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I suck at games: BlazBlue and a slapdash attempt at fisticuffs

6:00 PM on 08.09.2009 // Andrew Kauz

[It's time for another Monthly Musing -- the monthly community blog theme that provides readers with a chance to get their articles and discussions printed on the frontpage. -- CTZ]  

When it comes to pitting two fighters against one another to do battle, Mortal Kombat is about where my pseudo-expertise ends. In terms of my current proficiency, the best comparison to make is probably this: my skill in fighting games is akin to the guy who leans back and flails his open palms in a flurry of half-hearted slaps. Pretty much how I fight in real life, too, so in that way I guess it’s pretty appropriate.

So when BlazBlue starting getting so much attention here, I struggled to convince myself to care. After all, I hadn’t played a fighting game in earnest since Tekken 3. My Interest had died. And why should BlazBlue be any different? Despite my reservations, the game arrived in the mail one day, and I gave it a shot, hoping that, by some miracle, I might latch onto it and reignite my passion for fighting games.

I didn’t.

Regardless, my journey through BlazBlue was an interesting struggle, knowing that I wasn’t really having any fun, but desperately wanting to persist, grabbing in vain for an inkling of what made this game so enjoyable for everyone else. But, of course, I was looking in the wrong place. It’s not you, BlazBlue, it’s me. If we look back at my fighting game dating history, it’s pretty obvious that we were never going to work out. We’re just too different. ays suck at fighting games.

In the past, fighting games were one of the more bizarre interests that I’ve ever had, at least in terms to my approach to them. Unsurprisingly, I began with games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. The Street Fighter games I was never hugely interested in, but Mortal Kombat was a different story. I played the crap out of those games.

However, that’s not the whole story. Much of my time spent with those games saw me engaged in what I like to call “fatality whoring.” In essence, this involved starting a two-player game, setting controller 2 down, and wailing on the helpless jackass across from me. When it came time to finish him, I would do my best to oblige this request. Once the later games added shit like Animality, I kept myself pretty busy.

In essence, there’s a pretty distinct source of my enjoyment of the Mortal Kombat series, and it doesn’t stem from my love of learning combos and beating the best players out there. I just wanted to see ridiculous depictions of violence, and at the time, Mortal Kombat was the place to get it.

Yet I kept playing fighting games even as I grew out of the “huh huh, blood is cool” phase. Hell, I’ve played a ton of fighting games in my time. I bought multiple Street Fighter games throughout the years. I picked up a few Virtua Fighters, and I played others in the arcades. I even bought and played quite a bit of Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style. Yeah, that happened. Hell, I bought a damn mod chip for my PlayStation and imported Tobal 2, which was a really shitty decision (waste of money, and it led to me being unable to play Tomba! 2, a game which fucking ruled). I played it a bit and quickly moved on to something else.

Looking back, one fact is clear: I really didn’t have any reason to bother with fighting games. I never had the patience to truly learn them. Sure, button mashing was always good fun if I had a friend over, but playing fighting games the way they were meant to be played was not a part of my modus operandi. My brain seemed to rebel against me as I tried to learn combos, causing me to revert back to an extended bout of random button presses. Moreover, I’ve never had the patience to stick with one game, fighting the same people over and over again, in order to reach a decent skill level.

When BlazBlue came around, I immediately wrote it off because it was a fighting game. It had people. They stood across from each other. They kicked. They punched. They erupted into bright rays of light and yelled stuff. I did not want to play this game.

Call me easily persuaded, but this feeling changed somewhat when people began to rave about the game. I could argue with the fact that it looked amazing, and it had been probably four years or more since I really dug into a fighting game. The time seemed right to do so. Here was a game that seemed original and fun, and I was really fucking bored. So, with some trepidation, I added it to my rental queue and awaited its arrival.

Being a story whore, I immediately began the story mode with the first character, Ragna the Bloodedge. Awesome name, dude. Want to be in my band? We cover Gwar songs using only mandolins and buckets, and we all wear fedoras.

Anyway, I was immediately treated to a somewhat lengthy written cutscene about a guy relaxing on a lovely day, becoming an unfortunate victim of fire and sudden arm loss, and turning into a giant dick because of it all. I had seen fighting games attempt stories before, but something felt better about this. There seemed to be a rich universe crafted, and I thought there might be a great reason for me to ball up my fists and try not to break my thumbs. The fact that the writing was pretty solid didn’t hurt either.

