Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Figuring out the changing Street Fighter style, part 1...

Over the last month I had talked a lot about the new, and returning faces in Street Fighter 6. I studied their outfits, the colors assigned to them, their nationality, and physical build. I did my best to try to figure out their roots, and fighting method, and share it with the visitors to my blog. In the end it reminded me that there was a style of character design that could be considered uniquely “Street Fighter.” By that same token there was a style of design that worked for Mortal Kombat, Tekken, King of Fighters, and Killer Instinct. The aesthetic of Capcom was distinct. This was thanks to the legacy of artists that had worked there. Akiman, Shoei, Bengus, Daigo Ikeno, Edayan, Kinu Nishimura were brilliant artists that had a hand in developing the style, and direction of the SF series.

The newest designer Yusuke Hashimoto, was now putting his own unique stamp on the lineup. Yusuke had produced Bayonetta, so he was comfortable designing all manner of characters with different outfits, skin colors, builds, and body types. In short, he was the perfect person to shape the direction of this generation of fighters. With that said let’s try to figure out what made the “SF Style” distinct. The most obvious thing would be the costumes the characters wore. Could you really put a SF character in just any outfit, and would it work within the context of the game? I’m not saying that every character had to be wearing an authentic martial arts costume. That type of visual storytelling did not work great in SF. Instead there was a mix of pseudo-authentic costumes, and casual uniforms to break up the monotony. Consider for a moment what it would look like if everyone in the lineup wore casual clothing. Concept artist Xin Wang came up with fashionable makeovers for the SF cast in the Chinese mobile game Street Fighter: Duel. I would argue that Mr. Hashimoto’s designs were sort of a counter to that. He wanted to bring back the classics, but not go overboard with their costumes.

Long time fans would enjoy seeing their favorite characters in new outfits. However what did this do to new players? How did the game change by shifting just one element? Were new players able to make out the style of fighting that a character represented based on casual wear? Were they able to figure out what they could do based on the color of their skin, or their physical size? Now consider what costumes affected from a game play perspective. Was it easy to read the action on the screen if a character was covered up with long sleeves, or pants? What about vivid patterns, or clashing color choices on an outfit? Did these things make it easier to play the game, or were they distracting? I could argue similar points for excessive splashes of color, lightning, fire, smoke, etc. while the characters performed special attacks. There were many individual elements that made up the main costume choices for the SF cast. In the early days arcade cabinets, and game consoles lacked the memory, and processing power to render anything too detailed. The developers were limited to a simple outfit, and a primary color. This set the standard that was copied the world over. Now that consoles, and even mobile devices were more powerful then it became easier to create characters with highly detailed outfits, and millions of color choices. Was is then critical to take advantage of all this processing power? Or did putting too much into a costume’s detail take away from the overall presentation of the character?

I welcomed the addition of Story, Arcade, and Battle costumes that were put into the library in SFV. I was not against a character getting an updated main costume in the series, as long as it didn’t stray too far from the original design. The importance of a primary costume still remained. This was why I had no objections to the new designs for Dhalsim or Blanka in SF6. There was even a chance for the studio to take a good idea, and make it even better. I thought this was the case for Juri’s update. I saw the studio taking a step backwards when they revealed the new look of Chun-Li. They took away the small details that added up to make her costume truly stand out not only in the lineup, but across the spectrum of fighting games. Chun-Li perfectly encapsulated the Street Fighter school of design. It didn’t matter if you were from the Middle East, South America, or Europe. It didn’t matter if you had played a million fighting games, or if this was your first. When you looked at Chun-Li for the first time you almost instantly thought “Chinese Fighter.” Why was this? 

