Of all the characters that have appeared in the Street Fighter series of fighting games, none of them capture my imagination and continues to hold it as strongly as the air force pilot with the flag tattoo named Guile. Even today, 25 years later, I always get a little excited to find out that this grim avenger is making an appearance in a video game-any video game.
But why Guile? The cast is so rich and varied, each with their own particular strengths. From ‘the strongest woman in the world’ Chun Li to the psychotic sadist Vega/M. Bison/Dictator to the sumo strongman E. Honda to the green dynamo Blanka, there is no shortage of inventive character designs in this series. And if you add in the fairly recent inclusion of characters from Final Fight such as the ninja warrior of justice Guy, the mad mercenary Rolento and the enormous, Andre The Giant inspired Hugo, the cast has only gotten bigger and more varied. There is something for everyone here.
So why is Guile the coolest to me? What separates him from the pack? What I want to do with this look at the character is go back to the beginning, and his first appearance in the original Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. This examination of Guile and my love for the character stems from those early days, and it has nothing to do with the technical aspects of the gameplay itself (although Guile is very effective) so I am not going to talk about footsies, cancelling, poking, priority, invincibility frames, hit boxes, handcuffs, throwing combs or 100% combos.
This isn’t an examination of why Guile is the best SELECTABLE character in Street Fighter, because he’s not (although he was pretty damn close in WW). I likely would have gotten bored with the character by now if his tier was all that mattered to me. Rather, I want to look at the various narratives within the game and explain why it is that in terms of character design and background Guile simply stands apart. It’s like he doesn’t even belong with the rest of the original cast, to be honest. He’s just so distinct and different. And it’s not just his hair, although that exaggerated flat top is easily among the most recognizable physical traits of any of the game’s large cast
I’m also not going to discuss what the characters have evolved into over the years, as that has nothing to do with why Guile has been my favorite SF character since day one, and it’s this initial fixation that still holds root regardless of how his story has changed with each successive entry in the series. I’d say, in fact, that most of the characters have only grown more interesting as time has gone on. But that is a different conversation for a different day.
So. Guile. What makes him special? Here is his story, in a nutshell. Guile is on a mission of revenge. He wants to kill Vega/M.Bison/Dictator because of injustices committed by him in the past. Guile finds out that his nemesis is running some worldwide martial arts tournament and has invited the best to participate. It’s not really clear why the leader of Shadaloo would do such a thing, but Guile doesn’t really care. This is his chance to get at him by simply fighting his way to the top and, once the villain is in plain sigh, take his shot. Once Guile has mowed down the opposition and the end cinema begins to play, he has his hands tightly gripped around the collar of a defeated Bison, who eggs him on while Guile levies threats of revenge and justice. He brings up
Cambodia and someone named ‘Charlie’ as two of the more serious grievances in need of addressing. A defeated Bison can only wait for the inevitable end Guile intends to make of him.
Now up to this point, this seems like fairly standard stuff, right? Guy gets wronged, goes to get his revenge, fights his way to his tormentor and takes him out. We’ve seen it in a million 80s action movies (such a wonderful genre, and I say that unironically) and even in more modern adventure tales (albeit with a bit more nuance and complexity when done well.) But before why I go on, let’s recap what the other 7 fighters want out of any of this. I’m not including any of the bosses here because they weren’t playable in The World Warrior.
Ryu-wants to prove he’s the best fighter in the world.
Ken-wants to win the tournament so he can finally get married. This is actually an interesting premise if expounded upon properly, but the game itself doesn’t do a good job of it. He beats Bison and then Eliza runs in and next thing you know…wedding bells. Okay, then.
Chun Li-Wants revenge on Bison for the murder of her father. Okay, another revenge tale. But that’s all there is to it, if we’re being honest.
Blanka-Looking for his long lost mother. I think. Or he’s just fighting for reasons and she shows up at the end of the game. Either way, getting into a fighting tournament and the end result being the discovery of your missing mom is just bizarre.
E. Honda-To prove sumo is the best fighting style. In other words, Ryu’s story with a twist.
Dhalsim-So he can ‘finally go home’ to his family because ‘it’s been so long’. Similar to Ken’s story, an interesting premise that needs more context to actually be a motivation that compels. Also, he quits fighting at the end to ‘go home and be a family man’.
