Thursday, March 31, 2016

Odd Girl Out, a look at alternate female fighting game characters...

Did you know that the King of Fighters franchise is celebrating 25 years? It began with the original Fatal Fury back in 1991 when Geese Howard sponsored the first tournament. Now with the debut of King of Fighter XIV there are 50 playable reasons to celebrate. Yet one was revealed recently that sort of came out of left field. The franchise has had many odd characters, don't get me wrong, but this new character is really pushing the envelope for what works for the franchise. In case you hadn't heard or seen of this character let me introduce you to Sylvie.


Her look is very over-the-top. Oversized bangles, pearls, gloves and the puffiest of vinyl skirts covered in star-shaped pillows. She looks like a cross between a pop idol and a fashion stylist from Harajuku. To be fair a lot of people online have called SNK out on poaching Sylvie's design from pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu specifically the Pon Pon Pon music video from a few years back. I'd be hard pressed to defend SNK on this one.


Companies, ad agencies, producers and other musicians have been poaching elements from street culture for decades. Thanks to how quickly trends spread on the internet the companies or artists that want to be ahead of the curve have to do this more often. They want to keep a sharp eye on what is happening in the West, in Europe and especially in Japan. Harajuku is an area between Shibuya (home of Jet Set Radio's famous GG's) and Shinjuku where youth culture converges to create the fashion trends of tomorrow. This area is so well known that artists have been going to it to be "inspired" for costume ideas, so much so that even western performers have been poaching ideas from it for years. Singer Gwen Stefani has made it no secret that she worships Harajuku girls and created an album, perfume and fashion line around them. Also pop stars like Katy Perry and Avril Lavigne have been swiping ideas from them for videos and concert tours. It can be a little more than insulting when Japanese girls are mainly used as ornaments for Western acts. As if they exist only to be props in a music video or backup dancers on a tour. Sure their culture and fashion are good enough to steal but heaven forbid that a Japanese singer tries to cross over to the West. Suddenly the roads for exposure, for distribution and contracts dry up faster than the California reservoirs. But I digress…


Sylvie has a very strong Harajuku idol look. But if you dig a little bit deeper there is a reason why she is in the KOF lineup. She seems to possess some sort of electrical power that emits from her hands. It may be because of some sort of power source hidden in her costume, sort of like Rashid in Street Fighter V, which would explain why her clothes seems to be made out of vinyl. However she probably generates the power naturally. There are other characters in the universe that can emit fire, ice and other forms of energy from their hands. Of course it isn't enough that she can shoot bolts of lightning but she generates enough power to fly. Which is amazing in and of itself. She can also generate force fields, like electrical cages and throw her opponents around. Sylvie is small and doesn't seem to be very muscular so power moves were probably not going to be her forté. There were other women in the series that were amazingly strong but usually that was due to genetic modification. Sylvie's electrical powers are a good equalizer especially when going up against the power players. As odd as she appears she actually is a good fit for the King of Fighters universe.


With that said not every character design works in every fighting game. Sylvie would be very much out of place in a western-produced game like Killer Instinct or Mortal Kombat. Those games have mature women which are ruthless killers, some are monsters in disguise or even sorceresses. Not to mention that they wear skimpy clothing and are usually designed to be sexually appealing. The design of Sylvie is grounded in reality, well, the reality of youth culture in a very specific part of the world. The reality presented in Mortal Kombat or Killer Instinct is more on the western fantasy, or horror side. When Sylvie debuted it got me wondering where the precedence was set for someone like her to be included in traditional fighting games. Over the past three decades there have been women, both adults and girls in fighting games representing a wide range of styles and different schools of martial arts. There have even been all-female fighting games in different formats created as well. A character like Sylvie however is a female fighter that has no discernible style or technique, an "outsider" character for lack of a better word. Where did those archetypes come from and what did they represent in the genre?

 While there had been women in brawlers, including some of the first female and trans villains in games like Double Dragon and Final Fight, from 1987 and 1989 respectively I want to say that the first "outsider" girl character that stood out was Kurara Hananokoji. The 13-year-old magical girl appeared in the game Power Instinct 2. The game from 1994 was developed by Atlus. It was a sequel to the 1993 arcade original. It was one of the first fighting franchises that was presented with a strong sense of humor. The characters in the title were typical archetypes from other fighting games, a Shaolin Monk, a ninja and a Native American. Then there were geriatric twins Otane and Oume Goketsuji that were excellent fighters and could even shape shift into their younger former selves. I wouldn't say that the game was meant to be a parody of the genre but instead it was as if a silly comic book were turned into a fighting game. One of the stars of the game was Kurara. She had elements from manga and anime shows about magical girls. To make her inspiration more obvious she was voiced by Kotono Mitsuishi the voice actress of Usagi Tsukino, the star of Sailor Moon,


Here is where things get interesting about Kurara. Her designer was Range Murata. He was a popular artist that had worked for Atlus and Psikyo. He was known for his cheesecake paintings so it was interesting to see him develop a bunch of fighting game archetypes that weren't all topless female models. Kurara was a cute design by herself. For years I simply assumed that Range had poached the look of Cardcaptor Sakura from the popular manga and animé series by female artist collective CLAMP. It turned out the opposite was true. The CLAMP book wouldn't debut for another 2 years. In that time Atlus developed two games featuring Kurara. Sure the bangs, magical wand, skirt, boots and puffy hat might be coincidence then again they might not be. Of course Range wouldn't be able to get very far in the franchise unless he did some fan service. In this case he turned Kurara into a cheesecake character as well. In order to avoid doing this to a 13-year-old he created an alternate version of her in the 1995 release of Power Instinct Legends. Since she had magical powers she could turn herself into an adult, this version was called Super Kurara. Her moves and costume changed completely.

