Street Fighter: The Epic History of Ryu
Street Fighter's cover boy has battled with demons, gods, superheroes, Pac-Men, and even himself. Here's a look back at his journey.
The wait is over and Street Fighter V is out. Well, some of it is out, but there’s my review for that. Anyway, I’ve been doing profiles on some of the characters involved in the game and now’s as good a time as any to talk about the protagonist of the entire Street Fighter series, Ryu.
Ryu has been in every single Street Fighter game…unless you want to be an ass and bring up Street Fighter 2010. Over the years, Ryu’s gone from being the hero of the series to stepping into the background to make way for other central characters. He may not be the main character anymore, but a lot of stuff does revolve around his existence.
Ryu first showed up in 1987’s Street Fighter. He and Ken are the only selectable characters with player 1 being Ryu and player 2 being Ken. They play exactly the same, and while they have their iconic special attacks (the Hadoken, Shoryuken, and Tatsumaki Senpukyaku) at their disposal, the game doesn’t let you know. All three attacks are secrets that players have to discover on their own.
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In their first outing, Ryu or Ken blaze through a fighting tournament and take on a bunch of generic opponents, such as “shirtless white guy” and “dude with Mohawk.” In the end, they face Sagat, a 7-foot-tall Muay Thai master with one eye. In terms of canon, Ryu wins the final battle and tears Sagat’s chest open with a Shoryuken.
At the time, that was all there was to it. Generic karate guy won a generic fighting tournament and the game congratulated you for winning. There was no lore.
Then came Street Fighter II in 1991. No longer a game with two playable characters who fought exactly the same, Ryu and Ken are joined by a memorable cast that included Chun-Li, Guile, Blanka, Zangief, E. Honda, and Dhalsim. They face four unplayable bosses, one of which is Sagat, bent on revenge over the nasty Shoryuken scar over his chest. It’s basically the coolest hook they could have come up with to build on such a generic predecessor.
With more personality in the game, we also got more of an idea of who Ryu and Ken are, especially in relation to each other. They grew up and trained together under the same master, which is why their outfits and fighting styles are exactly the same outside of the colors. Also, one of Ken’s throws is slightly different. Otherwise, there were virtually no differences at the time, although that would change in the following decades.
While they fought the same, their identities were established to be very different. Ken is a rich, flashy guy with a girlfriend on the side. Ryu, on the other hand, is just a wanderer who wanted nothing more than to fight. Even in his ending, when they hold a ceremony to celebrate his win, Ryu is long gone, walking barefoot on a path to find more worthy opponents. That set the tone for the next 25 years, as he’d face all sorts of crazy opponents from his own world and many others.
But for real, it was probably for the best that Ryu didn’t show up. Bison and Sagat were there and that probably wouldn’t have ended well.
One of the more memorable pieces of trivia from this game is the English win quote where Ryu claims, “You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance.” It was a mistranslation and was supposed to be about his Dragon Punch. People scratched their heads over this one and Electronic Gaming Monthly famously stoked the flames by claiming, in their first ever April Fools’ Day prank, that Sheng Long was the name of Ryu and Ken’s master and that you could face him by playing as Ryu, winning with nothing but perfect rounds, and going several rounds against Bison without ever taking damage.
We were very gullible in the pre-internet days.
Sheng Long became a thing in the U.S. The SNES manual for Street Fighter II mentioned him by name. He was intended to be a character in the arcade game based on the live-action movie. Plus the Malibu Comics series featured him as a character.
Ah, the Malibu comic. AKA the one that only lasted three issues until Capcom told them to stop. Ryu is the main character and all, but he only has two memorable moments here. One is when they decided to ship him with Chun-Li. I mean, it makes sense. Chun-Li was the token female of the game and it’s common practice to toss her with a love interest, even if they didn’t actually do that in-game. Ken, Guile, and Dhalsim are spoken for, while she can do better than Zangief, Honda, and Blanka. The other big moment sees Sagat and Balrog beat the hell out of Ken and then scalp him. Ryu then had his own horrific Se7en moment when he received a special package.
Annnnnd that’s what got the comic cancelled.
In Japan, they released a Street Fighter II manga by Masaomi Kanzaki that also played up the relationship between Ryu and Chun-Li. The story for the first two volumes focuses on a tournament on Bison’s island country Shad, where he’s distributing a drug that allows him to control its users. Ken Masters is one of those users. Ryu ends up going through the tournament and helps Ken regain his control. He ends up defeating Bison and puts an end to his plot.
