Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Dens of Iniquity

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I just had one of those “I’m getting old” moments while playing a video game a friend gave me for Christmas. The game was King of Fighters XIII, and true to form it was a fighting game. More accurately it was the modern iteration of a series of fighting games that have been around since I was a child, having picked up a Russian novel’s worth of characters and a telenovela’s worth of intertwined storylines in the meantime. The gameplay is pretty similar, though.

Where I got my “old” moment was that it put names to the moves and would, helpfully, suggest you do them while in the midst of a fight. “Do a Drive Cancel,” it would say. “I don’t know what that is,” I’d say, and pause the game to look through the prodigious glossary of moves, where-in absolutely no mention of a Drive Cancel was made. So, I looked online through various fora, where people would say, “oh, just do a QCB and a HCF and LP+HP and before that’s even done, do a HJC and DP+LP.” I looked through a wiki glossary for those terms before finally coming to the realization that what it’s really saying is, “you do a bowling motion and mash both punch buttons, thereby completing a special move, and after the first hit of that move has landed but before the last hit of that move has landed, you jump up, thereby cancelling the first move, do a Z-formation motion and smack ’em with your lightest attack, thereby completing another special move. This all takes place in about half a second, for which you do incrementally more damage than if you just mashed the control pad with a boxing glove. You can repeat this task with a certain combination of moves, for which you’d have to make a doctoral study of the game to actually souse out.” To this I replied, “no, I’m not doing that,” and remain unrepentantly ignorant of the benefits of drive cancels, super cancels, ex cancels and max cancels.

“Do a Desperation Move,” it would then suggest.

Now, my history with fighting games stems largely from having been a middle school latchkey child with spending money in the big city; money that was ultimately squandered on dollar pizza, candy, or the sorts of arcades bad 80s movies seem to have predicted and bad 90s movies seem to have been based on – where you begin to wonder if Karate Kid was actually produced in a studio or just composed of whole cloth straight out of your psyche. Be it hole-in-the-wall joints in Flushing, hole-in-the-wall joints in Chinatown (rest in peace, old-school Chinatown Fair) or incongruously large hole-in-the-wall joints in Midtown, the decor in an arcade was pretty much always the same: All the walls were black or as close to black as you can get, be it by paint or just collected soot, and so were the ceilings and floors. The place would smell like sweat and sound like a modern pachinko concerto as written by Schoenberg. It made every effort in the world to impart upon you that what you were doing was a guilty pleasure, like a massage parlor for the sexless. It was awesome.

So once or twice a week I’d delve into one of these holes in the wall and plunk in quarters and get beaten in Tekken or Street Fighter or King of Fighters by the 11 year old Fujianese kid who smelled of rotted chicken, until I ran out of money, which was the mark that I should be heading home. This isn’t to say I never learned. The moves are all muscle memory, which is why, say, moving the controller in a quarter-circle forward (aka QCF aka Fireball) is a ranged attack in almost all major fighting games and moving the controller in a Z-formation (aka DP or Dragon Punch) is an uppercut punch in almost all fighting games. The scheme is simple: Don’t break the habits of your best customers. So I learned the basics and, for that time, a few of the super moves. But, through successive iterations building upon those basics, the rift between the basics and the skill level where most folks are currently playing is mighty wide.

To address this rift, the industry itself has been working through various means to entice new players into the fold. Each new game now comes with extended tutorials and practice modes, something sorely missing from my days in the arcades and on friends’ consoles. However, even the tutorials leave a lot assumed: “Here’s how to jump, here’s the four basic attacks, here’s what all the things on your screen mean. Now do a super ex combo,” and I’m like, “you didn’t even mention those words in the instruction you just gave me.” They assume the player has been playing fighting games nonstop since those terms were introduced, and would thus know them by heart. It would be as if a new button were added to the operation of a car every five years since the invention of the car, to the point where the entire dashboard is an array of buttons, but driving instruction and drivers’ manuals only mention the stuff that was on the original cars.

Fighting games have left me behind. This wouldn’t be an issue if it were still 1994, however. After all, I was new to the games, then, and didn’t even have the benefit of a tutorial. Back then, though I didn’t know what I was doing half the time, I could still remain competitive. The difference between then and now, on the other hand, is that the number of folks competing in fighting games, when I first got into them, were limited. The total number of potential competitors in an arcade is everybody physically in that arcade. The total number of potential competitors with a console not hooked up to the internet is everybody in that room. That Fujianese kid or your second cousin can only be but so much better than you, and neither you nor they have the will to fight nonstop all day. In my first foray into online play for King of Fighters XIII, by contrast, I apparently hesitated for a tenth of a second, because I was stun-locked by some ridiculous combo for three quarters of my health, and then the screen went black and a supermove of some renown finished me off. I wasn’t entirely sure I even had to be present for the fight to go much differently.

Effectively, what I saw was somebody who had clearly been practicing nonstop since long before this particular iteration came out, to the point where he could effortlessly do what it took me sixteen tries in practice mode to do the first half of. This man clearly was not limited by petty things like “life,” and I, out of practice as I was, dared to step into his domain. Prior to the internet, his domain may have been one basement in San Jose, but now it was the very game itself, and I was but grist for his mill. I have never felt so old.

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