Video games are an important force in modern popular culture. I remember talking to new students when I was teaching introductory Wing Chun classes for my Sifu back in Salt Lake. I would often ask students what got them interested in the martial arts and was surprised to hear a number of individuals mention video games rather than movies or television. Increasingly these games are the arena where young people have their first significant personal encounters with the traditional Asian fighting arts. This is an important phenomenon and something that needs to be discussed more often.
As such I am happy to introduce the following guest post by Rob Argent. In this essay Rob gets us up to speed on the history of martial arts in the video games and suggests some trends that we may want to watch for in the future. He is a freelance writer with a degree in English language and literature. He has previously trained in Karate, Kickboxing and Muay Thai and he is currently studying Taiji Quan. He lives in Birmingham, England with his two pet fish.
When the first video games to feature martial arts arrived on our screens back in the mid seventies, they were at the cutting edge of technology. However, that didn’t necessarily mean that they were realistic and representative of true martial styles. Back when the most powerful computer console was running 8 bit titles, the use of any fighting technique was purely for aesthetic purposes, even if the graphics didn’t really make clear what was going on. The large, pixellated blocks that were your character might throw what appears to be a rapid center line punch, but then again it might just have been them trying to stretch their arm.
In part due to the technological limitations of the time, partly due to the game developers’ lack of research into how people actually fight, players could pick from appropriately dressed fighters but couldn’t use a particular style. Karate, Kung Fu and Judo were often thrown together into a mish mash of vaguely mystical brawling. The initial wave of martial based games were from the eighties onwards, when the original Kung Fu craze of the seventies had winded down. Whilst that movement had left in its wake new practitioners and demonstrated that martial arts held mass appeal, the public was rarely given any explanation of what they were seeing. The average movie goer knew who Bruce Lee was, and had probably seen David Carradine on their TV screens, but that didn’t mean that they were shown the difference between Japanese and Chinese arts, let alone Southern Kung Fu styles and Northern ones. Due to this, there wasn’t an expectation for video games to realistically imitate specific moves or techniques, and no one was going to call them out on this. Anyone who has seen Big Trouble in Little China or Showdown in Little Tokyo will understand what kind of “background research” was being done at the time. Unfortunately, this lack of study into the different arts meant that the underlying philosophy of each style was lost on gamers as well – you could pump the quarters into the machine all you wanted, but you never found out why they were fighting each other.
Game plots in the 8 bit era were generally basic, with only a few notable exceptions that were outside of the fighting genre. Cashing in on trends and famous faces was the typical choice, and games featuring Bruce Lee (in 1983’s eponymously titled Bruce Lee) and Karate champion Jeoffrey Thompson (following suit in 1985’s Way Of The Exploding Fist, its title a homage to Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do) often sold because of the marketing as much as for their gameplay. Initial forays into one on one fighting titles closely imitated each other despite the fact that they were being made across America, Japan and England. The main focus was on the speed of the matches, and the excitement of the round rather than plausible moves or viable combinations. Due to this slightly confused approach to designing characters and their abilities, most products tended to indulge in a form of Orientalism, featuring an all American hero facing off against otherworldly East Asian wizards or martial masters. Even stranger, the games made in Japan also appeared to do this, in an attempt to capture the substantial North American market.
Nowadays it is easy to discover and share information via the medium of the internet, and the rise of specialist TV channels means that more bespoke programming is available for anyone with an interest in anything off the beaten path. And in the same way that funding is generally given to the most popular of industries, most game developers were not looking to put all of their financial backing behind games that championed obscure fighting arts when they could support sure fire crowd pleasers such as the Super Mario platforming games instead.
Over time, players were given more advanced gameplay options; no longer would their combatant only be able to move from left to right with a handful of strikes at their disposal, they could dodge in and out of the foreground, link together flowing combinations and utilize weapons. As the 16 bit era of the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo dawned so too did the advent of new genres and ideas. With improved graphics and color schemes, developers could make more impressive animations, and started to pay closer attention to the different styles that a fighter could use. Whereas the original 8 bit Street Fighter title – like many of its contemporaries – only allowed the use of one character, the next generation sequel introduced seven other fighters, each with their own different fighting style. Backstories and plot points arisen from having to accommodate so many other personas. Whilst still falling back on the simple premise of a fighting tournament, Street Fighter 2 had the panache to include a Karate practitioner looking to attain mastery (Ryu), a Kung Fu fighter out to avenge her father (Chun Li) and a Yoga master looking to support his fellow villagers (Dhalsim). We had interesting personalities instead of mindless fighting machines for a change.
