Monday, August 22, 2016

Fighting with a disability, final part.

In the previous blog I had mentioned some fighting game characters with visual impairments and even blindness. But what about characters with other disabilities, how were they represented over the years? There have actually been a few characters that fought despite amputations. Two of the most memorable were doing the representation act quite well. The fighters were actually Black and featured an assortment of boxing moves. Major Jackson "Jax" Briggs was a new player in Mortal Kombat II. He debuted in 1993, like his co-stars he was originally an actor that was rotoscoped and turned into a sprite for the game graphics. He wore spandex pants and silver sleeves on his arm that made them look cybernetic. His look changed over the years when the game engine went to 3D. His arms were now clearly robotic. Like many fighters in the series he had to be very strong in order to survive the onslaught of the warriors from the Netherrealm. A similar character appeared in 1994. TJ Combo debuted as the deadly boxer in Killer Instinct. He was a great boxer but his arms were cybernetic implants, making him punch much harder than a regular human. He had to fight demons and aliens in his respective title so his exaggerated strength made sense.


Actual paraplegic fighters had very rarely been done in gaming. In cinema there had been plenty of drunken and blind masters but those with real or imaginary physical deformities were rare. Possibly the most famous of the real-life kung-fu exploitation films was the Crippled Masters. The film from 1979 featured Chen Mu Chuan, Jackie Conn and Frankie Shum, two of the actors were actually born with deformities. The film told the story of a Shaolin monk that teaches a person born with no arms, and a person with deformed legs, how to use kung-fu in order to beat a local crime boss. It so happened that the crime boss was a "hunchback" with deep facial scars. The villain actually had a metal plate covering his deformity. It was a unique premise but with an absurd "team up" ability. The duo has a backpack that allows them to fight back-to-back.


In fighting game history there was actually a character that was similar to the Crippled Masters. The villain Twin Tartars appeared in the game the Killing Blade. The 1998 title by IGS appeared on their PGM arcade system. Both fighters had flaming swords that they used in combat. The larger of the fighters was blind and the smaller had achrondoplasia. He was a little person, someone that may be mislabeled a dwarf. The smaller brother rode on the shoulders of the larger and helped direct the attacks. There was a more recent character that was in a similar vein. Ferra and Torr appeared in Mortal Kombat X. The game came out in 2015 yet the idea of a smaller character controlling a larger fighter was at least 30 years old. The design could be traced back to the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Released in 1985 it was the third film in George Miller's Mad Max series. In the film the warlord that controlled Bartertown was called Master Blaster. Master was a little person that rode on the shoulders of an enormous warrior "Blaster" who was actually a young man with down syndrome. People with cognitive disorders or impaired development were even less likely to be featured in any form of popular entertainment. It was one of many bold ideas that Miller brought to cinema and it helped color the design of other films as well as fighting games.

Killing Blade was notable because it had more characters with physical challenges than any other fighting game ever made. The Twin Tartars were non-playable boss characters in the story mode. One of the main characters that players could use was just as unique as the bosses. Zhuge was a one-armed swordsman. He was driven for revenge but by the end of the game he realizes that no amount of bloodshed would bring back his loved ones or his arm for that matter. He accepted this and became a wandering sword for hire, content with his jug of wine. If anything he had the temperament of Haohmaru, the star of the Samurai Shodown series.

The one -armed swordsman was a character that was made popular more than a generation ago. Jimmy Wang Yu was a young writer / action film star that appeared in a movie called the One Armed Swordsman. The title from 1967 introduced us to a melancholy fighter. It became a big hit in Asian markets and a sequel soon followed. The films gave Wang Yu the traction to leave the famous Shaw Bros. Studio and strike out on his own. In 1971 he released a variation of the movie titled the One Armed Boxer. I had written about this influential person in a previous blog. The movies featuring Jimmy not only influenced other action films but they also planted the design seeds of fighting games, not the least of which was the Street Fighter series. His one armed characters were very well done. They were interesting and sympathetic characters.


One of the action film stars influenced by Jimmy was Donnie Yen. Donnie like many of his contemporaries had grown up watching the movies and learning the legends of the various martial arts heroes. Donnie decided to write, direct and produce a love letter to the classic films. He called his 2011 movie WuXia, which was the Chinese word for martial arts myth. In the film Donnie played Tang Long, an assassin that was wanted to escape his brutal past. He married and had a child and moved to a village in the country. A botched robbery brought him out of hiding and made it so his old gang was able to track him down. In a last ditch effort to leave the gang he tries faking his own death and even cuts off his own arm in a symbolic gesture that he has quit the gang. I don't want to bore you with the details but I will mention that Donnie managed to get Jimmy Wang Yu out of retirement to play the leader of the 72 Dragons and father of Tang Long. The fight choreography was superb and it really demonstrated what was capable by using only one arm in battle.


