How real martial arts are depicted in video games developing

At the turn of the sixties and seventies, Bruce Lee reinvented action in films and inspired millions of young people to practice martial arts. 

In the eighties and nineties, the big business of the Little Dragon was continued by a whole galaxy of film fighters – Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mark Dacascos and others.h

At that time, video games were just flourishing as a format, and the main source of inspiration was cinematography. Although the fighting games of the 1990s also made their contribution – it was in the last decade of the 20th century that young and fragile minds began to get acquainted with martial arts not only through films, but also through video game works. At the same time, the first games about karate, judoka and other fighters began to appear in the seventies.

In this article, we will tell you how martial arts are positioned in video games and how real they are shown. And let’s touch on the main ideas and messages that famous game designers put into fighting games and melee action games.

Small beginning of a long journey

When the first martial arts video games started coming out in the mid-seventies, they were considered pretty advanced. However, such projects turned out to be anti-realistic from the developers – the movements of the fighters resembled real fighting styles only remotely. In the eighties, during the heyday of 8-bit gaming, any fighting technique in fighting games and action games was used exclusively for aesthetic purposes. No matter how hard the artists tried, technology was not able to accurately reflect what was happening. Large pixel blocks, which, as a rule, were characters, could quickly extend an arm or a leg forward, and also make a kind of throwing an opponent to the ground. All this looked unrealistic even at that time, and the fantasy was not always able to finish painting the action.

One of the most memorable action films of those years can be considered the game Bruce Lee , which told about the adventures of one of the main pop icons of the XX century. This action game was released in 1984 on the Atari 800 XL  and  Commodore 64 platforms . The structure of the title is extremely simple: Bruce must go through 20 levels, defeating enemies as he moves towards the goal. His mission is to reveal the secret of immortality. Thanks to the popularity of the protagonist, the adventure spread around the world in a frenzied circulation for that period – 1 million copies.

In 1988, the arcade hit Kung-Fu Master was ported to the NES console , originally released as a slot machine in 1984. This game is considered the ancestor of the beat ’em up genre, and its concept refers to the large-scale project “Game of Death” that was never completed by Bruce Lee. In  Kung-Fu Master, the player, like in Bruce’s painting, needs to fight with martial arts experts, gradually moving towards the goal. In the course of the plot, the protagonist not only overcomes serious bosses, but also faces ordinary opponents.

From simple to complex

In almost any Chinese, Japanese or Korean school, students are first taught basic stances and strikes. Base training is the most exhausting and difficult time in the life of those who are seriously involved in martial arts. 

For example, in an authentic Shaolinquan (Shaolin fist) only one stance is given to the mabu at least three months – the entire training time the student stands in this position, alternating it with the simplest and most basic punches, which are repeated thousands of times, bringing to automatism. Then novice warriors master simple sets of exercises called taolu in wushu and kata in karate. In these formal exercises, combinations of strikes, throws and grabs are encrypted.

It is this aspect of martial arts that Capcom first explored through video games with Street Fighter II . The authors of the game elevated striking combinations to the rank of art and, in fact, invented a real esports discipline, provoking an explosion in the popularity of fighting games in the nineties (Street Fighter II was released in 1991).

A scene from the movie “City Hunter” in which the legendary Jackie Chan enters Street Fighter

Street Fighter II game designer  Akira Nishitani didn’t bother to showcase authentic martial arts, but did a great job of creating colorful and varied characters that differed in appearance and combat tactics. Nishitani also spent a lot of time working out the perfect balance and coming up with not very realistic, but memorable techniques that will be cited in pop culture for a very long time. For example, the haduken energy strike was mentioned in the superhero film “Shazam” when attacked with lightning from the hands.

Akira Nishitani. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The fighters themselves seem to represent the traditional and sports areas of martial arts, but in fact this is all exclusively an invention of Akira and his team. 

The game designer even admitted that he drew inspiration from the iconic JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure manga. 

The Indian fighter Dhalsim’s ability to stretch his limbs, for example, is based on a similar ability for JoJo’s characters using jamon

The image of the Rose was created based on the image of Lisa Lisa from the second part of “JoJo”. 

And Gyle – one of the key characters of Street Fighter  – combines the features of Rudolph von Stroheim from the second part and Jean-Pierre Polnareff from the third.

Dhalsim. Screenshot: Street Fighter V / Capcom game

“I think the appeal of Street Fighter II is that the game encourages you to fight against other gamers. I want to say this: “Let’s play more against each other! Guys, let’s just relax and have fun playing Fighter II of Street General!» .

game designer

Yes,  Street Fighter II  has the typical fighting games of traditional karate, wushu, boxing and wrestling. But the techniques of the fighters themselves are still mostly fiction, because the technologies of the nineties did not allow to convey all the nuances of martial arts. However, it was in  SF II that the real and very important principle of martial arts was first implemented – strikes must be delivered in verified series.