 

Her updated look left little to the imagination. Super Kurara's attacks were more physical than magical. From a design standpoint Kurara represented several important elementsthat could be applied to other female archetypes in fighting games. Women and girls could appear in fighting games but their design could be pooled into one of two camps. There were female characters that were practitioners of a traditional fighting art; karate, judo, kung-fu, capoeira, ninjitsu, etc. They dressed conservatively and were mostly serious figures. Then there were female characters where style didn't matter as much as sex appeal, a revealing costume was one way of helping spot these fighters. Kurara, at least the original version, created a third camp of female characters. These were female fighters that didn't fit the mold. They were not dressed in any traditional costume, not even a school sailor uniform. They were in essence the outsider characters, to make a Street Fighter comparison she represented a female equivalent to Blanka, Dhalsim or Skullomania. Except that women in pop culture were rarely seen as beast men, stretchy yoga masters or costumed weirdoes.

 

Although to be fair the genre had tried to replace the beast man concept with the wild girl / Amazonian archetype. I don't mean the traditional Greek amazon either but rather someone from the Amazon jungle. Cham Cham from Samurai Showdown II an SNK title from 1994 was one such character. Covered in animal skins she slashed at opponents with her gloved paws. Then there was an adult version that was a similar character, Rila Estansia from Breakers, a Visco title from 1996. She didn't wear a costume with built-in claws but instead sharpened her actual fingernails and toenails into claws. She was very much the Blanka equivalent from a rival studio. These female characters reflected a part of that outsider category of designs. They weren't the only ones, not by far. In the middle of the '90s almost every major developer had released a fighting game. They were all experimenting with female characters in the various franchise and offshoots. Another comic book artist came in and introduced a female that would again fall outside of the sexy or traditional archetypes. Masahiko Nakahira created a rival for Street Fighter Zero / Alpha's Sakura. He introduced Karin Kanzuki in the pages of Sakura Ganbaru!, a spin-off of the Street Fighter Zero manga he had also created. The fan reaction to the character was great and Capcom put her in Street Fighter Alpha 3 in 1998.

Karin represented another break from tradition. She did not wear revealing costumes, her design was very reserved. She was presented as refined and elegant young lady but retained a strength and ferocity that intimidated all of her male counterparts. There had been petit and dainty moe-type characters in fighting games but Karin was not one of them. This was a princess that enjoyed fighting. This archetype would be revisited by Capcom as well as by rival studios. Depending on how extreme the designer wanted to go with the idea the character could go from gym clothes under a school uniform (which also applied to Sakura!) all the way to the frilliest Gothic Lolita dress. The power and techniques of a kung-fu master remained with these girls despite their frilly costuming.


Just look at the chronology of characters that were the fighting princesses. In early 2003 Capcom created Ingrid, who was planned for the 3D Capcom Fighting All-Stars. That title was cancelled but Ingrid returned in 2D form for Capcom Fighting Evolution a year later. In 2005 the world was introduced to Emilie de Rochefort or Lili for short. She debuted in Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection. The Namco character was coquettish and enjoyed torturing her friends as much as her rivals. On the extreme end of the princess design was Ninon Beart. The character appeared in the 2006 SNK title King of Fighters: Maximum Impact 2. Unlike the previous three Ninon had average physical attacks but extremely powerful psychic attacks. Of these types of characters the gaming audience, especially in Japan seemed to enjoy Karin and Lili most. Yet when Tekken producer, Katsuhiro Harada wanted to introduce another outsider female character into the franchise he was met with a harsh response online, at least from the West.

 

In 2015 Mr. Harada unveiled a Japanese trope character, an energetic genki-girl named Lucky Chloe. This character wore a silly cat costume and seemed absolutely spastic about fighting. The Japanese seemed to be "in" on the joke and didn't seem to mind her inclusion into the franchise. After all there had been cyborgs, demons, dinosaurs and even kangaroos all accepted as canon fighters. Yet for some reason some people in the US had an absolute fit that the game would include her. Harada had no intention of pulling the character simply because some people didn't get the joke. He shot back sarcastically online saying that he would essentially put a musclebound skinhead in the series, possibly with a gun, because that's all that the US was interested in. Lucky Chloe did not appear out of thin air. Her design had been building for some time. She was a definite outsider character even if audiences got it or not.

 

To be more precise, Harada was calling out some questionable designs from his contemporaries. Almost a decade earlier the SNK producer Falcoon had created a new girl character for the 3D version of the King of Fighters series. In 2004 Maximum Impact debuted and with it came a girl with psychic powers known as Mignon Beart. She was the big sister of Ninon. Anyhow every character in the game had an alternate costume that was much more than the typical pallet swap. These alternate costumes were instead completely new skins on the models that either showed off more of their personality or had been featured in classic KOF games. Mignon's alternate was a cat costume, complete with tail and ears. It made little to no sense but it made it into the game and became part of KOF canon. Years later Harada was taking a jab at these silly characters and put his own over-the-top fangirl into the franchise. Unfortunately not everyone got the joke.