The story is also notable for introducing Gouken, the guy who actually DID train Ryu and Ken. Since Akuma had yet to be introduced in the game’s canon, Gouken’s death came at the hands of Bison, giving Ryu an extra reason to Shoryuken him in his stupid face.
The third volume is an odd story involving evil clones that are never explained. It’s not as good as the initial story, but it does have this weird-ass moment where Ryu tries to figure out if he’s dealing with the real Chun-Li.
Japan gave us a couple attempts at Street Fighter cartoons in the mid-90s. First came 1994’s Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie, which is basically the inspiration for Street Fighter Alpha. It takes place sometime after Ryu defeated and horribly scarred Sagat, with that win putting him on top of M. Bison’s list. Bison wants to make an army of mind-controlled soldiers and someone like Ryu would be a keen choice. Guile and Chun-Li know that Ryu’s a person of interest, so they try to catch up with him first.
Ryu’s journey has him befriend E. Honda and, much like the manga, he has to fight a brainwashed Ken. Ken snaps out of it and they team up to seemingly destroy Bison. That leads to the outright ridiculous ending cliffhanger where Bison tries to run Ryu over with a semi.
The fact that Bison never did that as a super in any of the games is totally bullshit.
The movie was turned into a bizarre console game called Street Fighter: The Interactive Movie. In it, you play as a cyborg, much like the ones shown in the movie, that witness fights and absorb knowledge and ability. It was basically Pokemon Snap. By the end of the game, it suddenly becomes a fighting game with one match: Shadaloo Cyborg vs. Ryu.
If you lose, you get to see the ending of the actual movie. If you win, Bison showcases the cyborg as his secret weapon, only for Ryu to show up and run at it for a rematch. If you win with a perfect, the cyborg kills Ryu…but at the same time, absorbs so much of him that it practically becomes Ryu. The cyborg then goes on to destroy Bison and wanders the world much like Ryu would have done.
In 1995, they did an animated series in Japan called Street Fighter II V, which focused on the adventures of Ryu, Ken, and Chun-Li. I never did get around to watching the whole series and honestly, it never did much to hold my interest outside of a couple episodes. Plus the lack of headband on Ryu always kind of bothered me. It also ended with Ryu and Ken teaming up to defeat Bison.
In America, the Street Fighter movie hit theaters in 1994 and Ryu’s depiction by Byron Mann is quite a bit off the mark. Ryu and Ken are slimy swindlers who try to scam people on both sides. Even though they earn spots in Shadaloo, they ultimately turn on them and help the other heroes, leading to Ryu and Ken fighting and defeating Vega and Sagat. In the fighting game based on the movie, Ryu chooses to leave fighting behind in order to help rebuild Shadaloo City.
The movie was spun off into a Saturday morning cartoon and as a fan of Street Fighter, it’s truly a trip to watch. It lasted two seasons, but with a noticeable shift. See, the first season was a GI Joe knockoff that took after the movie. Guile, Blanka, and Chun-Li were the main characters while Ryu, Ken, Cammy, and the rest were given supporting roles. After all, not only was Guile the main hero of the movie, but Blanka was incredibly popular with American audiences.
Right before the show debuted, Street Fighter Alpha hit arcades and made it apparent that Ryu and Ken were the actual main characters of the series. Guile and Blanka were missing completely and wouldn’t reappear for several years. Because of that, the second season of the Street Fighter cartoon had to kind of pivot and add extra emphasis on Ryu and Ken. They still got the Gilligan’s Island “and the rest!” treatment in the intro, but it was still something.
Speaking of giving Ryu some props, around this time, Capcom’s Mega Man X games tended to include Ryu’s attacks as super secret hidden upgrades for X to find and get equip. In use, they tended to take out any and all opponents in one or two hits.
Going back to Street Fighter Alpha, the game introduced one of the more popular staples of Street Fighter: Dan Hibiki. As fighting games became more and more popular in the early-90s, there were a handful of characters who were pretty blatant rip-offs of Ryu and Ken. None more notable than Ryo and Robert from Art of Fighting and King of Fighters. To get back at SNK for their poor man’s doppelgangers, Dan was created as a hybrid of the two, with a moveset and backstory that made him the Homsar to Ryu’s Homestar Runner.
