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.

Stand Back, Stand Clear

So I was going to write a big post about NEC, but then it just ended coming out on the EFL boards where everyone who I know consistently reads this blog already read it. All there would really be to add are some interstitial diversions and insanely trivial anecdotes, a small rant about Power Instinct 5 (it’s entertaining, especially after my KOF playing times), and then talking about how much better Philadelphia is than Las Vegas. As strongly as I might feel about those topics I don’t actually have that many interesting things to say about them, so maybe another time. But what is there to talk about? Oh, I know! It’s the end of the year, and everybody who writes or talks about games has to make a big list about how they still like obscure game X but AAA title Y doesn’t really hold up. It’s the law.

I haven’t played as many games over the past couple years as I did when I was in late high school/early college, so the idea of making a “top 10” list is absurd in multiple ways, the least of which being that some of the games on the list pretty much have to be ones I didn’t actually like since I don’t think I even played ten games I completely loved. But I find that given some distance I almost always feel differently about games than when I was actually playing them. Often my opinion goes down after the freshness wears off, but sometimes I appreciate elements more.

I don’t know who thought this was a good idea. They were wrong, but I love them.

The first new game I played this year was Final Fantasy XIII-2, and if all you want to see is that I think it’s bad, cool. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a bad game. We’re done here.

Wait a second…why did I even play this game in the first place? Oh right. It was because I liked the first one. I’m not really much of a fan of FF in the first place, but I got excited as soon as I heard the music in XIII was going to be by SaGa composer Masashi Hamauzu. Hearing that the battle system was much more action- and puzzle-based than in most RPGs had me even more intrigued, and in the end I rented and beat it over spring break. I really enjoyed the bizarre meta combat, in which your characters’ specific actions barely matter, and instead the way they combine is everything. For most of a battle, you had to juggle several factors, building up to hit the enemy’s weakness while keeping yourself alive and preparing for your devastating strike with stat buffs for your party or reductions for the enemy. If you kept everything moving correctly, then you could catch all the balls in one gorgeous moment, and switch from your precarious attack-defense cycles to an all-out ass-kicking to finish things off. The system wasn’t perfect (for one thing, the game doesn’t have a good way to convey the importance of potent offense, leaving many wondering why the game “suddenly” kills them after a long battle), and once the game finally just hands you all the possible options near the end things get a bit repetitive.

Also seems familiar!

My impression, though, and this was backed up by a few interviews I read, was that the team focused almost completely on the mechanics and encounter design, leaving many standard elements of Final Fantasy by the wayside so they could be honed. There are essentially no friendly towns, few open areas to explore, virtually no “sidequests” that don’t involve killing things, no mini-games…it’s certainly very reductionist, but I appreciated the philosophy.

All that said, my absolute favorite part of FF13 is when two of the main characters stumble their way into a Chocobo-themed amusement park. Like everything else, there’s not any “real” reason this happens except that they made the art assets for it, but it’s the one actual respite from constant fighting in the game. And in sharp contrast to the rest of the soundtrack, the song which plays is a tinny, diegetic jingle about how much fun it is to play with Chocobos. It’s clever, hilarious, and almost unbearably vapid at the same time. In other words, genius.

From here I feel like a review of part 2 practically writes itself, especially given how short the title’s development cycle was. The scenarios are all pieced together from art assets that got cut the first time, and the story makes even less sense. The battle system has no real mechanical additions, and the monster system is cute at first but gimmicky and really unwieldy. The boss fights are almost all trivial and half of the “roles” in the game are nearly useless, which makes combat a straightforward and boring slog with depressingly few “oh my god!” moments. Worst of all is just the developers’ attitude and lack of understanding about players’ complaints. As much as I enjoyed FFXIII, there’s simply no way its basic model would’ve held up for another 30+ hours. The structure was workable but due for additions. But 2’s open, frequently-redundant areas and arbitrarily plotted progression don’t feature anything that feels like a carefully laid course, just busywork to fill time while the designers figure out how to actually make a game.

Even though there were definitely alarms sounding all over the place, I had to play it. I just can’t resist a great soundtrack, and after its release, with the music spilling all over the internet, I couldn’t stop myself from getting hyped up. I’m sure most people heard “Crazy Chocobo,” as the backlash exploded almost instantly in many different places that I tend to visit, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. A huge portion of the music features vocals, almost always with cheesy lyrics attempting to match up with what’s going on in the game’s story and settings. Although none of them are indicated to be actually heard “in context” as with Cocoon de Chocobo above, I absolutely love it, and the effect is occasionally like some kind of really anime musical (as in the theater production), which is even better.

After all, JRPGs are no stranger to melodrama, so to me the idea that Serah, Noel, or possibly other entities are essentially “singing” bizarre songs to the audience, about how important it is to stay upbeat and fight together with your friends, or what it’s like having a ridiculously miserable and depressing backstory, is too delightful. And that’s not all! Many of the more conventional tracks are also fantastic, featuring work not just from Hamauzu but one of my personal top favorite game composers, the criminally underappreciated Mitsuto Suzuki. Originally I knew him from his time making weird, beepy techno for Konami’s rhythm games, but since moving to Square he’s gotten a couple of chances to play more of a main composing role. (As far as I know, his official job at both companies has been more in back-end sound production.)