When Sylvie was unveiled for King of Fighters XIV I thought back to what the reaction was for Chloe. Instead of saying WTF or promising that I would never buy another SNK product I thought there was better use for the blog. Why not ask where did this character come from and why was she in the series? I began thinking about Chloe, then Mignon and then started working backwards from there until I hit Kurara. I realized these were the odd characters that never fit the bill. Again, like Dhalsim, Blanka and Skullomania, they would never be the stars of the game but they had every right to be in the franchise. They reflected something far from the norm and that was what made them so unique. For female characters there was not much leeway, you were the sexy one or the one in the traditional uniform. Or now you were Sylvie or Lucky Chloe or Karin or Kurara. The road to this unique design wasn't all magic and princesses, it also included the self-made female fighters.


In 1998 Sega released a sequel to the game Fighting Vipers. The title was a sort of teen version of Virtua Fighter. The control and combo system was a little easier to pick up than VF. The cast was made up of mostly teenagers in armor representing some sort of youth culture, such as rock music, skateboarding, inline skating or bmx. In Fighting Vipers 2 there was a talented computer programmer named Emi that wore unique power armor in the tournament. Emi wore her school gym clothes, armored boots, power gloves and then on her back was a robotic teddy bear that doubled as a jet pack. Other fighters wore armor made out of safety gear and even motorcycle parts. While Emi gets the credit for doing the fighting it was her grandfather, a robotics expert that put together her gadgets. When the grandfather was kidnapped Emi put together the elements of her costume so that she could rescue him.


Would you believe that a month later Capcom published a game that had pretty much the same character? Well this one was a French girl in pigtails named Area. Her costume was made up of robotic parts as well. A mechanized arm that granted her strength, defense and a rocket punch and jet-powered roller skates that allowed her to zip across the screen. With this armor she was able to enter the Street Fighter EX 2 tournament. Her father was the robotics expert and he knew his daughter had her heart set on fighting. and there was nothing he could say to convince her otherwise. He wanted to make sure she would stay safe so he set her up with the gadgets that made up for her lack of raw strength and technique. She had smarts of her own and eagle-eyed players could see that she had over-sized molecule bangles holding her pigtails in place. They weren't as big or as glaring as the eyeball bangles worn by Sylvie but they told a story about the character. Through the course of history there were other female fighters that didn't quite fit the mold.

 

Women were sometimes presented as spiritual creatures in fighting games, perhaps demon or even angel. This allowed the designers to assign all sorts of amazing powers and abilities to these characters. These mystical creatures could be used to balance out the most powerful boss-type characters in canon. This was the case for the Angel in the Tekken series. She was a counter to "Devil" form of Kazuya Mishima. Kazuya was born with a "Devil gene" which allowed him to turn into a monster when enraged. While Kazuya had a long history of performing evil deeds, including trying to kill his own father, the Angel believed there was still a shred of good left in him. She appeared in the series to fight the Devil from time to time and try to redeem Kazuya. In 2015, with the release of Tekken 7 a mystery had finally been explained. Kazumi Mishima was presented as the mother of Kazuya and it was revealed that she was the one that had passed along the gene. She had tremendous power that she had to keep in check or else she would turn into a monster as well. She was murdered by her own husband, Heihachi Mishima many years earlier. He tried to kill Kazuya too when he suspected he might be carrying the gene as well. Her spirit returned in physical form to avenge her death.

 

The demon masquerading as a human female was a myth explored in various Japanese folk legends. Some of these legends were the basis of fighting game characters, especially for a franchise like Samurai Shodown / Spirits. The series by SNK created a number of heroes based on real word sword masters and kept them in feudal-era Japan. There was a lot of mythology pulled into the franchise which made it all the more unique. In 1994 SNK released Samurai Shodown II, the original title was a smash hit and there was a lot riding on the sequel. The main villain in this game was a character named Mizuki Rashojin. Mizuki dressed in a red and white costume, it mirrored the robes worn by "miku" or Shinto Priestess. She looked like a plain character until she began using her powers, then players understood why she was also referred to as the Marauding Deity. She fought with a gohei, a wand used by Shinto priests for blessings, the wand was decorated with shide, the zig zag paper streamers seen on many temples. What was unique was that her gohei was more dangerous than the swords used by the main cast. If players dodged one attack they had to contend with her elongated fingers and dagger-length nails. In ancient Japan she was a priestess for an evil demon called Ambrosia. She hated humanity with a passion. She was born during a famine a thousand years before the events in the original Samurai Spirits. She was cast into the sea by her parents and left to die. She survived thanks to the intervention of Ambrosia. She washed up on shore and was adopted by a new family. Because of her supernatural intuition it was decided she should become a priestess, unfortunately for villagers she was serving a spiteful demon. Mizuki looked like a normal person but she was several centuries old, her evil spirit jumped from body to body. She would sometimes hibernate for centuries at a time and rebuild her powers.


Not every spirit in the Samurai Spirits franchise was malevolent. The forest tribes watched out for the forest spirits and lived in harmony with nature. The girls Nakoruru and Rimururu were protectors of the tribes and nature helped them by sending a giant falcon and wolf to fight alongside them. At least one natural spirit from Japanese mythology was turned into a playable character. Iroha appeared in Samurai Shodown VI. The 2005 title from SNK continued to expand on the universe and put in a unique character. On the surface she looked like a "sexy maid." She did of course happen to debut at the peak of maid mania in Japan. Where everyone was going to a maid cafe and there were comics and cartoons about maids seemingly everywhere. Yet there was much more to this character. The maid costume, a simple black and white motif also reflected the colors of the crane. Iroha was actually a crane-turned-human. The myth was better known as tsuru no ongaeshi the crane returns a favor. In the stories a crane was rescued, usually from a trap or removing the arrow from a hunter. The crane gets released but then returns as a beautiful young girl that acts as a servant to return the favor. The stories were often melancholy but they helped establish a tradition of animals turning into people and vice-versa. This form of animism was seen in cultures all over the world.


