Back in my younger years and way before I became a gamer, I went over my cousin’s house often to hang out. Sometimes part of the hangouts were spent watching him play whatever game he was in the middle of before I arrived. I often watched him play games like Street Fighter or other fighting games. I’d sit in awe as he’d skillfully take out the CPU with a killer combo or final finishing move without blinking an eye. After a round was over, he’d turn to me and ask, “Want to play?” There were times I’d decline, mainly because I was self-conscious about being terrible at playing against him. It took a lot of urging on my cousin’s part to finally get me to play a game with him. My early exposure to fighting games made me quickly aware of what type of fighting gamer I was––the button masher.
As I am getting older, I will often take a moment to reflect on the rise of technology and media during my life thus far. I can distinctly remember a time when cell phones were a luxury, when there were only two big companies from which to buy video games, and when the internet was a sluggish behemoth limited to technophiles. Lately, I find myself waxing nostalgic on the days when manga didn’t take up a massive section in the local bookstore and anime was relegated to late night broadcasts on the Sci-Fi Channel.
It’s strange to think of how common Japanese animation and comics have become in our modern society when compared to the past. My friends and I used to save all of our allowance to buy import VHS tapes that we would trade back and forth amongst each other. Now we all have Crunchy Roll subscriptions and watch multiple series from start-to-finish at a low monthly rate (or free with commercials). Instead of the catalog ordered toys and clothing we used to covet at the back of magazines, modern otaku can buy piles of official merchandise from their local Target. I was an adolescent who used to scour dusty comic book shops for the rare chance to find an actual manga to buy. Now I am an adult who feels overwhelmed with the wealth of options at Barnes and Noble (and annoyed with stepping over those damn kids sprawled out in the aisle). In spite of all these modern conveniences, I will occasionally find a solid throwback at a used book store and the halcyon days of Ninja Scroll and Dragon Ball will come rushing back to me.
Originally serialized in 1994 as “Samurai Spirits: Scrolls of the Demonic Arts” in the Japanese publication Weekly Shonen Sunday, Samurai Shodown was brought to American consumers by Viz Media. The now massive media company released individual chapters starting in May 1996 through their short-lived gaming magazine, Game On! USA. The entire comic was later collected and published with a previously unreleased final chapter as a standalone graphic novel in August 1997.
Written by Kyoichi Nanatsuki and illustrated by Yuki Miyoshi, Samurai Shodown serves as a sort of prequel to the second entry in the fighting game series. Only a handful of the major fighters show up through the story, along with several original characters that mainly serve as motivators for the quest at hand. In this comic, fan favorites Haohmaru, Nakoruru, and Hanzo find their individual goals become intertwined as they work together to stop an evil sorcerer from releasing hordes of demons bent on invading the planet. On their journey, the trio encounters a variety of thugs and monsters, which provides plenty of battle scenes chock full of attacks from the fighting game. Despite catching up to the sorcerer and defeating many of his minions, the heroes are unsuccessful at preventing the resurrection of the dark wizard Amakusa (another familiar face from the games), who attacks the team and makes his escape in the confusion. The story concludes with a vision delivered to Nakoruru, who senses a future that is basically Samurai Shodown 2, ending with the melodramatic line, “TO BE CONTINUED ON YOUR NEO-GEO!” In spite of this ham-fisted ending, the entire story is the stuff of classic battle manga; plenty of dark rituals and swords clashing, ninja attacks and dramatic speeches which suit the source material quite well.
The art is conveyed in the classic black-and-white manga style, but reads from left-to-right as opposed to the traditional Japanese format that is maintained in most modern publications. Most of the characters are unchanged from their original designs, which feature reasonable full-body proportions and plenty of stylized armor and costumes. Minimal line work is used for facial expressions, relying heavily on shading and brow-furrowing to convey emotions. The battle scenes are where the manga really shines; full-page splashes of signature attacks and dynamic effects to create a sense of movement on the page. Overall, the artwork stands the test of time thanks to the care and detail that seems to have been lavished throughout the book.
As I take the time to glimpse back through my own history, I am not hit with the usual “good ole’ days” syndrome like so many of my peers. Honestly, this is an amazing time for fans of Japanese animation and comics. There is a huge variety of genres and series to choose from, most of which is readily available to eager consumers. I am glad that one of my favorite hobbies has seen such a boom, and I feel lucky to be tech-savvy enough to reap the benefits. So instead of wishing for days gone by, allow me to show my age by saying these damn kids don’t know how good they’ve got it.