One of the highlights of the EVO fighting tournament. Ken was separated from death by one blow, but thanks to tactical skills and reaction, the player was able to defeat Chun Li.

Even more “magical” and at the same time imbued with the spirit of martial arts turned out to be Mortal Kombat , which in Russia is considered a truly popular game. Initially, the first MK came out on arcade machines almost a year after Street Fighter II . Fighting Midway differs from the hit Capcom in a lot of blood and cruelty, magic tricks and unique finishing moves “Fatality”. The game has everything to inspire gamers to practice martial arts: an archaic plot about a deadly tournament, several ninja fighters, gods and pupils of the Shaolin monastery. At one time, all this was perceived as something unique.

Image: Official art for Mortal Kombat (2011) / Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

As for the demonstration of combat techniques, the Mortal Kombat series also cannot boast of realistic strikes, throws and other technical elements. 

Although the action itself in all the games in the series is bright, including in the first releases, because Ed Boone and his team used motion capture technology to animate the fighters.

The developers filmed the movements of the actors against the background of the chroma key, and then processed them to create strikes and other techniques. In the later parts of the MK cycle, elements of real martial arts began to be traced. 

For example, Kun Lao often uses ligaments from Chinese Wing Chun and  Meihua Quan close up, Jax punches like a real professional boxer, and Johnny Cage, like Jean-Claude Van Damme, spreads his legs like an experienced taekwondo fighter.

This video shows the process of capturing actors for Mortal Kombat 3

This video shows working with actors for Mortal Kombat X:

An interesting fact – the creators of Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance in 2002 introduced a comic secret character named Mokap. The fighter looks like an inconspicuous actor in a motion capture suit.

Gameplay for Mockap:

“Ironically, the technology of yesteryear allowed us to create today’s version of digitized characters and environments. We now use photographs of real people and objects to create 3D models in Mortal Kombat 11. In a sense, the use of real actors and objects in modern games is a throwback to the method we used back in 1992 to create the first Mortal Kombat. This is one of the reasons MK11 looks so much better than our previous games. “

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Transition to the third dimension

Mortal Kombat and  Street Fighter II  conveyed rather the outer aesthetics of the martial arts world and slightly touched on the principles of “flow” in movement. Famed game designer Yu Suzuki wanted to make a fighting game that would show martial arts even more realistically. In the mid-nineties, he succeeded.

It was extremely important for Yu Suzuki to correctly show martial arts. Besides philosophy and mathematics, he is very fond of martial arts. Despite being Japanese, Suzuki studied with Chinese masters, absorbing the real technique of powerful, fast and biting kicks and punches to put his experience into creating the most realistic fighting game of the mid-nineties.

Yu Suzuki. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The first part of Virtua Fighter  is not only a realistic (for its age) fighting game, but also the first three-dimensional representative of the genre. In the nineties, the gaming industry was just starting to master 3D technology. The first three-dimensional games in those years seemed completely primitive, objects in them consisted of triangles, which did not even have textures. Because of this, the 3D characters resembled robots. At that time it was almost impossible to make graphics really beautiful. Realizing this, Yu Suzuki decided to spend all his strength and resources provided by Sega to ensure that all the movements of the fighters in his project were as verified, correct and realistic as possible.

martial arts video games
Yu Suzuki (right) with Wu Lianzhi (left), his Chinese Bajiquan teacher. Photo: Yu Suzuki’s official  Twitter page

“To get all the animation right, I got all the designers to take martial arts lessons. After all, if they do not imagine how it looks in reality, then they will not be able to draw and model! And this is important not only for designers. We gathered all the employees in the office and organized a real martial arts tournament. Those who showed themselves well – they were hired for this project, and the rest were left to sort through pieces of paper. “

game designer

In those years, Street Fighter II  with a six-button combat system was considered the standard , but Suzuki, as a true lover of Eastern philosophy (and not only), decided to go towards simplification, making the main controls in  Virtua Fighter a  three-button.

“In my opinion, it is more convenient for a developer to make a program in which there are many buttons. Let the gamer suffer and remember their combinations. And I decided to limit myself to three buttons: punch, kick and defense. And in order to understand what combinations are most familiar to a gamer, I gathered a lot of people, gave them a controller and asked them to press the buttons at random. And then I collected statistics and chose the most common patterns – starting with the simplest ones like punch-punch and kick-kick. And on this basis, I built a combat system. I wanted the people who saw the game for the first time to theoretically be able to win by pounding all the buttons in a row. “

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At the same time, Virtua Fighter is usually considered the reference fighting game in terms of the tactical and technical capabilities of the main mechanics.