Iroha had perfect balance and fought on one leg, her stance was very crane like. In the game she used two oversized knives but could also throw white feathers like darts. One of her special moves had her take an opponent behind a screen door where she disrobed and beat them up, the silhouette turned into a crane for just a split second. She was actually a servant in the game that was fighting to try and cure the illness of her master. It turned out that he was lonely and when she returned to him he was once again healthy and happy. Another animal spirit-turned-human from Asian myth was not as kindly as Iroha. In the Chinese developed Xuan Dou Zhi Wang / King of Combat game there was a female fighter named Ameth. Like Iroha she appeared like the typical sexy character with some oddly powerful attacks.

 

Ameth aka the Purple Pupil was a 998-year-old shape changer that was actually a fox. The divine or demonic fox creature appeared in many Asian mythologies. In Chinese stories Huli Jing was a divine fox mischievous but also ill-tempered. In Japanese tradition Kitsune was also a divine fox but with nine tails. The fox mask of Kitsune had been used on female ninja characters in manga, animé and video games for decades. In Korea there was Kumiho, possibly the creepiest of all the fox legends. She was an evil spirit that seduced and killed men. The version featured in the Tencent produced game from 2011 was was on the evil side. Ameth had actually been feeding on souls of powerful people for hundreds of years and was trying to achieve immortality. In order to guarantee that she would live forever she had to achieve a certain amount of power before she turned 1000. She learned about the King of Combat tournament and entered it to steal the souls of the other powerful competitors. I wouldn't say that Ameth or Iroha were typical of the other outsider that I had been talking about. The focus on their design was in making them the token sexy girls for each franchise. I will say that their origins, their powers were decidedly non-traditional and that was why they earned a spot on this presentation. I hope you enjoyed this brief post on female fighting game designs. Be sure to tell us who your favorite outsider female character was from any title. Until next time take care!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, a pre-rumble...



Over the next few weeks I'm going to be looking at one of my favorite all-time genres, the Brawler. This was originally a series that I ran on 1UP but I decided to revisit it and update a few entries. Now note that I call the genre the "Brawler." Other people and game sites call the genre "Beat-em Ups." But those people often call fighting games beat-em ups as well. I would contend that the fighting game and the brawler are actually two completely different genres. A fighting game is traditionally a one-vs-one game. Whether it's two martial arts masters, or a robot versus a demon or two dinosaurs going head-to-head, there is always one player versus another (sometimes a PC opponent instead). That is by my definition a fighting game. There are usually a few things that most fighting games have in common. There is a scoring system, a way to track health and often a time clock or ring out rule as well. Again the fight is usually one on one. There is the rare exception where the original Fatal Fury actually allowed two versus one battles and it would still be considered a fighting game. For the most part however a fighting game is one vs one. A Brawling game however is one or more versus many. The Brawling game usually revolves around unarmed combat. In some cases a character may pick up a bat, knife or gun along the way but a weapon usually does not last after a few uses. The difference between a Brawler and an action game, such as the Capcom arcade classics Black Tiger or Strider, is that a Brawling game allows two or more people to fight against waves of opponents. In at least one arcade game there was even a chance for six teammates fight against the bad guys or a single bad guy. This game would still be considered a Brawler. There are other genres that are cousins of the Brawler, the Run-and-Gun, also called the Action Shooter features characters that fought with guns and modern weapons instead of bare hands. Also the Hack-and-Slash game is a brawler featuring classic swords and melee weapons instead of bare hands. In terms of popularity the Brawler had a quick climb to the top, in fact of all of the games I will be talking about the majority happened within a few years, from 1990-1993. Then they all slowly faded away. The brawler was eclipsed by the rise of fighting games. The genre never completely faded away but instead it slowly evolved. It would find waves of popularity in countries with developing PC markets like Korea and China. The core mechanics of the brawler would even become adapted into other genres. I will highlight many games and try to point out some things that made each game unique.

 

The Brawler, just like every other genre, came from somewhere. The early generation of arcade hits were inspired, if not outright stolen, from comics and movies. These games would then become adapted to the home consoles as a sort of faded copy of a familiar idea. Star Wars, Star Trek, various anime shows, manga and comic books all had a hand in shaping the history of game designs. The developers on the first batch of action titles often looked at action movies for inspiration. There was a lot of crossover to influences for the early action games, fighting games and brawlers. The action movie star was often a kung-fu expert. After all if you are going to have a story where one person can take out an army of opponents then they better know how to fight. There was no bigger star on the planet than Bruce Lee, at least this was the case back in the '70s. The young developers in Japan and the United States would have been greatly influenced by the man and his movies while growing up. When they started working on the first wave of action arcade games, almost a decade later, then there was usually one person they all looked to. It didn't matter how the artists colored or animated the early sprite heroes, there was something very familiar about the way they appeared...



The presence of Lee actually worked in favor of these early games. We had an actor and martial artist that dressed in very clean and easy to read costumes in his films. The shirtless hero with dark pants would pop up on various character designs. When the early arcade and console systems had limited memory to work with then simple two-color costumes were perfect designs. Of course Lee's signature yellow jumpsuit with black stripe from the film the Game of Death would become iconic as well. The costumes that Lee wore, his haircut, stance and moves would influence character designs for the next few generations. From some of the earliest 2D fighting game characters to some of the first 3D fighting game characters, even the Flash-based fighting games and hybrid 2.5D fighters all had a Bruce Lee clone. Some of these were subtle nods to the actor but the majority stole his likeness.

