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August 18, 2016

Let’s discuss Street Fighter V: A Shadow Falls (Part 2).


Here’s a common question: do stories matter in video games?

Anyone who’s familiar with me or my work will know that my immediate answer is “YES, YOU IDIOT!”  Granted they’re not essential for every game out there, but in a lot of cases they’re as important to a game as the actual gameplay -- which makes it all the more infuriating when, say, Final Fantasy’s narrative does a swan dive into a chunk of concrete.  So by extension, the story in fighting games matter too, and for multiple reasons.  It’s a chance to enrich our understanding of our mains.  It’s a way to add something special to the franchise, while treating fans old and new.  And for those whose fingers are too leaden to toss out a V-Trigger cancel combo, there’s still something to enjoy,

I understand why people have written off the A Shadow Falls story, both pre- and post-release.  It hurts to admit that it’s not very good, but I know that SF as a whole will thrive because of its ever-enduring, ever-evolving gameplay.  Here’s the thing, though: even if it’s flawed, the new story mode is still important for three reasons.  One: if we keep declaring that “stories in games don’t matter”, then the bigwigs are going to take that lesson to heart and we’ll get more overpriced, short-lived multiplayer-only releases.  Two: considering all the touting Capcom did of its story, it demands to be judged accordingly -- so that everyone, devs included, can see the pros and cons for future reference (and improvement).  Three: even if there’s a lot to wince over in the story, there is absolutely a lot to enjoy.

I was pretty harsh in the last post.  But now it’s time to go over some of the good stuff.


So in the last post, I asked who the main character of A Shadow Falls was supposed to be.  I think it’s a valid question, and helps encapsulate a lot of the story’s problems: there’s not enough focus to give the canon the effort it needs.  It would’ve been the easiest thing in the world to just have the story follow Ryu -- Mr. Street Fighter -- and proceed from there.  It also would’ve been easy to make it a double-decker; have Ryu explore the canon’s spiritual aspects through a rivalry with Necalli, while Nash tackles the militant aspects by pursuing M. Bison.  And yeah, you could argue that that’s basically what they did -- at least until you remember that Ryu spends about 75% of the story away from…well, the story.  And then he just pops in for no raisin to beat all the baddies and save the planet.

I’ve always believed that main characters are the most important part of any story.  They define it better than anyone or anything else, in-universe or out of it.  Their words, actions, struggles, and goals form a core part of any plot, as they should -- so if the main character of a story is bad, then the story is bad.  That’s my ironclad rule.  If we’re going solely by screen time, then it’s a safe bet that Capcom wanted Nash to be the star of the story.  And as cool as it is to see Guile’s old buddy back on the front lines, this isn’t the soldier longtime fans fell in love with.

I think I’m kind of okay with that.  Intentional or not, that’s entirely the point.


There was a comment on EventHubs that stuck out to me when Nash’s new profile was revealed.  The translation of the profile is, to wit:

Guile's best friend, and when he was still alive, a first lieutenant in the Air Force. He lost his life once, but for some reason he is back, and moves with the singular goal of killing M. Bison. He used to be cool, though a bit of an egghead, with a very strong sense of justice and an incredibly warm personality, but after facing betrayal he can no longer trust anyone but himself. He has lost both his former cool head and his warmness, and is obsessed with nothing but revenge, leaving him with a very cold personality.”

One of the immediate responses in the comments section was this.  It’s not hard to see why; Nash went from a cool-headed soldier fighting for justice to a dark avenger out to murder Bison -- and all it cost him was his personality.  I guess that’s kind of to be expected when you’re revived as a zombie by a shady organization, but it’s jarring to see the Nash in the character stories compared to the Nash from A Shadow Falls.  Three guesses as to which one I prefer.  It seems like Capcom’s showing how far behind it is in the storytelling race by having an edgy anti-hero that wouldn’t be out of place in a Zack Snyder film.  But the saving grace -- besides the other, more interesting fighters around him -- is that in the grand scheme of things, Nash is a failure.


