Street Fighter has an incredible reputation in the industry. Some of the greatest fighting games of all time have the ST name attached to them. But they're also famous for far more troubling reasons.
Japanese games have often been inadvertently (we hope) culturally and racially insensitive towards other nations and ethnicities. While I could certainly examine tons of Japanese games and even the entirety of Street Fighter in regards to racist / stereotypical depictions of anyone and any country outside of the Japanese isle — we recently saw stage music pulled from Street Fighter 5's Thailand stage due to "unintentional religious references," as they basically played an Islamic call to prayer over a Buddhist stage — I thought I'd just take a look at Street Fighter 2, 'cause... wow.
The Stereotypical Imagery That Plagues Street Fighter 2
Games have come a long way since the '90s and it's important to examine how the industry has really developed when it comes to appropriate representation. Now, you may be thinking "What stages in Street Fighter 2 were racist or stereotypical?" The answer? Basically all of them. Well, except the Japanese ones. They present a really positive image of Japan with serene temples, wise individuals and a focus on honor and stability. The rest of the world gets the short end of the stage-design stick. Stereotypes abound, my friends! Care to take a look?
Zangief's Stage - Russia
Zangief hails from Russia. The man is a giant, a brute and his stage reflects that. In Street Fighter 2's depiction of the USSR, a bleak-looking factory is populated with a ton of angry, drunk men. They stand on the sidelines, cheering on the fighters, guzzling vodka. It denotes every stereotypical image of the Russian people imaginable — they're all about hard work, shed tons of vodka and violence.
The zone is also devoid of beauty in comparison with other characters' stages. Makes Russia seem like a tough, unappealing place filled with lowlifes. Not exactly the best image to promote in your game maybe?
Dhalsim's Stage - India
Not only is this stage problematic, Dhalsim himself has been at the centre of the debates surrounding Street Fighter 2's racism. The dude is a skeletal Indian man who practices a form of yoga, which he incorporates into his fighting style — he breaths fire, teleports and stretches his limbs to unnatural lengths. It's uncomfortable to say the least. His costume doesn't help either, with Capcom having him adorned in a necklace made of skulls...
The stage for the man is then populated with six elephants and a portrait of the god Ganesha in the background — all of which supports stereotypical imagery of the Indian people. There is an air of mysticism to things, but it's not a respectful depiction akin to that of the Japanese stages. Imagine seeing something like this in a modern game?!
Blanka's Stage - Brazil
We sincerely hope that Blanka, the muscular green-skinned mutant, is in no way a reflection of the Brazilian people — though his savage persona does extend beyond his character.
The Brazilian stage in Street Fighter 2 sees the population as poor, backward and simple. The emaciated fishermen live in shacks by a river, where giant snakes coil around trees. Everything seems primitive. It's an age-old look at Brazilian life that was surely out of place even when the game was released, never mind today!
Guile's Stage - America
America doesn't escape the stereotype-whip either! The American character Guile is an Air Force pilot, he has bright yellow spiky hair and clads himself in a pair of khaki pants. His stage is an air force base, with an F-16 parked behind the fighters. Everyone watching from the sidelines are members of the air force, too — a bunch of guys in army outfits cheer while all of the female air force cadets find themselves in ridiculously small miniskirts. Impractical and almost definitely not standard issue.
There are a few bottles of beer strewn around the stages, meaning that we're looking at a pretty stereotypical image of the American people right here. All the women wear miniskirts, everyone loves the army and partying is a priority! There's a lot more to the American people than this, right?
Chun Li's Stage - China
Chun Li, one of the two playable female characters in the game and the most respectfully clad of them both — 'cause Cammy wears a thong that becomes a top — sports a Harajuku-esque dress and, boy, does this lady's stage not reflect well on the Chinese people. Old men ride by on bikes, passing stalls where people cheer on the fight while... choking the necks of chickens.
The people appear uncivilized, their living standards are extremely low and they appear barbaric and cruel. It's as unflattering as Chun Li's outfit, which barely covers her crotch.
Ken's Stage - America
Could this stage be more American? The boisterous, patriotic music in the background sounds like something out of Rocky IV, and all the while a bunch of rich people cheer on the fight from the comfort of their American- flag-flying yachts. Cool.
Deejay's Stage & Deejay - Jamaica
Deejay is a problem all his own — even his name is a problem! The hugely muscular dude is an unapologetically racist depiction of a black Jamaican man, sporting a blinding, wide white small as he shakes some maracas upon winning a match. Wow. But the Jamaican stage further expands upon this character's inherent problems. Everything associated with the man and his country is stereotypical, which begs the question... was all of this alright in the '90s? 'Cause it certainly isn't now.
What Was The Reaction To All Of This In 1997?
Looking into it, there doesn't appear to be much a of a reaction to the stereotypical imagery in Street Fighter 2 — it was of its time. Video games got a way with a lot when it came to racist, stereotypical or sexist depictions of people from all over the world. We still see problems surface every now and again, but on a whole it feels like the industry is really working towards improving its image — and the images of the people it represents.
It may seem strange or superfluous to examine something like Street Fighter 2 all these years later, but I feel it's important to highlight progress. If a game like this was released today, gamers would question the actions of the developers and the creators themselves would have to reflect upon their own choices. These images don't suit our times. We're tired of seeing the same stereotypical characters over and over again and moving away from stereotypical imagery is only going to enhance the gaming experience for everyone.
I still play Street Fighter 2. A lot! It's probably the greatest fighting game ever made. But it's important to look at how it portrays its characters and their countries and acknowledge the shortcomings. Shrugging our shoulders and saying "Meh, it was a simpler time" does nothing but endorse the form of representation. We will always be able to enjoy Street Fighter 2 for its exceptional mechanics, but, thankfully, we've changed enough to criticize its characters and stages.
What do you make of all of this?