Fighting games are a genre where games live and die by their gameplay -That can be said about any game, but for something like a fighting game that is more important – Interesting mechanics, creative ways to create combos, tools that can give you a chance to correct mistakes or make your opponent commit them. It’s easy to say that gameplay is perhaps the defining factor that can lead to the popularity of any fighter.
But it’s reductive to say that is the only thing that makes a fighter. We also have presentation. Art style, music and character designs.
Art style is simple. What does that game looks like? Does it have realist looking graphics like the Tekken series? Or maybe a more anime looking style like something that Arc System Works does? Or, you want something more akin to a comic book, like Marvel vs Capcom. Art style is what the game looks like and it’s one of the first things to get on the people’s attention.
Then we have music. What does the game sounds like? The main menu theme, the theme that plays when you are going to select a character. Then the themes of the characters which are often a getaway for you, the player to even understand your character more or a vibe that fighting against them gives. Then we have “rival themes”, music that plays when two specific characters are fighting against each other, usually rivals, but also friends or people that serve the same group. Music is a spectacle that let’s you get more into the game, once you are playing it.
However, what I want to talk today, has to do with our third point on presentation: Character design.
Character design can be put in a really simplistic way like this: How your character looks. There’s much more than that, yes, but that’s the gist of it. Character design is not exclusive to fighting games, nor only games. Any visual medium uses character design. Even live action films! Not on the actors but on any sort of fantastical being that can appear there.
Back on topic. In fighting games, character design is used to make sure that the playable characters look, interesting to play as and different from each other. We also have themes with this characters that are often related to them as character within the story, or themes in the story itself. That can go from their clothing, to even their colour schemes or how their powers look like. A nice example are the brother Kim Dong Hwan and Kim Jae Hoon from Garou: Mark of the Wolves.
Let’s look at their designs. More specifically their clothes. Both use a dobok, a taekwondo uniform albeit in different colours. Dong Hwan, has a black one with red accents, while Jae Hoon uses a more traditional one, in white colours with green accents, similar to their father Kim Kapwaan, who used a traditional white dobok with blue accents. That already tells you about their personalities. Jae Hoon, uses a traditional dobok with a bit of a personal accent means that he is much more rule abiding and respectful of traditions as his brother, that decided to use a more stylish one. Dong Hwan, is still using a normal dobok, his just happens to be in a different colour, he isn’t fighting in his plain clothes. He respects the traditions of taekwondo, but he gives it more a personal flair to it. He practices it, on his own terms, while his brother follows tradition above all else. At least in regards to taekwondo.
And that’s only their clothes! We have their physical appearance, their moves, the fact that Dong Hwan has electric powers and Jae Hoon has fire powers. Their personal profiles, their theme songs, even the stages that they are associated with! All of this is character design. And all of this informs you, the player, about who they are.
Which leads me to the theme of this article. Queer coded characters in SNK games.
What’s queer coding? That is the subtextual representation of a character as a queer person. Their queer identity is not explicitly said in canon but it’s implied. That happens for many reasons. Usually for understandable reasons, like the higher ups not letting the character be explicitly revealed as queer. But most times for bad reasons like wanting to make sure that a character is clearly seen as a villain. Because defying cis-hetero sexuality is a bad thing on some people’s heads.
– That is different of that thing where creators, after their show/game/book series is done and they later, usually on twitter say that a character in question was queer, they just didn’t said that in the media in question for reasons. Like what happened with Perfuma from She-ra. She’s trans, that just wasn’t on the show for whatever reason. –
Now, with that out of the way… What’s SNK?
SNK is a Japanese game developing company that was founded in Osaka, in July 2nd, 1978. They are well known for the Neo-Geo arcade system and console. And their several fighting game franchises like Fatal Fury, The King of Fighters and Samurai Shodown. Also, other arcade titles such as Metal Slug.
With that explained, let’s go to the main theme of this article. Queer coded characters in SNK games.
As with any studio that has made hundreds over hundreds of characters there are some that are clearly queer coded. So, we’ll take an look on some of them and talk about them.
Our first character and the first one to make an appearance, is King from the Art of Fighting series.
This is her artwork for the original Art of Fighting.
King was designed with the intent of hiding her gender. Players were supposed to think that she was a man and they would be surprised that after defeating her, that she was actually a woman and not a man. The player would only discover this after defeating her with a super move. When that happens, her shirt opens up and reveals a pink bra under neat, even her defeat portrait changes after it. When she was defeated with a normal move she would be looking a bit grumpy and with a couple of bruises on her face, while her portrait when defeated by a super move would make her look upset almost to the point of tears and her bra would be exposed, “revealing” her as a woman.
That was for all intents and purposes made for shock value. Her reaction for when she’s defeated with an special move is even closer to someone being forcibly outed.
However, despite that, she became a popular character for her personality and style.
And while the game treats her badly that way, the story of it doesn’t (or not as much, depends of how you see it.)
