Monday, July 4, 2016

The legend of Blue Mary, or girls in fighting games, part 3

Fatal Fury had built a tremendous fan following in the '90s. The story, characters and fighting styles represented were very unique. SNK had done a great job of introducing characters from around the world and connected many of them to real martial arts. Even the characters that did not represent a particular style, like Terry Bogard, still fit into the universe. SNK was showing audiences that the modern masters of fighting did not have to dress up in robes or gi's in order to be legitimate threats. When the studio wanted to introduce a new female lead in the series they had a perfect template to pull from. Blue Mary had many design cues that were based on Terry. Put the two side-by-side and it's easy to see what I'm referring to. The red top, blue pants and gloves was only the beginning.

Notice how well defined Blue Mary's muscles were. Usually female characters in fighting games were slim. Some were voluptuous but none were presented muscular. Many of the early female characters in fighting games were Asian. Many Asian cultures (and many Western nations) did not consider women with big muscles to be attractive. The male stars in fighting games were always expected to have huge muscles. It made them look more believable as serious brawlers. The same rules applied to comic book heroes of course. Blue Mary changed all of that. As a female balance to Terry she maintained a certain level of athleticism and raw power. Her abs, shoulders and biceps were all well defined and much larger than the muscles on her female co-stars. This seemed acceptable on an "American" character. Her femininity remained, as did her large breasts, and to many players she remained attractive.

On a surface level Blue Mary had the same design cues as Terry. None of her moves, except for Spin Fall even remotely resembled the power moves of Terry. Blue Mary had far many different techniques going for her, not the least of which were having some of the first grapples, submission takedowns and strikes into grapples of any fighting game character. I consider Blair Dame from Street Fighter EX to be the first mixed martial arts character in a fighting game. She debuted in 1996, yet Blue Mary appeared one year earlier and had many similar techniques. So what gives? Blue Mary had moves that were more in line with combat Sambo, a Soviet-era form of fighting that gained exposure in freestyle and vale-tudo tournaments. These were the sorts of no-holds-barred contests that predated modern mixed martial arts tournaments. Sambo would be used by Russian soldiers to help subdue enemies in close quarters combat. There were many lightning quick strikes mixed with takedowns and painful joint lock techniques. The 3D fighting games would features these techniques on characters like Sergei Dragunov and Bayman from the respective Tekken and Dead or Alive series. It made sense that cops and soldiers would be masters of these techniques.

Blue Mary was a vicious grappler with amazing strength. She could hoist her opponents overhead and perform a Back Drop. It was an incredibly dangerous move made popular by the late . The move was banned in the WWE for being too risky. I could easily imagine Mary doing this to unsuspecting criminals. When she didn't go high with her attacks she knew how to shoot low for a takedown. The ankle lock called the M. Crab Clutch could snap a leg as easily as a chicken bone. These were only a few of her awesome moves. It made sense that Butch and her father had shared some of their Secret Service training with her. For opponents that were stand up fighters Mary had a way of breaking them down as well. She was equally fast and strong. She was able to cut into any defense and perform a rolling arm bar. This move would be known as the M. Spider. A variation of the leaping arm bar was given to Gai Tendo, the star of the Buriki One Tournament. His version was known as the Gai Spider. As great a character as Gai was just remember that Mary was doing some MMA moves many years earlier!

Blue Mary would grow in popularity over the years. Like some of her Fatal Fury co-stars she would eventually turn up in the King of Fighters series as well. Her moves and purpose filled a void that had been missing in the series. To be specific law enforcement officers weren't usually represented in fighting games, especially not in Japanese ones. There were heroes of all sorts but they were usually traditional martial arts masters. There were even military characters from time to time because audiences could accept them as dangerous fighters. Cops on the other hand didn't always have the reputation for being great martial artists. Chun-Li and Blue Mary certainly changed that perception while also serving as powerful female role-models. Blue Mary's distant relative appeared in Garou: Mark of the Wolves, a game from 1999. The game was set about a decade after the events of Fatal Fury 3. The new brawler was known as Kevin Rian, he was a cop, a representative of the Second South Town police force. His last name was mistranslated by the localization team as it was supposed to be Kevin Ryan. He was big with a few grappling moves and heavy hands. His design fit somewhere in between Ralf and Clark, the Ikari Warriors from the King of Fighters tournament crossed with Blue Mary. Kevin, like the other characters in Mark of the Wolves, reflected almost a decade of fantastic character designs. The studio had experimented with graphics, controls and aesthetics and was really hitting its peak by 2000.

From a physical standpoint Blue Mary had all of the same design elements that were originally applied to Terry Bogard. Many of these things were due to the Japanese trying to introduce a "cool" Western fighter into their franchise. It was mostly relying on stereotype, that white Americans had blonde hair, blue eyes, wore jeans and sneakers. The Japanese animé aesthetic paid off when combined with the trope. Mary was young, athletic, and confident. The same characteristics that made Terry appealing to the first generation of fans worked years later and would continue to work in future titles. Mary had staying power as did the better fighters from the Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting franchises. When variations of those characters turned up in Garou: Mark of the Wolves it worked extremely well.