Zangief-To prove to the world that the Soviet spirit (remember, this is 1991-the
Soviet Union was still a thing back then) can overcome all obstacles. So he’s fighting to show how national pride can help one achieve success. This is probably my SECOND favorite storyline in Street Fighter II because we rarely see enough plots about people becoming empowered by traditional values.
To go off on a quick tangent here, in recent years tradition has become something to be mocked as naïve, myopic and a form of indoctrinated conditioning. I am not a fan off blind patriotism or faith, but it’s nice to see a story that takes these things and finds a way to put a positive spin on them. It’s easy to point fingers and declare institutions as mass brainwashing. But my mother is a devout Christian and one of the kindest, most giving women on the planet. She’s used her faith as a form of spiritual empowerment to get through some rough stretches. Firsthand, I’ve see how traditional values can aid in success without being oppressive or encroaching on the rights of others.
Want a couple of fictional examples? Fine. Daredevil, by way of the Netflix series. Or Simon Belmont from Castlevania. Both Matt Murdock and Simon Belmont possess strong faith in their lord. Religion is shown as a a positive influence in their lives, not dogma that endangers their agency. In the political arena, Captain
America is a character that holds to the founding ideals of the United States of America, not the laws of the land or the holders of office. Did you see Captain America: The Winter Soldier? You know, that’s the one where he defies authority and becomes a fugitive in order to take down an irredeemably corrupt system. I can think of nothing more heroic than that.
(For the record, I am agnostic and lean libertarian because I favor individualism.)
Moving on with Guile.
So there we have it. Seven characters with storylines that go from the most well worn of martial arts clichés to decent ideas that need more in order to make them rise above their trappings.
And here’s where Guile does just that. Bur first, watch this. It’s Guile’s ending from the original game.
So, right at the point when Guile is about to do the deed and end Bison’s life, his wife Jane and his daughter Amy show up and beg him not to commit this murder. As they speak to him, Guile faces away, eyes closed abd clearly emotionally conflicted over the matter. As the exchange continues, Jane tells him that he just wants Guile to come home so that they can be a family again. Guile, growing frustrated, says ‘But I abandoned you!’
After that, his daughter Amy implores Guile to come home because ‘mommy and I still love you!’ Guile, in a state of complete shock, is stunned to hear his daughter’s voice at this, perhaps the ultimate moment of his long journey, which we now know to be more personal in nature than anything. His own craving for vengeance is just as much a driving force in his life as his desire to rid the world of this vileness. We transition away from this to the next scene, with Guile at home in the warm embrace of his daughter and sitting by the fireplace as his wife brings tea on a tray for them all to share and the family pet barks happily away. Even the dog’s happy to see daddy home again. He’s given up his quest for revenge and, by his own admission, feels like he’s ‘waking up from a nightmare’, implying that for a time he was so driven by hatred and revenge that he forgot who he was.
So let’s talk about abandonment. By his own very public admission at the conclusion of the World Warrior Tournament, surrounded not only by his family but by a screaming Thai audience and a Bison who even gloats in utter defeat, Guile admits that his quest for revenge was so consuming that he actually ran away from a home and family that seemed damned near like a perfect life. The story doesn’t imply that this was a calculated decision after much deliberation. Taking the story at face value, Guile got angry and left everything that made his life worth living in order to go and kill someone that wronged him. In doing so, he also ran away from himself, the person that a family could love so much that they chase him around the world just so they can beg him to come back.
This wasa dark narrative territory for a video game in the early 90s, when the hobby was a different, simpler beast that was far too niche for the mainstream, to have this kind of complex relationship dynamic with any regularity. As a young man with a fertile mind and an appreciation for complex storytelling, this was more than I was ever expecting out of a game where you press buttons to hit people in the mouth.
Even by modern video game storytelling standards, Guile simply stands apart from the rest for this very reason. That he is redeemed I the end is the reminder from Capcom that this is a guy we are supposed to like and have compassion for. He is an underdog, but the ominous struggle he faces isn’t against some towering foe or incomprehensible odds. His challenge, his TRUE foe, is himself. And in the end, he triumphs.
At the end of the day, Guile performs the ultimate humble act by ‘going home to be a family man.’ Up until that point, he’s been telling those he’s defeated to do the same as a condemnation of their weakness. But when it’s all said and done, the very notion shows Guile’s true strength. He’s able to overcome his need for revenge, lay down his burden and return to a much more worthy life. This, in my opinion, is the essence of the hero. Overcoming the greatest challenges to do what he believes is right, good and pure.
Best character in Street Fighter II.