Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Wonderland Of Violence

Holy shit. Golf N’Stuff in Ventura, California still exists! I’d dearly love to drop in and see what that place is like now.

Playing Super Street Fighter IV on my Xbox 360 has really gotten me nostalgic for the arcade ‘olden days’. I’ve actually been a bit choked up at times. I’m getting the same feeling watching the new Captain America trailer that just hit, but that’s a different, though similarly nostalgic story. The source here is SSFIV’s fight request option when you are playing Arcade Mode. You play through the one player game as normal, but people seeking online matches can drop in on your game, just like an opponent could walk up, drop in quarters or tokens, and push the 2P button on an arcade cabinet. The other night I had so many fight requests coming through I barely made any headway on the 1-player game. Which was fine. I was just playing Arcade Mode to practice and kill time waiting for matches.

I mention Golf N’Stuff in the opening paragraph because when I think back on the good old days of arcade gaming that place is the one with the clearest memories for me. There are specific games at other locations that also mean a lot to my history, but their respective arcades sort of blur and aren’t so identifiable.

Back in 1990, I lived in California. I’d been there a couple of years, and had been hired by Games Workshop to help man their store in Santa Monica… effectively the first one ever on the west coast. I worked in Santa Monica but lived in Ventura, a commute of about 55 minutes through Malibu. I owned a NES at home and had bought a Genesis pretty much on its release day in 1989, but I was a player from the arcades first and foremost. So having home consoles didn’t stop me from hitting the game places, of which Golf N’Stuff was probably the best that I knew.

Golf N’Stuff was/is based around a huge miniature golf course with very elaborate setpieces for most of the holes. And a pretty big go-kart track. It also had an arcade with the usual hoop shot or skeeball games, an air hockey table and A LOT of quarter munchers. I don’t know what all is in that part of the complex now, but their website says 100 arcade games, and they list many of the riding, driving, and shooting games that have big hardware with them… the kind of arcade games that dominate Dave & Busters or Jillian’s. Back in my memories of the place, the machinery on video games rarely got more elaborate than a periscope, mounted guns, or a steering wheel. Hopefully, Golf N’Stuff also has the good ol’ arcade cabs with nothing more than sticks and buttons too. Or maybe a trackball. Of course I ran through the miniature golf course, more than once. It was way too big and fun not to. I drove the go-karts. But it was the arcade I went back to repeatedly… frequently just going to the park for that.

They had tons of games. My first time there was overwhelming. Had to try most everything once. They had three-screen Darius AND Ninja Warriors machines. They had standbys like Rush ‘n’ Attack, Shinobi, and Galaga ’88.. There was the super-tech game at the time, Hard Drivin’. After the newness wore off, I settled down to just a fraction of the games, putting a lot of hours in on Space Harrier, Outrun, and Spy Hunter.

I think the game I played the most was Strider. I was determined to 1CC this game. The closest I got to that was clearing it on the second life of my second credit. I just couldn’t get through that last upside down section, with the moving spikes and robots before the last boss rush, without losing two lives or more. I’m still going to insist there’s some luck involved in getting through that part unscathed.

But there, in my memory, near the middle of the main room was this cabinet with an attract mode depicting one on one combat. It looked a bit like Karate Champ, except mounted on this shelf to the front of the cabinet were these big rubbery looking buttons the size of dessert plates. You used a joystick to move per standard, but then you smacked these big-ass buttons and the force detected determined the power of the punch or kick from your onscreen avatar. This was Street Fighter, people. The original. Later versions of this game switched out the giganto-buttons for a six-button layout in standard-sized components, but THIS is the one I remember:

I was NOT very good at the game. I don’t think I ever played it against another person actually. It was not a busy game, and I think part of that owed to the fact that the act of looking like a fool whaling away on a game hadn’t yet come into vogue the way it has with Samba de Amigo or the various Bemani games. Karaoke Syndrome. I tried it a few times, got a few victories, but never stuck with it enough to get decent. You couldn’t just credit feed to the end if you weren’t good enough to beat the AI opponents. I remember what Sagat, the boss, looks like from the game, so I guess I probably got that far.

