Cobra Kai and Scott Pilgrim – the fantastical delusions of the videogame brawler

By Neil Merrett

Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues, released on Nintendo Switch in 2020, developed by Flux Games & Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game, re-released as the ‘complete edition’ on Nintendo Switch in 2021, developed by Ubisoft Montreal

Capcom’s 1989 arcade brawler Final Fight told the story of Mike Duncan Haggar – a former professional wrestler turned municipal mayor. Haggar seeks to overcome the rampant corruption of his city via a street-by-street campaign of righteous violence.

This is arguably the perfect story for a videogame brawler.  Brawlers are a simple genre of games where the sole aim is to cave in the heads of your opponents until they conveniently disappear off screen and let you move on to the next gang infested area to ‘clean’ it up.

Like Hagger, we are all the heroes of our own stories. But outside of the comfort of videogames, our stories are told over the entire course of our lives, a maddening, thrilling form of long-form performance art as opposed to a charming collection of levels set across a retro dystopia.

Unlike Haggar’s life, reality rarely grants us the opportunity to overcome all our problems and internal demons with a series of special moves based around a hybrid of martial arts and Scottish folk wrestling. This isn’t to say that videogames cannot handle nuance and complexity.

The increased narrative and technical sophistication of video games as a medium means that it is increasingly possible to tell interactive stories about the complex societal and economic factors that drive urban decay and rampant criminality.  Final Fight – now 32 years old – is not the game to do this.

Haggar’s approach to effective urban renewal is to stick his arms out and spin around like a helicopter and, in the world of Final Fight, it’s an effective form of municipal leadership.

The brawler renaissance

Brawlers then are an effective means of conveying the righteous power of punch and kicks to get a very simple form of justice. They are probably less suited to folding in complex narratives about the overall impotence and limits of violence to address systemic societal and psychological ills that underpin modern society.

This isn’t to say that a range of videogame developers haven’t attempted to subversively play around with the limits of the genre.

Take for instance the recently released videogame adaptation of the popular Netflix series Cobra Kai – itself a long-form drama sequel to the 1980 teen adventure movie the Karate Kid. The latest series attempts to explore how the simple concepts of goodies and baddies that we cling to and define ourselves by in our youth can become more conflicted and nuanced when viewed years later through the eyes of those around us.

We may be the heroes of our own story, but chasing one’s dreams and wants can result in us playing a very different role in someone else’s life.

As such, a simple teen rivalry built around a California regional youth karate tournament can ultimately descend into both a metaphorical and very literal battle for the soul of a small town and an entire generation of young people.

What then is the best approach to create an interactive video game adaptation of a slightly gritty, long-form television adaptation of a beloved, if somewhat frothy, teen martial arts movie?

For Paulo Luis Santos, creative director and executive producer for the video game, Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues, a beat-em-up brawler was always the developer’s first choice of genre.

Mr Santos said that the decision was taken with the knowledge that successful and high profile attempts to revive the decade’s old brawler genre by updating classic titles such as Streets of Rage and BattleToads were already underway.  

These games have not only been able to use modern hardware to create bold and vivid cartoon-like visuals, but also have sought to soup up the combat mechanics. For some of these games, this includes a heightened gravity and physics system that allows for bad guys to be volleyed and kicked through the air. 

In the case of Cobra Kai, this can lead to ridiculous combos consisting of stringing dozens of martial arts moves together, as if playing some early 2000s attempts by western cinema to appropriate and mimic the ‘wire-fu’ genre of martial arts popularised in Hong Kong cinema.  Such a thing was not technically possible on the home computers of the 80s and 90s. but modern hardware has allowed for some subtle and not so subtle innovation.

Mr Santos also noted that a range of new brawlers that have been developed alongside the Cobra Kai game in recent years are serving as sort of renaissance for a decades-old genre by offering more complex and strategic gameplay when planning how best to kick and punch bad guys.

He said, “We had seen great games like River City Girls finding a lot of love from its fan base, so we felt it would be awesome to have a Cobra Kai beat ‘em up as part of the genre’s ‘revival’.” 

