Punch drunk love
Asking people why they love a certain kind of game is a waste of time. Our tastes are a complex combination of factors with granular levels and waxing and waning moods, an alchemical formula that requires fourth dimensional physics and forbidden equations to map out.
But, in an exception to this rule, I can tell you exactly why I love fighting games and about a perfectly preserved moment frozen in the amber of my mind that I keep coming back to, keep trying to re-live.
It might surprise you, but this moment isn’t from my childhood. While I certainly spent some idyllic afternoons in the arcade and have plenty of sepia-toned nostalgic memories of fighting games from my youth, it was Super Street Fighter IV that made me fall in love with the genre all over again. But first, it had to teach me to hate.
I was playing Vega while my opponent was playing Cody, a character choice I immediately resented. Earlier that week I’d been humiliated again and again as Cody, trying in vain to make him work for me, suffering defeat after defeat. I declared him a lost cause, a weak character.
His Cody wasn’t a lost cause. He was beating me senseless.
It was stupid and frustrating. His gameplan was a simple, childish loop. He fished for a sweep off the start of the round (which caught me of course), and as soon as he scored a knock-down, he began a simple pattern – a cross-up jump kick, two or three jabs, a medium punch, and finally a light Criminal Upper. If it hit, he’d do it again. If I blocked it, he’d do it again. Rinse and repeat. A simple, obvious, brain dead way to auto-pilot to victory.
And worst of all, it worked.
I fell for it again and again. It isn’t a particularly damaging combo. In SSFIV, extra attacks in a combo scale down the damage, so all the little jabs made the sequence fairly weak. The upshot is, any player dumb enough to be defeated by such a routine is treated to four or five repetitions of the same mistake before it’s over. Enough times to really feel like a jackass. Enough times to grind your teeth into powder, to put fault line frustration cracks into your fight stick.
Maybe it seems weird that I would remember a single round of Street Fighter out of all the years I’ve played the game so clearly, but it isn’t to me. After all, this was damn near my last game of Street Fighter. I was so fed up with the game at that point I was about ready to throw in the towel for good. SFIV nearly soured me on fighting games in general.
I imagine that’s not a unique experience.
Like so many other gamers my age, I grew up playing Street Fighter. I loved it. I spent recesses throwing mock Hadoukens with my friends. I had the SNES versions, the comics, the dumb G.I Joe toys, watched the anime, everything. For my birthday one year, my brother painted Ken mid-Shoryuken for me and it hung on my wall for ages.
I enjoyed Street Fighter in its various incarnations for years — in the basement den against my brother, against the kids up the street, in the shitty little arcade at the movie theater against my friends and, very rarely, the occasional random. I thought I was great at Street Fighter.
But I wasn’t.
SFIV and the introduction of online play stripped away any delusions I had of my ability. Being able to reliably perform Shoryukens wasn’t the hot skill it seemed like between my friends, and thinking it was belied a truly vast ignorance of what actually makes someone good at fighting games. SFIV taught me, through painful, repeated humiliations, that there was a whole other world out there of Street Fighter players. Of people who actually understood the game, who were playing on a completely different level than me.
It felt like a betrayal. Street Fighter was this beloved gem from my childhood, something I really loved. But in 2008, it slithered back into my life, fangs dripping with poison. It came back cruel and menacing, frustrating and punishing – and I was getting tired of pretending to enjoy something that consistently made me feel like dog shit.
The revelation had it’s upsides. It made me appreciate the series on a whole new level. I started paying attention to fighting game tournaments, EVO, the fighting game community. I quickly filled my YouTube subscription list with fighting game channels. I devoured character guides, memorized match-up tips, and seethed with jealously at combo sizzle reels my slow, clumsy hands couldn’t even attempt to emulate. Like some floundering post-grad who bluffed his way through an easy degree and was suddenly flunking out of a masters program, I was hitting the books, trying to make up for lost time while everyone else left me behind.
It made me a spectator. For as much as I had a whole new appreciation for the game, I quietly, politely, stopped playing it. In the face of how much I had to learn, how completely I would have to re-conceptualize this series I’d been playing for 20 years, just to perform at a level slightly above “embarrassing,” I bowed out.
Stubbornness brought me back for SSFIV. “New update, new characters, new me,” I thought. I’d eaten humble pie, licked my wounds, learned the error of my arrogance, I was ready for a come-back. Isn’t that how it always works in kung-fu movies? The protagonist has to be taken down a peg and learn to heed the wisdom of his master (or in my case, YouTube tutorials) before returning to win the big tournament?
Well, my return wasn’t exactly triumphant.
By the end of the second week after launch, I was back where I started. I dropped Cody (who I had intended to main), messed around with a handful of other characters with tragic results, and was just about ready to wash my hands of the whole business. I only picked up Vega after another player using him managed to throw me about a dozen times in one fight and I couldn’t understand how he did it (FYI: While Vega is great at “kara-grabs,” the real culprit was my inability to tech throws or understand how he kept putting me in situations where I was too scared to do anything but block).
Which is a very long-winded way to get back to the Vega vs. Cody match that made me love fighting games again. If you want to get into the overly-detailed and boring reasons why I was being beaten like a red headed step-child by a character I had just that week declared a “lost cause” (and I do), the problem was threefold for me.
1. Vega has bad anti-air options at the best of times, and new to the character as I was (and admittedly bad), I didn’t know them, so Cody got to jump-in for free, something you should never, ever allow your opponent to do and is frankly a little embarrassing.
2. Vega needs to hold down and back to charge most of his special moves. Jump kicks hit overhead, so a player that insists on crouching will get hit by them all day. I knew this, and I’d try to switch between blocking high and low, but boy, did I really want to charge a flip kick. I kept getting hit by jump-ins because I was stubbornly trying to charge special moves that were not helping me (did I mention I was bad?).
3. I kept falling for the gap between the jabs and medium punch. The timing on Cody’s crouching medium punch provides just enough time to stick out an ill-considered poke between it and the jab, but not enough time to actually connect. He gets to hit you for attempting to poke out (this is known as a “frame-trap” in fighting game circles — at the time I referred to it as “bullshit”). Even when I blocked the cross-up and jabs, I kept killing myself with futile attempts to hit him. I was just so desperate to get my own shots in.
Observant readers will notice all of these problems originate from one source, the guy holding the stick. It wasn’t the characters, and it wasn’t the game. Those were excuses. It was my fundamental failure to respond correctly to what my opponent was doing and insistence on repeating the same mistakes that were making me lose. That were making me feel stupid. That were making me resent the game.
And I was aware of it.
Calling it a moment of clarity would be over dramatic, but at the end of the first round I became acutely aware it was my own fault this was happening. I knew if I kept trying to play the game like I had been (playing by gut, moving from character to character instead of learning what I was doing, making the same mistakes), I’d never be able to enjoy the series again. I’d lose something that used to mean a lot to me.
So I focused. I thought about what my opponent was doing. Tried to really understand why I was losing. How he put me in the same situation again-and-again. The key was to stop being focused on trying to hit him, on getting off my own special movies, or even blocking the hits – it was just about getting out of that situation in the first place.
It wasn’t pretty. I tried back-dashing, sliding under the jump-in, using Vega’s near-useless backflip, everything I could think of that wouldn’t just leave me blocking. I took dumb hits in the process, but it was working. I was generating space between me and Cody, enough that if he jumped in, he’d land right in front of me instead of crossing me up.
And that’s when I discovered that my opponent wasn’t as talented as he seemed. Out of the loop, he seemed uncomfortable, sluggish. He’d panic sweep ridiculously out of range, letting me sneak in a hit. He started chucking rocks (Cody’s marginally useful projectile) over-and-over again, leaving him open to jump-in attacks and solid damage.
It was a gimmick. He had one loop down, and no back-up plan. Yeah, it was ugly, but at the end of the second round, I eked out the slimmest, “magic-pixel” win. A slight breeze could have knocked me over.
At long last, the lights came on and I started really playing Street Fighter. Now I got it, I knew what he’d do, and how to stay ahead of it. I hit him with an air-throw when he went for a jump-in off the start. I kept my distance and poked away with Vega’s long reaching medium kick until he started throwing panic rocks again. When he started to turtle up, I threw him. I beat him just as badly as he beat me in the first round. I beat him hollow.
I know, this is basically bragging about winning a slap fight. Two scrubs smacking each other around in an embarrassing display of ineptitude and failure. I know what I did was the very rock bottom basics of Fighting Games 101. But dammit, it felt good.
It wasn’t that I won. I was terrible at SSFIV, sure, but it wasn’t like I never won a fight. Even bad players can win fights if they duck better players and throw out enough random Dragon Punches.
I was frustrated with SSFIV because I could see there was a whole other strata of players that were practicing the game on a different level from me. It made me feel stupid and myopic for never noticing the real depth and beauty of the series before. It made me feel left out, abandoned by a thing I used to love as the crowd around it got progressively more sophisticated and talented while I was still duking it out with the other hapless rubes in the kiddie pool. But that moment, when I was able to effectively turn around a hopeless situation through the application of knowledge and observation, it proved to me that there was still a place for me in the genre.
I’ve spent the past six years since SSFIV came out chasing the same thrill in every fighting game I play in different ways and forms. Sometimes it happens over the course of a match, the same third round turn just like before. Sometimes it happens over the span of several matches, of playing and losing to a particular player again-and-again until it clicks and I start to understand how that player thinks, how they see the game, and work out a way to counter it.
More and more, it happens in a macro sense. Learning how to deal with a hard match-up by subjecting myself to it until I don’t cringe when I see the cursor on the character select screen drift to a particular corner. It can even happen in the training room, when I set the dummy up to perform some move or technique that has been crushing me online again-and-again until I figure out a way around it.
I was only able to enjoy fighting games again when I was finally able to prioritize learning over winning.
I’m under no delusions anymore, and I’m not trying to sell myself as a good fighting game player because I’m not. I’m still pretty bad and will always be pretty bad. My reaction time is garbage, my hands have all the grace and dexterity of a couple of bumper cars piloted by eight-year-olds, and I never seem to find the hours you need to devote to a game to be truly good.
But that’s okay. I found my bliss. I found the exact alchemical formula that I know will always give me the buzz I need, the thrill I can’t get from any other kind of game. I can take as many losses as need be on the chin as long as I feel like I’m learning something in the process. That’s where the real love for the genre is.