the genre. These robots were internally powered but their special attacks could drain their batteries which left them vulnerable to counter attacks. The characters would have to let their weapons recharge before they could fire off another powerful attack. It was a balance issue that even studios like Capcom had a problem figuring out. Energy aside there were many great ideas that Rising Thunder had going for it. Even as early as in the public beta there was a certain sense of polish that Rising Thunder had going for it. This was not going to be just another web-based fighting game but something more profound. I'm glad that the studio took a risk on basing the characters on robots. They are after all the ultimate machines and something that just about every generation had grown up reading about in comics and watching in movies. It was a long time before we got to experience the freedom and power of controlling these characters in a game. Audiences had to wait for the technology and platforms to be ready for the next evolutionary step in the genre. I wish Seth Killian and everyone at Radiant Entertainment the best of luck and can't wait to see where this game takes us.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, final part

The seeds for the fighting game genre were planted in 1984. That year saw the introduction of three important arcade games which would profoundly change the industry. Irem released Kung-Fu Master, which predated Double Dragon and could actually be considered the forefather of the brawler. It had stage after stage of different villains approaching from the left and right and had a boss waiting at the end of each stage. Technos developed Karate Champ which was the original two-player fighting game featuring a red and white karateka. This was years before Ken and Ryu had appeared in the first Street Fighter. The only thing that the previously mentioned games lacked was diversity, in terms of different ethnicities. Although to be fair there was a dark-skinned giant, possibly of Indian or even Arabian descent in Kung-Fu Master. Minority characters were not playable characters however. The first prominent black character in a fighting game was Mr. Sandman.


The original WVBA (World Video Boxing Association) Champion from the Nintendo game Punch Out!! Boxing would be pinned on many black characters from the earliest point in Japanese games. Some of the characters developed during the late '80s and early '90s were done as an homage to Mike Tyson. He was going through opponents at a feverish pace when he turned professional. Near the end of his reign other black athletes began to replace him. Axel Hawk was written as the mentor of Michael Max (another Tyson clone) from the Fatal Fury series. Axel was a nod to George Forman who made a comeback at the age of 46 and recaptured the heavyweight championship of the world 21 years after he had originally won it.


The game was also released in 1984 but had a reputation for its ethnically stereotypical characters including the Cuban Piston Hurricane and Italian Pizza Pasta. These were meant to be taken as a joke by the Japanese developers. Many game fans did not find too much offense in those characters however that changed with the introduction of the Vodka Drunkenski in Punch Out 2. The Russian was renamed when the game was translated to the home consoles. His bottle of vodka had been replaced by a soda bottle. Mr. Sandman was different though. He did not have any gimmick or racially biased name. There had been professional black fighters that also went by aliases like "Sugar," "Hitman" and "Dynamite," so the Sandman seemed to be a good fit. The character was deadpan serious, as one would expect a World Champion to be. He required perfect timing to beat and most arcade gamers never did. The character still managed to intimidate opponents 25 years later when a new Punch-Out!! was released for the Nintendo Wii.

Shigeru Miyamaoto, creator of the Mario Bros, the Legend of Zelda, Metroid and a slew of other franchises had actually designed the cast and started a tradition in for developers. He demonstrated through Mr. Sandman that a character designed with respect rather than trope would reflect back to gamers. In the very first blog of this series I mentioned that the developers that respected their subject matter often did better with audiences. Even if a fighting game pitted skeletons against cyborgs or revolved around dinosaurs the players could pick up whether or not the developer was simply trying to cash in on a trend or if they had really invested their efforts into the game and the universe they created. Kung-Fu master and Karate Champ were ported to multiple consoles yet neither received a proper sequel. By comparison the Punch-Out!! series was a hit in the arcade, on the 8-bit NES with an added plot, on the 16-bit Super Nintendo with new villains and years later on the Wii. The extra time, energy, diversity and attention to detail that Miyamoto and his team had put into their game clearly came across to audiences every time.


The Japanese did not think that creating caricatures of ethnic stereotypes or names would have caused a big fuss. Through the '80s not many people took notice. However when the Politically Correct / Ethnic Sensitivity movements took off in popularity the Westerners expected those in the business world to follow the trends. In Japan that was not the case. Again there was cultural relativism to consider. Of the two nations only the US had a major civil rights movement.


Capcom had created a great legacy of black boxers through the Street Fighter series, one of which played up the strengths and abilities of the sweet science rather than perpetuate stereotypical tropes. The bar that had been raised by the Street Fighter III team when they created Dudley was unfortunately lowered by the Street Fighter IV. More than a decade between games didn't make the Capcom artists any wiser. Dudley would receive an alternate costume of an afro and sunglasses modeled after the look of Tiger Jackson in Street Fighter X Tekken. He certainly didn't look very much like a world champ any more.

Developers in Japan and the US were stuck in a rut. Aside from professional boxers there wasn't much in terms of styles that they felt comfortable assigning black athletes. Basketball and breakdancing had become the new fad and by the mid-90s it was becoming tired to audiences. Thankfully Capcom and Namco wizened up and pointed to new fighting styles. Capoeira came into focus in 1997 thanks to Eddy Gordo and Elena. Even Sean was allowed to learn the assassin's fist that had been previously reserved for Ken and Ryu. Minority fighters suddenly no longer seemed locked into one role. A few years later Spiritonin expanded on that concept and began flipping conventions in their Capoeira Fighter series. Blacks, Whites, Latinos, men and women from different nations were all presented as exceptional capoeiristas. When those characters went on a wold tour they faced many new styles. These fighters from different nations also broke convention.


The boxing champion was a short British person with a Napoleon Complex. There was also a young Shaolin Monk, a German breakdancer, a female Tae KwonDo practitioner, a karateka based on the villain from the film the Karate Kid, a Scottish barroom fighter and a large Southern grappler. Rarely had any fighting game featured such diversity with regards to ethnicity, age and technique. Spiritonin had put the same level of detail on all the new fighters that they had with the capoeiristas. The moves each had, the special attacks, costumes, voices, names and even stages were built with forethought. The studio made sure to incorporate actual or appropriate details from each nation or culture to place on their cast. The name of the Shaolin Monk Kuan Yin Shen was based on a Buddhist deity. The young man spoke in wise passages during cut scenes, beguiling his age. Other characters had their own personalities on display while fighting or in their own cinemas.

The capoeiristas were joined by some other traditional and non-traditional faces. A Bruce Lee clone which all fighting games needed to have, a wild jungle girl, a female Muay Thai master (the first one ever featured in a fighting game!), a monkey kung-fu master (that I designed) and a couple of alien beings from the Guardians of Altarris (a different Spiritonin game) made a cameo appearance as well.


Spiritonin knew that a colorful cast was important but not as important as good control, great animations and a balanced fighting engine. They delivered on all those things while at the same time deconstructing the ideas of minority characters in fighting games. Women and blacks could not only make good supporting characters but they could also be important leading ones as well. The game had no set main characters although Meste Loka and Mestre Rochedo had been in the series the longest followed by their students. In order to make sure the game went beyond all expectations Spiritonin also wrote a new chapter in the book on villains. Zumbi Azul was so well done that I would rank him among the best villains ever created for a fighter. Zumbi was already an impressive bad guy but his dark alter-ego raised the bar. In all honesty I would rank Zumbi Azul in the top-5 bosses of all-time. He would even be in my personal top-3, second only to Gouki and ahead of Silber.


