Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The return of Rainbow Mika, did Capcom cross the line in Street Fighter V?

It is tough to talk about two of the females in Street Fighter V, one new and one returning, without bringing up the issue of pandering. Whether I start with Rainbow Mika or Laura Matsuda the problem that I have with the designs have already been echoed by many in the community. The developers at Capcom are really pushing the sex appeal first and foremost with the female characters introduced in the series. It's hard to ignore it when the camera angles and animations used to introduce the characters give audiences a butt or crotch shot or a peek at some gratuitous cleavage. Granted, in Street Fighter IV the pandering was even less classy. With a camera in an "upskirt" shot pointed right at Cammy's backside.


In the Rashid blog I mentioned that there were people that were offended that Capcom changed the angle on the shot in the game where R. Mika slaps her butt. Those against the edit said it was censorship, that it was social pressure forcing the team to change their creative vision. So games where women were objectified were okay as long as everyone knew from the get-go this was how they were all supposed to be presented? I mean why stop at R. Mika, why not put Karin Kanzuki in a bikini or Chun-Li in lingerie? Then again the Street Fighter IV and V developers had also been creating costume packs with more revealing costumes for female characters. The limited edition SFV box art in Japan even featured shirtless "sexy" Ryu with Chun-Li in a more skimpier dress. Was this focus on sexualizing the lead characters something that the original developers on Street Fighter, Street Fighter II or Street Fighter III had in mind? Or was this something that the newer developers were doing simply because they had the technology that allowed them to play dress up with the characters? I would be lying if I said this was a problem with Capcom. This was actually an industry-wide problem that Capcom managed to avoid for almost 30 years. The greatest Capcom designs always took the high road, it was the competition that tried to win over players by making female characters into objects of desire. Look at the female leads in Mortal Kombat or Killer Instinct to see what I'm getting at.

Some people would defend the legacy of the studio by saying that the men were sexualized as well; with bare bulging muscles and in the case of Zangief just a pair or tight trunks and not much else. Yet hyper-masculine, big beefy guys were not necessarily something that female audiences found attractive. Did we forget that Shaheen in Tekken was based on the male model Omar Borkan Al Gala? He was not exactly the bodybuilder type and didn't walk around shirtless. He wore suits and a keffiyeh yet still made women all over the world swoon. So what was it that made the Capcom series so controversial in recent years? It could be pinpointed to Street Fighter IV. That was when studio made sure to zoom in on certain body parts using the in-game camera. The developers began to experiment with "jiggle physics" and apply them liberally to female breasts and backsides. By doing this Capcom opened a door that they would never be able to close again.
   

I would like to know if the pandering or in the case of the edits featuring Cammy and R. Mika, the so-called "censorship" were making the game better or worse. I'm talking about the fight mechanics, the gameplay, the balance, the roster. Did sexualizing make the game better or worse, or did it have zero impact on the game itself? This is an issue of perception and some people see no problem and some people are highly offended by any change. Some fans are more passionate about certain aspects of the game and did not take the bigger picture into consideration. As soon as Capcom changed the camera angle for Cammy's intro for example it made a part of the community mad. This portion of the community claimed censorship was ruining a game but they didn't question what would have caused the studio to rethink their approach. Was it a case of social justice warriors out for blood? Or was it a more practical business decision regarding the publisher and the ESRB? The company that put rating labels on the games had some influence on the direction of every game released in the USA.

Capcom was in the business of making money and they wanted to get the best rating possible. I wish we could say that Capcom was in the business of making fans happy but when you are a publicly traded company on the stock exchange happiness does not pay the bills. It's true of Disney, Sony, EA and the other big publishers. The feeling of the gamers did not matter as much as the money they poured into a franchise. Games in every genre can sell more units depending on what rating they receive. The more mature the rating statistically the less money they may make. The rating system itself, including for movies, I always thought was skewed. Violence, guns, blood and guts was not as high a priority as sex. We could have people shooting and killing on screen and receive a teen rating but if you put boobs or a butt on screen then it becomes mature-only. That is sort of the opposite in other countries where nudity is not seen as problem as much as violence is. But I digress. Did the community bother to think that Capcom was pushing the envelope with the ratings board and had to scale things back a little? Did they not consider that the ESRB could punish the game with an unfair rating? Some of the things that changed in Street Fighter V, the camera angles to be specific, had received the loudest complaints. Yet these things happened for only a split second in the game itself. The revealing costumes for R. Mika, Laura, Cammy and the other females did not change. So it seemed kind of like an arbitrary line to draw when it came to what some fans considered censorship. I want to know how much pandering was too much pandering? How much could Capcom show and still get a Teen rating? I tended to write about the inspirations behind a character and it would be impossible to separate culture from these designs. Let's start with women's pro wrestling.


Around the world there were various types of pro wrestling. There were the technical styles, the high-flying styles, the "hard" style where people barely pulled strikes. There were also the violent, hardcore and comedic schools of wrestling as well. In essence there was a style, if not an entire organization dedicated to the the audience. When it came to pro wrestling the more over-the-top a personality was, or the more fantastic the gimmick used was then the more likely they were to be embraced by fans. Of course we all know that the Undertaker from the WWE was not really a dead man or that his "brother" Kane was not a demon in disguise, but we have willing suspension of disbelief. This is what allowed the creative at WWE to sell us a story. It worked in every promotion around the world, no matter how real or absurd it was. Rainbow Mika came from the Japan, she reflected Puro, an abbreviated term for puroresu or pro wrestling. There were other schools including lucharesu, which was more Mexican-influenced lucha libre mixed with hard striking puro. To be precise R. Mika reflected the Joshi school of women's pro wrestling. Joshi was hard-hitting, high-flying, old school female wrestling. In the joshi promotions women had angles or gimmicks just like in the all-male promotions. Rainbow Mika was by design a very flamboyant character. The color of her hair, her high pigtails and the revealing cut of her costume were very far removed from the more conservative wrestlers. He friend and sometimes tag-team partner Yamato Nadeshiko was created more in tune with what Joshi wrestlers sometimes looked like. When you place the two side-by-side you can see how many artistic liberties Capcom took when creating the look of R. Mika.


Rainbow Mika was created as a sort of parody of joshi wrestling. Introduced in Street Fighter Zero / Alpha 3 in 1998, the wrestler was obsessed with becoming the best. Even the promotional material for the game, the Capcom Secret File, was designed as a parody of the popular wrestling magazine Weekly Puro. This meant that the developers actually knew a little bit about what they were trying to lampoon. In between rounds R. Mika would practice her mic skills and challenge all the other Street Fighter legends. Players would see her dragging tractor tires, training under the cruel tutelage of Yoko Harmegeddon (one of the greatest wrestling names I've ever heard) between matches as well. She was as much of a zealot of her own abilities as Dan Hibiki was of his. There was simply no stopping the blonde bomber from achieving her goals, "The superstar of the ring… that's what I wanna be."

Designer Bengus, my favorite Capcom artist hands down, wanted her to be a silly character. She was someone that was even more flamboyant and exaggerated than any other wrestler in the game. A sort of counterpoint to Zangief. The female balance seemed to be a popular theme in SF Zero. Sakura was following in the footsteps of Ryu, while Karin was her "Ken" or friendly rival. Rose was a balance to the Dictator. Of all the female characters in the series Mika was the one working the hardest, the one with the most hustle. By comparison Sakura and Karin were slightly younger and had school and a private life they could fall back on but wrestling was all R. Mika had. If she didn't make it then what would become of her? It was kind of sad when you think about it. Now let's place this character in context. Where did she come from, what did she reflect and how did she fit into the Street Fighter universe?

   

Women's wrestling had long since been relegated to a side-card for the biggest wrestling promotions. Yet this was not to take anything away from the performers themselves. I would say that one of the best barbed wire death matches I ever saw was between two female wrestlers. Women trained just as hard as men, if not harder, in many promotions. They worked hard to build a character, to work an angle and get noticed. They had to do the double duty of trying to get to the top while still young and pretty. The window of opportunity for a female wrestler, just like a Hollywood actress, was very limited. You had to make your money while you were able. The next female lead was already being groomed as a teenager to dethrone the queen. The same didn't usually apply to men. Male stars could work into their late '40's and still earn a fantastic paycheck but you would be hard pressed to find women wrestling at that age. Rainbow Mika was a reflection of that culture, a reflection of society. She was on her way to the top and was doing what she could to get there. If this meant taking on the best male fighters in the Street Fighter tournament then so be it. Whether in sports or film this was a trend that happened in the real world. In Mexico there were wrestlers like Estrelita (Little Star) and in Japan wrestlers like Kana who were a handful that rose to the top. They had each worked nonstop for over a decade just to get noticed. They did not have a problem with showing off skin or wearing sexy costumes because that was what it took in the business to get people to pay attention. Once the audience was weatching it was their wrestling ability that made the fans stay in their seats. Female wrestlers were tremendous athletes. Anyone that doubts this should realize that some of the best female wrestlers had some brutal finishing moves that would be banned in the WWE. The stunning attacks and finishing moves from real life would also be turned into caricature by Bengus.