I’ve got no problems with anyone who thinks he’s one of the strongest SF characters, but having raw power levels isn’t enough.  It’s not enough to save him from a whooping by Urien, for starters, and despite his Ahab-style pursuit of Shadaloo’s leader, Nash loses to Bison twice.  True, he had a handicap with his zombie body -- one with a short battery life, it turns out -- but given that he was apparently part of some poorly-explained prophecy, the odds are still in his favor.  (Also, I’m pretty sure that he’s way up there in the tier list, so chalk that up as gameplay and story integration.) 

Yet it wasn’t enough.  Nash can’t exact his revenge, and even his noble sacrifice doesn’t do much besides give Bison a chance to walk menacingly out of some smoke.  Well, it supposedly weakened him enough for Ryu to finish the job, but given that he’s still in full fighting shape after the blast -- and Ryu’s apparently reached a point where he can beat Necalli with one punch -- it kind of feels like it was a heroic sacrifice for heroic sacrifice’s sake.  Because if Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that the only way to truly prove you’re a hero is to die while en route to the ending.


Still, let’s think about this for a second.  Nash comes short on multiple accounts, despite him being one of the closest things to a hero in the story (even though the real honor arguably goes to Rashid, but whatever).  The fact that he couldn’t accomplish anything besides win a few street fights -- and that Ryu had to swoop in and save the day -- makes me wonder if there was a message being imparted upon we audience members.  Granted I’m willing to believe that said message might have been completely accidental, or the result of me reading WAY too far into things, but I wonder if Capcom was trying to say more than just “Ryu is the only one who can save the day.”

If we play strawman and oversimplify things for a bit, then we can call Nash (in A Shadow Falls, at least) an edgelord.  Ooooh, he was betrayed and left for dead!  Ooooh, now he’s cold and angry at everyone!  Ooooh, he’s out for revenge and doesn’t care about anything else!  Ooooh, he’s got all these fancy new powers to help him be the ultimate dark avenger!  That’s not really an archetype I’m too fond of, and I wonder if Capcom feels the same way.  Nash generally only comes to life throughout the story when it’s time to rage.  And guess what the canon says about fighters who try to use rage to win?


Even if he didn’t have a zombie body or a battery on loan from the baddies, it’s a safe bet that Nash wouldn’t be able to beat Bison.  Those are definitely factors, sure -- he even admits that he’s got no shot of victory -- but he acknowledges that he’s been corrupted.  He doesn’t have the cool head of a soldier, or the pure heart of a fighter.  Power and skill give him an edge in most fights, but said power pales in comparison to Bison and his Psycho Power (enhanced or otherwise, potentially).  Plus, what good will it do to give in to that anger?  It’s bad enough that he’s basically a zombie now, but is he honestly so willing to throw away his humanity and heart that he’ll go into “GRRR MAH MISSHUN” mode, especially knowing that Guile is alive and well?

It’s really telling that the most impressive thing Nash does over the course of the story is neutralize the dark energy that’s infected Abel (and later on, he uses it to hamstring Bison).  He’s entrenched in negative emotions, but ends up finding a way to disrupt Psycho Power -- itself bolstered by negative emotions -- with little more than a touch.  Moreover, Nash manages to fight Bison more effectively when he has a cool head; no matter the pain he’s suffered in the past, he sets it aside to do what needs to be done for the future.  I mean, it doesn’t work or anything, but it presumably still helps Team Good Guys.


Maybe the bigger question here is whether or not Nash had what it took to achieve enlightenment.  Inner peace.  The “power of nothingness”, or something like it.  As an ace soldier and the man who created the Sonic Boom and Flash Kick -- which means by extension he’s the progenitor of the zoning archetype -- he had to have a cool head throughout his life.  If that’s true, then it may have translated into him becoming a worthy candidate for the canon’s ultimate power.  That would help explain why he’s a part of a debunked prophecy, and he reasserts his potential by outstripping Bison in his final moments.  An unclouded mind is the key to everything -- to true power, to victory, and maybe someday, to self-satisfaction.

