Monday, 19 April 2010

The World Warriors: The Everlasting aesthetic quality of the original Street Fighters

In an age before FMV sequences and dialogue heavy cut-scenes, game designers faced greater challenges in order to express the personalities of their characters. The visual design was paramount in order to tell gamers who or what they were playing as. A character’s design had to speak volumes in order to engage the player, or at least captivate their imaginations beyond the duration of a play session. Without exposition and cut-scenes, designers would have to strive to create memorable images that would remain firm in the minds of the players and fans. A costume or a haircut had to speak a thousand words. It was an age of overcoming limitations with unmatched creativity and simple, effective design.

Proof of this simple, effective character design can be seen in the lasting, almost iconic images of Pac-Man, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. These designs have retained their aesthetic basics for decades and have proven to be both memorable and endearing enough to warrant sustained success for their respective games. Admittedly Pac Man and Sonic may not enjoy the same successes as Mario, but the strength of their images despite commercial failures in more recent years only reinforces the quality of their design. Such classic characters needed strong, likeable designs in order to keep the player interested and more importantly, give the games a unique and identifiable mascot. After all, being forced to play as a character you hated the sight of for the duration of a game is not likely to sustain your enjoyment. So, what happens then, when the player is given a choice of characters? How do you create images for a selection of characters; images that are so strong, that a player will be able to identify with them and enjoy playing as them for the duration? I think Capcom has the answer to that one.

In Capcom’s first Street Fighter game, the player took control of Ryu – the series’ long standing protagonist- as he fought colourful and varied opponents around the world. With Street Fighter II, they changed the template and gave the player a selection of eight different characters from which to choose. How is a gamer meant to cope with such unprecedented levels of choice? Back then, such diversity was unheard of and Capcom still had to ensure that everybody didn’t simply just pick Ryu, or Ken, to be more accurate. Capcom’s answer was to create eight unique fighters, all with images so memorable and emotive, that a player could make a heartfelt choice. Add to this a slew of unique fighting styles and choosing your world warrior became less about which was the best and more about which was the best fit for you. For me, personally, this is where the character’s aesthetics play the biggest role.

Each character’s appearance speaks volumes about their personalities and history and it is this that allows players to make the informed choices about who they prefer. No need to read a backstory, no need to research their strengths and weaknesses – just put your faith in how well-balanced the game is and pick whoever you think is the coolest.

If you want a safe bet, you’ll pick Ryu, after all he’s the protagonist from the series’ beginning and his design is the simplest of all. Like his fighting style, Ryu’s design is straight up, balanced and effective. His stoic gaze, his muted colour palette and his well-rounded repertoire of moves make Ryu a logical starting point. His white suit and red headband not only echoing the simplicity of his design, but also representing his home country of Japan. Simple and pure both in aesthetics and mechanics: Ryu is the all-rounder, the starting point.
Next, we come to Ken. To the untrained eye, he is effectively the same as Ryu, only displaying a few subtle, but massively important details. Ken is Ryu re-drawn with a grin, a red outfit and the blonde surfer hairdo that, in the 90’s, seemingly represented American males the world over. He is the Zach Morris of Street Fighting. If Ryu was American, he would be cocky, wear his hair long and not be seen dead in an understated white outfit. Ken, like his design, is Ryu’s louder, brash cousin.

By simply changing a hairdo and swapping some colours, Ryu’s character model is transformed into Ken and his personality along with it. The loud red suit and unkempt hair show us the polar opposite to Ryu’s serious warrior persona. Such minor changes transform the character and give us another design that speaks volumes about the personality it represents. Only a dick such as Ken would leave his hair down for a fight and you don’t have to read a back story to figure it out.

With such simple changes impacting characters to such an extent, Capcom could have adjusted Ryu’s colour scheme and hairdo with enough variety to fill out the whole roster. Thankfully, they instead set about creating another six varied fighters from all across the globe. Again, their aesthetics would serve to express their personalities; whether it was the wild-man Blanka throwing himself around the screen, electrocuting his enemies and sinking his teeth into their flesh, or Dahlsim using his spiritual powers to conjure fire and contort his limbs. Add to this mix Guile’s ‘brush-head’ hairdo, Zangief’s Mohican and scars, Chun Li’s hair buns and - to a lesser extent - Honda’s face paint and you have visual calling cards for each and every one of the warriors. These elements have been integral parts of each of the characters’ designs from their inception and have remained intact in their most recent iterations in Street Fighter IV. By reducing and simplifying each character to a bold, limited colour palette and giving them each one defining visual characteristic, Capcom is able to ensure the lasting impact of their character’s designs.