Brawlers were for a period of time the definitive arcade gaming experience, with popular shows and media such as the Simpsons and the Ninja Turtles all being converted into multiplayer fighters – Marge Simpson, of course, uses a vacuum cleaner as her weapon of choice.

The beat-em-up genre has since become more synonymous with one-on-one fighters such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.

These games ask players to put together a string of different button and controller commands in short succession to perform incredible super moves and precise counter attacks to give the player a sense of being a bedroom blackbelt.

The most well-regarded examples of the genre are now played as competitive e-sports, where the most accomplished players duel each other for massive cash prizes in front of huge global audiences.  Men and women around the world can theoretically kick each other’s asses without having to take a single knee to the groin.

Mr Santos said that a one-on-one fighter in the style of a Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat game was at one point considered as a way of conveying the fierce personal rivalries of Cobra Kai.  But the brawler ultimately was the genre of choice in the hopes of being more accessible and easy to pick up for a wider audience coming straight from the series and wanting to be their own karate kid.

The Cobra Kai show is itself a strange hybrid of teen drama, nostalgic movie revival, and a martial arts saga examining the failings of older generations to avoid passing on their own psychological failings onto future generations. It also looks at the unintended consequences and costs of getting what we want or need in life.

As a videogame, the developers sought to mash up a number of their own fave games in order to update the brawler genre with gameplay mechanics from a variety of titles, according to Mr Santos.

He said, “we brought in and adapted to the genre some great concepts from other awesome games, like ultimate attacks from Overwatch; skills with cooldown from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey; environment attacks such as those in Def Jam series; a combo meter inspired by Devil May Cry 5, as well as dodge and parry systems similar to the Souls series.”

“Also included was upgrade trees from RPGs like Final Fantasy; short and fun challenges like Bloodstained has; a power up buff system inspired by Dead Cells’ roguelike approach; and of course also some references to lovely classics of the genre, such as the screen throw from Turtles In Time and the ground attacks from Combatribes.”

Although it may not be obvious immediately, the game also sought to evoke the heightened, head crunching, demon tearing intensity of the modern Doom games.

This is a series where the player is conditioned via gameplay mechanics to become a shotgun wielding super soldier punching and ripping their way through the legions of hell who actively seeks out violence and combat to ensure the player’s health and ammo is replenished to keep the fight going. The permanent combat loop a seemingly obvious fit for a game built entirely on punches, kicks and blocks.

From a gameplay standpoint, each of the Cobra Kai’s eight playable characters are designed to function as if they are unique characters in one on one fighting games, according to Mr Santos.  Their unique abilities are therefore designed as an over the top reflection of their base personality traits and hang ups.

One character, who is a neuro divergent, D&D playing martial artist has more fantasy themed abilities such as summoning an ice sword or shield to fearlessly plough through hordes of bad guys. A fiery and pugnacious fighter meanwhile, whose insecurities see them acting out as a bullying loudmouth with the aim of projecting a tough exterior, has an aggressive and explosive array of special moves.

Cobra Kai is also built around two separate campaigns where the player can play as both fighters from the Miyagi-Do dojo and the more combative Kobra Kai school.  These different paths are built around defensive ice-based powers and offensive fire moves, respectively.

Is it fair to argue that super powered warriors infused with magical elemental abilities is not itself an obvious representation of a relatively grounded teen drama about warring factions of adolescents realising that life is more complicated than people being simply good or bad.

These themes and topics are perhaps too complex to carry in a game such as a brawler where the player’s input is based entirely on kicks, blocks and hurling wrong-uns into magical ice barriers.

Mr Santos accepted that trying to convey more complex narratives in a simplified game genre was a tough challenge as a developer.  However, he noted that there were creative solutions around this when making a faithful, if over the top, adaptation of a long-form tv series about the moral greyness that exists in both our heroes and villains.

The game’s developers opted to reflect that humans are not always reliable or impartial narrators – particularly when justifying their best and worst actions.

“We did everything in our power to bring a light-hearted high-quality narrative within the proposition of not being too serious, as the narrators are what we call ‘unreliable narrators’, who are allowed to shift reality according to their perception – hence all the fire and ice powers.

