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Street Fighter Rant: Character Missteps

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.

I can dig it.

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.

You have got to be kidding me…

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.

Darum: This would have been preferable.

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.

No. This is not martial arts.

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.

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Overcoming Homesickness

Moving to Japan has been a great experience for me, but I’d be lying though if I said that there haven’t been times when I’ve felt utterly lost here. And I mean “lost” in the existential sense of the word, not just an inability to ascertain my whereabouts—although I’ve had plenty of those too. Especially in a rural area like Shakotan, it’s not always easy to find the human interaction necessary to combat soul-crushing loneliness. When depression began to takeover, I needed to take the time to really address the problem. Here’s what I did.

“The mind is its own place,

     and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell,

     a Hell of Heaven” – John Milton

Like a true glutton for punishment, I first turned to my old friend, the Internet. And wow, when you’re feeling down, Facebook can always drag you down to deeper level of hell. Even sites that have consistently amused me were unable to break my funk. When 9gag.com can’t bring a smile to your face, you have a serious problem. Then, like a light from the heavens it dawned on me; nothing can provide you with more hope than a good TED talk.

The first video that caught my eye was a TED talk by psychologist Paul Bloom called The origin of pleasure. His presentation was about how people’s beliefs about the origin of something like art or wine profoundly changes we experience it. Apparently our brains are hardwired to enjoy a painting more if we know the story of the artist, and wine will actually taste better if we believe it’s expensive. Interestingly, the same concept can be applied to pain, as well. Studies indicate that something hurts more if you think it was done to you on purpose. The interesting concepts were distracting me from my depression, but not yet curing it.

Then I came across an inspiring video that truly turned my mood around, a talk by writer/blogger Neil Pasricha called “The 3 A’s of awesome”.  The title immediately made me think of Neil Patrick Harris’s character, Barney Stinson, on the show How I Met Your Mother.

“When I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead. True Story.” – Barney Stinson

Neil Pasricha’s talk was like a young, hip self-help book. In fact, his blog 1000 Awesome Things has indeed been published as a book, The Book of Awesome. What’s weird is that his straightforward sediment really stuck me as being personally relevant. I will now spoil it for all of you that haven’t watched the video:

The 3 A’s of AWESOME

1) Attitude

2) Awareness

3) Authenticity

Pasricha’s talk, in a nutshell, is this; one needs to maintain a positive outlook, find enjoyment in the little things in life, and be true to oneself. This isn’t always easy though, as life never goes according to plan. Something surprising is always going to spring up, and life is going to hit you where it hurts. Pasricha’s message to keep moving forward may sound overly simplistic, but when combined with his advice to “embrace your inner three year old” and maintain an awareness of the tiny joys that make life sweet, it forms a personal philosophy that really gets you thinking about what you have, instead of what you don’t. It’s a good start.

The part that surprisingly struck a chord with me was his third A, Authenticity. Pasricha preached being authentic to yourself; to “be you and be cool with that.” This one made me take a good look in the mirror and consider what I really thought of myself. I rarely receive much criticism these days, so you’d think that I’d be feeling pretty confident, and yet here I was, wallowing in depression. Stopping to think about it, I wondered how much I could claim to be “cool with” being me these days.

You see, as Barney taught us, being awesome is really just a state of mind. If you’re happy with you, comfortable with who you are, then it’s infinitely easier to find contentment anywhere. It’s like The Beatles’ incredibly wise lyrics from All You Need Is Love:

“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done…but you can learn how to be you in time… Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be. It’s easy.”

