Mai Shiranui became SNK's first female playable fighting game character upon her Fatal Fury series debut in 1992. SNK had originally conceived two different characters—a male ninja master and a Japanese idol—for Fatal Fury 2 prior to her creation. Inspiration for Mai's appearance and attributes came from a number of sources. According to the Neo Geo publication Neo Geo Freak, Mai's bust was modeled on Fumie Hosokawa and her buttocks on Ai Iijima, while her breast "jiggle" was inspired by the tales of kunoichi using their bodies for seduction and distraction. Designer of the fighting game Battle Master claims Mai's overall looks and costume might have been modeled after his game's character Ranmaru, as he has unsuccessfully pitched it for SNK to have it published for the Neo-Geo before Toshiba-EMI eventually released it for the SNES.
In SNK games, Mai represents an ideal of a Japanese woman. In her profile, her measurements are 87 cm (34 in) – 55 cm (22 in) – 91 cm (36 in); she is 1.64 m (5.4 ft) tall, and weighs 50 kg (110 lb) (later 48 kg (106 lb)). Her official character description in the games is listed as "The Gorgeous Ninja" or "Knock-out Ninja", and sometimes as "Red Ninja". The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact character Lien Neville conceptually began as a contrast to Mai Shiranui: while Mai represents a "sexy and beautiful kunoichi," Lien represents the "sexy Western femme fatale" and her outfits were purposely designed to be "tight and constricting" to contrast Mai's clothing, which is made to allow for easy and quick movements. Shinkiro, an illustrator who worked on The King of Fighters, considered the character Leona Heidern with her "ice queen" persona as a complete opposite of Mai.
Her first name, "Mai", is the Japanese word for "dance", and her surname is the title of a Japanese optical phenomenon similar to will-o'-the-wisp, in reference to the character's pyrokinetic abilities. These powers enable her to cloak herself in fire; channel it through her clothes, weapons and anything she touches; and cause explosions. She can to change her clothes in an instant, as well as to temporarily stay airborne, float, glide and control her movements and change directions in mid-air, and is also a master of climbing and stealth. Her fighting style is to "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Mai's weapons are her "Fire Butterfly Fans" that can be used in close quarters and as projectiles. She furthemore has a variety of hand-to-hand combat maneuvers, such as a diving attack ("Flying Squirrel Dance") and a rushing cartwheel kick followed by an elbow strike ("Deadly Ninja Bees").
In most of the games, Mai's Japanese voice actress has been Akoya Sogi (dubbed by Sheryl Stanley in the English versions of the Maximum Impact series), until she was gradually replaced by Ami Koshimizu during the 2010s. Kotono Mitsuishi voiced Mai in the Fatal Fury anime films, with English dubbings provided by Sarah Sawatsky and Lisa Ann Beley, and Japanese voice actress and singer Megumi Hayashibara portrayed Mai in a series of drama CDs during the 1990s.
As described by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, "the character wears a revealing outfit that accentuates her buttocks and displays large amounts of cleavage." Mai has been subjected to regional censorship in some games' export versions. In particular, her famed and influential breast-bounce animation was partially (idle pose) or entirely removed in several releases, including the international home version of The King of Fighters '94, in the European version of The King of Fighters '95 for the Sega Saturn, and in the U.S. versions of Fatal Fury 2, Fatal Fury Special, The King of Fighters 2000, and The King of Fighters 2002. Her usually very large breasts are smaller in some games, such as SNK vs. Capcom: SVC Chaos, and in some other media, especially in the live-action film.
Mai's appearance changes only slightly through most of the Fatal Fury and King of Fighters games. She has long hair (usually brown or red, but sometimes black) tied in a ponytail, with long bangs framing her face, and normally wears a sleeveless red tunic with a decorative waistband—sometimes with long, decorative tails, and a loincloth with a thong (shorts in the U.S. version) around her crotch. In Fatal Fury 2, Fatal Fury Special (1993) and The King of Fighters, Mai Shiranui wears a pair of soft-soled tabi. From Fatal Fury 3: Road to the Final Victory to Real Bout Fatal Fury (both in 1995) she wears instep guards, exposing her heels and toes. In the former, she also wears a red vest and eye shadow. Mai's hairpin is her beloved grandmother's keepsake.
In KOF: Maximum Impact (2004), Mai has much shorter and darker hair, and ninja clothing resembling that of Kasumi in the Dead or Alive series. Shinkiro said that Mai was the most difficult character to draw as he "thought she was going to burst out of her costume." In KOF: Maximum Impact 2 (2006), one of Mai's color schemes matches Andy Bogard's and she has blonde hair. Another outfit of Mai's with long green hair, tiger-print clothing and a hairpin with horns resembles that of Lum Invader from the manga and anime series Urusei Yatsura and is based on Cham Cham from SNK's Samurai Shodown series. The Maximum Impact series' producer, Falcoon, said that designing Mai's alternate look was "unforgivable" as he was uncertain of fan reaction to the changes.
