Friday, October 2, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 41

When Gouki debuted in 1994's Super Street Fighter II Turbo he set the standard for boss characters and villains in fighting games. The other studios took notice and tried to create legends of their own. SNK was a long time rival to Capcom. They had a masked fighter named "Mr. Karate" that predated Gouki by a few years. Takuma Sakazaki was the masked villain and final boss in the Art of Fighting. He was also the father of the heroes of the game Ryo and Yuri Sakazaki. The 1992 title did not originally feature the character as a pseudo demon but instead had him wearing a Tengu or devil mask. As the series went on the character of Mr. Karate grew more and more powerful until he took on a number of the same traits that Gouki had. His attacks became more powerful and he seemed to be a completely different person behind the mask. Most fans would consider the characters to be evenly-matched villains.

Not many fighting game aficionados however would remember that SNK had introduced a character that was eerily closer to Gouki in form and presentation than Mr. Karate. The 1999 arcade release Buriki One was one of SNK's first attempts at moving their IP into three-dimensions. The game had a cast of mostly new faces with the exception of Ryo Sakazaki, who had entered the tournament under the name of Mr. Karate II. Players fought masters of various styles and could beat the game by winning the tournament. The secret character in the game had an entrance that was reminiscent of the first appearance of Gouki. Players would go through their usual opening animation; where the selected character walked from backstage to the tournament platform. When the rival was announced the screen switched to the locker room. The opponent would be thrown through the double doors and crash into the caged-off platform. The true boss character would then appear. He was a muscular German named Silber. The character had a terrible gash over one eye and was covered in grizzly scars. The white-haired fighter looked nightmarish. He would rush the stage and take a superhuman leap over the barrier.

Silber had a very unorthodox stance and fighting style. The story behind the character was very interesting. The German had spend the last 30 years traveling the globe, fighting the best masters of other fighting arts and leaving few witnesses in his wake. He had developed his own form of karate which was unlike the traditional Japanese schools but just as lethal if not more so. When he learned there was a tournament to find out which was the best fighting style he decided to enter without an invitation. Silber was the first non-Japanese karate villain in a fighting game. The fact that SNK made him the boss character was even more impressive. It was as if the Japanese developers had suddenly come to realize that people from other nations could not only master foreign fighting arts, but they could also create their own contributions to the form. To help Silber stand out from Mr. Karate or the other bosses from SNK history the studio took a page from Capcom's school of design. They made the German look like a supernatural character. The patchwork of scars that covered his body made him appear like Frankenstein's monster. It was more than coincidence that his look was pulled from classic literary traditions.

Gouki had elements from Eastern mythology and Silber's design observed many Western ones. Centuries ago the Black Forest in Germany had been romanticized in fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm brought imps, dwarfs, witches and shape-shifters from classic folklore into popular culture. Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty were just some of the old stories that the brothers had adapted not only to entertain but to also put the fear of the unknown into children. In fact, some of the stories were not called fairy tales but instead "warning tales." The Black Forest, like many other forests in Germany, was once very dangerous. It hosted wild boars, bears and wolves that killed many a settler. Many of those creatures were hunted to extinction but the legends of dangerous predators remained in the stories. The designers at SNK thought to develop a new fable out of a creature that came out of the woods to hunt down man as well. Silber would take on the appearance of the animal-turned-human in the Buriki One tournament. The artists did not look at a lion for inspiration this time. The bright white hair and sideburns stuck out like the mane of a timber wolf. The look was enhanced by the fur-lined gi that he wore in competition. The character was certainly an alpha-predator. It was assumed that he had killed an animal and skinned it to line his uniform. The cold German winters would have made outdoor training unbearable without some protection. His clothing had dark black stripes that looked like claw marks to perpetuate the myth of the animal-like survivalist. The character art and profile featured in the game was unmistakable. This was a major villain, a nightmare from classic storytelling traditions.

SNK wanted to make the character very mysterious. They gave him no dialogue or lines in the game. If a player managed to defeat Silber an ending animation would play before the credits. He survived the fight, stood up and took another superhuman leap to escape from the ring. If gamers managed to beat Silber with all of the regular characters then he too would become a playable character. This meant that Silber had his own stats, alternate costume and even ending cinema. Each character held a press conference at the end of the game where they talked about the fighting style that took them to the top. The credits would roll during the press conference and players could get filled into the plot.
Players that wanted to learn a bit more about Silber were disappointed with his ending. Nothing was revealed during his interview. He looked at the room full of reporters with disdain in his eyes. Instead of answering their questions he simply jumped off the screen. This bit of mystery would follow the character in all his future appearances. He was the boss character that would never stay down for long no matter how badly the player had beaten him. He would leap out of each game just as quickly as he arrived. It helped add an air of mystery to him and kept fans of the SNK universe guessing when he would turn up again. For older fans of animé the spectacular leaps that Silber made were a nod to the classic series Karate Baka Ichidai. The show was a serialized retelling of the life of Mas Oyama featuring his encounters against various fighting styles. This hinted that Silber was like a modern Oyama, only without scruples or compassion for other fighters.

There was something outside of the gruesome appearances that made Gouki and Silber similar. The two were not solely boss characters but also villains. They were not villains in the traditional sense of the word. They did not kidnap princesses or take Gotham City hostage. They were villains in the sense that they were both very evil men. They were both obsessed with power and were willing to achieve that power at any price. For professional and underground fighters this meant that they had to be the best that ever lived. In order to achieve that the duo had focused on nothing else except for training and fighting. They had no friends, no family and no sense of loyalty. Silber was rumored to have mentored the pro boxer and criminal Rob Python, also from the Buriki One universe. Gouki had a run in with his brother Gouken at several points during the training of Ken and Ryu. The wisdom and warnings from Gouki did not fall on deaf ears then. Despite these limited interactions with younger fighters the two had almost no contact with anyone else in canon or the games. There was something that made the characters truly evil though. The next blog will talk about the elements of evil design and how it inspired minority villains.

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