SNK's relatable characters

Author: M. E. Williams

SNK's fighting games are not just renown for their deep and satisfying gameplay systems, great animation, and beautiful pixel art - their characters are among the deepest and most interesting in the genre. Dealing with many real-world issues that fans can relate with, SNK's characters carry with them a relateability other developers just couldn't match. It is this relateability that first drew me and many others into the Neo-Geo fandom. This isn't only my story, but also the stories from fans around the globe from multiple retro-game communities.

Some Background

The difference between SNK and Capcom

When people in retro gaming circles speak of the developer SNK, they are typically referring to “Classic SNK”, or the SNK that existed prior to the year 2000. In their first twelve years from 1978 to 1990 SNK had become a force to be reckoned with in the arcade industry by releasing innovative takes on popular genres of the day. Games like the uniquely controlled, top down military shooter Ikari Warriors, or early platforming darling Athena not only garnered much critical success by game journalists of the era, they were massive commercial hits in arcades the world over. Despite their early successes, it wasn’t until 1990 and the release of their Neo-Geo MVS arcade unit and AES home console that the SNK brand really took off in the hearts and minds of arcade fans.

In the years between 1990 and 2000 SNK stood toe to toe with Capcom in the fighting game arena. Beginning with their seminal hit Fatal Fury in 1991, SNK’s take on the fighting game genre took a slightly different hook than what Capcom was producing; not only in terms of gameplay, but also in storyline and presentation. Rather than present a loose story about some mega-evil syndicate out for world domination (like every Saturday morning children’s cartoon), the story of Fatal Fury was much more personal – something that a lot of folks could actually empathize with.

Set up as a tale of revenge, Terry and Andy Bogard were after Geese Howard, the criminal overlord of South Town; a fictional city set in the USA's southern coastal region. When the Bogard brothers were adolescents their adoptive father, Jeff Bogard, was brutally murdered by Geese (pronounced like Cheese, but with a hard G) due to an old rivalry between the two men. While a story of revenge could be seen as a clichéd way to set up a story for a fighting game, what made the protagonists interesting is that they were now orphans twice over. Not only did they have to deal with the loss of their biological parents, they then had to deal with the murder of their beloved adoptive father. Dealing with death and loss is part of the human condition – something we all understand and dread at the same time. Traumatic loss, like the murder of a parent or loved-one, can deeply scar a person and change who they are, for the better or for the worse, for the rest of their lives. This relatability to real-world trauma with their characters would come to define SNK in the years to come.

As the 1990’s progressed, Capcom continued down the path of creating Saturday morning cartoon flavored fighters by focusing on storylines that included both classic movie monsters and US comic book licenses. SNK, on the other hand, had become renown for creating intricate, down-to-earth storylines in wholly original series that are complete with interesting characters who struggle in ways that folks from the real world can easily identify with. The stories and characters in series like the Art of Fighting, Samurai Shodown, Fatal Fury, and the Last Blade are rich with lore. Through storyline cutscenes that play between matches, and meaningful dialogue (if you can get around the bad translation issues) between characters before and after a fight, the personalities of the characters involved in the plotlines were at the forefront of the experience rather than lurking in the background for ardent fans to discover in supplemental materials outside of the game.

Terry Bogard - My Hero

Carefree, determined, caring, and strong

The connection players feel to their favorite characters in SNK games typically run much deeper than enjoying the mechanics of how they play in the game engine. Sure, I love the way Terry Bogard plays, but it is his story of loss and his identity as a lone-wolf orphan that struck a chord with me when I was 13 years old all the way back in 1994. Having dealt with the loss of two fathers myself by that point, and dealing with the scars that come from being adopted, Terry’s story spoke to me. No, I didn’t have anyone to take revenge against or blame for the loss in my life, but I was angry. Terry was angry. But Terry channeled that anger into a driving force to make him better in every way possible. In the end, when he could have had his ultimate revenge, Terry chose to try to save Geese's life rather than let him fall off of the edge of Geese Tower. Terry rose above his pain and grief and stayed true to his heart. He refused to let his past dictate his forward momentum toward the future. He chose to be a better person, and in the end went on to positively influence the lives of everyone in the Fatal Fury story, and thousands of fans here in the real world. In a hurtful adolescence full of loss and being an outcast in my family and community, Terry’s story brought hope to me in a way that I’m only beginning to understand as an adult almost 30 years later.

Responses from the Community

Various responses from the Instagram Retro Community and the Neo-Geo.com community

Being a part of the Neo-Geo fan community for almost 30 years, I’ve come across many folks who share a similar story on why they are drawn to a particular character from SNK’s pantheon that goes much deeper than enjoying their gameplay mechanics. Below, I present to you a selection of stories from real SNK fans, from multiple communities, on who their favorite SNK character is and why that character is important to them. Some are on a deep emotional level, while others just love the style and panache SNK injected into their character designs. No matter the reason, the passion for these games and characters can clearly be seen in these comments and stories.

