Playing the (International) Movie: Intermediality and the Appropriation of Symbolic Capital in Final Fight and the Beat ’em up Genre
Final Fight (Capcom 1989) is a famous example of a video game genre generally known as “beat ’em up” or “brawler,” a type of action game where the player character must fight a large number of enemies in unarmed combat or with melee weapons. The side-scrolling beat ’em up genre reached the peak of its global popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a period sometimes referred to as the genre’s “golden age.”
Set in a contemporary, urban setting, Final Fight has a storyline that revolves around three playable heroes who attempt to rescue a young woman from the clutches of a criminal gang. Although likely the most influential and among the best games in this genre, Final Fight did not found the beat ’em up genre by itself: it was produced within the context of a specific, albeit recent, textual tradition and canon. This canon consisted of texts produced within the same medium (i.e. other video games, mostly of Japanese production) but also drew from an intermedial corpus. In its design and narrative tropes, Final Fight inherited and incorporated a number of elements from Hollywood action cinema that had been translated into the newer digital medium of video game.
To trace a history of the beat ’em up genre from its origins to Final Fight, I address in this paper questions on three levels.
On the intertextual level, what are the textual antecedents of Final Fight? What were the formal and stylistic conditions of possibility for this game within the history of the genre and the medium? What are the game’s intermedial connections, especially with films? To answer these questions, I trace a tentative genealogy, focusing on the narrative and representational elements of the game. Specifically, I examine storylines, characters and settings and their relationship with the structural properties of beat ’em up gameplay.
On the “(v)ideological” (Gottschalk 1995) level, what value systems are put into play in a classic beat ’em up game? In what ways are the player’s choices axiologised? What conduct is rewarded or sanctioned? Which actions can the player’s avatar perform, and for which purposes? In what contemporary discursive formations did Final Fight participate as a textual device for the actualisation of ideologically non-neutral fictional conduct? I attempt to map the value system inscribed in this video game genre that, in turn, articulates it as a game (i.e. as a system of stakes, rules, sanctions, and rewards).
On the historical level, what were the industrial and commercial conditions entailed in the production of a game such as Final Fight? To the (actual or virtual) satisfaction of what demands, both material and symbolic, was it designed? Answering these questions calls for an analysis of the so-called “context,” which I consider to be a historical and social meta-narrative. In this respect, my research mostly focuses geographically and historically on the Japanese video game market of the 1980s and its transnational connections.
Starting with the (mainly cinematic) dissemination of transnational imaginaries of “street violence” and “vigilantism” against the background of large, modern American cities during the 1970s and 1980s, I attempt to show that Final Fight is an instance of the incorporation of these imaginaries into video games. More generally, I argue that, with various degrees of success, the classic beat ’em up games produced in Japan carried out a function of symbolic appropriation and redistribution at a local level as they remediated a cinematic textual canon (which was, for a significant part, of foreign origin) into the video game medium.
As video games, these texts shifted the focus of this appropriation from spectatorship to the forms of active agency prescribed in gameplay. The player thus appropriated control not only on a character in a game but also of an entire cinematic canon which, in the Japanese context, appeared rich in symbolic capital and marked by “American-ness.” The movies that inspired the classic beat ’em up came from Hollywood, one of the “Greenwich Meridians” (Casanova 2004) in the global cultural industry during the 1970s and 1980s, likely the last decades of what some scholars have called “the era of high Americanization” (Iwabuchi 2002). Video games were, in other words, the means by which a portion of the Japanese cultural industry could so successfully appropriate the symbolic capital of Hollywood products that these Japanese games transcended the borders of the Japanese national market and became big hits in the “West.”