There's something above an A or even an A+? - The history of the S rank in video games

Smokin' Sick Style

Posted by Dakota 'DarkHorse' Hills • March 21, 2018 at 8 p.m. PDT

As I was previously writing the article about Clockw0rk's Strider rankings, I was reminded how odd it was that we use "S ranks" and "S classes" for things and never knew where it came from or what it stood for.

From Street Fighter 3 to Devil May Cry and Gran Turismo, the S rank can be found as a proof of skill or accomplishment in video games and the gold standard to strive for. In some of those, they even take it one step beyond S.

S grades generally seems to stand for something higher than an A or even an A+ which seems a bit absurd as a Western idea, but after doing my research, it turned out to be a fairly natural explanation to find that the S rank designation comes from Japanese schools.

Now, let's get down to business and dig into the history of the S rank.

What is the S rank?

As mentioned before, the S rank, class or grade is a designation that is higher than the standard normal highest achievable rank in the West generally, an A. It is featured heavily in video games, especially those hailing from Japan, but also appear in other forms of media like anime.

It is used to show excellence, perfection or something close to it. It is supposed to make the player feel like they have accomplished something great or like a badass.

Where does S rank come from?

The S rank finds its roots in the Japanese school systems and their grading parameters. Post-war Japan uses a similar grading structure to Western countries like the United States. Their four-scale university system uses the A-F method for grading.

Other systems though use S-D or S-F. The S grade in Japan stands for 秀 (read as shū). Shū translates to exemplary or excellent in English and indeed is a grade above A in many cases.

This brings their rather natural transition into the realm of games. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the first example of a game to use the S grade, but it would be fair to assume it first appeared fairly early for Japanese games as it was based on their schools and culture.

From there, it has blown up in use beyond Japanese games to be used globally to make players feel special.

How is it used?

S ranks are normally dished out in games that feature grading scales like fighting games, action games and any games that focus on speed or accuracy. Ranks and grades are part of the fun-appeal of character action titles like Devil May Cry, Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising.

In these types of games, you are graded upon the combos you perform upon enemies. The longer and more creative your combos are, the higher grade you get. Pretty much any game in this style uses the S-D grading system. The game also tracks you based on your time and item usage making you want to go back to levels to get faster and not use items to earn those S ranks.

They'll even go beyond S rank. For example in Devil May Cry 4, they go all of the way to SSS which was used in Street Fighter 3 before, and I haven't done enough digging to see if anything predates that. They have their own naming convention for their ranks in DMC 4 where it goes from Smokin'! to Smokin' Style!! to Smokin' Sick Style!!!

Games like Resident Evil 5 and Metal Gear Solid 5 grade players on aspects like accuracy, enemies killed, time and enemy detection that, like Devil May Cry, gives players the urge to go back and improve with repetition and strategy.

Some games, like Gran Turismo, try to give a designation to S rank meaning "super" or "special" to make the Japanese-centered title make a little more sense to Westerners.

Outside of the gaming sphere, the S rank normally takes on a different usage in other forms of media like anime. In these cases, it is largely used as a designation of class or power of characters or groups.

Naruto has powerful S rank shinobi like Itachi Uchiha and techniques, so you know how strong they are while something like Rosario+Vampire features S class monsters that are more fearsome than the others like the vampires.

In an example of mixing gaming and anime with Dragon Ball FighterZ, the game features rankings for characters' attributes. As you can see in Broly's breakdown below, he is rated SS for power and reach while also having an S for energy.

So now that you know where S rank comes from, what do you think? Is it still cool? What is your favorite use of S rank or class in anything? Talk it out in the comments below.

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