Top Ten Most Popular Playable Black Characters in Video Games, Part 2

Written by Fabian Wood

October 11, 2021

Editor’s Note: Check out Part 1 here.

Barret Wallace from Final Fantasy VII.

5. Barret Wallace

Original Game: Final Fantasy VII (1997)

Even if you’ve never played a Japanese RPG, if you’ve been in gaming long enough, there is no denying the ubiquitous knowledge of the unequivocal juggernaut that is Final Fantasy VII. The game is a critically acclaimed, ground-breaking, and record-breaking game in the popular long-standing RPG franchise that dwarfs fellow entries past and present. Final Fantasy VII is so incredibly venerated that it was even remade over two decades later from the ground up as the Playstation exclusive “Final Fantasy VII Remake” started in 2020 – the largest and most expensive recreation/restoration in the industry’s history to date.

Introducing the world to the spikey-haired pretty boy with an impractically large “Buster” sword Cloud Strife and the elven-like goth antagonist Sephiroth, the game also brought us Barret Wallace, the gruff leader of an eco-terrorist group “AVALANCHE”, who seeks to take down the evil megacorporation Shinra. Technically, FF7 is played primarily through the point-of-view of the blond-haired main character Cloud. However, when engaging in combat, Barret is a party member that the player can command, upgrade and level up. Now, the player isn’t behooved to always have Barret in their active party; but, Barret is present from the epic story’s opening, all the way through to its outlandish ending.

Barret is noted as the first playable black character of the series. Conceptually, he fits the stereotype of a burly Black guy with profane speech, and his demeanor and use of ebonic slang were unflattering cues taken from TV personality Mr. T. Barret’s backstory is that of a former coal miner seeking revenge, which leads him to eco-terrorism, whose actions are morally questionable in retrospect. Fans have pointed out Barret to be the series’ first true “father figure”, with his positive relationship with his adopted daughter Marlene. And as the story concludes, Barret goes on an arc of realizing the futility and selfishness of revenge. It is these aspects that subvert accusations of his design being a racist caricature.

Barret’s most notable feature is his signature Gatling-gun right arm (in-game called his “Gimmick Arm”). He has subsequently appeared in the CGI anime adaptation “Advent Children” and the spin-off game “Dirge of Cerberus”, as well as the aforementioned “Remake”, where his character and motivation are fleshed out more.

Since Barret’s debut, there has also been the character of Sazh Katzroy, another, less memorable, a black guy from Final Fantasy XIII (2010).

Franklin Clinton from Grand Theft Auto V.

4. Franklin Clinton / Carl “CJ” Johnson

Game: Grand Theft Auto V (2013) *Franklin Clinton / Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004) *Carl Johnson

Grant Theft Auto V is an industry-defining open-world, a sandbox game that has broken numerous sales records and has earned many nominations and awards since its release almost a decade ago. With numerous re-releases since its debut, elongating its lifespan beyond most other single videogames in history, GTAV has become ubiquitous, being playable on virtually every and any electronic gaming device/platform since then. Not only is it considered one of the best, if not the best game in this genre, but it is also one of gaming’s more predominant GOATs (*that’s “greatest of all time”), occupying its own quadrant of the videogame community zeitgeist.

The premise of this enthralling crime drama focuses on the lives of three protagonists the player takes control of during its detailed narrative. These are retired bank robber Michael De Santa, drug dealer, and gunrunner Trevor Philips, and African-American street gangster Franklin Clinton (voiced by Shawn Fonteno). The story revolves around the trio in a fictionalized San Andreas (Los Santos), attempting to commit heists while under pressure from a corrupt government agency and powerful criminals. As the story progresses, and the player spends more and more time as each character, the player can become invested in the lives of the three avatars and those they interact with. With deep, complex backstories and interconnections with a plethora of friends, family, enemies, allies, and acquaintances, GTV pretty much evolves into an interactive and engrossing show like “The Sopranos”. Of course, players can always give into anarchistic power fantasies and get lost in the open world, giving in to reckless abandon within the sprawling cityscape. If you’re a fan of open-world/realistic crime games, chances are you’ve already played this one.

I would also be remised if I didn’t mention Carl “CJ” Johnson, the sole protagonist in 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In this story, Carl is a former gangster who returns home only to be drawn back into his former criminal lifestyle following the murder of his mother. Carl must deal with corrupt police and powerful criminals as he rebuilds his reputation and power in the criminal underworld. At the time, “San Andreas” was considered one of the best-selling games of all time, receiving critical acclaim; and controversy over the infamous “Hot Coffee mod” scandal.