Evolution of the Virtua Fighter series:

Virtua Fighter was released on arcade machines in 1993 and was later ported to the  Sega Saturn , Sega 32X and  PC . The series has five numbered parts and several spin-offs. The latest edition to date ( Virtua Fighter 5: Ultimate Showdown ) was released on  PS4 and  PS5 this June.

Great Shenmue

Yu Suzuki in  Virtua Fighter showed the outer and more brilliant side of martial arts. And through the extremely ambitious and very expensive Shenmue , his main creation, he decided to broadcast to the masses the moral and ethical principles of martial arts, which are considered more important than technique and physical strength.

“True fist art is passed on to a noble person with high moral qualities, in no case should it be passed on to a bad or arrogant person who does not follow the true path of Tao.”

With taraya Shaolin saying.

The plot of all three parts of Shenmue is trivial and similar to almost all stories from old Hong Kong action movies. A young guy named Ryo Hazuki is looking for his father’s killer. His father was a respected jujutsu master . He was killed by the Chinese Lan Di, who, having committed a crime, took with him an important relic – the Dragon’s mirror.

The teacher transfers the moral and ethical component to the students “from heart to heart” in martial arts schools. Moreover, in the East, there are special sets of rules. 

For example, in China there is a written Ude, which describes military morality, and in Japan, Bushido is the most widespread – a set of recommendations and norms of behavior of a true warrior in society.

In  Shenmue, Yu Suzuki conveys the moral and ethical component through the interaction of the protagonist with the people inhabiting the game world. 

He helps many people in his hometown of Yokosuka and Hong Kong – and locals in a remote village in China’s scenic mountains of Guilin. 

Ryo Hazuki is an extremely well-mannered young man who understands the laws of the modern world – he is distinguished by hard work, patience and nobility. In general, he is the embodiment of the ideal bearer of the martial traditions of martial arts.

Image: Official art for Shenmue / Sega

“Before enlightenment, do not forget to chop wood and bring water. After enlightenment, do not forget to chop wood and bring water.”

An old Shaolin saying.

The main character of Shenmue has to not only work or help the population, but also fight a lot. He needs to both protect the weak and accept challenges from the masters. The combat system in all three parts of Shenmue is similar to the principles laid down in  Virtua Fighter. 

But in  Shenmue, Ryo also learns new techniques through grueling training or receives “instructions” from old masters, which are done in a quest format. 

For example, the protagonist wanders around the village and meets his grandfather, who asks to find him a peach. 

When Ryo eventually finds and brings the fruit to his grandfather, the old master will teach him a new technique.

Suzuki tried to show through Shenmue how the martial arts are integrated into the life and cultural code of the Eastern peoples. In the third part of the cycle, Ryo finds himself in a village where the locals practice Shaolin Quan, Taijiquan , Baguazhang and other directions in the early morning . At the same time, the game designer tried to show real combat systems, which are rarely seen anywhere.

Shenmue 3’s Forgotten Arts Trailer:

Tekken – Taekkyon?

In the mid-nineties, Namco also decided to develop its own series of arcade and console fighting games that would be both vibrant and realistic. In 1994, the gaming company released Tekken  , a fighting game that had many similarities to  Virtua Fighter . The 3D competitive action game from  Namco boasted a huge pool of fighters – there were eighteen of them in the first game. In the combat system, captures and transitions to creases inflicted especially strong damage. The animation of the fighters also looked realistic for that time, but after Virtua Fighter it was difficult to surprise sophisticated gamers with this.

The cover of the very first part of Tekken. Image: Namco

Everything changed with the release of Tekken 3 , in which the gameplay became a little faster, and the fighters learned one of the main tactical principles of martial arts – to abruptly leave the enemy’s line of attack to deliver a counterstrike or capture. Leaving the line of attack is one of the most important principles of fighting in a number of martial arts. For example, it is the foundation of Xingyiquan and Wing Chun.

An interesting fact: the name Tekken translates from Japanese as “iron fist”, but the term is consonant with “taekkyon” – a word for a traditional Korean martial art in which fighters prefer to use a lot of kicks, jumping punches and throwing techniques. Visually, the taekkyeon training sparring game is reminiscent of the action gameplay from Namco.

A short taekkyong presentation video showing the style’s emphasis on jumping and high kicks:

In Tekken , the fighters have very different styles of martial arts. For example, Forest Law, very similar to Bruce Lee, shows in the game the style of jitkundo, which was invented by the famous actor, combining elements of boxing and taekwondo in it. 