Zhuge was a variation of the One Armed Swordsman, combined with elements from other films. As great as it was having an amputee represented in a fighting game, it also pointed out one glaring issue with sprite-based technology. Namely the issue of sprite mirroring. Animators working on sprite-based titles only had to create character art facing one direction. The programmers would simply mirror or flip the image so that they could face the opposite direction in game. This was perfectly fine for the vast majority of fighting games because players had full use of both arms and legs. When The Killing Blade came out this limitation was obvious. Zhuge would have the wrong arm missing when he faced the opposite direction. It was a minor detail and most audiences didn't seem to mind this.


The limitations in technology throughout the '80s, specifically with memory, were responsible for sprite mirroring. Designers had to carefully plan out costumes for their main characters that required few colors and little detail. They tried to limit the details that would give away the mirroring effect, such as patches or words that would end up backwards. When the game came out many Street Fighter II fans noticed that Guile's USA flag tattoo was reversed when he faced the opposite side. Not every studio took the time to review these details, a few got past Capcom but not enough to be noticeable. When sprite-based engines improved in the '90s then the ability to create larger, more colorful and more detailed sprites took over. Capcom showed off their CPS-3 hardware with the games Warzard (Red Earth) and Street Fighter III. To show how much the engine had advanced they decided to create a boss that would take advantage of this new technology. The final boss of Street Fighter III, Gill, was not a mirrored sprite. He had a left and right side, the right side was made of fire and the left made of ice. That little detail remained correct regardless of what side of the screen he was on. His attacks even showed off this detail, he could burn or freeze opponents depending on which arm or leg he struck with.

In the planning stages Gill was not the only character that was supposed to have a left and right side. One of the early concept characters for the "New Generation" was a one-armed fighter. Somebody that could be likened to the one-armed boxer from the Jimmy Wang Yu movies. The artists, specifically Akiman and Kinu Nishimura looked at Helio Gracie, the co-founder of the Gracie Ju-Jitsu system as the root of this new character. The figure would evolve and become Oro. The developers realized that while they could create a left and a right-side version of this fighter that in order to be accurate he would actually have to have his back to the player. This was an aesthetic challenge. The ability to "read" the character was very important to players. The competitive game players would have their rhythm thrown off if they could not see a leading hand or foot, Casual players would not be able to appreciate the design of the character if all they saw was a back. Capcom had to figure out a way to present the "crippled" boxer while also using sprite mirroring. It was decided that Oro would simply tuck his arm behind his back depending on which side he was facing. It made sense and was accepted by audiences. Just remember that for a brief moment the designers at Capcom were considering including an amputee in the lineup. How interesting would that have been?

The Taiwanese designers at PGM didn't think twice, they actually put a swordsman with only one arm in their game. More important they had another playable character that had an even greater physical disability. The character Tsan was legless. His long white hair and green skin made him appear like a demon. Many game players assumed that he was indeed some sort of supernatural creature. The game was poaching many of the ideas and themes explored in SNK's Samurai Shodown series, including the mystical elements. Yet instead of feudal-era Japan this game was set in ancient China. Tsan wielded two swords and actually "walked" around on the tip of his blades. He could hurl himself at players, leap across the screen and pretty much moved like a ghost.


As the plot was revealed it turned out that Tsan was a living sword master and not some sort of ghoul. He had overcome his disability and learned various two sword techniques. The fact that he was lighter without his legs allowed him to move much faster than a normal person. When this was combined with his looks it was easy to see why people thought he was some sort of monster. Tsan was actually a positive character. He was such an accomplished fighter that he had actually taken on pupils. When the evil of the Twin Tartars and a corrupt emperor were defeated he decided to go into retirement. The Taiwanese developer had done a great job at creating heroes and villains with different backgrounds. The fact that they included disabled fighters was one of their more unique contributions to the genre.


What are your thought on fighting game characters with different backgrounds and abilities? Who were some of your favorite non-traditional fighters? I'd like to hear about it in the comments.
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Monday, August 15, 2016

Fighting with a disability, part 1...

Fighting games make the fantastic possible, but sometimes they make the real-world fantastic as well. It's one of the reasons we love the genre so much. They can turn a boxer into an unstoppable force of nature, they can turn a wrestler into a cast-iron robot. There is a part of us that believes in these characters because we know there have been men and women throughout history that have done legendary things. One of the things I enjoy most are seeing the unorthodox, whether it's a technique or personality. This time I want to feature fighters that were unique because of their disability. There have been athletes and fighters born with all manner of physical and mental conditions. This did not stop them from achieving personal success and I find their stories inspirational. But what about the fighting game characters with disabilities, what do we know about them? What can they tell us about the developers or nations they came from? I want you to think for a moment about characters in fighting games that were presented with a disability. How many could you name?


