When you’re talking about martial arts and video games (or movies, or anime, or just about any other visual medium that relies on drama), the Rule of Cool is in effect. If you’re not familiar with the term, that’s probably because you spend less time thinking about realism than giggling at explosions. But, just so we’re all on the same page, here’s how the folks at TVTropes define it: “The limit of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to the element’s awesomeness.”
If something is awesome, we don’t usually care if its believable.
But since this a column about martial arts, and I’m a martial artist, I want to spend a little time breaking down the Rule of Cool as it applies to in-game combat. This will allow us to critique the choices that video game developers make when they’re choosing between believability and awesomeness.
Here are the four major Rule of Cool categories:
Video game characters have an absurd predilection for whipping themselves into a frenzy to deliver a blow. I know I’ve criticized Batman for this kind of behavior, but he’s far from the worst offender. Everyone from Link (spin-slash) to Ryu Hayabusa has at least one move that involves twirling around before delivering a blow.
Yeah, this happens in martial arts. Taekwondo is particularly guilty, often becoming almost indistinguishable from tricking during demonstrations. That’s just it, though; this stuff is for demonstrations. In reality, very little damage would be done when Taki of Soul Edge/Calibur does a roll into a head-stand, spinning her legs around. Ryu’s turns his staff into a rotor, one-handed; it would fly out of his grip when it came in contact with his enemy. And attacks that involve spinning your whole body (especially multiple times) to deliver a single, powerful blow? Good luck landing those if your opponent decides to step back (or, worse, into you, interrupting your momentum).
These are strikes that are more dramatic than effective. I’m not talking about those long, looping punches thrown by the enemies in Arkham. In the context of street thugs, those make perfect sense (especially as a contrast with Batman), and are generally what you’d expect from an untrained fighter. Dante’s Stinger is a good example. It sends him dashing forward for a single stab from his oversized sword.
So what about Paul Phoenix? What the hell is that charge-up punch for? Or Hitomi and Ein in the Dead or Alive series? I hate to break it to aspiring martial artists, but spending a lot of time tensing up and slowly pulling back before lunging forward does nothing to increase the power of one’s attack. It only tells the enemy what you’re planning, which is a bad idea in a fight.
This is often combined with “Spinny Shit,” both in real life and in video games. Taekwondo, again, is the poster child for this stuff, with its 540 and 720 kicks.
The ninja characters from Dead or Alive, Kasumi and Hayate, spend much of their time in the air. Dante and Bayonetta possess several airborne attacks, even if they just involve attacking normally for a while. Plus, lets not forget about those “helmet breaker” finishers, which defy gravity before smashing down on top of the enemy’s head.
There’s also a defensive element to the Rule of Cool: Acrobatic Shit. I have no problem with acrobatics, and games like Assassin’s Creed and Dying Light are making parkour a popular method of escape. But there are a few games allow for acrobatic defenses. Batman, for instance, does massive flips over his foes or evades while throwing down a blob of explosive gel. Many characters are capable of the dodge roll, but in Ninja Gaiden Sigma, Ryu handsprings to the sides and back. He’s also capable of jumping across his enemies’ heads. This is common in movies, with martial artists throwing in flips and handsprings to get around for no apparent reason.
These are the four elements of the Rule of Cool. But what is their purpose? We’ll go into that next time on Cracked Knuckles!