Admittedly that theory kind of breaks down when you remember that Rashid walloped FANG while whipped into an uncharacteristic (though 100% justifiable) rage.  Then again, Rashid tapped into a power -- or alternatively, the depths of his personal, windy reserves.  He didn’t tap into the power.  It makes you wonder if it takes a certain level of training, i.e. you have to cross some sort of threshold in order to be a candidate.  If so, that would make guys like Ryu and Nash into living embodiments of that rule.  But even then, it’s not that big of a deal-breaker.  Nor is the big takeaway the fact that the power of nothingness will get you everything you want.  No, it’s the idea that with enough effort and dedication -- alongside earnest, pure-hearted desire -- that power is achievable by pretty much anyone.

And that might be the crux of the whole story -- because it’s pretty close to the crux of Street Fighter as a whole.


Well, I could be reaching a bit here.  I mean, it’s not as if fighting games are a genre that have inspired untold thousands -- if not millions -- of intrepid gamers to seek strong combatants and improve their skills for the sake of finding peace of mind as well as fun.  Oh wait.  That’s exactly what they do.  The context of Street Fighter informs the context of the genre, and its effect on others.  People can and will argue that stories in fighting games aren’t important because the main draw will always be the actual fighting.  I understand that mindset.  It’s hard to disagree with entirely; in a lot of ways, A Shadow Falls is a disposable diversion from getting into Training mode and practicing some Guile combos.  It was the mission of this story -- and will be the mission of future installments, if they come -- to provide a reason to pull guys like PR Balrog, Tokido, and Snake Eyez away from the combo lab and into the narrative.  And not just “Eh, might as well give it a look.”  I mean “This has given me a whole new outlook on SF.”

Did it succeed?  Not really.  I feel as if A Shadow Falls fell into the same trap that Dead or Alive 5 did: rather than tell a story on its terms with its concepts and characters, it opted to just be cookie-cutter Hollywood fare -- just “save the world and be done with it.”  And when you go down that route -- when you try to compress so much into about three hours’ time, while also trying to be something you’re not -- then you’re destined to lose.  With that said, I think it’s a much narrower loss than people have declared. 


The idea that the power of nothingness is attainable by anyone with the will for it is an interesting one, and an important one.  Obviously Ryu’s going to get his hands on it thanks to his travels, but Nash finds some semblance of it with his effort and talent in the armed forces.  Supplementary materials (like Ryu Final) suggest that Ken finds his own version of it via his love for his family -- and even manages to wail on Ryu as proof.  Given what we see in this story, he’s well on his way to that plateau. 

So the message here, intentional or not, plays into a level of idealism and romanticism that’s part of the franchise’s lifeblood.  It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, or what your circumstances might be.  You can become better than what you are now -- and you can share your answer with others in this wild journey we call life.  Even if the power of nothingness is an important player in the canon, it’s ultimately just a metaphor for its various World Warriors. 

More pressingly, it’s a vital part of the metacontext -- something that props up the story while propping up the real-world impact.  It’s easy to say that Daigo Umehara is the real-life Ryu, but if you’ll let me be so bold?  I’d argue that SF is telling anyone who plays it that you, too, can be Ryu.  You can strive for more, overcome your issues, and reach untold heights with a heaping helping of elbow grease.  So in a way, SF pushes something just as hard -- and maybe harder -- than its World Warriors.  It uses them for that purpose, mind you.  And it’s exactly that use that makes me respect A Shadow Falls for all its faults.

Here’s the clincher: Street Fighter has heart.


For me, the absolute best moment of the entire story wasn’t seeing Nash fight with Bison, or Ryu demolishing Necalli, or even Rashid punching out FANG (though as a fan of the Turbulent Wind, that’s definitely in the highlight reel).  No, the very best moment was when Ken is at the Kanzuki Estate with his son, and laughing it up about the world of martial arts -- from watching little Mel try to shoot fireballs to Mr. Masters miming a Shinryuken in the background.  It was funny, it was charming, it was informative, and it showed something that previous SF games have hinted at, but never truly had the opportunity to deliver on.

