Hey, it’s Patrick. I’m trying out a short blog series about character design in competitive video games! Simple format — five things I like about a character, and one thing I’d like to fix. Check it out and let me know if it’s a thing you’d want to read more of! Also see: Pharah, Chipp, Thresh, and Athena.
It feels almost sacrilegious to subject Ryu to the knife of design dissection, for two reasons: First, I consider him the fighting game character to which all others are defined in relation to; second, he has profoundly influenced my life at several different junctures. I played CvS2 for years without really knowing what I was doing until I learned to play Ryu in ST; I started on my own lifelong martial arts journey 13 years ago because I wanted to try Shotokan Karate; I stopped playing fighting games for a few years because I hated SF4, and came back solely to focus on learning whatever it was Ryu could teach me.
Oh, and I wrote a book that’s basically Ryu 101.
Here we go.
#1: Fireball and DP are wonderful inversions of each other.
Moves in fighting games occupy space in both players’ minds; I need to know your options at any given position on the screen, judge the likelihood of your performing any given move based on whatever information I have, and make my own decision accordingly.
When Ryu throws a fireball, he gets to control all the horizontal space in front of him. If the fireball makes contact with you (hit or block) Ryu gets to keep the initiative and act again. If you jump while the fireball is already out, you’re going to eat a Dragon Punch, and Ryu gets to keep the initiative and act again. So, fireballs are a bet that Ryu’s opponent is going to stay in the same horizontal plane and not do anything for the next 1/4th of a second, and if Ryu is right, then he gets just a little extra time to gauge his opponent’s response and mood and act again. We call it a projectile, a poke, a zoning tool, but fundamentally, it’s a test. Ryu is vulnerable at the beginning and strong at the end; he makes himself temporarily weak in order to learn something about you.
The Dragon Punch is the opposite. The Dragon Punch is vertical, not horizontal; it’s quick to hit and slow to recover. If he hits, he is a genius; if he doesn’t, he’s in for it. Where the fireball is Ryu testing his opponent, the Dragon Punch is Ryu testing his player. The damage, the invincibility, the knockdown, it all just makes you want to do it and keep doing it — temptation! It comes out when you feel so confident you use it to pick off pokes, and it comes out when you feel threatened and in need of space and safety.
By themselves, they are good moves. Together, they’re fantastic.
#2: Ryu rewards anticipation in both the player and the opponent.
If you’ve read the earlier posts in this series, you know that I am a big fan of characters that reward correctly anticipating your opponent’s actions, or “mind-reading.” Ryu brings the mind-reading element of fighting games to the foreground more than any other character I’ve ever played.
That’s because with the fireball and Dragon Punch, there is very little a Ryu player can do to hedge their bets; both moves require absolute conviction, mostly because if you use either one poorly you end up eating a nasty combo. Every time you do either move, you’re doing it because you believe in it.
Likewise, the opponent’s answer to the fireball or Dragon Punch is generally either Very Right or Very Wrong. They are clear challenges with clear answers; when you see how your opponent deals with them the first time, the tenth time, the hundredth time, you’re getting information about them that becomes part of a story told by the history of the match. If I catch you with a DP while you’re jumping over a fireball in round 1, that tells me something. If I catch you with that in round 3, that tells me something else.
This clarity of communication is furthered by the fact that Ryu’s moveset is an open book. Everyone knows him and knows how to deal with him. His cards are visible to everyone, and his skill lies in finding nuance in the players’ hearts — often in ways that the players themselves can’t find or explain even after years of practice.
#3: He can do everything because he has to.
Due to the fact that he has two very powerful tools that exist at opposite ends of the move design spectrum in both space and time, and a relatively average set of normal moves, Ryu can do everything. He can keep you out, he can rush you down, he can work high-low mixups and left-right crossups and tick throws and everything else. But he’s not good enough at any one thing to be able to win using only that thing.
That’s because Ryu loses once he gets predicted. If you can tell he wants to keep you out with fireballs, then you can predict them. If you can tell he’s feeling aggro, you can wait for the DP to come. If he’s feeling like playing footsies, you can engage just long enough to get him thinking about Nth-level yomi layer footsies strats, then jump in on him and kick him in the face.
Instead of winning by getting to his strongest position and keeping you there, he wins by constantly just staying one step ahead of you, giving you just enough hints as to his intention to see you adapt and then changing right when you do. Flowing and crashing.
#4: His core design is easily adaptable to the game around him.
Ryu hasn’t really changed much from game to game, which makes his changes that much better — it feels like each new move or subtle adjustment is a statement. Collarbone breaker, hop kick, solar plexus, donkey kick, all of these represent someone carefully and respectfully tending to Ryu’s toolset the way I imagine someone delicately pruning a bonsai tree. Someday, I want to curate a MUGEN project that just has a bunch of different designers’ versions of their favorite Ryu.
What’s more, you can take that toolset and stretch it to fit practically any fighting game. Juice up his fireball super and put him in Marvel! Port him over to Smash! His moveset becomes the starting point for the rest of the game around him, even if he’s not in it! Think about how quickly Guilty Gear can communicate its philosophical differences from Street Fighter simply by putting Sol and Ky in the Ryu and Ken character slots — not just in gameplay design but in their entire characters.
Don’t hate on vanilla. It manages to be subtle without being intimidating, and when it’s paired with something else, it makes that something else taste better, too.
#5: Ryu’s character journey mirrors the player’s fighting game journey.
Ryu wanders the world in search of stronger opponents. He seeks to challenge himself, to learn and grow, to master his emotions, to find his path. Fighting is how he meets rivals; fighting is how he makes friends; fighting is how he makes both people better.
This isn’t just Ryu’s story, it’s the story of anyone who has ever left their house to go play Street Fighter. It’s the equivalent of the castle showing up in the background of the title screen: Hey, it says, you can go there. Except instead of a castle, it’s an experience. You can find a friend in a rival. You can find a rival in a friend. You can inspire those around you to grow. You can master your anger and fear. You can find a human connection anywhere in the world.
Eventually we’ll have to go home and be family men. But for now, in this moment, we can be World Warriors.
Thing to fix: Tatsu.
Okay, I’ve written a lot of words about how I love Ryu’s character design and find it personally meaningful and blah blah blah. Now I’m going to take a moment to bag on the fucking Tatsumaki Senpuu Kyaku AKA Hurricane Kick. It’s not the worst move, but fireball/DP are just so good and perfect that the Tatsu always stands out in stark contrast because it just doesn’t fit. It’s not great at any one thing, so you end up using it for a bunch of kind of meh things. You can:
- Dodge fireballs! Kind of. Except there’s almost never a reason to use this instead of jumping.
- End a combo! As long as they’re standing up, and you’re not close enough to hit a Dragon Punch.
- Move forward! Which is handy until you’re playing a game with a dash, or a run, or a fast solar plexus punch, etc.
- Cross up in mid-air! I hate seeing air tatsu crossups because way the hitbox appears and disappears makes it much harder to read than a typical crossup is, and crossups are already kind of hard to read.
If reinterpreting Ryu is a character design test, remaking Tatsu is like a designer’s Kobayashi Maru — you’re going to fail it no matter what, but the way you fail might teach you something.
Also, shoutouts to the pointlessly long name which becomes garbled gibberish so easy. Even the name sucks.