 

For Mika her butt, rather her "Peach" would be the main weapon. She had a number of chops, slams and elbow strikes but her peach stole the show. She would do flying hip attacks and stomp on her opponents with it. When she did some of her harder attacks, a headbutt or suplex for example she would sometimes fall on the floor and rub her head or backside in plain view of the camera. This was a sight gag that helped keep the presentation of the game a little more lighthearted. The tone of the Alpha / Zero series was much different than either Street Fighter IV or V. For one it was heavily influenced by the Street Fighter II animé movie. As such the characters were bright and colorful, they were also a bit younger than they were in SFII, moreover the animation style was more cartoonish. The proportions of the figures were greatly exaggerated. There was a huge difference in the body types and sizes between Zangief and Dhalsim in SF Zero for example, than there was in SF II. When the characters performed their special moves they were all brightly animated and had a very distinct style to them. There was some humor in the game, it was subtle but also silly, as if this was an animé show-turned-fighter. Things changed in Street Fighter IV when the graphics went from cartoon to realistic.

 

The attempt to interject humor in the moves and characters was awkward because there was so much depth to the the Unreal engine generated 3D models. For Rainbow Mika the peach attacks went from flat to visceral. Her costume was way more revealing in SF V than it was originally and I'm not mentioning how much more cleavage was revealed in this version. The ruffled skirt she wore, almost a tutu, originally did come down slightly over her backside. The cut of her costume was more like a swimsuit than a thong. In Street Fighter V he tutu was gone and Rainbow Mika's costume now had a frilly trim that left little to the imagination. The other thing that the developers discovered was that they could also add jiggle physics to her butt and breasts as well. Just as they did for Cammy, Chun-Li and the other women in IV they began pushing the boundaries for what they could put on screen. It wasn't a question of how the opponents would look like having R. Mika pounce on them, instead it became a question on how far could they stick a face of an opponent up her crotch or backside. Those that claim that the character and her moves didn't change between the games were only telling half the story. The presentation of all the characters went from flat, cartoonish sprites to highly detailed 3D models. There was a big difference between the way the two appeared on screen. Audiences were not necessarily being more sensitive to the characters or moves in Street Fighter V. The audience didn't change, the technology, the development team and their tastes changed the presentation of the character.

 

Again, R. Mika was not created in a vacuum. Her look, her moves came from somewhere. Believe it or not both male and female wrestlers have been using their backside as a weapon in the ring. Andre the Giant, Rikishi and the Great Muta were some of the legends from around the world that let their backsides do the talking. Kana (Asuka in the WWE) was one of the more recent female superstars to use the hip attack. She launched herself with reckless abandon butt-first into opponents. It's one of the harder strikes in her arsenal, no pun intended. She even taunted opponents with it. After flattening them with a hip attack Kana would slap her butt. Capcom couldn't even get this detail right. The hit came first, then the taunt.

Capcom betrayed the original purpose of the character. It was as if the designers stopped paying attention to the martial arts that inspired the cast, and missed the point of costumed female wrestlers as well. Kana was a sexy wrestler but not because she flew ass-first into opponents. She was confident, talented and fought with an assortment of strikes, grapples and submission holds that could even take out male opponents. Even if you didn't watch wrestling look carefully at her costume, or for that matter the costumes of the other top Joshi wrestlers in Japan. They were all flashy and tight. Kana wore multi-colored garter belts that matched her bra. Yet she didn't wear fishnet stockings or nylons with her garter, nor did she really show off her cleavage. Her costume created a sense that she was fighting in lingerie all while covered up. It was the illusion of sexiness without actually giving anything away. Her costume was also functional. She could probably wrestle in lingerie but that clothing wasn't designed to survive a fight. There would be way more wardrobe malfunctions if the joshi wrestlers were not careful about the cut and fabric in their costumes. If the designers at Capcom couldn't be bothered to understand these things, to grasp those concepts then what hope do future female characters have for the series?


Did Street Fighter need a female wrestler? Absolutely! Should the female wrestler have a sexy costume? Possibly! Should her breasts and butt be what was shown in her close-ups? No! It's as simple as that, The developers should spend less time trying out ways to sex up a female character and instead focus on making her a well-rounded fighter that balanced out the game and offered unique moves and abilities that no other character had. Chun-Li was by far the best female, and by any measure the best fighting game character ever designed (not named Gouki). At the same time Chun-Li was also the most modestly dressed female fighter ever created. Stop and think about that for a while. How was it that audiences found Chun-Li attractive when she wore tights and a leotard under her dress? How did taking scissors to Rainbow Mika's costume make the character or the game better? Let me know whether or not you were one of the people that was offended by Capcom's decision to "censor" the butt slap and why.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Middle Eastern fighter, building a legacy, final part.

"Rashid of the Turbulent Wind, remember the name well." That was the promise made in the official character reveal. Was Rashid the great savior of Street Fighter V or was he another half-cooked idea rushed into the game? I mean on the surface level was he that far removed from those Arab characters that came before him? Visually he had a few things in common with characters like Siba and Shaeen, respectively from Virtua Fighter and Tekken. He had the same facial hair, sported the same baggy pants, sash belt, sandals and keffiyeh. He was not off to a great start.



Yet at the same time there was something different about the character. He was not fat and bloated like Avu, Maherl or Karnov. He did not have curly-toed boots or shiny pants. He did not fight with a scimitar. His costume was more unique than the earlier 2D Arab characters. To make him more in tune with his Street Fighter co-stars he was assigned a primary color for his costume. All Street Fighter characters could be identified with a few primary colors. Ken wore red, Chun-Li wore blue, Guile wore green, etc. White was the color that had been associated with Ryu, the main character in the series, since it debuted 30 years ago. Was it risky to assign the new guy the same color or was this a practical decision? Traditional clothing in the Middle East was often white because it reflected the sun and kept people cool. Rashid's costume, like that of Ryu's was supposed to look traditional. And just like Ryu's there was something special about the costume that made it non-traditional at the same time. In the case of Ryu his gi had torn sleeves and ragged pants. A traditional karate practitioner would never allow his uniform to become as worn and faded as Ryu's. They would have instead purchased a new uniform. Ryu lived like a hermit and didn't have much in the sense of material possessions, especially not a second gi. Rashid's costume had a traditional cut at first glance but upon further inspection there were some differences. He didn't wear a thawb, the traditional long robe with long sleeves. He wore pants and his shirt had open armholes. Bare arms were not usually seen in Arab fashion, even mid-length sleeves were seen more often than short sleeves, or no sleeves. This was a practical choice, it provided the fighter a range of motion, it also showed off his muscles which just happened to be interlaced with dark rubber straps. The costume as it turned out was wired with all sorts of hidden technology.

 

This was one of the unique elements of the character. Rashid was using technology to enhance his fighting skills. Specifically his costume was packed with devices that allowed him to project powerful gusts of wind. He wore a power source or generator for these devices like a backpack. His ranged attacks appeared like small tornadoes that he could direct to throw his opponents off balance and more powerful blasts that could knock them down. The suit even allowed him to use super attacks that created enormous vortexes that would suck an opponent high into the air and send them flying. The costume also allowed him to be blasted across the screen for powerful diving kicks or to slip under an opponents attack. These things worked within the context of Street Fighter. Not every character had the martial arts training that allowed them to tap into their "chi" and summon the fireball-like energy blasts. For example the Dictator relied on steroids and science to give him "Psycho" powers to dominate the greatest martial artists. Magic attacks, psychic attacks and metaphysical attacks were all possible in the Street Fighter universe. Rashid was using technology to balance out his opponents special abilities.



