Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Not-Quite World Warrior

Geek break.

For those who are unfamiliar with video games and never had attended a pizza parlor birthday party in their formative years, the name "Street Fighter II" may sound unfamiliar. This game, a staple of every video arcade ever, was huge in the 90s, so much so that it continued in popularity — that is, various manifestations of the original game, and not prequels or sequels or spin-offs — until 1996 or so. That's a lot of quarters to be fed.


In short, Street Fighter II is generally credited with popularizing the once-ubiquitous fighting game genre. That's the one where two people — usually with both with silly hair and both representing a nation, lifestyle or subculture — kick the living shit out of each other until one keels over the other travels to a new locale to start the process over again. This idea was copied again and again, by countless other series, but it was Street Fighter II that did it right first. (Also, I can't help chuckle at the inherent admission that by virtue of Street Fighter II reinventing the wheel, Street Fighter I must have sucked balls. In truth, I've never even met anyone who has played it.)

That's basically the plot of Street Fighter II, really, though the eight characters who were initially selectable had their own reasons for joining the globe-spanning competition. It's the four boss characters that this post concerns, however. The fact that three of them swapped names between the release of the game in Japan and its translation into English is fairly well known among the now-adults who loved the game as kids, but I realized yesterday that I had never read an explanation of why the name-swamp was necessary or a discussion of the fact that the names worked better having been switched. In any case, that's what this post will be about: the small bit of cultural difference that I'd imagine most people don't notice.

So if you're playing Street Fighter II and your selected character sufficiently pummels the other seven, he or she advances to the four bosses. The first is a boxer, Balrog, whose Las Vegas stage marks the third American setting the game offers. (And while I'm there, is it strange at all that a Japanese -produced game about an international group of martial artists should include three American characters and only two Japanese ones?) Balrog likes to hit things.

And he looks a like an angry Tracy Morgan. Since Balrog is a well-muscled guy whose only apparent mode of social interaction is clobbering people, his name makes sense. The word "Balrog" originated in Lord of the Rings as the name of the behemoth monster that didn't kill the Hobbits when I hoped it would. In the original, Japanese version of Street Fighter II, however, "Balrog" was the name of a different boss. In Japan, this boxer is known as "M. Bison" and is meant to parody that other African-American whirlwind of fists and teeth, Mike Tyson.

The common story for this name switch is that those translating the game worried that Tyson would take offense to the joke — and really, who can blame them? — though I'd imagine that another factor came into play here. Namely, Mike Tyson had become the star of the Nintendo boxing game franchise, Punch-Out!!, a 1987 installment of which was titled Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! So for all I know, Nintendo may have actually owned the copyrights to the use of Mike Tyson or any Mike Tyson-like character in a video game.

To complicate the matters further, "Balrog" is a tricky name to pronounce for someone who speaks Japanese. The whole confusion with "r" and "l" means that the middle of Balrog's name can easily get slurred into one non-consonant. In fact, the name proved so problematic that later upgrades to the original Street Fighter II engine actually included voice samples from an in-game announcer that pronounced it "Barlog."

Got it?

The second boss, Vega, requires a bit of explanation even when one isn't discussing his name problems. He's from Spain. That only explains a small part why he's a mess.


First off, this character's stage gave my childhood brain the notion that Spanish people have cage fights a lot. Secondly, I actually had to look this character up to remember why he looks like an escaped mental patient. According to his entry on the Wikipedia, Vega is a matador whose narcissism prompts him to fight with a mask. (One would also imagine that a person so concerned about his appearance wouldn't take up fighting with the fiercest martial artists in the world, however.) And the stupid claw? That just seems unfair.

In the original Japanese version, however, Vega's name is "Balrog." This strikes me as odd, given the associations Lord of the Rings readers and other assorted dorks would have with the word. The Wikipedia article supposes that the original name is intentionally ironic. Like in the case of the previous boss, the American name seems to make more sense, since vega is actually a Spanish word — and a fairly common surname in Spanish-speaking countries.

Next we have Sagat.


He's from Thailand. He fights in front of what I believe is a real landmark. Other than the fact that his name is doubly funny, he's not too important to this discussion, as his name remained the same in all versions of the game.

That leaves us with the Big Bad.


That's right — four men. Street Fighter II came out before the days of equal-opportunity street fighting, when the game featured only one female character, who had to be pretty, skinny, proficient at kicking, generally good, and notably feminine.

A cheerful and laid-back fellow, M. Bison is the villain seen depicted above as he kicks a vomiting sumo wrestler. Since he's wearing what looks like a military uniform, I always assumed the "M" initial stood for "Major" or something, even though I must have known how that title is correctly abbreviated. In the Japanese version of the game, however, this character has the name "Vega," for no reason I can understand. Apparently by virtue of giving the boxer the clobberific name and the matador the Spanish name, the grimacing man in the hat became "M. Bison" in America.

In the process of writing this, it occurred to me that Capcom, the company that developed Street Fighter II, could have easily avoided the problem of having three characters trade names in the two different markets they'd be pushing the game by having renamed the boxer character something else — "Leonard" or "Priscillla" or "Captain Fists" or whatever. Why would they bother to move the names around how they did and, in doing so, saddle the game's main villain with a name that references a slow and decidedly un-fearsome American grazing animal?

Then it occurred to me: In the same way the game's announcer voice had marred the pronunciation of "Balrog" in a way that Japanese ears wouldn't detect but American ears did, the person who provided that voice was probably unavailable to re-record any samples for names that would better fit audiences outside Japan. The digits bits that said "Vega wins" and "M. Bison wins" already existed, and Capcom of America had to make do with what they had.

So there — this needlessly confusing difference between the Japanese and American versions of Street Fighter II arose, I'd wager, solely from the technical limitations of the medium. Well, that and the threat of a beating from a man whose fists are registered lethal weapons. This difference ub how two different cultures approach the same bit of popular culture amuses me — not only because the two sides could easily not realize that they've been given a slightly different than the other got, but also because the change happens for a reason.

Thus ends my geek break. And you thought that this was purely a video game-related geek break.


  1. I'm not sure if this helps at all but Vega is apparently a very important star, and so originally it could have just been a very important sounding name to give who we now call M. Bison. I don't disagree the names still make more sense the way we have them, but it's something to consider.

  2. I always thought Balrog was the original name of the last Boss. As he's from Thailand, Balrog sounded pretty logical to me for that character.
    Vega is clearly spanish, it's hard for me to believe the Japanese didn't think of this name for the spanish character in the beginning.
    M. Bison of course is a clear reference to Mike Tyson. Moreover, if you look at Street Fighter I, there's a black boxer character who's name is, obviously, Mike.
    Sagat was the name of the SF1's Boss so there wasn't any reason to change it.

  3. Anonymous2:27 PM

    You really should've mentioned that hardcore fans refer to the three renamed characters as Boxer, Claw, and Dictator to avoid confusion.

  4. i read somewhere once that the official reason for this was that Vega sounded too "feminine" for a mighty boss. so they gave the strong name to the head boss, the effeminate name to the feminine character and the "clobbering" name to the boxer.

  5. Anonymous2:14 PM

    I have played SF I on my CPU via MAME. It is pretty horrible. The controls suck(time lag on jumps and almost impossible to do any of the moves). Also, when I reached Sagat he is near impossible to defeat. The computer cheats a lot (doing repeated sweeps that some of us are guilty of for a cheap win) and gets annoying really fast. The graphics are okay for the time it was produced, and the sound quality is tolerable. You can only play as Ryu or Ken (depending if you are 1st or 2nd player)and surprisingly they have all their moves (shoryuken, haedoken, and hurricane kick)if you can excute them. It is well worth a play on MAME if you want some nostalgia. I saw the cabinet once when I was on a road trip from CA to AZ. I remember playing it (when I was about 7 yrs old) around the mid 90s, around the time SSF II came out. I remember dying really quickly and just turning away from the cabinet. Hope that gives you some insight on the game.

  6. M. Bison sounds a lot like Mike Tyson (And Balrog/Bison looks like him too), is that possibly why Bison had his name changed?

  7. Randy: A good point. I am more Spanish-minded than astronomy-minded.

    Petruza: Well, as Randy points out, Vega is not necessarily Spanish. Technically, I think Mike and Balrog/Boxer are supposed to be separate characters, similar though they might be.

    Anonymous: Another good point. Boxer, Claw and Dictator are the easiest ways to avoid confusion.

    Vulgar: Another good theory. And Vega would be feminine if it does, in fact, come from Spanish.

    Richie. That's a nice little story.

    Chris: I pointed this out in the artle and Petruza also mentioned it.

  8. Hello.

    I've always thought that Vega (Claw) was meant to be a psychotic Jai-Alai player. The sport originated in Spain. The players jump on walls and have those cup-like things on their hands, with Vega's being modified to a claw. And I swear I read somewhere before that classic Jai-Alai players from long ago had sashes around their waist, like the one Vega has, but I can't seem to find any evidence of that anymore.

    I figured Capcom changed the canon for him to be a bullfighter because they either forgot what their original inspiration was or because they were afraid no one would know what the hell Jai Alai is.

  9. Anonymous4:26 AM

    ...If names would never have been changed, then people wouldn't think "Vega sounds stupid name for M. Bison". Really, if you don't think Vega as spanish word it sounds like somekind of villain name for me... And I guess developers of game though that Balrog sounded spanish? Ya know, different country different thinking.(I mean japanese probably think that matter differently than americans...)

  10. well in that time this the best fighter video game.

  11. The audio track theory isn't quite right either. The game only said "you win", not the character's name. This wouldn't be included until the 4th revision of Street Fighter II.
    And in that version of the game, the arcade motherboard comes with changed SFX for re-named special techniques (Dee Jay's "slash!" and "max!", and Cammy's "cannon spike!" and "thrust kick!".

    My theory is that Capcom didn't want to make it look like any character was missing from the US version.

  12. Actually, Academie, I'm not sure that's correct. The old versions of Street Fighter II game a "You win" or "You lose" in the one-player version but a "[Name] wins" in the two-player version, since it would have been otherwise unclear who the "you" was.

  13. Anonymous6:04 AM

    The Council of the Académie is right. While in two player mode the on-screen text says "[Name] wins", the voice sample still just says "You win". Only from "Super Street Fighter II - The New Challengers" on did they speak out the actual names. (Even if name sound samples were used in the first version of the game, this wouldn't have been a problem for the three grandmasters since they were not originally selectable and there's never a two player fight with any of them involved.)

  14. Anonymous: Hmm. You may have me there. Did the old Street Fighter really say "you win" even a two-player match? You could be right. But yes -- you've got me on the grounds that the bosses weren't even playable in the original Street Fighter. Hmm...

  15. Anonymous1:13 AM

    I have the game and I have been playing it lately (original casette, original super nes), it says You Win or You Lose... Vega does well for Dictator (as a leading star that means "follower" in the sense that this dictator follows power), it is gender neutral in Spanish because it is a surname if it exists (I have heard Vegas, but never Vega). I rather have Nike Bison or N.Bison for the boxer to make a reference to Mike Tyson without limiting the letter change to the surname and nothing more. As for the bullfighter being called Baru Logu... I guess it could have become in Spanish "Varo Loco" or "Baro Loco", I am a Spanish speaking person from birth and I know Varo and Baro are words but I am not sure of their proper meanings... And I am not willing to check the dictionary of the RAE right now... But it could work for a character... If we say the US team behind Nintendo made the right call, that is because we grew with their call, we don't have the alternative ingrained in our heads. The idea that "Vega" sounds femmenine is stupid to say the least.