Why do people love Ken from Street Fighter?
Ken from Street Fighter has fascinated players all over the world for many years, but what is it about him that has really drawn people in?
I love Ken Masters!
This has been a relationship that stretches back to the early 90s when I got my very first console, which was the Super Nintendo in all its 16-bit glory. It was accompanied by a copy of Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting, and it marked the beginning of my foray into video games.
I can still remember the box with the tagline “Unleash the power, and face the fury.” I was enamored with the game, playing it for hours on end as I tried to hone my skills while getting my ass handed to me by my much more experienced elder brother. One character stood out from the collection of 12 available— It was Ken. In addition to his colorful looks and skill set, he also exuded confidence, poise, and a zest for life that I didn’t always have as a kid. To me, he was inspiring, and as I delved further into his backstory, I only appreciated him more.
As I grew older, I met more and more people who also resonated with this character. In Lagos, Nigeria, game houses were filled with Street Fighter players, with many picking Ken as their main character. I never really thought about the ‘why’ until much later, and here we are.
Ken is a pretty popular figure in pop culture with several references to his character found in well-known comics, anime, manga, etc. But why is this the case? One of the easiest answers is his constant presence since the game’s inception in 1987— an honor he shares with fellow student and rival, Ryu. But, there has to be more to it, right? Well, that was also my inclination, and this was why I sought to find out the secret behind Ken’s popularity.
Once I thought it through, I came to three conclusions: His personality, move set, and story arc. So, let’s look at each in detail.
The first thing that drew me to Ken from Street Fighter was his story arc. This is an aspect of fighting games that not so many people get into—the lore. Ken is the son of a hotel tycoon and grew up privileged. However, in a bid to train him in humility, his father shipped him off to Japan to study martial arts. It was here he met his lifelong friend, Ryu, and studied the Shotokan fighting style while the two developed a famous rivalry. At this time, he was the typical spoiled brat, and his various antics got him into trouble several times. When he turned 22 (a decade after he arrived in Japan), he and Ryu finished their studies, and he returned home where he competed in various tournaments, most of which he won. But the major difference was that he had become a kinder, more measured character. I was even more impressed after he got married to his girlfriend, Eliza, and he started to display more prominent signs of responsibility, especially in terms of his wife and son, Mel (Street Fighter III). I believed that his subtle evolution from a brash fighter to a considerate father and husband with a noble goal to defeat Bison was perhaps another reason he gained such popularity.
A lot of Street Fighter characters borrowed concepts from real-life personalities, and Ken was no different. He was modeled after the late great karate champion and martial artist, Joe Lewis, and the two shared similar appearances and career trajectories. Beyond that, though, Ken gave off the aura of an affable character who liked the fun side of life. This was in contrast to his more broody, moody sparring partner and friend, Ryu. This open nature, along with his all-American looks, was one of the reasons I was initially drawn to him, and my expectations were that this was the same for a lot of people too. Also, it was really encouraging to see this cool dude with sick fighting skills excel and succeed.
Both Ryu and Ken are well versed in the art of Ansatsuken, but the latter has always been somewhat faster. Ken possesses a set of moves that are very appealing to beginners with a mixture of melee and projectile attacks, making him one of the most accessible characters in Street Fighter. Therefore, a lot of beginners are drawn to him. What’s more, his ability to recover quickly with a Shoryuken (which is also a very effective counter against several moves) is also a major factor in my preference for him.
I always believed that a combination of these three was the reason for his popularity and so I made a few calls to see if these assumptions were correct. One of the first respondents claimed that the ease of using Ken was his reason for liking him and when I asked whether his personality or backstory played any role in this preference, he answered with a resounding ‘No.’ Not to worry, I was certain the next person I talked to would give me the answers I needed, right? Wrong. The next respondent claimed to like both Ken and Ryu, and when I asked why his reasons had more to do with their heritage (Ryu is Japanese and Ken is ¾ Japanese) and how handsome they both were than any of the other answers I expected.
After receiving various responses from other individuals, I turned to internet forums. Now, surely I’d get a universal answer. Wrong again. From Reddit to Steam, the answers varied from his way of life to ‘[his moves have] fire, which I found immensely amusing.
At this point, I decided to end my experiment dismayed by my failure to find a common answer to Ken’s popularity.
Then it hit me
Maybe my inability to find a common answer was an answer in itself. Human beings aren’t monolithic. We value different things, even in the same person, and five people will likely give you five different reasons why they like you. The lack of a coherent answer to Ken’s popularity wasn’t a failure, but rather, a clear display of the multi-faceted nature of man.
So, at the end of the day; my younger self was right about something, which was not to give the ‘why’ too much thought.
I love Ken, and at this moment, that is enough for me.