When variations of the look turned up in pachislot machines (a combination pachinko and slot machine popular in Japanese arcades) it still worked. Take a look at Alice Garnet Nakata, the idol character featured in the game. She was a sort of crude talking cheerleader that followed Terry around. Her look was planted in between the style of Terry and Mary. The familiar red, white and blue motif, the cap, the red heels instead of sneakers. Of course you can't miss the extra-wide belt. It's almost as if somebody at SNK had wondered out loud what would have happened if Terry and Mary had a daughter. What would she look like? Well the truth is a little bit backwards. In the planning stages of Fatal Fury 3 there was a new female character in the works called Alice Chrysler (the Japanese aren't the best at making up Western-sounding names). Alice was an understudy of TaeKwon-Do master Kim Kaphwan. She had an affinity for Terry Bogard and was designed to replace Mai Shiranui as the female lead. From a design standpoint she would have beaten Sakura as the younger girl version of the star by one whole year. SNK decided against the original Alice and went back to the drawing board. She got a little older, stronger and was working with different fighting forms and a new name, Mary Ryan. All great ideas however never really die. The studio revisited the understudy of Kim and a new character came out called Chae Lim. The scrappy "secret weapon" with short feathered hair would debut in the KOF Maximum Impact Tournament in 2004. Almost a decade later the studio revisited Alice for the pachislot machine. Her long ponytail gave way to short feathered hair in her makeover. In 2016 SNK would make her a formal character in the King of Fighters XIV.

Competition between SNK and Capcom meant that both studios were taking chances with character designs. In the early days the studios were influenced by action cinema and manga. The heroes of those first games were based on real martial artists and mythical fighters. In time the studios learned that fighting games did not have to be solely about burly men trading punches. They could be about cops, soldiers, gifted orphans, girls and women. If these people had a talent, a solid design and a reason to fight then audiences were willing to come along for the ride. Through the '90s SNK had made some of the biggest advances in diversity for the genre. When the studio decided that the King of Fighters should be about team play then it meant that the roster would have to be filled in with dozens of new faces. There was no way that they could all be men. The women they started with were already well known and all the new ones introduced, both good and evil, found a following. Blue Mary was near the top of the list. She was well regarded and many fans wanted to see if SNK planned any sort of resolution between her and Terry Bogard. It was the unspoken thing that fans had wondered about all fighting games. What sort of relationship did the main characters have and would the male and female stars of the games ever get together. Capcom fans from both sides of the Pacific wondered out loud if Ryu and Chun-Li were a couple. That was the case in the licensed Hong Kong comics and of course many fan pieces.

For SNK fans many wondered if Terry and Mary ever "hooked up." SNK and Capcom avoided the question for most of their characters. This was because when they designed them they didn't have romance in mind. Each and every fighter, male and female, was a stand-alone design. They did not need to have a relationship with any other character in order to be accepted. Kevin Rian and Mary Ryan may have been related but both looked and fought very differently from each other. Even if one character were introduced because of the success of a previous icon it didn't matter. Sakura and Sean for example were not Xerox copies of Ken and Ryu despite being labeled "Shotoclones." Each subsequent fighter from the biggest studios had to hold up to the designs in other titles. When Blue Mary and Sakura debuted they were a sort of balance to the male stars of the games. They had just enough design cues so that audiences knew where they came from, and also enough originality to them as to make them unique fighters. Yet that didn't stop fans from asking the question, especially between Terry and Mary. Terry after all was a lone wolf. His brother Andy had a relationship with the busty ninja Mai Shiranui but poor Terry was all alone. Then there was Mary, she lost her boyfriend and father and was living with a dog. If there was someone in South Town that needed a new relationship it would have been her. Only it didn't come to pass. At least not in the first decade of the Fatal Fury timeline. Terry was busy raising a surrogate son and Mary was busy with her career of keeping South Town from imploding. What SNK did do however was give fans a hint of closure.


In the drama CD Memories of Stray Wolves Terry and Rock Howard were putting together a narrative. Where did it all begin for the main characters, why were they fighting, where did the time go? Rock was on the eve of his first King of Fighters tournament, he was a little nervous but he also wanted some answers. This story was set during the timeline of Mark of the Wolves, a decade after the demise of Geese Howard. Fatal Fury alumni Duck King, Richard Meyer and Blue Mary all made appearances. Mary was dealing with a few difficult cases and hadn't had a chance to visit with them as often as she'd like. Rock left to find his way and Terry seemed a little blue. Mary showed up on her motorcycle at the end of the story. The years had been kind to both as they still made an attractive couple. While it was never implied in the games there was a relationship between the two. Terry jumped on the back of her motorcycle to look for some fun. It was a creative risk that worked well for the canon and character development at SNK. It was something that was not introduced for the characters until years later and it made sense. It was an evolutionary shift for character designs which gave them more dimension and made the more personable. While I don't think that Ryu or Chun-Li should ever be seen the same way it would be nice to see Capcom age and mature the characters more in the Street Fighter series. There has been too much rehashing of the same characters year after year. We will see how else things have changed post King of Fighters XIV and Street Fighter V. I am looking forward to that. How about you?

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