Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The legend of Blue Mary, or girls in fighting games, part 1...

Competition is good for health, good for business and good for the arts as well. Competition helps create an incentive to work harder, to work smarter and in some cases to offer something new and unique. In the fighting game universe there have been many okay games but only a few truly exceptional games. The greatest games caused the other studios to take notice. Those that worked hard and took a chance on a new idea were sometimes rewarded for their hard work. Competition created rivalries between some of the biggest publishers. Some of the rivalries were friendly and some were filled with tension. The worst of the rivalries were celebrated with legal battles. For the most part there were a few studios that could be considered on par with each other. Capcom and SNK had the 2D fighting game arena on lockdown while Namco and Sega were the two studios constantly pushing the envelope in 3D. Some of the design choices by one studio team would be ridiculed by another. Yet sometimes a good idea would be copied and refined by a rival studio. There was a fine line between parody and poaching. Capcom and SNK had a history of trading jabs with their earliest games. Street Fighter II was the undisputed king of fighting games when it debuted in 1991, however when SNK released the Art of Fighting (AoF) in 1992 Capcom thought that the main characters looked and fought very similar to Ken and Ryu. The star of the game, Ryo, even sounded too close to Ryu for comfort.


The masters of Kyokugenryu "Extreme Utmost Limit Way" Karate had very similar moves to both Ken and Ryu, including a leaping kick, rising uppercut and fireball attack. Arcade audiences saw these as the SNK version of the hurricane kick, dragon punch and fireball. Even the button and joystick moves required to perform these attacks were very similar to the control scheme created by Capcom. The artists and programmers working on the Street Fighter II updates didn't take too kindly to the AoF. When they were working on updated character art they made sure to let fans and SNK know exactly what they thought of their new fighters. Sagat was presented holding the head of a defeated opponent. Players could see blood, a dislocated elbow and a costume that was eerily similar to Ryo's but with the black hair and ponytail of Robert. The shots were fired but it didn't end there. A few years later they decided to make good on their comparison and created a sprite of the same character that would be featured in Sagat's opening animation. This defeated figure would become to be known as Gou Hibiki. Sagat was now going through the Street Fighter universe fighting all the karate masters so that he could gain an edge against Ryu. He killed Gou in the fight and that started a new round of shots aimed at SNK.


When Capcom was creating the intro animation for Sagat they had a bigger goal in mind. They were going to introduce an entirely new karate fighter into the universe. Someone who was an amalgamation of the two AoF stars. The result was Dan Hibiki, a square-jawed, long-haired karateka that appeared in Street Fighter Zero / Alpha in 1995. He wore pink because the color was somewhere in between Ryu's white and Ken's red gi. At first audiences didn't know what to make of him. In the original arcade release he could only be unlocked if you knew a secret code. This was rare for a Capcom fighting game, and especially for a Street Fighter title. The studio tended to shy away from time-release characters or secret characters for fear of upsetting the balance they had worked so hard to achieve. In the end it worked in favor of this new character. Dan was hopelessly underpowered when compared to the other fighters and this was all on purpose. His one-handed fireball didn't travel very far across the screen. Nor did his leaping triple kick or uppercut strike. It was obvious that Capcom was telling the team at SNK exactly what they thought of Kyokugenryu practitioners and their moves. Serious competitive players tended to stay away from Dan while the rest of the community chose him because of his unique move set.


Dan was not the only character that Capcom was calling out. Sakura, who would become the most popular new character, was designed to be a girl version of Ryu. Yet even this character was not completely original. In the original Art of Fighting both Ryo Sakazaki and Robert Garcia were after Mr. Big and Mr. Karate because the young Yuri Sakazaki had been kidnapped. In the end she revealed that Mr. Karate was Takuma Sakazaki, the father of Ryo and herself. In 1994 SNK released a sequel which now made Yuri a playable character. The little sister had her own variation of the Kyokugenryu moves, they were not as strong as the men's attacks but were much faster. She even had her own unique look. Rather than wearing a traditional gi, she wore the top but mixed it with more contemporary leggings and sneakers. The design of her and her brother remained fairly consistent over the next 20 years. The sprites evolved, the aesthetics between games changed as new art directors were brought on board but very little changed between the siblings.


Street Fighter Zero / Alpha had gotten off to a great start but it felt lacking. Capcom revised it, added some familiar faces from Final Fight, the original Street Fighter and Street Fighter II. The newest face, Sakura, was the breakout star. She debuted in Street Fighter Zero 2 in 1996. Long-time fighting game fans saw the inclusion of Dan and Sakura a sort of jab at Ryo and Yuri. After all, if Capcom was going to call out their rival in a game why not go for broke? Yet there was a certain charm to the pair that was undeniable. They were far more than parody characters, they were far more than clones of SNK fighters or derivative Street Fighters. They were instead a blend of different influences that worked within Street Fighter continuity. Dan was the overly dramatic rival to Sagat, like a movie character he was driven by an intense feeling to avenge the death of his father. Dan was someone who was so outclassed he didn't even realize it. He also idolized his father and his fighting form "Saikyo-ryu" aka the "Strongest Style" even though it didn't stand up to the other forms in canon. Sakura on the other hand did not hail from a martial arts family. Her parents were regular people and little brother enjoyed playing video games more than anything. Her stage was even set in her own backyard instead of some fancy building , which reinforced that idea that she came from a regular household She was driven by a desire to achieve greatness and patterned her life after Ryu, her hero. She came a long way despite a lack of formal training and Dan decided to insert himself into her training routine even if she was technically a greater fighter. The inclusion of these two added some dimension and humor to a sometimes overly-serious plot. It didn't take long for the new characters to be embraced by the community. Fans all around the world drew art and used cosplay to let Capcom know how much they enjoyed these faces.


