I'm no good at fighting games; let's just get that out of the way. Like the 45-year-old Steelers fan with a beer gut, just because I love the game doesn't mean I can get out there and hang with the real deal.
I do get down with a little scrub-league-level fighting online from time to time, though, but I always tend to stick with my strengths. Super Street Fighter IV is the game I play the most, and like the majority of players I tend to rely on a small number of dependable characters. I've worked hard to cultivate a somewhat decent Vega and a Cody who -- while he might not be so great -- is at least fun to play and can hold his own.
But I've always had this itch in the back of my fightin' mind. I've always wanted to try Hakan.
There's some horrible masochistic streak that makes me hover over the worst character in the game on the character select screen. I know it's a path that could only lead to frustration. I mean, there's low-tier, and then there is Hakan. But there is just something about him that has been calling to me for years; I've just been too intimidated to try.
So in the spirit of stepping outside my comfort zone and trying something different, I made myself a personal challenge: take Hakan to Rank-C online.
Now, that's not too hard, but if I could pull it off maybe that would satisfy the urge... right? I mean, how hard could it be?
I had no idea what I was getting into.
Why do people choose low-tier characters anyway? What's wrong with us?
You can blame it on stupid human emotions, I guess. It seems like I'm always making sub-optimal choices because I like the characters I play as. Serious online warriors with a "play to win" attitude may scoff at this disgusting human weakness, but one of the things I love the most about fighting games are the personalities expressed with the different characters. The crazy designs, the back-stories, the fighting styles -- they all say something about how you see the game and what you want to express. I like to base my character selection on what appeals to me personally, not who has the best frame advantage on their crouching medium punch.
A love for the character is the only reason I ever wanted to play Hakan. As a grappler with a lot of tricky execution and a power-up gimmick, I knew I was going to suck with him. But c'mon, look at the guy! He's a giant, red Turkish oil wrestler who's also a CEO and a father to seven identical daughters! How can you not love that? In a game dominated by crazy characters -- undead karate masters, supernatural yoga specialists, militaristic psychopaths -- Hakan manages to stand out from the crowd just by virtue of being so silly.
And that's just his back-story; when you look at him in game he gets even wilder. He attacks with moves like a full body belly-slide across the pavement. Headbutts with his bizarre crown of blue (solid?) hair. And of course his infamous Ultra 2 where he flops on his back like a dead trout and waits for an opponent to slip on him before snaring them and flipping around, squeezing his opponent between his oily thighs until he/she shoots out like a rocket and smacks into an invisible wall (all shown in the most elaborate and ridiculous cutscene to ever grace a fighter).
Hakan is a clown, plain and simple. But that's why I love him. It's the same with other low-tier picks. Some people play as Thor in Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 because they love the comics, or Q in Street Fighter III because they love the idea of playing as a trench-coated robot. Low-tier character choices are a labor of love. There is something that attracts you to a character or an idea even if you know it's not a good choice.
To me, that is a beautiful thing. The fighting game community is dominated by an aggressive "winning is the only thing that matters" attitude, which I suppose is fair for a competitive endeavour. But I still find something inspiring about players that eschew the conventional wisdom and play what they want to play, not just what might be best. They are saying something about the game, and themselves, when they do that. There's a communication of ideas going on in that exchange that I enjoy.
It may be hard to admit it, but there is also an element of excuse involved in picking a low-tier character. Especially when, like me, you play at a "less than competitive" level. If you lose playing as Yun or Sagat, you lost. But if you lose playing as Makoto, well you were playing as Makoto, right? The poor kid is one of the worst characters in the game; even getting in a few shots is a victory in itself.
I know I've hid behind my character before. As a longtime Vega player -- a character whose only moves up and down the tier lists are between "terrible" to "not entirely embarrassing" -- I've angrily hurled my share of excuses and recriminations at the screen. "Of course I'd lose to that dive-kick pressure bullshit! Some of us don't have invincible reversals to crutch on!"
Approximately .3 seconds before Vega eats another jaw disintegrating Tiger Uppercut.
But wonderfully, it also works the other way around. There is nothing more satisfying than sending some OP mix-up master home crying with your "shit-tier" pick. While losing can be excused, winning becomes a glorious triumph in spite of the odds. Playing a low-tier character offers a little extra rush to each win, and dulls the edge off of the losses.
So what exactly makes a character good then? Even at my low level of play I do notice things. When I look at all the various fighting games out there and look at the characters used by the best players to get the best results, I see a few patterns. Most top-tier characters offer both safety and options. If a character has ways to press the attack without risking anything, and a variety of ways to respond to situations, chances are they are going to be sitting real pretty.
Hakan doesn't have either of these qualities. Wouldn't you know it.
There's a reason he's at the bottom of the list ya know.
In fact, Hakan by design has the opposite of those qualities. Like some grim political allegory, his dependence on oil forces him into a shotgun marriage with risk.
See, Hakan isn't at his best until he has a good coating of oil on him, something you need to do manually. So during the fight you are constantly looking for ways to sneak in a quick splash of Crisco -- momentarily leaving yourself vulnerable. To even get to a place where Hakan is equal to the other fighters, you need to take risks.