Was this reliance on technology something that made the character less interesting? Not really. His special attacks only counted for a small portion of the moves he could perform. Without the technology Rashid was still a good fighter. His punches, kicks and throws were somewhat acrobatic but looked like they carried some force, they looked believable. But you certainly needed to be more than a good fighter if you wanted to hang with the best. Technology could be seen as a cheap device to level the playing field in canon as well as by audiences. Yet technology had also been a part of Street Fighter continuity for a long time. Two characters actually had special attacks that consisted of the weapons they hid in their uniforms. Audiences may remember Crimson Viper from Street Fighter IV, the hit from 2008. The secret agent hid rockets in her boots and struck with electrified punching gloves. Her design and weapons were based on a character called Beatrice that DIMPS, the developers behind Street Fighter IV, had featured in The Rumble Fish 2, a game from 2005. Yet before Beatrice and C. Viper there was another character that used a high tech uniform. Her name was Area and she appeared in Street Fighter EX 3, a game from 2000. The girl was the daughter of a genius inventor and entered the Street Fighter EX tournament in order to test out his devices. She had rocket powered inline skates so she could run over opponents. Her main weapon was a bionic arm attachment which allowed her to trade blows with even the biggest heavy-hitters like Zangief and Darun Mister.

 

When Rashid debuted the thing that caught the attention of most Street Fighter fans was his eyepiece. Rashid was using a green, sunglasses-like, display over one eye. Perhaps it was used to find weakness in opponents or to control his gadgets. Most fans of anime saw this as a shout-out to the scanners worn by the aliens in Dragon Ball Z. The devices could tell bad guys how powerful their opponents were and even point out their weaknesses. Every character had a battle ranking, a power index, and the most powerful in canon could not even be measured by the device. Similar technology had been featured in the Street Fighter II anime movie and Alpha animated film as well.

 

The big question remains, is Rashid a good character design or a bad one? He does break a lot of new ground. He is unlike the 2D or 3D characters that came before him. I would say he was more progressive than even Pullum Purna and Darun Mister from the Street Fighter EX games. Rashid doesn't fight with a scimitar, his costume is not dated to the fantasy stories of Arabia and he doesn't breathe fire, swell into a balloon or summon genies. It's a great start for any Middle Eastern character. He uses technology instead of magic as the source of his special "Turbulent Wind" attacks. While they can sometimes come off as cheesy the moves have to be taken in context. Street Fighter has always featured impossible attacks but the more recent entries have gone out of their way to make these attacks very cartoonish and over-the-top. This is something that the developers of Street Fighter have to be very careful of. Because they are adding a few seconds of intro animations and voices to the moves the audience is now paying even more attention to the intent of the developers. The way in which developers show off the personality of a fighter can be interpreted a number of different ways. What a Japanese developer thinks is funny might be offensive to another culture. Are we supposed to be in awe of a character or are we supposed to think the moves are silly? The way Capcom shows us these things can tell us if the character is supposed to be taken serious or funny.


Even the voice actors that Capcom hires has a lot to say about how they really feel about the different nationalities. Did the studio really think that masked Mexican wrestlers really sounded high-pitched and crazy like El Fuerte? Or in this version, do they really think that Arab characters sound like Rashid? Did they just tell a random voice actor to do their best Middle Eastern impersonation when they recorded him? I believe that Rashid is a very good design, not a great design but certainly one of better ones going all the way back to Street Fighter IV. Rashid seems to have more effort and planning into his look, moves and purpose than many of the other new or returning characters. He is presented in pre-game cinemas as confident rather than arrogant in his abilities. He is a positive reflection of a culture. He could never be mistaken for a joke character like F.A.N.G., Rufus or Hakan. At the same time he was not a parody of a fighting art, like El Fuerte was for lucha libre or R. Mika was to female wrestling. Rashid could have used some more work on his costume, color selection, headdress and overall appearance but what was released was not bad. He may not be what the Arab youth idealize but he came out much better than I could have predicted. What are your thoughts on the character and other Middle Eastern fighters? Is there something the designers at Capcom should work harder on? I'd like to hear all about it.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Middle Eastern Fighter, building a legacy, part 3...

The Middle Eastern fighter had never found his or her groove in the most popular titles. When I heard that there would be one in Street Fighter V I was a bit skeptical. How would this person be presented. Would they also be a fat fire breather with curly-toed shoes? Or would they be something else entirely? I wasn't sure then but I did know that the Arab hadn't really been a major player in the genre. The first 3D fighter from the Middle East that could have been a major star was Siba. The reason I say could-have-been was because he was cut at the last moment from the game Virtua Fighter before it was released in arcades. The character actually appeared in previews for the games circa late 1992 and early 1993, in some test locations and even in early advertising. He was very much a traditional character in that he wore what someone would expect an Arabian fighter to wear from perhaps a century ago. He sported a beard, wore a keffiyeh and brandished a scimitar. The character did not officially debut until Fighter's Megamix in 1996. The Sega Saturn title crossed over characters from Virtua Fighter, Fighting Vipers and other Sega games.


Sega had created the worlds first 3D arcade fighter in 1993 and had beaten Namco to the punch by a year. Both studios learned from Capcom and tried to have a diverse lineup in their games. Virtua Fighter featured characters from around the world, although most systems and characters were Asian. Producer Yu Suzuki was trying to make a game that was more accurate to real fighting than what Street Fighter portrayed. Thus the characters were more or less the same size and build with strikes were based on actual systems. Namco's Tekken on the other hand had a mix of characters and abilities that was a mix of realism and fantasy. As if the studio was looking for a balance between Street Fighter and Virtua Fighter's mechanics. Yet Namco did not feature a Middle Eastern character when Tekken came out in 1994. A fighter from that region would not appear until Tekken 7, in 2015. This figure had very similar design to Siba. Although the characters were separated by 20 years the Japanese designers did not put too much effort into Shaheen.


Although to be more accurate, the look of Shaheen was based on a real person. It wasn't a martial arts expert though, not someone like Palestinian Nizar Taleb or Lebanese Walid Kassas. Nor was it a modern MMA fighter like Jordanian Hashem Arkhagha. The person that inspired Shaheen was a model named Omar Borkan Al Gala. This was a man whose good looks were cause for concern. The rumors were that religious clerics in Saudi Arabia were concerned that he was giving women impure thoughts and he had to be deported to Canada. He was a big draw wherever he went and was even a celebrated model in Japan. There was no doubt that some of the team members at Namco remembered this figure. When it came time to introduce a Middle Eastern fighter into Tekken then they decided he should be based on the popular model. I didn't really have a problem with Shaheen except that he lacked an actual Arab striking art. I was more concerned that in the modern crop of fighting games looks greatly determined how a character would be perceived. If you wanted to state an opinion about a minority you could make them fat and ugly. If you wanted to show favoritism you could make them handsome, or in the case of female character you could sex them up. The concept of beauty was something defined by society. What the west and east saw as attractive differed greatly. I was Mexican and not Middle eastern, not that it mattered because I was brown-skinned and brown-skinned people were always being told what beautiful looked like on TV. Dark skinned people wre rarely seen on TV or in games.


While growing up I was aware how minorities and other cultures were being represented in pop culture. I grew up reading the myths from different nations, watching the films on TV. The Arabian heroes had been presented many times by many different studios. I did pay attention whenever the heroes of a movie had dark skin and dark hair. They were the opposite of the blonde haired, blue-eyed heroes I was told to idolize in comics and cartoons. Mind you I'm a huge fan of Captain America but just a hint of representation went a long way as a kid. The stories from Arabia always seemed to have the largest cast of dark-skinned people. They were always going on the most wonderful adventures. I was always saddened when the minority actors played villains in the films. As I grew older I learned to appreciate their contribution. Anna May Wong was the servant and a spy in the Thief of Bagdad. I was a kid when I saw the silent film on a TV marathon, and couldn't help but notice how beautiful she was. Audiences were supposed to be awe-struck with the Princess that Julanne Johnson played but she had nothing on Anna May. It turned out that Ms. Wong was one of the first major Asian actors in Hollywood. She was someone that never settled for a stereotypical role, never spoke in broken English and instead let Hollywood hang itself with their appropriation films. I was even younger when I saw Caroline Munro in the Golden Voyage of Sinbad. She had the most beautiful bronze skin and dark hair. I'm pretty sure that was the moment when I became a life-long fan of the Sinbad films. I would hear things like blondes Marilyn Monroe, Jennifer Anniston and Calista Flockhart were the most beautiful actresses of their era, yet in my mind they couldn't compare to Caroline or Anna May. Could a non-Western ideal of beauty ever be seen in a game? Could there be a dark-skinned character in a fighting game that transcended sexiness?


