Friday, July 1, 2016

The legend of Blue Mary, or girls in fighting games, part 2...

In the previous blog I talked about how Capcom and SNK were trading jabs at each other through the characters they had introduced in their own respective fighting games. The competition was healthy from a business standpoint and also for fans that were lining up to try each and every new game and update from the two publishers. SNK and Capcom both had established strong female characters early on yet SNK also did something more unique. The designers in-house created female characters that could be interpreted as counterparts to the male stars. It was a sort of symmetry that worked for the most memorable fighting games but not many studios recognized that symmetry and balance were things that helped make the cast unique while filling out a roster. When Sakura debuted in Street Fighter Zero it was obvious that she was filling in a role as a female counterpart to Ryu, as well as taking design cues from Yuri Sakazaki. Dan was a sort of balance to the cast, a way of taking two SNK-ish characters and putting them in Street Fighter continuity. Yet there was something missing. Capcom didn't realize it until comic book artist Masahiko Nakahira introduced Karin Kanzuki in his Sakura Ganbare! comics. Suddenly it was too obvious that Sakura needed her own rich, white, counterpart. Karin was officially added by Capcom to the lineup in Street Fighter Zero / Alpha 3. Audiences in the West did not see the comics that introduced her until more than a decade later when Udon translated them. It didn't matter however, the fair skin, red dress and blonde hair pretty much summed up what Karin was supposed to represent. Her unique trapping strikes made her stand out, she was not another "shotoclone." She was certainly more than a girl version of Ken.


SNK had established one of the most important rules in fighting game character designs before Capcom; the symmetry of female counterparts to be specific. It can be fair to say that I did not credit the studio enough for their contributions to the genre in earlier blogs. SNK was critical in the history of the genre and shaped not only their own legacy but influenced the creative decisions in rival studios. SNK developed many strong female character archetypes in every fighting game they produced. The women in these games varied in age, style and ability. Some were very young but capable, and some were closer in age and strength to the male stars of the game. The other studios developing fighting games for the Neo Geo were sometimes on board with the strong female characters but others had more sexual pandering designs in mind. Yuri was a cute character in the Art of Fighting, she was the kid sister of Ryo Sakazaki and not meant to be the main protagonist. It was a fighter in the Fatal Fury series that proved sex and strength could be found in equal measure. While developing this character the team at SNK looked at the elements that made the star of the series work. They then created a female counterpart with a similar look, down to the color schemes and nationality, but with completely different moves. In essence you could say that the studio was working on Karin Kanzuki years before Capcom or Masahiko Nakahira even thought about it. The name of this revolutionary character was Mary Ryan aka Blue Mary. She would become a counterpoint to Terry Bogard. She demonstrated that a fem fighter could be an important addition to the lineup and not just fan service.


Blue Mary debuted in Fatal Fury 3 - Wild Ambition in 1995. Remember that both she and Yuri were playable characters in a fighting game before years before Sakura or Karin. Mary had a complex back story that would be unveiled over the years. It made her more than just a pretty face. Her origin helped the designers know how to present her in the series, how to include her into the plot and even figure out what techniques she would be using. Mary was always presented as a fearless, completely independent woman. Yet there was a good bit of planning behind this. Her father was a Secret Service Agent as was Butch her boyfriend. Both had taught her some fighting moves as did her own grandfather. Butch and her father were both killed in the line of duty. She believed strongly in justice and became a detective, working on and off for the law. When she debuted in Fatal Fury game there was nothing to lead players into thinking she was in a relationship. The two holdovers from her earlier life were put in plain site and only revealed later on. She was sometimes accompanied by a dog to her matches. This was Antonio or Anton for short, he was a puppy when Mary and Butch adopted him. She also wore a bomber jacket to the the fights, this was a gift from Butch before he passed away. Blue Mary could sometimes be seen riding a motorcycle. It was the obvious choice for a cool American character and a trait that was unique to her. In an early build of the King of Fighters '98 Blue Mary had the trifecta introduction, the motorcycle, her jacket, and Anton riding in the back with goggles on. I'm not sure why the intro was dropped in the final build. Maybe it was too masculine for Japanese tastes?


Blue Mary was as far from the dainty-fighter archetype as one could get. She was not the damsel in distress and she was certainly not the prize for any male lead. This character had a lot in common with the first female Street Fighter legend. Chun-Li's father was assassinated by Balrog (Claw), one of the generals of Shadowlaw (Shadaloo). She joined the police academy to obtain justice and eventually worked her way up to ICPO officer. She was a no-nonsense character behind the badge, especially while wearing her plain clothes uniform. What made her unique among the other female icons was that she could then switch her role and appear very feminine in the Street Fighter tournament. She wore nylons and a form-fitting, pseudo traditional dress. Blue Mary did not have this second layer of design. She was more like the female leads in other fighting games. The person that you saw in the pre-round animations and at the end of the game still looked the same.