SNK should be remembered for their many, many, many contributions to the fighting genre. They are sometimes overlooked for how they changed the roles of female characters in fighters. Mai Shiranui from Fatal Fury / King of Fighters fame was arguably the most famous female character designed by the studio. She was the busty ninja that left little to the imagination. In the pantheon of female stars was was second only to Chun-Li in international fame. Yet Mai was far from being the only notable character created by the studio. King, who also debuted in the original Art of Fighting way back in 1992 was important for being the first androgynous character. Modeled loosely on the martial artist and action film star Cynthia Rothrock the blond striker was a force to be reckoned with. King would become more feminine in every subsequent game but in her original appearance players assumed that she was a effeminate young man. They thought that anyhow until her jacket top was torn, revealing that she had taped down her breasts to be a bouncer. Yuri was neither the sexy archetype, nor was she the tomboy but instead something in-between. She was a girl trying to be more than a girl version of her brother. She was trying to find her own voice and fit into the series.


Sometimes Yuri would be a little too enthusiastic, a little too vocal of her superior techniques. The team at Capcom picked up on these cues and instead of assigning them to Sakura they placed the mannerisms on Dan, which made him all the more comedic. Audiences could appreciate what the developers were going for with Yuri. She was the young upstart, eager to show the world what she was made of. Maybe she got herself into hot water but the other females in the series were often there to help out just as much as the male stars. Players could tell that when Yuri matured she would become a force of nature. The designers at SNK had a unique approach to the genre and the lessons they learned from their male cast would help color their female counterparts. We'll explore one of these characters in the next blog. I hope to see you back for that.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Before Antonov there was Asimov, a take on the King of Fighters XIV host.

A question I get asked all the time is "Noe, what do you think of the new boss of the King of Fighters Tournament? Is he a good design? Where did he come from?" Well actually nobody talks to me. I never get asked that question, not once. Also the new boss character, recently revealed on YouTube courtesy of SNK Playmore and Atlus is not the actual final boss of the game but rather the host of the tournament. The cigar-chomping muscular man with a hefty KOF champion belt goes by the name of Antonov. He is a Russian billionaire who looks to be middle-aged yet in extreme physical condition. He has supposedly purchased the rights to the KOF Tournament. I can only suppose he bought the rights from Geese Howard or Rugal Bernstein or Magaki, or whomever had the previous rights. Anyhow, this new character has declared himself the "First Champion." Of course whether that means he was a former KOF champ that retired and decided to give it one more go or is claiming to be the new champ for a new generation has yet to be revealed. But I digress. The origins behind the character design are easier to understand.

I believe that Antonov was heavily influenced by Sylvester Asimov. The wickedly powerful Russian character with the unique hair style, beard and cigar. He debuted in the manga, later turned animé Terra Formars. The series was written by Yu Sasuga and illustrated by Kenichi Tachibana. It debuted on January 2011 in Miracle Jump, and was later picked up by Weekly Young Jump. Asimov is a strong fighter that has been genetically modified. On top of superhuman strength and endurance he has the ability to regenerate lost limbs. This is especially important on distant planets where his soldiers have to sometimes perform hand-to-hand combat against powerful aliens. Asimov actually works out heavily and supplements his modifications with drugs via his cigar which is more like a vape machine. I have a strong suspicion that his features, the sharp facial hair, overall physique, national origin and cigar-chomping look of Asimov was the basis for Antonov. What do you think? If we turn the way-back machine on and connect the dots we can actually find some precedence for Antonov and Asimov. Specifically where did the middle-aged-champion strongman came from and how he got into fighting games.

The early generation of fighting game heroes were based on real-world figures. They may have been wrestlers, karate practitioners or mythical kung-fu fighters. In some instances they were also inspired by fictional characters in movies and comics. One of the comic book artists that influenced the early fighting game icons was Tetsuo Hara. His landmark title, Hokuto No Ken / Fist of the North Star (HNK) debuted in 1983. Hara, along with writer Buronson created a world where masters of fictional fighting arts fought on a colossal scale. The lead character, Kenshiro, was a post-apocalyptic martial arts hero. The techniques he used were far more fantastic than any move in real life. He and some of his opponents could kill people with a single touch, slice arms and legs off of people with their fingertips and decimate small armies using their bare hands. When two or more of these masters fought against each other it was a site to behold. The comics would build up for a showdown over several issues and then have some of the most violent, and bloody, exchanges in any comic series. The heroes and villains of the comic would use all sorts of amazing super attacks against each other in order prevail. The designers behind Street Fighter and Fatal Fury were inspired by HNK and other martial arts manga. The games they created captured just a fraction of the energy and violence from the comics. They didn't necessarily steal characters from a comic or movie in order to get the job done. Yet at the same time it didn't hurt the developers to poach some characters when they started running low on ideas.


The middle-aged strongman archetype of Asimov and Antonov could be traced back to some of the recurring characters in HNK. Most of the fighters in the series were adults, as opposed to the young teenage fighters in more modern fighting manga. Some of the important figures, including the main villain Raoh and his pacifist brother Toki were even middle-aged. Toki was a master of Big Dipper fighting school and possibly the one most naturally inclined to its secrets. The character was a pacifist however and didn't really figure into the heart of the series until 1985. Toki was designed as a post-apocalyptic Christ-like character. With his beard, long hair and headband he was supposed to invoke a comparison to Jesus. Of course this would be a "swole," world-champion bodybuilder Jesus and not the lean Jesus featured in most paintings and statues. Toki was a healer, considered a miracle worker wherever he went. He fought only as the last resort. While his adoptive and blood brothers could kill people with a single punch, their opponents died in agony. Toki could also kill with a single touch but his enemies experienced a pain free bliss as they died. His particular form of fighting was known as JuNo Ken aka the Gentle Fist. The super-powerful yet older fighter template was unique to Mr. Hara. In other comics there were often elderly martial arts masters that were thin and frail but that wasn't really seen in the older characters in HNK. Instead his characters just got bigger and stronger. Mr. Hara had himself been influenced by television and movie characters. Kenshiro was based in part on Bruce Lee. His mannerisms and even trademark yell made it into the comic and anime series. His larger, stronger, more muscular characters, were inspired by professional wrestlers.


