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Street Fighter and basically every fighting game exist because of Bruce Lee

How the martial arts legend got sucked into the video game realm

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Patrick Gill (he/him) has been making serious and unserious videos for Polygon since 2016. He also co-hosts & produces Polygon’s weekly livestreams on Twitch.

Bruce Lee is represented in video games more than any other human being. And I don’t just mean his face and that signature wingspan.

I mean his essence. Lee’s popularity, identity, and philosophy have fundamentally informed the last 30 years of game development — especially fighting games.

And it all started when Lee posthumously inspired Street Fighter.

Just like Lee wasn’t the first martial arts star, Street Fighter wasn’t the first game where two people move back-and-forth on a screen and hit each other. But it was the series that refined and presented those ideas in a way that would launch a thousand imitators. And we have Bruce to thank for it.

Let’s jump back to 1972. Pong is considered exciting. The video game industry is making moves, and the first home consoles hit the market. Bruce Lee is making moves too. By this point, he’s spent his life traveling between California and Hong Kong, working as a martial arts instructor and an actor. The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Way of the Dragon are all in the can. But nobody outside of the Hong Kong market has seen them. He’s done supporting roles on American TV, but he still hasn’t broken through to international audiences.

Lee is writing and directing a new movie, Game of Death, but in the middle of the shoot Warner Brothers offers him the opportunity to star in his first international feature. He takes the job.

Enter … Enter the Dragon

Allow me to describe the plot of Enter the Dragon to you, a gamer: An eccentric underworld mastermind invites fighters of varying nationalities and styles to his secret island compound, where they battle one another in deadly, unsanctioned matchups, until only the most powerful warrior remains. If that sounds like something you’ve watched or played, it’s probably because it was inspired by Enter the Dragon.

China’s film industry had been producing Kung Fu and Wuxia films for decades, but international audiences had never seen hand-to-hand combat like this on screen. The action was faster and more violent than the watered-down portrayals of Eastern martial arts in spy movies and whitewashed TV shows. But the fights weren’t the only attraction. Bruce’s leading man swagger was infectious. In North America, Enter the Dragon made $25 million on a reported $850,000 budget. Overnight, Bruce became a worldwide star.

Sadly, he was also dead. Just a month before the release of Enter the Dragon, Bruce suddenly and mysteriously passed away. But Bruce Lee was still a phenomenon, and the explosive popularity of Enter The Dragon lifted martial arts to a new level of mainstream acceptance. The Kung Fu craze swept through pop music, cartoons, comics, magazines, and eventually, games.

Enter the Dragon was also the first Bruce Lee movie to receive a release in Japan — and it was a huge hit. The success prompted distributors to go back and release his other movies.

“He was so famous that they even released Fist of Fury, which is very anti-Japanese,” Bruce Lee biographer Matthew Polly told Polygon. “They didn’t seem to mind it and it didn’t affect his heroic status in Japan [...] If anything, Bruce Lee is bigger in Japan than he is in the west.”

While Lee’s filmography set the tone for most martial arts media of the era, one film in particular would inspire Street Fighter’s predecessor.

In 1978 Game of Death, the film Lee had set aside to shoot Enter the Dragon, came out in Japan. Patched together from old film clips, body doubles, and even paper cutouts Lee’s face, the movie was a mess. It only used 11 minutes of the footage Lee had shot back in 1972, but that 11 minutes made a huge impression.

In Game of Death’s final set piece, there is something important at the top of a five-story pagoda, and Lee’s character has to battle his way up, floor by floor, engaging in one-on-one fights with increasingly difficult opponents.

“There’s a fight structure that’s narrative and has a trajectory, where there are levels to each section of this fight sequence,” says Curtis Tsui, producer of Criterion Collection’s recent Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits box set. “As far as I can tell, that had not been done before.”

The tower structure of Game of Death made the hero’s ascent completely literal, and established a formula for no-nonsense action storytelling that’s reappeared in some really good films, and even a Spongebob episode. It also made a big splash in games.

Game of Game of Death

Bruce’s films arrived during the infancy of Japan’s modern game industry — just a few years before the breakout success of Taito’s Space Invaders. It didn’t take long for his influence on games to become obvious. A few years after Game of Death, designer Takashi Nishiyama began working on Kung Fu Master, a game inspired by Bruce’s final film. It’s pretty much Game of Death: The Game.

Just like in Game of Death, the hero of Kung Fu Master fights his way up a five-story pagoda. But unlike the movie, Kung Fu Master also features dangerous butterflies, and, uh, child warriors.

a man jumps over a butterfly, punches another, and kicks some very small men
They are very small
sneekyweezelgaming via Polygon

More importantly, each staircase is guarded by a powerful opponent with their own unique martial arts style. The action-forward encounters made Kung Fu Master feel like a fighting game — even though fighting games didn’t really exist yet.

Late in development, Kung Fu Master became a tie-in for Spartan X (released as Wheels on Meals outside Japan), a tonally uneven Jackie Chan comedy caper buoyed by one of the best fights ever committed to film. Despite the marketing tie-in, the plot and themes stayed the same. At its core, it was a Bruce Lee game.

A few years later, when Nishiyama was at Capcom, he had the chance to expand on his favorite part of Kung Fu Master. “I was thinking about the boss fights in that game,” the designer told Polygon for our oral history of Street Fighter, “and thought it could be interesting to build a game around those. I think you could say [Kung Fu Master] was the basis of the whole idea for Street Fighter.”

Street Fighter dropped the tower structure of Kung Fu Master, but it still had the linear progression of martial artists representing unique styles and nationalities. They also threw in a competitive multiplayer mode, so you could test your skills against a real human opponent.

Nishiyama would eventually move on to SNK, and the team at Capcom would create Street Fighter 2. The sequel would do for fighting games what Enter The Dragon did for martial arts, creating a demand for fighting games, spawning dozens of imitators, and transforming a niche interest into a mainstream phenomenon.

The New Challengers

But Bruce Lee wasn’t just the butterfly flapping its wings that caused the fighting game hurricane — his identity was instantly absorbed into the new genre, spawning an army of Bruce Clones.

Just about every fighting game franchise has a Bruce Lee lookalike. In 1992, World Heroes introduced Kim Dragon, a silver screen star who was also incredibly good at beating people up. Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers added Fei Long in 1993. Tekken’s Marshall Law made his debut in 1994. Fatal Fury, Mortal Kombat, and Dead or Alive also feature Bruce stand-ins.

But the Bruce clones are just the tip of the iceberg — a symptom of a much deeper Bruce obsession that underpins the design of fighting games. In the video up top, we examine how Bruce’s choreography and philosophy helped shape the way we think about virtual fighting.

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