When I was little, I often used to sneak away out of my home in deepest, darkest Woolwich to knock on my neighbours door and ask to play his copy of Street Fighter 2. He barely knew me. I barely knew him. But slightly confused, he would awkwardly concede and sit me in front of his shiny Sega Megadrive and watch me kick cars to bits, attempt to punch people to death and hurl giant orange fireballs at people as the games most recognisable leading man, Ryu. While I was distracted by the flashing neon visuals, gawking at the screen like a transfixed kitten who examines tasty birds in the sky, my bemused neighbour would slip away and get my mother, who’d drag me back to our home. When it came to video games, I was certainly an adventurous little thing.
Years later, I would become fixated by Mortal Kombat. I was a little behind the wave when it came to video game generations. I was playing the Master System while everyone had SNES and Mega Drive. I’d be on to the Mega Drive when everyone was playing Playstation, and so on. To me, as a child, Mortal Kombat felt like bleeding edge technology. In retrospect, it wasn’t actually that good, but I liked the graphics and I liked punching people off bridges, which is really all that matters as a child. But apart from that, my memories of fighting games are somehow sterile and irretrievable. Disconnected from any other rose-tinted feelings I have about other games at the time. I would hazily recall Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter as some form of neon drenched dream of 90’s gaming that didn’t grow up too well, as though it somehow hit problems during puberty, and faded to obscurity in its 20’s, only managing to rear its head above sea level in competitive circles which seemed to only further cement their impenetrable accessibility. For all intents and purposes, while I found myself in Deus Ex, Half-Life and Fallout in my teens, I had all but relegated the fighting game to some locked away corner of my mind. A place where I put old movies, or playground games of marbles and conkers. Kids toys.
I guess PC gaming taught me that video games could have real, artistic depth. They could convey ideas through game design, have interesting stories and be enlightened experiences. Playing around in Deus Ex lodged the idea of player driven creativity in my head, something which sticks to this day. My thoughts on fighting games were of something I used to do when I was a child. That the experience you get from a fighting game is somehow unfulfilling or child-like in its simplicity. I mean, it’s just punching stuff, right? It’s not anywhere near the storytelling of Half-Life, is it? And okay, while they won’t win any BAFTA’s, is it possible that I’ve been a little hard on fighting games? I’m starting to think that, yes, perhaps I have. Perhaps now is the time to open up again.
Tekken. The only thing I’ve ever known about Tekken (besides the name) is from University. A friend challenged me to a bout before a night out once, warning me that he was unstoppable. I hesitantly took his beaten up Playstation controller and stepped up to the plate. “I don’t really like these kind of games” I broadcast, subtly signalling my ambivalence to my buddies favourite game. And after a few early humiliations, I started to see something beneath the dark puddle of confusing buttons and hilariously bulky character models. There seemed to be some semblance of subtlety underneath all those crunchy pixels. There was much more to this game than the simple button bashing from my youth.
Evidently, Tekken is somewhat rooted in reality. Punches and kicks, holds, grapples, submission moves. It’s got more in common with wrestling than it’s more fantastical fighting game compatriots, and it’s strict, limited movement heavily relies on players planning their movements against their opponents and dodging when they need to, exploiting people’s weaknesses as a result. Hard kicks and punches punish sloppy movement choices, and clever players can trap their opponents in deadly submission moves and juggle combos. Only 10 minutes of Tekken and I started to realise I was horribly, awfully wrong about fighting games. This was a bit more than a weird cast of deadly wooden mannequins and kick-boxing bears. Instead of simple button hammering mindlessness, it was a surprisingly pure test of wit and character between two human beings. It was honestly great.
I didn’t return to fighting games for quite some time after that, but I wanted to. It planted a seed in my head that has bloomed recently after receiving a copy of Tekken 6 as a gift. My success online has, in general, been roundly devastating, often entering a fight only to be hurled in the air and juggled into absolute defeat. Sometimes my feet won’t even touch the ground before the fight mercifully ends and I burst into tears, as if to put me out of my misery. It’s a lot like what would happen in real life if I decided to have an actual proper fight with Bruce Lee. I would get killed.