 

Lee moved with a quickness that had never been seen before. He punched and kicked so fast that it was a blur on screen. These would be elements that would become adapted in the early brawlers. Resources were very limited on the arcade machines at the time, especially memory. Perhaps a character had two frames of animation between a punch and kick. This would have seemed impossible on a bulky character but a skinny fighter like Lee actually did strike that fast. Even the trademark yell of Lee, his facial quirks and mannerisms would be reproduced on many characters in fighting games and brawlers. The godfather of the brawler, the one that I believe started it all was Kung-Fu Master by Irem. It was released in 1984, a pivotal year for arcade games. The title was a subtle nod to Lee's final film, the Game of Death. Players had to climb a tower filled with various fighters, and it got progressively more difficult the higher you went. The main character "Thomas" was searching for his girlfriend "Sylvia." Of course the names were changed from the original title, Spartan X. What didn't need translating was the lighting-quick strikes and familiar yell of the hero.



The US didn't really have a connection to martial arts cinema in the '60s or '70s. The action movies that the USA enjoyed right through the '80s had a different type of violence, one which was rooted on guns and revenge. The anti-hero was a popular subject in many of the movies. As it turned out the settings were a character all to themselves. The fictional version of New York in the John Carpenter film Escape from New York lit the imagination of the Japanese studios. Cities in western-themed games had to be big, dirty and overcrowded. The walls had to be covered in graffiti and colorful gangs patrolled every corner. Japanese studios began creating impressions of these cities, based on cult films like Death Wish and Streets of Fire for the earliest and often most successful brawling franchises. Double Dragon and Final Fight were two of the biggest sellers and they introduced audiences to a modern "western" metropolis overrun with gangs.



The setup for most of the games was simple. A person of interest was usually kidnapped, often a girlfriend, a finacee and at least in one case it was the President of the United States. Seeing as how the Japanese were shamelessly pandering to Western audiences they would drop names like pop singer Madonna and Ronnie, the nickname of President Ronald Reagan, into their games. If the brawler could be compared to a film genre then it would be the cult action film. Not quite a summer blockbuster yet not lowbrow enough to be a "grindhouse" picture (with the exception of Splatterhouse that is). The Brawler was nothing short of mindless action, it was like the perfect summer movie for eating popcorn, drinking soda and turning off your brain for an hour. After all, the payoff after saving President Ronnie was getting hamburgers. It was hardly Oscar-caliber material the Japanese were interpreting.



Of course for most of these movies audiences would wonder why the cops didn't stop the bad guys. There was usually two reasons for this. The cops were either too afraid of the gangs or they were being paid off not to do their job. The gangs often had leaders and these were not the typical thug. They were instead rich crime bosses living in the lap of luxury. Sometimes they were politicians or even heads of corporations. Players figuratively and literally fought their way to the top in many of the games. As dirty subways gave way to abandoned amusement parks and crowded alleyways the player would find themselves fighting in nicer and nicer neighborhoods. Eventually they would end up in the suite or penthouse of a millionaire. It turned out that the person that was pulling the strings was often the richest person in the city. They could have had it all but instead messed with the wrong people. The punishment for kidnapping or putting a city at war was often a long drop for the bad guy.



There were many other plots to explore, many more heroes to become and many more villains to throw through windows. The brawler was and continues to be a fun genre. I hope there are a few games mentioned in this series that rekindles some memories. Perhaps I'll highlight a few that you may not have played and give you a reason to track them down. Whatever the case I hope you stick around and as always share a comment.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Who will be the last fighting master left standing?

Have you ever wondered who would be the last fighting game character left standing if they all went at it battle royal style? Or maybe it would be better in tournament style because that's what they are used to. I'm talking about just the human characters going at it. Robots, demons, mutants and giant dinosaurs would not be invited to this fight. There have been many heated debates and some great fan match ups online. So far there has not been any consensus. I'd like to think that one fighting game actually answered the question 20 years ago. For once I'm not talking about a title from Capcom, SNK or Namco. A little known developer called Sunsoft came out with a game in 1995 that featured a cameo too great to be ignored. Their game was called Galaxy Fight: Universal warriors. It was set in the far future and featured human and humanoid aliens fighting for good, evil or various other reasons against a powerful alien called Felden.


The game had great graphics for the time. The characters were detailed and colorful. The game engine used sprite scaling to zoom in or out of the fighters depending on how close they got to each other. The studio went on to create a few more fighting games that were related to each other. Waku Waku 7 came out in 1996 and the team broke up shortly after and joined up with independent developer SANTACLAUS in 1998 for Astra Super Stars. The fighting games that the team created were very light hearted. They didn't take themselves too seriously and every subsequent fighting game they published was more cartoonish than the last. Galaxy Fight was the one that was the most earnest but even then it was a little bit silly. Sunsoft wasn't afraid at taking a jab at the designs and tropes used by other studios. The two humans in the lineup were a futuristic ninja named Kazuma and fighter named Rolf the "Hero of the Galaxy." Audiences noted that the two leads looked very much like Ginzu the ninja and title character from Captain Commando, a brawling game developed and published by Capcom in 1991.