When it came to the actual gameplay, I was immediately lost. There were buttons that did stuff. And pressing some buttons together did other stuff. And then the right analog stick did some stuff that pressing some buttons together also did, and, stuff …

I quickly discovered the A button and promptly mashed the shit out of it, winning matches with relative ease. Occasionally I jumped. Sometimes I tried to pull of some of techniques from the moves list, but that godawful d-pad just looked at me with a smug smirk and returned to its business of being completely useless. (Remind me why I didn’t rent this on PS3?)

As I continued with the story mode, I for the most part lost track of what was actually going on, but it was entertaining nonetheless. The game came up with some very interesting scenarios for why these people needed to engage in a little combat (though there’s also a fair share of “Hey, look, a person! Let’s fight it!). The characters themselves were often well-developed and actually had some backstory to them. Backstory? In a fighting game?

However, as I struggled to finish the game with each character in order to get the game’s actual ending, I realized that I wasn’t having any fun. I knew quite well that it was my own fault, as my chosen fighting style (A, A, A, A, up, A, A, A, A) had more in common with stuffing envelopes than it did with playing a videogame. Regardless, I played on solely to see the stories of the characters, but the simple fact remained: I really, really suck at all fighting games, and fighting with myself to try to enjoy one of them was a losing battle. Once the story mode was over, it went back in the envelope never to be seen again, existing only as a 60/1000 blight on my Gamercard that I care oh so much about.

It’s easy for me to believe that I’ll never enjoy a fighting game again. Mortal Kombat and its ilk fail to interest me now, and the most basic aspects of fighting games -- stringing together various moves to create elaborate combos, climbing up the ladder and reaching the final boss, trying out various characters, and kicking the crap out of other people -- just don’t make for a game that I want to play, no matter how interesting the surrounding presentation, story, or graphics may be.

However, despite all this, and despite utterly sucking at them, I’m not prepared to give up on all fighting games yet. For instance, the idea of a new Bushido Blade with some updated mechanics excites me, and though I’m not sure that we’ll ever see it, I, for one, would play the crap out of it. So, King of All Fighting Game Cosmos, if you want me to like fighting games again, and cease all the sucking, here’s what I suggest. Call it a game pitch if you want.

I want a fighting game, first and foremost, with the strategy and pacing of Bushido Blade, only to a greater degree. For those who are unfamiliar with the game, it was much more about strategic single strikes on your opponent than it was about combos and bunches of punches. You grabbed your sword, stood opposite your opponent, and began a beautiful ballet of slashes, any one of which, if landed solidly, could end the bout. Thus, it was in your best interests to protect yourself from all damage with a good defense, waiting for the proper moment to strike rather than going balls out. In addition, you could wound specific body parts, which would affect a person’s ability to fight.

So, yes, I’d like to see this in a game, only using today’s technology to increase the realism. It doesn’t need to be realistic to the point of not being fun, but I really like the idea of one solid sword strike meaning death. I think, now, the right developer could pull this off in a way where the combat felt strategic without being slow, and difficult without being inaccessible. Hell, based on the sword fighting in Wii Sports Resort, I’d definitely play this game on the Wii. Done well, the blocking and slashing could feel incredibly rewarding.

Also, give me some more depth. BlazBlue, for what it’s worth, did give the fighting game genre a sense of depth that I hadn’t really seen before. There was narrative, and (some) characters felt as if they were striving for something other than to be the best around. There was even a (admittedly boring) “tips” feature that basically told the backstory of the game’s universe, detailing a war and the world’s existing establishments that are in opposition to one another. If a world is interesting, I won’t mind fighting in it.

Furthermore, fighting games can benefit from certain conventions of other genres. Soul Blade was one of the last fighting games that I really enjoyed, and even then, the actual fighting wasn’t a huge draw. Certain aspects of the game made it feel more like an RPG, especially in the “Edge Master Mode,” which involved traversing a map, engaging in various fights, and earning new weapons for your character.

So, why not give me a fighting game with some exploration, stat development, and weapon hunting? I know some games have included somewhat rudimentary systems that might fit into one of these descriptions (Tobal 2 had an extensive exploration mode), but nothing to my knowledge has ever really developed these systems into something that could really make me love a fighting game.

It may sound like I’m trying to turn fighting games into something that they aren’t, and perhaps that’s true. In their current state, with health bars, turning wheels of fate, and moves upon moves, I don’t know that I’ll ever truly love a traditional fighting game. But tradition is overrated. It’s time for a fighting game to really break the mold, offering something completely new.

Then again, maybe I’m just trying to explain away the fact that I will always suck at fighting games.

Andrew Kauz,
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