The announcement of the Retro Video Game System, a cartridge-based console, is the latest case study in the debate of whether gaming should continue evolving beyond its roots.
The Street Fighter: The Evolution of Ryu
Ryu has been around the block. Ever since his first appearance in 1987’s Street Fighter ,he has appeared in over fifty different incarnations, ranging from games to movies to manga, and everything in between. He is routinely placed on Top Character,Top Fighter and Top Karate Gi lists (he was a lock for that last one), and his signature Hadoken is so iconic I’m convinced people are now born with the knowledge of how to do it.
Of course his biggest role has been as the stalwart of Cacpcom’s premier fighting series Street Fighter. The original may be a forgotten curiosity now, but it marks the first showing of our hero. Newer gamers probably wouldn’t even recognize him. Although he still has his signature white gi, he looks a bit different than what he does now. He would later ditch the shoes he wears in Street Fighter, and, except for a few brief cameos, the brown hair as well. He keeps the headband, but it would eventually change from white and red to just red.
The original Street Fighter didn’t exactly set the gaming scene on fire (that would be the sequel), but it did establish the basics of Ryu. A Japanese warrior, Ryu was the main character of the original game, with the second player taking on the role of his friend and rival Ken. Ryu’s name comes from the Japanese form of developer Takashi Nishiyama’s name. When seen in writing, it can also be read as Ryu. His moveset has remained remarkably unchanged from this early version of himself, with his signature Hadoken fireball, Tatsumaki Senpū Kyaku whirlwind kick and Shoryuken rising uppercut still a part of his arsenal today.
Of course, it was Street Fighter 2 that caused the series to really come into its own, and Ryu and gang became an overnight sensation. During the change from flawed unknown to genre king, Ryu’s design began to change, even at that early stage solidifying certain elements of his character still seen today. This version of Ryu features a much more muscled physique to go along with his expanded fighting abilities. That’s good, because the original Ryu kind of looks like a wimp. The red hair is gone in favor a dark brown,but the Hadoken remained pretty much intact.
The next iteration of the series, Street Fighter Alpha, saw a return closer to Ryu’s original design. The hair returned to red, the headband became white, and, inexplicably, his feet become freaking huge. Noteworthy is the fact that this appears to be the first time his gi is ripped at the arms, which is now a signature part of his style. While Street Fighter Alpha may not be as fondly remembered by most as Street Fighter II was, it expands upon Ryu in several important ways, particularly in regards to backstory and fighting skills.
By now, we’ve learned a little bit more about Ryu than “generic karate master”. We know his master Gouken (not Sheng Long, as an old EGM April Fools joke led many to believe) trained Ryu and Ken from a young age, and that Ryu has never ceased trying to become the strongest warrior alive. This singular focus has worked well for him, but has also caused him to transform into Evil Ryu a time or two. Evil Ryu is basically regular Ryu infused with a “Surge of Murderous Intent”, which is assuredly the coolest thing I will ever write.
This is similar to Ryu’s now-rival Akuma, who permanently has a “Surge of Murderous Intent”. Unlike Ryu’s original rival Sagat, his and Akuma’s feud is personal; Akuma killed the aforementioned Gouken, who also happens to be Akuma’s brother. Yep, turns out there is a little more to the Street Fighter mythos than “punch and kick people until they fall down.” Who knew?
The same year that Street Fighter Alpha was released, Capcom also released the Mortal Kombat-esque “digitized” game adaptation of the live action movie, Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game, also known as The Worst Idea And Title For A Video Game Ever. Ryu was played by Byron Mann, the vaguely human-shaped form seen above. Let’s move on, shall we?
Of course, history wouldn’t remember his next stop any more fondly than that mess. With the rise of the PlayStation, 3D gaming was the flavor of the week, and Capcom wasn’t going to let that pass them by. In retrospect, they totally should have. While Street Fighter EX garnered mostly positive reviews, it felt distinctly different from the Street Fighter that we all knew and loved. The switch from the traditional 2D plane to a completely 3D landscape wasn’t a complete disaster, but the new format led to some growing pains, and even Capcom has stated that, in retrospect, the EX series got away from what really made the franchise great. If nothing else, it’s worth it just to see all your favorite characters painstakingly reproduced in blocky polygons.
