As seen in: Psycho Soldier (Arcade)
Also in: King of Fighters XII (Arcade)
Distinguishing feature: A consistently dynamic wardrobe; just a little girl with powers inside, burning bright.
Strengths: Psychic powers, which account for telepathy, teleportation, materializing weapons, deflecting attacks, healing, turning into a giant bird, and a lifetime of idol stardom.
Weaknesses: Stalkers; love knives.
Profile by Nicola Nomali | December 11, 2009
Not all developers have mascots as clear-cut as Nintendo's Mario?. Still, if you ask anyone who SNK's mascot is, you're likely to get the same answer every time: The protagonist of their flagship entry into the genre that would become their forte, who was frequently depicted wearing blatant advertisements for their Neo Geo hardware, and whose speech represents the epitome of their trademark dialect of mangled English. That character is... Fatal Fury's Terry Bogard. But while Terry's status is built on solid, demonstrable qualities, standing beside him -- often in the same games -- is an equal, who remains visible and in vogue through nothing more than the sheer draw of star power. She's Athena Asamiya, and as the song goes, her name is magic.
Even Athena's official debut was ethereal in its appeal; in 1987's Psycho Soldier, she and ever-loving platonic costar Sie Kensou cleansed extraterrestrial evil from a post-apocalyptic landscape by swinging glowing swords, hurling balls of psychic energy, and occasionally transforming into giant beasts of myth. Yet the game's structure was still closely based on Capcom's SonSon, a design dating back to 1984—in the grim era of platformers predating Super Mario Bros. No one actually remembers Psycho Soldier as a great game to play; its legacy owes everything to Athena's image, and her voice.
Psycho Soldier was the first game to feature a full vocal theme song, and whether SNK was proud of this technical achievement or just aware of how little else the game had going for it, they made it a paramount part of the experience, playing it several times between the title screen and ending credits. The vocals comprise a paean to the heroics of Athena herself, and the final performance depicts her dancing and singing (her own praises, apparently) on a concert stage, her name in lights. They even recorded an English version for the game's Western release, and those monotonous auto-scrolling stages become oddly compelling when you hear a quavering, baby-doll voice completely committing to lyrics like "You'd better hide if you are bad," and "She'll read your mind and find if you believe in right or wrong!"
Still, Athena's ambition wouldn't abide her to risk a single mediocre project scuttling her career, and she hustled for parts in SNK's best games, daring to reach well beyond her safe zone. In 1990, she and Kensou secured supporting roles in Crystalis? on the NES, although perhaps due to union laws, she was credited under a pseudonym (Athine in Japan, Asina in the West). Her big break came in the form of The King of Fighters '94, a fanservice showcase featuring an all-star cast from any genre. After darkening her hair and affecting a more mature appearance, she and Kensou easily adapted their psychokinesis to a one-on-one martial arts repertoire. (Although to round out a team of three, they were accompanied by pot-bellied drunkard Chin Gentsai, who must have been someone's uncle or something.) Returning to the series year after year, she shrewdly manages to stand out amidst its ever-growing roster by reinventing her costume with each new installment, accompanied by -- and seemingly content to be a one-hit wonder -- updated arrangements of the Psycho Soldier theme.
The publicity she garners from KoF sometimes gives way to vanity projects, such as Athena: Awakening from the Ordinary Life (a dramatic graphic adventure) and Athena on Stage (one of those creepy idol-raising simulators), in both of which she played characters based on herself. For the most part, she appears comfortable with the niche she's carved for herself in KoF and its spin-offs. But that's not to say she begrudges her early years: In The King of Fighters XII, she's taken a break from the constant makeovers to revisit her roots as a fuschia-haired, dewy-eyed youth in a navy school uniform—not to mention a pinch of baby fat. (Likewise, Kensou reprises his green-and-red "Chinese Rambo" look.) Such is the luxury of digital celebrities: Over twenty years gone, and Athena can prove she hasn't aged a day.
Officially, the source of Ms. Asamiya's psychic powers is the mythological Princess Athena, of whom she's a direct descendant and/or reincarnation. In the 1986 game Athena, the princess rebuffed Samus Aran's approach to gaming feminism by throwing off her clothes before the game even started, spending most of her adventure in a scant red bikini. Perhaps raunch doesn't always pay off, though: While Asamiya built an illustrious career on a lackluster debut, Princess Athena's game was terrible, and her only role of note since then has been as a boss in SNK Vs. Capcom: SVC Chaos, where she hangs out with God in Heaven—and, hence, mostly serves to remind how little Japan is concerned with the particulars of Western religions. That Asamiya sometimes dons a bikini or Grecian armor for attacks and victory poses might blur the line between her predecessor and herself (a Psycho Soldier soundtrack cassette was even enclosed promotionally with the Famicom port of Athena '86), but the younger Athena's comparative modesty and clout as an actress distinguish her alone as the fan favorite and SNK's enduring sweetheart. And she'll probably continue to be for twenty years to come.