Sitting Centerstage: Shedding Light on Shadow Fighters

We as gamers are a sub-genre of so called ‘nerd/geek culture’. Within our proud culture are the stories & characters that range anywhere from good to evil. We love our characters and the varying reasons why they do what they do; it’s not black or white. The middle ground of hero & villain is where it’s at, and now it’s the same way in our fighting games... so where do you lie?

Welcome to 2017 where Evil Ryu & Violent Ken are headlining the upcoming Ultra Street Fighter II and Injustice 2 is coming back to add another chapter to the continuity. How exactly did we get here, though? Since we love to hear the story again and again of how it all got started way back when, we have to dig deep to pinpoint the roots. The umbrella ‘shadow’ archetype is heavily popularized in comics and it spills over into other mediums. The trope has been done over like Disney using rain to create tension in their scenes. The tipping point for fighting games maybe earlier than you think. I would argue it’s one of the better approaches to the idea of a flawed protagonist in fighting games, in addition to being the first. Look no further back than 1994 to find the legend himself, Kazuya Mishima.

On the surface in the early 90s, at the height of the Street Fighter II craze, you would take a look at Kazuya and his assumed rival Paul Phoenix and think this is Tekken’s version of Ryu & Ken. Right from the start, Tekken deviated from that path almost completely. The origins of Kazuya -- which would be elaborated on more in Tekken 7 -- are a lot more innocent than his modern day representation. The name ‘Kazuya’ means peaceful one, which is ironic. However, the imagery and backdrop spread throughout the series shows our ‘hero’ being corrupted by circumstance before he had the chance to do any good.

After getting thrown off a cliff by his father Heihachi & embracing his Devil Gene to survive and seek revenge, the notion of an internal struggle was explored in Tekken 2. Although she lends little to the overall lore, Angel was made as a personification of Kazuya’s waning goodness. Any reference to her is always in a fight with the Devil side of Kazuya. To enhance the imagery further, in Tekken 2 Devil Kazuya is the final boss but unlike a usual final boss battle that intimidates & makes your heart race… this fight is somber. The stage is dark with a never-ending mirror in the background. The arranged track of the stage, “Be in the Mirror”, comes off as sad and almost tragic. Even as Kazuya chose to become evil, he flows back and forth between anti-hero & villain.

In more ways than one, he also set the stage for these two and their own personal demons.

The concept of ‘dark’ characters then bum-rushed in for all fighters shortly after. The forms, alignments and reasoning behind each of them range through a wide spectrum. Although the fall from grace for Superman in Injustice sets the precedent for the fallen protagonist, the universe is originally embedded in comic books not a fighting game. Instead, turn your gaze on what USF2 is doing with Evil Ryu & Violent Ken. Originating from a comic and movie respectively, the poster boys for SF gained popularity & separate fan-bases for their classic examples of good guy turned bad by means of evil within or influenced/brainwashed by evil.  It isn’t really necessary to do so either, these plot twists are more so used to shake things up or go with the trend. It is how you go about introducing the dark side and fleshing it out because Namco as well as Netherrealm Studios have executed this trope well. Too many times, we have seen clones or the excessive use of shallow shadows. So much so that Skullgirls turned a satire statement into a beneficial roster expansion.  Indeed, there is an awareness of this since SNK takes a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ approach to characters like Mr. Karate and EX Blue Mary. Shadows aren’t exclusive to good alignments and bring about an interesting relationship with the line between good & evil.

You look at Iori’s intentions and his role when he first appears in KOF95 and perhaps you wouldn’t expect him, given the time period fighting games were in, to have a berserk counterpart or fans clamoring. As the Orochi Saga plays out in the early KOF games... you find Iori teaming up with his sworn enemy Kyo to bring down larger threats which earns him the title of anti-hero. Another curious take on protagonists are the Darkstalkers’ characters. Looking past Dark Talbain & Dee, the moniker of protagonist has been shared by Demitri and Morrigan. The former has his selfish motives, but will fight for the good of his home world while the latter alternates between duty & leisure. They are far from your typical heroes.  In the scope of fighters, you can make a case that these franchises shaped the Arc System Works games.

Guilty Gear always had an edge to it and the tone was set with the face of the franchise, Sol Badguy. By extension, Ragna does the same for BlazBlue as a brash, unfiltered protagonist that’s commonplace in anime. These characters obviously break away from the ‘boy scout’ mold that set the standard for heroes... but a different spin occurs here. Noel fills out the shadow trope sure, but knowing that the established anti-hero pushes the role to the fullest… ArcSys has him conform and creates Order-Sol instead of the tried & true dark shadow character. This stirs the pot a bit on whether a shadow is better than the original in gameplay. Upon observation, it is not indicative of whether a shadow character needs to be good or evil to determine their in-game strength UNLESS they have some in-game tie to a boss status. That plays into balancing out a boss character to be playable like Akuma. We now know the who, how and what, but why is the anti-hero/shadow dynamic such a mainstay in fighters?

Capcom canonizing Violent Ken in USF2 is the latest in the popularization of shadows in fighters. Despite the question marks and criticism of the remade port, the initial knee-jerk reaction to Violent Ken was excitement. I pose the question that you may find anyone who reads or studies character development ponders… Why is the role of a ‘dirty hero’ a lot more appealing these days? On the side of the writers, shadows are a new form of conflict for the hero to overcome and, in some cases, the anti-hero plays both sides, usually indecisive of where to stay. The fans, however, could have easily dismissed this practice as easily as they wrapped their arms around it & adored it.

Circling back to Injustice once again, Superman was the original ‘boy scout’ hero. Without diving too deep, Superman is the picture of the Lawful Good and was created for regular people to strive for the ideals he embodied. From his outlook on all things good to his powers, Superman is above humans. I present the point that because we are human -- unless you think yourself as superhuman, that’s fine -- this ideal mold is not relatable and bores us. People gravitate to concepts that they find alike and none can be truer for characters in any shape of media. High levels of empathy are in play for anti-heroes, anti-villains, shadows/fallen heroes on the path of redemption or even heroes turned villains because they reached their breaking point. My personal favorite is Wolverine and he’s as flawed as they come… but he’s the best at what he does.

With the overlapping of various mediums, cases like Persona are prevalent.

Fighting games has proven to be another outlet to take on the waves of pop culture and we the players feed into it. What can this tell us about future games? Expect a plot twist of some kind of corruption around the bend because at this point it’s guaranteed. I’m your soliloquist, Parappa, about to exit stage right... so until next time, think about it.

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