The thing that really catapults this up to the top of my favorite soundtracks though, is something it shares with two of my other favorites, Nier and Resonance of Fate. All three feature on-the-fly, context-based track switching or (mostly in Nier’s case) blending. In FF13-2 this switching occurs when you’re moving around dungeon areas, as random enemies will appear near you and you get the option to try to run away from them or engage head on for advantages. As far as the game goes, it’s a pointless, bad compromise, and therefore clearly stands out as the worst of the three examples here. By contrast, ROF has a similar system, where the music lays low as you wander around and prepare for combat, then suddenly roars to full-on rock once you pull the trigger and start a battle. Nier’s uses are more subtle and varied, but a good example is the game’s starting town, where a woman singing in the middle fades in and out as you get close or move away. Still, even in this game the music’s sudden shift from driving and melodic to low and sinister (and usually, the sudden cutting out of lyrics) is definitely effective.

I have something of a “spoonful of sugar” outlook on a lot of things; they may be bad in obvious ways or have elements that I simply dislike, but one really strong area is enough to prevent me from being too upset with them. This is even more true when, as in FF13-2’s case, it’s the music that really carries it. But even though it’s not an aggravating game, it’s a monotonous one that doesn’t bring anything else that’s interesting to the table. In a sense, I got just what I expected from a rushed, samey cash-in. And that’s the biggest disappointment of all.

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.

That is, if something is nothing.

“The better a game is for speedrunning, the better it is in general.”

Like I said, I could think of more than one thing this could mean, not to mention that not every game (including plenty that I knew the person who said it to me liked) is appropriate for speedrunning anyway. But it wasn’t just meant as some cliche “the more you put in, the more you get out” thing, nor a suggestion that games be “convenient” for speedrunners (though games in which the character moves unreasonably slowly or that feature long stretches of nothing interesting still don’t do so well by this mantra, perhaps rightly). The idea is that a good game features interesting, often varied ways to achieve goals that are satisfying to play out, and it’s one that I’ve come to agree with overall.

That may sound a bit much like a “a game is good if it’s fun”-style tautology, but the game we were talking about at the time was Sega’s turn-based military shooter Valkyria Chronicles. I’ve talked to a lot of people who were annoyed by the game’s overbearing focus on executing missions quickly, as the ranking you get at the end of each mission (which is tied into various kinds of rewards) is based entirely on how many turns it took you to achieve the goal. There’s basically no benefit whatsoever to avoiding casualties or inflicting tons upon the other side, which sounds great for speedrunning, right? Unfortunately, most missions have pretty basic “capture a point (surrounded by a few guys)” or “kill a major enemy” type goals, so as far as we could tell the optimal strategy on at least 3/4 of the levels in the game involved running a single unit (usually the main heroine, who has solid if not top damage against both single targets and closely grouped enemies) down a pretty obvious path (as there’s usually only a couple routes that offer any sort of cover) over a couple of turns, then assassinating the target(s) for the finale. I’m not sure if the game has evolved past that point as I haven’t really followed it, but if it hasn’t it’s pretty much the exact kind of thing we would consider “not that interesting.”

All of this is just a lead in for me to admit that Devil May Cry 3 isn’t the greatest game if your main goal is just to beat the game as fast as you can, either. It’s still a good game, easily the most enjoyable I’ve ever spent a significant amount of time speedrunning, and I absolutely consider it one of my favorites games in general. But like Valkyria, rushing through obscures many of the possible facets of playing the game. The difference is that DMC3 actually keeps track of those other aspects and rewards you for mastering them, making the most fun and rewarding way to play the game a lot more than just mashing through everything, and it does this all while presenting a variety of ways to play that offer different advantages in those elements.

The assessment the game gives you at the end of each playthrough of a mission rates you in five different categories:

  • Time. Faster play means a higher ranking, hopefully not surprisingly. You can still afford a certain number of mistakes and detours, and due to the other categories the latter are often necessary for a high composite ranking (which is a benefit, as after a few times learning where everything is it’s not difficult to move directly through objectives and play quickly). Either way, this is a category that rewards precise, purposeful play, like you commonly see in speedrunning.
  • Stylish Points are DMC3’s main way of assessing your offensive skills. Using your best one or two attacks over and over isn’t considered “stylish,” so you have to mix it up to build and maintain your stylish rating (and there’s benefit to taking a breather from attacking to taunt enemies, as well). The rating also decreases significantly if you get hit, so maneuvering around attacks is also important. The more enemies you kill with a high rating, and the longer you have it up there in general, the higher your stylish “score” is at the end of the mission.
  • Orbs are the game’s currency, obtained when enemies die and occasionally other hittable objects and places in each level. Enemies who die when your stylish bar is higher drop more orbs, which means this is fairly closely related to the previous criterion, but sometimes this isn’t enough to cover the spread and you’ll have to find some optional enemies to pick up some extras.
  • Damage Taken is the game’s primary defensive rating. Getting hit is bad. This is a fairly generous goal on lower difficulties, but on “Dante Must Die” the game expects you to avoid everything. The other side of this is that everything is possible to avoid getting hit by! That’s good.
  • Items primarily include healing items and other things that aren’t too helpful if you aren’t getting hit anyway. However, one of the items you can buy and use is a “Holy Water” which deals a huge amount of damage to nearby enemies. While you obviously don’t get Stylish rating for using a menu, there are many fights where you can only attack on certain “cycles” of the enemy’s pattern. By using Holy Water you can increase the damage you land in each cycle by a large amount and reduce the amount of chances you have to get hit (not to mention the enemies who become instantly stunned when you use it, thereby allowing you to hit them even more and faster). As a result, items are viewed as a pretty big crutch by the developers and using any type of consumable will raise your item score above 0 and prevent you from getting an “S” rank in the category.

