Street Fighter: The Violent History of Akuma
At best he is an honorable loner. At worst he is a relentless murderer. Here's a look at the history of Street Fighter's boogeyman.
One of the great things about the Street Fighter cast is that it features a really eclectic group of villains. Whether it’s Bison, Gill, Necalli, Decapre, Balrog, or Rolento, they tend to differ in terms of background, morals, and ambitions.
That’s what makes Akuma so awesome. He’s a very different kind of villain. He’s a villain in the sense that he’s a violent asshole and he antagonizes the hero, but he’s essentially a being that considers himself independent of the good/evil duality. He simply is. He’s the Incredible Hulk, but without the underlying morality and with a sense of drive to be something.
Akuma (or Gouki in Japan) first showed up in 1994, but the story begins before that. Although Capcom’s never admitted to it, as far as I know, Akuma’s inspiration came from the infamous Electronic Gaming Monthly April issue in 1992. As part of an April Fools’ day prank, they printed a couple fake screens of “Sheng Long,” a Ryu/Ken knockoff who you could reportedly unlock through ridiculously difficult means. He shows up and knocks out M. Bison on the final stage, only to hit you with a nigh-impossible boss fight.
Although the internet wasn’t really a thing yet, the legend spread quickly, and even though it turned out to not be true, someone at Capcom surely thought, “Actually, that’s not a bad idea…”
Back in the early 90s, Street Fighter II was a bit of a…I’m not sure if “laughing stock” is the right term for it. After all, people loved it. It’s just that everyone had jokes about Capcom’s stubborn inability to count to three. They constantly gave us updated versions of the same game, each time with something new to show for it. Playable boss characters, faster gameplay, extra characters, and so on.
By the time they got to Super Street Fighter II Turbo, there were two main selling points: the introduction of super moves and Akuma. By playing through one-player mode, winning every match, and getting at least three perfects, Akuma would show up, murdering M. Bison and challenging your character. He’d then kick the everloving shit out of you, all while Bison’s corpse remained motionless in the background.
Psst! Hey, Bison! Don’t look now, but…this place shall become your grave!
At least that boss battle was easy enough for players to find. Actually PLAYING as Akuma was a ridiculous task, where you’d have to hold the select cursor over different characters for three seconds each, hoping you got the timing right. But hey, the reward was worth it, allowing you to play as an overpowered Ryu clone.
I’m not sure if Capcom had Akuma’s backstory sorted out back then. It’s very possible. Regardless, they decided not to share that in the game itself, which made him this really ominous mystery man. You’d think that by beating the game with him we’d get some cool cutscene that gave us something on what he’s about.
Nope. We just got the credits sequence, redone so that it was filled with the entire cast’s loss portraits. Just a parade of bruised and bleeding faces because that’s what Akuma was about. He was an unstoppable force of violence and that was all we needed to know.
1994 also gave us the fighting game X-Men: Children of the Atom, which was the first of many Marvel fighters by Capcom. While focusing on six X-Men and six villains, Capcom decided, “What the hell, let’s throw Akuma in there as a hidden character!” And why the hell not! It ended up pioneering a rich series of games where Capcom characters battled Marvel characters, which is exactly why Akuma’s appearance in X-Men got him the #1 spot on my list of the best fighting game guest characters.
Once again, Akuma’s ending didn’t give us any answers. This time the end credits featured every character going through their dizzy animations, because whoever this shadowy karate man was, he was good enough to beat up everyone in this universe, too!
With Akuma being such a mystery, it’s interesting to see how different media played with him. In Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie, Akuma got a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, sitting alone against a fence on the side of the road. Then in the animated series Street Fighter II V, Akuma would constantly appear in background shots like some kind of sadistic Waldo. There was no explanation for any of it. One episode you’d see him as part of a riot, then another episode you’d see him eating dinner at a restaurant.
I guess you can really get around if you have no job and can teleport.
While Akuma wasn’t in the live-action Street Fighter movie starring Jean Claude Van Damme, he was in the fighting game based on it. In a game that aped Mortal Kombat’s graphical style, Akuma was portrayed by Ernie Reyes, Sr. Looking it up, Reyes apparently helped choreograph The Last Dragon, so that’s rad. Then again, live-action Akuma looked pretty silly, especially in one level where he’d regularly be seen sneaking around in the background, which many think looks like he’s trying to figure out where the bathroom is.
