Taking note of the increasing success of video game sales, martial arts actors, including Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan, began to see their likenesses used in video games, both intentionally and not. At first glance, these games sowed very little innovation compared to there video games at the time, with similar platforming to Super Mario and fighting that was limited to upwards of three different punches/kicks. One of the major criticisms of games during that time period was the trope of the American hero versus the Asian martial arts masters. Selling mostly because of their brand, games like Bruce Lee (1984) and The Karate Kid (1987) lacked the feel and intensity of the martial arts seen on movie screens.
Growing up in the 1990’s with older siblings who enjoyed video games meant that my first encounter with martial arts on the TV screen was in the 16-bit classics of the fourth generation of video games (1987-93). With more detailed graphics and stronger processors, systems like the the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo produced games that people still look to for their innovation and defining of genres. With the new generation, gamers had the option to choose from a cast of different characters, each with their own distinct look and fighting style. Street Fighter II for Nintendo, my first fighting game, featured a Karate practitioner seeking martial arts mastery (Ryu), a kempo fighter hoping to avenge her father (Chun Li), a Yoga master trying to support his fellow villagers (Dhalsim), and a sumo wrestler focused on becoming the greatest of all time (E. Honda). Characters had backstories and personalities, as well as moves that reflected the martial arts they were said to practice.
Including the ability to shoot fireballs, the portrayal of martial arts in video games has almost always erred on the side of fantastical, with players being able to jump off walls and “juggle” their opponent in the air with a combination of well timed hits. The lack of realism allowed for increased game mechanics which helped cement the role martial arts would play in video games. Tournaments began to spring up to determine the best Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat players, with these competitions becoming synonymous with the fighting genre. However, it wasn’t until the fifth (1993-98) and sixth (1998-2005) generation of video game systems, with the an increase to 32-bit processing (and beyond), that martial arts in video games really took on a unique look and feel.