CJ is voiced by Young Maylay and is the second-in-command of the Grove Street Families, led by his older brother Sean “Sweet” Johnson. As par for the franchise by this point, “San Andreas” featured the largest, most detailed, and interactive “sand-box”/open world of its time, and exhibited exceptional characters and stories; solidifying it as a significant entry in this stellar franchise.

L-R for each row. Ana, Baptiste, Doomfist, Lucio, Orisa , & Pharah from Overwatch.

3. Ana, Baptiste, Doomfist, Lucio, Orisa , & Pharah

Original Game: Overwatch (2016-present)

Overwatch may not have pioneered the competitive, multiplayer, PvP, arena first-person shooter sub-genre (which has since been condensed to just “hero shooter”), but its sure catapulted it to mainstream upon release, prompting a slew of discontinued and shallow clones in its wake. Out of its many would-be direct competitors, Apex Legends and Valorant remain the most resilient; although neither can eclipse the sheer greatness that is Overwatch. It would honestly take too long to list the many awards and nominations of this game alone, and its influence, prominence, and significance to the eSports zeitgeist would be exhaustive. To put it succinctly, Overwatch is another one of videogame’s GOATs.

Like your typical fighting game, the broad strokes premise is that in the distant, technologically advanced future, an international terrorist syndicate called “Talon” has arisen,. This prompts the reinstatement of “Overwatch”, a multinational peace-keeping force that was previously disbanded. Each of the “heroes” represents various ethnicities and nationalities, each with different goals/motivations and extensive backstories. Even the blandest/most generic concept was given a breadth of character to make them truly distinct. Besides the phenomenal gameplay, much of Overwatch’s success and endearing charm/affinity has to also be attributed to the aggressive and colossal marketing and promotion by Blizzard Entertainment prior, during, and long after its release. An anticipated sequel was even announced in 2019.

I’ve decided to lump all the Black characters or characters of African descent of this game into one entry. Quite honestly, every single character in Overwatch is very memorable and distinct in their own right, and quibbling over who is more recognizable than the other would be an exercise in futility.

Ana Amari is a seasoned sniper from Cairo, Egypt who fights for her country. Considered the world’s greatest sniper, Ana rose within the ranks of the original Overwatch team. Believed to have been killed by rival sniper Widowmaker, Ana uses her status as KIA to her advantage, fighting from the shadows as a bounty hunter. Despite her advanced age (60), she remains as sharp as ever, and her many years of military service and combat have made her even deadlier. Ana joined the roster on 19 July 2016 and is voiced by Aysha Selim.

Hailing from Tortuga, Haiti, Jean-Baptiste Augustin was orphaned during the “Omnic Crisis”. He eventually enlisted in the Caribbean Coalition special ops, and later worked with Talon as an elite combat medic, but his innate desire to help people clashed with Talon’s amoral methods. He has since been a force for good, healing where he can and fighting when he must. Baptiste is driven to break the circle of violence and warfare that has ruined lives and communities all over the world. His signature weapon is the biotic launcher. Premiering on 19 March 2019, Baptiste is voiced by Benz Antoine.

The latest person to wield the auspicious “Doomfist”, Akande Ogundimu is your typical “survival of the fittest” megalomaniac. Nigerian-born Akande hails from an affluent family who owns a lucrative prosthetics technology megacorporation. Trained in traditional African martial arts (namely Dambe and Gidigbo) he was an unmatched hand-to-hand combatant. But after the loss of his right arm, his goals of competitive fighting were dashed. Eventually replacing his missing arm with the legendary Doomfist cybernetic augmentation, he joined the terrorist organization Talon, as they shared identical ideologies. The highly formidable Akande rose within their ranks to the inner circle, and after a brief stint of incarceration, is fully back in business. Doomfist was added on 27 July 2017 and is voiced by Sahr Ngaujah.

An international celebrity known for his lyrics and songs, Lucio Correia dos Santos is both a DJ and freedom fighter from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Always upbeat, Lucio strives to be a positive influence and inspire progressive social change through his art and entertainment. From humble beginnings, Lucio remains a champion of the oppressed and impoverished, taking his talent and message on the international scene. He fights with a weaponized megaphone and uses specialized rollerblades for traversal. Lucio was part of the initial roster at launch in May 2016 and is voiced by Jonny Cruz.

