Welcome to the inaugural entry of “Cracked Knuckles,” a column in which I combine my lifelong adoration of video games with my love for hitting shit.
Luckily, games are full of fist-based violence. From old-school beat’em ups to modern, open-world opuses like Sleeping Dogs, there’s a whole world of gaming violence out there. We even have fighting games, a genre based entirely on one-on-one (or sometimes team-based) conflicts between different-but-mostly-equal opponents. And many of them bring some martial arts flavoring to the equation. Let’s look at the flagship characters of these games.
Street Fighter: Ryu and Ken are karateka, their style (Ansatsuken) is loosely based on Kyokushin Karate. Trivia: Kyokushin Karate was formulated by Masutatsu Oyama (born Choi Yeong-eui) in 1964. It and its offshoots (such as Enshin and Ashihara) are notable for practicing knockdown, bare-knuckle competition. Despite Ryu and Ken’s designation (along with Akuma) of being “Shotos” (in deference to Capcom’s original assertion in the US that they practiced Shotokan Karate), the character whose fighting style is most similar to Shotokan Karate is Makoto, with her longer, linear stance and fast, dashing punches (also seen in Uechi-Ryu Karate).
Tekken: The entire Mishima family features prominently, and they all practice a form of Mishima Karate (except for Jin, in later games, who practices “traditional Karate” instead). Mishima Karate seems fairly traditional, especially in Heihachi’s case, with long, deep stances and moves that appear singularly powerful.
Mortal Kombat: Liu Kang is usually our main character, though we’ve had games that don’t even include him as a playable fighter. His style seems to be a heavily stylized form of Chinese martial arts, most likely based on Bruce Lee’s Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do. This is supported by his penchant for lead-hand strikes and flying side-kicks (as well as his, erm, unique vocalizations).
Virtua Fighter: Akira Yuki is the poster-boy for the Virtua Fighter series. Despite his obvious Japanese ancestry and clothing (he’s wearing a tattered dogi), Akira’s style is Hakkyoku-Ken, which sounds very Japanese until one realizes that it’s pretty much a literal translation of Bajiquan, meaning “eight extremities fist.” The latter is a martial art from the Hebei province of Northern China, with a focus on short, powerful movements, low stances, and strikes with the elbows.
Dead or Alive: Kasumi, Ayane, Ryu Hayabusa, and (later) Hayate. They’re ninja. In the context of the Dead or Alive universe, this seems to mean they can do whatever acrobatic and impractical (if not downright impossible) flippy shit the devs thought looked cool at the time. There might be a loose basis in Japanese and Korean martial arts for some of their repertoires.
These are, as far as I’m concerned, the most representative individuals when it comes to martial combat in video games.
There is not a single grappler on this list.
And, in fact, when grappling does work its way into a fighting game, it’s often as a bit of an afterthought. Sure, each fighter has a couple throws (maybe more, in some games), and there are characters like Zangief (Street Fighter) and King/Iron King (Tekken) who are largely based around “command throws,” but these characters are more inspired by professional wrestling than anything else. Oddly, both Tekken and Street Fighter have characters with “mixed arts” based on “Judo,” which is a completely grappling-focused style (while modern, Kodokan Judo lacks much in the way of a ground game in competition, since its focus is predominantly on gaining “ippon” by way of a complete throw, it should be noted that Judo’s newaza is related to the much more complete ground games of both SAMBO and the increasingly popular Brazilian Jiujitsu).
Image Source: Attack the Back
The aforementioned fighters, Paul Phoenix and Abel, do little that resembles Judo. Sure, it’s in there in some of their throws, but Paul’s most damaging single move is a punch, and one of Abel’s ultras involves a long string of strikes followed by a throw that uses none of the body mechanics on which Judo relies.
Dead or Alive fares the best in this respect, actually, with characters like Bayman and Leon who use arts that resemble Combat SAMBO, mixing their striking with takedowns that actually transition into submissions. They don’t hold these submissions, many of which would be fight enders or at least leave the opponent at a severe disadvantage through limb destruction. Even in this case, when the takedowns and submissions are applied, there’s either complete resistance on the part of the opponent (they avoid the move entirely) or none (they simply fail to react). It ends up looking stilted, just as the techniques, themselves, look a bit ridiculous when they’re applied as though they’re “grabby strikes,” doing damage by virtue of the character having had control, rather than any real pain of injury they would have inflicted.
Notice how clean those both were, but how we see nothing in the way of resistance in either. Now look at the same technique applied in competition:
Not as pretty, is it? That’s the reality of things, though, whereas video games are very much beholden to the Rule of Cool when it comes to martial arts.
That’s sort of the problem when it comes to grappling in video games. To the outsider, a grappling match, or an MMA fight that has gone to the ground, looks like little more than two adults humping each other on a mat, gradually jockeying for position and control while a million subtleties play out beneath the surface, eventually culminating (maybe) in a brief instant of explosive movement that results in a either victory or at least a dramatic change in position. Striking, though, is easy to understand. There’s less in the way of leverage to worry about, fewer tangles of limbs, and a lot more impact. A lot more blood and bruises, too. It’s fast-paced, dynamic, and transitions well to the gaming landscape. Grappling, in contrast, is awkward even when done by games in which it’s a core mechanic, such as UFC-Anything and EA Sports MMA.
Will a developer get it right some day? Maybe. Perhaps the next edition of EA’s UFC series will make it both meaningful and engaging, but for now, electronic entertainment is very much a striker’s game.