Fighting games are back.
It’s been a pretty good couple of years for those of us who love virtual pugilism. We saw the release of Street Fighter IV launch fighters back into the public eye. Now, Street Fighter V is upon us, preparing to take the genre into uncharted territory once again.
While I am a fan of the designs for SFV’s newcomers, something interesting happened on the road to release: Capcom explicitly stated one of the new characters, Rashid, was the result of collaboration with their Middle Eastern distributor for the purpose of “accurate representation”.
Considering Capcom and the Street Fighter series in particular hasn’t exactly been the most progressive space, Rashid’s design was both an important and necessary step into the future. Whereas in the past alienation was of no concern to Japanese developers, as global communication evolved, so did awareness. The ignorance of the past is no longer a viable excuse. By acknowledging the Middle East as one of the great fighting game scenes and seeking their guidance on Rashid’s creation, Capcom did what we people of color wish everyone did: They got us in the room.
And it would be foolish not to: fighting games have the most diverse community in all of gaming.
Don’t get me wrong, however: This is revolutionary for Capcom. As the biggest dog in the yard, to see them hold themselves to such a modern standard is amazing. However, other companies got the memo much earlier when it comes to progressive design. Namco and the Tekken series immediately comes to mind as a champion for representation in fighters. Netherrealm is knocking it out of the park with Jacqui Briggs and Kung Jin alone in Mortal Kombat X. More recently, Microsoft has made a point to embrace diversity and adopt inclusive designs with their work on franchises such as Killer Instinct.
But even before these titans of industry adopted honest efforts, there was a little company in Osaka putting in work:
Once upon a time, SNK Playmore (hereafter referred to as “SNK”) was a fierce rival to Capcom, specifically in the 90s. Some would say they were equals, but if there were ever a comparison to made, it would be that SNK is the Nikola Tesla of fighting games: An astonishing, yet unheralded innovator. Super meter? Team fighting? Breakaway stages? Camera angles? First female final boss? All SNK, and that was merely the tip of the iceberg.
However, among their innovations, SNK also has several specialties, including one which is terribly unappreciated: Character design.
While Capcom decided a savage beast man was a good representation of Brazil in 1991, SNK introduced young players of color like me to Capoeira and samba music with Richard Meyer and Pao Pao Cafe in Fatal Fury. While Balrog was little more than the stereotypical goon with added punching power, SNK gave us not one, but two awesome black American characters with Heavy D! (yes, with exclamation point) and Lucky Glauber in The King of Fighters ’94, punctuated by an atmosphere straight from my block with the USA stage. That same year saw Mickey Rogers redeem himself in Art of Fighting 2 by opening up a gym to keep troubled youth (as he once was in the previous game) off the streets. The reason he was troubled? Local kingpin Mr. Big, who was under the employ of a crooked police commissioner to maintain control of their city.
SNK’s design effort didn’t just blow this Brooklyn boy away, but it also highlighted just how much everyone else was mailing it in. By 1994, these four playable characters of color were already established by SNK. Capcom’s response? Dee Jay. It always comes back to Dee Jay. I mean, T. Hawk was there too, but after seeing Thunder in Killer Instinct, well…I tried.
While Capcom eventually righted the Brazil ship with the Matsuda siblings — Street Fighter III’s Sean and his sister, the debuting Laura from SFV — SNK’s effort with Brazil won them a fiercely loyal scene in that country. That Middle East region responsible for Rashid? Traditionally SNK territory, centered in Pakistan. Don’t even get me STARTED on Mexico, where The King of Fighters there is akin to Starcraft in Korea. Speaking of, did I mention Korea? You know, they….
To this day, SNK’s design and world-building talent remain unmatched in the genre, leaving them an abundance of goodwill in the global space. Even though the company fell on hard times at the turn of the millennium, their legacy endured on the sheer power of representation and now they’re clawing back.
So, in the latest episode of striking while the iron is hot, SNK now hopes to capitalize on SFV’s momentum by releasing the latest entry in their most popular series — the previously mentioned King of Fighters — with The King of Fighters XIV. One can assume their built-in global fanbase is primed to launch the game into the stratosphere (once everyone else gets over the graphics), with community-focused features such as 6-player party lobbies and the most accessible fighting system the franchise has ever seen. So far, so good.
Fighting games are back for a new era, and with them a more honest, modern approach to character design for our ever-changing, ever-growing player demographic. There’s just so much design opportunity out there. Jacqui Briggs up top? It was almost a decade before black women got her (good job, Netherrealm). To pursue diversity in character design is such a no-brainer as inclusiveness becomes increasingly important for both business and the continued evolution of the medium. Fighting games are in a unique position as by design, they are built to showcase that diversity. When executed with a true passion for representation, in this guy’s opinion, nothing in gaming is more interesting than the fighting game.
I can only hope their developers believe so, too, because we’re on the verge of a serious breakthrough…and there’s no way they’re doing it without us in the room.