Then you have his "options". Well, Hakan doesn't exactly have a wealth of choices at his disposal. No projectile, no dependable reversal, a smattering of moves that leave him wide open to counter attack -- it's a rough life for giant red Turkish guys. He even lacks the typical grappler priority on throws, constantly and embarrassingly getting popped out of his command grab unless he is oiled-up.
So what does he have on his side? Gimmicks and unfamiliarity. If there is one saving grace for playing as a low-tier unpopular character, it's that a lot of people online have no idea what you can do. Which is kind of depressing when you think about it.
When I started this, I quickly realized I was in way over my head. When I play a fighter I can usually tell what a character is supposed to do, even if I'm not good enough to do it myself. You can see how Cammy's moves lend towards a rush-down style, or how Guile is designed to force the opponent into making mistakes with his sonic-booms. But with Hakan, I had no idea. Plus he's complicated. Really complicated.
All of Hakan's moves are designed to accomplish different things, and most work differently depending on whether he is oiled up or not. While it may seem like a great idea to always use the strongest grab, you notice that the weaker versions sends the opponent much further away, leaving Hakan free to apply another coat of oil. Some of his attacks chain together easily when oiled, but not at all when dry. He can cancel his dash with any normal while oiled, but what that accomplishes is difficult to really understand or apply.
In short, he's a clusterfuck.
I spent hours with him in the training room. I learned a few of his more reliable combos. Played with his weird moves until I memorized the differences. I thought I was ready to go online.
I lost my first 7 games with him without taking a single round.
Turns out coating yourself in flammable oil in a game where half the cast can project fire from their body isn't a good idea.
Thankfully, as always, YouTube came to the rescue. For all the things I don't like about the fighting game community (hyper-aggressiveness, a lionization of bad-sportsmanship, entrenched sexism, insular paranoia -- the list goes on) you can never fault them on their spirit of collaboration and freedom of knowledge.
There are some amazing guides to be found about Hakan on the SRK forums and similar places, but nothing beats seeing it in action. Mind blowing video-tutorials by LaSwagga and Suddafreekan detailing all of Hakan's numerous tricks and nuances are true labours of love; it was so difficult digesting and practising these techniques, I can only imagine the time and dedication required to figure it all out manually.
Obviously watching a few videos didn't turn me into a Hakan master, but almost immediately he became more natural to play with. He has a lot of tricky ways to appear like he is vulnerable and bait out mistakes from his opponents. His weird assortment of grabs start to make a certain kind of sense after a little bit and I eventually got to the point where I had a basic understanding of how his mix-up game works.
Understanding Hakan as a very set-up and trick-based character did me a world of good. It made him fit with the way I play fighting games now.
I remember back when I was young and "good" at fighting games, I'd take wins at the theatre's arcade despite not understanding half of the nuances of the games. I knew nothing but the most basic combos, I had an aversion to throws (i.e. I didn't understand them), and would constantly become fixated on finishing off opponents with whatever particular move I thought was wicked cool that day. But damn did I have reflexes. I took a lot of games back when I was a snot-nosed tween thanks to instant shoryukens and improbable poking.
Those days are fucking over.
Don't know when it happened, this kind of thing never knocks on your door and announces itself. It just creeps up on you over the years, slowly inching up right behind you before sinking the getting older knife between a pair of vertebrae. Nowadays there is a noticeable delay between seeing something happen and doing anything about it that didn't used to be there.
So with my aged and frail fingers controlled by a sluggish, distracted brain, I've had to entirely change the way I approach fighters. A lot of what's going on in my head during a game is based on prediction of what the other guy is going to do, and that requires a lot of work. You have to understand the options available to both your opponent's character and your own, the typical strategies employed by them, notice personal tendencies and patterns in the other guy's style, and so on. I've heard Street Fighter referred to as "speed chess with punches", and sometimes that's what it feels like.
Using Hakan's weird tool box of gimmicks let me develop a game plan I couldn't see before. A way to encourage predictability in the opponent and capitalize on flustered responses. Since so few people ever play or see Hakan, even the most obvious of his tricks worked with startling effectiveness.
Soon I was back on Xbox LIVE and winning matches. After my abysmal first attempt, things slowly came around and before I knew it (and with a minimum of whining) I was at Rank-C with a pretty damn decent record of 16-21.
OK. So maybe it's not the best record in the world. But it's better than the 0-7 I was tempted to leave it at!
My favourite matches in a fighter follow the same pattern. I get blown up in the first round, adjust to what the other guy is doing and scrape out a second round victory, then turn the tables and dominate on the third. It doesn't happen too often, but to me it is the most satisfying way a fight can go down. When you get a match like that, it shows that you really understood what was going on. You didn't get lucky, you won because you were able to see through the opponent's game plan and figure out a way to defend against it -- it's a beautiful thing.
Playing Hakan was like that writ-large. I had no idea what was going on at first. Hakan seemed like an unusable jumble of spare parts Capcom had decided to toss together as a joke. But with more time than I would care to admit spent researching the character, his options, and how to apply them in a fight, he slowly came together.
I think playing a low-tier character is a treat every fighting game fan owes to themselves. It might not seem like it at first, but if you stick with it, you'll walk away with a much greater understanding and appreciation of the game than you ever will going on win streaks with a flow-chart Ken.
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