According to SNK universe' early canon, Mai Shiranui was born on January 1, 1974 (later the year was omitted). Usually relaxed, enthusiastic, uninhibited and cheerful, Mai has a charismatic, flamboyant and flirtatious personality, as well as exhibitionistic tendencies. She is a practitioner of her family's ancient Shiranui-ryū ninjutsu, the empty-handed art of koppo-ken, and has also been taught additional close-combat techniques by her grandfather's friend judo master Jubei Yamada. Mai is madly in love with Andy Bogard, an American who studied the arts Shiranui ninjutsu with her grandfather Hanzo since their early teens. She is also a friend to Joe Higashi and to Andy's older brother Terry Bogard. Mai deeply cares for her family's traditions, including battle outfits and ceremonial clothing, but also enjoys modern foreign things, such as Western casual fashion and heavy metal music. As a girlfriend, she is gentle, kind and enjoying cooking, and only occasionally losing her temper.
Story-wise, Mai Shiranui has first starred in Fatal Fury 2 where she goes to help Andy face the new host of The King of Fighters tournament, Wolfgang Krauser. She loses to Lawrence Blood, who takes her hostage to lure Andy. She also plays a supporting role in Fatal Fury 3: Road to the Final Victory and Real Bout Fatal Fury, gathering information to help in the fight against Geese Howard—the criminal who killed Andy and Terry's father, Jeff Bogard. The following games in the series, Real Bout Fatal Fury Special (1997) and Real Bout Fatal Fury 2: The Newcomers (1998), do not contain a storyline. Mai was also added to the roster of Fatal Fury: Wild Ambition (1999), a 3D remake of Fatal Fury: King of Fighters which originally did not feature Mai.
The King of Fighters series tournament also features Mai as a regular character participating in the annual tournaments in the Women Fighters Team (also known as the Woman Fighters Team, the Fighting Gals Team, and the Gorgeous Team), which she founds in The King of Fighters '94 after Andy refuses to let her enter and form a team with her. Initially, the team is composed of Mai, King and Yuri Sakazaki from the Art of Fighting series, with Mai aiming to help encourage King and her fellow team members and to prove to Andy the error of his ways. In The King of Fighters '99, the teams were expanded to four members, and so Mai goes to the Fatal Fury Team composed of Terry, Andy and Joe, being finally able to join the tournament in the same team as Andy. In the following tournament in The King of Fighters 2000, however, Mai is asked to step out to allow Blue Mary investigate a case. Denied again, she is angered by the request and joins the Women Fighters Team again and has remained a reoccurring member ever since. In the various team endings, she is often celebrating the team's victory at King's bar or fantasizing about Andy.
Mai eventually leaves the KOF tournament competitions in The King of Fighters XI (2005) to search for Andy who was absent in The King of Fighters 2003 (she appears in KOF XI only as an unlockable character in the PlayStation 2 version). In The King of Fighters XII (2009), Mai is completely absent from the game itself (except a mention in Andy's profile) and appears only in the tie-in manga series, even as she has been was "teased" in a trailer and official website, and has been rumored to be added through DLC for the home version. In The King of Fighters XIII (2010), Mai returns to the series when she feels that the KOF tournament is not complete without her and so decides to enter it along with the other two original members of KOF '94's Women's Team. She is not upset at Andy while making her choice, content to enter a tournament with both her and him in it once more. Mai returns in The King of Fighters XIV (2016), in which the new character Banderas Hattori is obsessed with her but she is not interested and Andy is now in relationship with Mai.
Gameplay-wise, Mai has been the fastest but also the weakest fighter in her first game, Fatal Fury 2. Super Juegos noted that Mai, "despite her fragile appearance, is one of the more effective contenders" in Fatal Fury Special. Sega Saturn Magazine described Mai as "one of the easiest characters to master" in Real Bout Fatal Fury, who "also has a huge range of pyrotechnically astounding special moves." According to a GamePro guide to Fatal Fury 3, "Mai's excellent speed and air superiority give her an advantage over some fighters, but her moves inflict little damage" and thus Mai players need to constantly keep on attacking their opponents in order to prevail. Mai has been improved for the home version of The King of Fighters XIII in comparison to the game's original arcade edition, yet 1UP.com verdicted it was still not enough for her to get on equal footing against some others such as Shen Woo.
Mai is a playable character in many SNK titles such as the fighting games SNK Gals' Fighters (2000) and NeoGeo Battle Coliseum (2005), shooter games KOF Sky Stage (2010) and Neo Geo Heroes: Ultimate Shooting (2010), and the quiz game Quiz King of Fighters (1995). In the dating sim series Days of Memories, Mai Shiranui retains her name and general design but is an otherwise unrelated character with a different role in each game: a rich maiden and protagonist's neighbor in Boku to Kanojo no Atsui Natsu, an office lady by day and a masked vigilante by night in Koi wa Good Job!, a popular school beauty and the protagonist's classmate in Kaze Maou Miyako de Tsukamaete!, and a school beauty with strange motives in Sekai de Ichiban Atsui Fuyu. Mai is further featured as a playable character in every game in the SNK vs. Capcom series crossover fighting games since 1999 (including as one of the four playable characters in the demo version of 2003's SNK vs. Capcom: SVC Chaos), as well as in the 1999-2006 spin-off crossover card battle series SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash. In the crossover tactical role-playing game Queen's Gate: Spiral Chaos (2011), Mai is a rival to Street Fighter character and fellow in-game playable Chun-Li.