Alpha took place in-between Street Fighter and Street Fighter II, back when Capcom had yet to really establish much of the storyline. While the first version of the game focused on Ryu and Sagat’s rivalry, it wasn’t until Masahiko Nakahira’s Street Fighter Alpha manga hit the scene that Street Fighter finally found some direction.
More importantly, it redefined Ryu.
While Akuma had been introduced in Super Street Fighter II: Turbo as this kind of Dark Super Ryu who got the credit for killing Gouken, they didn’t really do much else to give him any dynamic or relationship with Ryu. Nakahira introduced the idea of the Satsui no Hadou, otherwise known as the Dark Hadou, otherwise known as the Surge of Murderous Intent. The Dark Side of the Karate Force, pretty much.
Essentially, the manga invented Evil Ryu. It even retconned the events of Street Fighter so that Ryu didn’t simply beat Sagat in a fair fight. Sagat kicked the everloving crap out of Ryu, but was so high on his own ego that he offered him a hand up. Ryu was possessed by the Dark Hadou for an instant and suckerpunched Sagat with a demonic Shoryuken more powerful than Ryu would usually muster.
Ryu didn’t simply win a tournament and move on, he won cheaply in a way that showed him that his soul was tainted and it haunted him. He was going to end up being like Akuma, only worse. While Akuma had mastered his own darkness, Evil Ryu was uncontrollable and erratic, like a primal drunk who was really skilled at fighting.
And that became Ryu’s big conflict. On one hand, he could train for years as an honorable warrior and maybe, just maybe, come out of it stronger and conquer his inner darkness. Then again, if he were to give into temptation, he could immediately jump to the top of the ladder and become virtually unbeatable, snuffing out even Akuma.
This would become one of the central plots of Street Fighter Alpha 2 and 3. As Ryu travels the world, looking for fights, Akuma wants him to give in to his dark side and challenge him. Bison wants to capture Ryu and use his powerful body as a host for his own soul. Sagat wants a rematch, but is conflicted about the hows and whys. Then you have Ken and Ryu’s fangirl/protégé Sakura, who wants him to be the best he can be, both as a fighter and as a person.
As the story goes, Bison captures Ryu and turns him into a brainwashed slave. Sagat turns on Bison and defeats Ryu, but knows that much like their first fight, it doesn’t really count because of Ryu’s state of mind. Ryu fights against the mind control and is able to destroy M. Bison’s body with a massive Hadoken. Bison’s soul lives on, and so does Ryu, who wanders off to fight another day.
In the 90s, Ryu started showing up in more crossovers, starting with X-Men vs. Street Fighter. Although Ryu would find himself at home fighting new and outrageous enemies, he rarely did anything more than just talk about fighting before wandering off to find more fighting. Even when hanging out with the Marvel heroes. He did get murdered by Omega Red in Red’s Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter ending, so there is that.
At least they got creative with him in Marvel vs. Capcom. Rather than throw Akuma and Ken into the game, they turned them into alternate styles for Ryu. As long as he has a super bar filled up, Ryu can change his attire’s color to make him suddenly play more like his rivals. Since Akuma and Ken were brought into the massive roster of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, they immediately dropped that gimmick.
Most of Ryu’s crossover endings have him searching around for new opponents, no matter how ridiculous. In Gem Fighter Mini-Mix, he fights Tabasa from Red Earth in hopes that she can lead him to a worthy foe. She tries to screw him over by having him fight the giant mythological T-Rex Hauzer, but Ryu is just all, “Uh…cool, guess I’ll just fight him with all my skill then.”
In Capcom Fighting Evolution, we see Ryu seeking out Jon Talbain from Darkstalkers, who has seriously gone way too long without appearing in a fighting game.
Then there’s his ending in Tatsunoku vs. Capcom. He saves some Snow Pirates from an Akrid, a gigantic cyber dragon thing from Lost Planet. As he tells them to leave, we get this amazing, badass exchange:
“You want us to run away?! What about you?!”
“Me? I will seek out a stronger opponent.”
Since Capcom and SNK did a handful of crossover games, Ryu got a lot of play as the counterpart to King of Fighters’ main hero Kyo Kusanagi. Though in some games, Evil Ryu was included as a more fitting counterpart to Riot of the Blood Iori Yagami. Really, Ryu didn’t do anything of note in these crossovers unless you count the completely batshit SvC Chaos comic from Hong Kong where he and Kyo beat up avatars of Heaven and Hell in order to bring Earth back from total destruction.
