Of all the genres fighting games are the one that I find the most impenetrable. And I don’t think I can put into words how irritating I find that. I’ll never claim to be great at games, but I usually have an idea of what I’m doing within a couple hours of playing something new. From there I can learn, adapt, and evolve. With fighting games though? It doesn’t seem to matter how much time I spend with the genre I never seem to learn.

“But Frosti”, you ask, “Why do you even care?”

Well I’ll tell you why I care.

Travel back in time with me to when I was a little Frostilyte. I was over at a friend’s house and there was four of us, so he busted out Super Smash Bros. This game blew my mind. It was a game with all of Nintendo’s most iconic characters (and Luigi). Best of all it was fun. Unfortunately I was seven at the time and it was a T rated game. As such, requests for the game got a fat no from my parental units. As a result, I seldom got a chance to play the game.

smash_64
Screenshot taken from World of Longplays

A year later the Gamecube launched with Smash Bros Melee and I wasn’t allowed to have that one either. I did get to play more of this than the original, but still not enough to understand what I was doing.

HOWEVER

Smash Bros Brawl launched in March of 2008. For those of you who can’t do the math that means I was fourteen. AH HA! Victory! I was now old enough to play T rated games. And play it I did. I played a ton of Brawl with friends. It and Mario Kart Wii were staples of our local multiplayer routine. I don’t know if any of us were particularly good at it though. Most matches devolved into spamming special moves while whipping overpowered items at one another. Despite our lack of aptitude, we still had a lot of fun playing Brawl.

Throughout all this time it never dawned on me that Smash, as a franchise, was part of some weird corner of the fighting game genre. The base game plays more like a brawler and is a giant celebration of Nintendo’s history. However, my perception of the franchise wouldn’t remain this way for long.

brawl
Screenshot taken from Scott The Woz

The year is now 2010. In one of my computer classes we convinced our teacher to let us use Friday as a networking day where we’d play Brawl on the projector. Everyone was in favour of this, but I noticed something interesting about how the matches were setup: there was no items and we always played the stage Final Destination. This setup directly mimics other 2D fighting games and is designed to put a much higher emphasis on your skill rather than relying on cheap gimmicks to win.

After being introduced to this new way of playing Smash I became quite invested in it. I really enjoyed how it forced you to think about a character’s strengths and weaknesses when choosing how you should approach combating them. My friend Tim and I would spar against one another as we both tried to improve at this new way of playing. After we got bored of that we’d face computers in doubles matches. We started playing the mid-range AI slowly increasing the difficulty until we could beat the hardest AI. I always felt like Tim was a lot better at this as I’d usually lose to any of the harder AI opponents when playing alone.

smash_u
This is one of the screenshots from the press kit.

This interest in playing Smash like a traditional fighting game translated to Smash 4. After over a hundred hours playing the game like a traditional fighter I was able to reliably beat the most difficult AI, so I started pitting myself against multiple AI opponents at a time. I never got good enough to beat three against one, but I could beat two AI opponents at once.

Unfortunately, due to the Wii U having poor online I was seldom able to test my new found ability against other humans. I did occasionally get to play other people, but it was hard to convince an entire room to play the silly party game like a fighting game.

So my solution to this was to begin playing a 2D fighting game, rather than stripping the majority of the options out of Smash to make it play like one. After doing a little searching around I settled on Skullgirls for two reasons. The first was it featured a robust tutorial, which is an anomaly within the genre. If you look at the character art I’m sure you can guess what the second reason was.

Now for the important question: did anything I learned from Smash 4 carry over to Skullgirls?

skull_girls_beatdown
Nope.

No. No it didn’t. Turns out all I’d really managed to do in Smash was learn the available move set of most of the characters and how the AI behaved. I was simply leveraging what I knew about the game to counter predictable behaviour that I recognized after a hundred hours of playtime.

Despite online being readily available, I have only ever played Skullgirls once against another human. The tutorials did a great job of introducing the game’s mechanics, but also highlighted a huge skill wall I’d have to overcome: combos. To this day I still struggle with basic combo strings of three to five inputs, so playing a game where most of the basic combos are anywhere from ten to twenty button presses was never going to happen. Bluntly put, I am abysmal at Skullgirls and eventually shelved it in defeat.

Sometime later I picked up Tekken 7. Skullgirls is a six button fighter, meaning you have six different buttons for using attacks. Tekken is a four button fighter. With less buttons to worry about I thought pulling off combos might be easier. I was wrong.

Tekken
Despite evidence to the contrary this is a bot match.

Surprisingly, Tekken introduced a new problem I didn’t think possible in a game with less available buttons. Where each character in Skullgirls has thirty to forty moves, Tekken characters tend to have closer to a hundred. Remembering that much, plus having to learn which moves actually work together required more time and effort than most of my college exams did. No hyperbole. I spent more time trying to learn basic combos in Tekken than I did studying for most of my college exams.

And to no one’s surprise I still couldn’t execute combos worth a damn. I did play Tekken against other humans instead of foregoing it entirely. While I successfully poked holes in my opponent’s defences, I couldn’t capitalize on it. Meanwhile, following every mistake I’d make, my opponent would land an incredibly long combo that would drain more than half of my health. Similar to Skullgirls, my ineptitude at inputting long combo strings stood as a gate to me enjoying Tekken in any capacity.

Any reasonable person would have given up by now. I clearly enjoyed the idea of fighting games, but my inability to do combo attacks was going to prevent me from ever enjoying the genre. Or so I thought until I was introduced to a game called Fantasy Strike.

The ethos behind Fantasy Strike’s design is one of accessibility. Its tagline is “a strategic fighting game for everyone” and much of the game’s design reflects that statement. Every move can be done with a single button press and combos only require two to four inputs. Each character has about a dozen moves to learn. There is also a fully featured tutorial and short videos highlighting the strengths, weaknesses, and basics of each of the fighters. The barriers present with traditional fighting games simply do not exist in Fantasy Strike.

simple_combo
A three hit combo that involves three button presses.

Over the past two months I’ve been playing Fantasy Strike and slowly learning more about fighting games in the process. I still lose the overwhelming majority of my matches, but am enjoying having the opportunity to engage with those aspects of the genre that I couldn’t previously. Each match is like a guessing game of trying to figure out what your opponent wants to do and when you guess correctly it is immensely satisfying. With more practice I may finally get to a point where I have a stronger understanding of fighting games. For now though I’m going to go play some more Fantasy Strike.