Too much wrist action?

So when writing about what games I played in 2012, it’s pretty much impossible to get around the fact that a pretty significant majority of my time playing and thinking about games-and for that matter, money as well, once you factor in the trips to NEC and EVO-revolved around fighting games. But when there’s so much emphasis on minutiae and the tiniest nuances of game mechanics and situational interactions, I hate to judge a game off of a relatively brief time when I truly don’t feel I’m playing the same game after 20 hours compared to the first few, or after 100, or 300…

So I don’t feel like I have anything interesting to say about Soul Calibur V, which I barely understood, Street Fighter X Tekken (which I only played once), Skullgirls (which I simply found disagreeable), or anything else I played. And ultimately while I thought everything about Tekken Tag Tournament 2 was beautifully put together, and the game was really fun to play, I just wasn’t ready to put into it what I would have wanted. It’s a disappointment but with the amount of things I had to do with my free time it just hasn’t been able to fit in.

I am thou.

But there’s one game that’s gotten that second look, and that third look, and plenty more than that from me, whether or not it “deserves” it: Persona 4 Arena. I love the Persona series, and I love the Arc System Works fighting games, so this was obviously a slam dunk all along. And while I’ve been frustrated more than once by some of the bigger design decisions, like having massive amounts of invisibility on so many moves, the button mashing on overhead combos, and so on, it also gets a lot of the details right, with mechanics that tie in cleverly to the RPG series like status effects and SMT’s notorious instant death spells.

But my understanding of the mental game has really changed a lot since NEC, and while I may not be that good at applying it yet, (in fact, I’ve only played a couple sessions in the month since then) it’s definitely led me to enjoying the game a lot more. In large part it’s due to my opportunities to play a few of the better players from around the country and see Kirisame slaughter Souji after both of them demolished America’s best at the tournament, but I also saw a couple conversations on Twitter that confirmed things I had been thinking about for a while.

First, though, I have to say this doesn’t have to do with the dominance of the Japanese players over Americans, nor how much stronger Lord Knight and SKD are than virtually anyone else in the US; people really mis-estimate how much of a factor “randomness” is when the best players are involved, in any game. I don’t think I could be convinced that anyone plays better, more consistently, than ChrisG and Filipino Champ in Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3. The results from the game’s entire lifespan are just indisputable, even if each of them have had their off days at major tournaments. It’s easy to bag on the game when someone with notoriously poor basics like Andre can place “well” frequently, but placing well isn’t winning and frequently isn’t the same as consistency. Same thing here: invincible, high-damaging raw supers and stuff are “random”, but the best players have seen it all and rarely fall for them. At the same time, I can barely think of any game where the better player doesn’t usually win (when you include overall knowledge instead of trying to apply arbitrary judgments of “raw skill” just because people don’t use certain tactics or good characters), so it’s not as if this is some kind of rare achievement in the genre.

(Keeping with that anime theme, of course.)

(Kind of a sidenote, but I think the best example I can name was a brief set of Magical Drop 3 I played at EVO this year against…uhh, a kind lady. We didn’t introduce ourselves, so, sadly in many ways, I honestly have no idea who it was. I picked Strength, not just because she’s totally the coolest, but she also has the best attack pattern of the non-secret characters (who for the most part are so much more powerful that it’s not even interesting). And I won a few games, because she was playing Empress, a pretty mid-tier character. After a couple wins I explained that a few of the characters are much stronger than the others and encouraged her to try choosing Strength as well. Immediately thereafter, I was handily beaten into the ground, repeatedly. Knowledge is power!)

