Giving characterless characters character

MKII fatalityFighting games are pretty incredible things really. Sure, they’re amazingly complicated, perfectly balanced and almost mathematical in the precision of their design.  But they also happen to be great at doing so much with so little. Whether it be their limited scope for impressing graphically, or the amazing maximisation of “wow” from a very limited bag of tricks, they really are the most efficient beasts of the industry.  That’s probably no small factor in why they’ve been key showpieces – often determinants of consoles’ successes – through the history of the medium.  From the 1990’s which were practically high on them, to the late 2000’s which saw the genre rise up from stasis, fighting games have proven reliable and resilient in the face of a changing consumer, and the seeming need for spectacles on every corner.  They may not be the show-stoppers they once were, but those fighting games, you just can’t stop them.

But what is a fighting game without its characters.  A major part of my attraction to a fighting game is how interesting the roster of characters is, including how appealing I find the art style.  I like the art style of King of Fighters better than Street Fighter.  I prefer Tekken’s to Dead or Alive’s.  And I appreciate Primal Rage’s more than any of them.  Fighting games live and die by their characters, and if you’ve just whacked a dollar into the arcade machine and are feeling uninspired by the ugly mugs staring back at you, you’d hardly be inspired to have a second bout.  Rise of the Robots isn’t derided just because it’s a rotten fighting game, it’s looked down upon because its characters were boring and uninspired.

And it’s crazy because in a lot of ways this is where the natural constraints of the genre hit hardest.  There’s often no real room – or desire for that matter – for character or plot development and in most cases players quite frankly couldn’t give a flying vagina about why the bloke is there beating up on another bloke.  As someone who hasn’t read a manual for what feels like a decade, I absorb every bit of information about a game from playing it, and so for me the age of reading a fighter’s backstory in a manual is way in the past.   If they look cool and fight even better, all is well in the cosmos, and I’ll fight to their heart’s desire.  And so the fireballs and dragon punches continue to flow.

All of which has resulted in a devil may care attitude to the creation of characters and their wild backstories.  If you’ve ever sat down and watched some of the more recent Tekken or Dead or Alive character introduction and ending movies, you’ll no doubt have noticed just how bananas it has all become.  While the most recent Mortal Kombat and its younger cousin Injustice: Gods Among Us handled story brilliantly, building a whole story around what ostensibly amount to match-ups through the roster, in most games story takes a justified backseat to the fisticuffs.

And that’s because while fleshing out stories has stayed sidelined for the most part, guys and girls that take their positions on the far left and right of the screen are given so much character in more passive ways.  The way they animate, their idle animations, their taunts – even the way they speak – it all goes a long way to building your relationship and feelings toward these characterless characters.  I don’t need cutscenes to establish that Terry Bogard is a bit of a wanker, his incessant cries of “c’mon c’mon!” and the way he carries himself says its all.  That’s all I really need to know before taking him to battle.  Same goes for Vega, for Baraka, for Steve Fox, for Brad Burns.  I have a fighting game type, and it’s through these passive cues I can pick my ‘soulmate’, and fight on into the early hours of the morning.


And all of this culminates in just how blown away I am with how the new Super Smash Bros gives life to ostensibly lifeless characters.  I’m not talking just about the Marios and Donkey Kongs – we all know their worlds and their motivations (for want of a better word) – but its some of the stranger characters that populate Smash’s roster that never fail to amaze me.  Who is this Ness bastard?  Why does he look a bit simple?  Earthbound, huh?  It’s a cult game?  What because it didn’t sell?  So why do so many people like it then? Wii Fit Trainer?  Really?  That woman that I had that hot and heavy week long affair with in 2008?  What’s she doing there?  It’s a roster that when I scroll the cursor across it for the first time  raises so many questions about who the flaming ‘eck these people are and what their deal is.  And that’s the absolute worst feeling when you’re playing a fighting game for the first time.

But then you get into a fight and all of that doubt and concern about the banality and foreignness of the roster goes away, because these characters don’t need scripted personalities when so much attention to detail has been paid to every part of their fighting persona.  These characters are all defined perfectly by their actions that what you know about even the more iconic Nintendo characters falls away and their SSB personas take centre stage.   Toon Link isn’t the kid that saves the world in Wind Waker any more, he’s the guy that throws bombs and whose spin attack defies gravity.  But despite the familiar faces that dot the roster,  it’s Wii Fit Trainer that won my heart from the moment I saw her (and him, I guess) in action.  The ultimate in (quite literally) faceless characters is given the biggest personality of all – from her speed-walking across the stage, to her power-bringing yoga moves, to even the way she spikes the volleyball – it all adds up to a character that has come to largely define my time with the game.  She has no back story and she does even really have an identity as such outside of SSB, but in spite of that, she manages to be the fighter with the most personality in a game that is full to the brim of them.  And that for me has always been the sign of a good fighting game roster.

Super Smash Bros seems to have moved to the head of the Nintendo class recently, and it’s that very smart and seemingly calculated separation from the source material that makes the series stand so well on its own merits.  SSB may not be the most technical fighting game on the planet – it may not even be a fighting game in the traditional sense of the term – but it is certainly the one with the most character.  By bringing together a ridiculously diverse and incongruous roster, Nintendo and developer Sora Ltd achieved what Capcom couldn’t with Street Fighter III, successfully treading that fine line of keeping with the old characters while bringing in the new.  But it’s this daring that has always pushed the Super Smash Bros series, and through the slaving detail to the bread and butter of its characters old and new, has seen it reach new and better heights with each entry.

I felt like I’d written a lot about fighting games recently.  Turns out I was right.  So for further reading feel free to indulge on my thoughts on why Clayfighter could be Nintendo’s answer to the revived fighting game war, or perhaps something about how Tekken and Soul Calibur’s Yoshimitsu was integral to keeping the crazy in the genre.  Of course you could also take a trip down memory lane with me and remember the age of the arcade perfect home conversion.