This entry is going to be an oddity for my blog, as it has very little to do with my experiences in Japan. In fact, I’m about to rant about video games. So here’s fair warning, you can stop reading now and avoid wasting your time on this one.
Still here? Fine. Just remember that I warned you…
I love Street Fighter. For about 20 years now, the fighting game series has been a consistent source escapist fantasy, martial arts inspiration, and artistically stylized, expertly crafted interactive entrainment. It’s been the primary source of quality time with my elder brother, and a common interest that’s led to making new friends. I love not just the challenging, fast paced gameplay, but the overarching mythos of Street Fighter; the cannon that connects story of each game—usually quite minimal as it is—with the continuity of the others. I love the art of Street Fighter—referring to both the amazing visual works of Capcom’s artists, as well as the less generally recognized artistic brilliance of good game design.
And perhaps above all other elements, I love Street Fighter’s characters. Beginning with Street Fighter II, Capcom revolutionized game design by introducing a timeless cast of unique characters, each fleshed out with their own story, culture, fighting style, and personality. An impressive collection of legendary martial arts archetypes, along with the occasional oddball, each character looked distinct and played drastically differently. (Well, expect for mainstays Ryu and Ken, but the developers widened that gap as the series progressed.) This cast gave players a more meaningful choice rat off the bat, in simply which character to select, than many games would provide over the course of the entire experience. As countless one-on-one fighting games popped up to compete with Street Fighter at the arcades, it was truly the game’s iconic cast that enabled it to hold onto its primacy in gaming culture. Well, the cast and the gameplay mechanics, which Street Fighter pioneered and continued to fine-tune through many iterations.
Street Fighter reached its pinnacle in 1999 with Street Fighter III: Third Strike. This was the greatest fighting game ever made, and I’m fairly certain that it will never be topped as the King of Fighters. (See what I did there?) It had a fantastic, colorful cast of well-balanced fighters, gorgeous flowing 2D animation, and flawless gameplay mechanics. (The parry system, while potentially daunting to newcomers, was absolutely perfect.) But after this game, Street Fighter was fairly quiet for 10 years. Then in 2009, came the revival everybody was hoping for, Street Fighter IV. While the aesthetic style of SFIV was pretty cool, in my opinion, the game was no SFIII, and that’s what I’m going to complain about it here. There are specific complaints I have about SFIV’s gameplay—really, I could bore you with those all day—but it’s the game’s character designs that I’d like to harp on here. (I warned you.)
Simply put, the new characters in Street Fighter IV suck. Pretty much all of them. Abel, the French mixed martial artist, is really the only acceptable newcomer. He has a legitimately cool design befitting of SF, and he successfully capitalizes on the explosive popularity of MMA. I still must complain though, that from a martial arts appreciation standpoint, his special “Tornado Throw” is remarkably lame.
C. Viper’s fighting prowess comes from her super-tight cybernetic spy suit, and that’s just plain stupid. Fighters whose strength comes from magic or sci-fi technology are starkly out of place in a martial arts contest. It’s a crutch of bad character design and almost always comes off as ludicrous and moronic. (This is precisely why I think Rose is so lame.)
El Fuerte, the ultra fast sprinting lucador, almost works. But Capcom blatantly attempted to make him a super silly character, which ruins everything. You see, El Fuerte is a chef searching the world for delicious recipes. And he’s also a lucador. This gag, while not very funny, is driven into the ground more often than his opponents.
And then there’s Rufus, the rotund, jingling, ponytail-sporting, fat ass, who—despite what we know of physics—is capable of lighting-speed, back flipping kung fu. Now, I could have overlooked the unbelievable aspects of this character if he was A) actually funny on occasion, or B) fun to play, with some cool-looking moves. Neither of these are true. Rufus is probably the dumbest character Capcom has ever come up with, one that’s insulting not just to the fat American wannabes that he’s parodying (he is a parody of something, right?), but to every diehard fan that had been waiting a decade for this game.
So of the four truly new characters, two are jokes and one’s sci-fi reliant design is completely forgettable. That brings us to Seth, the new end boss. Seth manages to take some of the infuriating cheapness of SFIII’s end boss, Gill, and fuse it with recognizable classic SF techniques stolen from various characters, to form an unoriginal and ultimately uninteresting package. Seth is literally a naked gray lump of lazy character design.
Now I know what you’re thinking, Didn’t Street Fighter II have weirdo characters like Blanka and Dhalsim? Why are you giving them a free pass? And that’s a valid argument. But I think the difference there is that both Blanka and Dhalsim have back stories that go beyond a bad joke. And each one could potentially be taken seriously as an intimidating fighter. In Blanka’s case, the wild man from the jungle would certainly be someone that you wouldn’t want to tangle with. Sure, the green skin is a bit much, but as the original “freak” fighting game character, I think it’s passable. And while Dhalsim surely originated from the Japanese designers’ racist xenophobic ideas of people of the Indian subcontinent—complete with flaming curry breath—the stretching limb idea proved to be an excellent gameplay dynamic. (Plus, it’s still arguably more realist than throwing fireballs.) In the Street Fighter mythos, Dhalsim has become one of the most interesting characters as well. An enlightened spiritual leader and pacifist, Dhalsim only fights for a specific cause, usually to improve the lives of the poor in his homeland. Blanka and Dhalsim can be taken as facetious characters if you want, but they can also be taken seriously too. No one can take Rufus seriously. Ever.