Alongside the new consoles came the side scrolling beat em up (Streets Of Rage, Golden Axe, etc.), a variation on what had come before, and platforming games that incorporated martial elements. Again choosing to concentrate more on the martial than the arts, titles such as Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden used ninjitsu as a shorthand for magic, playing up to the slightly supernatural stylings of the tackier end of what was seen on the cinema screen. Throughout the years there has been a trend of games erring towards the more fantastical side of the martial arts, being as it affords them more flexibility with story lines and gameplay mechanics – fighters can withstand a ridiculous number of blows, perform outrageous acrobatics and face off against mythical beasts. This is what appeals to their target audience which at the time was predominantly children. Meanwhile, the more reflective, contemplative side of the arts was being promoted to adults. Tai Chi became associated more with health benefits than self defense, and was promptly marketed to Westerners as an exotic alternative to attending regular gym classes. Whilst this sadly meant that many students weren’t understanding the application and intention of the moves they were learning, it nonetheless kept the art in the public eye.
From The Big Screen To The Small Screen.
As mentioned above, games developers and their marketing teams have used celebrities and movie licences to sell games since the first home consoles were released. An easy way to tap into a much larger brand and piggyback on the success of a Hollywood blockbuster, the obligatory video game tie in has earned itself a reputation for typically being a rushed, second rate product that is loosely linked into the film’s story, often simply offering a series of shooting or fighting levels with movie clips in between each level to pad out the story. Following on from the (admittedly limited) success of Bruce Lee and Jeoffrey Thompson, Jet Li’s likeness was used in a PlayStation 2 title Rise To Honour. Although not based on a single film, the game summarizes what to expect from a standard action game that is given a celebrity endorsement.
Regardless of the emotional content of the film, or its view of chinese martial styles, the gaming equivalents tend to reduce the purpose of the story down to a seemingly never ending battle with generic background characters. A prime example of this is the comparison between the games of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the first Matrix movie. Despite both being released in 1999 and featuring games released on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, there really shouldn’t be any glaring similarities if one was to watch the films back to back. However, both games adopt a third person perspective that pits the player against a deluge of identikit opponents across levels and scenarios that aren’t even referenced in the screenplays, let alone actually shown on screen. Unfortunately there are still times when big budget, high profile games are as influenced by authentic martial artists as they are by movie showmanship.
One bone of contention that has always dogged fighting games is the sense of impact when one character connects with another. Getting across the weight and power of a punch is a challenge that seems to be one few developers can rise to, but when Wuxia and the use of wirework in films became fashionable again, there was an easy get out for the gaming industry. Yuen Woo Ping’s softer, more operatic fight scenes were being reflected in games that didn’t have to feature heavy hitting animations. Perhaps the best genre to show a more all-encompassing appreciation of martial studies is the adventure game. Offering action as well as dialogue options and forcing the player to consider the consequences of their actions, the combat may not be as gripping, or as immediate as other types of gaming, but the philosophy of the arts comes through. With the advent of games like Shenmue we get to see the character as well as his fighting style, exploring themes of revenge and responsibility. Bioware’s Jade Empire, also a 32 bit generation game, openly embraced Wuxia and set its story in a fictionalized ancient China. With the exception of various smaller online role playing games, big developers are usually reluctant to create games that are too centered on what is perceived to be a niche market (and Wuxia would fall under this category in their eyes).
The critical success of both Shenmue and Jade Empire was an impressive surprise, although both titles have since languished in commercial terms, each of them enjoying a cult following but nothing more. However, they have prompted writers and developers to take a more cinematic approach to their story lines, which have in turn forced movie adaptations to take a closer path to the films that they are based on. Sleeping Dogs, released last year, was a huge success with both the critics and the public, and while it is closer in feel to Hong Kong gangster movies like Infernal Affairs, it has shown that a good, story driven title can be respectful to how martial artists are portrayed on the small screen while also delivering action and excitement. Part of a backlash of sorts against the likes of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Sleeping Dogs and its equivalents (the rise of UFC and Tony Jaa’s films spring to mind), technical kicks and punches are used in combination with gruesome takedowns and outright brawling, indicating that the general attitude to the portrayal of martial arts has swung the other way.
Looking To The Future.
A big trend to sweep gaming is the rise of the MMORPG, or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. Connecting millions of gamers via a single video gaming landscape, these titles give people the freedom to create their own personalized character and the freedom to do whatever they want; quests against hordes of non player characters, one on one battles, or even menial work such as becoming a blacksmith. The free roaming nature of the likes of Jade Empire and Shenmue have been adopted into this style, which gives the average martial art fan a wealth of online titles that allow them to be a virtual warrior. Varying from the big name heavy hitters who feature martial arts subsections (World of Warcraft’s Mists of Pandera is a Kung Fu Panda-esque spin off) through licensed games (Star Wars’ The Old Republic and The Matrix), to independently created original stories (Age of Wulin, World of Kung Fu and Swordsman Online); as with the internet sites, academic research and dedicated TV shows, martial arts has found its own place in this online gaming world. Whilst the larger titles may not have as much focus on the varying abilities and techniques of individual fighting arts, the more specialized ones offer up additional background information on the history of them, raising awareness of some of the lesser known fighting methods; bringing the once forgotten world of rivers and lakes to anyone who has an internet connection.
Compared with previous decades, when games were once for kids and kids alone, games nowadays are expected to have a much more detailed research and development process before they reach the shop shelves. Ever since Sony decided to market the PlayStation at young adults as well as children, we’ve come to expect bigger, more emotionally interesting games that aren’t rushed out to capitalize on the latest trend (although there are still some of those about). The reputation of the lone gamer, sitting in a darkened room all day, doesn’t stand up anymore and the person loading up their Xbox 360 is as likely to be taking a Wing Chun class as anyone else. The worlds of Wuxia, illicit combat tournaments and martial inspired action packed stories continue to fascinate people, and big companies know this. Photo realistic animations based on real life martial artists are in a wide variety of games nowadays so there is no longer the question of whether or not the moves you are seeing are correct. Over the decades, we’ve seen the fighting get better, but it is only in the past five to ten years that a growing awareness of the reasoning behind the fighting being demonstrated in games. Hopefully, in time we will see a successful title that manages to balance both sides of the equation.
So after reading how games have changed their impression of the fighting arts over the years, maybe you’re interested in playing a few. The following five titles (and honorable mentions afterwards) are the good starting points.
1. Yie Ar Kung Fu (1985, Konami)
Although not the very first fighting game to focus on the use of martial arts – that honor belongs to Kung Fu Master, released a year earlier – Yie Ar Kung Fu centred on the idea of one on one battles. Instead of countless mindless enemies being thrown at you, the main character was locked into a fierce duel with a fellow master. Opponents varied from style to style, often bearing weapons such as nunchaku, poles and swords; many of them were based on famous movie stars of the time as well. The graphics and limited controls have dated but the entertaining nature of the game and it’s iconic musical score have weathered the test of time. Strangely enough, despite being based on two fighters battling it out, there was only ever the option of playing against the computer, and not against a friend!
2. Street Fighter 2 (1991, Capcom)
Not just one of the most influential fighting games of all time, but one of the most important video games of all time, period. Refining what had come before it, including Yie Ar Kung Fu and the poorly received first Street Fighter, Capcom chose to make a fast and stylish title that wasn’t overly concerned with how balanced the various characters were. In doing so, they unintentionally reflected what real sparring was like. Suddenly a large, muscle heavy wrestler couldn’t move as fast as a small, lithe Kung Fu practitioner, and the world wide tournament setting allowed for Karate, Kung Fu, Muay Thai, Sumo, wrestling and a host of other fighting methods were featured. Add a two player option and you’ve got a game that established how to make a smash hit beat em up. The various updates and sequels have refined the game, even featuring a Bruce Lee lookalike.
3. Mortal Kombat (1992, Midway)
Tying into the link between movies and video games, this was originally intended to be a vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme, first based on Universal Soldier then Bloodsport. Neither license was obtained, so instead the developers decided to cook up a mystical tournament that decided the fate of the world, and loaded it with shaolin monks, ninjas and sorcerers. Mainly remembered for the (at the time) shocking amount of blood and gore, the game was also revolutionary in the way it digitally captured characters’ movements, creating more realistic movements that were based on kickboxers. The huge success of the first game led to a long running series that has managed to compete with Street Fighter, resulting in sequels, movie spin offs, TV series and even adventure games that added more character depth.
4. Jade Empire (2005, Bioware)
Renowned for their epic role playing games, Bioware took the risky decision of creating a sprawling Wuxia storyline that spanned a fictionalised China and introduced a language created specifically for the game. Although the fighting system is streamlined to the point where it is overly simplistic in relation to all other titles around at the same time, players are given a staggering choice of Kung Fu styles, many of which are based on real life forms. The addition of chi enhanced fighting adds a cinematic quality to it, but ultimately it is the story and its characters (which include monks, ninjas, fighting princesses and warlords) that draw you in. Within minutes of starting up the game the main character is wandering the grounds of a Kung Fu school, learning countless techniques in an attempt to become a master.
5. Sleeping Dogs (2012, Square Enix)
Taking the open world, exploratory nature of Grand Theft Auto and setting its story in modern day Hong Kong, Sleeping Dogs is one of the more grounded games on this list. The combat is gritty and nasty, with lead pipes and knives being used as much as open hand strikes and technical takedowns. Despite a long and arduous development process that seen the title nearly completed and then cancelled, the game features a fascinating sub plot whereby the main character develops his Kung Fu whilst undergoing a crisis of conscience. More of a tribute to films like the Godfather than to Fist Of Fury, there are enough nods and winks to what martial arts fans want to see to justify its inclusion here. A downloadable expansion, however, focuses on a tournament that perfectly encapsulates Enter The Dragon.
Honorable Mentions – Kung Fu Master (1984, Irem), Shenmue (1999, Sega), UFC 2009 Undisputed (2009, Yuke’s Osaka).
If you enjoyed this article you might also want to check out: Is the Iphone Killing Kung Fu? Economics and Globalization in Chinese Martial Studies.