Eventually, Games Workshop asked me to move across country to the HQ in Baltimore, Maryland. So my visits to Golf N’Stuff came to an end. But not before a thunderbolt struck. Street Fighter II. I only got a few games in over what was probably my last time there. There were crowds around this machine. All the serious players seemed to want to get in on this. All the combos, the specials, the tiers and matchups hadn’t been worked out yet. The internet wasn’t pervasive enough for players to have read up on all the strats before seeing the game. I tried Ryu and Guile. But I pretty much fell in love with Chun-Li.

Over in Baltimore, I never really found an arcade that could compete with Golf N’Stuff. The closest thing was a Sega Center that was in Towson north of the city. Arcade machines usually were found in the closet-sized arcades in shopping malls or in the lobbies of movie theaters. But there was always a version of Street Fighter II (CE, Turbo, Hyper Fighting, whatever) available to play. And usually already stocked with players, observers, and on-deck opponents. I remember vividly now how it was to switch out back and forth with other people waiting to play. Not a lot of words spoken. I rarely saw the same players from one day to the next. There were no organized meetings that I could detect. But that didn’t matter. It was intense. Stories from old players about that time are everywhere on the internet. Many of the tournament champs that arose then are still active experts today.

We seem to have no arcades left these days. Home consoles changed the way we game. I didn’t just give up fighting games altogether as arcades got scarce. I went along with the times, got into other genres more popular on home platforms, and just kept plugging away at the one-player-versus-CPU mode of 2D fighters like Samurai Shodown IV or 3D fighters like Soul Calibur. I just sort of kept at it off-and-on as the mood struck me. I’m sure many other arcade enthusiasts drifted out of fighting games altogether without a ready supply of human opponents. With the passing of the arcades and their respective scenes, game genres with fat ties to arcades (fighting, shmups, light guns, etc.) have been largely relegated to niche corners of the video game universe.

But fighting games kept being produced even if the customer base was a small cult. Online play has to fill the competitive void for most players, but it is dominated by massive multiplayer online games and first person shooter arenas. Every now and then SNK would release some special volume of collected King of Fighter games, or a young studio would re-tool a Capcom classic for the HD-generation to download over XBLA or PSN.

For fighting games that niche-yness changed with Capcom’s recent decision to update and revisit their Street Fighter series for real. Street Fighter IV, released in 2008, was a big budget return to the most popular 2D fighting series of them all. Gathering in many of the old favorites and pitting them against new faces, Capcom decided to go with polygonal fighters (like Soul Calibur or Tekken) instead of the venerable hand-drawn sprite approach in portraying all the characters. However they also made two critical decisions that ensured the blockbuster sales that followed. First, the characters are polygonal but have rendered in a very detailed, almost painterly way. Features like hands and feet are more exaggerated compared to their old portrayals… it looked odd to me at first… but there’s no denying the attention to details, and the artistry involved in the shading and modeling. More importantly, Capcom kept the mechanics within a 2D plane. The characters are 3D models, but the camera only moves around them during certain special moves… for drama’s sake really. The game is played along only two axes just like it always has. So you have all the detail and flashiness of a modern game with the tried and true delivery of traditional Street Fighter.

Super Street Fighter IV

Capcom released an update with some tweaks to the mechanics and moves, and several new characters in 2009, with Super Street Fighter IV. Although I bought SFIV, it wasn’t until Super that I really found myself trying to get back into Street Fighter mode. And that only just recently. I’m kind of a latecomer. I practiced quite a bit with good old Chun-Li and some with Fei Long… the Bruce Lee lookalike that I never used in the arcades, but that had grown on me in the various home versions of Street Fighter II and Street Fighter Alpha. I really like the new mechanics and this feels like the most rigorously balanced of any modern fighting game.

When I decided to go online and give versus play a go, I got several rude awakenings. I already knew I wasn’t that good. It had been long enough since I’d played any Street Fighter game, and there were enough differences, that I didn’t expect to be kicking ass. I also knew there’d be ruthless people out there, spamming difficult-to-defend moves, and doing anything to win. That’s fine. That’s part of the game. It is an old fighting game tradition that when someone shows up with some move or combination of moves that supposedly breaks the game, a veteran will come along and take them down a peg. In the absence of real-life experts to demonstrate this, the internet is full of advice and videos and discussions covering this very issue. If you become skilled enough you will be able to handle even seemingly ‘unfair’ characters or moves.

