Re-enchantment in Capcom’s “Darkstalkers”

The early to mid-1990s were an era of experimentation in the genre of fighting games. As the popularity of successive iterations of Street Fighter 2 and its rival King of Fighters series gained steam in arcades across the world, various companies sought to emulate their success, churning out games with quirkier gimmicks and aesthetics in an effort to outdo the last with progenitors Capcom and SNK at the forefront. Despite these attempts, relatively few remain in the hearts of both those who grew up in this tumult and those who are new to the genre. Capcom’s Darkstalkers (Vampire in Japan) series holds a spot as one of the most cherished entries.

Arcade games are typically unsuitable mediums through which to tell a complex story due to the ‘play-and-leave’ nature of their environments. They rely on their highly-stylized characters to both draw players to the arcade cabinet and to ingrain the brand of the company who made them into the player’s memory. To stand out among rivals attempting to replicate the street fighting aesthetic of its most popular game, Capcom provided reinterpretations of familiar mythological, monster movie, and fairy tale motifs that contradicted their source materials in Vampire. Lei-Lei the Jiang Shi (Chinese Vampire) subverts cultural taboos regarding death by presenting an undead character in an acceptable, humanized form. Sasquatch the yeti occupies an organized social/tribal structure and is presented as goofy and jovial, contrary to common depictions of savage woodland ape-men. Aulbath the shapeshifting merman is the elegant former ruler of a lost kingdom with a taste for the refined rather than a mindless swamp monster who preys on women. Jedah is portrayed as a death reaper or antichrist figure who dons chic mid-90s Japanese punk attire and is more of a misguided idealist than an embodiment of evil.

Darkstalkers3HsienKoDarkstalkers3SasquatchDarkstalkers3Rikuo Jedah

Lei-Lei/Hsien-Ko, Sasquatch, Rikuo/Aulbath/Fish, Jedah. Art by Capcom designer Akiman (c.1996-1997).

Standing tall above most of the game’s cast and even enjoying popularity in unrelated spinoff games is B.B. Hood (or Bulleta in Japan), who is ironically the only human in the cast. She, like the rest of her peers, is a contradiction of motifs; in this case, a seemingly-sweet little girl who wields an arsenal of heavy weaponry stashed in her picnic basket. This combination’s appeal to adolescent males likely playing the game is obvious. It also contrasts with most scholarly approaches to interpreting the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, especially that of Bruno Bettelheim in his popular book The Uses of Enchantment. To Bettelheim, the tale is a ‘mirror’ of the prepubescent soul, wherein the child learns to overcome Oedipal tensions with his or her mother and mature.

BBH, meanwhile, uses deception to accomplish her own selfish ends – making money – which is shown through the character’s graphical animations and her dialogue. She represents an evolution of Bettelheim’s Little Red Riding Hood in that she has grown beyond the Oedipal throes of the flower picking girl and has learned to manipulate the boundaries of Bettelheim’s ambiguity, proving the mutability of fairy tale ‘mirrors’ in the process.

In the famous Grimms Brothers’ final version of the tale, Little Red Riding Hood is besought by her mother to deliver cakes to her sick grandmother. On her journey, she encounters a wolf who tricks the callow girl into giving her the location of her grandmother, who is eaten by the wolf as LRRH loses track of time picking flowers. When she finally does arrive at her grandmother’s house, LRRH is seduced by and subsequently eaten by the wolf. She is later freed by a nearby huntsman, and the three indirectly kill the wolf by filling its stomach with stones that make the wolf drown when it goes for a swim. A second episode details a much wiser LRRH who has learned the wiles of wolves and instead defeats a second wolf that attempts the same plot with the help of her grandmother. Bettelheim, in 1973, views the Grimms tale as chronicling an immature youth’s overcoming “ambivalence about whether to live by the pleasure principle or the reality principle” (Bettelheim 171). The girl in the tale learns to resolve conflicts with her mother by initially rebelling against her commands, then being symbolically reborn from father figures who eat/rescue her (the wolf and the huntsman respectively) and fulfilling an infantile Oedipal complex by coming to terms with her mother’s directives. After her incident, LRRH no longer strays from a path of duty (mature responsibilities of family obligation) to indulge in pleasure (appreciating nature). Thus, the tale acts as a spiritual mirror for children, a “symbolic [rendering] of crucial life experiences” (181) through which to negotiate and affirm these issues. Because the child’s negotiation occurs through symbol rather than overt didactic morals, they “[discover] new aspects of these tales, and this gives him the conviction that he has indeed matured in understanding […] something he partially creates for himself” (169) as they grow up. Bettelheim considers this possibility for emergent readings of the tale, but he limits his approach to one stage of self-discovery: the Oedipal. He either fails to consider the potential for reinterpretation through other creative media as having to adhere to strict guidelines set by the original tale or chooses to ignore it, instead displaying his disdain for more literal versions of LRRH.

BBH offers release from Bettelheim’s strictures through discursive features like 2D sprite animation and text. The little background behind her story is simple: BBH is a contract killer for humans who hunts demons. But unlike her hunter colleagues, she not only rebels against, but toys with Bettelheim’s notions by employing a naive exterior as a mask for her true motives.