Audiences had seen Chun-Li’s prototype appear in pop culture generations before the game came out. Whether in story, film, photo, television, cartoon, or comics. The artists working at Capcom were pulling from various influences. People saw the repetition of heroic Chinese fighters, especially in Taiwanese, and Hong Kong cinema. They had seen physical Chinese representations in the form of certain hairstyles, makeup, and fashions. The cut of a dress, the use of ribbons, belts, sashes, and how they were assembled could be considered Chinese, or Mexican, or French, or American. Audiences had seen some combination of a wu shu uniform, or a traditional cheongsam at some point in the past. These were actual, traditional outfits from China. The genius of Capcom was how Akira “Akiman” Yasuda arranged certain elements when designing Chun-Li. The puffy shoulders, the pantyhose, wrestling boots, wide belt, and weighted bracelets had never been used in an actual martial arts costume, let alone any traditional Chinese dress. Audiences filled in the blanks with what they knew. They saw elements that they had seen before, and they assumed the rest was traditional Chinese. It was an absolutely brilliant trick, and set a standard that few studios could match. Yusuke Hashimoto showed that he was aware of what Akiman had done. Jaime in Street Fighter 6 followed the exact same design path of Chun-Li.

I want you to compare Jamie, and Gato who was a fighter from SNK’s Garou Mark of the Wolves. I had already highlighted Jamie’s various elements on my blog, but let me point them out again. Street Fighter 6 Director Takayuki Nakayama, Producers Kazuhiro Tsuchiya, and Shuhei Matsumoto, along with Yusuke Hashimoto spoke about the influence that Hip Hop had on SF6 in several interviews. Jamie was from Hong Kong, and at first glance it looked like he was wearing a traditional kung-fu outfit, but his costume had a decidedly urban flair to it. Just like Chun-Li it wasn’t apparent until you looked closer. The crop top, long sleeves, and wide collar were tailored to his frame, they were not baggy at all. This fit hadn’t really been worn in any traditional form of Chinese kempo, or kung-fu. The pants with one leg rolled up was a style from USA Hip Hop circles. The color of the fabric looked authentic, until you looked closer, and saw that it had a Louis Vuitton-inspired pattern on it.

Jamie also wore sneakers with a cloud pattern at the front of what looked like the Nike swoosh design. Even his haircut wasn’t quite traditional. The long braid was supposed to make audiences think of the queue worn by men during the Qing Dynasty. Yet that hair style required the men to shave the front part of their scalp. Jamie instead had a modern fade on the sides, and back of his head. Jamie had a red rope belt with a wine gourd strapped to his hip. Many classical heroes in Chinese mythology such as Lu Zhishen, Ji Gong, and Li Tieguai carried a wine gourd as well. Capcom swore that Jamie was drinking a special juice, and not booze from the gourd. Jamie’s design really captured the SF Style, but it did not reflect the quality of the designs placed on some of the returning characters.

Cammy for example had an entirely new look that was much more casual than earlier looks. I felt that her short jacket, and leggings outfit betrayed the spirit of her original military-inspired uniform. My old friend DarthEnderX mentioned that she looked like a knock-off Blue Mary. That was a valid comparison. I had done a three part series on Blue Mary from the Fatal Fury series by SNK. Mary was essentially a female version of the protagonist Terry Bogard. She wasn’t a Sakura in terms to counterpart either, but more of a super cop like Chun-Li. Her look of jeans, and jacket was warranted as she was supposed to be very Western character. The casual costumes featured on the majority of SNK characters helped distinguish their lineup from Capcom’s. The Street Fighter-Style of character design relied on putting fighters in pseudo-traditional outfits. They had to be instantly recognizable to represent a certain country, school, or style. Like Ken, Ryu, Chun-Li, and Jamie. SNK had an entirely different approach. The genius of SNK’s design was that they hid the martial arts master in plain sight. They might be wearing a three-piece suit, a tuxedo, or a Hawaiian shirt, and flip flops. In every case they were unstoppable brawlers.

A good chunk of the Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, and King of Fighters lineup were trained martial artists in street clothes. There were some with classical outfits sprinkled through the series, like Gato, Joe Higashi, and Kim Kaphwan. These traditional designs helped connect the audience to the well-dressed modern archetypes. If you are a budding designer, and are trying to figure out if your style works for SNK, Capcom, or other studios then practice creating fighters of common martial arts. See if you can put a karate fighter in a pseudo traditional gi. Or what that fighter would look like in a suit. How would audiences be able to tell that this person was a fighter? It’s a difficult exercise for sure. Capcom, and SNK had actually been broadcasting who their designs were targeted for in the past decade. We will explore these things in the next blog. I hope to see you back for that. If you have any thoughts on the blog please let me know in the comments section. 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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