At least his ending sort of gave us an idea of what he’s about. It said that he was Sheng Long’s brother and wanted to shame him by beating up his students Ryu and Ken. Yeah, the guy’s making the game were still pretending that Sheng Long was a thing. He was even supposed to be in the game before time constraints kicked in.
The same month of that game’s release, Japan saw the release of Street Fighter Alpha: Warrior’s Dreams in arcades. The Alpha games took place before the events of Street Fighter II, and once again, Akuma was a secret character. They at least made his backstory a bit more known this time around.
Akuma is the younger brother of Gouken. Together, they studied Ansatsuken (“Assassin’s Fist”) under their master Goutetsu. Akuma, obsessed with becoming the strongest, believed that the dark side of the martial art style is where it’s at and let the killing intent consume him. He mastered the Raging Demon (also known as “Shun Goku Satsu”), a Penance Stare-like fatal attack that does more damage depending on the sins of the victim, and used it on both his teacher and brother. Now Akuma hides in the shadows, hoping to find the one worthy opponent that he can fight to the death. He’s powered by his own negative emotions, and it’s physically transformed him into a demon.
Masahiko Nakahira’s Street Fighter Alpha manga introduced the idea that Ryu is in danger of falling to the same path as Akuma. As far as Akuma’s concerned, Ryu giving in and becoming overwhelmed with killing intent is for the best for both of them. Ryu can find ultimate power and Akuma can get that ultimate opponent. Akuma just doesn’t understand Ryu’s desire to cling to his own humanity and not be a psychotic murder machine. He doesn’t understand and he doesn’t care to understand.
Also, the killing intent affects them rather differently. Ryu’s darker form is that of an overwhelmed, mindless warrior, drunk on power while fighting brilliantly out of instinct. Akuma is always in control of his actions and is more of a pissed-off martial arts master.
Around the time of Alpha’s release, Akuma showed up on the Street Fighter animated series in the U.S. The first appearance came in the first season, where he stranded and isolated Guile and M. Bison while stalking the two. It was the old cliché of a cartoon hero and villain having to put aside their differences against a bigger threat. It wasn’t very good and featured Akuma doing non-stop teleporting, only to peace-out the moment Guile landed a single Flash Kick.
He returned in the second season to vex Ryu, Ken, and Gouken. They turned him into martial arts Mega Man here, giving him the power to steal chi (though really, souls), and he did so to Gouken and Ryu. Ken then went Super Saiyan based on his own righteousness and was able to defeat Akuma, returning Gouken and Ryu back to life. It’s almost good, albeit with some really unfortunate animation.
In the late 90s, Capcom released Street Fighter Alpha 2 and Alpha 3. The games crammed in a lot of story stuff and expanded more on Akuma. We got to see his relationships with characters other than Ryu. While Ryu was still finding his way, Akuma focused on his rivalry with elderly assassin Gen. Muay Thai upstart Adon became obsessed with finding and defeating Akuma to prove to everyone how great he was. Akuma revealed his hatred for M. Bison, not just for his megalomania, but because his power came from technology and not from within.
Akuma, despite his drawbacks, still fights based on a twisted sense of honor. It may not be as pure as Ryu’s, but it’s something. He’s a killer, but only under three situations.
1) You accept fighting him on his terms, which even Gouken did.
2) You outright try to kill him or plot against him.
3) You’re in the area while he’s blowing up a mountain with his fist or something.
He isn’t 100% heartless and has no interest in slaughtering the innocent. It’s a distinction that will become relevant when we get to Street Fighter IV.
It’s also worth noting that Capcom at the time decided that while we didn’t know who officially won the Street Fighter II tournament, Akuma did indeed show up and kill M. Bison. The Raging Demon was meant to be the final nail in Bison’s coffin, tearing his actual soul to pieces and making him unable to possess other bodies. Akuma came off as a total badass, since he not only killed Gouken and Bison, but it was incredibly likely that he took out Gen and Adon as well.
In the 90s, Capcom created an obscure fighter called Cyberbots: Fullmetal Madness, which involved pilots flying giant mechs. The Sega Saturn version of the game had an unlockable mech called Z-Gouki, created to resemble and fight like the legendary Master of Fist.
