20051004

Fighting Games

Exactly why fighting games have recently become something for my mind to chew on is somewhat confusing, even for me. For the longest time, I didn't really give a second thought to the various incarnations and series and methods of play. However, lately they have occupied the portion of my mind reserved for lamenting the lack of inventiveness in the FPS genre of late.

To begin, there are three major fighting game types. I make my distinctions based on the method of how a character's moves are accomplished. Between the first two categories, some overlap occurs, but not much.

In all categories, a few basic truths hold. Basic attacks are simple. Hit a button, an attack happens. Hit a button and a direction and a different basic attack happens. While how one's health is measured, whether there's a special meter or not etc. can be up in the air, I've never found a fighting game yet where an attack button is pressed and nothing happens at all. Also, there are always quirks that differentiate the characters from each other, meaning playing a different character is almost like learning half theg game over again. It is in the areas of combos (a chain of attacks one after the other without pause) and special attacks where everything differentiates.

First is the Super Attack category. Street Fighter, Marvel vs Capcom, and Guilty Gear (the game series I will go more indepth with) fit this category. Special attacks and moves are done via specific motions with the directional pad or joystick, such as starting by pressing down and rolling the pad counter clockwise until the forward direction is reached. Other, more complicated motions are required for the most powerful moves. In order to combo well, specific ordering and timing of the proper attacks needs to be learned. Both special move motions and combos will vary from character to character.

Second, is the Chain Attack category. Tekken, Virtua Fighter and Soul Caliber (which I will primarily cite) fall into this category. Special moves usually require time to charge up for full effect, although a lesser effect (more like a basic attack) will occur if the charge isn't held. Some won't let you decide how long the charge is, and will charge up fully no matter what, leaving you open to attack. Combos are, for the most part, preset. You hit button A twice, button B once, and then C, to perform a combo designed by the team that programmed the game. Sometimes these combos involve hitting a direction and a button, holding buttons and more.

The last category is the Brawling category. Jump Super Stars and Super Smash Brothers are the major players (if the only) in this category, although the category can be cited as having roots in the old River City Ransom games (there was one which allowed four players to brawl with each other all at once). Special moves are accomplished by pushing a special move button and a direction (including no direction) which indicates which special move to do. Combos are entirely 'free form', depending more on where your opponent flies from your last hit more than anything else.

Before I go into an indepth analysis, I'll state exactly why I'm going to all this trouble to divide fighting games into categories, and discuss them. I've played a fair amount of Guilty Gear XX, and a large amount of other games of the same type. I've played Soul Caliber II quite a bit as well, and some Tekken 3 for that category. And I've played excessive amounts of Super Smash Brothers (and recently Jump Superstars). However, in most of these cases, the enemy AI wasn't difficult enough to be so difficult that it was frustrating, and the people I played with were as flawed and unskilled (or flawless and super skilled as we are in Super Smash Brothers) as I was.

Recently, I've encountered players in Guilty Gear and Soul Caliber who, basically, play the game so well it is awe inspiring. I've encountered similar players in Super Smash Brothers, who routinely best me thoroughly. I come close to victory sometimes in all, and in Super Smash Brothers I even win sometimes. However, I noticed something odd about my attitude towards the games.

The more I played Guilty Gear and Soul Caliber against these people, the more frustrated I felt. Yet, even when losing as consitantly in Super Smash Brothers, I was simply envigorated to try harder. For a while I wasn't sure why losing in one was different than the other, as typically anytime someone can best me in video games thoroughly I get excited because of the appearance of a real challenge. Eventually, I discovered it wasn't that I was losing that was getting to me, it was my perception of why.

When playing Guilty Gear and Soul Caliber, I didn't feel that I was losing because I was less skilled in fighting games, or because I had poor strategy. In fact, the one thing that would keep me from being entirely wiped out was my ability to think ahead and predict what my opponent would do, and given my fair amount of experience with Guilty Gear XX (the game that really got to me), I couldn't be called unskilled. It wasn't even the difference in skill that was troublesome, as my opponent had the obvious benefit of a greater wealth of experience and skill to draw on. What got to me was the interface.