Well that’s all fine and good, but what about those times when something is bothering you, when negativity just lingers in your mind? It’s not always easy to bring yourself back around from a bad mood. The next video I watched gave me an interesting perspective on this. The talk on the habits of happiness was by an unusual Buddhist monk. Frenchman Matthieu Ricard apparently used to be a biochemist, and now he’s a monk, writer, and photographer. He has the Himalayan monk look down; robes, bald head and all. His talk was about the mind and emotions, and how we can train our minds to reach and maintain a sense of serenity. Here’s my favorite bit:

“Usually, when we feel annoyed, hatred or upset with someone, or obsessed with something, the mind goes again and again to that object. Each time it goes to the object, it reinforces that obsession or that annoyance. So then, it’s a self-perpetuating process. So what we need to look now is, instead of looking outward, we look inward. Look at anger itself; it looks very menacing, like a billowing monsoon cloud or thunder storm. But we think we could sit on the cloud, but if you go there, it’s just mist. Likewise, if you look at the thought of anger, it will vanish like frost under the morning sun. If you do this again and again, the propensity, the tendencies for anger to arise again will be less and less each time you dissolve it. And, at the end, although it may rise, it will just cross the mind, like a bird crossing the sky without leaving any track.” – Matthieu Ricard

I was already feeling a lot better when I watched statistician Nic Marks’ TED talk, entitled The Happy Planet Index. This presentation was about how we measure a nation’s progress based on outdated productivity measures like GDP that don’t directly reflect the happiness and wellbeing of its citizens. You see, being a wealthy nation doesn’t necessarily make you a happy nation. He suggests a new measure he calls the Happy Planet Index; weighing the wellbeing of a nation’s citizens against the amount of resources that nation uses. I had seen a few different videos with a similar theme in the past and I couldn’t agree more with his brilliant message.

What made Nic Marks’ talk special to me was that he actually provides a few steps anyone could take to be a happier, more contented individual. Referencing the UK’s Foresight Programme, an organization that tries to use science and technology to improve the way government and society works, he presented “5 ways to wellbeing”. To spoil the surprise—in case you haven’t seen the video—here they are:

Five ways to wellbeing:

1) Connect—keep building on social relationships

2) Be Active—the fastest way out of a bad mood; dance

3) Take Notice—be aware of what’s happening in the world

4) Keep Learning—maintain curiosity throughout your lifetime

5) Give—it’s more satisfying to spend money on others

You might take note that these steps don’t necessarily involve spending money, hence the idea that a nation’s economy isn’t the source of its people’s happiness. I was amused to discover that Nic Mark’s steps included “Take Notice” and Neil Pasricha’s list had touted “Awareness”. Clearly a mindfulness of the world around you was an important factor to one’s wellbeing. However, it was “Connect” that struck me as being critically relevant to a foreign national.

Connect; keep building upon your relationships. Humans are social creatures and we need our connections with friends and family to keep us sane. It’s not really a new concept, but one that is consistently proven true. It’s what made the movie Into the Wild so poignant when its protagonist reaches the epiphany; “Happiness only real when shared.

To keep from going crazy, a traveler may have to make new friends abroad; forge new connections with the people around him. But one must also keep in touch with old friends at home, and that is one area in which I have been failing. Despite the fact that a Skype conversation with my one of my brothers, or one of my Seattle friends would instantly lift my spirits; I had hardly managed to do it at all since I arrived in Japan. My record with writing letters is embarrassingly poor. Whether writing to my mom, or grandmother, or anyone that isn’t very email savvy, I’m very slow to get the ball rolling. It isn’t as if I didn’t have the time, I’ve just been neglecting to do it. And my own laziness has been slowly eroding my sense of wellbeing.

I realize now that maintaining your personal relationships is an important key to being happy. Physically staying close to loved ones is a one way to do it, but if you’re off on a solo adventure, you’ll need to improvise. Write letters, write emails, make Skype calls, or even make old-school phone calls if possible. Keep in touch with the people you care about, who care about you. This is the challenge of living far from home.

TED Conferences. (2011, July). “Paul Bloom: The origins of pleasure”   Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_bloom_the_origins_of_pleasure.html&gt;.

TED Conferences. (2011, Jan). “Neil Pasricha: The 3 A’s of awesome ”   Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/neil_pasricha_the_3_a_s_of_awesome.html >.

TED Conferences. (2007, Nov). ” Matthieu Ricard on the habits of happiness”   Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/matthieu_ricard_on_the_habits_of_happiness.html&gt;.

TED Conferences. (2010, Aug). ” Nic Marks: The Happy Planet Index”   Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/nic_marks_the_happy_planet_index.html&gt;.

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