The game averages your five rankings and gives you a overall rating. There are two kinds of rewards; first, gaining an “SS” on every mission on a given difficulty (which means earning an S in each of the 5 categories, as opposed to an “S” average gained from, for example, 4 S’s and one A) gives some cool unlocks like overpowered characters. Second, the game gives you a certain amount of bonus orbs after each mission, and the higher your rating is, the larger that bonus is. As a result, it’s hugely rewarding to earn those SS rankings on a few early missions in a speedrun, as more buying power helps you gain useful upgrades (such as the double jump) earlier. That said, it’s not really worth going out of your way to kill anything in a speedrun, obviously, but it does stand out as a bit of a tactical concern.

In fact, it almost sounds too risky for a marathon…get hit once on level 1 and you’re behind the curve for the rest of the game? I’m pretty sure this is why Flicky set the category to New Game +, to save all that menu/resource management time and distill the game to pure action for the viewers. To balance out we’re playing on Very Hard, where the enemies can still kinda put up a fight and don’t die immediately (DMD isn’t a good option since it’s got kind of a nasty tendency to make fights really long and stressful). Although it’s not the best speedrun possible, it should be a solidly fun run to play and watch, without much risk of run-ruining disasters. But with everything needed already purchased there’s not a lot of strategy left for Vergil, just practice and memorization. He can access all of his options at once, and while Dante can’t, he still benefits a lot since he has more purchases to make and strong abilities that don’t open up on a first play until later in the game (particularly Devil Trigger and his last weapon). I think that’s okay. I don’t really want this run to be more grinding than it already is.

Vergil’s inclusion as a playable character in the game was meant as a bonus for the “special edition” rerelease, so naturally he’s kind of overpowered. Like in Marvel vs Capcom 3, he’s not rounded like Dante, just really strong on offense with some teleporting shenanigans to boot. He has three weapons, and gets to carry them all the time: a fast, basic sword like Dante’s Rebellion; a large, slower katana; and the melee weapon that Dante gets in the main game after defeating Vergil for the second time. Unlike Dante, he doesn’t get any guns, but his summoned swords are way more powerful (at least in terms of killing things quickly) than any of them anyway. You can mash them constantly when you’re not getting hit, which is a huge damage increase against everything, especially during times when you otherwise have to back off or are too far away to do normal attacks. As a result, pretty much the only important purchases speed-wise for Vergil are Devil Trigger upgrades and sword damage increases, as his basic abilities are more than enough to carry everything else. Obviously if resource is not a concern anyway then you may as well buy most of the other upgrades and get a reasonable amount of health as well (but not too much! There’s a room on Mission 15 (out of 20) where it generally saves time to kill yourself as Vergil because of a jump that he can’t do reliably without killing all the enemies in the room), although ironically I think Rapid Slash is pretty useless in DMC3 and makes the game harder to play because it means you have to be less lazy in certain situations (due to the input it overrides).

Anyway, the main concern for Vergil playthroughs is physically mashing out summon swords while doing everything else you need to. In the Japanese community it’s customary to use turbo controllers to automatically handle this, but SDA doesn’t allow the use of features like that if they’re not on first-party controllers, so the main challenge for me has been to find a button layout that’s, if not comfortable (setting sword to a trigger is really the only option, but even then pressing it 1000 times in two hours is pretty severe), then at least possible to work with. In the end I went with a pretty default layout, but with summon swords on the left trigger (which usually activates Devil Trigger), and Devil Trigger on R2 (since there are also long periods of time where you have to hold that down, because it charges up an explosion that does tons of damage). So I can mash triggers with my left hand to throw swords and change weapons, and hold down triggers with my right hand to charge explosions and manage targets, while doing main movement and attacks with the analog stick and buttons. It all kinda works, just barely.

I still wish I had an arcade stick for this game though.

But while Vergil is a clear winner in the speed category, he’s really just an efficient killing machine and doesn’t have many opportunities for unnecessary styling. (Once again, this probably sounds familiar if you follow fighting games.) And if you’re not playing for raw speed, then DMC3 is all about style. Dante has a few different ability sets, which the game actually calls “styles,” that affect his game a lot more. One of them is the Trickster, which is weak offensively but can move effectively and makes avoiding damage a lot easier in some situations. On the other hand, you have the Swordmaster, who’s able to deal a lot more damage in most situations and pretty good at building up the Stylish meter. Or there’s Gunslinger if you really want to go crazy with your combos and don’t care about lousy damage and mobility. I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the game’s other possibilities, but even knowing they’re there amazes the hell out of me.

Unfortunately, there’s also a fourth main style, which completely breaks the game if you put in the work. I’m not really convinced that playing Royal Guard in a single-segment run is practical, and it’s not at all necessary to SS any mission, but for segmented speedruns I think it obviously wins because it takes out a lot of the back-and-forth flow of boss fights and the evasion involved in not getting killed and instead allows you to block attacks when they come in and use the damage you would’ve taken to hit the enemy in return. The timing is really tight, like most “parry” moves in fighting games, so this is hardly trivial, but even more than Vergil I find that it seems to remove a lot of the cool planning and crazy options that you get in favor of raw execution. I respect that, but I don’t have to like it.

