Street Fighter. The King of Fighters. Tekken.
These classic video games have more in common than just being part of the fighting game genre. Their rosters are all full of different faces from vastly different places. Predating more recent calls for greater diversity in game protagonists and characters, these games presented players with the choice to play as someone who truly resonated with them on a multitude of levels. Diverse casts quickly become a fighting game must-have feature, and are now recognized as a defining staple of the genre.
Unlike the majority of video games, which sport a single main cast, fighting games feature a plethora of faces that players are able to choose from in deciding who their protagonist will be. Having so many preexisting “main” characters puts fighting games in a position to have much more diverse casts than other video games. This isn’t just a diversity of character archetypes and special moves, but also of character looks, races, ethnicities, genders, and beliefs. In fact, as a fan of the genre myself, I consider these differences (ones shared with real people) to be just as, if not more, important to the character roster as the play style differences.
Start With Street Fighter
The first “true” fighting game by modern standards was Capcom’s Street Fighter II, a classic that introduced the base formula of what fans expect from the genre. Not only did it offer innovative gameplay, Street Fighter II also featured one of the most diverse rosters of its time. Considering that the game’s main premise was based on gathering the strongest fighters in the world to compete in one big tournament, the diversity made sense. This made for a game that was unique, with character designs, beliefs, and backgrounds that many players from every corner of the globe could look at and relate to. For once, in the ’90s arcade era, kids other than white males could see themselves reflected in the games they were playing, though these reflections came with some issues.
Street Fighter 2 may have introduced a great new concept and broadened our horizons a bit, but it also introduced a curse that the fighting game genre would fight for years: the blatant racial stereotypes, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny attached to many characters on these giant rosters.
The entirety of the Street Fighter series in particular has been a big offender when it comes to these stereotypes. Just about each ethnic character in the series is represented by a stereotype. Balrog (M. Bison in the Japanese versions of Street Fighter), the super-aggressive dark-skinned African American boxer inspired by Mike Tyson, is one significant example. The very polarizing Indian/South Asian Dhalsim, clad in a necklace of shrunken skull heads and labeled a “yoga master” who fights with elongated arms and presumably curry-powered flame-breathing attacks, is another. They’re both examples from Street Fighter II that still rub fans the wrong way. Even in recent iterations of Street Fighter, problematic depictions of these characters appear. In 2008’s Street Fighter IV, Balrog has two costumes. One of them involves darkening his skin and throwing him in a stereotypical “Black thug” outfit—a basketball jersey and brimmed hat that Capcom called his “Horror/Halloween Costume.” These cartoonishly racist depictions are present in the most recent entry, 2016’s Street Fighter V, with Birdie, originally a nonplayable enemy you encountered in the very first Street Fighter game, the epitome of a Black caricature (even more so than he was in Street Fighter Alpha), and Laura, a Brazilian fighter who first appears in Street Fighter V, an oversexualized woman of color that isn’t too dark or not stereotypically attractive. These are a few examples of the minefield of discriminatory characters that plague fighting games, and these ones are just from Street Fighter.