Tonight is my first time booting up Blazblue: Central Fiction. Friend and fellow Sprites and Dice writer, Eric, also a lover of fighting games, has let me know the complete edition is on sale for Switch. Typical Switch. Last to get most non-Nintendo titles, but it’s only twenty bucks for the game and all the DLC included. He’s getting it, so I’ll have at least one friend who plays, and the discount is an offer too good to pass up. Something deep inside me stirs. A long dormant itch.
I’ve always loved fighting games. There’s just something about facing another human mind in that space between reflexes and words. Impulses just shy of becoming full thoughts shoot down one’s hands and into the controller. Instinct and input, control and combos. But it’s been a long time since I’ve played a fighting game this demanding. I’m honestly not sure how things will go or if I have the patience to see it through. I may have just spent $20 on a game I will button mash for four hours before ducking away in dismay. I’m normally very considered regarding game purchases, taking a few days to weigh whether I really want a thing, but for this one I just smash that buy button. I hope I don’t regret my impulse purchase.
And with that I begin flipping through the character select. Who to pick? Well, who looks cool?
So. Many. Choices! There's gotta be something for everyone in here.
Is It In You?
Fighting games are in my blood. Flashback to Super Street Fighter II Turbo on the Sega Genesis. The year is 1993, and I main Ryu back before I know what having a “main” is. I am ten years old at the time. The flashes of fireballs are entrancing, the different characters and stages are exhilarating, and Zangief’s 360 degree input is absolutely mind boggling. Seriously, how is any human supposed to pull off that piledriver? Ryu is reliable. He’s a good all-rounder with a move for every situation. I don’t have to play some kind of hyper focused game centered around any particular gimmick. I can just play. And I do play. Often.
My parents take me to Blockbuster every weekend once my homework’s done so I can rent a game for the weekend. My reward for staying focused on school during the week. Friday after Friday after Friday I rent the same game. I rent the game so much I get a VHS promo video in the mail one day with “extra secret” techniques and strategies in it, a gift gleaned from either a Blockbuster heavy hitter list or my parents secretly sending off for it. Smartphones don’t exist yet, nor does the internet we know today. This is a godsend since I don’t yet own the strategy guide. Needless to say, Super Street Fighter II Turbo becomes an easy Christmas gift this year.
Things start getting complicated. The standard Genesis controller only has 3 attack buttons on it, requiring a press of the start button to flip from punches to kicks and back mid-match. I eventually buy my first 6 button controller and wonder why I waited so long to upgrade my hardware. The revelation that special moves and attacks are now much more attainable, like the game intended itself to be played, brings me the first of many gradual steps up in power. My game starts improving.
Ken’s relentless dragon punches are so cheap! I learn to block and time counterattacks. Computer-controlled Zangief can whip off that spinning piledriver like none of my friends, and that makes him incredibly deadly close-up. I learn to use my fireballs more. Gradually my fingers get used to the quarter circles and odd inputs needed to reliably conjure hurricane kicks and dragon punches of my own. The groundwork is being laid, and I’m in love with every single bit as it goes down.
The game that started it all for me.
Getting To Grips
After a few false starts with Blazblue characters, I settle on Bullet. She’s not exactly the coolest looking character I’ve tried (that probably goes to Kagura), but her style is just so fun that, even though I’m terrible with her, I don’t want to pick anyone else. Bullet is a brawler with fire gauntlets who likes to rush in close and punish her opponents with grabs. When executed properly, your opponent is sent flying into the edges of the screen before being beaten senseless, a feeling that never gets old. She’s got a Zangief worthy super move too, though with its double 360 input I’ll probably never pull it off.
In fact, I’m immediately flabbergasted by most of her moves. I don’t do “command grabs,” as they’re called. Grabs that are more than just the basic throw every character has, requiring inputs not unlike a dragon punch or more complex special move. Typically, I’ve used moves like these to end combos with a bang, but Bullet wants me to somehow link them together into insane strings of pain. I go on YouTube, and the talented people there demonstrate that, yes, this is indeed possible. Deep breaths. I’m going to be spending a lot of time in training mode, aka The Lab, experimenting with the timing of her moves. But first things first. I’m still losing every single match I play online, barely able to land a hit on any of my opponents.