But after all this ranting about how things work I’ve barely even gotten to what I like. Even when you’re just starting out and not pulling off insane action sequences, the game just feels amazing while you’re playing it, with the controls spot on and (aside from a couple of awkward angle shifts) no monkeying with the camera. Each style and weapon has cool options and certain disadvantages, and the game never has anything that feels paint-by-numbers. The combat is a crazy dreamscape where you can do more things than I could ever imagine, and to have that in a single-player framework that also provides a lot of different scenarios to play with is far too rare. (One game I may write about soon, which has a surprising amount of overlap with DMC3’s fans (at least in English-speaking regions), is similar, though!) The art design is fantastic, from the seedy back-alleys on stage 1 to the increasingly distorted world and creepy black-and-white hell of the later stages. The alternate costumes, and Devil Trigger designs by SMT series demon designer Kazuma Kaneko (most reminiscent of his work on Digital Devil Saga) are sick as hell, too. The industrial soundtrack hits all the right notes, especially the shit-talking battle themes. For as much as I like God Hand and Bayonetta, DMC3’s two closest relatives, neither of them have ever gotten me as amped as this game. And neither one lets you fight a demonic chess set with a sniper rifle, a magical ray gun, a three-sided ice nunchaku, and a bat-shooting-witch-scythe-guitar.

Really, it’s just that simple.

Demon’s Emblem: Path of Radiant Stories

Sometimes, when I go to read the SDA forum, I’ll see a post by someone who’s trying to break down a game they haven’t even played. Maybe they’ve watched most of it on youtube or read a guide written by some importer to try and suss out the mechanics before the English release, or maybe they just have a demo and are playing it over and over to try everything they can think of. I’ve certainly tried to do that myself with fighting games and Cave releases during the long wait before they hit consoles, but it’s never really crossed my mind in a speedrunning sense. I really try to walk into any non-arcade game I’m looking forward to as unspoiled as possible, because that first impression is a big deal. And even if I know how a game kinda looks at a high level before I get my first shot at it, I spend some time playing around and figuring out what feels best to me before really digging in. I’m sure that a lot of these runners take time to enjoy their first real playthrough as well (while of course at least taking mental notes on things that seem to be effective, if nothing else), but I’ve never picked up a game that I bought expecting I’d want to do serious speedruns on it. And that’s assuming you can even call my original attempts “serious”…

Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who played the Melee demo in stores and was blown away by Marth. “Who is this guy? Is he from some Zelda game?” With his shieldless sword stance and his Anime Hair (I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time, I was just twelve and thought it was cool) and his counter-attack (anyone who’s played against me or even knows my mains in most fighting games would know that I love counters) I knew right away I had my favorite character. At least, until I owned a copy years later and unlocked Mr. Game and Watch after countless hours. Anyway, I never had a GBA either so the Gamecube installment was my first crack at this mysterious series that I hadn’t gotten to play before! After playing through the game, I thought it was really cool and seemed like a pretty easy game to run. Before long I got hooked up with SDA’s resident Fire Emblem fan, Molotov. He’d played through the entire series, done or planned runs on most of the games, and was just generally cool to work with.

If you have a purely turn-based game, you’re basically looking at four distinct ways to improve your time:

  1. Offense. Essentially, the most effective way to defeat enemies and accomplish goals. In a game like Fire Emblem this often means blitzing an enemy boss or moving aggressively to a key capture point, while moving as few of your units as possible.
  2. Defense. Methods for avoiding dying (as your resources and power are often much lower than in a “regular” playthrough), or, better yet, reducing the amount of actions the enemies get to take.
  3. Randomness. Many of the FE games are heavily deterministic (if you make the same moves, the game will put out the same results), but as I recall PoR doesn’t do this and allows you to try the exact same suicidal moves repeatedly until they work in your favor. Additionally, there’s a significant benefit to aiming for specific stat gains, because FE assigns each unit unique chances to increase each stat on a level-up. The hero might have an 80% chance of gaining a strength point while a magic-type unit could have something more like 30%.
  4. Execution. Turn-based games are often derided because you rarely get combo-video type material, and while it’s true that there are often “all or nothing” scenarios in action games where being slightly off can make or break a run, the sheer amount of commands in a long game makes a huge difference over time.

As a newcomer, I viewed #1 as by far the most important. It certainly makes a bigger impact on your time than the others, but not to the extent that I treated it as. Not to mention that ignoring #3 and especially 4 makes the run just look sloppy and lazy, which is undesirable given the emphasis on a finished product at SDA.

In THIS game, the rules say I can do it as much as I want!