One of the longest-lived character designs, really a trope at this point, is the eyepatch-wearing fighter. Many games have featured a character with this disability. Usually in the form of a villain. But there were a few heroic characters that wore the patch as well. Many of these characters, including men and women, were based on the true story of Jubei Mitsuyoshi. While the actual Jubei had use of both eyes the authors that turned his story into legend often embellished his look and said he wore an eyepatch on the count that he lost it while sparring with his father. It made for an interesting character. One of the first fighting game characters to poach the look was Jubei Yagyu, who appeared in the original Samurai Shodown / Spirits in 1993. What made the series great was that several of the sword masters were inspired by fighters from different feudal eras. The scruffy hair, square chin and rugged looks of the SNK character were no doubt inspired by the actor Toshiro Mifune who played a swordsman in several films, including the phenomenal Seven Samurai.


Characters with eye patches were nothing new in the Street Fighter series. The original world champion, Sagat, had a patch. More recently Juri was also presented with an eyepatch as well. When it came to other memorable traits there were several characters covered in massive scars. Eagle, Cammy and Abel were three blondes that each had facial scarring. Abel and Cammy of course also suffered from amnesia and brain washing. These designs and themes would turn up in the Rival School series as well. Some of the characters were covered in many grotesque scars, even over their eyes, like Kairi and Gouken. The bare-handed one-eyed fighter was quickly becoming a trope for the genre.

A character blind in one eye was interesting enough but films and comics had turned completely blind characters into stars as well. Hong Kong and Japanese cinema both featured fictional heroes and villains that were both blind but lethal as well. None was more popular than Zatoichi. Created by Kan Shimozawa in the early '60s, the character of Zatoichi engrossed movie audiences for several decades. There was even a television series featuring the character that went on for 100 episodes. Zatoishi was a travelling masseuse and hired sword. His fighting ability seemed superhuman as he would often take on dozens of men at once. He often dealt with and for unsavory characters, including yakuza bosses. There was something sympathetic about the character and the actor. Shintaro Katsu poured himself into the role. Shintaro played the character in almost 30 films. You may have seen a more recent remake of the character featuring cult film star Beat Takeshi. In China there was a villain that was as awe-inspiring as Zatoishi. Unfortunately this character would appear in only one film; the Master of the Flying Guillotine, aka the One Armed Boxer part 2.


Whether the character was a good guy or a bad guy did not matter as much as their martial arts prowess. Zatoishi set an incredible standard. Fung Sheng Wu Chi was just as lethal, taking out masters of various fighting arts with his throwing weapon. The creators of both blind characters demonstrated that their other senses were heightened so that they could anticipate the moves of their opponents. They could hear and even smell opponents, which came in handy while fighting in the pitch black of night. Hong Kong cinema made sure that the myth of the blind master would spread around the world. When the west saw these figures they were engrossed by them. Some of the blind master retellings worked well. Such as the USA take on Zatoishi called Blind Fury. Other retellings were a little more humorous such as the Blind Kung-Fu Master from Mad TV.


In some instances the blind warrior would become the mentor for the star of the series. Think of the blind Shaolin priest from the classic television series Kung-Fu. Or Jedi Kanan Jarrus from Star Wars Rebels and even Chirrut Imwe from Rogue One. They were great warriors filled with wisdom despite their physical disability. Everything they knew could be passed on to a star pupil that would change the world. The west found these archetypes appealing and began creating new heroes from their legends. In the Mortal Kombat series there was Kenshi Takahashi. He had moves based on Tai Chi and Judo while wielding an ancient sword. Audiences could tell from the red bandage covering his eyes that Kenshi was a blind master. He had telekinetic powers that allowed him to throw opponents around and retrieve his sword without having to move. His initial costume and design was rooted slightly in the comic book and cartoon icon Snake Eyes. While Snake Eyes is not blind, he was disfigured and is mute and wears a mask. He was trained in the secretive arts of ninjitsu and became an elite member of G.I. Joe. He was the deadliest hand-to-hand fighter in the group comprised of the best soldiers of every branch of the armed forces. Mysterious characters like Snake Eyes and Kenshi always go over big in the west.


Kenshi was far from being the first blind fighting game character. That honor would go to Voldo. He appeared in Soul Blade / Edge, the first successful 3D sword fighting game from Namco. Voldo was an assassin from Palermo in the Kingdom of Naples from ancient Italy. He fought in an unorthodox style, twisting and flipping at opponents. He fought in an odd costume, wrapped in leather and other bondage elements. He even fought with an unconventional weapon, the three-bladed Jamadhar Katars. Voldo wore a strap across his eyes but he was not completely blind. He suffered from an eye condition that severely limited his vision. Whether it was due to an accident or birth defect he was presented using a telescopic device which allowed him limited visibility. The version he wore predated modern medical devices by more than 400 years. I think this would qualify Voldo as the first and as far as I can remember only character to wear a low vision optical device. Score one for the visually impaired community!


Characters come in a variety of sizes and abilities. We have just talked a little bit about those with disabilities. Differences in physical to mental conditions make certain characters more interesting. They add dimension to the figures and can turn an ordinary fighter into a memorable one. In the next entry we will look at those that had slightly more physical challenges. I hope to see you back for that! 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 better blogs and even podcasts!

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