It’s that time of year once more; when the barrier between the natural and supernatural is at its weakest and little ghouls haunt the streets in search of sugary treats. For this week’s video game comic column, it only makes sense to venture into the darker side of the printed page. There is a rather massive subgenre of horror comics, and its tentacles stretch far into the video game world. So let’s dive into a realm where monsters do battle in rounds of two, until only the strongest survives.
It was back in November of 2004 that Udon Entertainment debuted their Darkstalkers comic series. At this time, Udon was releasing their work through Devil’s Due Publishing, which included a Street Fighter comic series that launched in 2003 (which we will definitely discuss in a later post). The Darkstalkers comic ran for six issues, until it abruptly stopped in April of 2005. In October of the same year, the chief of operations Eric Ko, announced that Udon had become a full-fledged publisher and its lengthy hiatus was due to producing material for the video game Capcom Fighting Evolution. Since that time, Udon has grown into a massive comic book and video game powerhouse, producing several comic series, art books, and work for video games such as Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix and New International Track and Field.
For the Darkstalkers comic, Udon had plenty of interesting characters and settings from which to source fresh story material. This is especially true, since most fighting games have very few details outside of “some people got together to fight in an arbitrary battle tournament held by a mysterious benefactor.” For example, this story comes straight from the Darkstalkers instruction manual:
“When the sun sets and humanity retreats to the imagined safety of their beds, a mysterious entity appears in the sky to assemble the wicked and the evil. The unimaginable secret power of the dark is unleashed! Ten supernatural beings of destruction have materialized to wage their eternal war for the domination of the night. The Vampire, the Mummy, Frankenstein, Bigfoot. . . their very names conjure fear. But who or what has summoned them? These creatures of myth and legend, the Darkstalkers, have gathered for what is destined to be the greatest battle ever. And the fate of all humanity rests on who wins the epic struggle. The Darkstalkers are coming. . .tonight!”
From this rather bare bones plot, Udon crafted a solid story about the various machinations of the Darkstalkers who hide in the dark corners of the Earth. In this six issue series, the conflicts between certain characters take center stage, while the sideline characters are left as mere window dressing. So while Dimitri and Morrigan prepare for an eventual battle of the ages, Rikuo and Lord Raptor only show up briefly in side stories and single panel shots. Every issue features plenty of great fighting scenes, complete with signature moves and plenty of nods to the fans of the video games. There is also loads of background on many of the major characters, including several side stories that flesh out their motivations even further.
As with most of the comics from Udon Entertainment, the artwork really shines. The horror themes of the video games allowed the artists to include plenty of heavy contrast and shadows, which really lend to the atmosphere of the comics. The characters remain in the anime-inspired style of the fighting games, but with more vibrant colors and further detail for better expressions. In spite of the show-stealing appeal of the characters, the backgrounds have not been overlooked. There is plenty of detail in the settings of each scene, with some panels exclusively dedicated to moody environmental shots.
Besides the solid story work and gorgeous art, my favorite part of Darkstalkers comes at the end of each issue. A single page is always dedicated to a gag comic called Darkstalkers Mini. The fun work of Corey Lewis (pseudonym, Rey), these quick strips feature super-deformed versions of the fighters in silly situations, most of which end with goofy punch-lines. Unfortunately, when Udon collected the comics into a trade paperback, all of these side stories got the boot. On the plus side, that has made the individual issues of the comic unique to the trade version, so be sure to track these gems down!
At the end of the first issue of Darkstalkers (right before the Mini comic), there is a writers’ commentary aptly titled, “From the Darkside.” On this page, some of the staff from Udon spill their guts about the joy they felt in creating the Darkstalkers comic books. There is talk of the great chance to write a darker story than the usual Street Fighter comics, along with their mutual love of horror films and fighting games. At the very end, the colorist, Gary Yeung, says that the goal at Udon was to “make a faithful interpretation of Darkstalkers from a game/animation into a book.” Through action-packed stories and striking artwork, all wrapped up in a spooky atmosphere, it seems like Udon met their goal quite nicely.