It’s even funnier to me in retrospect because #1 is almost completely trivial. The game gives you a small number (I think you get one guaranteed, and can find a few others) of items which you can use to teach a character a unique, class-based skill. For most characters this is a creative little move that’s entertaining but won’t change your tactics much. If you give this item to Ike, the hero, instead, his attack will randomly (and frequently) turn into a double attack, with the first hit stealing an equal amount of life from the enemy and the second ignoring their armor stat, which usually just straight up kills them unless it’s one of the last couple bosses. The self-healing and his overall power also makes this strategy pretty much immune to long-term bad luck. The enemies will try to slowly chip away at him while his revenge attacks take them out of the picture and cancel out the damage that he’s taken. Since this is a speedrun though, playing for overall okay luck isn’t really that good of an idea unless you’re doing the game in one shot. If you’re playing for keeps, you want to make sure that you get those big hits against big enemies and gain good level-ups to boot. Not one of my specialties, in this case.

The other major strategic element involves the Pegasus Rider character, Marcia. She can fly over most terrain features (rocks, trees, holes, water, etc.), as well as other units, friendly or not, and carry Ike at the same time! Aggressive use often allows him to reach his targets several turns quicker than walking, but she also brings in one of the crucial defense trade-offs. Having a passenger weighs down mounted characters, lowering their effective stats. This makes it harder for them to score damage and causes them to get hit for more damage more frequently. Marcia isn’t a terribly strong character to start with, and if she dies before the last mission you have to reset (she’s just too good, all the way to the end), so using her effectively reintroduces some of the luck mitigated by Super Ike.

All that said, I would pretty much sum up my run with a simple statistic: I recorded about 24 hours of footage, for a run that finished under 4. Don’t follow my example.

Radiata Stories

As always, we got renders instead of the sweet concept art for the box.

Pretty much the last time I had a chance to talk to my man Enhasa, he told me, “the better a game is for speedrunning, the better it is in general.” I had to argue a bit to suss out what he was trying to get at, but that’s not important right now. For now, all I really have to say is that as much as I love Radiata Stories, it’s a pretty goddamned terrible game. I’ve thought about this over and over through the past several years, and to date I have not come across another game in which speedrunning forces you to almost completely ignore the best parts of the game and spend the entire time suffering through the bad parts.

I guess depending on who you talk to, maybe the GTA games count? It’s the same deal here, although obviously with a much more JRPG flavor. Kicking things is the primary way of interacting with the world; it opens chests, reveals other items hidden in piles of rubbish or under rocks, and lets you pick fights with almost anyone you want. The game gives you a fairly large world to check out, filled up with a large number of NPCs who all lead their own little lives. The heart of the game is trying to hang out with these people and find out what they want so that they’ll become your “friend” and join you in battle. (If that sounds cool to you, play this game.) The game has a clock which dictates what each one does every day, so you can basically stalk them until you find out what you need to do, then try to do it. A few characters have pretty cool questlines, and my favorite plays with the system and your expectations in a really clever way.

Watch closely…

But none of that matters, because out of about 170 characters in the game, the speedrun recruits less than ten. Hell yeah! On top of that, you can’t skip cutscenes, which basically instantly adds over an hour of holding O and mashing X to skip text as fast as possible throughout the game. The scenes themselves are generally pretty funny and engaging…the first time. But as a runner you get to get sick of them instead!

The most actively annoying system in speedrunning the game involves avoiding encounters. Like most RPGs from the past decade enemies appear on the map as you walk around, and you can try to move around them or at least avoid being put in a disadvantage by being ambushed. In most of those games this is really easy for the most part, but Radiata’s dungeons and overworld aren’t comprised of “field” areas, and instead, a spindly series of trails. As a result, you don’t have a lot of space to maneuver around them and it’s often difficult to even pull off bait and switch tactics to work around them. Obviously, there are a lot of runs on things like older Final Fantasy games where you can’t avoid “random” battles at all, but the fact that in this game you can as long as you get lucky means that you should play until you get really lucky. Or until this happens and you’re too mindfucked to continue for the day:

The battle system is really mediocre too, like a slow and super dumbed-down version of Star Ocean 2’s free-moving mashy action. You only ever get to control Jack, the main character, who has a couple of basic defensive moves and a prepared attack string plus a special move that uses your meter. You can give orders and try using formation attacks with your party members, but their effectiveness is mostly tied to how strong those party members are in the first place and otherwise just waste your meter that you could be using to kill things. Character building and equipment are also ridiculously limited so while the game is super easy playing normally there’s not much to abuse like in other tri-Ace games, where even at low levels you can get game-breaking damage if you know how. The only way to really make fights fast and easy is to recruit the best characters, and regardless of which story path you’re on, they aren’t in your small pool of applicants. You’re lucky if your allies don’t kill themselves trying to play hero too much, since often you need them to be alive so that they get hit by supers instead of Jack (whose death causes game over).

Like I mentioned before, I didn’t have to figure out much of the overall strategy in this game. A few weeks after I first beat the game, Molotov found me a Japanese Geocities page created by “ogu_dai”, in which he detailed his checkpoint times and overall strategies for each of the separate story paths. His stuff was designed for single-segment play, so it was a bit more luckproof than good segmenting strategies, but most of it was tremendously useful and saved us at least 100 hours worth of testing. In terms of resource management, there’s basically one bottleneck on the “Fairy” storyline that I was running. You want to buy the best weapon in the first half of the game as soon as possible. This basically means taking a detour in an early dungeon during the part of the game where you don’t have any choice of what to do, to get the best item in the game, so you can sell it.

By “best” I mean that it locks Jack’s non-battle movement speed at the medium range where he does a funny “power walk” animation, and does nothing else.

If that sounds cool to you, play this game.