The design and presentation of Blue Mary was deliberate. She was the cool cop, the rogue that didn't necessarily take orders, a trope created in Western films and shows like Lethal Weapon and Miami Vice. She was a hard drinking, door kicking, motorcycle riding, crime busting bad ass. You could almost imagine the character starring in her own crime action series. Chun-Li was much more reserved. Her time in the academy made her a student of the criminal mind. She began looking at the big picture instead of focusing on stopping individual crimes as she matured through the events of Street Fighter Zero and Street Fighter II. She knew that avenging the death of her father was only one piece of a bigger puzzle. The crimes, drugs, arms flooding the streets in Asia were being controlled by a central kingpin. It was revealed that General Vega had ordered the hit on her father. She would figure out that it was Shadowlaw trying to destabilize several countries in the south. She was instrumental in revealing this conspiracy and helping international forces take down their base of operations. She became a decorated officer in the process. Blue Mary on the other hand wasn't looking for accolades. She wanted to do her job and keep scum off the streets, even if it meant taking down a powerful kingpin in hand-to-hand combat. She was fearless, if slightly foolish, in that regard.


The physical appearance of Blue Mary was molded very closely on Terry Bogard the breakout star of the Fatal Fury series. The Japanese designers didn't really have a point of reference for white American martial arts stars. There were a few notable fighters in the '60s, '70s and '80s that did travel to Japan and abroad. Chuck Norris, Joe Lewis and Bill "Superfoot" Wallace were some of the high-profile white martial artists that made a name for themselves. They appeared on the popular ABC Wide World of Sports broadcasts and on the covers of Black Belt magazine. They were inspiring millions of white Americans to pursue the fighting arts while Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly were opening the eyes of minorities. Yet none of the men were big enough to have their own comic book or cartoon series in Japan, like Mas Oyama and Yoshiji Soeno. To be fair Chuck Norris did have his own cartoon and toy line in the USA in the '80s and Lee had his own comic book series as well. To the mainstream Japanese and many of the artists working at both SNK and Capcom they simply didn't know what made white America unique. They had a few fashion cues from our music videos, television shows and action films. This was what they used when creating Terry Bogard, and for that matter many of the other western characters in Capcom games as well. Stop and think about it for a second, if you were born in the USA and had a reputation for fighting would you wear jeans, a bright red jacket with a star on the back and a trucker cap? Maybe you would wear something more subdued, something that didn't attract too much attention especially from gangs or even the cops. Of course the developers in Japan assumed that their customers needed to see that trope, that stereotype in order to identify the cast. The American needed primary colors that were red, white and blue.


The designers at SNK didn't have to try very hard when creating their new cool female character. They changed some of the colors and dropped the cap but Blue Mary had a signature style that was very much reminiscent of Terry's, The physical similarities didn't end there. Both were blonde, it reinforced the idea that white people were mostly of English descent. Think about how many white characters, especially the early ones in fighting games were blonde. Ken and Joe in the original Street Fighter, Cody in Final Fight, the wrestler in Street Smart, Guile in Street Fighter II, Galford in Samurai Spirits, Ray in Fighter's History, Paul Phoenix in Tekken, Jacky Bryant in Virtua Fighter… the list goes on. It was a bit of racial pandering on the part of the developers. They assumed that most players in the West would want to try a character from their homeland before they tried an Asian character. It was logical thinking. What they often missed were the details that made the characters really "American" or "English" or "French." But I digress. That was only part of the reason why the characters were blonde. The primary colors that were assigned to the costumes needed balance. Most of the Japanese characters practiced karate and their gi was typically white. That costume contrasted well with black hair. They couldn't assign white costumes to the white characters with blonde hair, there wasn't enough contrast. So solid colors like red, green and blue were given to these fighters instead. Blonde hair worked well with those colors and the tradition more or less stuck.

The color choices assigned to Terry and Mary were complimentary. Mary had a few differences in her uniform that made her stand apart. Her pants were not blue jeans but a darker purple with a large sheriff star on the side. She ditched the sneakers for boots and she wore a wide belt on her hips. It was a look that was a little more biker than brawler. It worked so well for her that it was considered as an acceptable alternate costume for Terry in the King of Fighters Maximum Impact game. The opposite was true and Mary could wear Terry's clothing and everything looked great. What was disappointing however was her alternate costume. Terry was given a "B" costume known as the Wild Wolf which was how he appeared in the Garou: Mark of the Wolves game. That version of Fatal Fury was set in the future where Terry was an older and more experienced fighter. He wore a large bomber jacket, boots and let his hair loose. Gone were the sneakers and over-the-top red, white and blue color scheme. Terry was given a look that was more like a biker. Sadly Blue Mary did not get the same Wild Wolf treatment. Instead she was presented in a white bikini with nonsensical jean chaps and a jean visor. Any modicum of respect the original designers meant for her went right out the window. It was unapologetic fan service that didn't fit the character, her origin or any previous appearance.


Blue Mary was a female fighter that defied convention. Her appearance was one thing, the moves she featured in game were something else. In the next blog we will take a closer look at the things that made Blue Mary memorable.

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