Spiritonin was able to insert powerful minorities and females into the genre as if they had always been there. They did not play the race card because they did not have to. They simply decided that it was finally time to bring fighting games into the 21st century. The biggest publishers in Japan and the US were taking too long to catch up with society. Spiritonin learned from Miyamoto and the other industry leaders. They treated their audience with respect. They placed men and women of color into a game without any pandering or gimmicks. The cast was balanced from a gameplay perspective but almost as important the members of both sexes had equal weight on the plot and outcome of the game. When Spiritonin wanted locations that meant something to Western players then they used actual landmarks. Even the fictional locations were still inspired by reality. The plantation mansions, the secluded beaches, the rain-forests and the colorful hotels featured in CF3 could be found sprinkled throughout South America. When Spiritonin wanted to create a convincing villain they used elements from ancient Afro-Caribbean and African-American spiritual customs that modern players could still identify. They did not put a costumed European in a corner and have him wave his hand to call down a meteor strike. In short the studio delivered something that audiences were not expecting.


An important chapter in the history of the fighting genre was written but for the web browsers instead of the arcade or home consoles. Capoeira Fighter 3 was a great game but did not get wide exposure. Because of this many "hardcore" and even casual players missed out. The biggest loser would be the entire industry. The big publishers on both sides of the Pacific would not learn how a fighting game should treat members of every ethnic group and culture. Nor would they learn that they could present attractive females that were also strong and athletic instead of just big boobs in skimpy costumes. Without a popular and successful template to work from most developers would rely on trope to design the next fighter. A generation that grew up seeing minorities and women portrayed in one way would never expect to see them in any other light. It was important that the developers get these impressions right the first time or else they would perpetuate stereotypes. It was simply not enough to live up to player expectations, the studios had to exceed them and redefine what the expectations should be. A great game and a terrible game could equally color their perception of gamers. The industry should always remember that the color of their audience should always be respected more than the color of their money.


Capoeira found its way into the world of mixed martial arts in the latter half of the 20th century. Almost a century ago the Japanese Count Kouma had demonstrated that jujitsu could be used to defeat the best capoeira striker. Suddenly the Brazilians felt inclined to begin studying this new form from the East. Yet as Kazushi Sakuraba demonstrated time and time again not even the Gracie jujitsu system was perfect. Many mixed martial arts fighters, not solely the Brazilians, took another look at the Dance of War and began adapting the sweeping kicks and unpredictable strikes into their technique. Now modern fighters are well rounded in the various fighting forms and are able to put on demonstrations that are as exciting to watch as any fighting videogame. Marcus Aurelio for example has an incredible sense of balance and makes capoeira look easy to do in a professional match as he takes out opponents with dizzying speed. While he may never achieve the legend of Mas Oyama we can see that the lessons of knowing multiple forms does indeed make one a better fighter.

I hope that you enjoyed this survey on the various fighting arts and how they migrated around the world. From the roots of grappling and kung fu that Indian monks took with them to China. To the merchants that crossed the Sea of Japan and introduced a continent to the Empty Hand techniques. there were the indigenous tribes in Indonesia and the isles in the South Pacific that kept their form alive as Dutch, Spanish and French imperialists sought to destroy them. When the fluid striking of the African arts crossed the Atlantic it mirrored the journey of millions of slaves. It would become wrapped up in ancient animism beliefs of the Old World and the crown of thorns from the New World. Its legacy would become the mix of Japanese blood in the form of judo and ju-jitsu. It would bear the illegitimate offspring of English catch-as-catch-can and US wrestling. These children would grow up on a steady diet of fighting. Their children and great grandchildren would continue to fight and shape the arts. When fighting games became popular almost 30 years ago the developers celebrated the colorful world that gave birth to the new gladiators. Little by little they turned their backs on the real men and women that shaped history and began inventing fighters and forms. By doing so the games suffered and the popularity of the genre declined. I still think that the best days of the genre are still ahead of us. If the new generation of designers learned where fight culture came from and worked as hard trying to evolve as much as the current crop of fighters then I think they can capture the spirit once more. Thank you for following this series, thank you for the questions and comments throughout and I wish you all the best.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The road to Rising Thunder, part 3...

The first generation of game designers had grown up reading about giant robots in comics and watching giant robot cartoons. They were only too eager to make games that revolved around these machines. There was a downside however to being in the first group of developers. The software and hardware they worked with were woefully underpowered. They had a difficult time coming up with a game that could capture the power of piloting a giant robot. So instead of that the developers learned workarounds. They would create arcade titles that featured mostly static images of robot sprites with smaller characters moving around them (Space Harrier). They would create platform titles and change the colors of the human character to make them appear more robotic (Mega Man). They would even replace a fighter jet with the top view of a robot on the shooting titles (M.U.S.H.A. Aleste). Sega was just one of the publishers that did this and at the same time they managed to match the trends in robot designs happening on television at the same time. Take a look at how the robot designs changed between Space Harrier in 1985 to Virtual On in 1996. They were on par with the designs featured in VOTOMS and Gundam.

 

There was a reason why the designs used by the mid-90s were show quality. The robot figures in Virtual On were created by Hajime Katoki, he was a senior mecha designer on the Gundam series. It was a long time coming where robots in fighting games had as much planning put into their look and purpose as human characters had since the start of the industry. Sprites and sprite-based engines were how characters were represented in games through the '80s and early '90s. Robots in fighting games were rare at the start of the genre. The vast majority were usually cyborgs, humans with a few robotic enhancements. One of the first robot boss characters in a fighting game was named Ram-X. The character debuted in the 1993 Sega game Dark Edge. It was a unique title in that allowed a pseudo 360-degree playing field where sprites shrunk and grew to create the illusion that they were moving further back or closer to the player. Ram-X appeared like a Macross-style robot, one which could transform into a black fighter jet. It was a sub-boss character and non-playable. Audiences had a number of unique fighters they could play as, the characters Yeager and M.E.K. were cyborgs.

 

In the late '80s there was a big shift in technology. Arcade titles began to be developed on 3D engines. The earliest of which were racing titles because studios did not yet have hardware powerful enough to render convincing human shapes that could move and fight. That changed in the early '90s with the introduction of the Virtua Fighter and Tekken series by Sega and Namco respectively. In addition to being the first 3D fighters the two were notable for being some of the first to have android fighters. Androids were humanoid robots with artificial intelligence. The boss of Virtua Fighter was named Dural, she was a silver-skinned fighter that adapted to the moves of her opponents. Being a faceless, voiceless opponent made her intimidating. Of course the next android character was even more menacing. The enormous Jack appeared in every version of the Tekken series starting in 1994 and was "upgraded" on each new version. He looked like a bodybuilder-turned-soldier but underneath his plastic skin he was a robot. He could swing his arms like propellers, spin his torso 360 degrees and punch with the force of a cannon. If I didn't know better he was nothing more than a re-skinned version of the Mechanical Man that Mickey Mouse had build more than half a century earlier.


Namco kept the tradition of androids alive in the series through other characters like P-Jack, the prototype Jack and more recently Alisa Bosconovich in 2009's Tekken 6: Bloodline Rebellion. Alisa is very similar to Astro Boy in that she has a number of weapons hidden underneath her artificial skin. She also mirrors Astro in that she was created to be a surrogate child for a professor, in this case it was Professor Gepetto Bosconovich. Of course anybody familiar with the story of Pinocchio recognizes the name of her creator. The Japanese were fond of borrowing from pop culture while designing their games. When it came to putting robots in fighters they could design based on the trends or they could outright poach the look of a character. The second option was used in Galaxy Fight. The robot Musafar was actually the head and brain of a human encased in the body of a robot. His design and attacks were modeled after Robocop 2, the villain in the movie and game of the same name. Robocop 2 was a game made by Data East a few years prior.