It’s a given that any story involving the World Warriors -- in the franchise that gave birth to the genre as we know it -- is going to feature lots of fighting.  I’m okay with that; the essence of drama is conflict, after all.  But A Shadow Falls is at its best when it gets the time to show these fighters not fighting.  Who are they when they’re not in a wrestling ring, or having punch-ups with Shadaloo goons?  That’s something worth exploring, because you need good downtime to accent the more intense beats of the plot.  And against all odds, we’ve gotten some of that downtime here.  I’d wager that that was part of the mission statement with the individual character stories, but it shows up in a broader sense throughout the main story.


Example: promotional materials from Super Street Fighter IV and Street Fighter X Tekken have pushed Chun-Li and Cammy as partners -- close friends as well as comrades, not just working together because “we’re both girls, lol”.  We’ve seen them tag-team against Juri and fight it out with Asuka and Lili, but ever since that narrative started getting a push, how many opportunities have we had to really see them connect?  Not a ton, I’d wager.  And in all fairness, it’s not like A Shadow Falls offers a lot on that front.  But there is at least one poignant scene: Chun and Cammy have a moment to talk while watching Ken play World’s Greatest Dad. 

I’m actually curious to hear if anyone has problems with that scene (or the story at large).  The subject of their conversation is about family, with Cammy in particular explaining that she doesn’t really know what “family” feels like.  I wonder if anyone thought it’d be sacrilege to hear the “world’s strongest woman” talk about family, and thus move away from street fighting and Interpol work to baking cookies for the school bake sale.  That’s projecting a little (okay, a lot), but speaking personally, I’m okay with that insight into their characters.  Chun-Li was born in 1968, and while the canon is clearly playing fast and loose with the flow of time, it’s not as if any of the World Warriors are pulling a Benjamin Button on us. 


I’m not saying that these characters are automatically better because they’re dealing with family stuff.  Likewise, it’s nowhere near a requirement to earn praise from an audience.  (I don’t think anyone’s clamoring for Birdie to become a dad anytime soon.)  But considering that Chun-Li does end up taking in kids as the canon progresses, it makes sense for her to start thinking about more than just roundhouse-kicking Bison.  Plus, part of her motivation is to seek justice for the murder of her father; if we assume that he was good to her in the past, then clearly playing the noble guardian to others is something she holds in high esteem.  It makes sense for her to at least consider parenthood -- adopted or otherwise.

As far as I can tell, it’s not as if Chun-Li’s future is a binary choice.  She gets knocked around a lot in A Shadow Falls, and that’s definitely something to be sore about (I’ve only played as her for about an hour throughout my entire life, but I still think she’s amazing).  But at least she’s trying.  At least she’s there, being the Interpol agent -- just as she was in chronologically-earlier and later installments in the franchise.  And guess what?  In this game, she’s still extending a hand and a warm hug to children.  In SFIII, she’s still kicking dudes a hundred times a second.  She can be more than just one thing -- just like normal, everyday humans -- and she’s stronger for it.

And that, in turn, makes me pose a very important question.


The Super Best Friends discussed it a while back.  To paraphrase: are you stronger when you have nothing to lose, or are you stronger when you have something to protect?  That’s basically the divide between Ryu and Ken, respectively -- but even though the former has overtly embraced the power of nothingness, I’m inclined to believe that it’s not exactly a clear-cut answer.  Yeah, Ryu’s pre-fight quote has gone from “The answer lies in the heart of battle” to “This is the path of my destiny”, which implies that there’s one road to victory and he’s driving down all three lanes simultaneously. 

Still, Nash basically found his version of the power of nothingness (if not the sole genuine article).  Ken’s more than capable of keeping pace with Ryu despite having a family -- and presumably a fraction of the time to train.  Rashid managed to shrug off FANG’s poison and beat Shadaloo’s number two, despite his ability to melt people with a touch.  (Side note: let’s all take a moment to appreciate that even if Ryu beat Bison, it was actually Rashid who stopped the Black Moons and saved the world.  Not bad for a new challenger.)

