A Brief History of Akuma: A "Street Fighter" Icon Turns 20

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Complex Original

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It’s 1994.

President Clinton is about  to be investigated for Whitewater, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is set to be released, and Japan and America’s arcade scenes are thriving amid a resurgence of coin-operated machines offering new types of gaming in exchange for consumer’s quarters.  This was the silent war in video-gaming that reached its zenith in the early 90s. Amid a steep drop in arcade sales previous to 1991, losing ground to a slew of home video-game and entertainment computer systems like Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, arcade sales bounced back to become a 9 billion dollar industry, largely due to the release of a little game called Street Fighter II, its annual iterations and reissues, and its memorable cast of characters.

At the end of 1993, sales of Street Fighter exceeded 1.5 billion dollars and Capcom’s main problem was competing with pirated and cannibalized version of its own game, like the Taiwanese-developed off-market Rainbow Edition. To combat this, Capcom pulled out all stops, introducing Super Street Fighter II: Turbo in February of 1994. This version of the game, the fifth installment in the Street Fighter II ouevre, brought back Hyper Fighting’s “Turbo” mode, added a new play mechanic called “Super Combos”, and also introduced fighting game fans to arguably the greatest video-game villain of all time: Akuma.

Part of why Akuma became such a popular character for Capcom is the way in which he was introduced to fighting game fans. In dimly lit and nerve-wrackingly loud arcades around the world rumors swirled of the secret character, who could very briefly be seen while the machine was in its “demo” or “attract mode”. In the demo mode he is a shadowy figure, seen mostly in silhouette, with his back to the viewer, and interspersed with flashes of Ryu forming a Hadouken.

Most gamers were baffled. The internet was still in its infancy, most places the machine appeared for the first time had gamers truly stumped, when they pumped quarter after quarter trying to reach this mysterious villain, it turned out to only be the series regular M. Bison. Questions proliferated wildly surrounding this unnamed “Demon”.

Where was this character? What is his role in the game? Why did he looked so angry? Was this the legendary Shen Long?

This significantly hyped the character in the eyes of Street Fighter fans everywhere. Once word got out to select individuals in some cabinet scenes how to actually face Akuma, it only seemed to heighten the villains allure. The requirements were epic: in order to fight Akuma you had to get at least three perfects, not lose more than three rounds, all while not using any continues. If completed successfully, Akuma would appear right before the final boss battle with M. Bison, he would teleport onto the screen, a blinding flash of white would appear punctuated by a staccato of hit marks and when the screen returned to normal M. Bison was on the floor and the player was set to fight probably the most infuriatingly overpowered boss to ever appear in a video game.

The other big part of why Akuma’s introduction was so memorable was the bizarre series of events that led to his creation. What began as a mistranslation by Capcom became synthesized by games journalists into an April Fool’s Day prank, which in turn influenced Capcom to create Akuma. Most gamers will remember Street Fighter II’s continue screen. If Ryu won the text said, “You must defeat Shen Long to stand a chance!” The name Shen Long was taken by U.S. gamers to be some awesome fighter who Ryu had defeated to achieve his current status while in actuality it was a mistranslation by the Capcom localization team working on the game.

“Shen Long” was the Chinese translation of Ryu’s Shoryuken punch (some of you might remember it was changed for early iterations of the console versions to “You must defeat my Dragon punch to stand a chance”). Nevertheless the idea stuck and in April of 1992, Electronic Gaming Monthly confirmed the existence of a Shen Long in their “Tricks of the Trade” section and outlined a ridiculous series of game requirements in order to face him. Among the highlights: “You must spar with M. Bison [as Ryu] for ten rounds without hitting each other.” If the player completed these requirements, supposedly Shen Long would appear and toss M.Bison and the timer would freeze at 99 seconds. While this was seemingly only a friendly April Fools Day prank by games journalists, it turned out to directly influence the appearance of Akuma with similarities abound to how both respective characters appear.

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When players did finally face Akuma, they were agog at the sheer impossibility of the task. The computer controlled version, “Shin Akuma” was vastly overpowered and near impossible to beat. He could throw Hadoukens from the air downward and had the ability to teleport to the opposite side of the player with virtually no recovery time. He also shot a tracking red fireball and could not be stunned. Getting to finally complete the requirements to face Akuma only to realize he was near impossible to beat was a horrifying and disheartening moment for many arcade gamers, one that stuck with many Street Fighter fans, leaving a lasting memory of Akuma for many a salty 90s gamer.

In Akuma’s ten-year run he’s found much success, remaining in each of Capcom’s subsequent Street Fighter game installments, making cameos or appearances in the Street Fighter animated series and movies (although sorely lacking from the U.S. live action 1994 movie), spawned his own graphic novel, and basically grimaced and bullied his way into the hearts of gamers everywhere to become one of video-gaming’s most recognizable characters.

Little is known of his origins, at least specifically what emotionally drives him, but the impetus is simple: he represents the fighter’s ego while Ryu represents the fighter’s spirit. He follows a fighting-style/philosophy called the “Satsui no Hado”, which eschews compassion and emotion in order to become the strongest warrior possible. Literally the more evil and merciless you are, the more powerful you become. Akuma challenges all who he deems worthy of fighting him, later in the series it is this idea that drives him to seek out someone who could be able to kill him in battle.

It’s this ego that sustains him and makes him powerful. It is why he killed his master Gouketsu, his brother Gouken (master of Ryu and Ken), and also why he seeks to unleash the evil power in Ryu so that Ryu can one day defeat him. There is no great backstory, his evil is almost monolithic, his badassery legendary.

If you have a problem with that, just remember, Akuma once punched an island in half, just because.

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