Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Tournament Begins (Group TAC/Capcom/Manga Entertainment)
Where: Street Fighter Alpha When: 1999
Why: Shigeyasu Yamauchi, Joe Romersa, Reiko Yoshida, & Kirk Thornton How: Kazuyuki Ishikawa

Quick Fix...
With the various goings on around the place, we've had an influx of new readers. Some of them have actually arrived here because of previous Street Fighter entries, but for those who haven't, let it ring out through the village: I'm as keen on superheroes as I am on beat 'em ups!

Okay, so maybe not all beat 'em ups, but I think I've got the basics covered. SF, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, Dead or Alive. Sure, I can stretch to some of the others, but this would undoubtedly be my core, with DOA bridging the familiarity gap between those I'm less aware of, like the SNK series, and those I love, like Street Fighter!

Some fans might ask, why Street Fighter?
It's failed to make the transition to "3D," it doesn't have FMVs, it often lacks in the story department, and the wheels really fell off during the process of Street Fighter III and the pseudo 3D Ex series.

I'd say, sure, a lot of that is true, but the undeniable appeal of that initial idea, and the memorable revamp it underwent going into Street Fighter II keeps me wanting more. It's the characters and the style that have made a loyal fan of me, and also represent such interesting ideas for comic, manga and animé.

As a brand, Street Fighter is now regarded as little more than a nostalgia product to be regurgitated in several vaguely different forms. The product has arguably been squandered over the years, hovering too long around tweaked revisions at the cost of casting an illusion of forward momentum. SFIII, the final true attempt to move forward, remains one of the most disappointing, redeemed only by it's final revision which made long overdue inclusions of classic characters.

Consistency of characterization and the purity of the design seemed lost on the final generation of Capcom contributors. Garrish pseudo-superheroes, monsters and robots replaced the classic formula of martial arts caricatures, complimented by broad, but distinctive, ethnic strokes.

This is a fact almost certainly recognised by those that would develop the property for the minority market still interested. Largely more popular in the US, the Street Fighter Alpha animé "OVA" project was produced, paying close homage to versions of the characters not yet capitalized upon in animated form.

While Alpha stays much closer to the popular starring characters like Ryu, Ken and Chun-Li, it expands it's cast from well known supporting characters [Sakura, Birdie, Akuma] to cameos with Alpha initiates like Adon, Rolento and Cody.

Narrowly missing out on entering an American Street Fighting tournament held in a partially demolished highrise, Ken Masters accompanies an enthusiastic Sakura to find Ryu. There they witness one of the tournament matches, a brutal encounter between the vainglorious Spaniard, Vega; and the similarly arrogant, but entirely unjustified - Dan Hibiki.

Vega makes good use of his acrobatic abilities, leaping into the air with Hibiki already on the back foot after suffering a slash from Vega's wrist-mounted claw.
The Spaniard twirls earthbound, slashing this time at the pink-garbed martial artist's face.

Vega finds his way behind Dan, wrenching back on his neck before pulling back with his full weight to position Hibiki on Vega's feet. With a springy strength, the masked matador launches his opponent, catching him in mid-air with a flipping stomp. Unrelenting, Vega looks to finish the fight with trademark brutality.

Letting out a shrill scream, Vega buries his claw in the floored Hibiki's chest, erupting a volcanic explosion of blood and gore. Though his mask hides his emotions, one can only imagine the ecstatic pleasure the sadistic Vega takes.

It would be diplomatic to express some kind of interest in the Dan character, but let's be honest, the world loves a bastard. Vega is one of the prime examples of the enticing and pure characterization of Street Fighter's elite.

Vega is unashamedly comprised of utterly vivid portions of vanity, psychotic massochism, all mixed with the glamor of the Spanish matador. Though his connection to the martial arts is marginal at best (his style lazily described as Ninjitsu by American translators), he remains one of the most memorable characters to come from the first revamp, Street Fighter II.

The Alpha "movie" does manage to stay relatively faithful to the characters and concepts, even though it pinwheels on entirely original material to this particular story. Included for the first time, a data-obsessed scientist, his power absorbing android, and a much maligned fictional Brazilian brother to Ryu.

When laid out like that, it's perhaps evident just how remarkable it is that Alpha can be recalled in such positive regard. Again a testament to the power of using the characters well; Alpha peppers cameos throughout, staying closer to an independent story than the revered SFII animated feature, but utilises the cast much better than the unrelated sequel that follows: Generations.

Even so, with so much weight behind the cast of the series, it's a wonder there wasn't more effort made, particularly in the sequel, to include more characters into the story. It seems unfair to disregard the tale of Ryu/Akuma as what it is, but I think those broader, second-tier character appearances are really what remains the driving force behind any successful Street Fighter venture.

The Fix: 4.5 The Movie: 5.5
Winner: Vega

[Yes, I'm using the US names. In a perfect world we'd have a streamlined, one-answer option, but with CapcomUS now owners of the franchise, I'm pulling rank. If you're interested in Street Fighter, but are unfamiliar with the story, SFAlpha is a great place to get acquainted, particularly with core characters like Ryu and Ken.]

Yoga Mind Trick (UDON)
Where: Street Fighter II #2 When: December 2005
Why: Ken Siu-Chong How: Skottie Young

Quick Fix...
Street Fighter Alpha takes full advantage of one of the unique skills of the Japanese, maintaining a relatively simple story, but using style over substance to justify maintained interest in the product. It skillfully dwells on the minutia, without actually going into any depthy meaning or layers. It simply is what it is.

Fortunately, while many of the Street Fighter characters have struggled to develop more complex motivations in film or game; the good folks at UDON manage to maintain not only a beautiful and recognisable visual approach -- but also a script that compliments much of what we know of the characters, while still directing them in a unique, reasonably progressive story. Again, it isn't revolutionarily dense, but on the twenty-two page platform of a comic book, the luxuries afforded in animation quickly melt away.

For comics, Street Fighter perhaps represents one of the most inviting and exciting licenses available. Irrespective of it's in-built fanbase, the characters represent the ultimate in branding. Even the best of the second-tier is instantly recognisable thanks to brilliantly simple design. Each character brings not only a trademark visual, but a two-dimensional characterization that is an extention of their look, a trait that leaves plenty of room to elaborate in an on-going medium, without presenting a slate too blank to enjoy from the beginning.

These well defined characters really do lend themselves to an on-going medium, providing recognisable perspective from which they can clearly react to the on-going events of a story or situation. A true master would be able to develop and shape these characters into more depthy personas, but even the contemporary average need only stay faithful to succeed as the SF brand requires.

UDON does well to do a little bit of both, meandering it's way through familiar concepts (like Cammy White's brainwash ordeal under Bison), but also adds developing spice to stories and relationships, like Sagat's search for knowledge and power in the wake of his famous defeat at the hands of Ryu (circa the first, often forgotten side-scrolling Street Fighter game).

Either taking inspiration from the Street Fighter II V animated series, or arriving by the same logics; UDON takes Ryu on a journey to the mysterious yoga master, Dhalsim. Hoping to find inner peace and a control over the potential of the dark hadou energy, Ryu discovers Sagat, who has also been training to control his inner rages and become a better fighter.

In this back-up story taking place after Sagat's defeat of Ryu [Street Fighter II #2], we learn of Sagat's journey with Dhalsim, and the beginnings of his exploration of the mysterious yoga arts.

With the glow of a campfire to light them, Sagat confronts Dhalsim in the heart of a forest. There he challenges Dhalsim to prove the value of his yoga teachings, apparently unconvinced of their capability to aid his already impressive strengths.

Dhalsim gladly takes the challenge, using his defying contortions to evade Sagat's kicking attack. Instead of matching the violence, the stoic Dhalsim makes a fool of Sagat's brutish style, forcing blood to cascade from the Muay Thai fighter's nose with little more than the power of his energy.

Dhalsim follows it - extending his limbs to strike Sagat's proud jaw - before sending him through a tree with a devestating body blow.

The yoga master schools Sagat not in the physical art of fighting, but the clarity of mind. He decrys Sagat's motivations, and willing surrender to anger and hatred, "... the most distracting and dangerous of those emotions."

With quiet confidence, Dhalsim declares there is much he can teach Sagat, before punctuating his point with his signature attack, the yoga flame!

On his knees, Sagat opens his eye to discover he is unharmed. Dhalsim reveals the power of the mind, prompting Sagat to take a meditative position by the campfire. He is now Dhalsim's student.

Most casual fans will recognise Sagat as the scarred Muay Thai fighter of the series, and may even recall his position as final of the three sub-bosses in Street Fighter II. He supersedes Balrog (boxer) and Vega (see above) as Shadaloo bosses working for Bison, his motivations directly influenced by his apparent defeat (and scarring) at the hands of Ryu, who defeated him with the legendary sho-ryu ken attack that left his chest marked forevermore.

It's those origins that always leave me a little conflicted about a Sagat who is portrayed in a more positive style. In the TV anime series, SFII V, Sagat is portrayed as a fallen champion who was framed when he refused to take a dive for the criminal pawns of Shadaloo, the Ashura. In prison he encounters Ryu, undertaking a similar quest to develop his martial arts skills, and the two become friends as Ryu reignites his fighting spirit and good heart.

If I had to choose, I'd definitely take the UDON version.
Having missed a chunk of the first series, I'm not certain when I assume Sagat has not yet come into the service of Shadaloo. His motivations resemble Ryu's more closely, desiring only of fighting superiority, initially in the name of besting Ryu in a rematch, but after Dhalsim's training, in a more general sense.

Sagat, like Vega, is one of those secondary characters that really jazzes me.
Highlighted by his varying characterization, Sagat's story really doesn't begin until it breaks away from Ryu, and even then further depth is sketchy, additions like his service to Bison, and his arrogant student, Adon, being noteworthy.

Still, despite this general consistency of minimally developed characters, I just can't get enough of Street Fighter. Still months behind on purchases, it's perhaps the UDON translated manga and original releases I'm missing the most right now. Maybe to make up for it, we'll consider a little experiment...

The Street Fighter universe famously brought about a convergence between gamers and comic fans with the Capcom versus Marvel series, and it's many different entries. On a website dedicated to ranking superheroes based on their fights, can they possibly hold their own against an incursion of street fighters?

There are only three months left in season 2007, so maybe we'll play a little game with Saturdays. Let's see if A) I can keep it up, and B) if a Street Fighter character can usurp a top five ranking in 2007 before the year is through.
One would expect someone like a Ryu to take the spot, but without specifically contriving such a result, we'll leave it open. We may just get a surprise!

The Fix: 3.5 The Issue: 6
Winner: Dhalsim

[UDON continue to honour Capcom with their contributions to the Street Fighter franchise. Will they contribute to catapulting a Street Fighter into the Infinite Wars top five? Drop a comment and show your interest, and stay tuned to see if the impossible can happen! Get ready fighters. Go for broke!]

No comments: