Thursday, January 4, 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.

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