What I’m getting at here is that the context of A Shadow Falls plays up an important point of interest: it’s possible to become the best you can be, but what that entails will vary from person to person.  Ryu’s ideal state (or close to it) makes use of the power of nothingness.  So does Nash’s.  Ken’s may or may not, but that’s fine because he’s guided by his desire to protect his family.  Rashid’s comes from a desire to find (and eventually avenge) his friend.  Different people have different roads to different answers, and that’s okay.  It’s welcome, even.


True, it’s not like every road is a winner; trying to cheat your way to the top with stuff like Psycho Power or the Dark Hadou only leads to corruption and ruin.  But the options are there for anyone, as long as the effort is there and the desire stays pure.  There’s nothing stopping Chun-Li from being able to one-shot Necalli somewhere down the line as long as she stays on-course with her desires.  Having rescued her sisters -- the Dolls as well as Decapre -- Cammy’s taken a step forward, and might be able to draw on more power than the “Killer Bee” ever could.  Zangief and R. Mika believe in their iron bodies, and given that the Red Cyclone shattered a sword with just his pecs, I’d say they’re onto something.  Dhalsim’s reportedly sneaking up on divinity. 

It ties into the idealism and romance of the franchise.  It’s not about power or winning; it’s about being your best, staying true to your desires, and sharing something -- be it a tender moment or a ton of fun -- with others.  That speaks way louder than a plot to shroud the world in darkness, at least to me.  The thrills are only temporary, so it’s up to everything else to leave a lasting impression. 

And for all of the faults with A Shadow Falls, that’s definitely the case here.  Guile grabbing Nash’s hand to help him make a daring escape; Ryu and Ken fist-bumping after another sparring match, and before another departure; Rashid listening to the last words he’ll ever hear from his old friend; those moments (and more) have heart.  And if I were a betting man, I’d say that those will stick with me much longer than who won which fight, or how much stuff blew up, or who showed up.


I’ll still argue that the story should’ve been told in an episodic format.  Likewise, I hope that going forward, the quality of the story increases dramatically.  But that’s the thing: I want there to be more narrative content, and not just tucked into a menu as a formality (or a way to earn Fight Money).  I want to see that heart on display once again.  I want Capcom to make a story that truly, objectively matters to more people, not just big-headed nerds who overthink everything.  SF is always going to be a “gameplay first” franchise, but it doesn’t have to be strictly limited to that.  Not when it can be so much more, to so many more.

There’s a moment in the latter half of A Shadow Falls where the good guys are all piled into Kanzuki Estate and planning their next move -- i.e. getting ready for their final assault on the Shadaloo base.  What do they do before taking off?  They all group up and put their hands in the center, as if to rally for a big hockey game.  It’s a cheesy moment, but it’s partly what I expected -- and exactly what I wanted


The game industry’s had to deal with tons of homogenization and growing pains over the past few years, which has led to some seriously stale titles hitting shelves.  SFV has enough style to resist the tide, thanks to its World Warriors -- men and women of different characters, forms, nationalities, and desires, but nonetheless cooperate to fight a common enemy.  Well, when they aren’t fighting each other. 

But the point is that there’s something strangely admirable about the SF universe and what it’s trying to push -- something that honestly feels necessary as well as refreshing.  In a world where people are so easily divided over issues and ideals, sometimes we need a common ground to get behind.  If we can’t bond through our circumstances, we can at least bond through our fiction.  Ryu, Ken, and all the rest are ambassadors on that front, and I’m thankful for it.  Sometimes we need the unreal to show us what can be real.

And for that, I have one last thing to say to Capcom: please add Dee Jay to SFV.  And also, give him the power to turn into Shin Dee Jay.  It’ll be great.


And to anyone still reading this?  Thanks for reading.  As a reward: the “mysterious stanza” from Part 1 is actually the first verse of a “song” my brother once had Banzai Buddy sing.  Here’s another verse.

Aw, shucks
You’re a duck
You suck you have no luck
You smell now go to hell
Walnuts, peanuts, pineapple smells
Grape Ape better run ‘cause I got coconut shells

Ah, Banzai Buddy.  You caused no harm to anyone or their hardware over the course of your life.


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