She features, usually as a playable character, in many mobile games either developed or licensed by SNK, including Fatal Fury Mobile, The King of Fighters, The King of Fighters Mahjong, The King of Millionaire, The King of Fighters Volleyball, The King of Fighters: Battle de Paradise, Garou Densetsu vs Fighter's History Dynamite, The King of Fighters-i, KOF Gals Mahjong, KOFM for Kakao, The King of Fighters 97 OL (a beat'em up), The King of Fighters 98 Ultimate Battle OL, Mini King of Fighters, and The Rhythm of Fighters. Non-Fatal Fury/KOF mobile games featuring Mai include SNK Dream Battle, SNK Beach Volley Gal's Attack, SNK Gal's Open: Cutey Shot, SNK Gals Island Dokidoki Puzzle Shock! (and its sequel), Neo Geo Tennis Coliseum, and Dai Shingeki RPG! Sister Quest. She is also featured in Samurai Shodown Slash (a beat 'em up crossover of Samurai Shodown and The King of Fighters), Metal Gear Defense (a tower defense crossover of KOF and Metal Slug), and a mobile remake of the rail shooter Beast Busters (in a nurse outfit).
Mai is further a playable character in several other games, including Thailand-only MOBA game The King of Fighters Online, and China-only dance game Dazzle Dance. To celebrate the 15th anniversary of The King of Fighter in 2009, Mai Shiranui joined the Chinese game Prophecy Online. In 2010, she was added as a player character to the Korean multiplayer beat 'em up Dungeon Fighter Online. In the Korean free-to-PLAY 3D fighting game Lost Saga, Mai is a premium character that was added for the Japanese edition in both female and male variations in 2012, and for the Chinese and Spanish-language versions in 2015. In 2013, Mai also joined the character roster of three more Korean video games, Ace Duel, Mad Blade, and KaKaKa Together. In 2014, Mai was featured as an avatar replacement model to promote the Japanese MMORPG Wizardry Online. In 2015, Mai was added to the Chinese MOBAs 300 Heroes (as a player character), Chi Bi Zhi Zhan, and King of Soldier II (as character costumes). That same year, she was also included as a player character in the Chinese beat' em up Arcade All Star, and featured as a variant of the character class Kunoichi in the Korean MMORPG Black Desert to promote it in Japan. In 2016, Mai was licensed as a bonus hero to the Chinese version of League of Legends, for which she got an official webcomic, and as one of collectible fighters in a collaboration event in Brave Frontier. That same year, Mai also joined the cast of the fighting game Dead or Alive 5 Last Round; in Dead or Alive, Mai is a speed type of character who is easy to handle and thus recommended for beginners.
In the role-playing video game The King of Fighters: Kyo, set between The King of Fighters '96 and The King of Fighters '97, Mai is a non-player character who provides the protagonist Kyo Kusanagi with information and help during his trials. Mai also makes cameo appearances on her "younger brother" and Andy's disciple Hokutomaru's stage in the SNK fighting game Garou: Mark of the Wolves (with Andy) as well as in character endings in the fighting games Samurai Shodown and Art of Fighting 2, and in the Neo Geo CD version of the role-playing video game Shinsetsu Samurai Spirits Bushidō Retsuden. In the North American release of the original Art of Fighting it is implied that the ninja Eiji Kisaragi has feelings for her, but this does not occur in the original Japanese version.
Mai Shiranui has made her first anime appearance in Fatal Fury 2: The New Battle (1993), where she follows Andy on his search for Krauser in Germany. She is approached and later attacked by Laurence Blood, but Andy defeats him and rescues her. In Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture (1994), Mai is present with Terry, Andy and Joe when Sulia gives them the quest to find the Armor of Mars and stop Sulia's brother Laocorn Gaudeamus. After the villain Hauer fails to seduce Mai, he takes her hostage after a fight, but she is again saved by Andy. Mai then defeats the henchwoman Panni and participates in the final battle against Laocorn, which ends with Laocorn dying to save her from the god of war, Mars. Mai has only a minor role in the 2005 original net animation The King of Fighters: Another Day, voiced by Akoya Sogi and Sheryl Stanley.
Mai is a protagonist in the 2009 live-action film The King of Fighters, which is loosely based on the games. She was played by Maggie Q, who performed her own stunts. Like the other series characters, she bears little resemblance to her in-game incarnation, in that she is instead an undercover CIA operative and a girlfriend of Iori Yagami. Maggie Q's promotional photoshoot showed a look different from that the one which appeared in the film.