Tetsuo Hara was a huge fan of pro wrestling. Through the late '60s and '70s he watched the best in Japan and the US compete. He learned many things from modern pro wrestling. A wrestler did not necessarily have to know actual moves and holds in order to be liked or even be remembered by fans. The people that talked a good game on the mic or had an impressive physique were the ones that went over well. If a wrestler were a stiff on the microphone they often had a manager that did all the talking. Television turned these people into celebrities. The cornerstone of the top physical specimen could be traced back to "Superstar" Billy Graham. He was a bodybuilder-turned-wrestler that used to work out with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He created the template that would be copied by Jessie "The Body" Ventura, Hulk Hogan and "Big Poppa Pump"Scott Steiner. Graham was not exactly a young man when he peaked in popularity. His physique took years to develop and at the height of his career he was wrestling people much younger than him. Not that it mattered, fans couldn't get enough of the Superstar. In addition to his chiseled body he wore bright costumes and really stood out on television. His tan, blonde hair and sharp sideburns gave him a distinct look. Elements of his style would be found on other wrestlers that followed. It would trickle down to the characters created by Tetsuo Hara and by extension the fighting games that followed. Toki had a lot of the counter-culture, free spirit, massive bodybuilder look that Graham was famous for. Almost a decade after HNK debuted Capcom asked Hara to design the characters for a wrestling game called Muscle Bomber / Saturday Night Slam Masters. It didn't take Mr. Hara long to design the champion, a non-playable character known as Victor Ortega. Like Toki this new character was a surrogate to Graham. The middle-aged bodybuilder that still had some gas in the tank.

Victor Ortega would be revised and become bigger and stronger in the follow-up. Super Muscle Bomber / Ring of Destruction: Saturday Night Slam Masters II debuted in 1994. The character had retired as the first undefeated champion from the Capcom Wrestling Association (CWA). When he ran out of worthy opponents he simply disappeared. He was lured out of retirement with the promise of new challengers from the CWA as well as the rival promotion the Blood Wrestling Association (BWA). Ortega was massive to the point of being grotesque. Despite his age he was the most muscular character in the Street Fighter universe. He even made Zangief look small. It was a unique aesthetic that Mr. Hara had created. Just because a character got older there was no reason they could not become more powerful. After 1994 the frail retired master was a dated concept for fighting games. Ortega would challenge convention, show up with his belt and clean house. It was up to SNK to make audiences believe that Antonov was cut from the same cloth. Could he take on characters half his age that were well established and still make for a believable champion?


I am eager to see what sorts of moves Antonov is assigned. Will he be a striker, a brawler, a grappler or have nothing but power moves? Will he be a playable character when KOF XIV comes out? We should hopefully find out these answers soon. What do you think of Antonov's design? Would you consider playing as a character that was a little older than the main cast?

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Street Writer Podcast, Episode 5

Every time I release a new Podcast I will release the text version for my hearing-impaired friends. I don't want them to miss anything that I cover. Also you are welcome to leave comments and questions for this podcast as well as future podcasts on this blog.

Welcome back to the Street Writer Podcast, I'm your host Noe and we are talking about the greatest rivals in fighting game history. Today we look at one of the most fearsome and tragic figures in the genre. Hanzo Hayashi was an assassin that operated for the Shirai Ryu clan. He he had a wife but more important he had a fearsome reputation. He was known only as Scorpion to those that wanted to hire his services. There was another clan known as the Lin Kuei where Hanzo had a rival named Sub-Zero. The two knew of each other but never formally crossed paths. In ancient times a a sorcerer named Quan Chi hired both Scorpion and Sub-Zero to find a map hidden in the Himalayas. The reason he hired the two was to ensure that at least one of them could complete the mission. Quan Chi was trying to grow his magical powers and achieve immortality, the map was a key piece of the puzzle. Neither Scorpion nor Sub-Zero knew that their clan had been hired. Both followed their own leads and made their way through the Himalayas. Eventually the two crossed paths. You can imagine the amazing battle the two had. Both were excellent martial artists but Sub-Zero had the advantage. His tribe was descended from Cryomancers, these were sorcerers from another dimension known as the Outworld. In the Outworld sorcery rather than science reigned supreme. It was a barbaric place, filled with horrible monsters where only the most powerful warriors and magic users could thrive. There were connections between various dimensions and the Outworld, one of which lead to Earth. Several of the priests and monks from the Outworld had a hand in creating secretive martial arts schools in our world. Sub-Zero could freeze the air, ground and even opponents. He could also throw projectiles like frozen blades. Scorpion was limited by his traditional weaponry. Sub-Zero won the fight and decapitated his opponent. He later returned with the Lin Kuei clan and wiped out the Shirai Ryu, including Scorpion's wife. As the soul of Scorpion descended into the Netherrealm, the Outworld equivalent of Hell. He was offered a chance to return to Earth as a demon, but with little to no recollection of his previous life. He took this opportunity for revenge and became the fighting undead.

Sub-Zero had actually crossed paths with Scorpion while in the Netherrealm. He was sent by Raiden, the Thunder God, to retrieve an amulet from Quan Chi. Sub-Zero fought Scorpion in the hellish world and won a second time. He managed to escape the Netherrealm while Scorpion was down. Scorpion would not get his revenge until the end of the first Mortal Kombat tournament. The two did not fight in the actual tournament but after it had concluded. Scorpion with his newly formed demonic powers was more than a match for Sub-Zero. Scorpion could now summon roped daggers from his palm and throw them at his opponents. The trademark yell of "Got over here!" was born. He also gained the ability to teleport behind his opponent and beat them with a flurry of strikes. Behind his mask he was a skull set ablaze, on top of all his new powers he could also breathe fire. With these new attacks he killed Sub-Zero. As soon as his mission was complete he burst into flames and returned to the Netherrealm. He would be bound to wander that place for all time. It was a hollow victory because while he had avenged his wife and clan he would never be able to join them in the afterlife. This was some amazing storytelling and more important, it was the first memorable rivalry created by a Western-produced fighting game.

