Professional fighting game player and multi-game World Champion Ryan Hart chats about his relationship to the TEKKEN series and picks his soundtrack favourites.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Ryan Hart has been (virtually) beating the crap out of his opponents for decades. It’s quite possible he’s thrown more (virtual) punches than he’s taken breaths. He’s achieved mastery not just of one game, or one series, but multiple titles across multiple franchises — a true gaming polymath.
In 2019, Laced Records sought out Hart to help curate TEKKEN soundtracks in advance of the label announcing that music from the mainline series would be pressed onto vinyl. After all, there can’t be many more individuals in the universe that know more about the series’ history, the lore, fan-favourite soundtrack tunes, and the feel of each game.
Hart has lived so long with the TEKKEN series it has been difficult for him to pick his favourite music tracks even for this interview. Here’s a playlist featuring some of his picks from across the series (Spotify | Apple Music | YouTube) and we’ll sprinkle a few highlights below.
TEKKEN, TEKKEN 2 and TEKKEN 3 are available now. TEKKEN 4-7 and Tag Tournament & Tag Tournament have been announced for release over the coming months.
Ryan Hart: Origins
You know someone’s had a serious career when their Wikipedia page is almost unreadably dense with achievement. Hart has numerous aliases — including simply ‘The Terminator’ — and has travelled the world to compete in a seemingly endless list of competitions.
One of the most interesting transitions he made was being the first in the world to ‘go pro’ as a fighting game player. He recalls: “It started when I became multiple-game UK Champion in 1996-7 (playing TEKKEN 3, Virtua Fighter 3, and King of Fighters ‘96 & ‘97); and then, in 1998 at age 19, travelling to Japan and winning the King Of Fighters World Championship. These events changed my life and I knew I wanted more.
“I previously had no money and came from a poor family. My first sponsorships with Namco and Logitech had already fizzled out. I had my problems on top of money issues like every other teenager. Despite the circumstances, I was somehow able to find success and become a world champion at something — that feeling stuck with me. I was able to start building my confidence as an individual.”
Footage of Hart competing at King of Fighters ‘98 in Paris in 1999:
“I decided to get a job to support my mum and started travelling the world on my own dime, seeing new countries, meeting new communities, and entering tournaments. These were mostly local events at first as I was still at college, but after that I entered more frequent international events. I’d book my own flight, hotel, and plan food for the duration of the trip. Eventually I started approaching companies and asking if they could support me to fly to an event where I would represent their brand.
“At that time, supporting people financially for video game tournaments was unheard of and most people laughed me out the door. Occasionally though I did get event support. I had no idea I was creating the model of a ‘professional FGC gamer’ that still exists today. It had humble beginnings: dipping into my own wallet and not having any sponsors. I’m very proud of making that transition.”
One of Hart’s favourite tracks from TEKKEN 2 is “Emotionless Passion” aka “Kazuya Mishima (PlayStation)” by Yoshie Takayanagi & Yoshie Arakawa:
These days Hart wears many, many different hats. Being a consummate fighting game champion isn’t enough: at any one time he’s also a tournament organiser; presenter, event host & commentator; a content creator and writer; a model; a translator; and now a record label A&R.
He admits: “It’s not usually planned! Opportunities present themselves and I’m terrible at saying no. I like to challenge myself. It has taken me a long time to feel fully confident in what I do, and right now I feel that being challenged in and of itself is my inspiration. I’m passionate about a lot of different things too, which helps. I also want my career to be a point of inspiration for those that come after me.”
Bowling for cabinets
The early ‘90s was the turning point where video games were increasingly presented in polygonal 3D instead of sprite-based 2D. TEKKEN had been developed by Namco in response to the first major 3D fighting game, SEGA’s Virtua Fighter, released in 1993. Indeed, the former was even directed by the latter’s designer Seiichi Ishii. TEKKEN ran on the System 11 board released in 1994 that was based on PlayStation hardware, thus making porting the game to console relatively easy.
An advert for the original TEKKEN arcade cabinet, c. 1994-5.
Hart has followed the TEKKEN series since it was first introduced to the arcade. “I used to travel an hour and a half with my best friend to go to a bowling alley that had an arcade. We went to play Killer Instinct, but there, just in front of the Mortal Kombat II cabinet, was the TEKKEN cabinet.
“Kazuya was on the screen… Little did I know that this random character would become my close ally in multiple fighting game tournaments around the world.”
Hart appeared on UK TV show GamesMaster playing TEKKEN 3 waaaaaaaay back in 1998:
Here's a top TEKKEN tidbit: Hart was the only player in the world outside of South Korea to defeat a Korean TEKKEN champion in an offline deathmatch on TEKKEN Tag Tournament.
It’s in the game
When it comes to game design and whether one title is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another, Hart points out that it’s highly subjective. “I personally feel like a game’s systems are [well-integrated] when there are options to beat every option. Games that do this well include Guilty Gear Xrd, Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution, Street Fighter III: Third Strike, and TEKKEN 5 Dark Resurrection.
“These games are more about player depth of knowledge creating character depth, as opposed to picking certain characters to nullify other characters, which is a lot more prevalent in most fighting games today. I enjoy fighting games most when the game enables the player to be the hero, and it not being a case of the box you pick on the character select screen being unfamiliar or overpowered.”
