Before going into Mega Man’s 30th anniversary, let’s make this week a thematic one for Street Fighter. Let’s talk about the design now that I alluded to that possible topic last time.
To cut the chase, this will be a very truncated version what should be a series of posts concentrating on each of the original characters in Street Fighter II. Yes, we’re ignoring the original game, because it’s just background noise at this point. Unless Capcom decides to remake it, which they should have already done. Also note that I’m going to use Japanese naming scheme.
The core of Street Fighter II‘s character designs is that they come from the culture around. It’s not self-referential or tries to shove other games into itself. There was nothing to reference yet, outside Capcom’s use of Yasichi and few other smaller items, like Henry from Side Arms Hyper Dyne. All the characters also have certain spot in the roster both in terms of gameplay and design.
Ryu’s design at its core is a Japanese martial artist, specifically Masutatsu Oyama. While originally a South Korean, Oyama has been one of the most influential martial artists in Japanese culture for developing his one-hit kill techniques that could kill a bull. Not only are Ryu’s and Oyama’s training style similar, but his Hurricane Kick, or Tatsumaki Senpuukyaku, was inspired by Oyama’s match against a Muy Thai fighter in 1954, where Oyama defeated this Black Cobra with an elbow strike, followed by a swift aerial triple kick. Yoshiji Soeno, Oyama’s most senio pupil, would later repeat this aerial marvel against another Muy Thai fighter in 1974 in hopes to rise against Reiba, who also went under the title The Dark Lord of Muy Thai. The name was attached to him not only due to his presence in the ring, but also due to his dealings with the local mafia, who killed him before he had a chance to fight Soeno.
Street Fighter‘s core is in Oyama’s challenge to fight against skillful martial artists in the world to test himself and his skills. The bout between Kyokushin Karate and Muy Thai kickboxing was not to be underestimated and spread around the scene in stories and legends. You never really knew any of this, but your brains did because of popular culture you consume.
Sagat is an amalgamation of these Muy Thai fighters, though due to how much has been lost to time its hard to say how much in terms of visual flavour. His trunks are style for certain are direct visual cues at least. Understanding how Ryu and Sagat are essentially the core martial art theme in Street Fighter gives them more depth both in terms of characters and design. This sort of approach is what makes Street Fighter II unique, even among Street Fighter games.
It’s said Thai fighters are not interested in fighting the Japanese anymore due to them lacking the same drive as they used to. There is not contest anymore.
However, things need to be more fantastic, and the low, semi-realistic take Street Fighter used to have is all but gone. Despite having roots in anime too (Hadouken is supposedly inspired by Uchuu Senkan Yamato and its Wave Motion Gun), none of its fantasy elements were too exaggerated.
The rest of the cast follows similar suit. Mike Bison is modeled after Mike Tyson, who at the time was the boxer around. Even now his name resonates among boxing enthusiasts. He has weight in popular culture due to his career, and probably will stay there for a good time, until someone stands up to take his place.
Ken, while being just a pallet swap of Ryu, was based on Joe Lewis. Lewis isn’t a small time name either, as he has won large number tournaments and was voted twice at the greatest fighter in karate history. He was a strong fighter, but what set him apart was his explosive speed. Ken’s kicks were probably inspired Lewis’ left side kick.
E. Honda and Zangief are both easily recognisable from their looks. Whereas Zangief is your archetypical show wrestler, E. Honda an archetypical sumo wrestler. Zangief carries the name of one Victor Zangiev, a Russian amateur wrestler who was known for his spinning throws, The Carousel. After winning two titles in Soviet Russia, he entered the New Japan Pro Wrestling scene 1989, from which he probably was just directly adapted into Street Fighter. Capcom’s staff is filled with pop-culture hogging fans, as it should be evident whoever has played their games. E. Honda is probably based on a well-known sumo wrestler, but my knowledge on sumo history is lacking. Only as of late I’ve begun to appreciate the sport. However, seeing he is still a very unique character in the whole of the roster, E. Honda stands out on his own and counters Zangief in the heavy weight department.