For the first few years of the '90s every arcade, corner liquor store and laundromat seemed to have a fighting game. The genre had blown wide open thanks to the success of Street Fighter II, Fatal Fury and the early pioneers. Audiences knew that the Japanese absolutely ruled the fighting game genre. No other developer could touch the nation when it came to graphics, control and gameplay. That perception changed very quickly in 1992 when US studio Midway released Mortal Kombat. This game looked and played unlike any other. First of all the graphics revolved around enormous sprites that were much larger and more detailed than the sprites used in other fighting games. The reason for this was because Midway was trying out some new technology for speeding up the game creation process. They would videotape and photograph actors in costumes. The artists would then create sprites out of these frames of data. This process was much faster than having to redraw sprites by hand. The studio could also focus resources more on control and gameplay because the graphics were taken care of. Midway did not really have much experience with fighting games but they did not simply want to poach the Capcom mechanics and risk a lawsuit. They used four main buttons for the attacks and a block button for defense. Data East would come along later and release Fighter's History which used Capcom's more familiar six-button layout. Capcom would take Data East to court but lose the case, opening the doors for other studios to copy the same control scheme as Street Fighter. But I digress... Midway managed to publish a fighting game that was fairly well balanced, offered some unique gameplay mechanics and introduced a bunch of new and hidden features. They did this in record time, just as the genre was taking off. Part of the success was thanks to their graphics process cutting down on development time. Updates to fix bugs could even get out to arcades faster than any other publisher. This was important because when the game came out it lacked the polish and ease of use of Street Fighter II but a few upgrades later it was suddenly very easy to get into.

Midway was sitting on a gold mine and at the heart of it were some violent characters. Players went crazy trying to figure out all of the Fatalities. Word spread quickly through the arcades when a new one was discovered. With each new secret uncovered there was a rush to the arcade to pump more quarters into the machines. No other studio had considered how important the replay value was when they released a fighting game. Adding hidden characters, secret moves, fatalities and levels kept people returning again and again. This raised the status of Midway and made the Japanese publishers take notice. The American studio was working around the clock to fill orders while the other publishers were cooling down sales. Suddenly every corner market, 7-11, Circle K and laundromat was coveting the fighting arcade machine as well. They did whatever it took to get one of the hot titles. It didn't matter whether they bought them from the publisher or got a bootleg from the black market. It was guaranteed money from a rapidly growing fan base. When it came to favorite titles fans were already picking sides. Every character in the Mortal Kombat franchise, even the hidden characters, had a following. Arguably the two biggest stars were Scorpion and Sub-Zero. They were perfect rivals. Midway could not have hoped for a better outcome to their design. The two had their own unique powers and abilities, each required their own technique to master. In any other fighting game people would have just thought of them as a pallet swap with some gimmick moves, but these two were different. They were living, breathing, fighters and not cartoons. The beef they had was tangible. If and when a movie came out then audiences knew exactly what they would look like and who they would root for. Speaking of which my younger brother and I won tickets to see the premier of the Mortal Kombat film in Los Angeles many years ago. We got a copy of the soundtrack and an autograph from Cary Tagawa, the actor that played Shang Tsung, he and his son snuck in to secretly watch the film.

 Many fighting game fans in the USA, just like many fans in Japan, had grown up on martial arts movies. The kung-fu films from the Shaw Bros. and the indy films from Taiwan had circled the globe. They had cheesy effects, lousy scripts, were poorly dubbed and put on television in just about every market. Despite the quality of the films they were universally loved. The people creating the fighting games were just as familiar with these martial arts films as any fan. Street Fighter and the other games may have been inspired in part by the movies but Mortal Kombat was the first game that captured the spirit of those live action films. For the first time in the genre fans were not rooting for cartoon characters but real people. They were rooting for modern versions of those classic heroes and villains. Scorpion and Sub-Zero were created in a supporting role. Fighters like Liu Kang, Sonya Blade and Johhny Cage were the stars and Goro and Shang Tsung were the bad guys. Yet fans were very interested in the secretive ninjas, there was just something special about them. The anti-hero versus the cool villain, it wasn't as simple as good versus evil, both were killers. Both were two sides of the same coin. When audiences learned that the two hated each other they ate up the drama. What other fighting game character, or movie character for that reason, hated someone enough to return from Hell for a rematch?


Many of the elements, settings and characters in Mortal Kombat wouldn't have existed without kung-fu cinema. US audiences bought into the whole plot of the game. The game however could not have excited without the excessive violence from Western cinema as well. The game could never be violent or shocking enough for fans. It had to be brutal, it had to be bloody and there had to be a certain dark comedy element to it as well. Gen-Xers that made up a good portion of the arcade and console boom were starting to mature and they wanted to see more adult themes in their games. Scorpion and Sub-Zero were the R-Rated heroes in a previously PG crowd. They were not unlike Deadpool to the sanitized heroes in other Marvel movies. Speaking of comics a good portion of the design from Scorpion was also inspired by the Ghost Rider. The "Spirit of Vengeance" also had a flaming skull for a head and he threw a chain to snare opponents.

The purpose of Scorpion would evolve over the sequels. When he learned that Sub-Zero had returned for the second Mortal Kombat tournament he was furious. Death was not strong enough to keep his arch-rival at bay. Scorpion returned from the Netherrealm to enter the tournament as well. He eventually discovered that this was a different Sub-Zero, a younger brother who had the same cryomancer powers. Scorpion realized that he had no quarrel with the second Sub-Zero and let him be. The two would form a shaky alliance over different games and the truth would eventually be revealed. It was Quan Chi that orchestrated the murder of the Shirai Ryu clan and Scorpions wife. Quan Chi was teleported to the Netherrealm where Scorpion would spend eternity hunting down the powerful sorcerer. It was a fitting ending for one of the most violent fighting game characters invented. Audiences would never forget this warrior and the betrayal that created him. Not every rivalry in fighting games involved revenge. Some rivalries were created out of necessity. The last one I will feature for this series was simply destined to happen. Yet destiny has a long and winding road. I hope to see you back for that entry. As always if you would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make bigger and better recordings and videos.

