Tekken, Street Fighter, and finding good representation in fighting games

Tekken, Street Fighter, and finding good representation in fighting games

When Capcom’s Street Fighter 2 released in the arcades of 1992 it introduced the world to what many consider the first true entry in the fighting game genre. With this landmark title came many of the tropes and staples that define fighting games today. One of those everlasting pieces of genre identity was  the “world warrior” trope. This idea, inspired by tons of martial arts stories predating Street Fighter, entails the gathering of fighters around the word joining a single tournament to find the strongest fighter on the planet.

This feature was so core to the character (and characters) of Street Fighter that the game’s Director, Akira Nishitani planned nationalities before the actual fighters in some cases. While it was an amazing change of pace to have so many different cultures under one roof (or in one arcade cabinet) the game also had the issues you’d expect in an early ‘90s attempt at a diverse cast. And of course, the biggest issue was with Street Fighter’s first African American character.

Bison, known as Balrog in America and Boxer in international venues, was introduced to the world as a CPU-controlled boss character in the original Street Fighter 2 and would become playable in the Champion Edition update. Balrog is the beginning of a long issue with Street Fighter’s approach to diversity. 

Street Fighter 2 follows the “All Stereotype cast” trope — a super common way to build a cast, that you can see in games like Punch Out, Overwatch, and Tekken. Each character takes on stereotype based on their nationality as their entire personality. For some characters like Ken and Ryu, the cool and hard-working karate guys, the stereotype is mostly positive and checks out with most people. However, for Black players looking for someone to relate to, Balrog is a character we wouldn’t even want to be associated with.

Balrog's SF4 Halloween costume. Not a great look. Image courtesy of EventHubs via Capcom.

As a stereotype, Balrog is all negatives. He’s typically shown obsessing over money and women and will do nearly anything for his next big check. In every Street Fighter game, he’s a cheating, bad tempered villain. Now, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for a Black character to be a villain, but it’s a problem when all the villainy comes from racial stereotypes. It’ gets even worse when Capcom leans into the racial stereotypes, like with his Street Fighter 4 Halloween costume: a basketball jersey, shorts, chain, and flat bill hat. It feels weird that Chun-Li's scary costume is a zombie, where Balrog's scary costume seems to be a black guy, but dressing more "street."

So, why did Street Fighter miss the mark on Balrog? Some folks might say that it’s just the nature of the World Warrior and All Stereotype Cast tropes. But there is another fighting game franchise that took those same tropes, that even made their own Black villain, and did it right.

Tekken: Celebrations over stereotypes

Tekken hit arcades in 1994 and while it was released three years after SF2, Tekken already felt decades ahead of Street Fighter in terms of its Black characters. While the first game in the series’ only Black rep came in the form of Armor King, he said it all in terms of Tekken’s powerful designs and portrayal of its world warriors.

As a kid I didn’t know it at the time, but I was always excited to see a character of my complexion playable in my favorite games. Tekken, being my first fighting game, astounded me when I was introduced to this mysterious jaguar-masked, armor-clad, Black wrestler. He was so different, so cool in terms of demeanor and design, so fun to play, and he was Black like me. Even better, Armor King was a hero: The calm and collected half of his rival and partner, King. He was the representation that I loved to see for Black characters and shining examples of why Tekken’s characters are so great when it comes to diversity.

Tekken 2 would do even better by introducing its own Black villain, Bruce Irvin, AKA “Balrog done right.” Like Balrog, Bruce grew up in a rough area where he was bullied and eventually had to fight to earn a living. He ends up working for the main villain of the series, Kazuya Mishima, but Bruce himself is never painted as evil or even nefarious. Instead, Bruce feels like a reflection of the environment that many Black youth were forced to grow up in. He’s morally grey, with a soft spot for those that grew up as he did, and with a hatred for bullies. Whereas Balrog is driven by pure greed, Bruce’s allegiance is born out of a need to survive and never go back to where he began. His story is a beautiful one:  someone good joining the side of bad while still keeping their golden heart.

(Bruce Irvin's Tekken 5 ending gives the character more of an anti-hero vibe, especially compared to Balrog's SF2 ending.)

I think what separates Tekken from Street Fighter is that Tekken feels like a cultural celebration, while Street Feels like a stereotype showcase. Tekken has each character speaking their home languages and gives its characters these rich and tasteful backgrounds — which even intersect with each other! Christie, the series’ first Black woman is a Capoeira master that taught Tekken’s main user of the martial art, Eddy Gordo — another Black character.

Another character I can’t go without mentioning is Master Raven, a Tekken 7 newcomer and one of the first dark-skinned women in fighting games. A lot of other games have Black women in them, but they usually give their Black women light skin or white hair, as if to say, “Sure let’s make her Black, but not too Black.” Master Raven on the other hand is undoubtedly Black, with Black facial features, Black hair texture, and darker skin. With her and Leroy, Tekken turned all dials to 10, when a lot of other games seem afraid to turn it past 5.

Tekken has continued this trend throughout the entirety of the series. Each title brought in newcomers that featured voice actors from the characters’ home countries, speaking their own language, and designed with complete respect to them. From the original Raven to Tekken 8 newcomer Azucena, Tekken delivers Black characters from around the globe and melds them into its greater cast perfectly, giving us something we wouldn’t get from other fighting games, like Guilty Gear or Street Fighter, for years.

Tekken definitely isn’t the only series to make moves like this. The King of Fighters has introduced two great Black female fighters in its latest entry, among other great Black characters throughout the years of the series. Mortal Kombat has had strong Black characters before Tekken was even created, with Jade and Jax showing up in 1993. Street Fighter 6 released Kimberly (a big improvement from SF2 Balrog), and I can’t go without giving credit to Guilty Gear Strive’s Nagoryuki and Giovanna.

(Tekken creator Katsuhiro Harada's reaction to being invited to the cookout might unironically be an example of why Tekken does so well with diverse characters.)

But let’s be real, when it comes to Black representation, Tekken has always been ahead of the curve. To me, that’s confirmation of Tekken’s status as the “modern” fighter. It’s a series where you can look at each title and see a reflection of when it was made within its aesthetics, character wardrobes, character designs, and the cultures it pulls from. This is why Tekken is such an international hit across cultures. From Korean internet cafes, to Pakistan’s arcades and Black-owned barbershops, Tekken brings so many players to the party and it’s because it is cemented as a celebration of all these players’ cultures.

Tekken 8 has shown that the series is still burning hot with that same fire and still finds unique ways to showcase it. Azucena, one of the franchise’s latest additions, is an Afro-Peruvian that grew up helping her coffee farmer father and cultivated dreams of becoming the world’s best at the trade. She grows up and uses her martial arts prowess to defy those that rejected her ambitions and to advertise her own coffee blend.

It astounds me that the series can consistently take such unique and new worldviews and craft them into cool characters, and it will probably catch me by surprise again when we see it happen again in Tekken 9,10, Tag 3, and whatever else follows. Meanwhile I’m just waiting for the day that they manage to top their first ever Black character, my vote for the coolest Black character in fighting games, Armor King.

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When is Armor King coming back??

Someone oughta complain to Harada about it. He loves when you do that. Anyways, thanks for reading and yake some poynts for your time!