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Faces of a murderer. Official art, concept portrait, introduction portrait, win portrait, more concept art (click image to enlarge). Unlike the rest of the cast, Bulleta curiously changed very little from conception to release. Art by Akiman (c.1996-1997). Concept art from Darkstalkers Graphic File.

In her official art by former Capcom designer Akiman, BBH gives no signs of malice and instead appears to be a carefree, innocent girl. Her match intro portrait and her win portrait both carry this same theme, in contrast with the rest of the cast’s stern or combative portraits.

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Animations for introduction, crouch, jump, time over, forward walk, and idle.

Her forward walk verges on oblivious, as she prances forward with both eyes closed and uttering a lilting “la la la.” Her backwards dash represents immaturity by facing away from the opponent, or obligation, and clutching her face in her hands with a cry of fear (not pictured). Several of her animations convey the pursuit of the pleasure principle that Bettelheim claims to represent a pre-maturity phase. BBH’s idle animation shows her smiling and standing stolidly, awkward and insecure, while butterflies flitter about her. Her crouch animation, if the player holds the down direction long enough, has BBH inspect a flower popping out of the ground while she exclaims in surprise. Her jump causes her skirt to lift in the air, which she attempts to keep down with her hands while she expresses embarrassment and could be read as a depiction of retaining sexual pre-maturity by keeping her modesty covered.

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Animations for Smile and Missile, crouching hard kick, jumping hard kick, standing hard punch, ES pursuit, and Cool Hunting.

Yet thinly veiled beneath her actions are symbols of both masculinity and maturity. Many of her attacks involve BBH using missiles, land mines, knives, and an uzi to attack her opponent, and these attacks are often accompanied by voice samples much gruffer in tone than her usual flighty voice. In opposition to her backwards dash, her forward dash shows BBH holding her gun while charging forward menacingly (not pictured). One of her super moves calls two oversized gun-toting huntsmen to blast the opponent out of the air, perhaps indicating that the paternal figures she once relied on to achieve sexual maturity now respond to her beck and call – and that now she holds the power of the hunter. Her most memorable win animation depicts a mysterious suited man giving BBH payment for fulfilling her contract and bowing, while BBH herself puffs on a cigar and expresses dissatisfaction at her payment with the line, “Koredake? Siketeru./Is this all? Small.” (“Gate to Darkness”; not pictured).  Whenever she is knocked onto the ground or receives damage, her otherwise-sweet demeanor morphs into a crazed, snaggletoothed face.

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Splash art. Click the left image for animation.

Other portrayals of her in both the game’s splash art and in official art expand on these facial expressions, making her appear savage.
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Animations for Beautiful Memory, Stumble and Blade, Apple for You (click image for animation), Sentimental Typhoon (click image for animation), normal throw, Shyness and Strike, Tell Me Why, Surprise and Hop, Cheer and Fire, being shocked. Note how Surprise and Hop depicts BBH indulging in the pleasure principle (distracted by nature; in this case, a mole). Also note how she “fills” her opponent with rocks before throwing them in the puddle in Beautiful Memory. A clever nod to the Grimms tale.

Most noteworthy are the rest of the character’s moves, which blur the boundaries between naiveté and malice. When pitted against her rival John Talbain the Werewolf, BBH displays a special winpose in which she rises from reading a book on the ground to glaring menacingly at her opponent. This is accompanied by the soundbyte “Dousite, sonnani okuti ga ookii no?/Why do you have the big mouth?” (“Gate to Darkness”), mirroring LRRH’s inquiry in the Grimms tale but with a change of tone partway through the dialogue to indicate that she possesses the insight to see through traps. BBH’s other normal attacks mask harmful actions with those of innocence, such as a kick performed while sneezing or an overhead stab with knives that looks like accidental tripping. A grab super move involves her handing the confused opponent a delicious apple, which explodes as BBH ducks out of the way. Another grab begins as a childish ring-around-the-posy style dance that turns into a violent twister, sending the opponent skyward and crashing back down to the ground. One bizarre super move embodies a conquering of Bettelheim’s mother conflict in all of five seconds. BBH lunges towards the opponent as a portrait of her (presumably) dead grandmother appears above her, begins to cry a shower of tears, then “fills” her opponent with stones before tossing the opponent into the resulting pool as she grins menacingly and wipes her hands clean. The accompanying soundbyte – which roughly translates to “Grandma… [sobbing] Ha! You’re dead!” (“Gate to Darkness”) – represents not a reconciliation with the mother figure, but that the girl does not require the mother’s guidance to conquer her Oedipal desires and defeat the wolf to mature. BBH’s picnic basket represents an agent of nourishment in the traditional variants of LRRH, yet here it is weaponized. Various moves involve her whacking the opponent with the basket, while the sprite that is shown when she is shocked reveals a collection of guns and explosives stowed in it. A bottle of wine intended to nurse Grandma back to health instead finds use as a flamethrower in BBH’s hands. Even the names of her attacks reinforce the duality between projected naivety and underlying malevolence, with names like “Shyness and Strike” and “Happy and Missile” (see below):