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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Revenge of the wooden men! (Originally posted on my Capcom-Unity blog)

You ever wonder where there weird fighting game characters come from? I don't mean the occasional pro wrestler or pop idol either, I mean the really weird, way out of left-field characters. Somebody like Mokujin from the Tekken series for example. The character first appeared in Tekken 3 back in 1997. Many thought that it was a wooden man post, a training tool used by kung-fu practitioners, that had sprung to life. It couldn't really talk and seemed to be a sort of comedic character that mimicked the moves of the entire Tekken cast.

The figure was actually based on the training dummies from the Shaolin Wooden Men. A movie from 1976 starring Jackie Chan. The wooden men were fictional sparring partners controlled by a series levers and pulleys in the Shaolin temple. In order for a person to be deemed a master they had to survive a gauntlet made up of these wooden men. When I was a little kid my brothers and I saw the film on kung-fu theater. It was a local show that would marathon different kung-fu movies. There was no doubt that my exposure to those movies was part of why I became attracted to fighting games in the first place. Anyhow I remembered that film for the special effects and rows of various wooden men.

Something that I always appreciated about the films was that no matter how cheesy they were it was easy to get carried away by the story. The special effects were all practical. They built sets for the films, used costumes and props to make things seem period-correct. When you're a kid you just accept the fact that somewhere in China there's a temple with wooden men like Mokujin training the kung-fu masters. You also accept that the best fighters could do all the impossible things you would see on tv.

There was something about the film that freaked me out though. In one scene Jackie grabbed the forearm of a wooden man and broke it open. There was nothing inside. I was sure that there would have been a Shaolin master in each costume doing the fighting. As I little kid I actually believed that the movie producers had actually rigged a few wooden men and were controlling them with chains and levers. Even better I believed that this technology was something that the Chinese had been sitting on for centuries. Sure it's an absurd thought but anything is possible if you are a kid. When I saw Mokujin many years later I wondered how many of the same films the Tekken developers had grown up with.

Of every martial arts fable I believed in growing up the only thing that was scarier than a wooden man run amok was a blind master of the Flying Guillotine. Again, that movie was probably the reason why I ended up loving Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. It was what prepared me for the ultimate battle between the various fighting arts. Anyhow in that movie a blind assassin was pretending to be a Shaolin monk while he was tracking down the one-armed boxer. He had amazing hearing for a blind man and could throw his flying guillotine with pinpoint accuracy. Near the end of the film he is trapped in a coffin shop. The hero throws rocks at the walls to confuse the assassin. The blind monk stands perfectly still and rotates his head 360 degrees while trying to figure out where his opponent is. Of every kung-fu film I had ever seen that was the scene that freaked me out the most. Producer / director / star Jimmy Wang Yu used the effect sparingly and right at the end of the movie for the biggest shock value. Even today I get creeped out by the thought of a free spinning head.

Were there any fantastic characters or impossible fighting techniques that you had seen as a kid that you genuinely thought were true? I'd like to hear about it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 30

During the mid '90s all Konami and Capcom seemed capable of doing was slapping a new coat of paint on the tired mechanic in arcades. There was little separating Alien vs Predator from Warriors of Fate from Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, aside from different sprites of course. The gameplay remained the same. Players pressed the attack buttons quickly and survived the onslaught, there was not much gameplay in that. Within a decade the experiences from DMC, Gungrave, P.N. 03 and Bayonetta were also becoming redundant. I had stated this earlier in the series: "The advent of 3D technology gave players a new level of immersion and visual flare but these early 3D titles often lacked the elements that made previous 2D games memorable. Moving to 3D meant that the industry would have to start all over again and figure out how to make a good brawling experience. The studios would have to invent something that took advantage of the next generation of graphics and create the next generation of gameplay to go along with it." Japanese designers as a whole were guilty of relying heavily on visual style and forgetting the importance of substance.

The sandbox game had gained popularity past the millennium. It was successful in the west because developers had figured out how gameplay could be derived from engines which were essentially tech demos. The sandbox environment became one of the ways in which the brawler was able to survive outside of the arcade. More important it allowed the brawler to flourish in 3D and made the gameplay unique. SpikeOut and Final Fight: Streetwise borrowed dated elements, like a countdown clock, and forced players to fight wave after wave of opponents using underpowered characters, making the experience feel slow and terribly redundant. The new crop of western-developed brawlers seemed fresh and exciting by comparison.

London based Rocksteady Studios followed the classic Hokuto No Ken template and then wrapped it in a more open world. The main character would be a master of the fighting arts, far more experienced than anyone that crossed his path, capable of surviving even in mob situations but not as grossly exaggerated or overpowered as Ken. By using Batman from the comic books as the main character players could have an adventure title that was part stealth and part brawling. The 2009 release was one of the best comic-character to game adaptations ever. Rocksteady made a title that took advantage of the character and his universe. This new hero would be an acrobat, escape artist and detective and allow players to take full advantage of the 3D environments.

Those at Rocksteady did not look back at the history of the franchise to see what other Batman titles worked well or tried to repeat the 2D lessons on new consoles. Instead they had the insight and confidence that the best Batman experience would reflect the new generation of gameplay. Both Arkham Asylum and the latter Arkham City were independent from the films and comics. Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment allowed the designers to evolve Batman into a gaming archetype especially after the movie-based titles failed to win over players. Both Arkham games had become critically acclaimed and commercially successful titles. The core of both games was the new brawling experience. Rocksteady had coined their intuitive fighting mechanic "Freeflow Combat." A few button presses allowed players to easily take down waves of opponents. It was something never before possible in a fighting game. To be fair though Capcom, Spike and Sammy had made variations of the game mechanic many years earlier.

