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Scenes of Calm and Chaos: Artists on fighting game backgrounds without the fights

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The hand-drawn fighting game background is a fading art, kept alive by the crew at SNK Playmore, keeping the lights on in the King of the Fighters series and the tireless hardcore savants at Arc System Works. Brawlers like Super Smash Bros. 3DS, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure All-Star Battle, and Ultra Street Fighter IV maintain fighting games' presence in the mainstream gaming world, but only outliers like Persona 4 Arena Ultimax keep the old ways alive.

Lush two-dimensional backgrounds like these inform fights in subtle ways. They're not interactive, never allowing for ring-outs or environmental effects, and their animations are slight, repetitive so as to not draw attention away from the action happening in the foreground. When Rose wraps Ken Masters in her scarf and shocks him, there's no surrendering your gaze to calm Grecian architecture around them. Free of those fights, though, is there anything left? What do these backgrounds have to say on their own as singular works of art?

Joystiq asked three professional artists to examine this sprawling gallery of animated fighting game background culled from famous SNK and Capcom fighters like Street Fighter II and King of the Fighters '94. Here's what they had to say.



Jessica Anne Clark - painter, Manifesto-ish founder, Adjunct Lecturer of Art Appreciation at Cumberland County College

It's hard to judge how these backgrounds mesh with the "fights" held in these arenas. Do the fighters stick out like sore thumbs or are one or more of the fighters residents of this space? Some arenas seem to be more compelling than others; boards with specific architectural trends and historic signifiers imply a visual narrative beyond a simple beat-'em-up fighting game. The following image is an excellent example:

The specificity of the flag creates intrigue. The tiny animated elements within each board activate the scene and create a sense of expectation as though we are on the verge of some momentous happening. In this case the happening on the horizon is maybe not so momentous.

On the flipside, some boards feel more current and evoke a feeling of the present day. The following board sends us to the train station, aimlessly watching the trains go by. The one point perspective utilized on the objects occurring at the edges of the scene allow us to feel as though we are on the platform.

The perspective used in this board gives the viewer a feeling of entering the scene; the positioning of the railroad tracks acts as our point of entry. A quiet gas station in the afternoon sun could call us back to an Edward Hopper painting, barring the animated sign labelled "sin."

Coreen Steinbach - painter, founder Running Art, illustrator of My Dad is an Iron Man, Anthony's mom

I paint for a living but don't play video games. When I view these images I am struck by the stunning variety and richness of color, movement and visual interest. I am more than envious of the skill and creativity.

I suppose that there is one primary purpose to background art and that is to make the player feel like they are present in the action and environment. The images should have that power and imbue the characters in the game with texture, life and feeling. With that said, two images strike my eye when I envision characters punching and fighting in front of them.

This image sets a scene primed for a fight. Flags whip in a frenzy; the crowd looks more than ready to cheer the combatants. You can feel the fight already happening.

This image in contrast evokes only serenity and the quiet grandeur of the savannah. The only fighting I see happening here would be a death struggle between feline and prey.

Jon Gourley - MFA San Francisco Art Institute, founder Video Game Art Museum

In-game, the elements within these backgrounds are familiar signs that link each fighter with an associated geography/culture. They use images of pagodas, cherry blossoms, and Mt. Fuji to indicate the stage as the "home turf' for a Japanese fighter;

a Mykanos windmill and blue-roofed houses for Greece;

buttes and crashed biplanes for the American West.

With the fighters removed, these scenes become landscapes filled with a combination of markers that are strongly associated with a specific country regardless of their proximity in the real world.
[Images: Capcom, SNK, Imgur]

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