Ryu’s coolest inter-franchise counterpart comes in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. In his ending, Ryu’s travels bring him to an underground fighting tournament in Madripoor and the cliffhanger shows his opponent as future Netflix star Iron Fist. Then they released Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 with Iron Fist added in as a playable character. Since that above ending was no longer meaningful, they changed it up. Ryu starts putting on what appears to be his red bandana while talking about how he’s finally found the right direction to overcome the Dark Hadou and reach his potential. Akuma challenges him and in the next image, we see Ryu’s new calling.
No wonder people wanted an Asian Iron Fist.
Coincidentally, in Iron Fist’s ending, he puts together a brand new version of Heroes for Hire, featuring Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Misty Knight, Colleen Wing, Ryu, Chun-Li, and Rival Schools’ Batsu. Suddenly, I’m mad that Marvel never made any comics for their Capcom crossovers.
Shifting gears, Ryu starred in 2000’s Street Fighter Alpha: The Animation. It was a decent, though not exceptional, anime movie about a boy named Shun, who claims to be Ryu’s long-lost brother. There’s a whole thing where Shun suggests that Akuma is their father, but Akuma outright rejects the notion and Shun turns out to be a fraud regardless. Still, a lot of people held onto the idea that Akuma was Ryu’s father, which I guess fits into the whole Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker thing people love.
A few years later, they did another anime called Street Fighter Alpha: Generations, which focuses on Akuma’s descent to darkness. It’s not especially memorable, but does try to push the Akuma-is-Ryu concept even more.
Back to the games, 1997 gave us the beginning of the Street Fighter III series. Those games ended up becoming the canon finale to the franchise, mainly because Capcom decided to scrub the entire roster except for Ryu and Ken. Even then, those two weren’t originally going to be in there. The upgrades (Second Impact and Third Strike) brought in Akuma and Chun-Li. The whole revamp didn’t go over too well with fans of the classic characters, so all the games released after have taken place prior to Street Fighter III as a way to bridge everything.
As of Street Fighter III, Ryu’s seemingly conquered the Dark Hadou completely. Now he’s just focusing on mastering his art and being the best that he can be. While he’s no longer the main hero of the series, he’s become a bit of a legend. The new protagonist, Alex, ends up becoming inspired by him, and the elderly and mighty Oro recognizes that in a few decades, Ryu may be the best ever.
Masahiko Nakahira would do another manga about Ryu called Street Fighter III: Ryu Final. It’s absolutely awesome and is one of the main reasons why Ryu ranked so high on my list of the best Street Fighter characters. It’s a story about Ryu trying to figure out the real meaning behind his existence. He reluctantly discovers that he isn’t destined to be the best, but that he’s the one who makes everyone better. Whoever spars with him comes out of it wiser and better off.
There’s a lot of awesome shit in this book, like Akuma punching a hole in a bear’s head and Sagat rescuing orphans from a poacher, but it’s the climax that makes it. Ryu fights Akuma and we get some real closure to their rivalry.
See, the lore had made it seem like there were three ways it could end: 1) Ryu beats Akuma, spares him, and nothing is solved because Akuma will just go after him again, 2) Akuma kills Ryu, 3) Ryu kills Akuma and falls down a dark path because of it.
In their fight, which includes Ryu allowing himself to get impaled for the sake of hitting a counter, as well as a Killing Joke moment where the two of them share a laugh together, Akuma becomes enlightened by the nature of Ryu’s existence. Akuma’s ultimate opponent may not be Ryu, but whoever it is, Ryu will probably have been their inspiration.
Akuma, like many others, becomes wiser and better off from fighting Ryu. That rules.
Going from a great adaptation to a crap adaptation, 2009 gave us the live-action Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. While Ryu isn’t even in it, he’s namedropped at the end of the movie by Gen, who acts like a sequel is in the works. Come on, man.
Ryu returned to form in Street Fighter IV. He remained his usual self with not much new to talk about. Hell, the big thing going on in his backstory is the reveal that Gouken isn’t so dead after all. Otherwise, Ryu just Hadokens a waterfall in his intro and a big computer thing in his ending. No big deal.