Combined with the small amount of money you get otherwise during the opening of the game, you can head to the weapon shop as soon as the game lets you and buy a big two-handed sword! This triples your damage, which basically still means it’s godawful until the game hands you the best one-hander you can get outside of the bonus dungeon early in the second half.

There are four other crucial purchases in the game, but once you get going money itself is hardly an issue. One is the command to have a party member heal you. They are not always intelligent enough to do this on their own. The second is a large stock of “Flee Balls.” Like other RPGs, fighting non-bosses to level up is almost a complete waste of time. Even when a battle loads because you couldn’t avoid getting into it you lose precious seconds, and to make matters worse there’s no “retreat” command like in other games. You have to buy these items and use them whenever you get hosed over just to cut your losses. Third, you need items to poison the enemies that you do have to fight. Almost every boss is vulnerable to poison, and once an enemy is poisoned, it doesn’t go away. The poison deals damage faster than your low-level sword hits do anyway, and doesn’t build the enemy meter while doing so (like hitting or being hit by bosses does). If you can get both that’s awesome, but in many cases it’s not safe enough to do so, either because the enemy super will unavoidably kill you, or because they can just kill you in one combo anyway.

A nice fat stack of Bison dollars.

But, if you’re really outnumbered, the poison doesn’t help that much, as you put yourself at risk just trying to use the items. It’s also difficult to hit your target because you literally “throw” the poison at them, so if someone else is in the way it will never hit. That’s where the last purchase comes in, and despite it being the most broken and useful tactic in the game, it was the last one we found out about. Molotov and I investigated it on our own because ogu_dai never had to use it. (He leveled up more and actually recruited a semi-useful character instead.) There’s a command called “Earthquake” that you can buy late in the game. If you have at least one living party member, all of you fall on the ground, causing it to shake so much that all of the enemies are knocked over. Your team gets up first, so this stunlocks anyone you want, while dealing damage similar to poison (and stacking with poison if you can hit it, obviously), but it costs 4 meter per use. Every time it touches an enemy though, you gain back 1 meter, so if you hit four enemies at once, it’s an infinite. It’s so good against the hardest boss on this path that it’s actually worth using healing items on his weaker cronies just so they won’t die and force you to stop using the infinite on him. Sadly, I don’t have a video, since this is the point where I gave up on recording the run since I couldn’t get the strategy down. Now it would be easy, really the least of my worries starting over.

I know that sounds awesome, and that it is awesome, but it doesn’t change the fact that this game is really annoying and broken for speedrunning, with all of the other ways being much less interesting and hilarious. It’s unfortunate.

Demon’s Souls

Don’t have nearly as much to say about this one, as I wasn’t involved in any sort of strategic development and just copied what other people had already figured out until I gave up on the game before really learning it anyway. Basically, the key feature of the Souls games is the death system. It’s kind of old-school in that it puts you back in a designated respawn point at the beginning of the current level, but you also drop all of your “souls” (which serve as the money used to buy both items and stat increases) on the spot where you were killed (or a short distance away if you jaunted into some kind of bottomless pit). You can also only have one puddle of souls on the ground at once. The idea is that you’ll figure out what you did wrong and find a way to not die in the exact same spot next time, and thereby succeed in regaining your souls (as well as keep the ones you collected working your way back to where you died in the first place). In order to make this actually dramatic, the game autosaves pretty much all the time and prevents you from backing up your save to cheat death.

“I play shmups and other games where you can’t go back all the time, so this’ll be a piece of cake, right?”

Most accurate fan art of all time.

Nope.

In MAME you can make save states. All of the 360 Cave ports have a training mode where you can start on any stage (and usually any boss) with perfectly calibrated parameters that match your usual/desired progress, which is basically as good as a savestate aside from the more limited starting points. Fighting games have training modes where you can try almost anything you can come up with (unless you need the dummy to do something that you can’t figure out how to record) over and over. Even beatmania IIDX has a practice mode where you can break down individual measures at ridiculously slow speed to see what’s going on.

In Demon’s Souls, you can’t reload your save to repeat a level with the same conditions. If you try to go back, you’ll have more stuff and be stronger. The bosses are dead permanently.

Most of Demon’s Souls is not a hard game when you know the easiest routes and how to build your character. Out of the hour-long run, maybe 10-15 minutes of the game at most has actual ways for you to screw up and lose a lot of time. Every time you want to practice those parts, you have to play most of the other 50 minutes too. Obviously, once it’s crunch time before the marathon, you want to get used to just going through the whole game no matter what happens, but I gave up before I could get to that point.

I’m not going to play Demon’s Souls again. I still haven’t even played the sequel, which I was looking forward to before all this happened. I probably will someday, but I’ve held contempt like this for much longer than a year before. It’s just not time.

Endless High-Speed Running

This is gonna be one hell of a party.

So to date, my involvement in the M2K2/SDA community has lasted about seven and a half years, and although the time that I started really moving away from the hobby (which I almost completely glossed over in the previous post) was nearly three years ago, the sea was already shifting by that point. As it turned out, the speedrunning world was moving in a direction that I think is overall a lot more interesting and exciting than during my original experiences.