It is arguable that my next point can be chalked up to being lazy, unwilling to commit myself to anything etc. However, I've thought about that myself and come to the conclusion that such isn't the case. Even if it is, it is simply another example of why games are being more exclusive to the people who have always played them, and perhaps shortly people who have always played .

In Guilty Gear, What was frustrating to me was that I percieved my loses to happen more because my attempts to pull off special move X at opportune moment Y would fail to produce a special move more often than not. Even something as simple as rolling counter clockwise from down until the rightward direction was reached would succeed as often as a fish flies. If the move had been pulled off when I wanted it to, or even a few moments thereafter, I would have hit and damaged my opponent heavily. As it was, I simply did some random, useless basic attack and opened myself up for pain. And this isn't even bringing in crazy moves that require you to roll from front to back and then foward again.

In Soul Caliber, a similar frustration took hold. In order to proper use a character in the least, you had to memorize every possible combination. Not only that, but some combinations were only accessible from particular battle stances, which could only be reached through specific actions etc. In a fierce competition, remembering to hold the B button after the A C C combo, or was that C A C, or A B B.... It's a little crazy. On top of that, try a different character and now you have to memorize everything all over again.

However, in Super Smash Brothers, everything is the same. Certainly, every character has different basic attacks, different special moves, and different hit strengths, recovery abilities etc. However, everything is done exactly the same way. In order to do Captain Falcon's Falcon Punch, you hit the B button. That's all there is to it. The instant you want the move to happen, you hit the B button. Need a different special move? Hit UP and the B button, or DOWN and the B button. This is exactly the same for every single character. No one has to pause the game to look up special moves, combinations, or anything. If you can use one character, you can use them all.

What I am lamenting right now in fighting games is the backwards nature of the controls, something Super Smash Brothers addressed in the most beautiful fashion. Most fighting games require complex motions or button combinations to do what usually amounts to a very basic thing. It doesn't make any sense. When, in a soccer game, Pele needed to head a ball into the goal, he didn't have to wave his left arm in a circle and tap his belly three times with his right. When we check our email, we don't spin in a circle, yell, "ZAP" and then click the button labeled 'check email'. We simply do the action instantly.

This is what I like about Super Smash Brothers. If you want to do something, you do it. I'll admit, remembering what the different attacks are, and what they do can take a little time. However, an entire, gargantuan level of difficulty is missing simply because the difficulty of actually doing the attack is gone. In other games first the move is called to mind, then what it does. This happens a few times until s decision is made as what move to use in the situation. Then the complex pattern needs to be recalled and an attempt made to utilize that pattern, hopefully with enough speed so that the opportune moment isn't missed. Super Smash Brothers removes the difficulty of that last step by replacing it with a simple mechanism to pull off the move. There currently isn't anything simpler in the genre then hitting a direction and a button to pull off a special attack.

The obvious counter argument, as noted earlier, is that with practice the movements are easy. A person skilled in Kendo had to first learn how to properly swing the Shinai (Kendo Sword), and now is able to do it without thinking. The same is true of moves in fighting games.

So here's the question, how many people want their fighting game to be like learning Kendo? Honestly, if I have to put in that much effort into a game just to have fun, I'd rather go learn Kendo. I'll say it myself, I've had a lot of fun with fighting games like Soul Caliber and Guilty Gear. However, that was because no one involved at the time had the 'mad skills' the games really called for. Once someone did, the fun really stopped.

