When we play any game, we learn a set of skills that are only useful for playing that specific game. We practice honing these skills so that we can become better. There may be some overlap between games that depend on the same physical aptitude, but ultimately, a player that is good at one game will not necessarily be good at another. If a great tennis player were to play soccer, the reflexes and agility he developed playing tennis would help him, but he would still have to develop an entirely different set of skills, learn an entirely different set of rules, and approach the game with an entirely different way of thinking.
In this sense, most of the popular series in the industry today are identical games. If I learn to play one of them, I can pick up any one of the others, having never played it before, and easily be a strong player. The fighting game is a rare exception. A player who is good at King of Fighters will not necessarily be good at Street Fighter. He may have a fine grasp of standard fighting game motions such as the quarter-circle forward, he may know how to use cancels and have a studied sense of timing, and he may make good guesses as to how certain characters might play. But even with all this knowledge, he might still play a rubbish Dudley.
Proper rubbish, I say!
Characters in fighting games all require specialized knowledge as to how their movesets work. Anyone can do a Dragon Punch – the important thing is knowing its function as a vertical check. An understanding of how the characters’ movesets operate in relation to each other is also paramount. A player who plays a heavy grappler like Zangief needs to know that his character isn’t based around projectile attacks, so that when he’s facing a Ryu player, he’ll know that his opponent will try to control as much horizontal ground as possible. In this way, he can work out in his head beforehand the best way to break through his opponent’s defensive options, and in the process, leave the match victorious.
Just like in sports and athletics, good fighting games tend to have very high skill ceilings, and the competition – especially at the higher levels – is insane. A serious fighting game player wants to improve his own game in the same way a serious basketball player might. People will devote hours upon hours to learning every eccentricity of every move for their chosen character, which has led to what’s called a “main” in fighting game culture. When a player absolutely has to win, it’s time to bring out the main. Should two skilled players both choose their mains, the ensuing battle is likely to be extremely challenging and fulfilling for both sides. These circumstances have brought us some of the most intense matches in fighting game history, such as when Justin Wong battled Daigo Umehara at EVO 2004. *
The reasons people play fighting games are also not so different from the reasons people play competitive sports. Players enjoy the adrenaline rush of a good match, the challenge of facing a similarly-skilled player, and the thrill of a well-deserved victory. However, videogames are unique in that their audiovisual content enhances the feeling of competition with all the spectacle of a WWF event. Fighting games often use frenetic soundtracks, dramatic staging, cinematic camera techniques, and booming narration to up the sense of theatricality. In Street Fighter IV, the characters of Ryu and Ken – lifelong martial arts rivals – can have a match in front of a goddamn volcano, while metal music blares in the background. Even novice players could enjoy such a thrilling setting.
Was this arena sanctioned by the
Street Fighter Tournament Committee?!
Videogames offers us both graphical and gameplay content – we see pretty lights, we shoot pretty guns, we explore a pretty world. But most of the gaming industry’s recent offerings have strayed farther and farther away from the second half of a videogame’s identity. Series like Uncharted, Call of Duty, and Gears of War offer all the sights and sounds of a weekend at the cinema. That’s not to say that there isn’t a place in the industry for these experiential videogames. For one thing, the market certainly has been eating them up. More often than not, however, these titles have their film-like qualities included at the expense of creating a game.
* If you’re confused over why this is such an incredible match, Wikipedia has a good explanation.