Sure in Japan there were hundreds of shows, cartoons and comics featuring ninjas and characters in power armor but these two looked too much like the Capcom stars to be more than a coincidence. The game revolved around fighters in the future, they had access to modern technology like Rolf's flame thrower, and of course the unexplained powers from various alien species. The real surprise in the game was a hidden character named Rouwe. This character was only accessible after not losing any round and playing a near perfect game. Rouwe represented the "old school" fighting game hero. He was way over 100-years-old and yet there was something eerily familiar about the character. The way he moved, the way he fought and the way he looked that reminded audiences of someone else. Or to be fair this character reminded audiences of the stars of two of the earliest fighting game franchises. He was either Ryu from Street Fighter or Ryo from the Art of Fighting.


The name Rouwe was nebulous on purpose. Perhaps this character was indeed an elderly Ryu or Ryo and the name was a typo. Sunsoft left enough clues in the game so that the character could be interpreted as either star. All of the trademark fighting moves were present from both stars.


There was a variation of Ryo's one-handed fireball, the Ko'ou Ken.


The famous hurricane kick of Ryu also made an appearance, this time however Rouwe also used it to throw a nasty backhand at opponents as well. Who said you couldn't improve on the moves?


Rouwe had a powerful double punch that looked very similar to the pose for the hadoken fireball.


Of course both Ryu and Ryo had a tremendous uppercut. The one that Rouwe used looked closer to Ryu's version. Sunsoft wanted to make it obvious that there was one archetype that would always be the king of the hill. It didn't matter how many fighting games had been developed or would ever be developed. You couldn't really improve upon perfection.


Age may have zapped the size and strength of Rouwe but his technique was flawless. He could hold his own against humans 1/5 his age and of course against various alien champions. It turned out that he was such a powerful master that even his own punching bag had grown sentient.


Rouwe decided to teach this bag how to fight as well. This character was named Bonus-Kun and would turn up in the other Sunsoft fighting games. The designers at Sunsoft were certainly on to something. They knew enough to discolor the gi from years of living in isolation on an alien planet. There was not much left of his uniform in fact, the pants were now shorts from decades of kicking and the vest was threadbare. The look of the character was eerily similar to Gouken, the master of Ken and Ryu. Here's the clincher, the Bengus concept art of Gouken wouldn't be published until after Galaxy Fight had debuted. Was this a case of art imitating game or a coincidence? I'll let you decide.


So do you agree with Sunsoft's prediction? In a hundred years will Ryu or Ryo be the only fighting masters left standing? I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Trading masks, the Griffon versus the Dinosaur...

If you are following this blog then you are a fan of fighting games and hopefully a fan of lucha libre. Well Street Fighter V did get a couple of wrestlers to return which was good. The Mexico representatives were missing, so far, but there are more characters to be added in the next few months and years.Word is that SNK has a few wrestlers returning as well. A few weeks back there was a leaked image that shows allegedly the final roster of King of Fighter XIV. Which is supposed to be 50 characters in total. People are skeptical because the screenshot seems to be from a Windows laptop. So it just might be a doctored photo with fan-favorite characters. It the screenshot holds up however there may be a dedicated Mexico team. So what does that mean to fans of lucha libre in fighting games? Well it's a mixed bag. The three characters announced are all Mexico natives. Angel, Ramon and a new character called the King of Dinosaurs.


Angel was a genetically modified fighter that did have some pro wrestling moves as well as some muay thai strikes.She was insanely strong and was one of the fan favorite characters from previous games. Ramon had some high flying wrestling moves as well. His design, featuring blonde hair and an eyepatch, was actually inspired by real Mexican wrestlers such as Shocker and Pirata Morgan. The third member of the Mexico team was somebody new. He wore a mask, but not a traditional lucha libre mask. Instead it was a full-on t-rex mask and tail that covered his shoulders and waist. When he was revealed a lot of people noted that he looked eerily familiar. There was a character named Tizoc aka Griffon Mask in Garou Mark of the Wolves, another game from SNK that takes place in the King of Fighters continuity. This character was a huge wrestler that wore an oversized mask as well.


Many assumed that the King of Dinosaurs was the return of Tizoc. They could be right. In Mexico it is not uncommon to have a masked wrestler lose his mask in a match, disappear for a while and turn up in a new promotion with a new mask and a new gimmick. This new guy with the reptile head has the same build and size of Tizoc. He also has familiar grapples and special moves. His trademark "Big Fall Griffon," a spinning suplex drop, is actually seen in the reveal video for the King of Dinosaurs. I want to find out if he abandoned the original character, or if he lost the mask in a match or if this is some sort of twin brother.


Do you think the design for Tizoc or King of Dinosaurs was better? Is this a character you'd think about playing as? What do you think of the KOF XIV reveal so far? Are there and characters you look forward to playing as or against? Are there any characters you wish were in the series? What about the direction of the franchise, do you think SNK is playing it safe by not evolving the characters much?  I'd like to hear your thoughts on the game.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Building a gaming legacy, the Games Workshop series, part 11...

A few blogs back I mentioned that Adeptus Titanicus, the system created by Games Workshop to introduce Titan warfare to the public was a response to the wildly popular Battletech system by FASA. It wasn't the first time nor would it be the last time that Games Workshop had to cater to the trends in tabletop gaming. Another system that Games Workshop studied was among the oldest car combat systems around. In 1980 Steve Jackson Games released a system called Car Wars. It was set in a dystopian future where vehicular combat was the norm. People specialized in combat, offered their services as patrol officers, mercenaries, transports and assassins. Car combat had become so popular that it was even organized at the professional level and turned into a sport. Steve Jackson was a well regarded developer of many gaming systems. He and his team would create games on a variety of topics. They would develop clean and simple rules and release the games in hobby stores.