Almost 20 years before Shaheen there was another fighter from the Middle East. The pioneering 3D character was actually a female. It turned out that Street Fighter had the first Arab fighter to be featured in an arcade 3D release. To be specific the game was Street Fighter EX, a title from 1996 that was developed by ARIKA and published by Capcom. This game would be the last title created by the majority of the people that worked on the Street Fighter II. The studio wanted to create a cast of new international stars to compliment the original "World Warriors." Pullum Purna (sometimes written as Puruna) was introduced as a contemporary to Chun-Li. The fighter was actually one half of a compliment to Chun-Li, the other was Pullum's friend and the first MMA fighter in the Street Fighter universe, Blair Dame. I had talked about these designs on an earlier blog. Pullum was a strong character that had many things going for her. Representation was as important to audiences then as it was now. Introducing a character from a different nationality always brought risks with it. What fighting style would they represent? How would they look, how would they move, what was their story? Would audiences accept them? Making a new character female was doubly challenging. We would like to think that gaming was diverse but we know there were far more male leads than females, especially in fighting games. When it came to females they were almost all hyper-sexualized figures.

 

Pullum was absolutely modest when compared to Sadira, the Persian fighter introduced in Killer Instinct. The 2013 game by Microsoft Studios was a remake of an arcade fighting classic by Rare. The original title featured a large number of black, Native American and mixed-ethnicity characters. Sadira was a sexy character and an assassin to boot. Her inclusion in this new game was in part to help diversify the cast but also to perpetuate the types of sexy fighters that the west seemed to favor. Her costume and appearance may have been inspired in part by the uniform worn by Altair in Assassin's Creed. She may also have been a counterpoint to the sexy female ninjas in the Mortal Kombat series as well. Women in the Killer Instinct had always been very curvy, fan-service-type characters. Sadira was no different, except for her country of origin made her a standout for this blog.

 

Pullum was a different type of character though. While her costume showed off some skin it was not far removed from the costumes worn by the heroes in legend. It certainly was not more revealing than the costumes of the female leads in Arabian Fight or Arabian Magic. Pullum had a series of unique tumbling kicks and sweeps that hadn't really been used by many characters. She also had a few special takedowns that were a unique mixture of wrestling and MMA. I think the most striking thing of Pullum and her bodyguard Darun Mister was their skin color. They were both presented as dark and proud. In fact the design of Pullum changed slightly as the series progressed. She matured a little and her skin color actually got darker. This was the opposite of what happened to Vanessa Lewis, a black female Vale Tudo striker introduced in Virtua Fighter 4. The 2001 game was met with a lukewarm response from audiences. The graphics got better but the gameplay mechanics lacked the spark of a title like Street Fighter or Tekken, but that's an aside. The next time players saw Vanessa in Virtua Fighter 5 they could see something had definitely changed about her. Many assumed that she was lightened considerably because Japanese audiences did not find dark skin attractive.


The Middle Eastern fighter had become a part of the genre in the '90s but they were relegated to a classic costume. Characters from other nations, Japanese, American and British for example were allowed to wear more contemporary clothing. A good portion of the King of Fighters cast for example wore street clothing. It was as if designers lacked the confidence to say a character was from Egypt, Iran or Persia, unless they also put them in a storybook costume. Japanese developers were not the only ones that were guilty of this. Despite what could be construed as misrepresentation, it was nice to see dark skinned characters in fighting games.


Here is where I have to stop momentarily and talk about the game players that were offended by Capcom removing the shot of R. Mika's butt slap in Street Fighter V. As of this writing there are almost 8,000 signatures on Change.org claiming that Capcom is performing self censorship and that gamers will not buy a game that is censored in any way. Not too far removed is a petition with almost 7,000 signatures as of this writing, saying that Western gamers are in support of Japanese developers and they shouldn't alter their content for Westerners with delicate tastes. The goal in part is to get Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 (a bikini-centric game featuring the DOA girls) released in the USA and to get Capcom to put the butt slap back into Street Fighter V. Where all that outrage was when minority characters were whitewashed by Sega? I mean if game players do not want the producers to alter their vision because of some delicate tastes then why not make it an international rule? Why not tell the Japanese that dark skin is beautiful and belongs in Virtua Fighter? Do these people realize that the Japanese change course on a game, feature or character without ever taking western opinions into consideration? I mean if the Japanese were concerned about what the USA thought do you really think Rufus would have made it into Street Fighter IV? Do you think they ran Hakan past a group of Turkish kids before he was added to the series as well? If the people in favor of the petitions would stop for a moment and just think about how women are depicted in games they might think twice about signing. These things have less to do with censorship as much as they have to do with control. How women are represented in gaming and to a larger context how minorities are represented is a real problem. This has nothing to do with censorship or altering a creative vision. You have to be included in the discussion before you can be silenced. Right now women and minorities do not have a seat at the table.

 

But I digress, Pullum Purna and Darun Mister were a refreshing change of pace for the genre. The fact that ARIKA had chosen two dark skinned characters, from South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula to balance out the cast was very progressive. These characters were never whitewashed. These were not fat and ugly caricatures like Karnov, they were not even stretchy-limbed cartoons like Dhalsim. There was a sense of realism to their designs, no fire breathing special attacks here! Sincerity was something that made the Street Fighter EX cast unique. The designers at Capcom and ARIKA were not making fun of a culture as much as they were celebrating it. The Middle East could produce interesting characters that did not necessarily rely on trope to sell. The question was whether the new Middle Eastern character added to Street Fighter V would be based on stereotypes or not. The next blog will look at this figure.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Middle Eastern fighter, building a legacy, part 2...

Capcom and SNK have been thinking about incorporating Middle Eastern and Indian fighters for some time. The concept art in their design books could point to the number of times they had tried to diversify the lineup in Street Fighter or the King of Fighters series. Yet if you were to look at some of these concept characters you might find them lacking. It was painfully obvious that the artists didn't really know how to represent characters from the Middle East or South Asia without relying on trope. The characters wore baggy pants, sashes and large turbans. It was as if people from this part of the world were still dressing up in ancient costumes. The SNK artists even went so far as to poach the look of Mola Ram, the villain from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, at the leader of a South Asian team. To be fair the formal and ceremonial wear in some parts of the world did stick to classic fashion and had not changed much in centuries. Yet from day-to-day the same people could also be seen in western attire, especially the younger cultures.


There were some Arab characters that did make it past the planning stages and were put into fighting games. The sad part was how stereotypical they were. Avu was one of the first, introduced in Martial Champion. The game featured brawlers from around the world, each representing their particular nation. The title was released in 1993 and poached a lot of ideas from Street Fighter II. Avu was a very typical Arabian hero. He wore the baggy pants, boots and carried a scimitar. It was as if he was one of the characters from the Arabian Nights stories brought to life. The sad part was that he was supposed to represent the modern Middle East. The same exact details were used with the character Sheik Maherl from Visco's 1996 sleeper Breakers. Surprisingly the Breakers title did well enough in the arcade to garner a sequel, Breakers Revenge. I would not have had an issue with either Avu and Maherl if they had been featured in Arabian Fight or Arabian Magic, the games mentioned in the previous blog. Their look and move selection was definitely pulled from a different era.

 

So what was so offensive about the characters aside from the clothes they wore? Well for starters lets take a look at their moves and special abilities. Maherl, like all token Arabian characters, was a master of the mystic arts. Not only could he use his sword in a fight but he could also summon magical creatures. He could call on a djinn that appeared from a puff of smoke to punch at opponents. It was the equivalent of a super fireball attack. Again, context was everything. If this was a move in the games set in mythological Arabia then it would have made sense. But this was a character set in modern times, fighting against martial arts masters and soldiers from the current era. Avu didn't fare much better when it came to stereotypes.

 

Both fighters were presented as wealthy figures, of course we were to assume they were oil barons. Konami made sure to bring in another cultural touchstone from Arab tradition that wouldn't necessarily win Avu any fans in western culture. In the ending of the game Avu was greeted by his beautiful wives. His harem gushed over him and made the other fighters in the game insanely jealous. They escorted Avu to his limousine and rode off. The translation in the English release of the game mentions a singular wife however in the design and Japanese version the three women were each wives. Avu was a Sheik from Saudia Arabia, and that nation actually recognizes polygamy via Sharia law. A man may take up to four wives provided that he treats each of them equally. If Konami was going to take a jab at a culture at least they managed to get this detail right.