Next up is the first of many, many crossovers featuring our Hadoken-throwing hero. In retrospect, X-Men vs. Street Fighter would be a harbinger of many projects to come. This was the first title to feature a lot of elements that would eventually become synonymous to Capcom fighters, including the tag-format, regenerating health for the off-screen partner, tag attacks, exaggerated special moves and the whole idea of crossing established fighting characters with foes from alternative media. While the PlayStation port that many experienced this game on was crap, the original arcade game was as good as the legacy it would eventually leave.
After the success of this entertaining crossover and relatively lukewarm reception to 3D, Capcom decided it was time to go back to their roots with a return to the regular numbered series. Street Fighter III tends to get criminally overlooked in the Street Fighter catalog, but hardcore fans know it as one of the most tightly polished games in the series. Although the roster went through a bit of a shake-up, Ryu (and Ken) remained. As you can see, his style was very similar to his Street Fighter II incarnation. A little beefed up, gi a little more torn, but his art style didn’t get a drastic change at this point in his evolution.
After the success of X-Men vs. Street Fighter, the two parent companies decided another mash-up was in order, an idea both companies still use frequently. 1997s Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter expanded the Marvel roster to include characters like Spider-Man and Shuma-Gorath, while 1998’s Marvel vs. Capcom added new Capcom characters like Mega Man, Strider Hiryu and Morrigan to the mix. Technical issues plagued the various ports of both games, but they would eventually nail it with their next release.
Wasting no time at all, the two companies released the genre-defining Marvel vs. Capcom 2 two years later. With a massive 56-character roster, much more accessible combat and excellent console ports, MvcC 2 set a new bar for the series. Despite promotional materials showing the black-haired Street Fighter 2 & 3 version of Ryu, he went back to the brown hair and younger look reminiscent of Street Fighter Alpha. It’s interesting to note the dichotomy that (mostly) exists between the two versions of Ryu. For the most part, the main series usually has the black haired, heavily muscled version, while the spin-offs more often than not were using his original palette more. Eventually,though, his art style would unify to reflect the former.
Outside of a few updated re-releases, Ryu took an extended hiatus after Marvel vs Capcom 2, but game back with a vengeance eight years later with the blockbuster success Street Fighter IV. While many had declared the fighting genre all but dead, Street Fighter IV combined slick controls, an incredible art style and (eventually) a solid online infrastructure to great effect, and triggered a fighting game renaissance that in many ways is still going on today.
Capcom smelled blood and immediately followed SF IV up with another mash-up, although this one was a bit more obscure than the Marvel superheroes Ryu and gang had been used to fighting. Tatsunoko may not have the brand recognition here of say, well anything American, but Tatsunoko Productions is a huge anime company in Japan. Mixing the two made for some fantastic, if gonzo, gameplay. Ryu didn’t change much from SF IV to this, basically solidifying his look into the image we know now.
Sensing the time was ripe for a blockbuster, Capcom dropped Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two World onto the market. Ryu hadn’t changed much since Street Fighter IV three years ago, although the distinctive ink-style of MvC 3 separated him from his doppelgangers. By now, a number of Ryu’s features can be taken for granted: the tattered gi arms, the spiky black hair, the just too big to be realistic feet; Ryu is Ryu, for better or worse. We may not have to wait until Street Fighter V to see if that will change either, because Capcom isn’t done shaking the mash-up tree to see what fruits fall down.
Street Fighter X Tekken, Ryu’s most recent appearance, brought the two monster franchises together for the first time, but it won’t be the last. Although things have been relatively quiet on this front lately, a Tekken X Street Fighter should eventually be on the way, set in the formers universe. It stands to reason that, since the gameplay will be Tekken-like, the art style may be too. Could be finally be due for another Ryu re imagining? Only time will tell.
It has certainly been a wild ride for one of the longest-tenured characters in gaming, but its safe to say it was all worth it. Without Ryu, it is entirely possible there is never a Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, Tekken or Soul Calibur.
While people sometimes lament Capcom’s dedication to iteration and have hypothesized that Ryu’s run at the top my be coming to an end, if there’s one thing we have learned throughout the years, it’s don’t count out the Hadoken.