At any rate, the way I’m starting to see things is this: there’s generally kind of a spectrum of character fundamentals in a given fighting game, and in Persona this goes from mixup-oriented or “gimmicky” on one end, to playstyles that focus more on baiting and frametraps, or larger-scale spacing on the other. And in Persona, these lines are, for the most part, extremely clear. Chie and Aigis stand on that first side; they have a lot of ways to make you guess what’s coming next, not just because they can alternate between high and low so quickly, but they also have many ways to sneak in a dirty trick that you really just can’t see. On the other end are characters like Teddie and Elizabeth, with Teddie’s “high” options being so limited that even all of his jumping attacks can be blocked crouching. (Although the way that it should really be looked at is, his jumping attacks are so good that they absolutely HAD to make them “mid” attacks.) Instead, they have to use the threat of a throw to force the other player to react, generally by moving into throw range, backdashing, and then throwing out a longer range poke to punish the recovery. This is pretty much the core mixup for Teddie, Akihiko, and Mitsuru, and it’s quite an important option for Naoto and Yosuke as well. Due to Elizabeth and Yukiko’s low speed and difficult short-range game, they generally require the use of persona and a corner to set up the “throw” side of their game (as opposed to the “space people out and kill them without getting touched” part), after which they can try to punish the opponent’s attempts to poke out or use other escapes and get their real damage going, but the basic concept is similar. (In Yukiko’s case you’re not actually using a throw as the pressure tool but her 2D+2A unblockable setup, which demands a similar sort of response because doing nothing gives her a combo; additionally, you can’t jump out of 2D setups so the only real escape is roll…which, properly baited, gives her a throw starter analogous to other characters’ throw-bait starters. To me, it plays out very much the same.)

On the other end, Aigis, Chie, Yu, and Labrys rely much more on ambiguous setups where the appropriate reaction in a situation is much more direct. Block the right move or you’ll take a combo to the face (and generally, get put right back in the same situation). In Persona 4 every character has a reversal that works in at least some of these situations, so it’s not as simple as it might sound for characters like Aigis and Chie to simply mash buttons all over everyone else once it’s their turn to play, but the risk for using a reversal that doesn’t connect (or at least return to a semi-neutral state as Teddie’s does when the player is out of range for the rage hit, or Elizabeth’s if the throw is teched) is pretty heavy. In a sense, it’s actually quite similar to the throw-teching game, except that the risk and reward for doing nothing (as the defender) is quite a bit different.

And of course a few characters sit in the middle or don’t clearly fit on either side, like Yosuke, who has a lot of good “canned” mixups but ultimately relies heavily on his 5B and 5D frametrap games to open up better opponents, Shadow Labrys, who needs space control and staggered pressure to get started and then has one of the most devastating knockdown offenses in the game, or Kanji, who has a wide variety of delayed and invincible grabs covering almost any situation…but reading the wrong situation is devastating for him. But for the most part, there’s a good balance of styles, and even more importantly, not all of the “good” characters fit the same molds. Mitsuru is an aggressive bait character who can often move in quickly and stay in for an unnervingly long time, while Teddie does better at playing hit-and-run while waiting for high points in his item selection and other options. Aigis starts matches without her crazy mixup and combo options and has to fish for chances to get started, while Chie’s pressure can begin almost immediately and work relentlessly until she wins. This isn’t much consolation for characters like Naoto and Labrys who have to work extremely hard to get hits no matter what, but for the most part the game is good at accommodating many playstyles successfully at a high level.

This is something I felt has not quite been as strong even in some other very good recent games, like King of Fighters XIII. Although, like in Persona, the large number of universal system mechanics mean that every character has access to a suite of good basic options, my experience in the game was that it’s often vastly more difficult to get results with characters lacking specialized tools like ground overheads and command grabs, even if their own specialties are quite powerful. In such a fast-paced, aggressive game, being able to force the other player to make errors quickly is extremely useful, and when it comes to this characters like Leona, Ash, Mai and Terry your risk in pressing offense (or often spacing) is much higher compared to the reward than it is for Hwa Jai, Mr. Karate, Shen Woo or j.2C. I mean Kyo. I’m not saying that it’s not a well-designed or balanced game because I still absolutely think that it is, but very few of the characters based around space control and non-consistent pressure (like Benimaru and Maxima) shine the way that most of the top characters do.

Street Fighter IV is another game that I’ve long since started to feel suffers from a similar problem, where many of the “classic” SF characters have fallen behind due to the ability of characters with vastly better okizeme to run a match off of a single hit. It may not be as noticeable in a single set, even a fairly long one, but over the course of a long tournament the need to play absolutely on point in every game places serious limitations on the ability of characters like Chun-li and Blanka to work their way to the top in larger events. Again, characters like Ryu and Adon have to play fairly straightforward games and can do so with great efficacy, but I feel that recent results, and watching players like Dieminion and Snake Eyez grind it out with characters who have several really tough matchups, say a lot about the state of the game.

Still, other games of course offer plenty of things that Persona doesn’t, like larger, less homogenized casts, those strange moments where both players are super afraid of doing anything, and music I really like. But for me a lot of the simplicity of the game has been a huge benefit, as it’s the first game where I’ve really started to understand what I’m doing and why, even if there’s a lot I haven’t figured out how to deal with. And I still constantly wonder if I’m really playing the character I most want to. I haven’t spent tons of time on fighting games this month as I’ve been preparing for some quality time on the IIDX machine at Magfest and of course my performance at AGDQ, so once all that’s finished and we find out what this year’s tournament circuit looks like for Evo I’ll have a better idea of the areas I want to focus on. Persona is pretty fun even without huge investment in being the absolute best, but if it has NOFUTURE on the big stage then I’ll probably spend a lot more time going in on Guilty Gear (in which I actually really like playing with the stupidest characters!) and try to return more to King of Fighters despite the fact that I have a really hard time playing the game effectively, while also waiting for the new Blazblue and Jojo’s (which I hope will have a bit of a following on the poverty circuit), as well as whatever else might be announced in the months to come…

I know there’s plenty of fighting game people who don’t like the new games, just feel fatigue, or are jaded over the increasing influence of esports and money, but I’m thrilled to have the events and opportunities that are present right now, even as I’m still trying to figure out the best way to improve myself and discover what I really want.


4 comments on “Too much wrist action?

  1. Brandon Shelton says:

    In theory I feel like I should really enjoy Persona, but it just hasn’t clicked for me. Part of it probably has something to do with how I’m not terribly in love with the Persona series to begin with (at least compared to a lot of people from The Internet) so it’s got this stupid hipster appeal for me to *not* like it. But as a fighting game it should be something I like a lot: I really like universal systems that aren’t just variations on meters, and giving everyone in the game some form of invincible reversal is pretty appealing to me. Even though it has a small cast size, it still covers pretty much every character archetype I could ask for. And yet the only characters I’ve really been drawn to are Labrys and Shadow Labrys; granted, I’ve really only put in match time with Labrys, but I still messed around with Yukiko, Mitsuru, Naoto, and Teddie in training and just didn’t really click with any of them. I’ve never given ASW fighters much time at all before this, so it’s possible I might just not like how they design fighters on a fundamental level.

    As for character appeal: I thought I knew what kinds of characters I liked but now I’m questioning that more and more. Traditionally I like heavy zoner characters like Guile and Sagat (Peacock in Skullgirls is the most fun I’ve ever had playing a zoner) but Yukiko, Teddie and Naoto didn’t really seem interesting to me. Ever since I started really playing KoF though, I think my taste in characters has changed quite a bit, so it might be worthwhile to give some characters a shot that I normally would consider “not my style” like Kanji or Akihiko. But at this point I’m only still “playing” Persona because other people here are and I don’t give a crap about Marvel anymore (and I’m at a weird spot in KoFXIII that I don’t know how to approach).

    One thing about Tekken Tag 2 is that I really wish it didn’t take me like 2 hours just to learn a character; I want to have Tekken be one of my main games because I really like playing it a lot and I like at least half the cast, but damn the time commitment for a new 3D-fighter player is just tremendous. Especially since TTT2 is really the first time I’ve tried taking Tekken seriously, it’d be like if someone’s first 2D fighter was KoFXI. I guess it really is just a process of learning what I want out of fighters, and figuring out how much time I really want to put into them in the first place. I still haven’t been to a major (or EVO, or an out-of-state tournament…) ever, so perhaps something like that would be a good catalyst for me to do some self-evaluation of my goals.

    • spineshark says:

      Strongly recommend finding an opportunity to travel and taking it. Evo’s not great for this in my opinion; there’s so much going on that you have to stay SUPER focused to get anything done. You’ll get distracted by new stuff to play, or watching the top players, or screaming for your friends and locals. It’s fun, a really amazing experience, but it’s much harder to meet new people and figure out what you really want versus striking out more on your own for smaller settings like other majors. CEO and west coast tourneys are also pretty esports but for mainstream games they’re also run more effectively than stuff like NEC and FR, and you won’t have so many CO players to fall back on either way. Stickbug’s majors are really great but I know you’re not as much of an ASW guy so unless you’re planning to pick up AH3 or something then maybe you don’t want to go to ECT or a Big E event.

      (If you are gonna pick up Arcana, hit me up. I don’t know anything, but it’s fun.)

      Can’t really guess what your reaction will be, since it’s a big motivator for almost anyone, but in different ways. For me I’m a lot less worried about local comp than I was last year, and definitely feel like it can be worthwhile to grind on my own if I like a game enough. But maybe you’ll feel more enthusiastic about fighting to the top locally as a first priority, or something else.

      I like the Persona series a lot, although like most of my favorite series…it’s not really much of one. The games just don’t have much in common, and aside from the small number of shared mechanical and story elements there hasn’t been that much evolution, with the main mechanics getting overhauled heavily almost every time. It seems likely that the school-anime model will hold up for a while, but I certainly wouldn’t be sure of that.

      Arena definitely has some of the ASW trademarks but it’s not really that much like BB, and aside from the overall speed it has even less in common with GG. A lot of people really only love one of their games so if you’ve never given GG an honest shot…well, maybe it’s not worth it, but BB is gonna be a different game this year, one that moves more like Persona and has some more really strong/random/cheap stuff compared to previous versions.

      I agree that P4U has some good variety but due to design choices like using only QCF motions and multiple versions of every special (which cuts down a ton on the amount of really different options you get when qcf+D and qcf+C could be totally separate moves) makes a lot of the characters feel really similar to me. This is definitely nice for pick-up-and-play but from doing all of trial mode I don’t always like how it feels when learning characters. Ultimately the emphasis is on offense even for “zoners” and pretty much everyone has reliable knockdowns into solid meaty or near-meaty options (although Elizabeth needs a corner, Yosuke rarely gets them and Teddie’s are item dependent). I used to be a big zoner player as well but I’ve tapered off in a lot of games as I’ve felt many times that I’ve gotten lazy because of them. It’s not that Ash, Morrigan, etc. are THAT easy to play, but trying to play like I don’t need to ever go in and kill anyone was a huge obstacle for me to work over. And Yukiko and Elizabeth are still my favorite characters in P4U, in large part since they get the most varied options with Personas, etc. it’s just frustrating that the system works against them in so many ways.

      Like I said, the crux of the game for me isn’t that the game is overall “easy” or SUPER GOOD but that it manages to move almost every element to a level that I think is easily understood even if the solutions to problems take a lot of work sometimes. I came back and played a bunch of KOF at Magfest last weekend, and I was having so much more success with characters like Mai and Leona who I’d just complained about that I could barely believe it. All my work playing Elizabeth in Persona really taught me a lot about how to keep people in corners and benefit from it, but I still think they lag behind compared to all the characters with good high-low (or Hwa’s unblockables) that lead to full combos.

      There’s more but I don’t have time to throw out more at the moment. I have a hard time understanding what you’re saying about Tekken. Are you saying it takes too long to learn the basics of playing as new characters, or fighting them? I’m sure that like most people you’re commenting about how much work the game is to get good at, but beyond that I’m not quite getting your drift.

      • Brandon Shelton says:

        My Tekken comment really was just about how much work it takes to a learn playing a character. It’s hard to say if the problem lies with Tekken being too complex for beginners or merely my lack of familiarity with 3D fighters; it’s been a long time since 2D fighters were legitimately “new” to me so I don’t remember what it felt like to be at the same stage of learning 2D fighters. Right now it feels like playing live matches in TTT2 isn’t really all that helpful because I’m barely above the level of button-mashing, like I’m still consciously thinking about which button does what and which attacks actually make a chain and stuff like that. And then after a while of playing the same character I look at their command list again and see that I’m not even using like 50% of their attacks, so it just makes me feel a little bummed out is all. Actually, writing it out like that I think shows it really is just a lack of familiarity with the game and what to look for with a character. Thankfully TTT2 has Ghost Battle which seems really good for practicing and getting familiar with a character’s moveset, and it doesn’t even force you to pick a team so you can really concentrate on 1 character at a time if you want to. (and as with every other fighter it helps to have people at similar skill levels to play against).

        I think a big reason I haven’t been driven to go out of state for anything is because I’m not exactly a heavy-hitter here locally, so it kind of feels like it would be a waste of money considering I only sometimes do better than 1-2 in tournaments here. I know that’s a shitty way to look at it but it’s what a lot of fighting game players feel at some point. Still, you don’t really know how good you are until you try so I just need to get over myself about that (and also start playing more in general, I’ve been really slacking about practicing and playing for several months now). I also don’t really follow “the scene” as much as I used to, so I don’t really know much about what tournaments I would really like to go to, or who the top players are that I should pay attention to once I’m at a tournament and stuff like that. And also KoF is the only game right now that I’m both decent at and committed enough towards, so that sort of limits my choices for outside tournaments (maybe not as bad now that it’s confirmed coming back for EVO). Taking all that in consideration, I think my best choice is to either a) road-trip somewhere with people here so it will be relatively cheap, or b) go somewhere not too serious on my own.

  2. spineshark says:

    I was never able to figure out Tekken either, and it’s one of those games where the details are everything, but what you’re really trying to do when you’re learning a character I think is to find the 1-2 moves that are the most useful in each of the most common situations. Your main punishes at certain advantages, your best overall poke for mid/low games at midrange, what moves are good for catching sidesteps, etc. Gimmick play, like obscure strings and moves that people may not immediately recognize, is strong at mid-level I guess (i.e. almost the entire US scene), but I think with many characters you can do well with conservative/basic play when you learn your main pickups and tools. There are some less “solid” characters who rely more heavily on high risk and reward (like Bob) or your ability to keep pulling out crazy new tricks to fool the other guy (Lei, Zafina, etc.) but I think that’s kind of the idea.

    I was feeling pretty similar about traveling before NEC but you get a weird impression of your ability from playing the same few people for so long. Like, Pedro usually figures out all my new gimmicks within a night, but I don’t have that disadvantage when I’m playing people I don’t know (unless they’re also really good like Pedro). CO may not have any top 8 players nationally, but we’re also low on really weak players at the current time, and it’s actually pretty unlikely that if you’ve been practicing that you’ll go 0-2 in a “current” game at any major. There’s a much wider spread of skill ranges and tons of people who are ready to play with you who’ll get you some good sets if you want. I’m not always the best at asserting myself but people are generally pretty nice in the smaller communities and will be happy to let people in and spend time playing with you. NEC was a bit of an exception to the extent that the really good P4/BB players wanted most to get as much action in with the Japanese guys as possible, but tons of people were still just really hype to keep playing as much as possible. Also, people who play your characters are great to get in contact with, especially if they’re fairly obscure ones people will be excited to give tips and talk about matchups and stuff. Plus they’ll usually know people, and so on.

    Of course, time and money aren’t trivial, but if you really want a great experience, you should make sure to go to a great tournament, it’ll really be a lot better than two good “regionals”. I know that Keits works really hard to make UFGT as convenient and affordable as he can, and Chicago isn’t as expensive as some of the other major cities in that league (like Vegas (Evo), NY (ECT) or LA (SCR)), he’s really into fun side events (concocting is own games and the mystery tournaments) and also to support as many games as possible, so if you’re on the fence about your ability and interest that may be a good option with a relatively low barrier of entry.

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