Reading Your Opponent (and Yourself): Fighting Games and Fighting Life
Fighting games are basically the Poker of the video game world…well, the Poker that isn’t Poker. And there’s just as much to learn…I started learning in the second grade.
At one point, I believe my teacher at the time, Mrs. Ginestra, had a conference with my parents about my gaming. I’d gotten blisters on both thumbs and couldn’t write without serious pain.
If I have a gamer soul, a part of me that’s inexorably tied to certain games, then a piece of that soul is made of Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. Before I had a Super Nintendo of my own, I’d go over to my Uncle Keith’s place and play as one of two characters: Ryu, or Chun-Li. Keep in mind that this was far before the time of getting online and looking up walkthroughs and character guides (the few of us with internet access still had to CALL the internet), so character special moves were a hidden holy grail. I knew that if I repeatedly pressed the kick button fast enough, Chun-Li would basically create a wall by furiously kicking one leg over and over again, and I knew she could jump off of walls to add some variety to her attacks. But Ryu…Ryu was THE character. My favorite, my first “main,” as they’re called in the fighting world.
Only problem was that I didn’t know how to do his special moves. I just knew that if I mashed the directions and buttons enough, he’d do cool things. He’d jump in the air and do a giant uppercut, or a tornado kick that would carry him across the stage. And then there was the Hadoken: a blue energy blast that came straight out of his hands.
I needed to do the Hadoken. Over and over and over again. Or try, anyway.
Blisters came soon after.
Years later, with the thumb blisters fully healed, my passion for fighting games comes from a different place now. I used to think that fighters were all about pressing the right combination with the right speed, getting lucky and landing the right hits at the right time. Really though, anyone worth their salt in the genre would tell you it’s not about the button-mashing or knowing how to do all the complex, crazy button combinations (though those are important, too). Playing a fighting game is all about reading and learning your opponent.
When I was a little older, I’d go over to my next-door neighbor’s house and play Tekken 2, a 3D-fighter on the original Playstation. And he’d whip my ass practically every time.
One time mid-match, maybe after the fourth or fifth loss on a particular day, he said to me, “You keep doing that; you roll forward every time I knock you down on the ground, so I know that I’ll just be able to hit you again.” I was so eager to get back in to the fight, so eager to try and make another to turn the tables, that I didn’t realize I was playing right in to his hands over and over again. I was so obsessed with taking action that I didn’t bother to think about the actions I was taking.
Recently, I started going to a new board game shop in town, and they had a starter pack for a game called Yomi. Imagine the fighting game experience wrapped up into a card game: there’s no need for twitch reflexes or memorization of crazy button input streams. I usually describe it as a “complicated game of Rock-Paper-Scissors:” if you can play Rock-Paper-Scissors, you can play Yomi.
Each turn in Yomi you and your opponent play a card from your hand, face-down on the table. The card is generally one of four types: an attack, a block, a dodge, or a throw. Both players reveal their cards at the same time, and they’re resolved R-P-S style: attacks beat throws, throws beat blocks and dodges, block and dodges beat attacks. You can do additional damage if you win the combat reveal, but it doesn’t matter how physically fast you play your card on the table or how powerful it is: every card can be countered by another. No matter how strong your character is, if you can’t read your opponent it falls over like a house of…well, cards. Same applies if you can’t read yourself.
At their core, between two seasoned players, fighting games are like Poker. The players know each other’s characters as well as their own, know what each one is capable of in terms of attacks, defenses, counters, so forth. The match is about getting inside your opponent’s head, finding the chink in their armor and exploiting it. They’re a little too eager to get into the action? Sit back and wait for an opening to punish. Maybe they’re defensive, always waiting to counter? Get close and throw them; that’ll set you up for a combo. Most modern fighting games have shied away from complex, mysterious button combinations needed to execute powerful moves; in fact, many of them will let you press a single button or a combination of two to execute devastating finishing moves. But if you don’t know WHEN to do those moves, they may as well be buried beneath a 50-button combination.
When I was shopping for my Yomi starter deck, a guy at the store offered to teach me how to play. We’ve become fast friends since then and played tons of different games together, but it’s always particularly interesting playing Yomi because we’re learning each other’s playing styles and adapting. Like playing Chess or Poker with the same person time and again, the game becomes less about the pieces and rules and more about the psychology.
Most interesting has been the way that I’ve started to recognize my own patterns, my habits and tendencies when I get excited about a combo or frustrated about losing multiple reveals in a row. Sometimes I can use those habits to my advantage, setting him up for a move where I think he’ll take the bait. Other times I have to stop, take a deep breath, realize the pattern I’ve been stuck in, and use that as an opportunity to hit the reset button. Though I’m far from a pro, I’d say quality play isn’t about breaking the habits; instead, it’s about recognizing habits, understanding when they’re useful, and then ruling them instead of letting them rule you.
In an episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast (one you should be adding to your rotation if you’re not listening to it already), host David McRaney interviews the authors of a book called “Fuck Feelings” (which I’ve written out here because we’re all at least going to act like adults). During part of the podcast, authors Michael and Sarah Bennett talk about how we imagine that we could get more done if we could just get rid of a pesky trait we have that makes us faulty; really, we’d be better off just trying to succeed while acknowledging we have that trait. A cheater likely won’t stop thinking about impropriety, for example, but if they focus on how much they love their spouse and being a better spouse, perhaps that would keep them from cheating. Fighting games represent this idea perfectly.
In fighting games. each character is biased towards a certain play style, but if you spend the whole match wishing and complaining that your slow, bulky character isn’t as nimble as your opponent, you’re not very likely to win. Instead, acknowledge that your character won’t be as fast as your opponent, but that maybe it’ll do massive damage when it makes hits and is an excellent defender, then try to tilt the odds in your favor. You won’t win every match, but you’ll sure win more than the alternative. In life, we’ve each got aspects of ourselves that we probably wish we could be rid of, but we’ve got some strong suits within us, too. Acknowledging our weaknesses and strengths while learning our habits just pushes us that much closer to mastering ourselves both in virtual life and reality.
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Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Intelligame. Lover of story-centric games of all kinds, arcade games, and mobile titles. Mac and Cheese connoisseur.