In effect, the tropes of brawler games, which only allow a character to punch, kick and block, becomes a wilful oversimplification of the complex nature of the collective human experience and teenage life in particular.

In the narrative of a brawler game, these characters are not some insecure teens struggling with the usual crisis of identity and understanding the moral implications of their actions.  They are, in their own minds at least, superhuman videogame characters such as Chun Li or Liu Kang – warriors programmed to fight against the darkness and evil that threatens their suburban lives.

The game is purposely told from the perspective of its teenage characters, who are telling conflicting accounts about how they have sought to liberate California from their bitter teenage rivals, bullies, over zealous security guards and condescending adults by kicking their arses with elaborate martial arts special moves.

This also serves to offset some of the stranger implications the player may experience during the game brawler. For instance, controlling teen icon Daniel Larusso – the Karate Kid himself – as a now middle-aged, wealthy entrepreneur and father and having him smack around young people and security guards and vacuous women at his car dealership can feel both surreal and a little out of character to put it mildly.

Tellingly, fully completing the Cobra Kai game relies on the player getting through both sides of the story and discovering that these rival dojo’s cathartic quests have been distorted by a third party that is using them as pawns for their own malevolent karate aims.

Completing the game with one set of charters ironically ends with a kind of ‘bad ending’ where they character’s assume, despite a nagging sense of doubt, that they have won their battle, while living in blissful ignorance of the bigger problems around them.

A more thoughtful brawler

Interestingly, the game is not the only brawler in recent years to tackle a very similar theme.

Ubisoft’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game – based on the cult comic book series and movie – also plays into the concept of a character seeking to simplify the emotional complexity of their life, and offsetting their own moral and personal failings, by viewing themselves as an unstoppable videogame hero.

The comic and movie use a range of gaming tropes and references to tell the story of a self centred and entitled young man who offsets his own culpability for being a genuinely bad and sometimes unfaithful boyfriend by battling the seven ‘evil exes’ of his latest partner.

At the end of his quest, the final defeat of the seventh evil ex rewards the main character with the trophy of claiming his love interest as his own. This is not necessarily the happy ending it seems!!

The comic and the movie seek to try and subvert this simplistic and outmoded concept by highlighting some of the nuances of the main characters’ own roles as ‘evil exes’ to some of their romantic – if not sexual – partners.

The hero of one’s own story can be something very different in the narrative of another’s life.

The ‘bad’ ending

Progress in Scott Pilgrim in the game is built around levelling up your character’s abilities and power to be able to smash apart hordes of bad guys into coins. These coins can be spent on records, clothes, food and snacks that make the player increasingly stronger, quicker and tougher.  After starting the game with a basic kick and punch, the player throw constant replaying is greatest near superhuman martial arts skills such as counter attacks, dodging and an explosive punch super move.

The comic in particular includes the videogame concept of having a main character defeat their own dark reflection. This can usually be a literal shadow of the game’s main character – a being who has all the player’s in-game abilities and must be defeated as a kind of meditation on our basest and most selfish behaviours.

This results in the character of NegaScott.

In the source material, he is eventually subsumed into the main character as a reflection of understanding that the less savoury aspects of his personality are equally a part of him that must be managed alongside martial arts abilities.

While the videogame does include Nega Scott, the character at least initially, serves mainly as an end of level boss who you must beat, kick and punch into oblivion.  Scott Pilgrim nontheless like Cobra Kai, seeks to use the limited surface mechanics of the brawler genre to subvert the concept of punching one’s way to victory.

Completing the game with the title character actually results in a form of ‘bad ending’ where he continues to string on multiple partners and live in a cycle of shame and emotional unfulfillment with the latest girl of his dreams skipping town for another adventure. In getting everything he wants on his own terms, the character ultimately loses everything.

Obtaining the more satisfying and nuanced ending – one that sees the main characters deciding to live together in a real world, complex relationship as equals – can only be achieved by playing through the game as the title’s love interest and defeating her own exes as a more cathartic take on setting our demons right. He fact she uses a weaponised hammer to do this shouldn’t detract from the overall metaphor.

Punching and kicking your problems can only get you so far in life it seems, even in modern brawler games.

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