The 1995 title by Sunsoft was set in the far future and was one of the first to focus on human versus alien combat. Galaxy Fight had a diverse cast and featured a typical plot of the humans and aliens uniting to defeat a powerful alien bent on galactic domination. Despite the serious tone and history of some characters the game was interjected with some humor. Some of the characters in the game appeared a year later in a more comedic fighter called Waku Waku 7. What was interesting about the robots featured in gaming, not just from Japan, were how many cues they took from pop culture. Musafar was just one example but the influences did not stop there. I had mentioned previously the 1995 game Cyberbots: Full Metal Madness. The game by Capcom had some very unique designs. The influences from pop culture were subtle and instead the artists at Capcom, including Kinu Nishimura and Daigo Ikeno got a chance to work on original mecha ideas. The biggest poach of the game was Zero Gouki, but he did not appear until the game was adapted for consoles.

 

A few years later Capcom would go into full fanboy mode and release their first and only 3D fighting game featuring giant robots. The 1998 title Tech Romancer was an homage to the various giant robot shows over the past 40 years. There was at least one robot in the show that represented every type of giant robot anime that the producers had grown up with. Whether it was a silly kids show or a space drama for teens, from the Transformers to Macross and everything in between there was a robot that reminded audiences of 40+ years of anime. Capcom did a good job of changing just enough details so that they couldn't be accused of plagiarism. Also unlike Sega's Virtual On the combat for these robots was closer to a traditional fighting game than a 3D simulator.

 

Capcom had a history of making some memorable robotic fighters. Some of their best work had nothing to do with piloted mecha. As early as 1994 the studio had started a trend that they would follow through the rest of the decade. The game Darkstalkers, Vampire in Japan, introduced the world to Hutzil. It was actually an ancient robot that was modeled after the clay Dogu statues by the Jomon people, the neolithic ancestors in Japan. Huitzil could change shape and had a number of weapons hidden throughout its forms. From the ancient robot to the futuristic Capcom next explored fighting robots in the game Star Gladiator in 1996 and its sequel Plasma Sword: Nightmare of Bilstein in 1998. Both of those titles were done on 3D engines. The robots Vector and Omega fought similarly. They could spin, twist and shoot their machine guns as well as internal lasers. The Star Gladiator series was a sort of fighting game homage to Star Wars with the exception that the robots in this game were not comedic sidekicks.


Around this time the west was experimenting with different types of fighting games as well. Since CGI graphics were relatively new they stood out when compared to the hand-drawn sprites that made up 99% of fighting games. Going with computer-generated models was part of the appeal of the original Killer Instinct. One of the first, if not the first, all-robot fighting game was Rise of the Robots. The 1994 game by Mirage was considered one of the worst fighting games ever released. The studio focused its efforts on a diverse cast of robots and highly-detailed backgrounds. What the studio forgot to do was focus on the gameplay, animation and balance. Those three things pretty much determined a hit or miss in the community. Despite the cool looking robots the game played like a slug. Also the publisher failed to recognize that neither the consoles nor the home computer was powerful enough to render the complex models and stages in real time. When the game was released it was mostly pre-rendered backgrounds and sprites.

 

Rise of the Robots, just like many fighting games that came before and after, failed to live up to the hype. How would a new western effort like Rising Thunder be any different? Well first off it was any indy game and had no connection to a major publisher. The game was also a free-to-play online title. As far as the gameplay went it was being balanced thanks to the feedback of the fighting game community. These were just a few things that Rising Thunder had in its favor. The next blog will look at the stars of the game and wrap up this series. I hope to see you back for that!

Friday, October 16, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 47

Capoeira was a graceful fighting art form. It revolved around the rhythms, colors and community of Brazil. The indigenous people of South America and the African slaves helped keep the form of combat alive under the guise of a sport. Many of the strikes did not lose their lethal nature though. It came in especially handy for escaped slaves and prisoners. It was up to the developers at Spiritonin to bring the history of Capoeira to life and make it appear as diverse in game as it was in reality by applying different variations of the art to different characters. For some it flowed freely and highlighted amazing spinning strikes. For others it was an explosion of concentrated punches and counter attacks. The beauty of the art form was countered by the ugliness of some of the combatants in Capoeira Fighter 3. This did not mean that the characters were physically ugly but that they exploited the form simply for the sake of harming others. The worst of these offenders went by the name of Zumbi. The Mestre had played the heavy in the previous incarnations of the game but by the third chapter in the story he became a boss-level fighter. Zumbi did not simply gain a host of more powerful attacks but his voice, his appearance and even stage had changed dramatically. The end result was a monster of a man named Zumbi Azul. This new character observed many of the same conventions that were created by Capcom when the studio designed Gouki.


Zumbi Azul was meant to evoke supernatural origins. Creator Scott Stoddard and artist Adam Ford started by changing his skin color. The cool blue was "painted" over Zumbi as part of a dark ritual. It was meant to reflect the night. Symbolically this also reflected the dark Macumba spirits that had possessed him. The contrast from white painted markings was meant to make the character look like a skeleton as well. These new color choices were contrasted by blood red eyes and fingernails. It made Zumbi Azul look like a Voodoo Spirit rather than a person. These things were all done deliberately. Every design clue in the game was meant to invoke images that would have been clearly understood by gamers in the West. Gouki had animalistic features, dark red skin and other traits that were universally recognized as making him demonic. Some of his other cues were not as obvious to players outside of Asia. The spiky hair was reminiscent of the guardian spirits or Nio and the rope belt he wore had Shinto connotations. In order to make Zumbi and the mythology of Zumbi Azul work the studio had to put in enough visual cues that highlighted the spiritual elements in the series, again the spiritual elements from the West.

Capoeira Fighter 3 had a mix of influences, not solely from the fighting styles but also from other video games. It was heavily based in the visual style of Street Fighter Zero but with gameplay elements, control schemes and animations from Street Fighter III and Tekken as well. Part of the success of the other games were the memorable stages that the fights took place in. Spiritonin used landmarks that had a dual meaning in several of the levels. The Sao Paulo Cathedral and statue of Christ the Redeemer from Rio De Janeiro were important symbols from Brazilian Christianity. Two beautifully painted versions of these places, by Ford, were the backdrops for the heroic characters in the game. These icons were meant to reinforce the personalities of the cast. Mestre Rochedo was a noble fighter and was constantly vigilant against Zumbi. He would warn his students to watch out for him in the game. Rochedo fought in front of the statue of Christ, seemingly invisible to the tourists that had gathered there. The name Rochedo actually meant cliff in Brazilian, it was short for the saying "only the cliff can face the wind." In this case only Rochedo could face Zumbi and his dark powers. Ramba was a student of Mestre Loka, another honorable teacher. She was a tough fighter whose macho attitude earned her the female equivalent nickname of "Rambo." She was actually in law school during the third Capoeira Fighter Tournament. Both of Ramba's possible endings had her helping out the less fortunate and thus demonstrating strong Christian values. It made sense that the Sao Paulo Cathedral was the backdrop for her stage.