 

The genius of the Steve Jackson Games was in the designs themselves. Steve was a master of clean design and trusted his audience to fill in the details with their imagination. The majority of his games and components could be printed on paper or cardstock. This kept the prices low and allowed him to sell bundles of games and expansions in small plastic sleeves, no bigger than a deck of playing cards. The audience only needed some dice and a pencil to handle the combat and management system of the games. Car Wars and the reviewed version known as Autoduel would be no different from his other systems. Players could use small tokens to represent their cars or even model some Micro Machines for the job and keep them in the case. Each expansion that Steve developed helped flesh out the world of Car Wars. There were scenarios that could be explored, including the ever popular escort missions. New vehicle types would be added, new weapon rules would be created and there was a solid sense of balance between the heavily armored trucks and the small motorcycles. Best of all Steve would continue to support the system in the pages of Autoduel Quarterly. The small magazine introduced more scenarios, weapon types and vehicles. On the back page there were templates for roads, hazards and obstacles. These could be photocopied and cut out to keep the game fresh. The Steve Jackson Games were among the first to permit some of the content to be copied and distributed. We take it for granted these days thanks to public licenses and internet distribution but this was a revolutionary concept back in the '80s. Since every company was struggling to make a profit it didn't make sense to give away some of your best ideas. That was what made Steve Jackson such a respectable developer and helped spread his games through the community.



I enjoyed Car Wars for the world that Jackson had created. It was not as bleak as the world of Mad Max or The Road Warrior, the 1979 film and its 1981 successor. The George Miller films were the basis for just about all modern car combat franchises. Instead Car Wars had a sense of futurism. Cars were computer piloted, had engines that ran on diesel, gas, rocket fuel, batteries or hybrid technology. GPS navigation, camera systems and self-healing tires were standard. His team predicted everything that DARPA, Tesla, Google and the other auto manufacturers would dream up 30 years later. The art that was featured in the pages of Autoduel Quarterly were heavily influenced on manga designs. The vehicles were not quite mecha and not quite hot rod cartoon but something in between. There was no doubt that Car Wars set a standard that would be copied by the video game industry.

 

In 1985 Origin Systems released an Autoduel PC game. It was a top-down perspective game that predicted the format that would be used by the original Grand Theft Auto. However it was the vehicle combat games that followed in the '90s that owed a bit more to Steve Jackson than Mad Max. In 1995 the Playstation debuted and solid 3D games on the home consoles were a possibility. SingleTrac released Twisted Metal, it set a new standard for violence and depravity. It had a dark sense of humor too that appealed to the Gen X gamers. That same year Reflections Interactive (which would develop the Driver series) released Destruction Derby. It had impressive vehicle physics and models for the time. A few years later Activision released Interstate '76 and Stainless Games released Carmageddon. Whether the world was retro or futuristic, there was something for every fan of the genre. Cars, guns, crashes and violence was an industry all to itself. The themes explored in each of the titles had been featured in Car Wars many years prior.

 

Games Workshop had been following the trends and thought that they could create a superior vehicle combat game. In 1988 they came out with Dark Future: The game of highway warriors. Like the other self-contained games from GW they made sure to include rules, templates and hobby pieces that would help create an unlimited amount of scenarios. It was one of the rare entries from the publisher that was not connected to the Warhammer Fantasy or Warhammer 40,000 timelines. Games Workshop had been paying attention to the elements that made Car Wars work and scaled up the experience. The vehicles and roads in Dark Future were larger than Car Wars, about 1/64 scale or roughly Hot Wheels-sized. The game included rules for certain vehicle types and weapons but where it really set itself apart from any other game was the emphasis on gangs and gang warfare. These were the sorts of collaborative experiences that Games Workshop would revisit in Necromunda.



The developer went all in with the system and began supporting it in unique ways. Novels on the Warhammer Fantasy and 40K universes were sporadically released however Dark Future had an entire library of books published shortly after its release. It was as if Games Workshop were trying to catch up to the adventures printed in the pages of Autoduel Quarterly. Fans of the various systems had always wanted to see more stories, comics and graphic novels featuring their favorite characters. Games Workshop did honor the various IP in their magazines and even comic book runs but for some reason Dark Future got a very hard push when it was released. I was certainly surprised with the coverage, hobby tips and articles on all things Dark Future in the pages of White Dwarf magazine.

 

Players were encouraged to develop their own gangs and vehicles for use with the system. In White Dwarf we could see various Hot Wheels and Matchbox toy cars being used as the basis for some amazing conversions. There were police officers, armored corporate goons and rebel alliances featured throughout the various articles. The pages of White Dwarf dedicated to the hobby elements were known as 'eavy Metal. This was of course because miniatures had been cast in lead for years and years. Thankfully when Games Workshop started to go after a more mainstream audience the studio began to focus on plastics. For the more dedicated hobbyists the studio switched to pewter and resin miniatures. The cars in Dark Future were mostly plastic with a few motorcycles being published in plastic.

 

Dark Future did get a sizable following and the system stayed in circulation for a few years. However the popularity of Car Wars remained. At independent game conventions you could still find hobbyists organizing Car Wars tournaments. The best part about the system was how scalable it was. Just because the original system was designed to fit in your pocket it didn't mean that it couldn't work in a larger scale. Hobbyists would build elaborate models for their games and invite new as well as veteran players to see why the system was still fun after 30 years.



