After my article expressing dismay at the disappointing parts of King of Fighters XIII, and the measured, reasonable responses I recieved from the fandom, I’ve thought a lot about what KoF means to me as a franchise, and which parts keep it in the library of games I still play and endure as my favourites.
I think the things that set KoF apart for me and make it worthwhile are the gameplay, the music and (most of) the characters. The latter is what I’m going to talk about today. King of Fighters has most of the best female fighting game characters out there in my opinion.
Women and girls need role models and heroes just like men and boys do. This may sound childish at first glance, but think about why many people of all ages love Batman, or Bruce Lee, or Ryu from Street Fighter, or Kyo or K’ from KoF; They exemplify people trying to be the best they can be. Each in their own way, but each holding a common characteristic; they are people who keep trying and keep fighting to improve themselves and defend the things they hold dear. Sometimes they will fail, but they never give up. They want to be the best fighters they possibly can be to fight for the things that matter to them. People empathise with that, it rings true with the things that we all want in ourselves. People will often mock it when it’s overt/publicly stated, but I think we all look up to people, either in fiction or in real life. It gives us something we can strive for in the shape of a human we can relate to, and there’s no shame in that.
Women need these kinds of characters too. And trust me, it’s a lot harder to look up to a character as a champion fighter/hero when their defining trait is “wears skimpy clothes and looks like a supermodel”. Especially in fighting games, these are often the only options we’re left with. While male characters have a (sometimes cartoonishly) over-emphasised physique, this isn’t really comparable to female characters whose bodies and presentation are primarily designed as eye-candy for men. Whatsmore, these design traits emphasise their roles in ways they don’t with their female counterparts. For example, let’s compare two people who we are told have devoted their lives to Ninjitsu in the Dead or Alive universe:
What do you notice about their bodies? Ryu is muscular, not immensely so, but enough to show that he is clearly a man who has devoted a large part of his life to his fitness and martial art. While his costume is silly (tight leather for an assassin? I’d imagine the squeaking would give him away), the emphasis in the design is on his ninja role. Where his body is emphasised (thighs, torso, biceps), it’s to show off muscle definition that fits that role. Kasumi is the opposite despite their similar lifestyles, goals and fighting styles: She is soft, slender and lacks any muscle definition, her costume is impractical and instead designed to emphasise her butt and her breasts. The impression we are left with here is not a woman who has devoted herself to training for the fights ahead, but one who is devoted to looking sexy, and is a fighter on the side.
For the most part, King of Fighters avoids this, and better than simply not failing, succeeds. I find the female fighters in King of Fighters a lot more relatable as heroes, partially because their key design characteristics (with some notable exceptions, that occasionally fall into DOA levels of cheese) fit their stated lives and intentions. Let’s take King as an example:
King is an awesome female hero. She isn’t particularly sexualised (except for a few frames in AoF & KoFXIII), and her body and clothing choices reflect that. She’s a bouncer, so she dresses like a bouncer (at a classy establishment). She’s devoted her life to Muay Thai, and her body makes this a believable characteristic. She was blackmailed into working for villains, but she’s a fundamentally good person, and this shows consistently in her characterisation and motives throughout the series. King is a great example of what I’m talking about. Her moves also match her fighting style (in KoF levels of realism; various superhuman feats are the norm at the level of proficiency she fights at). She doesn’t waste time on flowery moves or cheesecake, she’s too busy kicking ass. This fits her character perfectly.
Another good example is Vanessa:
Vanessa, while a bit more sexualised than King, is believably so, and it doesn’t negatively impact her character. I don’t believe “all sexy female characters are bad”, just that over-emphasis and over-population of them in the media has a detrimental effect. Vanessa is sexy in a confident, practical, believable way that doesn’t sacrifice her impact or consistency as one of the best fighters on the planet. She’s a mercenary and a mother who still manages to look after her family while she’s off saving the world. This is awesome. Like King, her moves match her named fighting style (in this case Boxing) in the level of realism the setting is going for.
Then there’s Leona:
Like Vanessa, Leona is sexy, but in her own way, and in a way that doesn’t impact her fighting ability. She dresses in a way that fits both her military/close-quarters-combat role and her personality. While she has less muscle definition than Vanessa, that’s partially a case of different artists/eras of KoF, and partially understandable through her character; she’s part Orochi, a type of demon who are integral to the King of Fighters plot. So often the strength in her techniques is implied to come from her demonic side. This along with her use of explosives allows her a more versatile and cinematic set of techniques than King or Vanessa, and one that is uniquely her own.
On the more femme side of things ( although arguably Vanessa and Leona could be called femme, they can be read either way) we have Foxy, Whip, Kula and Kasumi, to name a few. Sometimes these characters are sexy (Whip and Foxy certainly have a sexual element to them) but it never wrestles the design emphasis from their personality, choices and fighting style. These remain at the forefront at all times, and make them more believable, relatable heroes for women to look up to. This is one of the things that I think really sets KoF apart from other fighting franchises.
When they are sexy, it seems a deliberate personality trait without wandering into the Strong Female Characters cliche, unlike their peers in other fighting games. Their sexiness also doesn’t impinge upon their fighting ability. Even Foxy, who is by far the most conventionally sexy character I’ll go into here, looks like she could fight her preferred fighting style (Fencing) in her preferred outfit without any real trouble (past stepping on the coat-tails, I guess?).
Sometimes SNK messes up, and sometimes they just plain want to make a cheesecake character, for better or worse. These characters are exceptions rather than the rule the others must escape from, and I believe the “rule” here that’s carried through KoF for over a decade is this; Who the characters are, what they fight for and the lives they lead shine through in their designs, in both the men and the women. And that’s one of the main reasons why I keep coming back to it, despite it’s flaws.