Mai also appears in the Dengeki G's Magazine drama CD series Fatal Fury, and in the licensed manga and yonkoma comic books published for Fatal Fury 2, Fatal Fury Special, The King of Fighters '94, and The King of Fighters '95. She has also appeared in several other manga and manhua series, including Capcom vs. SNK: Millennium Fight 2000, King of Fighters Maximum Impact: Maniax, SNK vs. Capcom: SVC Chaos, The King of Fighters '97, The King of Fighters '99: Millennium Battle, The King of Fighters 2000, and The King of Fighters Zillion. Reiko Chiba's single Non Stop! One Way Love includes the vocal track Kachou Fuugetsu Otome Mai which is also featured on Garou Densetsu SPECIAL Image Album Part 1 and NEO-GEO Gals Vocal Collection, released by Pony Canyon. Chiba also dressed as Mai for an official poster.
Mai is the main character in one of the Queen's Gate erotic gamebooks published in 2008 as part of the Queen's Blade series, wherein she hopes she will be finally able to conquer Andy's heart if she proves herself to be the number one female fighter of all time. She also appears as a roulette character in several pachinko game machines, including "Garou Densetsu The Legend of Wild Wolf", "Garou Densetsu Special", "The King of Fighters", "The King of Fighters III", and "Maximum Impact". SNK sued the manufacturer Aruze after Mai and Terry were featured in the pachinkio machine "Iregui" without a permission.
The character was used extensively by SNK and then SNK Playmore for their games' promotion. Mai Shiranui was featured in live-action commercials for Fatal Fury Special and Fatal Fury 2 in 1993. Five promotional models who dressed as Mai at the 2008 Tokyo Game Show (TGS) were the fifth-most popular "booth babes" among visitors to the event in a survey by Famitsu. Multiple Mai models were also present at other TGS editions, as well as at other events in Japan and East Asia. Japanese actres and pin-up model Sayuki Matsumoto was selected as an official "image girl" of The King of Fighters XIII and dressed as Mai for the game's public announcement; KOFXIII has been also teased by Mai advertising in Akihabara. Korean idol Kyungri from the girl band Nine Muses dressed as Mai for a promotional campaign photoshoot in 2014. The following year, actress and singer Dou Hua Mei promoted The King of Fighters 98 Ultimate Battle OL in Taiwan, while model Ye Zi Xuan and actress and singer Li Bingbing took the role for mainland China. 2015's "Ultimate Mai Shiranui Cosplay Tournament" promotional event in Taiwan involved an online voting to select the most beautiful winner out of 98 women cosplaying as Mai.
One of SNK's attractions at the 2005 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was the signing of limited edition posters of Mai Shiranui by Falcoon. In 2009, Capcom also teased UDON's SF20 art book by showing Akira Yasuda's image of Chun-Li and Mai Shiranui "almost kissing and almost punching each other". Mai featured heavily in promotional materials for The King of Fighters XIII, and an exclusive Mai Shiranui T-shirt given to all registered participants in the KOFXIII championship at the fighting game event EVO 2012. The King of Fighters IV Premium Edition included a soundtrack with a Mai Shiranui illustrated case and the game's pre-order bonuses included a Mai PlayStation 4 theme.
According to Kotaku, there have been "literally a gazillion" Mai Shiranui figures and "when you think of SNK figures, you think of curvy Mai Shiranui figures." Scores of figures, statuettes and dolls have been made in her image, including those by A-Label, Aizu Project, Alphamax, Daiki, Max Factory, Volks, and SNK themselves. Some of them can be stripped topless, and an exclusive Volks figure was sold in an auction for the Make-A-Wish Foundation in 2009. Two action figures of Mai were made in the Cy Girls series, and her figurines were included in the Pinky:St series. Other licensed Mai-themed merchandise include several official T-shirts and a Neo Geo joystick controller for PlayStation consoles decorated with Mai-related imagery, and a number of cards in the Universal Fighting System collectible card game, producers of which too has used her broadly for promotional purposes. GungHo Games offered their users a Mai avatar skin.
Kotaku's Patricia Hernandez wrote "one of Fatal Fury 2's biggest contributions to the medium was that it was the first game to introduce a character with breasts that moved on their own. Known as Mai Shiranui, that character is famed for having very, uh, lively breasts. Though Fatal Fury may not be a huge franchise nowadays, its legacy is very much alive: many top fighting games include a similar jiggle effect." She and other KOF characters became especially popular among the young people in Hong Kong during the late 1990s, when their character design impacted on local youth culture, including the so-called 'MK look' that "has penetrated Hong Kong street fashion, action figures and martial arts comics."