Due to patriotism and military service being a family tradition, Fareeha Amari enlisted in the Egyptian army where she received her military training before enrolling in Helix Security International, a private security firm. There, she was assigned an elite military exo-suit with unprecedented aerial capabilities. Modeled after the winged gods of ancient Egypt, Fareeha was given the call sign “Pharah”, where she dominates the battlefield from the skies. Like Lucio, Pharah was part of the launch line-up of characters and is voiced by Jen Cohn.

Technically, the character Orisa (OR14) hails from the fictional African state of Numbani. “She” is a large, inexperienced, one-month-old quadrupedal/centaur-like omnic (this universe’s self-aware artificial automatons), outfitted with combat capabilities and functions as a neutral defense robot for the city. She is also the guardian of an eleven-year-old robotics prodigy named “Efi Oladele”. Orisa debuted on 2 March 2017 and is voiced by Cherrelle Skeete.

Here’s looking forward to the new characters to come in Overwatch 2.

Jackson “Jax” Briggs from Mortal Kombat.

2. Jackson “Jax” Briggs

Game: Mortal Kombat II (1993)

The token Black guy in the sequel to the infamous gory fighting game Mortal Kombat (1992), Jax was part of the Special Force sent to rescue his comrade Sonya Blade (from the first game) in the barbaric extra-dimensional realm of Outworld. There, the highly-trained but unprepared Jax found himself embroiled in an inter-dimensional fighting tournament for the fate of Earth. To be honest, there wasn’t anything that spectacular about a shirtless Black guy in a game with color-coded ninjas with weird powers, demons with Wolverine-esque blades, a thunder god, and four-armed half-dragon people. Fortunately, Jax really came into his own in the third installment, where he got bionic arms that gave him a distinct aesthetic to help him stand out amongst the large cast of uncanny combatants. Depending on the source/timeline, the circumstances of how Jax lost his arms and got them replaced with much cooler, shinier ones differ.

Jax would remain a mainstay of the MK franchise ever since, appearing in every subsequent game and medium (*with the exception of MK Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat: Conquest respectively). He even starred in the stand-alone action-adventure spin-off Mortal Kombat: Special Forces (2000). His story really came to the fore in MKX and MK11, with the introduction of his daughter Jacque in the game’s fully fleshed out and acclaimed cinematic story modes. In MX11 (2019) in particular, we find Jax as a veteran stricken with regret despite all the good he did for his country and having been turned into an undead puppet by the forces of the Netherrealm to fight his friends. This led him to take on the maniacal Elder God Cronika’s offer to re-write history “for the better”, leading to a brief clash with his younger self and daughter before this broken soldier returned to the side of good.

Jax was primarily portrayed in the games, via motion capture, by John Parrish., with Israel Idonije being the latest person in MK11. Jax was also played by Gregory McKinney in the cult classic film from Paul W S Anderson “Mortal Kombat” (1995) and by Lynn Red Williams in the abominable sequel “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” (1997). The affluent actor Michael Jai White also portrayed Jax in the unofficial, but well-received live-action “web series” “Mortal Kombat: Rebirth” (2010) and “Mortal Kombat: Legacy” (2011). Jax’s most recent live-action appearance was in the rebooted movie “Mortal Kombat” (2021) played by Mehcad Brooks. As for animation, he is voiced by Ike Amadi in both 2020’s “Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge” and its 2021 sequel “Battle for the Realms”.

Under the MK banner, other notable Black characters include Jax’s own daughter Jacqueline “Jacque” Briggs (MKX – 2015), who takes after her father in the next generation of Earth’s defenders alongside Cassie Cage (daughter of Sonya Blade & Johnny Cage). Like her dad, Jacque had bionic gauntlets that augmented her punches and strength. There is also the deadly yellow automaton Cyrax (MK3 – 1995), one of the original “Cyber-Lin Kuei” or “robot ninjas” introduced in MK3. Clearly based off of the cinematic space hunter the “Predator”, Cyrax’s moves included a neon net and grenades that he could lob at opponents. The storyline was that his free will was restored and he became a good guy with often a not-so-happy fate in all the games he appears in. His ethnicity before he was turned into a cyber-shinobi was only ever brought up in the rebooted timeline in 2011’s MK9 where we’re introduced to his human form. Cyrax originates from Botswana in Southern Africa. Another Black character is the bo-staff beauty Jade, the ill-fated bodyguard and Edenian assassin with a cryptic backstory in MK lore. A skillful female ninja garbed in green, Jade made her first appearance as a secret opponent in MKII. She became playable in the sequel. Jade is also half-Asian.