At this stage, the online community for Tekken is so advanced that jumping in now is a bit like picking a fight with 70 Brock Lesnars at once – fighting the computer (for the time being) is definitely where it’s at. The AI range from anywhere between absolute walkover to perfect annihilation. However, in the Arcade modes there’s a real sweet spot. When you beat an opponent, you have the opportunity to choose the difficulty of your next opponent, allowing you to start off easy and slowly edge your way up the ranks of the AI. Conversely, you can also jump straight in with master level AI and experience fighting games against a perfect, menacing zen opponent that can sneeze you to death in seconds. But when you hit a sweet spot you’re comfortable with your computer opponents will patiently watch for openings, exploit your gaps in defence, and juggle you across the arena to teach you a few lessons should you tread on their toes at the wrong times. Equally, you are just as able to poke holes in your enemies blocks, giving you some time to have an intelligent back and forth between you and your foe, and it’s about here that I learn there’s much more to fighting games than hammering buttons. It’s about outwitting your opponent on equal footing. It’s all in the details, in examining your foes habits and techniques, and punishing them accordingly. Analysing their laziness and throwing them off balance. I realise, when playing Tekken right now in 2017, that I had been wrong about fighting games all this time. That’s about 20+ years of being completely wrong.
So it’s safe to say that Tekken has planted a seed in me. This is what happens when I want to learn about something. The germination of an idea sits in my brain and scratches me until i get rid of it. I can’t just stop with Tekken. I must keep going. I must find out about this forgotten genre that I have shamefully ignored.
Like a moth to an electrical death-light, I am drawn to the terrifying spectre of the competitive scene. The tournaments for games like Tekken and Street Fighter must be seen to be believed and are unique even among some of the more well known competitive shooters like Counter Strike and Call of Duty in that it is somewhat niche and unknown, but terrifyingly obtuse and bursting with pride at the same time. I am, sadly, somewhat averse to competitive gaming. I find the brutal “me vs you” somehow against my gaming morals. I’m a big believer in co-op gaming and immersive single-player experiences. I like the idea of working with other people to complete a common goal, or immersing yourself in another world, rather than trashing your opponents in bloody victory. There’s something warlike in competition that has always sent me packing. But fighting games are a little bit different. There’s lots of macho bravado in fighting game circles. Competitors have their own personalities, their own devout following. They stare each other down as they enter their respective arenas. They trash talk like real boxers and professional wrestlers. The drama is real. Not fake. There’s something carnival about the way they fight, and I have to admit, I sort of like it. It’s like a modern strongman competition with our consoles. Folk heroes from their own corners of the internet come together from faraway places and face each other in digital displays of macho muscle-flexing. I wouldn’t want to participate myself, but my god, I certainly enjoy watching it.
And with the bellowing roar of fighting game competitions ringing in my ears, I still felt compelled towards the online matchmaking in Tekken. Perhaps it’s sadomasochism. maybe I like being roundly beaten by superior competitors, but something about it stuck inside me. I wanted to win. I didn’t just want to take part. Something about this wonderful creature made me want to be great. I spent a whole night in my darkened room being defeated, one man after the next. Some players would juggle me to death. Others (like one player who was so masterful with King that it actually kind of hurt me a bit inside) managed to perform multiple grapples and submission holds, one after the other, breaking each of my arms and legs several times, slowly teaching me a lesson to never play online ever again. These defeats lasted hours, each one more humiliating than the last. But then, it came out of nowhere. somehow, as the midnight hour crawled closer, and as heavy eye-lids began to set in I somehow managed it. I finally did it. I won. I beat someone, and I did it by the skin of my teeth, too. Scraping to a level heading at 2 wins each, the final round would decide the winner and our bitter brawl to the death came right down to tiny slithers of both our health bars. Not wanting to risk my hard work, I picked away at my opponents ankles with a repeated desperate leg sweeps, throwing him off balance long enough to land subsequent low kicks to his flailing body as it slammed to the ground. He was done for. His health trickled to nothing and I threw my hands up and in victory. Not the most honourable victory ever and perhaps the cheapest tactic ever employed in Tekken, but I’ll take it. That’s mine. My first win. And it felt so, so good.
I love to learn. When an interesting idea strikes me, I need to delve in to a topic and route out the rights and wrongs, lefts and rights, the strange, weird and obtuse. I love to extract the DNA from a topic until I can take no more. Fighting games are my new obsession. Something that I’ve ignored for so long surely must contain some hidden gems. And while the competitive culture surrounding fighting games puts me at arm’s length, I am grimly curious enough to edge closer to the fire and peer into the licking flames to see if there’s anything worth talking about. My next target, I’m hoping, will be Street Fighter. A true relic from my past, I really do wonder what’s happened to it after all these years, but I’m really hoping my time away has engendered a great fondness for the old classic. Street Fighter V, then, is on my horizon, and as I write this sentence I am fresh off the heels of my first online victory in Tekken. Who knows? Perhaps somewhere, in an alternate universe, I was a loud, chest-beating competitor, too. Gliding to a ring surrounded by gamers and proclaiming my dominance to a cowering foe. But for now, I am a small blade of grass in a great field of sunflowers and from down here, I’m enjoying the view.