But one thing I didn’t expect was experienced players masquerading as n00bs. I just didn’t consider it prior to playing online. Why would someone who is obviously ‘good’ want to start a whole new account just so they’d get matched up with new suck-ass players and crush them? What would be the point of that? Yet it happened numerous times in my first out. I was bewildered. Here is a guy with zero ranking, but I can’t lay a glove on him and he’s obviously using sophisticated tactics with ease. Surely someone that good would have more pride, wouldn’t they? I have since come to understand that some decent players go to the trouble of starting new gamertags specifically so they try out new characters or new strategies and they want non-expert players to do it with. Someone who’ll have less predictability than the CPU, but will still leave them plenty of openings to try stuff out. I can’t say I respect this very much, but it is what it is. The matching service ‘thinks’ they are novices and so it puts them up against people like me, where they proceed to rip me one before I can blink.

The other shock was losing ranking points when beaten by a much higher ranked player. Before doing this I figured if you played against a MUCH better player (as determined by their points, there’s nothing telling the system about a masquerading expert) you wouldn’t go DOWN in rank. Hell, if you did well you might even gain some rank despite the loss. Nope. If you lose, you drop points. Yeah, if you lose to someone mighty, your points loss is less. But there seems to be very little ‘incentive’ to how the losses and gains work. I’d have created the system to be much more dynamic and encouraging. Even allowing some gains if you manage to do well or even win a round against a vastly superior player… which I did do but it mattered fuck-all to the ranking points. I’m sure a lot of hardcore players think this is fine, and don’t really care if the n00bs (forgetting they were new at one time) ever claw their way up from the ranks of pathetic-dom.

I have since adopted the philosophy (similar to real martial arts actually) that you can learn from someone who beats the shit out of you and to not take the ranking points very seriously. They show progress and all, but getting hung up on the points takes the fun out of it. It’s supposed to be a game. The game has a facility for matching you up with opponents close to your skill level but I wasn’t having much luck with that. That’s what I get for starting so late. It wouldn’t hook me up with other newbies. The lobbies are full of people that are all way better than I am. So if I set the matching to just take whatever I could get… BZANG!… ass handed to me.

After a few days of this discouragement, but before I’d learned to wax philosophical about it, I read someone’s suggestion of using the ‘fight request’ feature in Arcade Mode. So the next night I did that. I started the game with Fei Long on single player, to practice with him against the CPU, with my request parameters set to ‘same skill level’.

This worked out pretty well. As I said at the beginning of this post, it has been, to me, a really fun, nostalgic reawakening of that old arcade excitement. You’re sitting there trying to beat the AI opponent when suddenly ‘Here Comes A New Challenger’ splits out across the screen. You get a chance to re-select your character and his or her ultra, but then you’re off and fighting. I kind of wish when they showed you the gamertag prior to the match you could also see their ranking, but in the main, the ‘same skill level’ setting in this context worked pretty well… much better than it did when I was manually requesting same-skill fights outside of Arcade Mode.

And I’m winning more matches. I still suck, but I’m winning a bit more. I have the hardest time with the relatively new characters… or the ones originating from Street Fighter III which I have less experience with than SFII or SF Alpha. And even when I lose, it is a pretty priceless feeling to wake a better player up by beating them in a round and making them work harder for their victory.

Getting out there and fighting online is an exercise in ego-check for sure. It was pretty frustrating at first, but there have been a few people I had to send a kudo to for being good sports. More than one guy let me have a decent round (without just handing it to me) before wiping up the floor with balls. I think you can do what you have to in these games, and I’m not going to cry over tricky moves and tactics, but a little sportsmanship when you obviously dominate is a pretty decent thing to hand out.

Now that Marvel Vs Capcom 3 just came out and the new generation Mortal Kombat is on the horizon, I may find my pool of potential opponents shrinking considerably. I don’t think it will stay that way. SSFIV is the only one I really feel like being competitive with. Something to do with my old history with it, something about how they’ve worked so hard to make it balanced. MvC and Mortal Kombat have their appeal… I will buy and play both. SSFIV seems to have rather opened a floodgate and now lots of 2D fighters are starting to come out. These new hot fighting games are super-flashy or gory, but they’re usually relegated to novelty status by the most hardcore fighting players, who play them to see everything and unlock everyone… maybe prove their online dominance… and then gravitate back to the more technical shit like King of Fighters and Street Fighter.

I’m not a hardcore fighting game player by any stretch, but I’ll probably do the same thing. Enjoy the other fighters, but always come back to Golf N’Stuff in my living room with Street Fighter.

No comments:

Post a Comment