When I first entered the community, it was pretty small, and I felt this was simply how it was going to be. How many people are actually interested in seeing “expert” play? How many would even recognize it? The brutal realization if you go back and watch many runs that were on the site in 2005 or 2006 is that even most self-discovering members of the community didn’t really know what they were dealing with at first. (Unsurprisingly, this took me longer than most to realize.) SDA has always used a community verification process to determine what runs are suitable for publishing: volunteers watch the run to ensure that it meets expectations for video (so that you can see everything that’s going on acceptably) and play quality. In those days, the “finished” video was often the only product of a runner’s efforts; even popular games didn’t have enough players to rigorously search for techniques, and there was generally little if any indication of how much blood, sweat, and tears had gone into the recording.

Even near the end of 2006, it seemed to me that the majority of performances on the site had been completed by a very small number of players, maybe less than ten, often working in specific categories. One prolific runner in the early days almost exclusively played bad (wait, is there another kind?) N64 games, a couple had a large number of NES titles under their belt each, and one player (who was, much later, discovered to have cheated in multiple cases by splicing together different attempts to make a sort of “best possible” run) had records on all of the major entries in the Zelda series.

Their definition of major, not mine.

And the admins had other worries on their plates. In retrospect, these seem like silly growing pains, but there were perceived rivalries with two other websites: Twin Galaxies, and TASVideos (then called “NESVideos”). TG had long been a leader in classic arcade scorekeeping, and as the site expanded to track best times in console games as well, it seemed as if the “official” nature could hinder SDA’s growth. And TG still required video recordings of the playthrough, but these videos were never released by the site, leading to a small number of players who used the site’s scoreboards exclusively in a “save that shit for nationals” mentality, in fighting game terms. This was, of course, their prerogative, but I (and others) felt that it was petty and counterproductive.

The TAS community presented quite a different threat, with many players feeling that the demonstrations of inhumanly “perfect” play presented by its members would cheapen the impact of their own efforts. M2K2’s nate, driven partly by the effects on some of the best Super Metroid players, hoped to make a pre-emptive strike by trying to brand their work with negatively-loaded names. They never caught on, and while at first he was frustrated by the compromise “Tool-Assisted Speedruns” (feeling that “speedruns” should refer only to human performances), he eventually relented. By now, the knowledge base and standards of TAS recordings have risen comparably to SDA’s, to the point where once again the idea that anyone could confuse the two is usually patently absurd, if not for the same reasons as before.

But the steady growth of SDA through the years put all these issues at ease, and a large number of new members, inspired by TSA’s videos, created the first sort of “clique” in non-Quake SDA: the Ocarina of Time community. Which I know nothing about! Still, these became more and more common, and with the increased competitiveness and ability to find tricks, came much higher standards across the board. This had very little to do with my surrender, though: for me, the move from VHS recordings (which nate abhorred due to awful quality and compression artifacts) to DVD was the biggest factor. I decided I’d rather spend the money on new games than invest in, again, hobby equipment. And SDA was almost completely focused on the finished product, still. “Here’s a nice video! The best anyone has ever made, just for you!” The quality was rising, in all aspects, but the core of the site stayed the same. That was fine, but maybe…it just wasn’t right for me?

Then my good friend and then backend site guy Enhasa changed the game. Inspired by high-score boards on similar community websites (shmups, general arcade games, etc.), he presented a new “Casual speedrunning” forum on the site, along with fun “speedrunning tournaments” in which entrants would compete on games selected by him, that hadn’t been run before. He hoped that it would get people playing new games, more games, not just to get The Run (gotta use all this new slang I guess) but to mess around and have a good time. Well-intentioned as it was, it never really ended up working out the way he seemed to intend, but in my mind, it’s a clear point on the line between SDA and Speed Runs Live.

That one! Right there!

You know what?

I love Speed Runs Live.

At least, I do in theory; I don’t race much. Check out that race list and I bet you can figure out some of the reasons why! Point is, it’s a fresh and competitive venue for speedruns, where you’re not trying to beat some video a guy got once out of ten thousand tries. You’re trying to beat that guy right now. I’m also a fighting game guy and just love live performance in general, so really, it’s not that hard to see the connection.

And that leads into the current dominating form of speedruns: live streaming. Like a DVD recorder, I still really haven’t picked up on this facet of everything yet, but streaming has really changed speedrunning more than everything else combined. From the overwhelming popularity of Mario 64 superstar Siglemic, to the charity marathons and connections with other competitive communities (like Josh Ballard‘s ambitious fighting/mystery game tournament+speedrunning marathon Kings of Poverty, streamed by none other than the man Spooky himself), streaming has vastly increased the spectating audience and done some real good in the world at the same time. But from an inside perspective, the thing I find most magical is how it drives home the reality of speedrunning: there is a lot of fucking hard work, dedication, practice and perseverance. Siglemic’s stream monsters get as hype for a “reset” as anything else, which is something I never would have expected. It makes sense, though, if for no other reason than that people love watching it, and a reset means there’s going to be more.

The fact that marathon runs also often run into these randomly unavoidable disasters doesn’t have the same effect, since players just don’t start over to get it right, but there is the same sort of competitive undercurrent that you see in versus events. You’ve got one shot to do your thing, so are you gonna pull it off, or not? The great thing is that it’s still hype either way. Pull off that impossible trick as if it was nothing, and it becomes a legendary moment. Encounter bad RNG or some crazy scenario you’ve never seen before? People love trainwrecks even more!

