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*THIS BLOG WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT Hardcore Casual Gamer*
Fighting games are subject to some of the most die-hard love in the video game industry…and some of the most scathing criticism. Since the dawn of Street Fighter II, fighting games have spawned tournaments and highly advanced meta-games that send fans into rabid frenzies. In the wake of Street Fighter II, various franchises have come and gone while others have carved out their own respectable place in the realm of fighting games. Today, franchises like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Super Smash Bros, Tekken, and Soulcalibur sit at the top of the fighting game food chain. Despite varying degrees of differences between them, there seems to be one defining feature that they all share; they all have familiar faces that function as the ‘poster boys’ for their respective franchise.
The idea of having featured faces in fighting games no doubt started at the beginning with Street Fighter II. Ryu and Ken are undoubtedly the most recognizable characters from the franchise. Their back-stories and character growth are the most focused-on aspect in the franchise with regards to the narrative direction, despite their relative irrelevance to the overall plot of M-Bison and his various schemes for world-domination (that’s an oversimplification, but if you know the franchise, you’ll be thankful I kept it so). Similarly, the poster boys of Mortal Kombat, Scorpion and Sub-Zero (lately, mostly Scorpion) have very little to do with the over-reaching plot that accompanies the intense violence of the franchise. Tekken and Soulcalibur distinguish themselves from the previously mentioned franchises in that the featured faces are central to the plots therein. In Tekken, we see the primary protagonists and antagonists (Heihachi, Kazuya and Jin) linked by blood and responsibility to a corrupt company which the majority of Tekken plots revolve around. Soulcalibur features, arguably, the most consistent plot throughout the series that centers on each character’s conquest for the Soul Edge. Siegfried, the series’ poster boy, is consistently central to the plot and eventually transforms into the series’ most recognizable character, Nightmare. In Super Smash Bros, there isn’t so much one poster boy as there are dozens, but inevitably Mario becomes the most featured face when it comes to promotional material and pre-rendered cut-scenes.
There are multiple reasons why a character becomes the face of a franchise. Ryu and Ken are not only relatable in that they have noble goals of self-improvement and strong senses of honor, but they also feature the easiest to master move-sets for beginners. Any fighting fan can attest to the first time they figured out the input command for the infamous Hadoken. Likewise, Jin and Kazuya from Tekken have very straight-forward combat styles and are the characters of choice for newcomers to the franchise. Guilty Gear, Fatal Fury/King of Fighters, and Super Smash Bros also feature poster boys with simple move-sets that allow players the luxury of testing the waters and becoming more adept at developing strategies and mastering combos.
It's all fun and games until someone loses a spine...
Things get a little more complicated when examining Mortal Kombat and Soulcalibur. In Soulcalibur, Siegfried/Nightmare is not quite as accessible to newcomers in a way that’s comparable to Ryu or Jin. He wields a massive zweihander sword that has a slower build-up and requires a more careful approach to be effective. Instead of an accessible fighting-style, Siegfried/Nightmare’s popularity is more a result of his design elements and complex character development. Initially a noble warrior seeking to destroy Soul Edge, Siegfried instead becomes consumed by its power and transforms into the frightening presence known as Nightmare. Throughout the series’ narrative, Siegfried struggles to free himself from Soul Edge’s clutches and eventually manages to separate himself from the Nightmare persona, but only after grueling hardships and the deaths of many of his friends. This engaging character development is at the core of Siegfried’s popularity, and continues to carry much of the weight of Soulcalibur’s narrative direction with each subsequent entry. Mortal Kombat was initially not subject to a specific poster boy(s) following its conception (and indeed featured a story centered on Liu Kang and Shang Tsung), but the popularity of Scorpion and Sub-Zero was evident from the get-go. In a game that focused on the positively gut-wrenching (literally) aspects of fighting, the eternal rivals were the most distinct in their design and arguably the most violent in their combat approach. Scorpion gained notoriety from his brutal fighting-style that centered on impaling his opponents with his signature Spear. Additionally, Scorpion had a unique vocal presence, with creator Ed Boon providing the now inescapable catchphrases “Get Over Here!” and “Come Here!” Sub-Zero found fame not only with his brutality comparable to Scorpion (Sub-Zero’s spine-ripping fatality is perhaps the main reason Mortal Kombat was so vehemently opposed by parents the world over), but also in that he was perhaps the most versatile and effective combatant in the franchises’ early days. In contemporary times, we’ve seen Scorpion take almost full control over the title of poster boy for the franchise, thanks to his distinctive presence, growing effectiveness in competitive play, and a clear bias from Ed Boon (not only does Boon provide Scorpion’s signature catchphrases, he has repeatedly made it known that Scorpion is his favorite MK character).
