The Evolution tournament this year seems to have turned late July every year into that period when more people than usual start talking about fighting games. It’s kind of like soccer for Americans whenever the world cup comes around. I imagine it’s also the season when a lot of people start talking about how they want to start playing fighting games before giving up a month later.
Capcom even seems to be helping some people along by putting Ultra Street Fighter IV on a free weekend on Steam along with a $10 sale. Sony’s having a fighting game sale on PSN too. If you are one of those people who might get caught up in the net this year I think I can lay out what I’ve found to be a nice path to fighting game literacy. Maybe not competitive-level playing, but just literacy.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been hopping back into Street Fighter not only for EVO but also Otakon next week, at which there is usually some fairly serious fighting game competition. I’ve not only spent some nights hammering at SF again, but also finally seeking out some of the external material people in the fighting game community have published to help newbies along.
Whole articles and books have been written on the issue of fighting games and accessibility to the mass audience. In my personal opinion the mechanics of fighting games themselves, like the maneuver inputs and difficulty, don’t really need to change drastically. What does need to change is how they teach and initiate players. I think learning to play fighting games mainly concerns two broad subjects: Learning “how” to perform moves, and learning “when or why” to perform moves. Fighting games have gotten kind of decent at teaching the former, but not the latter.
Learning The “How” Of Performing Moves
Actually inputting and performing moves hasn’t been a massive problem for me because I’ve been playing SF and other fighting games since I was six. I learned “quarter circle forward” at a young enough age to have it and similar motions embedded into my muscle memory. For learning anything else, and for people who haven’t learned the simple motions, there’s training mode and the command list in the options menu.
I guess this might be the first area where fighting games get a bit less accessible than most video games: you have to devote serious time to practice, which I think is a bit unusual in video games. Maybe not competitive games, but certainly overall. When playing Halo or almost any other FPS you can become literate at the game in a matter of minutes and at least know what all the buttons do when you jump into multiplayer. In a fighting game you might have to spend an hour in training mode to be able to even use one character. Every time I try out a new fighting game I start by spending an hour in training mode.
Once you accept that though, my suggestion is try to input all the moves you see on your chosen character’s command list and keep practicing the ones you think will be useful and/or the ones you feel you can reliably perform. After that comes combos — strings of moves that a character can quickly perform. It’s possible to figure out your own combos but recent games have started offering suggestions. SC has them in each character’s command list, but SFIV actually has a very useful trial mode designed to teach a couple dozen moves and combos for each character. Go in there and practice those too. The thing with combos though is most fighting games don’t even teach you why they work the way they do.
Learning The “When and Why” Of Performing Moves
The thing fighting games really suck at and are only just coming around to is teaching fundamental strategy. Again, an FPS campaign will not only moderately teach you the proper inputs, but also usually put you in challenging situations that eventually teach you how you should move and generally behave in combat. Fighting game arcade modes barely do this. They don’t teach you that those combo strings work because of “cancels,” for instance. The word “cancel” might suggest actually stopping a move, but it actually means ending the animation for a move prematurely — after it’s dealt damage, and immediately commencing with another move. Almost no fighting game will even mention things like hitstun, blockstun, recovery frames, crossovers, or spacing.
You either have to bang your head at a competitive scene for a long time or read outside material to even know these concepts exist. The best and most accessible outside material I’ve found on this has been a free eBook you can download at Shoryuken. In roughly 130 pages it pretty simply lays out the basic structure of how fighting games work under the hood as well as some of the jargon. This video is a good companion to that book too.
For learning the “why and how,” I also seriously suggest you get a copy of Skullgirls because it probably has the best interactive tutorial for fundamentals I’ve seen in a fighting game. It’s the only one that even mentions some of the inner workings I described a couple paragraphs above. What it teaches you isn’t just good for Skullgirls, but fighting games in general. It will teach you about mix-ups and how to block them, and spends a lot of time on combos while teaching you why they work the way they do. It also does something I haven’t really seen fighting games do — character-specific tutorials.
Even after you go through all the material above you’ll probably still need to look up guides for particular characters for your game of choice. Guides that show off some useful combos for that character and how players should utilize the character’s advantages.
Is More Singleplayer An Answer For Some?
I think a big issue with fighting games and accessibility is their lack of robust singleplayer content designed the way singleplayer content usually is. There are modes where you fight a bunch of CPU challengers and even unlock items, but singleplayer campaigns in most other genres are designed to gradually teach players techniques and mechanics over a matter of hours. More importantly, they dress those lessons up in exciting stories and challenges with interesting context. They don’t make you completely ready for multiplayer, but you’ll still usually come out of singleplayer with basic literacy.
In a fighting game or DOTA you can certainly jump into practice mode and read the outside material to get that same training, but it immediately requires significantly more commitment on the part of players because they know it’s just training before getting to the fun part. Most video games don’t really ask a huge amount of commitment from a player before getting to the fun part. They usually try to offer something immediately engrossing that simultaneously teaches. Maybe I’m saying fighting games should have training modes that are more fun.
Maybe a story mode should start out with a first level that teaches players what startup and recovery frames are and tells them about blockstun. And then maybe they could have later levels with enemies or challenges that require players to use combo strings and cancel into specials. Maybe having specific adventures for each character would be good too. Some fighting games are already getting robust story-based sigleplayer modes.
You have Netherrealm’s huge story modes for Mortal Kombat and Injustice that briefly take you through each character. On the flipside you have the Arc System Works games like BlazBlue and Persona 4 Arena with their visual novel-style story modes. Maybe someone should take that those modes and combine them with challenges designed to teach the basic and advanced mechanics.
At this point I’m really just throwing ideas at the wall here in some kind of comparison between fighting games and other video games. There are probably real fighting game pros who’ll disagree with me.
- Well there it is. The machines are coming… http://www.popsci.com/polite-robots-show-glimmer-self-awareness
- Upcoming indie strategy RPG from the creator of Fire Emblem. http://www.siliconera.com/2015/07/16/a-first-look-at-the-fire-emblem-creators-new-strategy-rpg-project/
- [Sic] transits. http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/bal-sic-transits-20150716-story.html
- Witcher series interview. http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2015/07/15/the-witcher-retrospective/
- Watched Porco Rosso for the first time. Pretty great movie. Didn’t expect it to basically be noire but with planes, and didn’t expect the level of Michael Keaton’s performance as Porco. Not many major Ghibli movies left I haven’t seen now.