Another western studio would become even more popular by following the lessons taught by the brawler. The team at Naughty Dog started out creating great mascot titles like Crash Bandicoot, as well as Jax and Daxter. Yet like Star Team did when they left Konami and created Guardian Heroes, there was much more potential in a new character and game idea. When the studio pursued a new type of experience free from license and conventions they forever changed the industry. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was a 2007 sleeper-hit It seemed to come out of nowhere and redefine the adventure title as Tomb Raider had done so a decade earlier. Naughty Dog had taken the lessons from the run-and-gun and incorporated them into a sandbox environment. The main character, Nathan Drake, was not the unstoppable fighter that Batman was, he was however more than average at brawling. He was certainly above average as a marksman and as an athlete as well but not as over-the-top as Laura Croft or Rubi Malone. These things made the character and his adventures believable while not leaving him so weak as to make the gameplay dull.

The follow up titles Uncharted 2: Among Thieves from 2009, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception from 2011 and Uncharted 4: A Thief's End from 2016 incorporated many of the great moments from gaming and cinema into an interactive experience. There were huge set pieces and big stunts every bit as spectacular as a multi-million dollar blockbuster. Were the fights in exotic locations or shootouts on moving trains inspired by adventure films or classic brawlers? Could the developers have been allowing both influences to shine through as a collective experience? Quite possibly yes. In a Rolling Stone interview Neil Druckmann the Director of Uncharted 4 mentioned that the original version of the game, as in the first Uncharted was much more brawling oriented. It's great that they changed the game play to incorporate all of the new things that these heroes could do, including driving vehicles, and running along rooftops.

The brawler did not die and never would. The US, UK and Europe were now capable of developing memorable titles based on the legacy built by Japan. God of War, Arkham City and Uncharted were the new respective hack-and-slash, beat-em-up and run-and-gun for the next generation. The genre had matured and developed into amazing 3D experiences because the people that developed them had grown up on 25+ years of fantastic designs, graphics and gameplay. Sure there was still life left in the traditional brawler, Castle Crashers and a score of arcade gems finding their way onto XBL and PSN were proof of that. Vanillaware, the studio that released the visually arresting games Muramasa the Demon Blade and Odin Sphere blew the doors off the hack-and-slash with Dragon’s Crown in 2013.

Vanillaware had studied the genre very carefully and created a game that had brawler, RPG and hack-and-slash elements. It took pieces from more than 20 years worth of brawlers, locations, characters and stories reminiscent of Magic Sword, Arabian Magic, Dungeons and Dragons: Shadow Over Mystaria and Tower of Doom, Golden Axe and many more timeless arcade games. It created something never quite seen before with graphics that were unparalleled. Best of all, like the classic brawlers this was a game that could be enjoyed with a group of friends. Never satisfied, the Japanese would continue to try to make even bigger spectacles and over-the-top moments with the genre, insuring that their contribution would live on.

The brawler now represented something not as obvious as a sports game, combat game, racing game or puzzle game. It had become the heart of the best and most memorable moments in gaming. In 15 or 20 years the next generation of designers would be inspired by these experiences They would continue building on the legacy and show the entire industry that in the end the brawler won the fight.

I hope that you have enjoyed my 30-part series on the brawler. I am constantly researching and preparing new blogs for my readers. Sometimes they are ready right away and sometimes they can take months to come together. If you would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help. I plan on creating more podcasts and videos and could always use a little help buying some better equipment. Thank you for visiting!

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Monday, June 6, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 29

In 2005 Sony Santa Monica released the title God of War for the Playstation 2. The game was a phenomenal success. Earning accolades for the team and designer David Jaffe and his team made up of former Incog Inc. employees. The game was the culmination of the studio’s efforts and learning curve designing games outside of the mainstream. They first found success with Warhawk and Twisted Metal on the original Playstation. With the latter game they developed a dark cast that appealed to the maturing generation of game players. From War of the Monsters they learned combat systems and scaling combat between gigantic forces on the Playstation 2 hardware. From Downhill Domination they learned to create enormous environments and fantastic weather and particle effects. By the time Jaffe and company got to God of War they were well versed in hardware and software. What they did was develop an adventure which would be a response to the new breed of brawler from overseas.

The animations and control in God of War were amazing as Kratos, the hero, battled with unique weapons, the Blades of Chaos. The gameplay was not quite Dynasty Warriors and not quite Devil May Cry but somewhere in between. The hero was tough as nails, somebody that could have given Ken from Fist of the North Star a run for his money. In hand to hand or ranged combat the God of War lived up to his title. When Kratos was placed in breathtaking stages and puzzle environments that were as good as his dedicated fighting levels then the era of the single-player, Western produced, hack-and-slash had arrived.

Other western developers were eager to answer the challenge that Sony had laid out Unfortunately Microsoft’s Too Human by Silicon Knights failed to impress players or critics. The camera, control, story and gameplay were all lacking. Even worse, it misunderstood the brawling roots that inspired God of War. The one-against-the-world design of God of War was instead few-against-many within Too Human. The 2008 title seemed to be trying to cash in on a trend without fully understanding how Sony Santa Monica had gotten there.

The best games in any genre were not developed out of thin air. Nor were they the results of following a trend. Every great title pulled the influences from the team and shaped them into a gaming experience. Often times all the creative minds needed was a spark of an idea and off they went. Treasure for example found greatness was once they stopped working on licensed games for Konami. The industry would follow the trendsetters and find that time and technology shaped every game differently. Look at how far the brawler went from its humble origins. Instead of Kung-Fu Master I could have chosen to follow an even older genre, the Cowboy Western for example.

In 1982 Taito had released a game called Wild Western. It, like the early run-and-gun games was not far removed from the space shooter titles or shoot-em-ups. Yet US developer Exidy developed a game just two years later called Cheyenne which was a light gun game. Already the western genre had become broad based on the tastes and influences of designers. Players were just along for the ride.

Capcom’s Gun Smoke from 1985 was not far removed from Commando. Players looked down on the hero from an overhead perspective as he cleaned up a western town. The important lesson here was that young players and future artists, designers and programmers were being influenced by these games, themes and heroes.

Outlaws was the first noteworthy FPS set in the wild west. The LucasArts title from 1997 predated Call of Juarez by years. It showed that a good story and emerging 3D technology could make for a great PC experience. The young developers that grew up on Japanese games were cutting their teeth programming PC titles like this.

