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Friday, April 19, 2024

Fighting Games Like 'Mortal Kombat' Have Come a Long Way

Street Fighter. The King of Fighters. Tekken.

These classic video games have more in common than just being part of the fighting game genre. Their rosters are all full of different faces from vastly different places. Predating more recent calls for greater diversity in game protagonists and characters, these games presented players with the choice to play as someone who truly resonated with them on a multitude of levels. Diverse casts quickly become a fighting game must-have feature, and are now recognized as a defining staple of the genre.

Unlike the majority of video games, which sport a single main cast, fighting games feature a plethora of faces that players are able to choose from in deciding who their protagonist will be. Having so many preexisting “main” characters puts fighting games in a position to have much more diverse casts than other video games. This isn’t just a diversity of character archetypes and special moves, but also of character looks, races, ethnicities, genders, and beliefs. In fact, as a fan of the genre myself, I consider these differences (ones shared with real people) to be just as, if not more, important to the character roster as the play style differences.

Start With Street Fighter

The first “true” fighting game by modern standards was Capcom’s Street Fighter II, a classic that introduced the base formula of what fans expect from the genre. Not only did it offer innovative gameplay, Street Fighter II also featured one of the most diverse rosters of its time. Considering that the game’s main premise was based on gathering the strongest fighters in the world to compete in one big tournament, the diversity made sense. This made for a game that was unique, with character designs, beliefs, and backgrounds that many players from every corner of the globe could look at and relate to. For once, in the ’90s arcade era, kids other than white males could see themselves reflected in the games they were playing, though these reflections came with some issues.

Street Fighter 2 may have introduced a great new concept and broadened our horizons a bit, but it also introduced a curse that the fighting game genre would fight for years: the blatant racial stereotypes, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny attached to many characters on these giant rosters.


The entirety of the Street Fighter series in particular has been a big offender when it comes to these stereotypes. Just about each ethnic character in the series is represented by a stereotype. Balrog (M. Bison in the Japanese versions of Street Fighter), the super-aggressive dark-skinned African American boxer inspired by Mike Tyson, is one significant example. The very polarizing Indian/South Asian Dhalsim, clad in a necklace of shrunken skull heads and labeled a “yoga master” who fights with elongated arms and presumably curry-powered flame-breathing attacks, is another. They’re both examples from Street Fighter II that still rub fans the wrong way. Even in recent iterations of Street Fighter, problematic depictions of these characters appear. In 2008’s Street Fighter IV, Balrog has two costumes. One of them involves darkening his skin and throwing him in a stereotypical “Black thug” outfit—a basketball jersey and brimmed hat that Capcom called his “Horror/Halloween Costume.” These cartoonishly racist depictions are present in the most recent entry, 2016’s Street Fighter V, with Birdie, originally a nonplayable enemy you encountered in the very first Street Fighter game, the epitome of a Black caricature (even more so than he was in Street Fighter Alpha), and Laura, a Brazilian fighter who first appears in Street Fighter V, an oversexualized woman of color that isn’t too dark or not stereotypically attractive. These are a few examples of the minefield of discriminatory characters that plague fighting games, and these ones are just from Street Fighter.

The series’ history with homosexual characters isn’t much better. Juri, a South Korean martial artist with a mean sadistic streak (and one of the antagonists of Street Fighter IV), was a good attempt, but ultimately a flawed one. Presented as canonically bisexual, she became the stereotypical “hypersexual, predatory, disaster bisexual” we’ve seen in so many pieces of fiction. There is also Eagle (also originally a nonplayable enemy from the first game), an openly gay character that Capcom just had to make sure referenced his sexually promiscuous nature in just about all his win quotes in Capcom vs SNK 2’s Japanese version. Along with these specific examples comes the broader genre’s long history of sexualizing almost every female character that has ever graced a character select screen.

Better Days Ahead

Despite a rather rocky history, the genre has made strides to represent minorities in a much better light. Mortal Kombat 11, from 2019, came a long way from even Mortal Kombat 9, in which so many of the main female characters were nonsensically oversexualized. In the newer iteration, the game dresses them much more sensibly while preserving their looks and paying homage to traditional costumes and styles. The wrestling superstar character Ladiva in 2019’s Granblue Fantasy Versus, while not an original fighting game character, is most likely the most positive transgender representation seen in the genre.

One of the best representations of Blackness in a fighting game is in Skullgirls, with the character Big Band, who pokes at Black history and jazz history in a sensible way that actually makes sense. From small things like his dialect (heard in quotes like “Sing it girl!” when he tags out to allies) to his whole jazz aesthetic referencing great Black jazz musicians like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane, Big Band truly stands out as one of the most well-designed fighting game characters from a cultural standpoint—one that’s not a reductive stereotype, but that takes a potential gimmick and raises it to an essential part of the character’s personality.

That’s not to say all good representation is new representation. There are also very positive examples of openly homosexual characters in early titles of the genre. Venom, a recurring character from the Guilty Gear franchise, is openly gay and never in a way that is played for laughs, or used as a joke to talk about sex. Instead, Venom and his crush on his partner-in-crime Zato are shown in the same cute and endearing way as their heterosexual counterparts are often portrayed.

Characters are sometimes even designed to directly reflect fans from different walks of life who enjoy playing the games. For example, King of Fighters by SNK has introduced various character teams that represent certain countries and cultures that have particularly embraced the series. This was seen as far back as team Mexico in The King of Fighters 2002, and as recently as teams China and South America in The King of Fighters XIV. Though these teams can be over the top, or even come off as a parody of those being referenced—as in other SNK titles like World Heroes— they also feel like a true celebration of their cultures.

Another brilliant example of this that I feel deserves praise is Tekken, a series sporting the global tournament plot but with a quirk that no other fighting game has. In past Tekken titles, the game’s characters stuck to speaking Japanese, English, Korean, and Mandarin, due to the popularity of the game in places where those languages are spoken. With 2015’s Tekken 7, the team behind the series took a step forward and introduced a truly multilingual cast of characters, with each character speaking their native language, pushing Tekken’s global premise to the next level.

Fighting games invite the belief that anybody can play and win, as long as they learn how the game is played and pick their favorite fighter from the game’s diverse roster. These games feature characters from all around the globe, with different sexualities, genders, and ethnic identities. None of these identities stop the many characters from competing and beating the brakes off one another, and the same holds true for the many players, both casual and competitive, who have fallen in love with the genre.

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