With so many iterations of the Street Fighter series over the years, you could be forgiven for thinking that such simplistic designs may become quickly outdated or at least lose their effectiveness in more recent years. Capcom seem to adhere to a set of well thought out, self-imposed rules. Street Fighter IV looks just as contemporary as any other game currently available, yet sacrifices nothing about design choices made nearly twenty years ago. They focus on simple, distinctive characteristics, allowing the characters to be given a visual makeover and still retain their personalities.

Logically, these rules would apply to just about any character design. If you think about Batman, Spiderman and their superhero fraternity, or the aforementioned Mario and Sonic, the same rules echo true. However, said rules are all the easier to follow when you have only one protagonist to focus upon. As I said before, Street Fighter II’s design team had to make eight individual characters work. The best validation for their efforts would be that the designs of the original eight world warriors still remain so strong and fully intact. You can still choose your character based upon how their visually expressed personality resonates with your own: something that is not easily achieved.

You have a man who wears the evidence of his bear-wrestling on his chest, another who has hair that defies gravity and reasonable logic, yet is somehow more believable, and memorable, than any of those Final Fantasy fops. Mix in a thunder-thighed Chinese police officer, a Brazilian wildman, a lunatic sumo and an Indian mystic along with our much-discussed martial arts experts and you have one of the most memorable and colourful casts ever assembled.

It’s probably apparent by now that I can wax lyrical about Street Fighter characters all day long but no matter how many big words I use and no matter how well I rationalise things and try to appear intellectual, my love for the World Warriors comes down to very simple emotions. Each and every one of them is cool: totally and utterly rad. As a boy I would draw them endlessly, dream of decent action figures and yet still put up with those horrible GI Joe style movie tie-in ones.

I still feel the same way about these characters as I did when I would obsess over the artwork covering my local arcade cabinet. They are the epitome of good character design and my desire to own decent action figures is one that still burns brightly even to this day.
Capcom’s flair for lasting, quality design goes way beyond their original eight street fighters. The four bosses retain the same iconic qualities of those that challenge them and throughout the series’ life span Capcom have continued to introduce a plethora of equally as impressive characters. However, as much as I may love the likes of Dudley, Gen and Ibuki, there is no-one quite like the original eight. Whilst Ryu and Ken, along with Gen, Adon and Sagat may have retained their images from the original Street Fighter, it was in Street Fighter II that we saw these images and personalities be forged.

It was Street Fighter II that captured my imagination unlike any other game before it and I will forever, stubbornly insist that it is the true, original Street Fighter game. That game cemented such strong and vibrant images and personalities into my consciousness and to have them awakened and sustained by Street Fighter IV is the greatest testament to the quality of their design. Like an old photograph, those characters evoke powerful emotions in me and without Capcom’s timeless design, such things would not be possible.


cr0nt said...

Love the paper fighters, got a link for the templates?

Nice article and if its possible has made me more hype. 9 days.

vandalworks said...

Mines ordered. Score. May have another person interested in a tourney too if we do another!

vandalworks said...

I've got to add about Blanka too, that he always impressed me aesthetically. Ginger people CAN be insanely cool, and his moves just added to the 'RAD'ness. Electricuting people and always seeing the same Xray was funny enough to do it countlessly. Ah the 50p pieces that I used to plunge into the coin slot for this...

The Faux Bot said...

The online tourney mode is gonna be the business, maybe we could orchestrate a tournament league? E.G. run an online one every Sunday, attribute points to the winners for a league prize at the end.

Also, the proper tourney is going to happen. One day. MVC3 will probably be out by then and it will be a fighting game fest for the ages.

cr0nt said...

Tournament mode is gonna be off the chizain.

Once mid-June comes around!

Until then we can have team battles, endless battles, cront's dojo sessions etc. We're gonna have some fun :D

vandalworks said...

Can I have a "You dont need to know fancy combo's to be a jammy bastard and win a few" lessons? I'm more experienced in this than anyone!

cr0nt said...

As long as its fun you can do whatever you want :D

vandalworks said...

Haha I'll give you 'fun' you wee rascal!


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