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Movelists from the All About Vampire Savior series of tournament records and esoterics. Sources at the bottom of the images; images themselves pulled from http://darkstalkers.wordpress.com/ (click to enlarge)

An unusual super move from the character Demitri (a vampire) involves him briefly transforming his target – into a female equivalent if male, or into a more feminized version of themselves if already female – before sucking their blood for a hefty chunk of damage and transforming the opponent back into their former selves. In a double-crossing of character, BBH is transformed into a sexualized version of herself, akin to a waitress or more popular media depictions of the LRRH character as vixen. She is also one of the few characters who resists Demitri’s violation of identity, visibly flailing her arms in an attempt to escape. This sequence alone holds special symbolic meaning in regards to BBH, as it brings the question of framing to light; transformed into the normative image of LRRH, she attempts to resist that change to assert her individuality and maturity:

03Demitri’s Midnight Bliss. “Come on, baby…”

Her ending also differs from that of the other characters’ in its art direction. Whereas the rest stay true to the game’s [whatever] aesthetic, BBH’s takes on the appearance of a twisted children’s book, telling a short story of a murderous human girl on the loose in the game’s demon world and foreshadowing the fate of an unfortunate family of monsters whose front gate is occupied by BBH (below):

Delving into BBH’s similar depictions in other Capcom games is possible, but even a cursory glance over her original Vampire Savior appearance is enough to indicate that BBH no longer wallows in Bettelheim’s premature ambiguity. BBH has mastered ambiguity. Moreover, she has become ambiguity, dancing a thin line between whimsy and chaos to defeat her opponents. She is an avatar of not only sexual maturity, but of warped maturity, an embodiment of succeeding Bettelheim’s Oedipal trials and twisting it into something even more grotesque. She has been “reborn,” but not according to the didactic strictures of the fairy tale and instead having chosen to manipulate those lessons to fulfill the pleasure principle.

The question arises, then, of the character’s appeal to modern audiences. I believe that BBH as a character stands out to adolescent and post-adolescent minds playing the game because she has ‘grown up’ with her audience, who no longer needs sexual guidance in the tale of an undeveloped girl. I am not disputing Bettelheim’s notion of a ‘spiritual mirror’ for its readers (though certainly not its only function), nor the notion that it is a pliable medium whose reflection changes with its audience. I stress that despite these claims, Bettelheim restricts himself to just one version of this mirror, one locked in the child’s pre-pubescent phase. As the child matures, they discover that contradictions and complexities abound in their surroundings, and thus, BBH is an affirmation of the ambiguity that dominates the post-childhood world. She rebels against the rigid norms set forth by the Grimms and Mother Goose classics, reshapes them, and presents them in a new light, much to the delight of an audience searching for new and refreshing perspectives on the development of sexuality and of individuality.

This brief study examines the character from a purely literary perspective. It also opens the study of the character to using the theories of video game analysis. Bridging the gap between the realms of the literary and the virtual is the notion that in a video game, the player applies his or her own notions of self to the game world through the medium of controller/monitor/scripted code, which is then acted out in the game world as a distinct expression of self. To my knowledge, this has not been applied directly to competitive gaming. The way a player controls his character, for example, could represent how they channel aggression or reflect certain philosophies on approaching competition. We can use BBH as a gateway. Though I will not go into detail here on the specifics, this character’s tools allow both a measured and aggressive style of play, true to the character’s dual personality. Below is a well-known match starring one of Vampire Savior’s most renowned players, Sako, who wields BBH like a knife:

How his usage of the character reflects his philosophies of competition, expands on the character’s functions as a mirror, or other underlying factors would require another study. But we can deduce that even in the most bare bones narratives, video game characters are not exempt from the scrutiny of psychological analysis. I hope to see this subject expanded upon as the growing arena of video game studies takes shape.

Addendum – This is certainly not the first time Little Red Riding Hood has wielded a gun in popular media. Roald Dahl wrote on the same subject in his Revolting Rhymes (1982):

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.
A few weeks later, in the wood,
I came across Miss Riding Hood.
But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, “Hello, and do please note
My lovely furry wolfskin coat.”

http://ace.home.xs4all.nl/Literaria/Txt-Dahl.html

And, evident here, neither is Bulleta the originator of the gun toting, motif bending Riding Hood.

References

  1. Bettelheim , Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. 1976. Print.
  2. Darkstalkers Graphic File. I don’t have the book with me at the moment, so no proper citation for the time being.
  3. http://emu.flashwing.net/picture0423/vsavj/index.htm (sprite rips)
  4. “This is the Darkstalkers say while fighting in Vampire Saviour.. [sic]The Gate to Darkness. N.p., n. d. (unofficial translations) http://www.yuzuriha.sakura.ne.jp/~akikan/honyaku.html
  5. http://darkstalkers.wordpress.com/
    (move names)
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One thought on “Re-enchantment in Capcom’s “Darkstalkers”

  1. Pingback: “Feeding the Beast,” or “I would much rather write about an actual game but I couldn’t help it” | And yet it grooves

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