Notes on the 'Fighter Guardian' archetype

I spent all morning thinking about Waku Waku 7, a 1996 SNK fighting game that I played only for the first time a couple of days ago. I'd launched the game with genuinely no idea what I was in for and, the whole time I played, I kept shrieking with delight, like a kid. The game parodies well-trodden tropes and is more ✨whimsical✨ than any fighting game I've played (which, speaking as a relative fan of Darkstalkers/Guilty Gear/Blazblue, is saying something).

I'm not a ‘true’ fighting game fan, partly because I don’t really care for the ‘storylines.’ Fighting game storylines tend toward the epic, with long, melodramatic arcs. As I am with TV and especially with anime, I find it too effortful, cognitively and emotionally, to keep track of what is supposed to be happening. And when people do try to explain long episodic arcs to me, all I hear is Succession actor Brian Cox in that Tekken 8 preview video (”The Story So Far”), rattling off names, describing who is in the lead at any given moment, hilariously garbled. One of my Russian literature professors would often repeat to his students “What is ‘epic’? It is LONG, and BORINKg”—he was a famous epic poet himself, which made his refrain much funnier—and this same professor once called me up front, held up my Blue Book, asked me if I wanted a second try and maybe include ANY character names. I grimly shook my head no: although I could describe the plot and motifs of Anna Karenina in excruciating detail, I could only remember ONE character's name (you know which one). With a flourish, he wrote “A-” across my Blue Book and circled the minus, and handed it back to me, still quizzical. I just can't remember names! It isn't my strength! It's fine! I am fine.

But I definitely do have favorite characters, Hsien-Ko/Lei-Lei from Darkstalkers for example. While a lot of the Darkstalkers fighting roster is ostensibly based on the familiar old Universal monsters, Lei-Lei is very much something else, which alone makes her character design compelling. Visually she is ‘creepy/cute,’ which is to say, she embodies the dichotomy of sweet and frankly terrifying.

But there's also a visual shorthand where, just at a glance, you intuit on a subconscious level that she is a tragic figure. I mean, she's undead, her life is over and yet here she is, hopping around. It's inherently tragic. There's a clear story there, even if I've never explicitly googled what her deal is. I just know I like her, that I relate to her for some reason. The audience isn't necessarily aware that they're actively piecing together a story based on all of these visual cues, this narrative shorthand. But there is a story there, quietly, and it resonates because it entirely occurs in the mind of the player, no poring through a fan Wiki necessary.

And I'm drawn toward these tragic figures, will choose them as my fighter avatar again and again, without understanding or processing why. B.B. Hood is obviously modeled off Little Red Riding Hood, but with a violent twist, pulling gun after gun out of her picnic basket and annihilating her enemies. What has happened to B.B. Hood?! It doesn't literally matter—by which I mean, the backstory she was given cannot possibly be as grim as the one I've imagined—but I can easily recognize that she's thriving in her villain era. It's played for laughs, because she's simultaneously whimsical and cute and vicious and bloodthirsty, but there is a sinister undercurrent here. I’ve never looked very deeply into her, but I’ve just always assumed—simply by virtue of her inclusion in the Darkstalkers roster—that the implication is that she herself is a monster, perhaps the most monstrous monster of them all.

Anyway, I was looking at Waku Waku 7 for the first time, not really intending to play, just to poke around. I didn't know any moves, of course, so I selected and played (and completed!!) the game as Mauru. He is a giant purple parody of Totoro, with big swinging paws and cheapo tank moves—the same moveset as Sasquatch from Darkstalkers, incidentally—always with a tiny girl on his back.

So I know Mauru's deal without actually reading about it, because I recognize the shorthand. He's a guardian. He's protecting the kid. That's his deal. That's Donovan's deal. When you see a big muscular fighter and their most salient accessory is a small child, you automatically understand their whole deal.

I’ve gravitated toward the ‘Fighter Guardian’ all my life, I think? I wrote my first short story, in crayon block letters, right around age 5. My childhood was pretty rough and, at the end of this short story I'd written, the protagonist rides away from home astride the broad, muscular back of Arnold Schwarzenegger (because he can fly, like a human man Pegasus), headed for an unknowable destination and fairer climes.

At that same age I was so, so fascinated with The Equalizer, a rather violent 1980s television show about a hired protector who beats up bad guys and then retreats before any of his grateful clients can ask him out to lunch. Here was this old guy, a fighter, who (I thought) bore a striking resemblance to my own grandpa. And really, this says a lot more about how I perceived my grandfather—about who my grandfather was to me, the role he played in my early childhood—than it does about my feelings for the actor Edward Woodward. Which are very positive, not because of anything in particular, but because of my grandfather's finer qualities which I have always attributed to Edward Woodward, possibly falsely.

I easily could have slipped into my own villain era because, especially at a young age, I was unhappy and antisocial and already feeling overwhelmed, furious even, vengeful even, at a bleak, unjust world. Who needs The Equalizer; give me the picnic basket full of guns! But my salvation was learning to read (I learned from a single issue of Wonder Woman because of course I did). Each of these 'fighter guardian' archetypes appear in stories about the underdog, stories that center justice for the voiceless or, at the very least, honor the feeling of drowning in righteous indignation.

Playing as Mauru—just a silly joke character in a silly joke game—it occurred to me that I am the child on his back, but also the big purple animal wearing her. I am the parentless child; I am the forest king. Archetypes are powerful, even when they're jokes.

Waku Waku 7 images filched off – B.B. Hood from