Extra material, other games in the series and the KoF series and even the game’s console version manual explain why she dresses like that. – I phrase is this way, but no one needs or owns people an explanation to how they dress themselves. – Essentially, King does have some gender related issues, which they are aren’t explained, but she has then. She also chooses to dress this way because the town where Art of Fighting takes place, Southtown, is to put it simply a dangerous place to anyone. So, she’s dressing as a man to not only look like a competent fighter but also to protect herself from any dangers that the town offers.
In the game, King is not portraited as a villain per se. She is working for the game’s villain, Mr.Big, but it’s implied that only happened because she was defeated by one of his henchmen – Jack Turner to be specific. – Once defeated and the initial shock over her gender is over, King joins the heroes side and has been one since then and well into the King of Fighters series. Over all she’s just another victim of Mr. Big’s.
All of this information makes it clear that she isn’t a villain and that she dresses that way for her own reasons.
It’s easy to see King as a butch lesbian or as non-binary.
She does have issues with her gender, she dresses in what’s considered masculine clothing(Let’s just try and roll of with the idea that masculine and feminine clothing.).
The way she acts with male adversaries is much more abrasive, while with female one she’s more polite, you could even see some of her pre-fight dialogue with female characters in KoF XIII and XIV as flirting.
Much of her in game behaviour is similar to princely characters in yuri manga. Girls, usually teenagers, that act and dress in a more masculine fashion and are seen as charming gallant figures and usually have a group of fan girls. It’s easy to see some of that in King. And she’s been that way for years.
She’s been that way and SNK has tried, as most companies are, to prove that she is straight.
What’s been done is to tone down the androgyny in her overall design, she’s still uses her tuxedo, but you can see her figure more. To make sure no one is confused.
Another thing being done, is that SNK pairs her with Ryo Sakazaki, one of the protagonists of Art of Fighting.
This is mostly done for comedic effect. Ryo is expected to have a son, so that the child will be heir of the kyokugenryu karate style and characters in the series think that King would be a perfect wife for him.
Again. This is usually done for comedic effect. And, there’s nothing wrong with interpreting King having an interest in him. Gender, gender expression and sexuality are different things, also, shipping is nice.
You could interpret that as her gender expression being tied to how she feels about her environment. There’s precedent to that. And you still could interpret her as being queer, that the way she expresses her gender is just another facet of her as character.
What I want to say is that King with how she was designed, how she’s used in SNK games, just makes the interpretation of her as queer easy to see.
So, is she queer? That’s up to you.
Is she queer coded? Yes, and there’s no denying that.
But King was just the first.
This is Yumeji Kurokuchi, they made their first appearance in Samurai Shodown V. They were designed with no canon gender in mind, with the developers wanting that aspect of them up for the player’s imagination. Which is reinforced by the fact that they use gender neutral Japanese, and they have a voice actor that has voiced both male and female characters. While the English version of the game itself treats Yumeji as male, by using male pronouns to refer to them. We have to understand that male pronouns are still seen as the default. Also, consider that the game was released in 2003, where they/them pronouns weren’t used as gender neutral like they are today, and that mostly among queer people.
But with that out of the way, what’s the deal with Yumeji? How are they treated in game and in the story?
Unlike with King, who’s creation was mostly to have a factor of shock to the player, Yumeji isn’t treated like that. Again, their gender is supposed to be up the player’s imagination and that’s it. You, as the player can interpret them in many ways, I like to see them as non-binary, but you can see them as however you see fit. A young man, even maybe a teen. A woman that has mastered the sword just like many characters in the series. Or as trans, maybe a trans man, maybe a trans woman. Or like a said before, non-binary.
Again, this is what SNK intended with his design, which I think it’s pretty nice. You can see and interpret
Clearly it’s easy to see that the intent behind Yumeji’s design is to see them on some sort of cis binary way, either man or woman, but again, it’s up to the player. You can see them as queer, nothing says that they aren’t.
Now, their in-game story gives more credibility to the idea that they are trans. Yumeji is the only child of an iaijutsu master. And therefore, the inheritor of the dojo, that’s their birth right and duty as the only child. However, for some reason related to “body issues” they lost the right to inherit the dojo and were expelled from their home.
Now, you can clearly see this as a trans person or some sort of gender non-conforming person, being expelled from home by abusive parents. That probably wasn’t the idea that the devs wanted to portrait, but it’s hard to not see it that way.
On their profile, it says that Yumeji has body issues. Granted, not all body issues that someone may have are gender related. But that only gives more ground to work on the assumption that Yumeji is trans, or at the very least gender non-conforming.
But, what happens to them after it? Well, after being expelled Yumeji ends up working with the game’s main villain, Gaoh. As his right-hand person, his most trusted ally. Which means that Yumeiji is the character that you fight before fighting Gaoh. They the sub-boss.
However, this also informs of their character.
In the game’s story, Gaoh is not an entirely evil man. He wants a revolution because he thinks the Tokugawa shogunate is not up for the task of ruling japan. So, he’s taking matters upon his hands. But overall, he only wants what’s better for the people. And he accepting Yumeji as his most loyal subordinate, means that he doesn’t see any problem with their gender identity.