The game spun-off into Street Fighter X Tekken, where Ryu and Ken journey together to investigate the mysterious, cosmic device in the Antarctic known only as Pandora. On the way, they face off against Tekken characters Kazuya Mishima and Nina Williams, who are painted as their rivals. Mainly because Ryu and Kazuya are the main characters, and Kazuya’s “Devil” form is kind of like the Dark Hadou.
The ending has Pandora open up and practically swallow Ryu and his dark energies. After a bright flash, Pandora and Ryu are gone, leaving Ken alone in wonder. It’s kind of dumb until you realize that it may in fact be a prelude to Ryu’s appearance in Asura’s Wrath. As DLC, Ryu gets his own chapter where he simply appears in Asura’s world and challenges him. They have a ridiculously over-the-top fight that involves going to the moon and it ends in a draw.
As part of the next DLC chapter, Akuma shows up and kicks Ryu into space, where hevanishes in a big sparkle, theoretically sending him back into the Street Fighter universe. Considering the style of his exit, I’ve seen joke theories that this is how Ryu ended up in Super Smash Brothers for Wii U. And that theory actually kind of fits!
Ryu was portrayed by Mike Moh in 2014’s Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist. The webseries by Joey Ansah focuses on Ryu and Ken’s upbringing under Gouken as well as flashbacks to how Akuma came to be. It’s pretty rad and will be getting two follow-ups. One is the upcoming Street Fighter: Resurrection, which will focus on Street Fighter V’s incarnation of Charlie Nash, and the other is Street Fighter: The World Warrior, which will tell the story of Street Fighter II.
Ryu is the main character in UDON’s Street Fighter comic book series. As you can guess, it centers around his whole Dark Hadou thing as he’s being targeted by M. Bison. When they do get around to doing the Street Fighter II tournament, Ryu reaches the finals after defeating Sagat. As with a bunch of other adaptations of Street Fighter’s storyline, Ken shows up as one of Bison’s brainwashed slaves because of course he does. The fight between Ryu and Bison is interrupted by Akuma, who snuffs out Bison and kicks Ryu’s ass until Gouken reappears to bail him out.
As it is right now, Ryu’s still dealing with the darkness within. He even went into full Evil Ryu mode before Gill tempered it and turned him back to normal. Not as a way to help him. Just as a way to show off his own godly power.
The most interesting and inventive part of the comics is Ryu’s origin story. As shown in Street Fighter Origins: Akuma, Akuma’s master Goutetsu had a unique way of testing his students. He would take them in, train them, have them meditate while fasting for days in a cave, then offer them a chance at vengeance against those who screwed up their lives. If they turned down the vengeance, which Gouken did, then they were truly ready.
Akuma and Gouken’s father was a former assassin trained by Goutetsu who quit and became a farmer. A group of bandits, also trained by Goutetsu, found Akuma’s father thanks to Goutetsu’s test and avenged one of their fallen comrades. Years later, as part of that same test, Akuma was pointed in the direction of the bandits and jumped at the chance to get revenge. He killed them all and the battle razed their village to the ground. Gouken arrived just in time to rescue a little boy whose parents had been killed in the chaos. That boy, naturally, was Ryu.
Coincidentally, the lead bandit wore a red bandana over his head, signifying that he was most likely Ryu’s father.
In the end, Ryu’s stuck in an endless cycle of vengeance and it’s up to him to break it and move forward. Way better than simply making him Akuma’s kid.
Speaking of comics, Ryu appeared in Street Fighter X GI Joe, a comic by Aubrey Sitterson and Emilio Laiso. Despite being the #1 poster boy of the series, Ryu is already knocked out of the story’s tournament after losing a fight to Jinx in the first issue. Keep in mind, Rufus and Hakan have been able to advance into the final eight. Not Ryu. That’s unexpected.
Ryu, naturally, returns for Street Fighter V. While the eventual cinematic story mode makes it look like he’ll be going at it with new villain Necalli, the game’s current story mode is about Ryu dealing with his inner darkness and—OH GOD LEARN A NEW TUNE ALREADY!
While his moveset only gets tweaked relatively little from game to game, Ryu will always have a place as one of the most iconic characters in video games. As long as Capcom’s willing to do a crossover with whoever, Ryu will always be there to step forward and challenge Scorpion or Solid Snake or Mavis Beacon or whoever.
And now, I leave you with this. Don’t ask. Just watch.
Gavin Jasper has never gotten so angry that his clothes have changed color. Follow him on Twitter!