Responses from Neo-Geo.com:

Digmac:

First off, I’m not much of a fighting game fan, and I think that proves just how much of an impression this left on me. I’ve had chronic health issues my whole life. As I’ve gotten older they’ve gotten worse and have impacted my life more and more. I feel like in video games, you don’t see characters with chronic health problems. When I first played the Samurai Shodown series and came across Ukyo, I was curious as to why SNK included a character who was coughing up blood and struggling through the matches. To my surprise, SNK wrote a character with tuberculosis – someone who knew the difficulties of poor health and struggled to keep on fighting and living. This struck a chord with me, and ever since that day I’ve loved the Samurai Shodown series and have appreciated how SNK’s characters feel like real people with real problems and real stories behind them.

BlackaneaseNinjA:

Terry Bogard – With most action games being full of armored warriors and karate gi wearing martial artists, Terry just seemed like a casually dressed, everyday dude (I actually through he was a Domino’s Pizza delivery guy when I first saw him as a kid in Fatal Fury 1 lol). The Fatal Fury and King of Fighters games featured cutscenes, a developing story, and those combined with his representation in the Masami Obari anime, Terry seemed more relatable and has more personality than most other game characters to me.

Having lost his adoptive father at a young age, Terry Bogard undoubtedly went through a lot of pain the years proceeding his fateful return back to South Town. Despite having a backstory that isn’t too far from DC’s Batman or Marvel’s Daredevil, Terry Bogard is not defined by his angst and brooding. Although originally motivated by the need to avenge the death of his adoptive father, Terry can usually be found enjoying the company of his friends, playing video games, or enjoying a game of basketball with the other less fortunate kids around South Town.

He’s just an all-around cool character; a character who’s positive attitude and perseverance has inspired me to such a degree that I named my son after him.

NexusX:

1. Terry from FF and KOF – His attitude, character design, and overall play style was always fun to me. That and being the general “Face of Neo Geo” it was always cool seeing him in different advertising.

2. Marco from Metal Slug – Silent but deadly, that character was just fun to watch as he mowed down enemies.

3. Yoshitora Tokugawa from Samurai Shodown – I always enjoyed that character’s attitude and presentation, as well as his crazy number of swords that he named after women. Although, I did always find it weird that he would go off the stage once in a while with a small child…that looked like a concubine…

Evil Wasabi:

I think Ukyo was the character that ultimately made me a Neo-Geo fanatic. There was a lot of interesting discussions in the arcade crowd back in the early 90’s about the balancing of SS1 and how Ukyo’s moves often left him wide open for counters. I hated Ukyo in SS2 because he was so overpowered, but overall he’s my favorite character. My second most played character is Jubei because of how easy it is to cheese wins from aggressive players.

thermaltreasure:

King for sure. The whole gender thing, sharp tuxedo and badass move set. I enjoy thrashing out combos in KOF 98 and her theme park stage in AOF2 is one of the best looking on the system. She makes the whole Street Fighter roster look “token”, and like all good things in life, as a character, she keeps you guessing.

wataru330:

Rick Stroud from Real Bout 2 – Fun to play, easy on the eyes. (editor note: Wataru, I couldn’t agree more – Rick is VERY easy on the eyes!)

Responses from The Instagram Retro Community:

Hobbycorp:

Terry is that character for me! I can’t identify with his experience regarding growing up as an orphan, but I most definitely can get with his attitude overall. At least within the realm of dealing with any sort of depression or overthinking in general, Terry has always been my go-to in the sense that he’s helped me get beyond those thought processes in a near heartbeat. His strong, confident persona showcases one that simply doesn’t have time for feeling down on oneself, as he looks and seems more so concerned with having a fun time and accomplishing meaningful goals. The fact that he comes from such difficult beginnings only makes his almost constant upbeat, positive attitude that much more impressive. Seeing his face or character icon alone has always, always been a significant beacon of light for me, so much so that I try to play a game in which he makes an appearance every single day of my life! He’s one of my idols!

Cheapretrokorean:

Athena- There’s something about Athena’s infectious personality that makes her my favorite SNK female character. Her positivity is unmatched-- I know whenever I’m feeling down, I can think about Athena’s bubbliness, and cheerful outlook on life. I immediately feel better whenever I think of her!

K’- This is incredibly ironic, as I just talked about Athena and her positivity…however, K’ is one of my favorite SNK characters, mostly because he’s the polar opposite of Athena. He’s the Yin to Athena’s Yang-- his apathetic, give no f**cks attitude is admirable. I used to care so much about what people thought of me. K’s cool demeanor, and indifferent personality is kind of how I modeled my life.

snkgakuen:

Terry is probably my favorite too! He was so fresh back in the 90’s – not the typical Japanese karateka.

Wrap-Up

So many more stories to tell

The interactive nature of video games provides players a way to connect to these characters and stories in ways that passive media, like books or movies, can't match. We all have our own stories on why a particular game and character are important to us, so I encourage you to think about those characters you gravitate toward and ask yourself, "why them?" Is it just their gameplay mechanics? Their look and style? Their personality? The answer doesn't need to be deep, or tied to any current or past trauma in your life, but it may open up new ways to not only understand the game and character better, but yourself as well.