Guile’s sources, while clear, are rather interesting. Combine with 1980’s American Action movies Schwarzenegger offered with a cyborg Nazi Rudolf von Stroheim from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and you get Guile. Stroheim’s influence comes in with Guile’s neat, flat cut, while the rest comes from Arnold’s physique and the American soldier image. Guile is a strong character, very limited in some sense, yet extremely explosive when used properly. Even without the JoJo reference, Guile’s appearance is very much to the point and shows one of the ways how Capcom’s staff didn’t stick just with Japanese popular culture. Well, Sagat and Mike Tyson already told you this, but the point still stands.
This playing with existing ideas and giving them form plays out in Dhalsim and Blanka as well. While neither has a strong real-world point of comparison per se, they both embody the idea of something that has spread across the world. Dhalsim as the Indian mystic who can contort his body into the most odd shapes and breathe fire isn’t exactly a stereotype. It’s more a mystical character and a perception the rest of the world has of some of India’s holier people. The skulls around his neck are a point of interest too, as you wouldn’t expect any other character carrying them around. Blanka is probably the strangest of the bunch due to him being a wild child, and is a good example of Japanese culture electrifying a something to an extreme degree. A green beast-man itself is nothing new, and out of all the more human kind of characters he stands out.
Balrog, the Spanish ninja, stands out for a different reason. The only globally accepted warrior-type characters Europe has are knights and Vikings. The rest don’t even scratch the surface. Nobody even knows Finland has an old martial arts of its own that is based on bear’s movements. Thus, Balrog fills the place of the exotic. A very lean, masked assassin with a claw might not be anything new, but putting flamenco into the mix allowed them to create something that reminds an archetype, but isn’t one. It could also be that Balrog gained his design cues from Japanese pop-culture, with him sharing similar history with JoJo‘s Dio and tends to hold a rose between his lips, a thing Japanese tend to repeat with certain kind of beautiful male characters.
Vega is Yasunori Kato of The Tale of the Imperial Capital. This in itself doesn’t matter much. the West only has passing familiarity with the character and story through the anime Doomed Megalopolis. What matters more is that the influence from Kato comes into play in his military uniform design. With a glance the player can see that Vega is something serious; while all other characters are martial artists, Vega is a military leader. Vega’s uniform however isn’t anything exceptional in itself, as it is more or less a suit from the Imperial Japan’s army. Vega is also the only character who still has a introduction before the fight, where he throws his cape away. That alone makes Vega seem a threat. These few simple things hammer in Vega’s influence.
Lastly, we have Chun-Li. Her design harkens back to a time when Japan had a boom for Chinese culture, hence such titles as Ranma½ and Gekisatsu! Uchuuken came to be. Her design takes the usual Chinese qipao and dons her hair into buns. Both of these are very traditional take on Chinese clothing, though her choice of military boots and wrist bands with spikes give a more lethal impression. Those wrist bands and Blanka are pretty much the only thing in the design department that hasn’t aged all that well, but have become iconic in the game scene. Chun-Li uses some open hand techniques that were inspired by Chinese kung-fu, but her very core point was her legs. Her design makes a clear colour difference between her qipao and lower body, and this comes clear through Hyakuretsukyaku, or Lighting Kicks. Certainly, she was designed with certain liking in mind, but this doesn’t demerit her at all; it gives her far more control in terms of visuals and how she controls the fight through speed from her legs as opposed to punches or projectiles.
That’s where come to an end. Street Fighter II didn’t just write the book how make a V.S. Fighter, but also what character styling to use. Almost all fighting games that followed used the same base formulae of character set-up and design to some extent. The simpler designs like Ryu and Sagat carry a long history before they were put into sprites, and often the reality is more fantastic than what we see on the screen.