French magazine Hardcore Gamers noted that by 2002 "Mai has become a leading figure in fighting games to the point that many fighting games characters feature characters looking odddly like her, such as Jam Kuradoberi in Guilty Gear X and Kasumi from Dead or Alive." The character Kali's look in the Korean game Dragon Nest was partially inspired by Mai, as was one costume of Chun-Li in Street Fighter V. Chun-Li's alternative costume in Super Street Fighter IV and the red kunoichi costume of Kasumi in the arcade version of Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate too are homages to Mai. Her classic oufit makes appearances an alternate costume or color scheme for female ninja characters in the fighting games Naruto SD Powerful Shippūden (for Naruto's Sakura Haruno) and Skullgirls (for Valentine, who also uses a combat stance that was inspired by Mai's). Giovanni Simotti, designer of Akane the Kunoichi, intended look of the titular character on the game's cover as "a small tribute to two of the most famous kunoichi from the history of the videogames – a mix of Mai Shiranui with a bit of Ibuki." Fatal Fury anime director Masami Ōbari's own parody erotic series Angel Blade features Mai Shiranui-inspired ninja Ayame Fudou.
The character has become very popular in the cosplay community around the world. 1UP.com described Mai as "everyone's favorite cosplay choice," GamePro noted her as being "also notable for being the favoured costume choice for cosplay attention-floozies," and eldiario.es called her and Chun-Li "true icons of cosplay." Mai Shiranui was subject of performance by Yuuri Morishita, a Japanese booth companion turned a gravure idol. Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese models, actresses and singers who have performed as Mai include Deng Ting, Isabella Yang (Yang Qi Han), Jenny (Gui Jingjing), Lara (Su Xinning), Mia (Lan Fenghuang), Pan Chun Chun (Japanese AV idol Yu Namiki vowed to make a better Mai than she did), Shan Shan Maity (Li Meng Tian), Qibao (Liu Yu-chi), Wang Sijia, Wu Xi Er, Ye Zi Xuan, YoYo (Xu Xiangting), and YUKO (Yourong Ma).
Kotaku's Brian Ashcraft noted in 2012, "In Asia—especially China and Taiwan—models keep popping [up] in non-gaming related events." Ashcraft argued that rather than showing a following for the King of Fighters games, the character became popular because "the outfit is skimpy and revealing and has become a uniform of sorts." For example, Wet Lulu (Wu) became famous after dressing as Mai at the Hainan International Auto Show and another model impressed visitors of China International Internet Culture Expo. Mai's costumes, including for male dancers, were used in the performances by Chinese dance group OL (Office Lady). Amber, the host of the Chinese version of the TV show Cybernet in 2011-2012, dressed as Mai Shiranui for the job. In perhaps most high-profile instance, British artist Cheryl Cole dressed in Mai-inspired costume for the television special Cheryl Cole's Night In in 2009.
Mai Shiranui also featured in several unofficial erotic and pornographic doujinshi fan comics and film productions, the latter often cosplay-themed. Japanese adult model and actor Ran Asakawa appeared in a naked cosplay session during the 1990s, as later did Misaki Hanamura in 2013, who was one of Japan's most famous cosplayers at the time. Another Japanese pornographic actress, Misa Nishida, appeared in a homage video Queen of Fighters 2005. Cherry Tse plays Mai in the Fatal Fury fan film Embers.
Mai Shiranui's sex appeal quickly made her a famous and popular character both in Japan and abroad, and a female icon of SNK and later SNK Playmore. German magazine Play Time noted there has been "already a cult" of Mai in Japan by 1994. According to Kotaku's Ashcraft writing in 2010, "Mai is one of the most popular and recognisable fighting game characters. Her image has been recreated in countless figurines and endless fan art." Japanese arcade gaming magazine Gamest named her as one of the best characters in arcade gaming for five consecutive years in its annual awards, placing her second in 1994, tenth in 1995, 21st in 1996, 28th in 1997, and 25th in 1998. During the fan art contest held jointly by SNK Playmore and Japanese art website Pixiv to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the King of Fighters in 2009, Mai was the most popular character, followed by Iori and Kyo. In 2015, Japanese magazine Famitsu declared Mai the 11th top video game heroine from the 1990s.
According to the UGO Team in 2008, "the over-endowed, perpetually jiggling Mai has become not only a mascot for SNK's King of Fighters series, but also for the whole company. ... Mai is an unapologetic sex symbol ... While some decry Mai's ubiquitousness as pandering fan service, we're more than happy to pick up the yearly iterations of the King of Fighters franchise just to get fresh hands on this fetching fighter. Destructoid editor-in-chief Dale North named "Terry and Andy Bogard, and the ever-bouncy Mai Shiranui" as the most popular of all characters from the Fatal Fury series, while the Xinhua News Agency called Mai the most important female role in the history of SNK. Kotaku's Luke Plunkett included her among the possible candidates for the title of the greatest video game character of all time in 2010, and Pembroke Daily Observer chose her among the 32 contenters for the title of "ultimate fighting game champion" in 2012. Similarly, Spain's Games Tribune in 2013 described her as not only one of the most admired characters of SNK but also in the entire history of video games, with Hong Kong's GameApps calling her the childhood "goddess" of many gamers. Chilean CerUno ranked Mai as the sixth-most memorable heroine in their 2008 top list, Vietnamese XãLuận.com included her among the five most famous heroines in gaming in 2010, and the Spanish edition of IGN ranked Mai as the eight top female video game character in 2012 and further described her as "one of the biggest legends of the '90s." Engadget's Colin Torretta opined "The King of Fighters games come heavily recommended ... if only for Mai Shiranui," and IGN Italy stated they "all love" her.