Capcom finally got around to giving us Street Fighter III, and the first game got plenty of flak for overhauling nearly the entire cast. Except for Ryu and Ken, every other fighter was new. To make up for that a little bit, they released the upgraded Street Fighter III: Second Impact and later Street Fighter III: Third Strike, both of which featured Akuma. By this point in the storyline, Ryu had washed his hands of the whole killing intent thing for good, so Akuma didn’t really have much going on. His endings simply showed him training and coming up with some new, logic-defying super attacks. One of which showed him splitting a mountain in two, while the other began with him standing deep in the ocean, completely unharmed by the crushing depths and lack of oxygen.
The manga tie-in to Street Fighter III, known as Ryu Final, is about Ryu realizing his life purpose as he works towards his way to a climactic battle with Akuma. I can’t recommend it enough, as not only is the final fight brilliant, badass, and cathartic, but there’s a flashback scene to Ryu’s origins where Akuma is the absolute best.
As a little boy, Ryu goes to Gouken and asks for training. Gouken wants nothing to do with him, so he says to go fight a bear and he’ll think about it, hoping to scare him off. Gouken realizes too late that, oh shit, that kid’s really going to go fight a bear! Ryu gets mauled and is saved in the coolest way.
At the last second, a fist busts through the bear’s face from behind. It’s Akuma’s fist, stopping an inch from Ryu’s face. He hasn’t figured out topknots yet, so his hair is all over the place and obscures his features, but he tells Ryu that the killing intent is the best before Gouken arrives and tells him to shoo. It rules so much.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Akuma’s appearances in the various Marvel crossovers. Like I said, he got the ball rolling by punching Juggernaut in the face back in 1994. Akuma appeared in X-Men vs. Street Fighter, albeit with no X-Men counterpart. His role in the follow-up Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter was far more memorable, as he appeared as the game’s final boss.
See, Apocalypse was the big villain of both games. Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter came up with the awesome concept of, “What if Akuma was one of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen?” Hence, we got Cyber Akuma. Apparently giving Akuma jet thrusters and rocket punches was in style back then.
In the early-to-mid 00s, two Street Fighter animated movies were released. One was Street Fighter Alpha: The Animation, which was about Ryu meeting this powerful kid who claimed to be his brother. The other was Street Fighter Alpha: Generations, which focused on the Ryu vs. Akuma rivalry and how they parallel, showing Akuma’s descent into darkness in flashback.
What’s funny to me about these two stories is how they go in completely different directions with the Ryu/Akuma relationship. Generations makes it pretty clear that Ryu is Akuma’s illegitimate son. Meanwhile, Alpha: The Animation has a scene where Ryu finds Akuma training and asks, “Hey, you ever do the deed with some lady?” and he’s all, “Nope! Can’t say that I have! You and that kid ain’t mine!”
I mean, it’s more ominous and stuff when he says it, but yeah.
For several years, Capcom and SNK made a series of fighting games. Naturally, Akuma showed up in all of them. Coincidentally, each one had a different answer for who Akuma’s SNK counterpart/rival was.
First came SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millennium for the Neo-Geo Pocket Color. That one played up Akuma vs. Iori Yagami, which made plenty of sense. While Kyo/Ryu is the pairing the developers always went with, Iori was kind of somewhere in-between being Kyo’s personal Ken and Akuma.
Next up was Capcom’s Capcom vs. SNK. In it, Akuma’s rival was…no one. He was the game’s hardest-to-fight secret boss and strangely they decided not to do the same with any of the SNK characters. Now, Akuma’s pretty memorable in that game for three reasons:
1) Having a cool Johnny Cage shadow effect when he moved, like his existence distorted reality. I wish they kept that for other games.
2) Instead of killing Bison with a Raging Demon before the boss fight, he’d zip down from the top of the screen and judo chop through Bison’s shoulder, dig into the chest area, then pull his hand out. It’s bloodless, but brutal as hell.
3) Dude was a massive chore to unlock. The game had a store where you could spend the currency you earned through gameplay. Unlockable characters Morrigan and Nakoruru were bad enough, but Akuma’s price was astronomical. You had to beat the game an insane amount of times, which wouldn’t be quite as bad if the game had more than three endings. The best strategy was to turn on a 2-player versus match with zero time limit and leave the game on while you went and did something else, since it gave you points for up to an hour or so.
Capcom vs. SNK 2 gave him a rival and did it with absolute style. While the game is about a regular fighting tournament, Akuma and regular King of Fighters end boss Rugal Bernstein use it as an excuse to meet up and have their own off-the-books showdown. If you beat the game normally, you get a cliffhanger hint that one of the two is hanging out on a nearby building. If you perform a bit better, you get challenged by Akuma or Rugal as an excuse to kill time while waiting for the other. After the fight, the other appears, the two fight, and the whole city explodes.