What was odd from a design standpoint was how much of a trope the characters had become. Surely the Middle East was not trapped in some sort of time machine. Surely the people and traditions of the Arabian Peninsula were not still locked in the era of Scheherazade. What the Japanese developers were doing was creating a caricature of the region. They had done this before to great success in other fighting games and would continue to do so. It wasn't as if the Japanese were pulling these ideas out of thin air either. The media they consumed continued to feed them images of how men and women of the region dressed. How their politics were organized, what religions they followed, how their families were structured, how their armies were built and how their societies ran had been seen in the news and was especially dramatized in film. When it came to Saudi Arabia the sharp contrast between the modern world and ancient world was best demonstrated in the film Lawrence of Arabia. The movie was based on the military exploits of Thomas Edward Lawrence. It was set in World War I and depicted the events that would ultimately shape the region. There was a great contrast in the violent conflicts depicted in the movie. On one side there were soldiers with tanks and artillery and they would continuously get swept aside by rebels with swords and rifles riding horses and camels. The nomadic tribal system worked well, was still very much alive in the 20th century and would continue to be honored in the 21st century. These were the things that Avu and Maherl were representing.

 

The modern nations of the Middle East were still very culturally isolated. Since they were rich in resources, especially in oil, they held tremendous global influence. If the nations did not want to advance culturally, religiously or socially then they were under no obligation to do so. If they wanted to adhere to traditions that had not changed in a thousand years then they had the liberty to do so. This was cultural relevance, we could judge them and say they were refusing to get with the times. Or they would say that they were defending their culture and traditions from outside influences. Either point of view could be true depending on what you believed in. For example, they stuck with classic fashion and it was accepted as a cultural norm. The thawb for example was a long white garment, it looks like a robe, that had been worn for centuries. It hadn't changed in its design and was still worn by most men when they traveled to a mosque. By contrast fashion in the west changed from moment to moment. A character designer that had to create a modern fighter would have a harder time trying to make a passable western fighter than they would a traditional Asian, South Asian or Arabian fighter. I would like to believe that Avu and Maherl were exaggerations of the region, something more in tune with fantasy characters.

 

Sometimes it was hard to separate fact from fiction when it came to an "exotic" region. The attacks given to the Arabian characters were definitely given to them from myth. Summoning a genie was just one thing they could do. The other was breathing fire. In the previous blog I had mentioned that the fire breather was based on a classic tradition. Yet how many fighters from the Middle East or South Asia could there be that all shared this same gimmick? Four if you count Karnov and Dhalsim as well. Seeing Avu perform an "Arabian Burner" was nothing compared to the more outlandish moves given these fighters. One of the most absurd moves in any fighting game (I mean just as absurd as the worst Street Fighter IV super attacks!) was used by Karnov and Maherl. The two figures could inhale and expand into enormous balloons. Yet since they were filled with air they were almost weightless and would float to the ground. These things again made sense in a different context. If the games were based in ancient Arabia and the fighters were battling mythical creatures then having some magical attacks absolutely worked. But this wasn't a fantasy game, this was set in the here and now. How did the Japanese designers expect audiences to react to these characters? More important what were they doing to the public perception of the Arabian as a fighter? Were they reinforcing a stereotype or was this harmless funny design work? This was also cultural relevance, it depended on your point of view and whether you were Arab or not.

 

If you were a hero pulled from Arabian tradition then you must be big, fat and rich. The trope was not necessarily sugar coated. Karnov for example was an awe-inspiring character, one of the most important designs in the history of gaming. Yet at the same time he was an ugly caricature of a people. His facial features were an amalgamation of Asian, Arabian and Eurasian characteristics. Yet these weren't necessarily meant to be flattering to the character either. He had rolls on his neck, multiple chins, fat lips and a bulbous nose. His eyebrows were absent and his eyes were drawn incredibly tight. To add a bit of grotesque to an already ugly face he had deep scars on his forehead that told a story about his life as a fighter. Between Fighters History and Fighter's History Dynamite, just a couple of years really, Karnov actually became uglier than the artists at Data East had started with.


In his final appearance Karnov was larger, fatter and more scarred up than he had ever been. I'm not sure what caused the developers to push the character in this direction. When he debuted he was not exactly a handsome person. He was bald and he was fat but he was also insanely strong and heroic. In some versions of his story he was called a circus strongman rather than Arabian adventurer. His nationality was never quite defined, in one game he spelled  his name out of fire in Cyrillic rather than Abjad or Arabic. Perhaps he was Russian or Eurasian instead. On the official box art and arcade posters he was presented as having enormous muscles rather than a gut. He was the antithesis of the typical hero. He was not the dashing Prince of Persia or the devilish Sinbad. He was nonetheless a great character and one of the few body positive role models in gaming.

 

What Data East had changed the most for this character was not his appearance as much as his context. Karnov was a perfect fit for the mythical worlds of ancient Arabia. In his original arcade and console game he traveled through many exotic lands and fought all sorts of mythical monsters. At no point was it ever assumed that he was going through the modern era. He was pulled from his original title because Data East was desperate for a hit game. Capcom had become very successful thanks to the release of Street Fighter II. The other publishers could tell as arcade operators ordered more and more Street Fighter II cabinets and less of anything else. Capcom did not create the fighting game genre but they certainly perfected it. Data East, Konami, Sega, SNK and the other publishers began developing fighting games of their own. Many studios copied the formula, controls and characters featured in Street Fighter II. Data East had copied them so closely that Capcom had to take them to court. Capcom lost the case because Fighters History and Street Fighter II were different enough that plagiarism could not be proven. This meant that other studios could also develop fighting games using similar characters and control schemes. Data East needed something to set their game apart. They had a well regarded console and arcade figure in Karnov. Data East had already brought him into modern times as a cameo boss in Bad Dudes. What the designers did next was actually tone down some of his special abilities so that he wouldn't be too overpowered. At the least they had him keep his fire techniques. In this way he could be accepted as a fighter and a boss character for the franchise.

 

The other thing the studio did was change his appearance slightly. Let's face it, the character was always fat and should remain the same. However the final version of Karnov had scars crossing his body, from a life of battles no doubt. He still retained his muscles underneath his fat. The changes to Karnov were influenced not by legend but by professional wrestling. Professional wrestlers had inspired many characters in Capcom fighting games, this went well beyond Zangief and Darun Mister. It made sense too why the Japanese studios relied so heavily on pro wrestlers as a template. If you think about it. Pro wrestlers often had great physiques, they were photogenic and sold themselves well on television. Some were brilliant talkers and really made you believe they were the real deal whenever they cut a promo on TV. Some wrestlers were legit grapplers, boxers, jujitsu or karate experts. They could seriously hurt or kill a person if they wanted. Some of the most memorable wrestlers had a gimmick. Perhaps they were bad guys descended from German royalty, or perhaps they were savage men that came from parts unknown, in many instances those with gimmicks were considered heels or villains. Such was the case for Lawrence Robert Shreve. Or as he was known to his fans, Abdullah the Butcher.

 

Abdullah was actually Canadian but his character was sold as hailing from Sudan. It was a nation in North Africa that was right on the coast opposite the Arabian Peninsula. His costume consisted of the familiar baggy pants, sash and curled-toed boots that accompanied fighters from the Middle East. He also showed up wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional Arab headdress which people sometimes mistakenly call a turban. People would often notice the deep grooves in his forehead. They were the residuals of a life of "blading" or cutting himself open so that he would bleed during a match. He would take chair shots to the head and get busted open so many times that all that was left was scar tissue on most of his forehead. He would sometimes entertain guests by sticking poker chips in his forehead, they wouldn't fall out when he leaned forward. Abdullah lived up to his "butcher" moniker and didn't wrestle as much as he would gouge at his opponents with a fork, nail or sword. The matches he took part in were guaranteed to be a gore-fest. Not every wrestling match was a test of athletic prowess, or a chance to see holds traded between two genuine "shooters." Some of the matches were just ugly brawls featuring foreign objects, barbed wire, thumbtacks and broken glass. These bloody "death matches" helped build the reputation of an opponent and made them all the more fearsome. This was especially true if they could beat Abdullah. I talked about him, Arabian and fat characters on an earlier series about representation. He was just one of the actual people that influenced the development of fighting game and manga characters. The Middle Eastern fighter would evolve as technology did. When fighting games went to 3D some things changed and some things stayed the same. The Street Fighter series seemed to regress in this regard. Some returning characters stayed the same while some characters got a makeover and it was not always pretty.