Bullet's drive is called "lock on," a command grab and movement ability in a single button press!
I’ve previously avoided online matches like most people avoid restaurants with questionable bathrooms. While sharing a couch with friends was a staple for years, I only dipped my toes a few times in those frigid waters before running like a child back to the safety of warm, dry, offline land, shivering to myself. It’s just never been worth the frustration. People are relentless there, picking their best characters, constantly stomping newbies like me into the ground for having the audacity to match up against them. Perhaps respect is something earned, but the losses were often so severe I had no idea how I’d even started going wrong. It wasn’t fun. Games were meant to be fun, so back to the couch with friends it always was.
Fast forward to now and my one Blazblue friend hasn’t turned the game back on since we both bought it. I can’t blame him. We’re adults now with all the real world stuff that implies. But the AI arcade matches are getting stale already, and there’s no one else to play with. Nowhere else to go. I steel myself against the inevitable and select the “network” feature on the main menu. “What are a few losses,” I tell myself. It starts off predictably, and quite horribly. Hopeless loss after hopeless loss. I’m not improving, even by a single ounce. I bite back the urge to give up and go offline again, or worse, to shut the game down and stop playing altogether.
This was the last game I tried online matches with. I could count on one hand the number I tried before staying offline for good.
In The Zone
Tekken titles see me through my high school years, and college is marked by the love of my fighting game life: Guilty Gear. Specifically, Guilty Gear X2 (as it’s titled for its US release). The artwork has a beautiful, hand drawn quality to it. Characters are quirky and unique, and there are a lot to pick from. And for perhaps the first time ever, I have friends who aren’t content to simply hammer the same tired combos over and over. I have a group that wants to seriously push one another to play better. I’m still seeking, as ever, that elusive zone where thoughts are mere impulses with lifespans in the fractions of seconds.
I’ve never played a fighting game quite like Guilty Gear. Here is my first real encounter with a game in which one cannot simply mash buttons. This isn’t a game where you mess around with friends, tossing easy combos at one another for a good time while the veterans work out the finer points in their own corner. The finer points are the only points here. If the learning curve of most fighting games is like an uphill hike, Guilty Gear’s is like climbing a vertical rockface. And I love it!
I thrive. I begin mastering my chosen character (Dizzy, if you must know). But why? In the face of a game so frustratingly hard to learn at times and against such tough opponents, I’m excelling, that feeling of raw thought rushing into my fingers, becoming a string of reads and counters that outplay my opponents, ever seeking “the zone” where thoughts and actions melt away and become one in the same.
I’d learn years later, during my time with Blazblue, that psychologists call this phenomenon “flow”.
You know when I used to get into the zone too? Tekken Tag bowling. Not even joking.
Go With The Flow
Athletes and artisans alike describe a place where time disappears, focus requires no thought, and one’s body seems to move on its own. Race car drivers describe being full seconds ahead of the nearest competition without knowing how, driving perfect circuits without trying. Jockeys mention out-of-body experiences, watching themselves pulling far ahead of the competition. Musicians relate stories of notes simply pouring forth without any thought of how they manipulate their instruments. “Being in the zone,” it’s called by many. Also known as experiencing a flow state.
While no one has a good answer for how to get into a flow state reliably, a few things seem to remain constant: The activity has to have clearly perceived goals; there must be clear and immediate feedback; and the skill of the participant must be in balance with the difficulty of the task. Challenges must also be actively participated in (watching TV, for example, just won’t trigger it no matter how much you binge). Flow states also tend to occur in activities with a high degree of difficulty and requiring some measure of skill, at least insofar as difficulty and skill seem proportional to one another by the practitioner. Tasks that are too easy result in boredom while tasks that appear too hard lead to disinterest. Hitting “the zone”, a state all about perception, ironically requires the right kind of perception to reach in the first place.
Getting into the zone can be hard.