Balrog from Street Fighter 5.

1. Balrog (“Mike Bison” in Japan)

Original Game: Street Fighter II (1991) *playable in Street Fighter II: Championship Edition (1992)

One of the four infamous bosses of the granddaddy of fighting games, Balrog (“M. Bison” in Japan) isn’t actually the first Black boxer of the famous fisticuff franchise. That honor goes to Mike (a completely different character) in the very first Street Fighter game (*who was just an NPC opponent). Balrog is based on real-world boxing legend and champion at the time Mike Tyson. Eerily enough, Balrog was a greedy, materialistic and irreverent boxer who broke the rules of the ring and got banned, mirroring the real-life events of Mike Tyson around the same time.

CAPCOM USA feared getting sued by Tyson for this reason, so they preemptively swapped Mike Bison’s name with the game’s final boss and his name with the claw-wielding Spaniard scion for the US release of SFII. This has stuck ever since. As such, to avoid confusion during international tournaments, Balrog is called a “boxer”. At the onset of SFII, Balrog was a top-ranked mercenary and “lord” for the international insidious crime syndicate “Shadaloo”. He’s known for his simple boxing attire which includes a white sleeveless shirt under a blue tank top, blue boxers, and his signature red boxing gloves.

When Balrog became playable in the follow-up upgrade “Championship Edition” a year later, Balrog’s raw power moves involved charging punches that delivered devastating damage upon impact. This brute force pugilist would return in Street Fighter Alpha 3 (1998), Street Fighter IV (2008), and Street Fighter V (2016). On the international competitive circuit, Balrog may not be considered “top tier”, but his notorious damage output and straightforward/no frills fighting style keep him a viable option for professional players.

In his latest appearance in SFV, Balrog’s character has “mellowed” a bit, having become the mentor and somewhat dedicated father figure to SFV character Ed, who he rescued as a child at the end of SFIV (*only because he felt he could “make money off the kid”). While not a true redemptive arc, it does inject some sympathetic nuance to this otherwise one-note, negative stereotype Black bruiser.

Other trivial tidbits include his nickname being “Raging Buffalo” (cuz he’s M. Bison in Japan). In 2005 he was voted the 18th most popular SF character in a Capcom poll and 15th in a similar IGN poll in 2008, and again 12th in a separate 2010 poll by UGO. He killed an elephant with a single punch, and he can’t kick in any game he’s in. Balrog was played by Grand L Bush in the campy 1994 live-action film “Street Fighter” and by the late great Michael Clarke Duncan in 2009’s cinematic slumber fest Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.

Other Black Street Fighters worth mentioning include the perpetually jovial Jamaican kickboxer/musician Dee Jay (Super Street Fighter II -1993). Dee Jay is based on real-world kick-boxer Billy Blanks and is the only character in the franchise created by CAPCOM USA. He was the idea/suggestion of the game designer James Goddard. There is also the friendly African Capoeria princess from Kenya, Elena, and the Briton gentleman boxer Dudley who both debuted in Street Fighter III (1997). Lastly, Birdie is a British, chain-wielding punk wrestler and criminal wannabe plagued by bad luck who originally appeared in the first Street Fighter (1987). However, he was Caucasian at the time and was revamped as Black for his return in the Street Fighter Alpha series (1995). The dimwitted and gluttonous Birdie would reappear in SFV, having gained a lot of unflattering pounds since his last appearance.

Do you know any of the entries on this list? How many are you learning about for the first time? It was tough trying to find 10 Black characters to fill this list, which is a criminal shame and gross shortcoming of the videogame industry. Even though there were a handful of other videogames starring Black characters, none of them I felt escaped the stigma of obscurity into the broader consciousness of the wider gaming community. Black representation is clearly negligible when looking at the most lucrative entertainment medium as a whole. I can only hope that as with female characters who have grown into their own right and popularity – arguably accounting for about 50% of contemporary playable characters in videogames – that Black people and culture would be explored and expressed in videogames more abundantly in the future.

Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics, or videogames. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and videogamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.

Article Topics: video games

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