Dhalsim changed greatly between titles. Gone was his bald head and shaven face. Now he sported a turban and beard. He retained his stretchy limbs and fire-based attacks yet now the studio made all of his animations greatly exaggerated. For his new super strike his belly would blow up to grotesque proportions before he spat out an enormous fireball. It was ugly and a return to the balloon attacks of Karnov and Maherl. These strange inflation gimmicks were never done in any 2D version of Street Fighter. The new development team thought it would be a good idea to go overboard with the animations now that they were in 3D. Not only did they redo his moves they also redid his look for the series. Dhalsim regressed to a design that was much older and more stereotypical of Indians.


The original concept art of the Indian fighter in Street Fighter II was known as the Great Tiger. He wore a turban and had mystical attacks. In an alternate version of the concept art he wore an elephant "Ganesha" mask and fought while standing on one foot. They were some demeaning designs. The creators working on Great Tiger went away from trope and ended up creating a fantastic character. The Sikh's were the religious group that believed hair was sacred. This was why they kept their beards and wrapped their long hair in turbans to begin with. Dhalsim humbled himself and shaved off his hair and wore rags. Most any other game studio would have made an Indian with a beard and a turban but Capcom in the late '80s and early '90s was a different studio. They knew how to challenge public perceptions and create an Indian that defied convention. He stood out among the cast and this was before players could even see his stretchy limbs or fire attacks. Sadly the developers working on Street Fighter V chose to ignore the established look. They thought they could improve on the character. By going back to the old stereotypes they ended up weakening his look. Again, this decision was made on Yoshinori Ono's watch and he should ultimately be held accountable for the direction the series went in. Dhalsim was not the most recent South Asian character added to the lineup. Nor was he the first 3D fighter to represent the region. We will look at these pioneers in the next blog.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Middle Eastern fighter, building a legacy, part 1...

When we look at fighting game characters, both the good or bad designs, we have to take them in context. Most fighting game characters represent more than a fighting art. They often represent a region of the world, and in some cases an entire culture. The majority of fighting game characters are East versus West, but more specifically Japanese versus USA designs. Some of these men and women were inspired by actual people but the majority were created from a number of sources. Films, comics, cartoons and television had done a lot to influence the creation of the biggest names. One region that was rarely discussed, even by me, was the Middle East. It had colored a few of the characters that appeared throughout gaming history. In order to understand the design, influence and even impact of the newer characters added to both Street Fighter and Tekken we have to look at them in context. We will start by going back in time, back to the Golden Age of Islam. Now I do not mean to offend my audience by discussing Islam during this era of heightened security and suspicion. I have talked about Buddhism, Shinto and other spiritual beliefs on my earlier posts regarding fighting game characters and their origins. I hope my readers can extend the same courtesy to the culture I am going to present.

The Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia for the most part, is a bridge of cultures and customs. It was a hub of commerce from North Africa to South Asia, there was tremendous influence in the region to the people, tribes, and traditions of the surrounding areas. From Russia, China and India to Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, there were some connective tissues that united this region of the world thanks to the Middle East. When it came to pop culture there were a few things that people knew of the area. It was rich in oil, had survived countless conflicts from internal and external forces and had remained culturally isolated for a good portion of its history. When it came time to present characters from this part of the world the writer, artists or producer often relied on trope. The majority looked at one specific point of reference The folk tales or ancient Arabia could be found in the book One Thousand and One Nights, sometimes printed as 1001 Arabian Nights. It was a collection of myths from South Asia and the Middle East. There were stories of magicians, monsters, exotic locations, epic battles, great heroes and treacherous villains. Little by little the stories of various cultures, some which were riddles or short poems, would be added to the anthology. The character of Scheherazade would become the storyteller in the series. Just about every myth that people associated with the Middle East, including the tales of Sinbad and Aladdin had come from this book. The stories from 1001 Arabian Nights had the same romantic elements found in many western literature pieces. There were princes and princesses, dragons, magic and all sorts of fantastic elements. Some stories even were precursors to science fiction as they mentioned being able to travel to distant planets and having machines that appeared like robots and androids. It could actually be argued that some western myths were stolen from the Arabic tradition.



One of the earliest pieces of pop culture was an adaptation of Middle East story called the Thief of Bagdad. I have talked about Hollywood white washing characters before and having minorities cast as villains. When I was talking about F.A.N.G. I mentioned that the West created characters far more offensive than anything Capcom could do. When it came to the Middle East you could expect white actors to play the lead roles. It wasn't the white-washing that stuck with audiences as much as it was the stories. The fantasy created in this part of the world was amazing. Flying carpets, shape-changers and winged horses were visualized in film. They were early attempts at special effects and some of the illusions the pioneers created were well done. The hero of the films, Ahmed, would travel to some exotic locations, including active volcanoes and the bottom of the sea. The early effects artists had to figure out how to create the illusion of weightlessness and the early makeup artists had to create passable monsters for film. These characters and settings would be revisited again and again by Hollywood. Even great animated features like Disney's Aladdin and The Thief and the Cobbler had borrowed liberally from the Thief of Bagdad. In doing so the studios were exposing countless generations in the USA as well as around the world to the Arabian myths. What was interesting was how benevolent Islam had been presented in these early pop culture pieces. If you ever get a chance please watch the 1924 version of the Thief of Bagdad. It is a silent film but the mythology is not changed to fit western tastes. Imam, the Holy Man that narrates the story and is seen at the beginning and end of the film quotes the Quran and gives praise to Allah. He appears several more times in the film guiding the hero Ahmed, as played by Douglas Fairbanks (who had attained a level of fame in his era that could be considered the equivalent of George Clooney+Brad Pitt+Johnny Depp). It would be almost impossible to film a movie like this today, especially with a big name white actor playing a Muslim. But that era was far different, and surprisingly very accepting of the tenants the film described. Imam was very warm and humble, almost Christ-like with his generosity and wisdom. He helped set Ahmed on the right path after being tortured and whipped by his royal captors. A warm religious figure, even from a different faith, would have gone over very well in turn of the century America. Sadly those days are gone and may never come again. Needless to say the early movies, whether in color or black and white created a world that fans wanted to dig into.

 

Other stories from the Arabian Nights would be adapted to the big screen. None were more popular or successful than the Sinbad films. Of course the characters were white washed as well but the settings and situations remained based strictly in Arabian fantasy. An effects artist named Ray Harryhausen helped create monsters that the heroes would do battle with. Whether it was a cyclops, medusa, skeleton warrior or kraken the films made the impossible look real. Haryrhausen would painstakingly hand animate tiny models and match them to the actors performances. There was no CGI in the early days of cinema so Harryhausen had to combine props, models and stop-motion animation in order to achieve a desired effect. Many of the sequences he animated withstood the test of time and set the bar for future visual effects artists to meet. Hollywood was doing a fantastic job of bringing the audience into the world of Arabian myth. Many young artists and designers around the world were growing up on these films. As entertainment formats changed some studios looked for ways of incorporating these myths into their own titles.

 

One of the great all-time video games was set in the ancient world . Prince of Persia debuted in 1989 and did a great job of capturing the spirit of mythical Arabia. There was a bad guy, a princess, a hero, some magic, exotic locations and sword fights. The PC game by Broderbund was a hit and eventually found its way on multiple systems, consoles and handhelds. It would receive sequels and reboots but thankfully always retained its location and theme. It was not the first game set in the ancient world and certainly not the last. The Arabian Nights mythology was the basis for several arcade games. The first major title was published by Atari. Arabian was released in 1983, it was actually developed by Sun Electronics. The game featured a digitized score made up of many classical music pieces. Each stage was introduced in the pages of a book, as if you were entering the actual Arabian Nights series. The hero in the game was a tiny figure that wore a turban and fought mythical monsters with his hands and sword. The mechanics of the game were ahead of their time. The prince could jump, crawl and climb throughout the maze-like stages. Most games were having problems figuring out how to do the most basic of controls. The original Mario Bros. was released the same year as Arabian and featured a character that could "only" jump. Granted Mario became a superstar and the prince disappeared into the footnotes of history. To be fair Arabian predicted the gameplay that would become a staple in every adventure title, and especially in the Prince of Persia.