And a fighter named Lei Wulong, suspiciously similar to Jackie Chan, has a style of “drunken fist” (zuquan), the real prototype of which is considered lost. In some parts of Tekken, Lei flaunts an understanding of the Xingyiquan and Choilfoot styles .

The  fighter Eddie Gordou fights very effectively and curiously in  Tekken 3 – he shows the style of capoeira , which has many similar acrobatic elements with  break dance.

A video demonstrating the stylistic features of fighting for Eddie

In general, the memorable striking technique of the Tekken series still inspires martial arts lovers to create videos in which professionals or amateurs who have good control of their bodies repeat exactly the combinations from fighting games.

In this video, blogger Eric Jacobus copies Forest Law’s punches

By the way,  Tekken 5  has several Russian characters, including one unplayable one. The general producer of the Tekken series , Katsuhiro Harada, admitted in an interview that he is interested in the history of the CCCP and Russia.

“There are really a lot of Russian characters in the Tekken series. At the moment, we have enough Russian characters, but if our Russian fans ask us to add new characters to the story, we will definitely consider this possibility. As for my attitude to Russia, I really love the USSR and carefully study its history. For me, Russia has been and remains a big mystery. Such a large number of Russian characters in our games is directly related to my genuine interest in Russia and the USSR. “

game designer
Katsuhiro Harada. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sheathed sword, spear always with you

“If the hand has reached the point of striking, and the leg has not arrived in time, it means that you are only looking for trouble for yourself. And if the gaze has reached the desired point and the arms and legs have arrived, then you have comprehended the secrets of mastery.

An old Shaolin saying.

In oriental martial arts, almost the entire fist base is taken from techniques with weapons. 

If you put paired blades into the movements of the practice of Wing Chun, and the master of Xingyi – a spear, it will immediately become clear where the roots of these styles grow from. 

The same applies to Japanese martial arts: the whole basis of the same aikido is laid in the traditional katana fencing.

Soulcalibur (the very first game in the cycle was called Soul Edge , it was released in 1995) is not the first fighting game in which fighters fight with weapons in their hands. 

Samurai Shodown is considered a debutant in this direction. 

But  Soulcalibur is more unique than SNK in two ways. 

First, Namco ‘s fighting game  was the first game in the world to use motion capture technology with a passive optical system. 

Secondly, in the Soul series , the technique of almost all the main types of “hand” weapons of the East and West is shown quite plausibly.

“At a basic level, your arms and legs are the two primary weapons that any person possesses. However, the movements that you can perform with them are well known: punches, kicks, grabs, and so on. And real weapons open up a variety of actions, in which there are chopping, piercing, throwing and other types of attacks. Weapons can keep the enemy at a distance, which adds more strategy to the gameplay and makes the screen more immersive than simple fist martial arts.

producer of Soul Calibur V

In the first and subsequent installments of Soulcalibur , you can also move out of the line of attack or quickly move backward or forward in the gameplay. 

And in the first Soulcalibur released after Soul Edge, there was an opportunity to push back or redirect attacks, as well as brush off enemy weapons in order to inflict great damage. 

Together with weapons, the formula inherent in  Tekken starts to work even better, providing both visually brighter action and more scope for building tactics.

*Screenshot: Soulcalibur II / Namco game

In the games of the Soulcalibur series, you can see real bundles with the Chinese sword jian, which in ancient times was considered a weapon of the nobility – it is wielded by a heroine named Chai Xianghua. 

The fighter Hwang Sung-kyung skillfully wields the dao blade , and the samurai Heishiro Mitsurugi – the katana

The game also shows the technique of the staff, which is considered the main weapon in Shaolin Wushu – in a fighting game, it is wielded by a young fighter Shiba.

Soulcalibur games almost always feature bonus characters from cult games and movies. 

For example, in the second episode of the series on the GameCube console , Link from  The Legend of Zelda wielded a sword and shield. In  Soulcalibur IV, the  guests of the franchise were the characters of “Star Wars” – Yoda and Darth Vader.

All guest fighters in Soulcalibur games:


Interest in ninja, kung fu fighters, eastern and western martial arts continues unabated. 

The action ninja “GI Joe: Throw of the Cobra. Snake Aes”. In early September, Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”, in which the protagonist is a martial artist, will begin showing. In 2019, HBO launched The Warrior, a series based on one of Bruce Lee’s script ideas.

The gaming industry has recently released Soulcalibur 6 , Tekken 7 , Mortal Kombat 11  and other fighting games. 

In February of this year, the authors of the action movie Absolver announced Sifu  – an action game with tough melee and weapon fights, referring to the dynamic kung fu action movies. 

The game is promised to be released this year. It turns out that the interest in martial arts does not even think to fade away. And with the development of technology, it is becoming easier to convey all the nuances of martial arts.

Sifu Trailer: