Let’s Run

So Awesome Games Done Quick 2013 is done, and with it the SDA marathon events have raised about 3/4 of a million dollars for charity. That’s really amazing, and on one level I’m really proud that I’ve been able to participate, even if it’s on some small, nigh-useless level. I had felt, for many months prior to my trip this year, that general speedrunning communities and activities, and even the charity angle on the whole thing, might not really be enough to make my trip worthwhile. I was really going just to see friends, my family, and Yuzo Koshiro.

None of that’s changed from my trip, really. But it doesn’t have to. Every year I meet more and more people that I’m excited to go see again, so while my sister’s family won’t be in the area next year, and Magfest may not have quite as amazing of a headliner (though I can think of a few I’d like to see at least as much as Koshiro), I’m really hoping that I can make the trip work out again next year, even if it’s not as long.

This was my fourth Magfest, and I’m still astounded by how quickly the event has grown. In 2012 the event moved to the gigantic Gaylord National in National Harbor due to space constraints at the previous venue, and I couldn’t imagine how many people were there. This year didn’t seem that much different, but according to the organizers the jump was from 6000 to at least 9000! By comparison, in 2009…there were apparently only around 1350.

I’m not really much of a convention-goer; I wouldn’t even say I don’t like them, but for the most part I wouldn’t choose them over other things I could be doing with the time and money. Fortunately, Magfest lines up very closely with something else I like to do, and I’ve always had an amazing time, so it’s not usually a hard choice.  Hanging out is fun enough, but I’m amazed by how many people show up to play music and the amount of obscure or largely inaccessible games that people bring out every year. This year I was only exposed to a few games that really caught me off guard or that I just hadn’t gotten to play before, but they sure didn’t disappoint.

 

This is a picture of me, for some reason.

My “favorite” was Pac-Man VR, a hilarious little entry in the Virtual Reality craze of the 90s. You put on the helmet, stand inside a small enclosed ring on a platform so you don’t stumble off and hurt yourself or the precious machine, then get a small 1-handed grip for the controller. You’re Pac-Man, in first person, and the controller has one button, which is used to walk forward since the game would be impossible to control if you were forced to always move like in the original game. Also, since you can’t see ghosts that might be behind you (or outside your general field of vision period) the game doesn’t use a standard life system. Instead, you have a short amount of time to collect 1/4 of the dots on the field, and if you’re successful you get another equal period of time for the next 1/4, and so on. As such, the main challenge of the game after the adjustment period is over is not getting lost trying to make your way to the last few dots. The final one is marked with a nice arrow, but since you can’t see the overall layout it’s not easy to tell what the best way to get there is. I never saw anyone finish the first level so I’m not sure how the later levels change the formula up, but it was great to watch (both the player in the game, and the tv which had a separate line out) and play for a bit.

I also spent my traditional time at the Cave shmup setups, and while, between Magfest, emulation and the fantastic array of console ports, I’ve played nearly all of their games at least a bit, there was still one gap in my experience: Ibara Kuro. The original Ibara is a sequel of sorts to Battle Garegga, which I consider my favorite game of all time, but the “Black” version is essentially a remix by another programmer that changes up a lot of the mechanics. The game is quite a bit easier than the original if you play conservatively,  but trying to take advantage of the scoring mechanics tends to place you in between impenetrable walls of bullets. It’s not a very forgiving game and I didn’t have time to learn anything tricky, but I really enjoyed it nonetheless. I think I embarrassed my friend by singing the soundtrack constantly, but what else was I supposed to do? It was so loud in there you could barely hear it!

I also met some guys out there who play King of Fighters XIII and some other fighting games, and a few hours of KoF even when I hadn’t spent any time practicing recently was really nice. I had really forgotten how much I liked the game, and I’m always surprised by how much better I do against players who aren’t local for the most part. I feel like a lot of the guys in Denver have “figured me out” at this point, and it’s hard to beat them without coming up with new one-time gimmicks, but on the road the fact that I play less common characters and do have a lot of bad tricks can help a lot. In the end I didn’t ever actually play Zerp, who plays two of the same characters that I played for a long time, Elisabeth and Shen. That was kind of a disappointment, but he showed up a couple more times while I was at AGDQ since he also knows Josh and a couple other guys, and ended up introducing me to Chaos Code as well, which is a weird Taiwanese fighting game that mashes up some “anime” mechanics with more KoF-ish type basics. It definitely feels a bit weird and “cheap” (in the production sense) but it’s got some fun backgrounds and a weirdly addictive soundtrack, and I’m pretty excited to share its goofiness with some of the local players in Denver.

Finally, there was the man himself, Yuzo Koshiro. I honestly had no idea what his performance was going to be like, although it was billed as the first of two acts for a “dance party.” Sadly I was correctly left to assume this meant he wouldn’t be pulling out any of his more prog rock/metal/fusion type stuff, but the set certainly didn’t even begin to disappoint. He ended up DJ’ing about an hour of game music from across his career, starting with some Actraiser music before moving into some heavier and more “rave”-y stuff like Streets of Rage and Shinobi. The climax involved many tracks from the Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune arcade games, which I was especially excited about. I’m not at all familiar with the games, but I basically always love singing in game soundtracks and wish there was more.

I ended up having to cut Magfest short on both ends and would’ve really loved to stay even a little longer, but it was still just a great time and I didn’t regret going out to make sure I got a nice Sunday afternoon and evening with my sister’s family. After that, it was time to get to AGDQ.

I feel like a lot of the event actually speaks for itself if you watch the stream, although anyone who’s been to a major fighting game tournament or anything else knows how completely different being there is from being a long-distance spectator. The atmosphere was definitely a lot more subdued overall than a competitive event, but a lot of the same passion was there. Speedrunning may be less of a commitment per game in many cases (although the top players on Super Metroid and similar popular games have certainly poured a lot of their lives into their titles), but I was still struck by the enthusiasm with which players absorbed new tricks and asked for help on a staggering variety of runs and games.

I can’t say I felt that same drive, even in the middle of all this. For me learning about the basic speed tricks or concepts in a game is really fun, but it’s kind of like trying out combos for characters I don’t play in fighting games. It’s not fundamentals, or sometimes even useful, it’s just a fun little unique thing to try out.  I don’t want to rehearse a whole game in most cases, I just want to see something new and fresh. But it all ties into my greater understanding of the “performance” aspect of speedrunning and other superplays. It’s not just about knowing how the game works and playing it a lot; there’s a lot of important “setups” or other combo-esque sequences needed to really excel. The players know exactly what the desired outcome is, and the drama stems from human error and the unpredictability of programmed behavior. This doesn’t change my outlook towards these kinds of plays overall, but it does make the idea of doing them a lot more approachable now that I’ve started to understand the methods and scale of work better.

The other facet of performance is, of course, the player and their personality. For the most part, viewers respond best to people who are fun to watch along with their games. Whether these are people like Mr. K or Cosmo, who bring a warm friendliness to match their esoteric and detailed knowledge, someone like PJ, whose enthusiasm and temper hold steady through even the most stunningly painful games, or the over-the-top personalities like tri-hex and Flicky who often dominate the stream’s attention even if they’re not playing (for better or worse), the players are definitely a big draw not just for me, but the viewers at home. Of course, some carefully cultivated mystique can go a long way too, but it’s usually best for someone like Siglemic who’s got a game that’s sufficiently popular and flashy to entertain the viewers on its own.

I’ve been around the block a few times with these events, and I knew coming in that there wasn’t some kind of life-changing experience coming. But as my interest in fighting games has grown faster than my interest in speedruns, there’s still a lot for me to think about in terms of what this trip and the community is “worth” to me, and there’s not an easy answer to that. I’ll be back in the future, I’m sure, but with my sister moving out and a lot of other stuff unresolved in my life, I’m not quite sure when that future will be.

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.

Thin Red Line

Earlier this year, 1up.com published a rather unusual interview with one of the original programmers of Final Fantasy (the first one…but not just the first one), Hiroyuki Ito. I recommend reading it, but in short, Ito reveals himself to be quite a fan of the NFL, and explains that the basis of the game’s combat, in which each “side” lines up facing each other, plans their moves, then executes them all in a sequence, was inspired by the similar structure of offense (and defense) present in professional sports, particularly American football. As fascinating as I found this little revelation, I can’t say it truly changed my perspective on the game or the series, particularly since I’m not really that much of a sports fan anyway. But what it does do is underline how even concepts that seem simple or obvious in retrospect still tend to have lots of rather surprising thoughts behind them.

But what I usually find missing in FF games, and most RPGs in general, is feeling some kind of risk. There’s a lot of ways to create tense situations with risk and reward, and while I tend to disagree with a lot of the commonly used ones (like the common SMT trick of “you don’t know what these guys have until you get killed by them” or the general old-school “that last save point was an hour back”), most of them can work well enough when surrounded by an engaging setting or enjoyable mechanics. In my opinion, though, there’s a much more elegant way to cultivate these situations: you let the players make their own risk.

I’m using the word “risk,” because this is literally what the mechanic is called in Vagrant Story, one of the best and oldest examples of this idea. Although players may at first be inclined to go for big chains on the game’s timing-based combo system, as they present the most obvious path to major damage, doing so will quickly raise the main character’s “Risk” to dangerous levels, both making further combos more difficult and increasing the amount of damage taken from attacks. Increasing Risk has its benefits as well, so it’s not simply a punishment for playing well, but the tradeoffs create a mechanic for which neither increasing or decreasing is always the “best” option, and the desired consequences ultimately come down to situational factors and more importantly, player preference.

In general I feel like this idea hasn’t really caught on, which is fair enough since I think most players prefer the “your party can just become gods” approach, but at least one developer has tried pulling this out a few times: Star Ocean creators tri-Ace. Its first appearance is in Star Ocean 3, where your characters’ attacks use a special resource called Guts (Fury, in the English versions, but “Guts” is a commonly appearing mechanic name in the company’s games and “Fury” is not), with special attacks also consuming hitpoints (or magic points, in the case of spells, but since the MP bar is also a health bar, it still works out to the same thing). The Fury bar has two main purposes. First, characters (and enemies) can block “weak” attacks when their Fury is at 100%. For players, there are many ways to set up guaranteed combo situations off of blocked attacks, so it’s very helpful to block when possible. Fury is also the limit of how long your combos can be, as you have to stand still (stop attacking and moving) to regain it, so a single character can only chain moves until their Fury is too low to use the next one. The game’s “basic” combo path is Weak Normal (optional) -> Weak Special -> Strong Special -> Weak Special -> Strong Special -> etc. In other words, you can only cancel a Strong special if you have canceled it from a Weak special, and Strong normals don’t cancel into anything. (There are still ways to begin combos with Strong normals, and the main character’s ability to do this on his own is one of his biggest strengths.) There are a small number of other restrictions on the ways you can use moves together, but in general this combo system allows you to alternate any pair of moves you want…whether or not they even “combo” in a standard sense. For example, a common tactic is to have the “Weak” special be one that doesn’t physically touch the enemies (as this will prevent them from being able to block it), either because it “buffs” your character temporarily (although canceling the move usually overrides these effects) or doesn’t reach at the spacing you’re using. But in short, the system tends to create a flow in which both sides “take turns” in the battle without specifically enforcing that structure. It’s possible to focus on a “slow and steady” strategy in which you chip away at enemies in a relatively safe manner, but you can also play for a big “bait and punish” game where you wait for big openings and capitalize on them with full combos. Really, really long combos, if you can master playing multiple characters at once.

Valkyrie Profile 2 uses a similar system, where big combos tend to leave your party open (often even more directly than in SO3) due to the resource drain limiting your available actions, but their most recent major release, Resonance of Fate, takes the concept to something of a logical conclusion. Although it’s possible to perform extremely weak actions for “free” in ROF, the standard turn involves having a character strafe the enemies while shooting a bunch, and by doing this repeatedly you can go for a big triple attack where all three characters do this at once. Both the single run and the tri-attack cost a single “turn,” and you gain back turns by destroying enemies and/or objects that may be on their bodies. For example, a common enemy is a gangster, and by shooting his bowler hat (usually by jumping over his head) you can gain back a turn. It’s very common to end up in situations where you spend all of your turns priming enemies and moving your team into position for a big tri-attack, which causes so much carnage that you regain all of your turns. Running out of turns is almost always a Game Over situation (although the game’s penalty for “dying” is quite low), and as a result that moment when you’re about to gamble everything on your last turn is almost always loaded with tension. Even if the enemies aren’t doing much, watching that critical moment where everything comes together or collapses is an exciting, rewarding situation for the player, created simply by everything they’ve done to that point.

And who says this has to be limited to RPGs? (Personally, I’d argue that generally tri-Ace’s games aren’t JRPGs in the first place; for example, SO3 is more of an action game in which the RPG elements primarily serve to change the difficulty curve in various ways, rather than “forcing” players to simply master the game…but I digress.) Fighting games already tend to create a sort of unenforced “turn” system, with one player at a disadvantage, waiting for a chance to reverse momentum and get their own turn. Powerful characters like Eddie in Guilty Gear and Arakune in Blazblue can often override a game’s “normal” cycles as they gain nearly unstoppable mixups and blockstrings, which lead into excruciating damage. But when they don’t have their extra tools they have to run away, as the alternative is to be put in pressure too intense for them to handle alone.

To me, the idea of having to reverse disadvantages, turning them into the upper hand, every fight, is almost irresistible, but those examples are a bit extreme. Arakune, in particular, practically wins games long before the last combo starts (with that last combo itself being absurdly long and damaging). I prefer to feel like there’s still some real risk on the line, even when I’m ahead, like with GG’s ABA, whose “empowered” mode lasts a long time but decreases in large portions if she ever gets knocked on the ground and leaves her incredibly vulnerable if it runs out. And sometimes you can find good cycles even without such pronounced highs and lows at all, like with Litchi in Blazblue, who fights both with and without a long staff. While holding it, she commands much more of the screen, but is limited in her options for converting combos. Barehanded, she has to play a short-range game but has more options for movement and damage. Persona 4 Arena‘s Teddie also has a constantly shifting set of options, as the items thrown by his persona go through their prescribed cycle. Although only a couple of the items are clearly weak, the variety of setups and tricks available to the character require that both players stay aware of what’s coming next or be caught unaware.

One final genre where I’ve seen this sort of thing a lot are, perhaps surprisingly, shmups. The ultimate example is Cave’s Espgaluda II, in which you can save up magical crystals, then spend them at any time you want to slow down time. The most obvious use is to slow down patterns you have a hard time dodging to make them much easier to avoid, but the game offers a number of increasingly convoluted ways to increase your score by manipulating time. Normally, destroying a slowed enemy will clean all their bullets off the screen, but there’s also a special slowdown where the bullets will reappear and reorient themselves to move in your character’s direction each time you destroy another enemy. These bullets give you points every time they disappear and respawn, but inevitably choke the screen with an unavoidable cloud of death that must be managed before it becomes too much.

Other games also allow you to save up bonuses like invincibility or powerful weapons for score or survival purposes. There’s too many to even mention, but Psyvariar is a great game where getting close to a number of bullets gives you a brief period of complete invincibility. In high level play these cycles often pass by every few seconds, while beginners will probably start by trying to sync up their shields with the most difficult bursts. In Radiant Silvergun you can capture certain bullets by touching them with the “sword” weapon, and after ten captures the next use of the sword produces a gigantic sword that gives invincibility and cuts almost everything on the screen. Like all of the other weapons, precise use of these options makes the game much easier to get through, and it all comes down to the same thing; finding the best opportunities to build the cycle.

Essentially, it all comes down to rhythm. It so happens that I’m also a huge fan of music games and have played music for a long time, and when I was thinking on all of these examples that suddenly struck me as very similar, I realized that’s what I really love: being able to find my own rhythm within a heavily structured game and play with it. While all of these games, and many more, give you the instruments and stage, it’s up to the player to find the beat and write their song.

下克上なるか?

“Top players are just the ones who know the easiest ways to win.”

See this? This is a game that I’m good at.

When I read that Daigo, the famous Street Fighter player, said something along these lines in an interview earlier this year, I laughed. On one hand, this idea pretty much sums up Playing to Win in one sentence, and it echoes a lot of sentiments from Seth Killian’s “Domination” essays. But I’ve also wondered if I’m just hearing the things that I want to after spending years bitching insufferably about how I practically only like playing bad characters.

Either way, the funny thing about the word “easy” is that it’s completely nebulous when people are talking about fighting game strategies and characters. Players may work for months or years to develop relatively technical characters like Morrigan in Marvel 3 or Viper in Street Fighter 4, but as soon as they start winning, the attitude shifts. They’re not difficult anymore, just “mindless” easy-mode characters that are only about execution. And many top players aren’t eager to grind out these demanding sequences of combos and followups, particularly in Marvel where there are such an overwhelming number of possible opposing configurations. For most players it’s simply more effective to learn how to deal with as many situations as they can find than to go all in on a powerful strategy that’s difficult to set up optimally. It’s the old “if you can’t get the hits, it doesn’t matter if you can do the combo” saying, taken to the extreme.

For example, there’s this semi-infamous bit of Firebrand theory. I’m still not sure if anyone knows how to get out of it, aside from playing at least two characters with invincible air reversals. And the reason they wouldn’t, is because nobody plays this garbage anyway. It looks amazingly cheap once you get the hit, but you have to get that hit against a full team while working with one assist that does “nothing” and one that’s slow and not very useful to just throw out there. The few players actually using this (probably hugely underrated) character rightly use much more flexible teams where it’s possible to frequently go for easier implementations of his unblockable shenanigans with lower reward, rather than betting everything on a single shot. It’s also occurred to me that many players outside of large population centers like NY and LA rely heavily on online play for practice, and this also discourages “harder” characters. It’s more difficult to see how successful your gameplan is when you’re struggling with your basics in an unstable situation, and to adjust to “real” timing, which is how you really impress people at tournaments, after long periods of delayed training is also a major factor.

In my experience, there’s also not many people (proportionally) who want to “win at any cost” in the first place. It’s not the stigma of being that jackass who plays heel characters; to me it seems that even lots of fairly competitive minded players tend to believe in trying to get to the top their own way, particularly outside of the larger and generally more cutthroat Capcom series. I’ve always hoped to gain experience in a “balanced” way, trying to avoid having disproportionate flaws in my game and so to some extent I’ve found myself really “distrustful” of playing good characters, or more specifically, ones who are good at avoiding certain elements of a given game. Of course, sometimes more obscure characters lead to winning based on the opponent’s sheer ignorance, which is even more annoying than winning despite playing in a way I see as stupid or sloppy. But the underlying “disadvantages” to playing top tier in my view are the same things that make weaker characters so much harder to learn games with for me. I’ve often found in “anime” games that by playing low tiers I have to spend so much effort not dying instantly that it’s hard for me to learn much else. In CS1 especially, my move to Hazama as a primary character in some ways reinforced my lazy, random playstyle that I still have a hard time overcoming, but it also started to open up opportunities to play and actually try doing stuff. In the end I didn’t even learn that much, but I can really only blame my attitude at the time for that.

All of my experience has really led me back over and over to those difficult dilemmas. Is it better to force myself to play limited situations to the best of my ability, or to allow myself more mistakes and chances to try things? Is it better to play characters that I naturally find to match well with my style or to force myself to branch out and learn how to work with different strengths and weaknesses? Probably my biggest worry about playing good characters is that I wouldn’t be able to handle the inevitable “step down” when an update comes out or I stop playing whatever game it is. Even when I’m not winning, the difference between how hard I’m having to try is something I tend to feel is pretty unambiguous.

But all this and I haven’t even mentioned what’s often the most important factor of all, at least once a series has been established: people just come to really like their characters. The newest and zaniest additions to a given roster almost always have my attention, but I can definitely understand why for some people it’s such a big deal, and there are still certain characters and kinds of characters who have a real draw for me. Probably the most interesting game to look at though is Persona 4 Arena, in which most of the cast are characters appearing in previously released RPGs, and on top of that, ones in which talking to and “forming bonds” with them is an integral part of the experience. Essentially, lots of people already had strong favorites, even completely distanced from however they were going to play in this context. For some characters (particularly Yukiko and Elizabeth) I think this has helped their popularity a lot, when otherwise their playstyle and the challenges they have to deal with against other characters would make them extremely rare in the US. On the other hand I think a lot of people (myself included, to some extent) have been demoralized by the feeling that their preferred fighter isn’t effective or simply doesn’t match up with the way they want to play. (Actually I’d better clarify, because anyone reading this who’s played against me is probably going to assume it’s just more whining about Elizabeth, when in this case I’m referring to Naoto.) While plenty of them have simply gotten over it and moved on to characters they feel better about (overwhelmingly, Chie) I think this has actually backfired for others. Regardless, it’s created an interesting dynamic that hasn’t yet been tainted by patching the version that we play on here.

Obviously, Mitsuru fans are simply superior.

It also leads to one final question: when is it easier to “give in” and learn another character? For many top players here, in many games, the answer seems to be “never”; despite the apparent decline of characters like Dhalsim, Guile, and to a lesser extent Boxer and Rufus, from their heyday in earlier versions of SF4, players who have stayed dedicated to what they know have remained on top of the US scene for years on end now. Obviously, every possible scenario leads to potential second-guessing, and watching Dieminion’s sheer tenacity and ability to space, block, and throw things just right overcome his completely mediocre Marvel 3 team’s limitations leads me to believe there’s absolutely nothing preventing him from winning with easier options except that selfsame stubbornness. I’ve seen similar situations both in the local scene and in other games, as two of Colorado’s best and most dedicated players are Zangief players and face a endless string of “bad matchups” in tournament. And plenty of players have fought their way to the top even with significantly weakened mains in other games like Blazblue (i.e. Lord Knight’s amazing second place run at Evo 2011, and the even more amazing grand finals, or Goro’s appearance at the NEC qualifier tournament last month) and Soul Calibur (again, the Evo results practically speak for themselves).

Still, counterpicking strategies have dominated other games like Street Fighter II for years, and even in Japan, which was once notorious for extreme “loyalty” there seems to be somewhat less emphasis on it. Just this past weekend I saw some of a Super Turbo tournament in which the format was 1v1, but each player was allowed to choose 3 different characters, kind of like in King of Fighters. A player only lost after having all three characters defeated by the other player, which led to a very different experience than the standard “single elimination, character lock” format used, or even a team tournament with otherwise similar structure. And watching this years Darkstalkers Combination Cup with English commentary, there were similar expressions of surprise at certain old-school players having earnestly picked up new (to them, obviously) characters. But when a game is that age I have to think that it comes less down to superficial factors and is more about having a fresh experience with a game that they’ve played to death and beyond.

I’ve been thinking a lot about character choice recently, for a lot of reasons. Like I mentioned before, I don’t have a concrete style and to a large extent I’ve tried to avoid typecasting myself. My favorite things are counter-attacks, screen-filling or otherwise gigantic moves, fast/over-the-top movement, awesome throws, and unfairly high/fatal damage.

For obvious reasons, you can almost never get more than 2-3 of these on the same character.

Oh shit. I just realized something. Hold on a sec.

For me the real question is the same as it is when I’m pondering anything else about my fighting game play though: what do I want to get out of it? I’ve felt for a long time like there has to be MY game out there, but I just don’t know how to find it, or it’s not out yet, or nobody else plays it. I don’t have larger goals because I don’t feel like I can make myself care enough for them to be possible. But it’s also because of that aimlessness that I can’t make myself care enough in the first place. I’ve been able to “carrot on a stick” myself for a pretty long time now, but I just don’t know how much longer it can last.

But again, past experience just makes me more and more cautious. In beatmania I found a playstyle that made it extremely easy to improve for a long time, and I set goals for myself that seemed pretty easy at the time. Then it became almost impossible  to get better (not to mention my way was always completely unsuited for Arcade play), and when I have time to play at all, I’ve been working solely to force myself to unlearn bad habits. More than ever, I can’t tell whether it’s better to win “badly” or to go out on my own terms. Complacency is my biggest worry in anything I do. I already know what happens when I tell myself I’m doing something “well enough.” But what happens when I can keep pushing myself to work harder?

I can’t wait to find out.

Might Controls Everything

“I didn’t know you were a speedrunner!”

Yes, that’s a sentence I almost never hear, because most people don’t know there’s nothing to know. Or so I tend to think, every time I offhandedly mention it and get this kind of response. Of course, now that I’m writing this, I realize it actually serves as a nice way to kinda talk about my video gaming history and some other things, so that’s cool.

The first time I heard of speedrunning was in Super Smash Bros. Melee, which featured a few wacky minigames to entertain people whose friends/siblings weren’t available. In particular, one of these modes features a specially designed level, unique to each character, with ten targets, and generally some other obstacles, placed on it. The targets are destroyed if anything that deals damage normally in the game touches them, and the game keeps track of your scores on each course. Getting beneath certain total times (all of your best, added together) earns a few special rewards in the game, but where there’s something to do, there’s something to be better than your friends at.

I saw a set of these videos, and started trying to recreate them. And they were really hard! It didn’t take very long before I realized that these guys had played for hours on each level discovering and mastering these crazy trick-shots  and maximizing each movement. Even the “easy ones” that had been matched by several players were way out of my league, and I was just boggled. How did anybody have the patience and interest to do this?

(In case it’s not obvious, I’m not remotely a natural perfectionist. I was a lazy student, and so what I taught myself was to figure out the “good enough” threshold and reach it as easily as possible. I could get “good enough” at so many things when I was younger that trying to be The Best at even one thing didn’t ever strike me as interesting. Even now I fight with myself a lot over the point where I can stop stressing something.)

But that’s all beside the point. It was only about a year later that I played Metroid Prime for the first time, and since my mom had been pretty down on videogames when I was growing up and I had played very few, the entire experience was mind-blowing. I just had to play it more, and not only because it was amazing; I also didn’t really have anything else to play. (Except for Melee and Soul Calibur II, of course)

And so I was quite a bit less surprised when I discovered Metroid 2002, the evolution of a large GameFAQs community of players who had tried everything they could think of to get places they “shouldn’t” be, get items out of “order” and essentially just destroy Metroid Prime as much as possible. So I joined the community and posted for a while. I learned some tricks and got into some of the other games. This is the last time I’ll say this but…I still wasn’t big on the perfectionism part. It was just some new things to do and see in a game I loved, and still do.

From there it also wasn’t long before I discovered the sister site, Speed Demos Archive, which was originally a Quake community. But the admins of the two sites were good friends and shared a lot of common goals. Indeed, it was Radix of SDA who did the first well-known full game run of Metroid Prime featuring tricks the community had discovered, with “nate” of M2K2’s most enduring runs being on the Alien Vs Predator FPS for the Jaguar console. (In case you’ve never heard this bit of trivia before: it’s true. I couldn’t make up a joke like that!)

But M2K2 and the Quake section of SDA were intensely focused groups, with large numbers of players who had tread the same ground together over and over for years. In the early days of SDA, “other games” were in a completely different boat. Most runners practically worked alone, and as a result the level of knowledge on almost any other game, for players and viewers, was with full hindsight…absurdly low.

But hey, perfect for me, right? ha ha ha. I tried running a couple of RPGs, thinking they would be easy, but that basically ended in various kinds of disaster. I did record a full run on Fire Emblem 9, but never got the chance to submit it; the run that’s there instead is roughly an hour better than my version. My Radiata Stories run was somewhat less failureific on the surface, keeping ahead of the pace set by a Japanese player (who did the entire playthrough in one shot and wrote fairly detailed notes on his strategies that I copied heavily, but still), but was plagued by long periods of me giving up in disgust at the game’s randomness. By the time I had figured out how to play the end-game, I went back to look at my early recordings and realized they were way too sloppy to be an acceptable submission to the site. I think I may well still have more knowledge than any other player about the “segmented” (“save as much as you can and retry as much as you need”) run, but the idea of starting over to get the earlier parts right is nightmarish to me. It’ll probably never happen, but on the good side almost nobody cares about the game anyway! So that’s a relief.

Not that you're reading this anyway...I hope.

That doesn’t mean I’m not sorry, Molotov.

Despite that, I really came to love a certain niche of the community, and it was through those guys that I was first truly introduced to the joy of arcade games. First, it was shmups, and my initial “lol, playing for score?!!!?” viewpoint didn’t last very long as my skills improved and I started to find playing for survival wasn’t itself challenging enough to hold my interest in most cases. Soon, I was playing video games that I actually wanted to get good at? More importantly, I fell in love with the genre and truly found reason to care, in large part because progress is so unambiguous, not even realizing I was just as outclassed as I was in Metroid Prime. By the time I found out, it wasn’t a deterrent at all.

And when the community reached a point where people wanted to meet up, it was fortuitously scheduled around a good hang-out: Magfest, a huge party for video games and game music. Despite the wonderful buffet of arcade games that some (incredibly generous!) people brought out to share with everyone, I walked away from that first year with just the slightest taste of three games in my mouth, knowing I wanted much more.

The first was Espgaluda II, the sequel to my favorite shmup (at the time). Cave had just started porting their games to 360, so it seemed possible that maybe, far in the future, I’d get to own my own copy of the game. It didn’t take as long as I expected.

The second, Beatmania IIDX. I’d played piano for 13 years, so the game clicked for me right away. As soon as I got home I called my (amazing) local game store to see if they had a copy. They did, and it became my first true game obsession, and still really the game I’ve gotten best at, ever. (That doesn’t mean very much.)

And finally, Street Fighter IV. Not sure what exactly the deal was there, whether it was just promotional or some guys who owned the thing, but there was the guts of the arcade machine, a pair of sticks, and a huge projector to show off the game to everyone in the gigantic ballroom. I don’t even like the game that much now, but yeah, I’m more or less one of those guys. I mean yeah, I loved Senko no Ronde long before, and I had a friend who introduced me to Immaterial and Missing Power, Akatsuki Blitzkampf, and Samurai Shodown V Special online before that, but while I really liked those games, it was obvious that this game would have something those other ones didn’t: a lot of freaking people to fight against. (Wait, two things: my favorite character from playing SFII at the neighbor’s when I was 6, Chun-Li) So I was naive, and now I really just want a few good friends who care about a game about as much as I do, but at the time? Mind-blowing in the extreme.

And so, when the next year’s meetup came, and people schemed to absolutely top it by hosting a charity speedrunning marathon (which would become the greatest and most successful to date), I still had my close friends. I still went (although my one true pairing had his trip interrupted by tragic news).

But my heart had been stolen. I didn’t actually think about speedrunning much, and certainly didn’t have anything to contribute. I went, I hung out rather anti-socially and slept a lot, I went to Magfest again as much as I could to play Beatmania, and only after it was over did I realize what an amazing thing I’d all but missed out on.

Still, I wasn’t motivated, and when life changes pretty much precluded my chance to go again, I was only kind of bummed out. Sure, there were more people, more games, and over three times as much money raised for the Prevent Cancer Foundation again, but what was I supposed to do? In 2012 I again managed to make the trip, but with so many people that I really didn’t even know at this point, and with the only game I was considering playing being utterly godawful to practice, I could only shrug once more. I really love DC, my sister was there, and I made it to Magfest again (although the wait for Beatmania was excruciating this time for a bunch of reasons), so it was a fantastic vacation. Still, I got asked “so what are you going to run next year?” way too many times. (Seriously though, I appreciate that you guys (who aren’t reading this) care.)

With trends continuing, it looked hopeless. I’m more into fighters than ever before, and with even more people and a tighter schedule requirements, I couldn’t possibly get on the lineup except out of pity. It was elementary school recess all over again. How was I supposed to stage a comeback?

But after a couple months, I found my X-Factor. In March, I started working (slowly, and still slowly) on a new game, that I knew I loved, and was somehow also popular. At the same time, it had been dead on SDA for many years (a Japanese player submitted an amazing run, but alas, his community’s rules didn’t match up with our site’s, and it couldn’t be accepted). It was perfect; could this finally be my chance to shine?

Maybe. This is getting long, and cutting off now just leaves me more to write about. But for now?

I’m motivated.

Fair and Balanced and Redundant.

So I was talking to my man Jamaal at the tournament today about my core gripes with Persona 4 Arena, and I ran into a common issue I have: I love semantics SO MUCH that I end up with these specific definitions for similar words so I can use them in contrast to each other. But it’s not so easy to load those words for other people so they can understand what I’m trying to say.

So for today’s episode of “opposite synonyms”: “Fair” and “Balanced,” in a sort of theoretical game sense. Generally the word “balanced” is meant in a sort of complete sense, like “you can choose whatever character you like and have a reasonable chance of winning against other characters.” The reason I prefer “fair” for this usage is because in a competitive game the player with superior effort, knowledge, or experience coming into a game should generally be favored. If you want to beat that guy who knows more than you, you’ll have to work for it. I feel that “balanced” implies a more specific context, one in which options metaphorically weighed against each other come out equally. But let’s talk about what it might mean to be “fair” in a very basic sense.

first google image result for "balanced"

Or maybe it means a stack of coins that stands up BY MAGIC!

The board game Go only has one “kind” of move. You place a stone of your color (black or white) on an empty space on the board, and then it becomes the other player’s turn. This is kind of a meaningless “balance” assessment compared to fighting games, but it turns out that the player who goes first in Go has a marginal advantage that makes it easier to win the game. In other words, a game of Go is not completely “fair.” There’s a simple score adjustment that’s often used to attempt to correct for this disparity. But I also said, “a game.” Go offers another straightforward solution: simply have the players trade stones and play again.

Needless to say, this wouldn’t be viewed as a sensible option in fighting games, and it certainly isn’t a passable method for determining which player is the best at winning in a given title given the natural constraints of the genre. But at the same time, I don’t believe that the fairness of the game itself is what draws players, or spectators for that matter. Virtua Fighter is commonly considered to be a very fair game, but it’s languished in obscurity in the US forever, while wildly unfair games like Marvel and Third Strike have sat on top of the scene. Individual players may lose heart as they find it harder and harder to win with their preferred character, but clearly not everyone is casting aside games just because some characters (or even a lot) are really, really bad. Fairness in this sense is obviously somewhat subjective, but when you see extremely potent trends like Chun&Yun or Marvel 2’s little flock of enduring top tier teams it’s difficult to dismiss unfairness as just a point of view.

So by “balance” I mean a lot of different concepts related to the options a player has in a given moment in a round, rather than the “big picture” of a whole game beginning from a default state. Stuff like risk versus reward, resource investment, and overall “momentum.” A lot of these aren’t easy to attach value judgments to, because strict systems where coming back is super hard like Marvel 2 aren’t necessarily appropriate for all games and certainly not every player likes them. And a game where options are “too” balanced, with risk and reward heavily normalized, often turns out to just be boring, with exciting moments and creative setups being difficult to come by. (I feel that this is something quite a few of the characters in Blazblue have struggled with.) Even the illusion of balance can be valuable in its own way; I don’t think there are many people at this point who see 3S as a game where low tiers have a good chance of winning, but the game’s nature allows for insane, unbelievable moments nonetheless.

But there I am, lapsing back into “fairness.” The thing is, fairness is still tied closely to balance. If something is really, really unfair, there’s probably a huge imbalance behind it. To finally get around to talking about Persona 4 Arena: the matchup between Kanji and Elizabeth is probably the most strikingly one-sided in the game. And the core issue is Elizabeth’s crouching B attack: a move that’s simply unbalanced (in this specific case, and to a smaller extent in others). Every character’s crouching B is intended as an “anti-air” move; something that punishes the opponent for jumping at you. Elizabeth’s has a large hitbox that goes around about 2/3 of her body and stays on screen for a long time. In addition, it picks her up slightly off the ground, and, like most moves, leads into potentially devastating combos. Essentially, it’s one of her most important keepaway tools, and Kanji is a character with few strong options at a distance.

In other words, he has to get close, and what does he have? His main tools are:

Jumping attacks: B (his chair), C (a large double punch using the persona), and his leaping grab move. Needless to say, as an anti-air the crouching B beats (or clashes, which is basically as good) all of these unless Elizabeth times it very badly. Even if he doesn’t attack the game doesn’t allow him to block the move, so no dice there.

Ground normals. Unfortunately, most of them are too slow to win by virtue of frame data, and once Elizabeth leaves the ground Kanji loses a lot of good combo options, dramatically reducing his reward even if he manages to get a hit.

Throw options. He has a fast command grab, but it doesn’t “beat” crouching B unless he gets really close without Elizabeth noticing. He has a slower, invincible command grab, but while this will cause Elizabeth’s attack to miss the grab will as well, leaving him open for a punish. And he has anti-air command grab options, but while crouching B does lift Elizabeth off the ground, it’s not to a “jump” height at which they’ll catch her. Instead, Kanji will just Get Stuffed.

Finally, there’s his reversal. Generally reversals are intended as a tool for breaking pressure, not beating the other player’s moves when neither has an advantage, but Kanji’s has an interesting property: it automatically “guards” against anything that touches it while it’s active, and then counterattacks. In other words, if Elizabeth tries to use her move it will never trade or win, but instead touch and then cause her to be shocked. But of course, there’s a catch. If Elizabeth jumps or does nothing, she can wait for the guarding period to end and then score a huge combo. The reversal move, on the other hand, doesn’t lead directly into anything, only bouncing her away and preventing her from jumping, walking or running for a few seconds or until she gets another hit. Taking away Elizabeth’s ability to move freely does potentially help, but you still have to make another opportunity, making it a high risk for Kanji with poor reward.

Pillar of salt.

Now, speaking as an Elizabeth player, this matchup isn’t even fun in the slightest, and I’m not saying that to feign empathy for people playing a difficult character. It’s just incredibly uninteresting, but this is also kind of an intentionally ridiculous example. There’s only one other matchup in the game in which one player can force the other to massively overcommit by doing essentially nothing.

But even in matchups which are more or less fair (which is quite a large number of them) I don’t generally enjoy the game’s sense of balance. For one thing, I think the damage dealt by individual moves in P4U is often really high, which the game counteracts by introducing steep scaling very early in combos. I have a >90% win rate in random online matches with Mitsuru in even though I can’t do a single combo longer than 3 hits that doesn’t start with the enemy using a reversal (which, while extremely common, doesn’t at all account for that), while picking Elizabeth tends to put me on the receiving end of 2000-damage special moves and 3000-damage invincible supers quite often. By contrast, individual hits in King of Fighters XIII tend to be pretty weak, but in most cases-at least, ones that don’t involve Ash-it makes for a game where hit confirms and execution feel like they give good rewards proportionally.

The question of whether one is “more balanced” than the other is ultimately kind of meaningless. Either way, I’m dying to things (usually) that I know how to avoid but don’t always do successfully. I’m winning by getting openings whether or not I get the absolute most out of those hits or not. It’s not that I think the Persona developers’ decisions are categorically bad or that people shouldn’t take the game seriously and work to build the community if they really enjoy it, but the end result is that the game feels unhelpful when I lose and unsatisfying when I win, and I’ve started to think I’m just not really up for that when there are so many games I could be trying to learn that I might enjoy more.

Specific games aside, I think it’s much more useful to think about situational “balance” than overall “fairness” when comparing similar games or even characters. Just going “well these characters have a pretty equal chance against each other” doesn’t actually tell you very much about how to play, especially in a mirror match situation. Comparing options against each other is how the game actually advances, as people discover new tricks, setups, and combos, and as an individual player, it’s also the best way to improve your playing style and stop doing things that aren’t very effective. Of course, all this gives way to an even simpler way of looking at things: if you’re having fun, keep playing. And if you’re not, maybe you should try something else.