Dark Future was eventually scrapped, along with the other great GW systems like Man 'O War, Battlefleet Gothic and Necromunda. Yet Car Wars remains in publication. You can even find it in the board game section of your local Target!. Steve Jackson Games still offers the original version, now known as Car Wars Classic and a newer version designed for the CCG audience known as Car Wars the Card Game.

 

Just like the other games I have been mentioning over these past few weeks, it turned out that Games Workshop was breathing new life into classic systems. It was announced that Dark Future would receive a video game as well. Dark Future: Blood Red States was announced at the end of 2015. It was being developed by Auroch Digital and the details on the game remained hazy. Hopefully there would be enough of the classic system in the new game so that players could see why it was so popular in the late '80s.

 

There was a system that Games Workshop developed in the '80s that stayed red hot for more than a decade. Of all the self-contained experiences there was one game which was possibly the most popular and filled with the most potential for a video game adaptation. It was none of the games that I have mentioned so far but it was connected to a part of the established universe of Games Workshop. We'll take a look at this game and the legacy it created on the next blog. Until then I hope you are interested in checking out some classic systems or mobile versions of these great games.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Building a gaming legacy, the Games Workshop series, part 10...

Games Workshop had some unique games in their library and sometimes you have to wonder just how much life do the worlds that they create have? We know that every other day is a battle for survival on an impossible scale in the "Old World" of Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Hundreds of thousands of warriors laying down their lives in wars that would make the Lord of the Rings battles seem sub-par. But away from the enormous land and sea battle systems that GW created the audience sometimes wondered what else made the Old World so interesting? What if players could spend more time developing a character, as with the classic Dungeons & Dragons system. What if they could take this character to a special place in the Old World and seek fame or fortune with their friends. What if they could play both sides of equation and forge alliances with villains. Where in the Warhammer world did a place like that exist? The answer was Mordheim, it was known as the City of the Damned.



Like the other boxed sets that I have been highlighting on this blog Mordheim was another self-contained experience. Yet this one was unique for the scale that it presented. Instead of recreating enormous battles in the Old World, this was instead focused on recreating one very unlucky city and the warriors or thieves that would try to find their fortune within. Mordheim was an old city and had its share of chaos, ork and other monster incursions. It was the site of a meteor strike that left most of the town destroyed but also scattered pieces of eerie green crystals known as Warpstone throughout. Warpstone could create monsters if left exposed and this was one of the chief resources of the industrious Skaven. The Skaven were a race of rat-men that burrowed under most of the cities in the Old World and even had countless battles in the mountains by burrowing into the kingdom of the dwarfs.

Mordheim was a fascinating place. Those brave or foolish enough to remain all had their reasons. Corrupt politicians, secret prisons, back room deals, warring clans, weapon smugglers, assassins everything went down in Mordheim. Gamers could return again and again to the town and never visit the same scenario twice. The beautiful cardstock tiles printed by Games Workshop could be used to make all sorts of adventures come to life. Those with more modeling practice could create any section of the town and craft a story to go with it. The game had expansion packs and new miniatures released for it and then it faded away.



Focus had been doing a bang-up job adapting the GW titles for the console and PC and in 2015 they brought the world of Mordheim back to audiences. It was as rich and vivid as it had ever been when circulating in the hobby stores. Long gone were the days of measuring rulers and dice. Players could now see magic and combat at work in real time thanks to some highly detailed models. As wonderful a system as Mordheim was there was a precursor to it.

In the far future of Warhammer 40,000 there were of course battles on an infinite number of planets but did you ever wonder what sorts of battles were being fought in the human inhabited planets? The ones that were supposedly "safe" from the touch of Chaos or the intrusion of aliens? There were countless planets like these, they created weapons of war, were rich for filling the ranks of Imperial Guard and various other roles for the Imperium. Yet what about those living on the outskirts? The criminals and power-grabbers in the dark sectors of space were at war too. Except these people were at war over resources and control of the Hive cities. The densely populated cities built one on top of the other for thousands of years. Imagine an industrial version of the favelas of Brazil.



Necromunda was another great system by Games Workshop that told the stories of these Hive cities and the various gangs that fought for turf. The studio created rules which helped bring elevated combat into the universe of 40K. The studio also developed a series of plastic and cardstock terrain pieces that could be assembled and laid out in an infinite number of ways.

Just as with Mordheim the players were told to spend some time here. Get settled in this world and get their hands dirty. This dystopian world was impossible to navigate single-handedly. Audiences had to assume the role of an entire gang in order to really make it out alive. As with the early GW systems they were also encouraged to create their own gangs and build their own legacy.




Hobbyists went crazy with the idea of customizing their own worlds, gangs and objectives for Necromunda. It was and remains one of the high-points for Games Workshop storytelling. Very few systems that begin life in a box ever find there is room to grow outside. Necromunda was one of those games that truly became something unique when audiences made it their own. Sadly of all the classic systems that I've mentioned over the past few weeks this was the only one that hadn't gotten a PC remake, or at least an announced remake. Perhaps Focus or another publisher was waiting for the right time to announce that the gang wars were about to explode again. Games Workshop was in a league of its own when it came to creating entertainment out of dystopian society. One of their hottest systems also embraced the D-I-Y mentality of Necromunda. But like Adeptus Titanicus it was also a response to another company and another hot system. We will take a look at this game in the next blog.