One of Hart’s favourite tracks from TEKKEN 5 Dark Resurrection is “Snow Castle” by Akitaka Tohyama:
Over the years, Hart has been proficient enough to compete and win in a staggering number of games, including Street Fighter 3-5, TEKKEN 2-7, Virtua Fighter 3-5, The King of Fighters ‘95-XIII, Mortal Kombat, and many, many more.
He doesn’t dwell on any one game: “I play many games but the one thread that connects them is competition and the psychology inside the system. I couldn’t care less that it’s two particular characters fighting or that the graphics look amazing. I just want to meet my opponent’s mind in battle. Give me two stick men and a white background and I could have fun as long as the interaction is mentally deep.”
“Take chess for example. The board and pieces don’t have to look pretty — they could be bland pieces on a basic board — but the competitive possibilities are, in terms of imaginative elegance and complexity, on par with the grandest novels or symphonies. Fighting games are just as complex but, as with chess, how they’re visually represented doesn’t reveal their depth.”
Leaping between different entries in a series seems hard enough; transitioning between wildly different series seems somewhat superhuman. Of course, like most other professionals, competitive gamers have to adapt, operating as they do in a highly iterative and fast-changing area of technology and entertainment. Not only does the line-up of popular competitive games change, but particular moves for particular characters within particular games are also in flux.
Hart responds: “I don’t have any special traits — I’m just a regular guy! I used to think it would be cool to be able to say ‘I’m a cut above the rest because of my special abilities.’ Over time though, I realised that it’s nothing like that. I’m just a passionate person that worked hard to hone his craft. That might sound boring, but the truth often is.
A favourite track of Hart’s from TEKKEN 3 is “Lei Wulong - Arcade Version” by Nobuyoshi Sano:
Hart recalls: “I once had a scientist ‘wire me up’ at the office of a major games publisher. It was part of an experiment to see what made me so successful at every game I play. The project tested all sorts of bodily reactions. It was pretty bizarre. I had to eat and drink certain things and they monitored my brain activity while I played.”
Sadly, we couldn’t dig up the results of that particular experiment, but it wasn’t the only time Hart would be poked and prodded by an academic to try to find out how he ticks. In 2010, Dr Paul Cairns, senior lecturer in Human Computer Interaction at York University, was studying ‘immersion, and how it relates to human traits of attentiveness, imagination and absorption’ (Guardian – Keith Stuart).
Cairns questioned Hart about his experiences of playing the game, concluding that the multi-game champion’s skill was ‘as much down to his ability to become fully immersed in the game as it is about his dexterity, hand-eye coordination or capacity to remember sequences of button presses. "What surprised me about Ryan was that he seems to be a really normal bloke!" laughs Cairns. "In fact, quite a sensitive and empathic bloke, and that flies in the face of what you might expect a Street Fighter IV champion to be."’
From the TEKKEN Tag Tournament, Hart digs “Ogre Stage (PlayStation 2 version)” by Keiichi Okabe:
Hart adds: “Fundamentals are the understanding and ability to apply the foundations of the system accurately in battle. Sounds like such a textbook answer, right? It’s true though — simply learn the basics and apply them with no alterations. This is the expression of fundamentals.
“In my experience people tend to over complicate things. It helps them feel like they are ‘in the know’ or ahead of the curve in some way, but actually it’s when you keep things simple that you get the best results. Also, a little common sense goes a long way when playing fighting games.”
You’d be wrong to think Hart stuck exclusively to fighting games when it came to playing for enjoyment. He’s also a dab hand at Japanese rhythm game series including Beatmania, Pop'n Music, Dance Dance Revolution, and others. There’s also a long list of other genres he’s enjoyed including open-world action games, real time strategy titles, shoot-em-ups, and puzzle games.
The sound of battle
Hart thinks that there is no ultimate formula as to what makes a great fighting game soundtrack. “Music is about feeling and each game comes with a different feeling, groove, style, and personality. Each tune should be able to carry the momentum of the battle and also fit the background it’s paired with. Music helps drive the narrative of excitement that the match produces, and is also what lingers once the match is over. You will always remember game soundtracks more than specific match moments.
“TEKKEN music holds a very special place in my heart and it connects to many periods of my life. Good times and bad — there’s always a memory or two related to each track. It’s probably hard for people who aren’t into game music to understand, but when you play the game so much and hear the tracks over and over, they quickly become earworms.”
Hart is a fan of “Heat Haze Shadow” by AJURIKA from TEKKEN 7:
“You’ll be at work and just start humming a track from the gaming session the night before. Or you’ll be at the cinema and the opening theme will start like a game track you know. That sense of familiarity follows you everywhere and can seem connected to anything and everything.
“It’s totally involuntary. You’ll be driving down the road and a track will pop into your head that reminds you of a happier time — as if your brain is resurfacing music to alleviate whatever the current stress is.”
Ryan Hart is a professional fighting game player, commentator/caster, tournament organiser, author, presenter, model, translator, and content creator – www.ryanjosephhart.com | Twitter: @RyanJosephHart | Facebook | YouTube | Instagram: @ryanjosephhart
TEKKEN, TEKKEN 2, and TEKKEN 3 are available now. TEKKEN 4-7 and Tag Tournament & Tag Tournament have been announced for release over the coming months