Mai has been often compared to the fighting genre's other early female icon, Chun-Li, with whom she shared the "Top Girls" entry in a 1994 ranking of fighting games by a Spanish magazine Hobby Consolas. UGO Networks declared Mai the "Chun-Li of the SNK universe", while Ed Laurence of Sinclair User wrote in 1993 that she was able to "out-Chun Li Chun Li." Previewing Capcom vs. SNK 2, GameSpot's Justin Speer wrote about its "beautiful and powerful females such as Chun-Li and Mai," and Rich Knight of Complex pitted the characters against each other in his 2011 "battle of the beauties" feature, stating: "Breasts or legs? Personally, we'll take 'em both." In ScrewAttack's "Death Battle!" series the same year, Mai, dubbed "the queen of fighters", defeated Chun-Li due to her greater nimbleness and superior ranged attack abilities. Joystiq's Richard Mitchell said in 2007 that "There is one thing Street Fighter will never have, and that's Mai." Mai Shiranui is also very popular in Korea, where received 62% of all votes in an Internet poll for White Day 2009, far ahead of Chun-Li (19%). Kurt Katala of Hardcore Gaming 101 called the Street Fighter's Maki Genryusai a "sexy Mai Shiranui ripoff", despite Maki having debuted only in Final Fight 2 in 1993. Comparisons between Mai and Maki have been made by other sources, including GameSpot, CNET and IGN, furthermore Iroha from SNK's own Samurai Shodown VI was described as this game's "equivalent of Mai Shiranui" by Siliconera. A female writer for ScrewAttack Magazine used Mai as an example of well-animated fan service breasts that move around realistically as she moves in games, unlike in some other cases such as that of DOA's Kasumi, and GamePro likened her with Taki from Namco's Soulcalibur series as "a gravity-defying marvel of science and physicality." Mai has additionally drawn comparisons to other mainstream female game characters such as Lara Croft and Ivy Valentine. China's Mop.com included Mai on their 2010 list of ten strongest women in video games, alongside Chun-Li among others, and Mexico's Chilango grouped "Lara Croft/Chun Li/Mai Shiranui" together at the top of their list of "the women we have dreamed of in the nineties." According to Crunchyroll's Nate Ming in 2016, Mai has continued to represent "SNK, Fatal Fury, and KoF in the same way that Chun-li reps Street Fighter." That same year, Polish magazine CD-Action described her as the "second dame" of 2D fighting, after Chun-Li.
Mai has appeared on several lists of top ninja characters in video games, including being ranked seventh by CrunchGear in 2008, and ninth by both XãLuận.com and Wild Gunmen in 2010, when GamePro ranked Mai as the sixth-top video game ninja. In 2011, UGO listed her among the "hot ninja girls" in all entertainment, while Chinese gaming portal 17173 called her the world's sexiest kunoichi. In 2012, Gelo Gonzales from the Filipino edition of FHM included Mai among the nine "sexiest ninja babes in games", likening her with Daiana Menezes, and Complex placed her at number one in its list of "hot female killers" in video games. Jon Ledford of Sushi Arcade included her among the ten best video game "ninjas" in a 2013 list. Márcio Pacheco Alexsandro of Brazil's GameHall placed Mai at number one spot in his 2014 list of top female ninja characters in games, comparing her to Mortal Kombat's Kitana in regards of their shared use of fans as a weapon, and also noting her as an equal of Chun-Li within the fighting genre. In a 2015 article "The Truth About Ninjas", Kotaku's Matthew Burns included Mai Shiranui as well as Dead or Alive's Kasumi and Ayane among "the 'fan favourite' lady ninjas".
Mai was called a "buxom fan-favorite" by Daniel Feit of Wired.com and the KOF "series' bosomy fan (service) favorite" by Michael McWhertor of Kotaku. In addition to her popularity with male fans, Mai as been also been a personal choice for some female gamers, such as Dawn Hughes of The Lakeland Mirror, who favorited Mai due to her costumes and being "fast, agile, and sexy," and Seraphina Brennan of Joystiq wrote in 2009 that "throughout all of the countless MMOs that we've played, we've always asked ourselves one important question: Where is Mai Shiranui and why can't I be her?" SNK Playmore's decision to feature her only in a small cameo in 2009's The King of Fighters XII was met with media criticism and an intense fan backlash, sparking the meme phrase "no Mai, no buy". Shane Bettenhausen, director of business development for game publisher UTV Ignition Entertainment, "likened it to Capcom leaving their most popular female fighter, Chun-Li, out of the original release of Street Fighter III", while Destructoid's Jim Sterling compared it to "releasing Street Fighter without Ryu." GameSpot's Andrew Park noted "the conspicuous absence of SNK's iconic female ninja/geisha girl" and Siliconera opined that "SNK isn’t going to make that mistake again "in omitting Mai from future releases. GamesRadar's Mikel Reparaz chose Mai Shiranui and Geese Howard to represent Fatal Fury in his imagined crossover game Vertigo vs. SNK.
