Fighting for Stereotypes: Street Fighter II vs. Punch-Out!!
In looking into Game Design from the past, it is interesting to examine a common component of two of the most popular games in history. This would be the presence of common stereotypes that were showcased and how they helped make them the huge successes that they are today. The two games that I will use to example are Punch Out and Street Fighter II. Both of these games are fighting where there is a colorful cast of characters from around the world with each contestant having an quirky back story and style to match, except for Mac at least. He is pretty bland.
Every country in the world has characteristics that their citizens are known for. Some of these could be viewed as positive and of course, there are the ones that are often viewed as negative. Some of these stereotypes are often used in many comedy routines in pop culture and it seems that people are ok with it for the most part, but in the cases of these two games, do either of them cross the line?
Lets take a look at the countries involved and see which Game does it best/worst.
America has quite a few entries into this group with multiple characters from SF2 and Punch Out. Most notably Guile, whose military background showcases what we here in the states are known for. We also are treated to Ken who doesn’t have much of a back story and arguably one of the most accessible characters in the game. The stereotype of him exists within the stage background where you witness a group of affluent people cheering on the fight from their yacht.
Russia has a much more simplistic take on their stereotypes such as large, burly men and vodka. We witness this in both games with Soda Popinski (Vodka Drunkenski) who happens to be able to use the tasty beverage to hydrate himself. We also have the big spinning pile-driving behemoth Zangief who likes to fight in front of all of his rowdy friends in a ware house where they are all bundled up and drinking while he fights. One similarity between these two characters also exists in the color red. Who can say for sure if this was on purpose but when both of these games were made back when Russia was known as the U.S.S.R. When at the time, red was a color synonymous with the communist party of the time.
In Japan, we have a larger group of characters such as Ryu and E Honda from SF2 and Piston Honda from Punch Out. The most negative stereotypes exist here come from Piston Honda who is constantly eating Sushi to gain energy. Overall, with E Honda being a sumo wrestler his stage is very tranquil and one would say it is almost of symbolic of the Zen mindset of the country. Ryu’s stage is also respectable in that it has a dark ambiance for a sense that it is a very serious event and should be treated as such.
Chun Li is the only entry for China and her stereotype is the Harajuku-esque character design and in the game takes place in what we westerners would assume is a slum. But in reality, all of those broken down buildings and vendors selling things like live chickens are a very real aspect in certain parts of the country. Looking at it today, one would think the red outfits might be a better fit for this setting.
For Europe as a whole, Spain is represented with its inhabitants posing a more vain outlook where their looks take precedent before their skill. You will see Vega from SF2 cover his face with a mask and Don Flamenco from Punch Out also trying to win the fight with looks. Of course, if you attack their face, they are programmed to unleash an assault on you that, if you’re not careful, might just be your undoing. Punch Out also features Von Kaiser, who is the militant hard headed guy whose pride rests with Germany. Of course, who could forget Glass Joe who hails from France and is the least dominant competitor of all. That might say a thing or two about their pacifism in the wars and probably has more meaning today post 9/11.
India has what some would say the most disingenuous representation of all of the countries. If one were to look at Dhalsim, he fights you with yoga attacks, in front of his decorated elephants. Punch Out also has the nefarious design with Great Tiger whose is one of the few video game characters ever to don a Turban. He will fight you with his endangered Bengal Tiger in his corner and use his mysticism to try to throw off your simple attacks.
Which one does it Better?
In both of these titles, we see the development teams treat this in slightly different ways but their goal is the same. They are trying to sell games. I would say that Punch out tries to take the more comedic approach to these stereotypes by trying to go over the edge while Street Fighter II tries to use these stereotypes in a more subtle way. You will also have to take into account that these games were released five years apart and at the time, subject matter such as racism and stereotypes was not a consideration that they had to take into account at the time they were released. If you think about it, this discussion has only started to take place in the last decade as the industry has evolved into more of an art form. One today may look at other games such as Grand theft Auto and Assassins Creed to try to evaluate those stereotypes (Assassins Creed 3’s depiction of Brazil for example). One might not enjoy the use of these characteristics but at the same time the team needs these games to relate to the players that they are trying to reach. The argument is that it is a necessary evil in some cases to hit your profit margin.
Do I think that either of these two games overstepped any boundaries? Ask me 20 years ago, and I would say no. But where we are today is largely based on where games like these two have paved the way to the games that are coming out today and will be for years to come.
All in all, Punch Out’s stereotypes were much worse. You are stuck playing s scrawny white guy beating up people from around the world. That is the worst form of anti-Americanism ever….oh wait, we actually do that.