Is there an advantage to having poster boys in fighting games? The simple answer is yes. On the surface, it’s easy to deduce that having a relatable, popular face to feature on the cover of a game will lead to more attention drawn to the franchise and (hopefully) more units sold. Star power alone is not something to be dismissed. Without Scorpion or Sub-Zero, it’s hard to imagine where Mortal Kombat would be in terms of popularity or longevity. Additionally, when it comes to crossovers like Marvel VS Capcom or Mortal Kombat VS DC Universe, it becomes an avid gamer or fan fiction writer’s dream come true to see Ryu take on Wolverine, or Scorpion trading blows with Batman (Scorpion’s popularity earned him a spot on the roster of the DC Universe-centered fighter, Injustice: God’s Among Us). A recognizable face plastered everywhere in advertising and cross-promotion does wonders for building hype and a presence in pop culture draws the attention of casual observers, potentially leading to an even greater rise in a franchises’ popularity.
A lack of a poster boy(s) is something that is fairly common in many lesser-known/forgotten fighting frachises. Samurai Shodown was a franchise to be reckoned with during the early 90’s, but even fans of the series would be hard-pressed to name the series’ most popular character, and most casual fans wouldn’t even be able to point them out of a line-up. Similarly, more contemporary franchises like Virtua Fighter and Dead or Alive are often critically acclaimed, yet suffer from a lack of distinctive characters and little-to-no recognition in realms outside of the fighting game faithful (Dead or Alive’s most popular character, Ryu Hayabusa, is more famous for his role in the Ninja Gaiden series).
Hey look, it’s the guy from Capcom vs SNK 2! …
Of course, with popularity, there comes the inevitable backlash from fans that complain of over-exposure and unfair exclusion of other characters. Fans of both Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat have voiced their dissatisfaction with the Ryu/Ken and Scorpion/Sub-Zero –centric nature of those game’s promotional efforts. With the announcement of Mortal Kombat X on next-gen systems, there was as much complaining about ‘ol Scorpion and Sub-Zero being featured as there were excited sentiments regarding the return of the franchise.
The outcry from fans is perhaps understandable on some level, as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat do indeed feature fighters that are equally interesting and often more effective combatants. However, though the fans cry for fresh faces on the cover, it makes very little sense for Capcom or Netherrealm Studios to move away from their respective poster boys. Not only are Ryu/Ken and Scorpion/Sub-Zero overwhelmingly popular, they embody the spirit of their series perfectly and are the clear choices for representing what each game hopes to achieve in terms of their unique presentation. Ryu and Ken are classic martial artists with goals of achieving mastery over their fighting styles, which is in essence what Street Fighter players attempt to do every time they turn on the game. Scorpion and Sub-Zero are hated rivals, hell-bent on killing one another in the most brutal way imaginable. Mortal Kombat has always been about over-the-top violence ending in the horrible death of your opponent, a concept embodied perfectly through Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s rivalry. Whether fans like it or not, poster boys are an essential part of the spirit of the games they represent.
The faces of fighting are an integral part of what makes today’s popular franchises so successful, and there’s no indication that they’ll be going anywhere anytime soon. Are there franchises that could have remained relevant with more star power? Are there existing franchises that would benefit from fresh faces? It’s all mostly speculation. I invite fighting game fanatics to post your thoughts in the comments sections, and do yourself a favor; watch EVO this weekend.
Also, here’s this video detailing the reason why Ryu and Ken are constantly fighting each other…