If you play really, really well, you get a cutscene of the two meeting up on a rooftop, followed by the clashing explosion. After that, there’s a cutscene based on which one randomly won. If Akuma wins, Rugal dies while shoving his hand into Akuma’s torso and forcing Orochi power into Akuma. Akuma becomes Shin Akuma, and you’re in for a boss battle against a much harder palette swap of Akuma.
If Rugal wins, it’s all waaay cooler. Rugal holds Akuma’s lifeless hide over his head and absorbs all of his power. He becomes God Rugal (Ultimate Rugal in the U.S.) and becomes this awesome, insane force. When he wins, he tears his shirt off to reveal Akuma’s kanji tattoo is now glowing on his chest. After losing, the power overcomes Rugal—which is a regular occurrence for him—and he sort of just transforms into Akuma.
SNK then did SNK vs. Capcom: Chaos. This time, Akuma’s opponent is Mr. Karate/Takuma Sakazaki. It’s a choice that works, but is still a bit out of left field. Mr. Karate is indeed strong and experienced enough to stand up to Akuma, but he’s also a bit of a joke character. At least, in the same way that Akuma has his Shin Akuma form, Mr. Karate has his Serious Mr. Karate form where he sheds all the comedy and focuses on kicking all the ass.
Anyway, Akuma’s ending involves him invading Heaven so he can challenge God himself to a fight because Akuma’s balls are each the size of Disney’s Spaceship Earth.
After a drought of games, Street Fighter finally made a comeback with Street Fighter IV and its various upgrades. As a character, Akuma’s brutal rap sheet took a huge hit. Adon and Gen were around, meaning he never did kill them after all. M. Bison’s soul was still intact, meaning Akuma didn’t finish the job. Then, in the insult to end insults, Gouken showed up alive and well! Turned out he used some martial arts mumbo jumbo to survive the Raging Demon and ended up in a self-sustaining coma for a while.
Akuma and Gouken were both hidden bosses in the game, but by the time they got to Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, they introduced a new wrinkle. The game featured Oni, who was like Shin Shin Akuma. He’s a non-canon depiction of Akuma if he completely gave himself to his dark powers, turning 100% demon and losing all of his honor and value.
If anything, the possibility of Oni proves that, while Akuma is the series’ looming threat hiding in the shadows, he still isn’t completely far gone. Akuma’s simply an intense dude who’s way too serious about fighting. He may not be trying to take over the world, but in a way, the world bends to his whims and bows to him.
Yet he isn’t cruel for cruelty’s sake. Hell, Ultra Street Fighter IV even shows that even Akuma can get along with the ever-so-optimistic Elena.
And he can figure out selfies pretty well!
UDON’s Street Fighter comic has kept Akuma as a side villain, in a way. Ryu goes around getting involved in plots against M. Bison and Gill, but all the while, he’s remind that, “Oh yeah, I gotta fight Akuma at some point.”
Although Akuma does indeed kill both Gen and M. Bison for good in the comic (Bison’s death comes with a couple of great fakeout scenes that suggest he’s alive only to pull the rug out from under us), he does have a handful of losses to his name. Gouken beats him, Gill beats him, and it’s established that in his younger, less experienced days, Akuma took losses from Gen and Oro.
The Oro fight is especially cool because it ends with Oro basically shoving Akuma deep underground as a way to “send him to Hell.” Hours later, Akuma pops out the side of an active volcano, naked, pissed off, and not really showing any lasting damage.
UDON also released a hardcover graphic novel called Street Fighter Origins: Akuma by Chris Sarracini and Joe Ng. As the title suggests, it goes into more detail on where Akuma came from, his relationship with Gouken, and why he turned all demonic. It’s really damn good and does a great job explaining his character. See, Sarracini had the same obstacle that George Lucas had when he looked back at Darth Vader’s early life. You need to explain this ominous monster, but without ruining him. You don’t want to make Akuma a whiny brat of a man, but you don’t want to lazily say he was always the way he is.
The graphic novel totally pulls it off, making Akuma sympathetic, but no less threatening and terrifying. At the end of the day, he is violence, hatred, and the cycle of vengeance made flesh.
