The Appeal of Fighting Games

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Fighting games are not easy to get into. When you start playing them you will not be good at them, and the only path to improvement involves losing repeatedly. But the objective of the player should not be to win, it should be to get better. There’s always room for improvement in these games; the skill ceiling is too high to even perceiveWhat’s the point though? Whilst increasing your skill level for the sake of it is not entirely wrong, I think it goes much deeper than that. In fighting games, you are playing against one other person, another player like yourself. Players are all given the same tools to succeed, and so if you win it is because you were better than your opponent, and if you lose it means that you weren’t good enough. While this can be disheartening for new players, this sort of personal responsibility is just what I’m looking for in a competitive game. Since you alone are accountable for your wins and losses, you feel a sense of personal achievement for your improvement. The progress you make directly depends on the effort you put in, and so when you do dedicate time and effort to the game, and reap the rewards because of that, there’s no greater feeling.  

Furthermore, if you lose it’s usually easy to see precisely why, and therefore you can know exactly what you need to practice to stop it from happening again. You can learn from your losses much more than from your wins, and again, there’s no greater feeling than recognising a bad habit, fixing it, and seeing improvements in your gameplay because of it. The process of getting better can be arduousbut as long as you make improvement your goal and as long as you put in the effort, matches will no longer be zero-sum games. I’ve found that losing in of itself is not especially frustrating, (i.e. if I lose to someone clearly much better than me for example, it’s not a problem—there was nothing I could do) the frustration comes from making the same mistakes over and over, a failure to adapt and progress. Stagnation is frustrating, and will lead to losses, but through these losses you will eventually learn from your mistakes, and with that improvement will eventually come higher level play. With higher-level play comes more wins and tougher opponents, but more importantly it also brings with it a greater understanding and enjoyment of the game. Being able to use the tools available to you to outsmart and outplay your opponent is incredibly fun, and that’s an aspiration worth losing for.

In practice, success isn’t quite as perfectly representative of hard work as I make it seem. Because of the complexity of fighting games, they’re usually difficult to balance. These games often have dozens of unique characters to play as, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but some tend to have stronger strengths and fewer weaknesses than others. This means someone who plays a relatively strong (top tier) character/team may win more often than another who spends the same amount of time getting good at a weak (low tier) character/teamWinning with a top tier character is akin to winning a marathon while wearing performance-enhancing running shoes. Sure, it still requires a lot of skill, but there was a separate advantage at play. The reason this doesn’t always warrant a balance change or a ban on the character is that, while runners that are sponsored by a specific brand are not allowed to use other brands’ high-tech shoesa fighting game player can switch to playing top tier character at any moment. It’s a no-brainerwhy put yourself at a disadvantage when you could be on equal footing at least, and an advantage at best? Well, one reason is simply that you don’t like the top tier character(s) as much as your main character, and that can be based on a variety of things from playstyle to design, and even personality. The second, more interesting reason, is that the unfamiliarity of the low tier characters gives them an element of surprise that balances the scales. Since top tier characters are seen more often, it’s more likely that your opponent will know what to expect and how to play to your weaknesses, but for low tier characters, and especially those with unique abilities, it’s the exact opposite. While your opponents are learning how to counter the high tier characters, you could be playing a low tier character in a way they haven’t seen before. Sometimes players even find new capabilities for these low tier characters, previously undiscovered due to a lack of interest to play as them in the first place, which can significantly change how that character is perceived. This is just one, simplified example of the complexity of fighting games among many more. To take the furthest extreme as an example, reaching and excelling at pro-level play requires an understanding of the game that is beyond reasonable, some examples being the memorisation of frame data and attack ranges for dozens upon dozens of moves—and this is all on top of lightning-quick reactions and incredibly precise spacing and movement. Such knowledge is nowhere near necessary for the average player (which I’m sure we can all agree is a good thing), but there is still a never-ending cache of useful knowledge a player could have, and will attain over time. This is one of the genre’s biggest strengths.

There’s a lot of respect for the best players among the fighting game community because of that complexity. The players who have mastered these games and have become the best of the best through years of dedication are rightfully held in high esteem. Additionally, in most cases the better you get at a fighting game, the flashier the stunts you can pull off, like long combos, complicated mix-ups, and correct predictions. Because of this, high calibre games are incredibly fun to watch. Seeing pro-level games serves to further inspire us mere mortals to keep improvingWhen I see someone pull off an incredible comeback or win a hard-fought tournament, it’s hard not to want that kind of skill for myself, and that’s definitely a big part of the drive to improve 

If we take our focus away from the games themselves for a moment, the fighting game community (FGC) is hands down the best I’ve seen. It’s incredibly welcoming, perhaps in an attempt to counteract the cold nature of the games themselves. The history of fighting games probably plays a large part in this as well, since the genre started out in arcades, where anyone could play as long as they had some change and an opponent. There’s also a plethora of resources made by experts to help newcomers understand and improve at each game, character, and technique. While fighting games are competitive by nature, I’ve found the community to be quite relaxed overall. At smaller tournaments, you’ll often see players fist bumping and joking to each other in between rounds, and in forums for some games, pros are helping out complete beginners on the dailyThe love and dedication people have for these games is amazing. For a great example, look no further than the Super Smash Bros. Melee players. Melee is almost a twenty-year-old game. Even being able to play it online with acceptable latency is difficult, not to mention the substantial input lag when playing on a modern TV. Because of this, Melee players lug dozens of heavy, unwieldy CRT televisions to live eventsTheir efforts to modernise this great game and keep its community active have extended its life for years. In the wider FGC, mutual enthusiasm is best shown at events. It would be best if I show rather than tell, so here’s a clip of the crowd’s reaction to the infamous Evo moment 37, when pro Street Fighter player Daigo Umehara predicted his opponents move and parried fourteen consecutive attacks, requiring a precision of one-tenth of a second each, before countering with his own combo to win the semi-final match of Evo 2004.  

 

None of the points I’ve made have been exclusive to fighting games. In fact, they apply to most games and sports, and because of that, I trust that the appeal of fighting games will be easy to understand for almost everyone. Although there is specific appeal to be found in places like the franchises, their histories, the character select and the friendly rivalries, at the heart of fighting games’ appeal is self-improvement. The games and their communities give you everything you need to get betterand the rest is all down to you. If you persevere through the losses and put in the necessary effort, you will see constant, visible, and fast progression, and I shouldn’t need to explain what’s appealing about that. The fact that this development manifests itself in increasingly awesome fights is the icing on the cake.

How fitting then, that the greatest example of the fighting game mentality is none other than the very emblem of the genre, Ryu himself.