It’s not that I don’t have any love for the weird characters. I like playing as Necro, the electric, stretchy freak job in SFIII. I also like playing as wrinkly Oro, the Brazilian hermit, and oldest—yet strongest—man alive. I think Oro has a special place in the story, essentially as a representation of what Ryu will eventually become if continues to wander the world training for the remainder of his life. Usual, oddball, or downright weird characters are fine on occasion, it just helps if they work within the context of the game. And you can’t overdo it. For example, some people like to call out French goth Remy as a weak character. But I think a skinny emo kid is perfectly fine within the mostly young cast of SFIII. His goth fashion androgynous aesthetic fits right in. And his sonic booms and flashkick nostalgically clue us in to the fact that he’s probably a competent fighter.
Back to SFIV, one character that I really wanted to like, but couldn’t, was Gouken; Ryu and Ken’s murdered-but-now-inexplicably-resurrected master, and the brother of fan favorite, Gouki (Akuma). Gouken would have been a perfectly fine—yet completely unnecessary—inclusion if they had gotten his moveset right. But for no reason whatsoever, his dragon punch dashes forward, not up. His hurricane kick flies straight up, instead of forward. And the player is expected to key in these techniques with the old motions, which are no longer intuitive. Why not change the arbitrary motion inputs to make his moves flow more naturally? And while we’re at it, why not use the good old backward quarter-circle motions for his counters like Karin used in Street Fighter Zero (Alpha) 3? That would have been a lot better too. And speaking of Gouken’s dragon punch, did any of you play Street Fighter EX back in the day? (Yeah, nobody else did either. Just me.) Fun fact: one of the characters in SFEX, Allen Snider, had pretty much the exact same dragon punch move as Gouken, only his was called the “Justice Fist.”
When Capcom inevitably released the next iteration of SFIV (Super SFIV) just one year later, they upped the ante with a couple more disappointing characters. Juri, the South Korean Tae Kwon Do girl, had a ton of potential. (I had predicted that Capcom would include a female TKD fighter, so this was a win for me. Generally, I love TKD characters.) But, Capcom decided to give Juri a weird cybernetic eyeball and make her into a psychotic, overly-sexualized, sadistic villain. This struck me as an odd choice for a smaller female character that doesn’t look physically imposing. The game’s opening cinematic introduced us to Juri by showing her successfully take on both Chun Li and Cammy simultaneously, just to show off how incredibly strong she was supposed to be. Now, no offense Capcam, but you’ve already established Chun Li as the strongest woman in the world, so that doesn’t really hold water. Overall, Juri’s design isn’t too bad, but her story and personality are just abysmal.
Super SFIV’s other new fighter, Hakan the Turkish oil wrestler, really highlights how far Capcom has fallen in terms of character design. I mean, what the hell were they thinking? Again, it looks like Capcom thought that players were holding out hope for yet another lighthearted, goofy character; yet another joke to keep them laughing all the way. But this facetious attitude just makes me wish they would take their jobs more seriously. If anybody should be insulted by a fighting game character these days, it’s Turkish oil wrestlers, and it’s Hakan that they should be pissed about. Instead of paying homage to a traditional fighting system—like character designers do when they get it right—Capcom pokes fun at this one outright. And they don’t help anything with Hakan’s personality either. They have him yell stuff like “Time to oil up!” at every opportunity.
Perhaps Capcom was trying to do something really original with Hakan’s gameplay mechanics. Maybe they wanted to create a really unique experience by literally slopping oil everywhere. But I honestly don’t find Hakan that interesting or compelling to play. And what makes things worse is that I had high hopes for him. To reference Street Fighter EX again, that game had a badass Indian wrestler by the name of Darum Mister. After Hakan had been announced, but before he was debuted to the public, I thought he might be a legitimately cool character in the same vein as Darum. In fact, the two do share several aesthetic similarities. But while Darum was an incredibly cool character, Hakan—by design—is a complete joke.
Sure, Street Fighter has had its fair share of bad characters over the years—the SF Zero (Alpha) series included several unnecessary/loser characters by Zero 3. (R. Mika? Seriously, Capcom.) Even SFIII: Third Strike had freaking Twelve, an alien-looking T-1000 shape-shifting creature. Also Q was distinctly out of place, but at least the steel-faced apparent robot in a trench coat was shrouded in as much mystery as possible. (Sometimes the key to good character design is in the details you withhold.) Still, there’s something about level of character design awfulness vs. excellence in SFIV that is unsettling.
After SFIV, when Capcom partnered with Namco Bandai to bring us Street Fighter X Tekken, we got to see Capcom’s eccentricities highlighted further by their truly bizarre choices of which fighters to include from both franchises. [There was also that little scandal involving Capcom’s scam to include DLC (downloadable content), including 12 new fighters, hidden on the game disk and just charge their customers for them later. You know, as if they were actually purchasing additional, downloadable content. But that game’s a rant for a different day.] Finally players got the match up they were longing for, Rufus vs. Bob. Two fat-yet-speedy blonde guys, duking it out for the title of gaming greatest self-deprecating joke.