The Western world was much better acquainted with the Christ figure and symbolism of churches and iconography. The themes explored by these stages would have been easily understood by Western audiences. Even non-Christians could appreciate the aesthetics of the level designs. The earth tones used for the cathedral balanced the cool darkness of the sky and the warm glow of a setting sun. It showed the beauty of the cathedral and the streets of Sao Paulo at night. The Christ statue itself was very serene and peaceful. The use of clouds made the stage location look heavenly. Those that followed the religion were familiar with the lessons of Christ. They knew that fighting was not a sin, especially not if the person was fighting against the forces of evil. In this case it would be the Christian belief versus the pagan ideal. Even the art of capoeira itself was filled with religious undercurrents. There was a sincere relationship between the Mestre and students, not unlike a priest or pastor and their parish. Those that would earn a name had to undergo a Batizado or Baptism as well and earn a place in the community.

The interplay between good and evil, light and dark was not lost on either Zumbi or Zumbi Azul. Zumbi was a bad guy yet his stage was visually one of the nicest ones in the game. In other fighting games the bad guys sometimes fought in a dirty alley or dark forest. For Zumbi the character fought on train tracks. On the horizon was a setting sun. It gave everything in the level a soft glow. From the farm house in the distance to the nearby grain elevators and even factory smokestack, the industrial and rural met in relative peace. It could be interpreted as symbolic of the state of Zumbi. The character was at a crossroads as well. He had dedicated his life to combat and was willing to forgo the traditional world of man and the beauty of the modern world. This would be the dusk of his existence and night would mark his transition into a new person. The stage of Zumbi Azul was a stark contrast to the train crossing.


The cool blues and grays of an old cemetery at night were meant to elicit a chilly response from players. The full moon, framed by ominous clouds, gave off an ethereal glow. This type of level design was meant to tell a story. The stages created for Gouki in the Street Fighter series were layered with themes of Hell and the afterlife. Even though these places could have actually existed somewhere in Japan there was a certain subtext that was hard to ignore. The cemetery of Zumbi Azul was meant to do the same thing in Capoeira Fighter 3. This was the place that the dead called home. Any person foolish enough to face Zumbi Azul there would probably end up joining the residents before dawn.

This new "home" of Zumbi Azul was decorated with multiple candles, hinting that some sort of ceremony had been performed there. Of course popular media would suggest that the only types of ceremonies performed over a grave or mausoleum at night were unholy. If Zumbi had died physically, spiritually or even symbolically perhaps he would have been reborn with new powers. The spirits of the Macumba would now be in charge of the man. One interpretation of Zumbi Azul was that he had become a Zombie, or servant to the dark forces. The actual Haitian practice of Vodou gave rise to the zombie myth. Unscrupulous practitioners of the dark arts were called Bokor. These people would kidnap people to turn into mindless slaves. Other times they would raise the dead in order to turn them into servants.


The ceremonies the Bokor performed, their various potions, spells and curses had been closely guarded secrets for several centuries. Modern science had created a plausible theory for what these so-called masters of the dark arts had actually been doing. First they poisoned their victims with a strong neurotoxin, from a puffer fish or poisonous frog. This would slow down their breathing and heartbeat to an undetectable state. The person would then be declared dead and be buried in a shallow grave allowing time for the toxins to wear off. The Bokor would then magically "revive" the person by force feeding them a paste made up of sweet potato, cane sugar and the hallucinogenic plant datura. The end result, provided that the person actually survived the ordeal and was fit for work, was cruel and grotesque. The newly born zombie would be brain damaged from the lack of oxygen during paralysis and unable to communicate, reason or have any higher brain functions. The Bokor would constantly beat, berate and keep the zombie in a stupor with their drugs while forcing the zombie into a life of slavery.


The Bokor claimed that they did not raise zombies to sell into slavery but rather that these people were being punished for committing the most cardinal of sins against the religion. The lack of medical information and strong word of mouth gave credibility to the supernatural powers of the Bokor. It was not uncommon for some family members to remain vigil over the grave of a deceased relative until they were certain that the body had begun to decay and would not be exhumed. In other instances some people were dismembered by their own family before being buried. Whichever the case was the African and Afro-Caribbean communities learned to be wary of these mysterious rituals and practitioners.


The mythology of Macumba, the Orisha and Voodoo worked in favor of Zumbi Azul. This was a character that embraced his own evil tendencies and turned himself into a monster. It was as if he were both the Bokor and Zombie. He did not want or need an accomplice to perform the ritual he had studied up on. Those that wanted to follow in his footsteps, characters like Maestro and Buldogue, would be turned into blue-skinned servants. At least in one of the possible endings both of the fighters became minions for Zumbi Azul. This villain demonstrated all of the traditions that made for a great evil character. He was willing to do whatever it took to win. He lacked respect for the life of his opponents and even himself. He was willing to pay with his body and soul in order to achieve unstoppable power. Capoeira Fighter 3 was already a good fighting game given the diversity of characters, strong minorities, balance, animation and control. It became a great fighting game when it included a villain that could be held to the same standards of the best bosses. The next blog will look specifically at the things that reflected the heritage of Zumbi Azul and close out this series.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The road to Rising Thunder, part 2...

The giant robot genre really took off in the '60s thanks to the imaginative shows in Japan and the USA. Of course the shows were only half the fun, the other half were toys that celebrated the robots themselves. There were of course toys based on Astro Boy and Tetsujin 28 (localized as Gigantor in the USA). One of the most popular robot toys had nothing to do with comics or cartoons. In 1964 the Marx toy company released a two-player toy game called Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots. The game was a rapid paced affair with players looking to punch the jaw of the opponent and cause the spring loaded head to jump up. The generic red and blue figures became icons in the toy community.


Mattel eventually got the rights to the toys and continued releasing them over the next 40 years. The company did a good job of keeping the packaging, and designs unchanged through the decades. The only thing that they did do was make the figures and ring slightly smaller. Perhaps this was a cost-cutting measure, it did nothing to make the game any less fun. The hard edges, exposed bolts and blocky shapes of the Sock 'em robots were very classic. They looked like the robot designs from turn of the century magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. With heavy brows and chiseled jaws they looked like battle worn gladiators. They had a sort of endearing quality about them. It took a long time for robots in the US to have the same sort of appealing design in film.. In fact it was post 2000 when the success of the Transformers movies by Michael Bay made toy companies realize that they could option the rights to their toys and make a franchise film as well. Everything from board games (like Battleship) to dolls (like My Little Pony) was optioned to get a movie or at the vert least a television show. The film version of Rock 'em Sock 'em changed the title but kept the heart.

 

The 2011 family film Real Steel was based on a world where eight-foot tall robots did the boxing instead of people. The film starred Hugh Jackman and the robot he trained to fight named Atom (not a coincidence!). The title had a lot of imagination and introduced robots with over-the-top designs. They were actually well done updates of the classic Sock 'em robots. The studio could have gone a million different ways with the robot designs. They could have had them fighting with guns and weapons like the Transformers films. They could have made them into mechanical bugs and animals as well. But the design team learned that the more human traits they shared the easier it was for audiences to identify with them. So some robots had hair made out of plugs, eyes and in some cases jaws and teeth as well. The humanized designs worked well in Real Steel just as they had on Rock 'em Sock 'em almost 50 years earlier. The same lessons, use of proportions and human traits were applied to the cast in Rising Thunder. But where else did these robotic / humanoid cues come from?

 

Japan by far had the biggest influence on giant robot culture. The 1972 series by Go Nagai (of infamous Devilman fame) created one of the most popular giant robots ever. Mazinger Z, adapted to Tranzor-Z in the USA, was a piloted robot with an assortment of non-traditional weapons. Unlike the robot designs that used missiles and artillery blasts as a form of attack Mazinger instead had a mix of mechanical and energy weapons. He had a patented rocket punch which allowed him to fire his fist at opponents. On his chest were two red shields that emitted the Breast Fire attack, allowing him to melt most opponents. These were only a few of the assortment of weapons he had at his disposal. The design and abilities of Mazinger Z would be copied again and again by the industry. Some were following the trends but others, like the Mecha Zangief in Street Fighter IV were well done homages. 