 

The backdrop of ancient Arabia would be used in two rarely seen arcade titles. Taito unveiled Arabian Magic and Sega unveiled Arabian Fight both in the same year, 1992 to be precise. Both games were brawlers, the same format used in classic games like Double Dragon and Final Fight. Players could control one of multiple characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses and have a go at the title alone or with a bunch of friends. Both games featured exotic locations, from sailing ships, to temples and even battles while riding atop flying carpets. Both games also featured multiple types of opponents, including assassins, soldiers and the undead. Both games even featured a magic system that allowed them to create more damage to their opponents than fists or weapons ever could. The magic system in Arabian Magic was much harder to use. Players could unlock a new "spell" only if they defeated the djinn or genie that acted as a boss character. Even if the player had a magic in their inventory they could only use it once. There was none of this three wishes stuff so players had to save their magic for when they truly needed it. In Arabian Fight the characters could perform the magic attacks multiple times and recharge the system as well. Both games were rare in the arcade. Sega was showing off its new System 32 hardware, capable of presenting sprites that were much larger than the competition. Plus these sprites featured more colors and more frames of animation than the game engines used by other studios. The System 32 hardware was also capable of scaling sprites on the fly, displaying transparencies and other graphical effects that were put to use in creating visuals that hadn't been seen in any other arcade title. The Taito game was visually impressive as well. The amount of detail that was crammed into each level was amazing. Unfortunately the game seemed to lack polish. The animation was spotty in places and the control was not as tight as it could have been. Of all the Arabian themed games that had ever come out I think Arabian Magic was aesthetically once of the best. The character designs were superb, the costumes, stages, djinn and opponents were all well done and correct for the history they were representing. Arabian Fight was simply too animé in design and presentation. The characters looked like typical Japanese cartoon characters but dressed in costumes, rather than actual Arab, Indian, African or Asian figures.
 

One of the most interesting video game characters was based on Arabian storytelling traditions. Karnov appeared in his own arcade game in 1987. The title by Data East featured the fire-breathing strongman on an adventure in the ancient world. He fought dozens of mythical creatures, including griffons, gorgons (Medusa), mermaids and other fantastic beasts from Arab, Indian, Assyrian, Greek and Egyptian mythology. In the game players could unlock bombs, ladders, wings and other bonuses that would help Karnov complete his journey. Karnov was physically gifted, in addition to his strength and fire-breathing ability he could also swim like a fish and when equipped with a golden wing backpack he could fly. The developers created many wonderful stages highlighting the diverse gameplay features. The title was difficult in that it did not give you hints as to what type of item had to be used in order to reach the end of the stages. Many items were hidden throughout the levels and players were rewarded by exploring their surroundings. When I think of the design of classic adventure games and even some modern adventure games like God of War I see some traditions that were started in Karnov. Through his adventure the character would end up symbolizing the myth of the Arabian hero. He would be blessed with magical abilities that would be applied to other game characters across multiple genres.

 

The trademark of the character was his fire-breathing attack. He could spit fireballs or breath large clouds of flame. Each time he returned, whether it was a cameo character in Bad Dudes, or as a boss in the Fighter's History fighting series, he retained the ability to breathe fire. These things, these techniques were pulled partially from myth and partially from fact. In classical literature it was Indian and sometimes Arab characters that could breathe fire. These characters would come in handy when having to do battle with supernatural monsters. Yet there were people in the real world that were considered true "fire eaters." Street and circus performers were known for their ability to spit fire, juggle flaming chains, walk on fire and even eat hot coals without injuring themselves. Some of these performances were done by religious and military officials. What game designers did in Japan and the USA was sprinkle some basic understanding of a region and mix it with a liberal dose of fiction. I had talked about Indian characters and yoga as the inspiration for magical fighters on an earlier blog. Karnov may have been the first fire-breathing mystic in a game but it was Dhalsim from Street Fighter that became the most popular.

 

Game developers took the elements that made the Arabian characters memorable in the fantasy stories and began including them in various games. In many instances they were not far removed from the classic hero. Whether they worked in the game or not was subject to debate. In the next blog we will look at how Karnov began a questionable legacy.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Freeblade, the elements of great game design...

The previous blog was my quick review of Freeblade, but today I would like to dissect it and explain why I liked it so much (and possibly why other game players did too!). Full disclosure though; I am a long time fan of the Games Workshop (GW) tabletop games. I've been a fan since the early '80s, which is rare for someone from Southern California instead of England. I've been following the ups and downs of the company and their systems for most of my life. I give credit where credit is due and believe that GW influenced other tabletop systems, and also designs in video games, movies and comics for almost half a century. I've always had a hope that someday the rest of my friends and the video game audience at large would recognize their contribution. I always hoped that a slew of great video games and movies would flow from their IP. After a great learning curve the best video games are starting to come out, and I'm going to talk about those beginning with Freeblade.

 

Freeblade was a perfect example of how to design and execute a video game. Those of you that were wondering what were elements of great game design should be taking notes. The story began right in the middle of the action. The audience was placed on the planet of Tarnis where a young Knight-Apparent, the person who would be controlling the gigantic Imperial Knight robot, was undergoing a ritual called the Becoming. This ritual would unite his mind an body with the machine. The choice of words was very important, technological and military organizations in the Warhammer 40,000 universe very often went through ceremonies with religious origins. Except instead of worshipping the traditional figures of Jesus, Buddha or Allah, those in the future were following the Emperor of Terra and the Machine God. The Emperor of Terra was blessed with amazing strength, intelligence and even psychic powers, he was the person that created the Space Marines and helped take humanity across the cosmos circa the year 30,000. He was very much a Christ-like figure for humans in the far future. The life of the Emperor and his accomplishments were spoken of in reverent terms, and in many instances the vehicles and weapons that were used in the future were regarded as holy relics.This bit of framing was by design going back to the roots of the tabletop gaming system itself. I will be speaking at greater length about this relationship in future blogs.

 

To return to the game however the Knight-Apparent was not simply a pilot in the machine. It was not like he could open a cockpit door and sit in a chair. He was instead becoming one with it, his neural receptors, his biological organs and entire body would be wired directly to the machine. He would be in service to his Emperor until he was completely destroyed. The game didn't waste time explaining how long Tarnis had been around or who the founders were. As the ritual was happening the planet was being besieged by the forces of Chaos. Specifically the followers of Khorne, the blood god, were doing the invading. There were four major Chaos Gods in Warhammer mythology and Khorne was the most violent and bloodthirsty. But again I will talk about the mythology in a future blog. The planet was being invaded undoubtedly for its technology and resources. The forces of evil were sending Chaos Marines, corrupted Space Marines, to the planet surface via Drop Pods. These were weaponized space capsules that allowed troops to be deployed from orbit. These pods landed right on the Imperial headquarters and began all of the action. If you look at the great adventure stories, games and movies you would spot a trend. The best works always started right in the middle of the plot. They did not spend chapters explaining where we were or how we got there, instead we began at the most important moment. Whether it was Star Wars opening with a space battle between the Rebels and the Empire, Harry Potter finding himself aboard the Hogwarts Express, or Kratos throwing himself off of a cliff at the beginning of God of War, the stories that hooked the audience right away were the ones that were remembered. Freeblade had the exact same thing going for it with the invasion. Budding game designers should have noticed that.

 

From a game design standpoint the audience had to be willing to pick up the controls and get into the action. There was no time to get settled in the role of Imperial Knight, this meant that there would be no boring tutorial to play through. The audience took control of the robot right away and had to survive a literal "trial by fire." The Knight would be attacked from all sides. Everything from infantry and assault vehicles to gigantic war machines had come in for the kill. Wave, after wave of enemies bombarded the players. The action did not stop from the time the stage started until it ended. That level of tension was a great motivator. It would help establish the type of experience Pixel Toys was trying to create. The player had to learn how to target opponents and manage their weapons as they made their way through the gothic Imperial streets. It was genius game design and something that worked well in the continuity of Warhammer 40,000. Different games required different levels of engagement and this universe required nonstop attention. In the far future there was only war. Humanity was fighting for survival on every planet and every outpost. There was always a sense of urgency in every story and every supplement that Games Workshop released. Billions of lives, an entire population would live or die depending on the outcome of a single conflict. That premise translated very well into a great tabletop and video game experience. That level of urgency had been used by many great action video games since.