For most Chinese KOF fans, their favourite female characters are Mai or Athena Asamiya, who are "synonymous with sexy and cute - Mai Shiranui's hot body, Athena's sweet smile." According to GameAxis Unwired in 2007, "Sex sells, and everyone knows it. Mai Shiranui from Fatal Fury first stumbled into this magical power when she captivated thousands of Ah Bengs the world over with the heaving bosoms during her matches." Mai was awarded the title of "Hottest Game Babe of 1994" by the staff of Electronic Gaming Monthly, and was chosen as the "Hottest Videogame Babe" of the year for the Video Game Awards '95 by readers of German magazine Mega Fun after receiving over half of all votes. Previously, Mega Fun also called Mai "a favourite of the editors that could leave the likes of Cammy from Super Street Fighter II or Blaze from Streets of Rage downright pale with envy." A 1996 review of Fatal Fury 3 in German magazine Video Games called her "the hottest babe in the universe" in English, and in 1998 they wrote she has still remained the prettiest "Fighting-Game-Babe". In 2011, French JEUXACTUX chose her as one of the game heroines they would like to repopulate the Earth, alongside Lara Croft and Bayonetta, and in 2012 Brazilian website Tribuna Hoje included her among the ten game heroines and villainesses they would like to come in flesh and blood. China's NetEase used her to as an example of a "sexy personality" in their 2011 article about the eight ingredients for an ultimately attractive female game character, and in 2014 Chilango described her as the very "sex symbol of video games".
Since her introduction, Mai has been featured in numerous lists of the sexiest female video game characters. In 2000, German magazine Video Games featured Mai in their "Console Pageant" article, rating her "VG Sexy Factor" at 95% as number one in Japanese games and tying her with Lara Croft. She was ranked the fourth-top "babe in games" by Bryan Johnson of GameSpy in 2003, who wrote that she "probably went a little over the top," and Johnny Firecloud of CraveOnline also listed her fourth in his "hottest video game girl of all time" list in 2010. In 2008, UGO Team placed Mai seventh on their list of top "girls of gaming", and GameDaily ranked her as the "sixth-hottest game babe". GameDaily also featured Mai in several "babe-of-the-week" galleries, including "Outrageous Boobs", "Asian Beauties", and the special "Mai Shiranui". In 2009, MSN declared Mai the "fifth-hottest babe" in video games, and the staff of Complex included her in their list of the top ten "hottest video game girls". In 2011, UGO listed her among the 25 finest female characters from fighting games, and ranked her as the "sixth-hottest videogame hottie". That same year, China's NetEase ranked her as number one top "eye candy" game character due to her beautiful face and body, skimpy outfits, sultry poses and jiggly movements, while China Radio International included her among seven most beautiful pair of legs in video games. Mai was also ranked as the "19th-" and "18th-hottest" video game character Japan's GIGAZINE and by Larry Hester of Complex, respectively, and placed seventh in a similar list by Kristie Bertucci of Gadget Review. She was spotlighted in the 2012 listings of ten "sexiest girls of games" by Poland's Onet, twenty "hottest women in video game history" by MSN Malaysia, and ten sexiest game characters by TecMundo, who also noted her as one of the most "sympathetic" characters in fighting games. In 2013, João Vitor de Oliveira of Brazilian edition of Official Xbox Magazine ranked Mai as the number one sexiest woman in fighting games and expressed satisfaction that she was created instead of a male character as it had been originally planned for her fighting style. Mai placed second in the 2013 ranking of "most sexually charged" female characters in gaming history by Stuart W. Bedford of WhatCulture, and was given an honorable mention and the first place in the 2014 lists of sexiest female video game characters as compiled by WatchMojo.com and GameHall's Portal PlayGame, respectively. China's TGbus placed Mai fourth in 2014, describing her as a perfect wife material, a view shared by PCGROUP who in 2010 have also placed her as third on their list of sexiest characters in video game history.
