The Portrayal of Martial Arts in Video Games: Part 1

Thinking back to my first experience with martial arts, before I had seen my first martial arts movie or experienced the choreographed complexity of a Jet Li fight scene, I witnessed the fast-paced Karate moves of Street Fighter II’s Ryu in a matchup against the Kempo expert Chun-Li.

With the prevalence of martial arts being portrayed in video games, more often than ever before, children and youth are discovering and practicing martial arts because of characters like Tekken’s Jin Kazama or Mortal Kombat’s Liu Kang. The history of the portrayal of martial arts in video games dates back to the 8-bit era and tended to be the highlight of any arcade from the 1980’s.

martial arts video games
Chun Li
tenthousandcubans,Flickr CC License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/tenthousandcubans/6100194306/

Utilizing the presence of martial-arts most frequently, the fighting genre has had examples of games that are considered classics, household names to anyone who has played a video game system, some more realistic than others. Other fighting video games leave developers and martial artists wishing they remained in development in perpetuity. Ultimately, with the continued technological advancements, martial-arts in video games can feel more engaging and can even teach players actual moves with the assistance of motion controls.

The first part of this series on the portrayal of martial-arts in video games will look at the history of martial arts in video games, the use of marital arts stars in order to sell games. The advances in technology that allowed for the portrayal of martial-arts in video games to reach a complexity and realism that matches some of the best fight scenes in movies.

martial arts video games
Super Street Fighter II Turbo
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Martial Arts Movies Get Famous

During the seventies, martial arts movies gained fame and a significant following in the United States. For many, this was the first time kung fu or karate had been seen, however, most movie watchers and game developers knew very little about the different martial-art styles. Coupled with the technological limitations, the first portrayal of martial arts in video games lacked any real depth.

The first generation of video game systems (1972-76) is best personified by the game pong, simple graphics and even simpler controls. Gaining more attention and enthusiasm, the next generation (1976-83) boasted slightly better graphics and increased processing power, but remained limited game dynamic options.

It wasn’t until the third generation of video game systems (1983-87), with their higher power 8-bit microprocessors, that some of the nuances of martial arts could be captured in games. 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.

martial arts video games
Nintendo 8-bit console
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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).

martial arts
Super Street Fighter II
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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.

video game martial arts
Mortal Kombat 9, Liu Kang
SobControllers,Flickr CC License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sobcontrollers/5594437638/

Popular in martial arts movies, wuxia was successfully introduced to video games.

Wuxia (武俠), which literally translates to “martial hero”, is a broad genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. It usually includes supernatural powers, mythical beasts, and the long arduous journey that a single martial artists takes in order to avenge his family or save a companion.

It was with the likes of Jade Empire (2005) and Shenmue (1999). However both lacked the critical acclaim of similar open-world games during the time period yet remain cult classics. During this same time period, the use of martial arts by characters in all genres of games increased exponentially. With the decline in popularity of martial arts films, video games continue to be the first introduction of martial arts to children and youth.

Part II of the portrayal of martial arts in video games will look at the current generation of video game systems beyond the old school Nintendo, revel in the interactive martial arts experience of motion control, and speculate about the future of martial arts in video games.

video game martial arts
Screenshot from BioWare’s wuxia game, Jade Empire.
WeI-chieh Chiu,Flickr CC License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gameimp/17628323/
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