In the 1970's piloted robots became all the rage. These were considered less to be robots and more like mechanized suits of armor, or mecha for short. Writers and artists were looking for new ways to introduce their creations to audiences. Some were lighthearted adventures for kids and others were dramas set against an eternal war. During the era the robots themselves followed a common design trend. The 1974 series Getter Robo by Ken Ishikawa had a robot that was not unlike Mazinger Z. the colors were almost reversed but the character retained the same cylinder-shaped arms, legs and torso. The roots of those designs could be traced back to Tetsujin 28-go. By the end of the decade the artists working on the shows began experimenting with new styles. Possibly the most important was Gundam. The 1979 show by Yoshiyuki Tomino had robots using more angular shapes and sharper edges. The robots themselves reflected futuristic versions of samurai armor and helmets. The artists working on the series over the next 30 years kept a consistent design aesthetic.

 

The '80s would continue to build on the new trend started by Gundam. One of the most unique robot shows from this era was Fang of the Sun Dougram. The 1981 series by Ryosuke Takahashi had a unique blend of mecha-meets-western artillery. The shapes of the robots were very similar to US tanks and attack helicopters from the post-Vietnam era. It was easy to imagine that each robot was deployed depending on the type of conflict, whether it be a steamy jungle or the bottom of the sea. The Dougram series went on to influence the creation of the western tabletop game Battletech. The trend started by Dougram would be short-lived as another anime series was set to take over the world. The 1982 series Macross by Shoji Kawamori went one-step further towards Japanese mecha and western weapons. The robots in the series could change shape and become full-on aircraft and artillery. It subtracted the artificial intelligence of the Transformers for the piloted weaponized combat of Gundam. It was genius design and set a standard that would be copied around the world.


Through the '80s the creators of the robot shows would experiment with the scale and themes of their machines. Some robots were not very large, they were designed for urban combat environments. Some were created as the evolutionary replacement to tanks, such was the case for Armored Troopers VOTOMS, the 1983 series by Ryosuke Takahashi. Other robots were created as the answer to an alien invasion and had to be built on a massive scale with more high-tech weaponry than had ever been seen. This was true for the Gunbuster, a colossal giant robot created in 1988 by Hideaki Anno. that same year a new manga series asked the question of how would we deal with human-controlled robots if they were ever put in the wrong hands? Even something as standard as a construction machine could wreak havoc on a populace. So mecha police officers were introduced in Masami Yuki's Mobile Police Patlabor. Between Gundam and Patalabor the animation studios were allowed to explore all sorts of concepts. The 1983 series Aura Battler Dunbine by Yoshiyuki Tomino had robots that resembled giant beetles. Whereas the 1986 series The Five Star Stories by Mamoru Nagano had robots that resembled paladins and knights.

In the '90s the giant robot trend saw another aesthetic shift. This was due in part to the success of the OVA series Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still. The episodes debuted in 1992 and showed the industry that retro designs could find an audience as long as the character development and story supported it. About the same time animator Bruce Timm and writer Paul Dini had found success using the same formula with the Batman Animated Series. Years later Kazuyoshi Katayama combined the Giant Robo and Batman animated aesthetics with the series The Big O. The show from 1999 lacked character development and a story and relied more on looks rather than substance. The new Giant Robo broke the mold and allowed creators to go wild with their designs. The Gunbuster designer Hideaki Anno learned from this and went in a direction much different than Gunbuster with the new series Neon Genesis Evangelion. The new robots were rail-thin, enormous and quick, a far departure from the heavy-set Tetsujin 28. The series debuted in 1995, that's right, 20-years-ago! Are you starting to feel old? The evolving designs of these robots did not go unnoticed by the game industry. In the next blog we will explore how they were adapted to early arcade and console titles.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 46

When the designers at Capcom created Gouki they demonstrated all of the elements that were required in making a memorable fighting game villain. The senior people at Spiritonin, Scott Stoddard and Adam Ford were clearly aware of what made Gouki such a unique character. Yet the studio did not want to simply copy the template verbatim, as SNK did when they introduced Silber in Buriki One. Instead they wanted Zumbi to be seen as a unique character that brought the same level of design to the Americas. In order to do this they had to pull actual elements from cultures and traditions that would explain the forces that allowed Zumbi to grow exponentially in power. Since Capoeira was grounded heavily in Brazilian and African history it was important not to separate the religious and spiritual beliefs that were brought over as well. By preserving the elements of the old customs it was easier for audiences to follow the shift in Zumbi's personality and power.


There were many unique forms of spiritual beliefs scattered throughout the African continent. The slaves brought from West Africa included the people from Nigeria and the Congo. They observed the Bantu custom and traditions. They had strong beliefs in the ability to barter with the spirits. They could have a practitioner, a shaman or holy man summon the spirits make offerings and sacrifices to them in return for any number of favors. Some wished for protection from their enemies. Others desired health and fortune. Still others wished the spirits to cause harm to their enemies. These belief systems were combined with native traditions in the Caribbean and Spanish Catholic-hybrid religions like Santeria that were practiced in the New World. The indigenous Brazilians incorporated elements of the Bantu into their own beliefs. The Bantu or Macumba customs were best observed in the Haitian Vodou beliefs.

People in North America were familiar with the spiritual beliefs, hexes and spells from Voodoo due to the popularization of the religion on film and television. Voodoo dolls, zombies, shrines and altars with sacrifices had been featured in popular media over the past century. Those things were often attributed to ancient practices from exotic locations. The ability of a witchdoctor, or Voodoo Priest or Priestess to cast spells over people had been romanticized as well. The movement began in the US circa the 18th century when West African Slaves were transported to parts of the Caribbean and the early plantations in Louisiana and other French-controlled portions of North America. The African practices and indigenous Haitian beliefs were outlawed. Slaves and other conquered people were converted, some forcefully, to Christianity. The violent conversion of religious ideas resulted in a people that practiced a hybrid spiritual system. The religious iconography of African, Christian and island cultures blended together. Votive candles, sacrifices, offerings of tobacco, alcohol, crosses and skulls mixed to create a religion that was macabre and fascinating at the same time.


Voodoo practitioners were known as servants of the spirits. They carefully walked the line between the physical and spiritual worlds, catering to the wishes if not outright demands from the voices in either dimension. These practitioners were either well regarded or well feared by the population. The Macumba traditions differed slightly from the Voodoo customs. The indigenous tribes from North, Central and South America were also based heavily in different animistic, and spiritual beliefs. They had their own languages, symbols and ways of worship. When French and Spanish traders forced Catholic and Christian beliefs onto the tribes it also twisted their customs and influenced the creation of Santeria. The hybridization of spirituality in the Americas would take on many unique properties. The spirits of Macumba, sometimes called Orisha or Spirit Gods could manifest themselves in animals. Some of the more powerful spirits could make themselves appear as people. One symbolic figure in the Macumba tradition was that of a black man wearing a white Fedora. The Lord of the Crossroads, sometimes intertwined with the spirit of mischief, had a powerful influence on fate and could use his powers to cause trouble or convey a lesson to his believers. This character was known as Exu and was one of the named Orisha.

In Capoeira Fighter 3 there was a gallant fighter named Angoleiro. Although he was not a mystical person he certainly reflected the classic traditions of the African cultures. The elderly man was dressed in white yet walked barefoot, he also wore a white Fedora which he used in battle. They eye patch and sly grin added a bit of mystery to the man. Perhaps he was Exu in his human form after all. Angoleiro was sent to Brazil by a vision from his deceased wife Rosa. It seemed that there was a great conflict and a girl needed his help. He was not sure what the girl looked like as she was blurry in his dream. He found a native girl named Pantera dressed in animal skins. There was a land developer clear cutting the rainforest in order to build a hotel. It turned out that she was on the one that needed his assistance. Apparently the animal spirits had worked through his dreams in order to get him to a place where he could help. Although he was the oldest fighter in the game he still was still a master of capoeira. With his techniques and guile players could complete his mission.


Angoleiro was reflective of the positive forces of the Orisha. When he came upon Pantera and even the character Coelha upon the crossroads he offered each a chance to change their destiny. Angoleiro was using his visions to elicit change in other people's lives. These were the natural courses that Macumba practitioners preferred. Using a vision for selfish reasons would often cause strife or worse end up cursing the practitioner. The spirits of the Orisha did not like to be toyed with. Angoleiro had made it to a ripe old age and was still a fighter to be reckoned with because he followed the right path. In Brazilian legend there was a slave that was a master of Capoeira but was also protected by the Exu. His name was Besouro Maganga, he was nicknamed after the junebug. Officials tried hunting him down but he was too quick for them, he could run along treetops and seemed impervious to bullets. It was said that no weapon forged by man could kill him. A jealous rival found out about the myth and crafted a knife made of palm leaves in order to assassinate him. Figures like Besouro and the contemporary Angolero reflected the positive aspects of the spirituality that followed Capoeira over from Africa. There was somebody in Capoeria Fighter canon however that did not follow the right path and never had. Mestre Zumbi had spelled trouble for the other Mestres and was a menace to the young practitioners of Capoeira since the very first game. He was confrontational, proud and jealous. It was a dangerous combination for the strong bruiser. Zumbi was lacking something, aside from his look, to set him apart from the other characters in the game. He was a powerful bully but what the game needed was a boss character. He discovered, or rather the team at Spiritonin discovered, that Macumba could be the power that elevated Zumbi from bad guy to major villain.

This would be the first fighting game that actually showed the evolution of a character from "regular" fighter into a boss-tier one. Moreover, this was the first fighting game that allowed players to start as one type of character and end the game with a completely new persona. The evolution of Zumbi was unique compared to all of the other fighting games, especially Street Fighter. The changes of Zumbi in CF3 contrasted Ryu in Street Fighter Zero. Ryu had always been a hero in the series. In Street Fighter Zero Ryu had to battle his own dark urges. The Evil Ryu personae was what he would have become if he had gone down the same path that created Gouki. After the events of Street Fighter II, III, IV and V it was apparent that Ryu was and always would remain the hero of the series. Much to the chagrin of some players, there would be no second coming of Gouki. Zumbi on the other hand had always been the bad guy and would always be the bad guy. Given his personality it made sense that he did not fight the dark elements but instead sought them out. It was like watching the great betrayal of Gouki to his master and even himself. Zumbi wanted to put fear into the heart of Loka and the other fighters. He embraced the forces of Macumba and became a vessel for their dark powers. In doing so a new character was born; Zumbi Azul, or Blue Zumbi. This dark master of Capoeira would now reign as the supreme force in their universe.


Previous to Capoeira Fighter 3 the studios in Japan and the US had been trying out many different types of characters from which to build a main villain from. Martial artists were the original boss characters however as time went on the final villains began to move away from the traditional arts. Most of the characters appeared to have been pulled from other genres like science fiction or even fantasy. SNK made a name for themselves by featuring well dressed but overpowered characters as bosses. They were supposed to look regal and in some instances even combined sharp clothing with vintage armor. The studios broke the balance in the game by assigning absurdly powerful attacks to these bosses, far more than the Dictator even. Some could kill regular characters with a few hits and often without having to even physically touch the opponent. This seemed cheap and reduced the impression that boss characters were supposed to give players.


Capcom had demonstrated through Gouki that with a healthy dose of cultural cues the most memorable villains could be grounded in reality. For a fighting game it only made sense that the ultimate villain also had to be a fighter and not simply an overpowered man in a suit. Gouki had established a tradition that would be hard to top. His design incorporated animal as well as demonic cues but not to the point as to be absurd to players. Silber from Buriki One had been the closest to follow the formula, especially in form and function. He was a fearsome predator that hunted down martial arts masters all over the world. Like Gouki he appeared suddenly during the last fight to surprise players and vanished just as mysteriously. Silber was missing something however, an awe-inspiring super attack that made him more than just a superior karateka. This small detail was not missed by Spiritonin. Zumbi Azul had become the Gouki equivalent in the series. He controlled similar to the regular Zumbi but all of his attacks were much more powerful. It mirrored how Gouki controlled similarly to Ken and Ryu but with stronger attacks.

Gouki was famous for his Shun Goku Satsu. The character would hop on one foot and "teleport" over to an opponent. He would grab them and then proceed to pummel them with a flash of unstoppable strikes. The Instant Hell Murder was near impossible to escape at close range and could even reach most opponents at mid-range before they could counter. Zumbi Azul was given a similar attack for his Hyper Combo 3. The character would turn a ghostly, transparent red and then slide over to his opponent. Once caught Zumbi Azul would pummel his opponent with a flash of rapid strikes. A well timed final attack would all but guarantee victory for both bosses. The thing that made the special attacks slightly more interesting in CF 3 were that they could be combined with a "Power" modifier like Shield, Poison or Speed. If Zumbi Azul had Vampire, which was how the PC usually controlled the character, then not only would a player lose a tremendous amount of health from the Hyper Combo 3 but Zumbi Azul would gain all of that energy in return. It made the special attack all the more fearsome and the character more difficult for players to deal with.


Spiritonin had introduced a villain that had as much presence as Gouki. This was not only rare for a Western publisher but was rare for the entire industry. The studio placed Zumbi Azul as a boss for several but not all of the characters in the game. It only made sense considering the long standing rivalry that Zumbi had against certain cast members. Players could unlock the character if they earned enough credits. Players earned credits for each character they beat the game and various modes as well. They were encouraged to beat both paths of the game with each character so that they might earn enough credits to unlock all of the hidden characters including Zumbi Azul. The differences between Zumbi and Zumbi Azul were subtle but each required precise timing to master. Spiritonin took all of the lessons that Capcom had laid down regarding boss designs and created a new chapter to the legacy of fighting games. The next blog will look specifically at how a minority character evolved to become one of the great all-time villains.

Monday, October 12, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 45

Minority characters had been incorporated into fighting games for over 30 years. Players were exposed to generic as well as recognizable figures in that time. Some of the best stayed with a series while others simply faded away. Earlier in this blog I had shown how some of the worst elements in fighting games were based on broad stereotypes and assumed truths about a culture thanks to limited exposure by the media. Asian and white characters seemed to have the best forethought and presentation while minority characters were usually pinned with a gimmick. For some the gimmick was the defining trait of the character. Look at Hakan from Street Fighter IV, the character was obsessed with oil for his style of fighting and nothing else. What would Turkish players make of him or his over-the-top version of yagli gures, the actual form of Turkish wrestling? For blacks it was usually sports or entertainment that they questioned. The challenge was for developers in Japan and the US to create iconic characters that would withstand the test of time. The idea that a minority character could ever take on a lead role had rarely been explored. The idea that a minority character could ever become a great villain was almost an absurd thought.

A previous blog had highlighted the Capoeira Fighter series by Spiritonin. The game was a love letter to the genre and presented within it many influences pulled from Street Fighter and Tekken. The game had actually been shaping the development of one of the main characters into a villain over the course of three titles. The Capoeira Fighter series originally did not feature a boss character and only the most basic of plots. By the third game each of the characters had a clearly defined goal from beginning to end. Players were allowed to choose from one of two outcomes. Not that players necessarily chose between a good or evil path, most paths actually had indifferent resolutions. However each variation hinted that either outcome was acceptable in canon. Moreover each path ran parallel with the rest of the cast so that all of the encounters in the game were possible.


Mestre Zumbi could be considered the most identifiable character in the game but he seemed to be a thorn in the side of the heroes. Imagine a fighting game that used the images of a villain as a selling point. It was rarely done by developers. The large muscular black man wore white pants and had thick braided hair. The contrast of dark and light elements on his costume helped him stand out from the cast. His massive frame and powerful moves let players know that this character was not one to be messed with. It turned out that the other masters in the game, Loka and Rochedo had a number of confrontations with Zumbi over the course of the series. The two masters were very consciences of their students and wanted them to learn the most positive aspects of Capoeira. Zumbi by contrast was jealous of the other Mestres and wanted to prove that he was simply the best fighter. He was willing to beat up all of the students and masters along the way to make his point. This made Zumbi very unpredictable and dangerous through the series. Loka and Rochedo accompanied their students where they could or sent elder students to keep an eye on the young ones whenever they traveled.

Zumbi was actually a well known name in Brazil. In the 17th century Zumbi dos Palmares had been born in theQuilombos, a settlement established by escaped slaves, prisoners, natives and refugees. There were a few settlements hidden on the east coast of Brazil just outside the jurisdiction of the Portuguese. Freedom fighters would try to help other slaves escape or stage insurrections from the Quilombos. Zumbi was an excellent fighter and a descendant of the Imbangala warriors of Angola. He became famous for his bravery as well as his military strategy. When his uncle Ganga Zumba was killed in battle he assumed the leadership of the warriors from the Palmares. A good number of their ranks were made up of exceptional capoeiristas, these fighters had proven the worth of the old African customs and helped spread the form through the Quilombos.


When the Portuguese raided his settlements they never managed to capture him. Slaves believed that he was blessed by the spirits, an immortal. Zumbi developed a sort of hero worship which was beginning to spread and became a concern to plantation owners and local governments. Eventually he was betrayed by a captive and his location was given to the authorities. As soon as they captured him they beheaded Zumbi and put the head on display in Recife, one of the largest cities in Brazil. The government hoped to break the will of the slaves. Afro-Brazilian pride did not die then and never would. The day that Zumbi dos Palmares was killed, November 20, would become celebrated as black awareness day in Brazil. The fact that Spiritonin gave the villain in their series the name of a hero was meant to be ironic. The characters in the game wondered to each other why the noble name was assumed by a madman.

The dangerous obsessions of Zumbi were revealed little by little over the course of Capoeira Fighter 3. Loka and Rochedo warned their students to watch out for him. There were rumors going around that Zumbi was beginning to practice some dangerous things. These were not solely forbidden fighting forms but also supernatural elements, perhaps the fictional Zumbi was trying to find out how to become "immortal" himself? Rochedo warned his student and confidant Saturno that Zumbi was "messing with things he doesn't understand." Not everyone in the game actually crossed paths with Zumbi. Scott Stoddard, designer of the series, made the plot believable in the sense that Zumbi would have only crossed paths with those he had previous dealings with. The heroic characters that were trying to stop the man would have fought him in his ultimate boss form. Otherwise characters that did fight him only saw him in his "regular" form. Many did not see him on the way to their own resolution.


Even his allies were becoming leery of Zumbi. Cobra, the daughter of crime lord Arcenio Rodrigues was obsessed with power, but not the same form of power that Zumbi was seeking out. She was partnered with him early in the game. When Zumbi revealed to Cobra the forces he had aligned himself then the players were given the choice to leave him for his understudy, the ponytail sporting and almost equally massive fighter named Maestro. Zumbi had ignored the traditions of capoeira and gave Maestro a nickname without having him go through a Batizado and earn if from the community. Maestro had originally appeared in Capoeira Fighter 2 under the alias Primo. He also had ties to the criminal underworld. Primo / Maestro was actually a parody of the villain Silverio from the film "Only the Strong." Maestro and Cobra seemed a perfect pairing and allowed Zumbi to fulfill his destiny within the game as a solitary figure.

Villains in fighting games rarely had partners. They were usually so powerful that they could take on one, two or even three fighters all by themselves. If anything they had minions, other dangerous men and women that would obey their orders. These people acted as sub-bosses. In Street Fighter II the Dictator had Sagat, the ex-pro boxer M. Bison and the Spanish assassin Balrog working for him. His "Generals" would keep the other World Warriors at bay. Only those powerful enough to go through his men deserved a chance to fight him as well. Of course Gouki broke all the rules and destroyed the Dictator at first sight, cementing his reputation in the universe. Capoeira Fighter 3 did not have the luxury of going through countless revisions so that players could be eased into the canon and history of Zumbi. Instead the entire transformation of Zumbi was done within game, and masterfully at that.



Cobra had told Zumbi that his rival Loka was taking his students on a world tour. When Zumbi learned of this it spurned him to chase after his sworn enemy. He was eager to show off the things he had learned. Cobra wondered aloud if the rumors were true, was Zumbi messing with Macumba? These were the ancient spiritual beliefs brought over from West Africa during the slave trade. Macumba was a sort of catch-all phrase for the Brazilians to describe magic. It was a force that could alter the fates or levy powerful curses on people. In his quest for absolute power Zumbi had submitted himself to the mysterious forces. The folly was whether or not he could hope to control such power or be bound in service to it. The next blog will explore the creation of this new villain.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The road to Rising Thunder, part 1...

Have you thought of what the future of fighting games is going to be like? There will be advances of graphics and gameplay for certain. Fan-favorite titles like Street Fighter and Tekken will continue to receive updates. They will explore new stories, take chances with radical character designs and tweaks to the balance of the genre. One of the big changes that has happened over the years has been the delivery of the fighting game experience. The genre pretty much started in the arcade in the late '80s and as consoles became more powerful that experience migrated to homes by the mid-to-late '90s. The genre is now over 30 and still going strong. There are some console exclusives but more and more audiences are choosing to download their games rather than buy a traditional copy in the stores. The method of distribution has changed but so has the console of choice. Many gamers that grew up with consoles now have a PC at home for gaming as much as for doing work. But they also have phones that are more powerful than most computers from the early '90s. Between the computer and phone companies are trying to find a sweet spot for gamers of all types. What is the best console, if there is even such a thing? What about web-based game development? A game that only needs a good computer and a web browser? Is it possible for a web title to be as good as a $100+ million AAA title from the big publishers? Well, we may not be there yet but I can say with certainty that some amazing game experiences are web based. When it comes to fighting games some really great entries in the genre. The newest one, Rising Thunder by Radiant Entertainment is carving a niche all its own.


Before I talk about the game I should mention that the founders of Radiant Ent. are Tony and Tom Cannon. The brothers are computer science grads and have worked at VMware as well as Microsoft. But unlike their peers the duo are well known in the fighting game community. Tom founded the EVO fighting game championship and Tony engineered the GGPO technology which helps keeps the lag to the barest of minimums and allows fighting games to run smoothly online. They brought Seth Killian, a pro gamer-turned community manager-turned fighting game advisor on board to make sure that Rising Thunder has all of the elements that makes a great fighting title. What's not fair is for me to review a game that is still in Beta. For a title this early in development it has a tremendous amount of polish and will easily be one of the best fighting games of the new generation. Instead of focusing on the game, lets talk a little bit about the road that brought us here.