Next to Konami’s Iron Horse, Express Raider was the oldest western brawler. Nihoun Bussan developed the game and Data East published it in 1986. The game was a precursor to Bad Dudes and every other great side scrolling brawler that the studio produced. Players could fight opponents on top of a moving train and even shoot at lawmen from horseback. The game was ahead of its time. Allowing gamers to act as criminals a decade before GTA was even conceived.

I had already talked about Konami’s Sunset Riders from 1991 so there would be no need to bring up the brawling gem again. It undoubtedly left its mark on arcade visitors.

Capcom’s version of Red Dead Revolver was coming along with a slightly silly tone before Rockstar finished the project and made it more serious for its 2004 debut. The new millennia seemed to mark a changing of the guard. Designers from North America and Europe were now passing up Japan in terms of the scope and design of projects. Players could perform all of the things they had seen in a limited capacity in earlier Japanese cowboy games, including fighting on top of moving trains or shooting from horseback. This time they could do it in glorious 3D.

A few years later Rockstar developed a follow-up without the input from Capcom. The 2010 title Red Dead Redemption had shown how capable the US was at developing immersive playing experiences with a solid story, great controls and memorable designs as well.

What did Red Dead Redemption offer that none of the earlier console or arcade western titles could? It was the open world environment. Players were free to explore and interact with the world and make the game move along at their own pace. This sandbox environment would have meant nothing if players were unable to control the character easily. If they were not able to ride horses, have intuitive shoot outs or handle a surly stranger with the butt of a rifle, then players would have let the experience die. Rockstar had been building on the open game world through the Grand Theft Auto series and even The Warriors brawling games. They showed what was capable when players were allowed to experience a title at their own pace.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 28

The majority of titles that I had been featuring over the past few weeks were designed and developed in Japan. The few attempts to move the brawler into 3D attempted by Western developers were dismal, see Final Fight: Streetwise for proof. However those studios would continue working in 3D and learning what genres and mechanics could make for great gaming experiences. One of the major breakout titles was with Tomb Raider featuring Lara Croft. Developed by Core Design in 1996 the game married the adventure explorer with the run-and-gun in 3D. The formula and format would be copied by just about every major western publisher over the next decade and a half, earning several sequels on the consoles and computers for Lara herself.

The most recent effort to try and recreate the formula was seen in Bethesda's WET featuring Rubi Malone, and released in 2009. In the game players could run along walls and slide down ladders while inverted and continue shooting at enemies. The 3D shooters through most of the 2000’s were different from those previously. The shooter was becoming a stylistic experience rather than a simulation. The shooter would detach itself from reality like the 3D hack-and-slash experiences did for Dynasty Warriors. The main characters Laura and Rubi were super athletes and could perform acrobatics with guns and seemingly never miss a target.

Capcom was responsible for marrying the hack-and-slash with acrobatic run-and-gun in 2001. Devil May Cry was the benchmark by which all action games would be measured against for the next decade. The main character, Dante, could fight armies single handedly and more important look cool doing it, by extension making gamers feel cool also. The game allowed players to take on hordes of opponents using a large sword with the dizzying combos of a Dynasty Warrior character, they could then further pick them apart with an automatic pistol, literally juggling the corpses in the air.

Sega would take the gun crazy combo system to another level. In 2002 they released Gungrave, an overdose of testosterone and one of the games that I would label “combo pornography.” In the Sega game players could shoot everything and anything and be rewarded for keeping up the body count with an endless supply of bullets. Players could even punctuate a string of shootouts with a cool pose via the push of a button. Young male gamers had been drawn to the early brawlers because they got to pound the snot of some gang members.

Gungrave and Devil May Cry took the same violence, machismo and cool factor to unprecedented levels. Players no longer had to join in with the group brawler to feel like a tough guy. In fact games like Tomb Raider, DMC and Gungrave worked better as a single player experience. Nothing could have diminished the characters or the experience more than sharing the spotlight with multiple characters Other studios followed the example that Capcom had established and began reworking the formula. For example; in 2002 Sega’s in house developer Smilebit, more famous for the Jet Set Radio series, developed a fantastic science fiction run-and-gun title called Gun Valkyrie. In it a single character in a powered suit could mow down the population of an alien planet.

Independent studios even began copying the formula and creating their own interpretation of the genre. Russian studio 1C Company released an anime style adventure called X Blades in 2007. By following the template they were able to create a game that was familiar but could not top the originators at Capcom. It was not unlike the independent studios releasing multi-player brawling games in the arcade during the late 90’s. The style of gameplay had a lot of influence over character design. Since the main characters in these types of games had to be acrobatic and look cool performing the moves it was decided that players would enjoy watching females rather than males as the heroes. Japan took the concept of the sexy shooter to new levels. Cacpom released a sci-fi shooter named P.N. 03 in 2003. The title was short for Project Nude. Directed by Shinji Mikami of God Hand and Viewtiful Joe fame, P.N. 03 featured Vanessa, a heroine dressed in a tight white rubber suit, literally striking poses and dancing her way through the game while shooting at opponents with laser blasts.

A few years later Capcom released what many would consider to be the spiritual successor to Devil May Cry. Bayonetta, developed by Platinum Games (for whom Shinji Mikami is a board member) in 2009 was a spectacle, featuring more style, absurd combos and sex appeal than any other shooter to date. What I saw and very few writers bothered to mention was that it mirrored P.N 03 in many ways.