I'm certain if I took the time, I could get extremely good at Guilty Gear and Soul Caliber. Heck, I could probably be good enough to compete in tournaments with cash prizes. However, the unspoken (until now) issue which strikes the heart of gaming is that of casual vs. hardcore gaming. Games like Guilty Gear are neat, but ultimately they aren't what casual gamers play. In fact, games are getting to the point where hardcore gamers rarely even leave the safe pastures of the games they are familiar with, because games like Guilty Gear have a steep learning curve to scale if you want to play with the hardcore gamers familiar with the series. When I walk down the corridors of dorms and club rooms of universities and colleges, I see two kinds of games. Games that we grew up with, such as Super Mario Brothers, Duck Hunt, and Mega Man, are one kind. We're already familiar with them, we all know how to play them, and so casual play is easy. The other kind are games like Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. These are games with simple control principles, and they still manage a lot of depth. Driving is a simple thing to do, hit an accelerator, turn left and right. It makes sense, it's easy to pick up, and it doesn't ask you to memorize the Constitution in order to play.

So there's my speel. I'll tell everyone here straight out that I enjoy games such as Counterstrike, Warcraft and Guilty Gear. I love the competition, I love the skill that can go into it. However, more and more I see each series becoming an exclusive club for people who are familiar with it. I lost touch with Counter Strike because I didn't have a PC, and with Warcraft III because of a computer ill-equipped to handle the polygons it used. I tried to come back to the series, and I've enjoyed doing so. However, the amount of time required to pick up the slack left from months, even years, of other people playing without me is difficult, probably too difficult for most.

So, that's why I'm going to stick with Nintendo. Microsoft knows that the industry isn't reaching casual gamers, but they are applying the wrong medicine. They think that marketing will solve the foreseen shrinking market. They've missed the fact that the problem isn't in awareness, it's in the games themselves. You can spend $500 million in advertising, and if the game is forbidding people will go right back to what they know. Nintendo knows this, and they're doing something about it.

Yeah, I'm probably a Nintendo fanboy at this point. I can't call myself unbiased anymore when it comes to this. I own a Playstation 2, enjoy it as well, but that's because I'm hardcore. I'm a crazy, eccentric nut without social skills who therefore resorts to video games for entertainment. The thing is, I'm a minority, and I understand that. The Playstation 3 will be good for people like me, but will be an expensive paper weight for the casual crowd.

So, Viva La Revolution.

1 comment:

Phil said...

A lot of what you said there is the one reason why the only fighting game I've ever *liked* is Super Smash Bros. Even when I first started playing SSB on the N64 I appreciated the fact so much that the major difficulty in the game is figuring out when and where to use which attack rather than drilling into your head the ability to do a certain attack.

Granted, on some level every game is about being able to push buttons. There have been several times recently in SSBM where I just fall off the edge of a platform for some reason I don't know (I think it's my fault sometimes) and I die before I can react. And, granted, I have had to figure out which of my character's attacks are good for what. But the game allows me to come up with nasty, clever things and doesn't make it difficult to learn the ability to carry those things out. The most difficult and deadly move in Super Smash Bros, meteor attacks, is not necessary to play the game very well. Even if your opponent miraculously knows how to execute them perfectly and you don't you can still prevent your opponent from having the opportunity to use them by, for example, trying to keep the fight away from the edges of the map. Whether or not you're meteor attacked is based on *your* skill as well as his, and getting meteored once does not mean he wins, and even getting hit does not instantly mean you're dead assuming that you see it coming and have enough jumps to recover.

Constrast that with halo: you can pretty easily get spawn killed repeatedly by someone with a sniper rifle before you have the chance to take cover. Granted, whether or not he gets the sniper rifle is based a bit on your skill, but once he gets it you're dying until his ammo runs out while he gets, perhaps, 10 points in the process. You spent three minutes just dying.

Games like that are not fun. Games which make unecessary interface hurdles for you to do simple stuff are not fun. Lots of memorization in games like Warcraft 3, which you think were supposed to be tactical, is not fun, not to mention that War3 seems like it's completely a click-fest once you've memorized everything.

There are games like DDR and that DS cheerleading game you have in which the way the interface is used is the fun part and don't involve any of the cool sneakiness I like to see and use in the games I play, and they're pretty fun too. Seeing skilled people play them is also a treat. But at least their interface is something really, really interesting and being skilled in it doesn't mean someone else doesn't have a chance to show their own skills.

-Phil