It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see how this applies to fighting games. Was this what I’d been chasing all these years? A dialogue between players in a place with no words. Just impulses and reactions, two players in the zone. A conversation between minds free of bodily constraint. Pure intent. There are a great many articles talking about the study of flow states and how people try to conjure them in their workplaces. And certainly if one’s work can flow why wouldn’t we seek it? But for me, the feeling never quite hit home as profoundly, as primally, as with fighting games.
This is what I missed in the years without opponents, after college practically swearing off fighting games for lack of real-world opponents. My fear of online play locked me away from this part of myself. Thankfully things were finally changing.
A random tier list via Reddit. These may be subjective, but Bullet regularly ranks in the bottom tier. I'll still take anyone on with her, though!
I’ve been in this online Blazblue casual room for a good half hour now. My opponent and I have matched up over and over, selecting the same characters each time. They pick Tsubaki, I pick Bullet. Sometimes they crush me. Sometimes I batter them. We go about 50/50 on our recent wins. I lost a lot of my early matches, but I’m starting to realize they only have a few key combos and special moves they lead with. This makes looking for openings easier. I can see the possibility of victory in every loss if only I try a little harder. As I’m trying to think of ways I can stay unpredictable myself, the ray of light strikes the back of my head and my eyes open to something I never thought would happen.
I perform Bullet’s double 360 input and clobber my opponent with her super grab. I’m not sure what’s possessed me in this moment to attempt that input, but something tells my fingers that it’s possible. My opponent is tossing me up into the air, comboing me with hit after hit, sending me crashing into the ground, and landing right next to me, eager to pounce and continue the pressure. The time it takes for my character to “wake up” and stand from the combo gives me just enough time to pull off two full circles with my controller. I get up with a nasty surprise for my unwary opponent.
Actual gif recorded from my Bullet gameplay. Shortly after the discovery of my wake up super, I learned how to perform it off blocks as well.
Tsubaki goes flying into the far corner taking hit after hit after hit from Bullet, and before I know it the match is over. I’ve won. But it’s more than just that. For a brief moment all my knowledge of all the moves Bullet has at her disposal, all the inputs and all the timing delays, are nothing. Not even a moment’s thought to recall in their entirety. I’ve touched “the zone” just briefly, and it’s given me the confidence I need. To go back to the training mode and practice new tricks. To stay online and seek out stronger opponents. The sting of defeat doesn’t hold the deterrent it once did. All of this becomes the next stage of growth in my upward climb.
One more gif from my gameplay footage. This fine opponent played against me most of that faithful evening. For every pummeling I share here, rest assured they paid me back!
The Long Road Ahead
I’ve started experimenting with new characters in Blazblue. It might be fun to have one or two others I dabble in just for fun and variety. I marvel at how obtuse each new character seems, how hard to grok each new mini game is that they play while powering up during a match. Bullet must’ve been this way for me at first, but I just can’t remember how that felt, her moves living too much in my muscle memory now. It’s an odd feeling. Each time I try someone new I’m putting myself back at the foot of that mountain, looking upwards at the climb and asking myself if this is something I really want to do again. But I know what’s up that mountain now. The possibility of possibilities drives me past the fear of failure.
Bullet remains my #1 pick when the going gets tough, but I have a lot to learn. There are moves I still can’t combo with, and my blocking is still objectively not great. I haven’t even touched instant blocking or rapid cancels. Though I clearly see a distinction online now between other beginners (many of whom I can now defeat) and more veteran players (who regularly kick my butt), I still consider myself a total beginner in every sense of the word. After several intense weeks with Blazblue and all the improvements I’ve made, I only feel how much further there is to go before I can say I’m actually mastering my main. But I love it! I thrive.
Bullet, and Blazblue, reunited me with something I thought I’d lost. Flow, the zone, skirts other parts of my life, elusive as ever. Every now and then it allows me a glimpse of its face as I’m sure many glimpse it, but for me none of those experiences compare to the absolute freedom and exhilaration I feel when playing a good fighting game. I’m once again weightless, lightning cascading across neurons, in search of another to share the experience with. Is this electricity in your blood too? I’m here waiting. Let’s chat.