Akuma is one of the two bosses in Street Fighter X Tekken, alongside his rival Ogre. Makes sense, since Ogre is this supernatural deity who exists to fight strong opponents. The game’s story is that craptastic Street Fighter character Ingrid sends a magical box called Pandora to Antarctica and everyone pairs up to go find it and see what it’s all about. Akuma goes at it alone, I guess because his BFF Elena is too busy hanging out with Dudley.
In his ending, Pandora opens up and chooses to honor Akuma with the ultimate opponent: a clone of Oni amped up on Pandora’s violent energy. Akuma writes it off as a lame shadow of himself and starts the fight.
Also of note is the ending for the team of Hwoarang and Steve Fox. Hwoarang goes on about how great he is and how he can take on a hundred opponents alone without breaking a sweat. Steve laughingly says he’d like to see that and Pandora obliges by summoning a hundred Akumas.
He also crosses over with Asura’s Wrath, appearing in a DLC adventure. It’s a sequel to an episode where Asura fights Ryu, only Akuma smacks Ryu back into their home dimension and fights Asura to a standstill. More specifically, a standstill that lasts 500 years. Not sure if bathroom breaks are involved, but that’s really impressive.
In 2014, Joey Ansah and Christian Howard put together a crazy live-action web series based on the training of Ryu and Ken called Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist. Similar to Alpha: Generations, the story shows Akuma and Ryu as foils, depicting Ryu’s upbringing with Ken and comparing it to Akuma’s upbringing with Gouken.
Gaku Space plays Gouki, the pre-corruption version of Akuma, while Ansah portrays Akuma after undergoing his transformation. He looks really good as a live-action version of the character and lends himself to a sweet Akuma vs. Goutetsu fight. Plus he shows how Akuma gathers food, via throwing Hadoukens into a lake and grabbing whatever dead fish float to the surface.
Apparently, Akuma will return in the sequel, Street Fighter: World Warrior, which is supposedly in development.
It took a while for Akuma to show up in Street Fighter V and while he’s pretty much up to his old tricks, the one notable difference is a wild head of hair that makes him look more like a lion than a human/demon hybrid.
With Akuma so absent in Street Fighter V for so long, it was a huge surprise that Akuma was actually moonlighting in another series completely, under another publisher.
In 2014, a trailer was released to announce Tekken 7, which would end the long-running Heihachi Mishima vs. Kazuya Mishima storyline. It showed Heihachi’s never-before-seen wife Kazumi in a temple, talking to a visitor, who we could only see through a shadow in the doorway in a conversation taking place decades ago. She talked up how she needed to go kill Heihachi, and our focus was less on who she was talking to and more about, oh snap, Heihachi’s wife/Kazuya’s mother has shown up and she wants to kill her husband!
As time passed, a bigger cinematic trailer was released and the game came out in Japan. The whole mystery listener was just glossed over. Surely, it was just going to be some Tekken personality. Perhaps Jinpache, Heihachi’s father?
Then came time to announce the game’s upgrade, Tekken 7: Fated Retribution, and we finally got our answer. In the trailer, Kazumi asked this person to annihilate Heihachi and Kazuya if she failed. Akuma, standing in the doorway, then spoke up.
“As you wish. When the time comes, I will repay my debt to you.”
That is absolutely insane. I love it. Instead of simply being tacked on like back in the days of X-Men: Children of the Atom, they decided that Akuma is part of Tekken canon. They quietly built up to his reveal since the very announcement of the sequel and made it so that he has a shared history with one of the most important characters of the new game.
Really, what’s this debt? How does Akuma owe a debt to anyone?! Even when the game’s story mode happened, they barely gave any detail.
Plus, for a game series that began with the reveal that our protagonist is actually just as evil as the main villain, it’s pretty awesome that our “hero” was a sadistic demon from another video game company.
But that’s Akuma in a nutshell. Not so much an evil caricature out to twirl a mustache, but a dedicated warrior who only wants to fight the most challenging of enemies and cares about little else. If he can’t find what he’s looking for in his own reality, he’ll just move to another world completely and see if anyone or anything can satiate his undying hunger for violent, high-level competition.
He’s the goddamn Master of Fist and he will teach you the meaning of pain. Akuma rocks.
Gavin Jasper writes for Den of Geek and thinks that Tekken 7 reveal would have been better if the mystery man was Waluigi. Read more of his articles here and follow him on Twitter @Gavin4L