According to Sherilynn Macale of The Feed in 2011, "if there's one female fighter who really is just the Queen of the Bosom, it's Mai Shiranui from King of Fighters. She is boobs." Including SNK Vs. Capcom among top five crossover games, 1UP.com's David Wolinsky wrote it "made for much more convenient ogling of Mai Shiranui's ample bosom regardless of a player's fighting-game allegiance." GameDaily discussed her in their 2007 article "Boobs Through the Years", stating that "when it comes to 2-D breasts, no character tops Mai Shiranui." In 2011, Ross Lincoln of GameFront ranked her bust as the fifth-best in gaming history, Rich Shivener of Joystick Division ranked her first in his list of "incredible chests" in video games, and NetEase's Game Channel placed her among top ten busty game heroines. In 2012, Mai's breasts placed first and second in similar lists by French edition of Tom's Games and by Drea Avellan of Complex, respectively, while Zachary Miller of Nintendo World Report ranked Mai as his third-favourite "chesty heroine" on Nintendo systems, calling her "arguably the queen of gaming cleavage." Ranking Mai as the 23rd-most dominant fighting game character in 2012, Complex noted she is "mostly known for having the most ridiculous pair of baby feeders in gaming history. She still moves faster than the wind and puts up a good fight with those things." The magazine's Rich Knight also wrote, "Mai Shiranui is the queen mother of outlandish bouncing breasts. She was the first animated babe to really have them featured in a game and is still considered by many to be the female game character all bouncing breasts are judged off of." French Retropolis placed Mai and her "heavy artillery" third in a 2013 ranking of sexiest girls in fighting games where the busts were primary rating criteria. ChinaByte stated in 2015, "If you want to count down the TOP10 busty action heroines, Mai Shiranui is certainly among the best."
Korean GameMeca pointed out to Mai's "breathtaking" kunoichi costume as the main reason for her lasting popularity, and Heavy.com described Mai as "notable for having one of the sluttiest costumes in video game history." Chinese edition of FHM placed her on the cover in 2008. In 2010, Mai topped machinima.com's list of "gaming's top cleavagey characters" and PLAY placed her third in its list of top "side-boobs" in games. Mai's classic costume was ranked as the second-most sexy outfit in games by ScrewAttack in 2011, who noted it for its broad appeal, and placed third in a similar list by ZoominGames in 2012. Role-playing video game designer Brian Mitsoda imagined "Continue?, a little joint on the Sunset Strip where the game development crowd goes to get away from the public" with "ninja bartenders passing along a mix of vodka and spree to the waitress in the Mai Shiranui outfit." Some commentators wrote negatively about the sexualization of the character. According to the 2009 MSN article, "there is no denying the fact that most gamers know of Mai Shiranui ... The developers may have created a character that will upset every feminist out there, but the guys ain't complaining." In 2011, Winda Benedetti of NBC News included Mai's classic costume in her list of top five "most preposterous getups in games", and wrote, "Oh Mai! When you arrived on the scene in the early '90s, you set womankind back decades." Comic book artist Adam Warren drew a picture of his own character Emp cosplaying as Mai Shiranui; the drawing shows the character saying, "This goofy costume would be even more potentially mortifying that my own stupid supersuit!" and declaring her "sincerest sympathies" for Mai.
Debating the merits of polygonal fighting games in 1998, Hyper used a question whether "Would Mai Shiranui be as bouncy in polygonal form?" as an argument "that some aspects of the 2D fighting medium cannot be replicated into 3D." Nevertheless, in a review of the 3D The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact six year later, the staff of Official Xbox Magazine opined that while "hardcore KOF fans won't like it," for "the rest of the world ... Mai Shiranui's heaving bosom redesigned to fully utilise the immense funbag recreating power of the Xbox" is "exactly what the doctor ordered." David Clayman and Jeremy Dunham from IGN applaued "a wonderful job" done redesigning the Maximum Impact characters "to the modern age", including "Mai's new shorthair look", and opining they "all look great -- and in some instances, surpass the classic designs that were established so many years ago," meanwhile Hardcore Gamer positively noted how "Mai Shiranui's bouncy, laid-back personality [still] shows in her stance." In 2016, GameZone's James Wynne wrote that with the inclusion of Mai, the 3D fighter "Dead or Alive 5: Last Round wins our brand new award for most appropriate fighting game cross-over in history, demolishing Akuma's appearance in Tekken 7" and the game features so far "the best looking iteration of the Mai Shiranui character." Adam Beck from Hardcore Gamer opined that as "Mai is a ninja in her own series, she seems to fit perfectly within the Dead or Alive ethos."
GamesRadar's Henry Gilbert wrote Ōbari "found a fitting muse" in Mai while directing the anime adaptation of Fatal Fury, as he appeared to be "never missing a chance to fill the screen with her heaving chest" and actually giving more attention to her shower scene than he did to the film's fight scenes. In The Complete Anime Guide, Trish Ledoux noted that "the animation of modern-day ninja girl Mai Shiranui gave an all-new meaning to *bouncy* anime girls." John Funk of The Escapist wrote bluntly that the live-action film's outfit for Mai Shiranui was "not nearly as cleavage-tacular as it needs to be" and recommended "getting some members from Tecmo's Team Ninja as consultants." Regardless, despite "a couple of very... prominent differences," Peter Rubin of Complex placed the live-action film's Mai at second place in his 2012 ranking of the "hottest women in video game movies".