So, is Yumeji a villain? No, but they are in the antagonistic side, simply because someone was kind to them.
After the events of the game Yumeji goes to live in a nunnery, they came back for Samurai Shodown VI, but that game’s story is non-canon, but they could fight against Andrew Jackson, 7th president of the united states.
I am not kidding.
Is Yumeji trans? That’s up to you, and that’s how SNK wants it.
Is Yumeji queer coded? Yes, yes they are.
While unlike King who has a long history in SNK games, appearing both in Art of Fighting, King of Fighters and the Capcom vs SNK series, Yumeji, only appeared in two games. Which is a shame. I believe that if they make an appearance in Samurai Shodown(2019), they would be a hit with people!
It’s 2021, one of the most popular FGC pro players in the moment is SonicFox a non-binary person. If Yumeji comes back, and with that the open interpretation of their gender identity, I bet that they’ll become one of the most popular characters in the series.
And boy, does they deserve it.
But that was 2003, and Yumeji wasn’t the only queer coded character to appear in a SNK game that year.
This one here, is Ash Crimson, he made his first appearance in The King of Fighters 2003.
Look at him.
That’s one smug looking boy.
Ash is the main villain of the KoF’s third saga, the Tales of Ash. This saga covers four games, 2003, XI, XII(A dream match game, there’s no story) and XIII.
He is the descendant of Saiki, the leader of a group called those from the past. Who have the objective to awake Yamata no Orochi and get it’s powers for Saiki to use as he will. Over the course of three games, Ash works so that he can earn Saiki’s trust. He steals the powers of two characters (Chizuru and Iori.), cause chaos during the king of fighter’s tournaments and betrays just about anyone around him.
This was a very big resume of the plot of three games, but that’s the gist of it. Overall, Ash, is a self-serving character. Betraying others, hurting others, that doesn’t matter as long as he can do what he believes is right.
He’s also confident in his own skill and blasé about most things, not letting serious situations affect him that much. If he wants to do something he’ll succeed and just mention that was just a half-hearted effort, he’ll be condescending when dealing with others. Almost mocking them.
So, after reading that, you might be considering that he’s quite the evil twink. But here’s the thing.
He’s the protagonist.
SNK developed Ash to be a character unlike the other protagonists of the KoF series. Different from both Kyo and K’.
If Kyo is over confident, cocky but a well-meaning guy with a sense of justice, and K’ was an easy to anger and arrogant dude but overall a good person, Ash was to be the opposite of that.
Ash was developed as an “attractive evil character”, someone that’s bad, but you can’t stop yourself from cheering for them. Someone that is entirely unheroic.
And that also reflects on his appearance. The devs wanted Ash to be “feminine looking” to contrast with Kyo’s and K’’s more masculine looking appearance.
In other words. Ash being gender non-conforming is to be indicative that he’s unheroic.
Remember what I said about queer coding? Yeah, that’s a great example of that.
Still. Ash isn’t evil, not really. He only does unheroic things, unlike the other gender conforming protagonists.
Which is a pretty big difference between the portrait of both King and Yumeji. Both did bad things but were either forced or did it out of loyalty.
Ash did what he did on his own volition.
Ash did all of that so he can steal Saiki’s soul and end their bloodline.
At the end of KoF XIII he was successful, and he was erased from the time line.
In the end he was heroic, he defeated the villain, saved the day. He just did it in a manner that makes sense to him. Again, he’s self-serving, he uses people, mocks them. But, ultimately, he is a good person.
It’s just that the idea of being gender non confirming makes him look unheroic is… Pretty bad.
So… The real villain is Saiki? Yes, he’s the one behind Those from the Past, the group of villains that have been making problems since the start of this saga.
And here’s Saiki.
He’s a palate swap of Ash. Still, you can see that he’s a straighter example of queer coding used to clearly demark a villain. Although you can interpret it as he looking like his descendant, to make a clearer line between him and Ash.
Then is Ash a good guy? In a way, yes. He’s more of anti-hero. And I hope he comes back to the series soon, thanks to somethings that happened in KoF XIV.
The main issue is this idea that his appearance makes him an unheroic. The way he goes about in saving the day is pretty unheroic. He did bad things. But his appearance has nothing to do with that.
So, is Ash queer? That’s up to you.
Is he queer coded? Yes, there’s no denying that.
What about Saiki? He’s a palate swap of Ash. He, like Ash, is queer coded and is a villain. That’s it, there’s no discussing that.
That’s it for this article! This was just three examples of queer coded characters in fighting games and I hope this makes you think about how some studios, games and media in general wants you to see certain characters.
TangledVirus is a Brazilian game dev that makes weird story driven games about weird queer people. She likes visual novels, fighting games and girls that can do wrestling moves. She also happens to be very, very gay.
You can find her works on https://tangledvirus.itch.io/
And her weird ramblings about magical girls on twitter: @TangledVirus