But what I love most about the marathons is, once again, the “hobby” aspect. Even SRL has some of the cynicism and drama that creep in at times, with players who want to raise their rating scores more than their actual proficiency, for example. But people go to the marathons to share their stuff, play for a good cause, have fun, and most importantly, hang out with some friends. And those are the factors that drive me in anything. Not recognition, popularity, or winnings, but the opportunity to share the results of my hard work, something I’m hopefully proud of, with people I care about and just have a good time. And that’s the same reason I’m wary of “esports” in the fighting game scene. I’m just not that interested in dealing with people who think of these fun and cool things as chores. I’m not saying that there’s a lot of people like that, but it becomes more likely the more ulterior motives there are.

But for a lot of people, SDA is still the heart of the speedrunning scene, despite its slow upload pace. Insanely skilled players like Kryssstal (who has the Link to the Past record) who have streamed amazing runs over and over always get asked, “So when are you submitting to SDA?” And if you just want to watch the single best run, it makes sense. Especially with SRL and events filling the live and competitive niches in various permutations, SDA holding its spot as the record-keeper is only natural.

I don’t mind that it holds the most prestigious spot, and a lot of my best friends in the community are still most closely associated with SDA. But for me, and judging by my conversations with some other people, I’m not the only one who feels this way, these other aspects and having a community interface are worth a lot more. Josh, for example, doesn’t necessarily view himself as especially attached to any community. He once gave me a sports metaphor comparing the two communities, saying that record times are like individual season statistics (which are popular to compare but more “random”) and live events and performances more like full careers (which in many cases say more about who’s better overall). He may have lots of runs up on SDA, but he’s also excited to build interest in the community and events and especially to further the cause of live streaming. The most excitement I see from him is when he’s on his stream, doing marathon/session style practice (where you don’t reset and just go for it) and really interacting with his stream chat. It helps a lot that he plays fairly popular games and has an outstanding personality compared to a lot of speedrun streamers, but to me it just reinforces once again what I think he and I both love most about doing this.

I told you this wasn’t gonna end.

My future aspirations in speedrunning are not to become another “funkdoc,” although I respect and admire what he’s done quite a lot and consider him one of my best friends in the community. (I hope that’s obvious by now.) For starters, I really don’t have the ability to work with people’s nostalgia nearly as much. Like I mentioned, I didn’t grow up with many games (until I was about 13, all we really had was an Atari and Lemmings 1 and 2, which are awesome games but not really that great for speedrunning), and while I’ve certainly developed a soft spot for a lot of old games, particularly Genesis titles, I don’t see any reason to try and ape him other than sheer competition.

Instead, I see myself as much more of a marathon and semi-causal stream type of player if anything. That’s not nearly as simple as it might sound either, but a lot of the potential I see in speedrunning still draws back straight from the younger days of SDA, when every game was fresh and unexplored. It’s not that I want to completely shy away from competition, but I can’t find a whole lot of drive to “catch up” with players who I know love a given game much, much more than I do, whether it’s speedrunning, score-attacking, or fighting.

And my interest in playing semi-poverty doesn’t make the marathons any easier. PJ has made his name in the scene largely by becoming way better at stupefyingly bad games than they have ever deserved, but my alley is more underloved games that I genuinely adore. His strategy is better, not just because pure shock factor plays well in modest doses at marathons, but also because you always run the risk of coming to hate whatever you’re trying to master…unless you already do hate it! As less of a retro gamer, I can’t even really slip in obscure stuff that’s short enough to justify time slots; the shortest runs I’ve ever worked on to any extent were in the vicinity of an hour. ~1% of the time budget doesn’t sound like much, but the competition is just too stiff.

This year, I decided to pick up Devil May Cry 3 for the marathon, but it turns out I wasn’t the only one who realized that despite repeat performances from the first game in the series (and one from its semi-successor Bayonetta, neither of which I like quite as much as DMC3), the title which I assumed to be the most popular in its little sub-genre hadn’t made an appearance yet. We ended up splitting the characters, left to be decided at a donation bidding war, and while I have the good straw in terms of practicing, I’m not sure that I can beat Flicky in a reverse money match. His Bayonetta run and other random commentating went over really well with the crowd last year while my “having never done anything noteworthy in any online community” leaves me as a complete unknown, particularly to spectators.

On the plus side, Vergil is significantly easier to play than Dante, aside from a small number of rooms and situations where his slightly poorer movement really comes back to bite you. And all else failing I can surely get on the bonus stream, where the only real difference is knowing that only 1/5 as many people are watching. But looking towards future marathons, I think if anything my opportunities are going to be in digging up smaller, older games where it’ll be easier to justify time:popularity ratios. It’s true that I’m a bit jaded from knowing Uyama is never going to allow Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter in an AGDQ marathon even though it stands out as a truly stellar, quick and understandable RPG run, but more importantly it’s just exhausting to put in the kind of rigorous practice needed for a marathon on games that take more than an hour to get through all of. And more manageable games also just make better bite-size stream material, like the kind I’m expecting I’d be doing, as I certainly don’t have plans to quit arcade games anytime soon.

Could it really all fit together that nicely? I’m not sure, but I have plenty of time to figure it out. For now, this is a good break point. Next time, I’ll finally actually get around to some of my actual experiences involving speedrunning instead of just talking about related topics!

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.