Robots and clockwork automatons (known as Karakuri Ningyo in Japan) had been a part of popular culture for centuries, if not millennia. Many of the earliest robots were created well before the age of silicon and microprocessors. These machines were created often by clockmakers as a way of showing off their mechanical engineering skills. Some robots were as small as a doll while others were full human sized. Some could play musical instruments, others could write messages, shoot arrows and even beat humans at chess. They inspired countless legends and had a hand in shaping pop culture when they debuted. Of course no sooner was an artificial person created than people began to wonder if it could beat a human in combat. Well before automations there were ancient Jewish folklores that spoke of golems made of clay that were brought to life by spirits. These legends predated Mary Shelly's Frankenstein story. It was a cautionary tale at the root; could man create life from nothing and if he did so would he abandon it or guide it? Since man was not an all-seeing-all-knowing god the stories often ended with man abandoning the creation and letting it run amok, an unstoppable symbol of his ego. These creatures would show up in pop culture in movies, comics and of course even video games.


The first modern concept of a brawling robot was explored in the 1933 Disney cartoon Mickey's Mechanical Man. In the film the champion fighter was a powerful ape. Disney didn't even consider the notion of man versus beast but instead jumped at the chance to present beast versus machine. Mickey Mouse built a robot that would take on the champ and settle the question of who would win in a fight. What made the cartoon unique was how robots were imagined as fighters. Since they were not human, the did not have the limitations of muscles, internal organs or ligaments. They could turn 360 degrees at the waist, spin their arms like propellers and even throw spring-activated trick punches. These things were great visual gags but stuck with audiences. Many of the gags would be copied by cartoonists and animators around the world for the next 80 years.


Robots were unique in how they could take punishment and deliver it without every feeling pain or empathy. It was a scary concept when applied to Dr. Frankenstein's biological monster. Yet something profound happened in 1953. An artist by the name of Osamu Tezuka created a manga series about a robot boy named the Mighty Atom. This little robot boy was not unlike a super powered Pinocchio. He was brave and naive at the same time. He had a great sense of justice but was also curious about the world he was born into. Tezuka was inspired to become a cartoonist at a young age. He saw the animated feature Bambi as a boy. Although he did not understand English he learned the story through the large expressive eyes of the characters. Because of this Tezuka created characters with large eyes and set a standard that would be copied by countless generations of manga artists. Many of the works that Tezuka created were morality plays.

The Mighty Atom, localized as Astro Boy in the USA, was no different. Astro was born into a world where robots were becoming sentient and they were not happy as slaves to their human creators. Some thought to rebel and this alarmed the humans. Dr. Umataru Tenma created Astro as a surrogate for his deceased son. Yet he abandoned Astro when he realized the machine could never replace his only child. Professor Ochanomizu, a scientific rival to Tenma, adopted Astro and decided to raise him to help humanity. Astro was granted amazing powers and weapons which easily rivaled the coolest heroes from the west.


Astro Boy was a revolutionary title because audiences learned that people could be as heartless as the machines they created. In a way the robots they created represented the greatness that we should hope to achieve. We learned to feel sorry for many of the robots that Astro had to fight. They were often misguided in their conflicts. Tezuka did an amazing job at creating sympathetic beings. These characters would color the industry itself. A generation that was raised on a steady diet of anime would create the first video games, many times they reflected the animation and comics that they had grown up on. The first video game heroes were also influenced by the animation pioneers. Mega Man and his creator Dr. Light were nothing more than a retelling of Astro and Dr. Umataru.

Few titles based on robots ever matched the greatness of the Mighty Atom. That did not stop other writers and artists from trying to create lasting characters. One of the best went by the name of Mitsuteru Yokoyama. In 1956 Mitsuteru created Tetsujin 28-go, a manga about a giant robot and his young master Shotaro Kaneda. Tetsujin literally translated to iron man. Just an FYI, Marvel's Iron Man did not debut until 1963 in an issue of Tales of Suspense. Tetsujin 28 was a remote control robot that fought crime and other giant robots. The character gained symbolism as a sort of big brother and protector for Shotaro. It was possibly the first time a mechanical surrogate was presented in such a light. The series was rebooted several times in manga and anime form. There was a certain charm to the barrel-shape of the character and he retained his look in most every reboot. If you look at the Rising Thunder lineup I'm sure you'll be able to spot the influence that Tetsujin 28 had on the design team.


Mr. Yokoyama's biggest hit was yet to come. In 1967 he created a new series, this time meant for television, which was a new take on the Tetsujin mythos. The new robot and series was named Giant Robo. This pharaoh-headed robot obeyed the commands of his young master Daisaku Kusama. Unlike Tetsujin the robot showed signs of free will and could choose to ignore his master. This character was not only seen a a surrogate family member, he literally stood in for Daisaku's father, the creator of Robo. The live-action Giant Robo series was a staple in many households, not only in Japan but also in the west where it was translated for young Generation-X fans to enjoy. The series had great action, an incredible assortment of heroes and villains and easily one of the most melancholy endings for a children's show ever written. In the eyes of many it would not be matched until the original animated series Giant Robo debuted almost 20 years later. The redesigned Giant Robo was heavily armored, much larger than his live-action counterpart and armed with missies, cannons and more explosives than a battleship.


The heavyweight redo of Robo did not go unnoticed by the game community. In the 1995 Capcom game Cyberbots: Full Metal Madness, there was a hidden character modeled after Giant Robo. The game was set in the far off future. Where giant piloted robots fought in the place of armies. Of course since this was a Capcom fighting game the studio wanted to put their own spin on the character. Gouki from Street Fighter would be lending his likeness to the new robot. Fans of the genre as well as Giant Robo saw this as one of the greatest homages yet designed. Robots were perfect for gaming. They could change shape, carry far more weapons than any human and of course take tremendous amounts of damage. Finding ways to adapt the abilities of small robots like Astro Boy or giant robots like Tetsujin 28 into fun gameplay elements would take a long time to figure out. But that was okay because many of the best game developers were small children when the shows came out. They had plenty of time to think about how to make a game out of the battling robot.


Thanks to the work of Mr. Tezuka and Mr. Yokoyama writers and artists around the world were learning that a robot could be the star of a series. Depending on how they were presented a robot could be menacing or sympathetic. This was not an idea that was exclusive to Japan however. In 1966, as an answer to the runaway craze that Tetsujin 28 had started for Japanese animation, the US studio of Hanna Barbera created a cartoon called Frankenstein Jr. In it Professor Conrad created a giant robot for his son Buzz to command using a ring, instead of a watch. Frankenstein Jr. fought all manner of giant monster and robot on his adventures. Hanna Barbera was good at responding to changes in pop culture. They created Space Ghost and Johnny Quest as the first animated answers to the comic book craze of the '50s and '60s. Robots were apparently becoming a thing and Hanna Barbera wanted to ride that trend as well. The trend was inescapable for novelists as well. The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes was published in 1968, after the debut of Giant Robo and Frankenstein Jr. A few decades later would be the basis for the fan-favorite animated film sharing the same title. The robot genre was only beginning to gain momentum. In the next blog we will explore the titles that shaped the evolution of the genre in animated and even game form. I hope to see you back for that!