 

In Freeblade the player would try to recapture or defend the streets of Tarnis from the invaders one block at a time. It was a violent conflict that was completely unlike any shooting game that came before it, including the other Warhammer 40,000 games. In most first person or third-person shooting games the player had to constantly move and look for cover. They had to constantly hunt for weapons and ammo. In this game the Imperial Knight was fully loaded and walking in the dead center of the street. There was no cover as it was wide open to attack. But that exposure worked into the game mechanics. The Imperial Knight was like a tornado, tearing up everything in its path. Small arms fire and even small rockets were like pesky insects to the enormous robot. Characters that were over seven feet tall in canon couldn't even reach the knees of the robot. The player had a sense as to what being a 50-foot tall robot was like. It was an absolute rush. Players did not need to run for cover, they did not need to hide from any opponent. Even the largest tanks could not intimidate the Imperial Knight. If anything the opponents were the ones that had to hide because of the ease of which the a player could demolish a battalion.

 

As with any great game or adventure film there had to be a twist added to the story. It would be something that cranked up the tension even more than it already had been. Just as players assumed that the game would be about the Empire versus Chaos, a classic good versus evil plot, it turned out that a different enemy force had also landed on the planet. The brutish Ork's, green skinned monsters with crude weapons, had launched a campaign of their own. Tarnis had become a free-for-all. This was a fantastic plot twist and it happened early in the game. Think about how great books and films also used the exact same device. Star Wars built up to the Emperor, someone with even more power than Darth Vader. Harry Potter built up to Voldemort, someone to be feared more than Severus Snape. God of War built up to Zeus when Ares was assumed to have been the main villain. In Freeblade audiences now had to worry about the tactics and weapons that each type of enemy would use against them. They would have to learn how to react to the differences in technology used by each opponent. Orks for example had weapons that hit hard and fast but weren't necessarily the greatest in the armor department. They might strafe a player from the air or zoom past them on a motorcycle rather than dig in and battle like the Chaos Space Marines. Despite their rough-looking weapons the Orks were engineering savants. They could cobble together a tank or jet fighter with scrap pieces. This meant that they could also build their own giant robot to fight against the Imperial Knight.



Pixel Toys actually created several different Gorkanaut's, or Ork giant robots, for players to do battle with. Like many of the Ork vehicles, these giant robots were rough around the edges. They had layers of armor plating over a blocky frame. It was a good contrast to the Imperial Knight's regal-yet-functional armor. These crude machines were also strapped with enormous cannons, missiles and melee weapons. The Orks would often unleash a Gorkanaut or two from a side building or blind alley. The giant Ork machines would instantly close off the advancement of the Imperial Knight. Not only that they would charge right at the knight and trigger the melee battle mechanic in the game. This completely changed the way that audiences were experiencing the combat and helped break up the long portions where all they did was point and shoot at targets. During the melee fights the player could not use their long rage weapons, instead they used an enormous chainsword (like a chainsaw arm) to cut the enemy in half.

 

This was not the only oversized weapon that the Orks had at their disposal. They were known for developing weapons out of whatever was available on any planet they invaded. Instead of creating battle tanks the Ork's would sometimes commandeer a giant alien reptile, whose hide was as thick as armor, and place a small fort on its back. These giant alien monsters were better known as Gargantuan Squiggoths. They were often larger than the largest Imperial tanks. The Orks captured the Squiggoths on a far off planet and transported them around the cosmos to be used in all-out assaults. When it came to the actual tabletop gaming system the Gargantuan Squiggoth was a centerpiece in an Ork army. The models were huge, detailed and very pricey. If a player could afford one or more they were usually a veteran gamer with a lot of disposable income as well as time. Yet for younger generals there were also smaller Squiggoths, which were still larger than most artillery pieces. Pixel Toys went to great lengths to capture the look and feel of the 40K universe. I would sometimes miss an opponent because I was too busy looking at the details in the background. The Imperial buildings looked as if they came right off a tabletop campaign. There were statues honoring heroes of the Empire, there were towers and bridges that the player could not only see but also demolish. There were energy plants and ammo dumps that were as vibrant as the ones featured in the pages of White Dwarf magazine, the monthly magazine published by Games Workshop. As the player advanced through the streets we could often see Chaos or Ork soldiers holding a position behind sand bags. We could see them run along rooftops and try to set up positions for rocket-launcher attacks. These warriors would unload from their armored personnel carriers, tanks or drop pods and start shooting at the Imperial Knight. These figures were relatively tiny on the screen and could be picked off like bugs.



In many stages the player would be joined by Space Marines from the Dark Angels Chapter. As a crossroads a player would actually see a Rhino transport unload the Space Marines and then watch them start fighting opponents on the ground. Sometimes they would storm a building and try to recapture it. Sometimes they could be seen crossing a bridge, or engaged in a firefight on the rooftops as well. Pixel Toys went to the trouble of programming background details that helped bring this world to life. They were putting in the effort you would expect of a AAA console title but into a mobile device. All of the Space Marines were small on the screen but still possessed and amazing amount of detail. They had proper weapons, proper armor and moved exactly as one would imagine the tabletop miniature figures would if they could. Watching the tiny heroes and villains do battle in the background put the entire game in perspective. The majority of Warhammer 40K games, both the tabletop and video game kind, had been told from the point of view of the Space Marine. The Space Marine represented the ultimate human weapon. Thanks to intense genetic modifications (including getting new organs implanted to their biology!) the Space Marines were over seven-feet tall, incredibly strong and resilient to poisons, the elements and injuries. They had to be superhuman soldiers because of how dangerous the alien menace was. The Orks for example were slightly larger and stockier than the Space Marines. In a tabletop game the two sides looked evenly matched. When the figures were placed next to the human-sized Imperial Guard soldiers the contrast was striking. One would imagine that watching the Orks and Space Marines fight in real-life would be fearsome. Yet in Freeblade both sides looked insignificant. The destructive power of the Imperial Knight was simply too much for any humanoid opponent to withstand. Game designers were always searching for ways to make players feel as powerful as the characters they were controlling, Pixel Toys accomplished that many times over. The biggest contribution the studio made was in immersing the player into the world of Warhammer 40K.



Right after the very first level the player found themselves orbiting Tarnis, aboard the Dark Angels Strike Cruiser: Fist of Caliban. It seemed like a throw-away detail but the menu screen where the player could customize their Knight was all set aboard the ship. In the background the planet Tarnis was slowly rotating, It was the type of eye-candy that science fiction fans longed for. And again, as a long-time fan of Warhammer 40K it was something that I could only imagine what being inside an Imperial Cruiser would have looked like. The studio made sure to convince players that they were in orbit above the home world. As such they could be deployed at any moment to any corner of the planet. While aboard the ship the players learned what their objectives were and watched the story play out. After the initial assault on the planet the gamer discovered that they were the last surviving Imperial Knight from House Drakkus. Lucius Irynblud, the House Sacristan, was the only other surviving member of the initial attack. The Dark Angels, well regarded in the lore of 40K, were the hosts. Brother-Captain Tigraine and Brother-Sergeant Midael would orient the player and give them updates.

 

Story, graphics and control aside there had to be a reason for the player to keep coming back. Fans of 40K didn't need much convincing to return again and again. Most players did enjoy the awesome power of shooting at enemies from a giant robot but that experience would get old quick if it were the same each time they played. To mix things up Pixel Toys had daily objectives for the players to fulfill. To keep audiences engaged the players were rewarded for how well they performed in each stage, what secrets they found and even for how accurate they were. Players could upgrade their weapons with items they recovered. Ore that they brought back to the Fist of Caliban could even be forged into stronger weapons and armor. Players could not only customize and upgrade their weapon selection, they could also change the look and color of their Imperial Knight. Again these were details that one might expect in a AAA console title but the fact that it was in a free-to-play game made it all the more impressive.



Freeblade could be considered the new standard for mobile games. More than that it was an experience that could have, and perhaps someday might find a home on the new consoles. I hope that outside developers and designers would take a serious look at this title. There was much that even veteran designers could learn by studying it. At the very least they could learn the proper way to handle an IP from Games Workshop. For many years fans of tabletop gaming, and the publishers themselves, felt that the video game would kill the market for hobby systems. Yet decades had passed and tabletop gaming as well as board gaming were still very popular. What many publishers failed to recognize was the importance of video games and how they were an extension of the gaming hobby. A well made video game could serve as an introduction to the tabletop gaming systems. Thanks to games like Freeblade, and the exceptional Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine by Relic Entertainment, the traditional tabletop systems were undergoing a renaissance. Advances in technology benefited everyone in this regard. Freeblade was possibly the best example of this introductory experience because it was free and could be played on a mobile device. Games Workshop had found its best gateway title, but they had actually been at work for several years experimenting with the video game formula. Future blogs will look at how the tabletop systems were adapted for the mobile market, I hope to see you back for those.