The hero, or in this case heroine of the single player brawling experience had established a new set of gameplay elements. Whereas characters in the classic arcade brawlers were marginally better than the opponents they faced, the main characters in console brawlers had to be exponentially more powerful than the majority of characters they faced. Also these characters would have to be able to become more powerful as the game progressed in order to take down even stronger opponents and not feel redundant to gamers. The most important lessons taught by the brawler would be adopted by Western developers in the second half of the decade. While Japan was heaping artistic style onto the genre the US developers were learning the nuances of the hardware and gameplay. After almost 30 years of domination by Japanese developers the day would come when the most original and memorable experiences were being created by the West. The next blog wraps up our look at the abridged history of the brawler.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 27

Players have enjoyed videogames for many reasons. One of the biggest draws was the escapism that gaming provided. Where else could regular people race around a European circuit in a million dollar car? Create or destroy an entire continent? Or go sky-surfing on a stolen jet? Gamers could play the role of some of the most amazing fictional characters ever created. The better the game was at creating that illusion of reality, rather than realism, the easier it was for gamers to identify with those characters and lose themselves in the experience. For brawling games players could play the role of the ultimate tough guys and girls against impossible odds. However not every gamer had the fortune of living near an arcade or had a chance to share in the group experience. For them the single-player game and hero featured within had to become even greater than those heroes in the arcades.
As far as brawlers went Thomas the Kung-Fu Master did very well in the one-player arena. He could beat up an army of opponents and dragons using his hands and feet only. Irem laid the foundation for most console brawlers as much as he did they arcade titles. But when developers cranked up those abilities and made the archetype as fantastic a martial arts master as ever written, say Ken from Hokuto No Ken (HNK) / Fist of the North Star, then the genre became instantly more appealing Ken was a master of a powerful fictional martial art. In the manga and anime series he could be seen killing people with a simple touch and make them explode with gruesome results with a punch or a kick.

Sega discovered the visceral draw of the character in the 1986 game Hokuto No Ken, which was localized to Black Belt Master in the USA because Nintendo had the HNK license in North America. The gameplay was very similar to Kung-Fu Master only that opponents would explode after Ken punched or kicked them. As technology got better this experience was made more memorable with the updated 16-bit Genesis graphics in Last Battle aka Shin Seikimatsu Kyuseishu Densetsu Hokuto no Ken. The 1989 title was for many in the USA a taste of the type of super fighter that could be at the core of a single-player brawling experience. The character was amazing in game Players could kick through ranks of soldiers with ease and even punch the blade edge of an axe as it flew towards them.

The character would come in and out of popularity over the decades. Appearing in fighting games, arcade games and console games for the better part of 30 years. His most recent appearance in Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage was one of the better 3D efforts. Developed by Koei in 2010 it showed off the experience that they had creating several generations worth of hack-and-sash brawling titles. But before I talk about Koei I would like to digress and make a point of how much HNK had influenced the Japanese developers, especially those at Capcom.

Street Fighter was not the only Capcom title influenced by HNK. The brawler Viewtiful Joe was part henshin / sentai Japanese super hero study and part impossible brawler. Clover Studios, a Capcom founded company, released the title in 2003. It gave a new generation of console fans a reason to celebrate the hand-to-hand type brawlers that the previous generation had enjoyed so much. By keeping the game lighthearted they managed not to scare off parents with a harsh rating.

The same studio turned around and released the 3D brawler God Hand in 2006 for those that wanted to see the over-the-top characters and violence of HNK. The game was a homage to HNK as much as it was a parody of the genre. Players either got the jokes or were confused and possibly scared by them. As much fun as it was punching people into oblivion, several studios noticed that the genre could still be improved upon. That was why during the formative years of the brawler many different types of gameplay elements were explored. From fists and feet, to swords and guns, there would be a brawler for everyone.

Capcom did well for themselves in using the period piece Dynasty Wars as the backdrop to one of their early brawlers. Unfortunately the 1989 game lacked the control, design, animation and polish of Final Fight, which was also released the same year. What it did do however was help show that period piece brawlers, in this case one set during the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, could make for a great adventure title.

A few years later when the publisher had more experience they released a superior title with Warriors of Fate. The 1992 brawler was every bit as important to the legacy of the brawler as the King of Dragons or Knights of the Round. However that period-piece brawler would not really come to a head until Koei took the classical worlds and put them in 3D.

Dynasty Warriors started out as a 3D fighting game series around 1997. However the studio quickly shifted to the 3D brawler instead. Each battle became a part of a narrative where players got a chance to lead their general into battle and take out entire regiments single-handedly while the rest of the soldiers cleaned up the remaining few. While the game did not have the gore of the HNK titles, the characters were still capable of taking down dozens of soldiers with each attack. By 2011 Koei had released the 7th entry into the series with characters, moves and techniques even more fantastic than the previous generations.

Q Entertainment was eager to try and outdo Koei at every level of the genre when they released N3: Ninety-Nine Nights in 2006. The body count went up exponentially for the 3D hack-and-slash brawler. Now gamers were capable of wiping out hundreds of opponents with a furious combo instead of dozens. They did not need to be part of a group or even visit the arcade to experience the mayhem that the genre provided. Yet the arcade was where Capcom had their eyes set that same year.

Capcom had announced that they would release a new fighting game in 2006. Many gamers went crazy with the news, speculating that Capcom were about to release the long-awaited Street Fighter IV. Instead, SF IV producer Yoshinori Ono unveiled the War of the Grail. It was a multi player arcade hack-and-slash. Not unlike Dynasty Warriors or N3 players assumed the role of a super-powered general of a mythical army as they did battle against other fantastic armies.

The character designs were created by Capcom great Kinu Nishimura. Kinu was an understudy of AKIMAN, the designer behind Chun-Li, before she worked on War of the Grail she was the lead artist on Street Fighter III.

The game was cancelled before it got into arcades for testing. Yoshinori went on to work with artist Daigo Ikeno in designing the new characters for Street Fighter IV. However that did not mean that the hack-and-slash brawler would not be revisited by Capcom.

In 2011 they announced a new game titled Code of Princess for the Nintendo 3DS. From the media previews and the early screenshots many are likening this title to Guardian Heroes, with only less characters and archetypes to play as. Judging from the screenshots I am inclined to agree. Best of all the familiar designs from Kinu will be used to design the new crop of heroines.

Yet Capcom would not make their biggest contribution to the changing face of the brawler through hack-and-slash efforts. Anyone that was involved in gaming over the past decade could tell you were they rewrote the book on the run-and-gun as well.