For me as a youngster, though, I had no idea what any of those gamers were. I first started dabbling in fighting games during the N64 era. Clay Fighter, Killer Instinct, Fighters Destiny, and my personal favorite, Flying Dragon, were the games I cut my teeth on back then.
Of course, I had no idea how fighting games actually worked. Beating my friends was the only mission I had.
I don’t even recall playing the games much on my own, unless there was unlockable content to get by grinding in single player. Obviously, I was a scrub in my younger days. My scrubbiness extended into the “premier” fighting game of my childhood, which was Smash Bros. 64, although this game emphasized different aspects of fighting games that you don’t often see in the staple franchises I mentioned earlier, and that was complete and utter mayhem. Basically, for the time being, I could continue being a scrub, as long as that meant I could be the guy to grab the Bob-omb and get away with some cheap last minute kills and still feel good about being the last kid left standing.
However, my total ignorance as to how fighting games actually worked helped cultivate one of my greatest strengths as a competitive fighting gamer today – my ability to choose and dedicate myself to characters I liked.
No fear of tiers
It’s common, by now, to hear people complaining of top tiers in fighting games. Everyone knows that there’s going to be someone who rises to the top amongst the character roster and someone who is near-useless. There’s no denying it – you can say that a better player using a bottom-tier character can beat a worse player using a top-tier but that’s ignoring how tier lists work. The idea is that if any players of equal skill meet – a hypothetical situation, obviously – and play with two different characters, the higher tiered character should win.
Of course, matchup intricacies add complexity to the mix, but this is all nonsense to a 10 year-old kid who just wants to FAir people off the ledge with Yoshi. The point is, my only incentive for picking characters in fighting games was that they were cool. I I had no idea that some characters were better than others in fighting games, and even if I did, I didn’t have any knowledge of actual gameplay systems to establish for myself why they were better than others. My only goal was to pick my favorite character – Glacius, Ness, Suzuki – and beat my friends. That was it.
Sometimes I would get the luck of the draw. I started playing Melee in about 2004, and I thought Marth was the coolest guy around – sword, cape, done. I picked Marth. Boom, he’s also top tier. At the time, I had no idea- I just picked him cause he was cool. But once I started using the internet more, and browsing forums, I started to learn a lot more about the game – for instance, the fact that Marth was top tier, along with Fox and Sheik. Others, like Bowser, and Mewtwo, got the short end of the stick.
Knowing that a tier list existed changed my perspective, however, even if I wasn’t able to acknowledge it at the time. I began to see why Marth was better, both by thinking about how the game worked and by reading what others had to say on the internet – Marth had excellent normals, Bowser had a lousy recovery and was slow, Mewtwo was far too light, etc. What I didn’t realize was that I was actually acquiring a skillset – character and gameplay analysis that helped for me to attain a much greater understanding of the overall metagame. At the time, though, these were skills that were used to mostly justify my own losses – “Sheik’s FAir is so goddamn cheap! No wonder she’s top tier!”
Metagaming in the making
However, these skills came in handy later on in my fighting game history. For me, the next big fighting game after Melee was, of course, Brawl. What can I say? I grew up playing every Smash game and while Brawl didn’t offer the competitive explosiveness that Melee did it, it offered an explosiveness of a different kind – and that was silly, accessible chaos. To me, Brawl was every bit as fun as Melee was, but obviously in different ways.
This time around, I had the second easiest character selection choice I’ve ever had – Ike. Again, sword, cape, boom, done, Ike. Of course, it helped that I had played both Fire Emblems featuring Ike, and was a big fan of them, but when Ike was unveiled I couldn’t have been more pleased. As I stated earlier, this whole time I’ve been cultivating a history of playing characters I think are cool.
However, there was a difference between Melee and Brawl for me, and that was that I was now playing a low-tier character. By this time, it was easy to understand why he was low tier. Just look at someone like Metaknight. The dude has literally every tool any Brawl character could possibly have at his disposal, and Ike didn’t really have anything comparable. Yeah, he had some good moves like his standard A combo, his NAir, and his BAir, but that was it. What I hadn’t realized at the time was that this assessment of character attributes was becoming part of my thought process – I was deliberately picking characters I enjoyed, and playing them regardless of their tier position. After I had picked them, I was understanding why they were bad, why they weren’t as good as the S tiers, but most importantly what made them effective despite their shortcomings.
I stopped justifying my losses by blaming tiers and started thinking, ‘Well, I want to play this guy – what’s stopping me from winning with him?’ I never attended many tourneys during Brawl’s peak, but playing Ike despite his low tieredness set the stage for my most important character choice yet.
A beautiful choice
Enter Street Fighter IV in 2009. For me, this was a time of many firsts – first time playing a Street Fighter game, most importantly. I did dabble in some CVS2, and I did know what the tier list for that game was like, but again, I was just picking characters I liked, and played the game totally casually. Regardless, though, I hadn’t played a game that stuck to the standard 2D formula as thoroughly as SFIV did.
Immediately upon watching the introductory trailer for the SFIV characters, I saw my main. That would be, of course, Vega, the Masked Matador. Easy choice – he just looked so badass. What’s not to like? Mask, claw, tassel, matador pants, ninja moves… Talk about easy sell. I had absolutely n0 history with SF – even when I played CVs2, I completely ignored the SF side of the cast – but it seemed like someone, somewhere, had made the exact character I wanted. I gravitated to the character instantly – did I know anything about his playstyle? Nah. I just knew he was a badass.
So, shortly after the game came out, I heard a lot of talk about, of course, tier lists. Sagat’s at the top! people said. That never changed. Ryu’s good! Akuma’s good! Seth is good! And of course… Vega sucks!
That didn’t phase me. I thought, well that’s fine. I played low-tier Ike in Brawl. I’m not really concerned about playing a low tier character, just as I wasn’t then.
Of course in Brawl, I was largely safe from getting exposed by Metaknight mains because my Wii was in the basement with no WiFi. I didn’t care much, though – the game was fun enough playing against the CPU. For SF, though, playing against the CPU was no fun. I hooked up XBLA, and went to town in ranked mode.
There were ups, and there were downs. I punched a couple holes in my wall, I’m not gonna lie. I raged. But I also had good days, piling up some 10 game win streaks and tearing it up in a lobby once in a while. I stuck with Vega the whole time – only because of a fierce allegiance to the character. The more I played him, the more I thought, yeah, this dude is for me. Speed, range, damage – it’s all there. And really, his lousy reversal options didn’t bother me much.
Mastering the matador
Eventually, I began to learn more about the game, largely as a result of losing certain sets or matches and wanting desperately to figure out stronger tactics to counter with. The skills I developed playing Melee and Brawl – attributing strengths and weaknesses to characters and using those elements to come up with better strategies for my own character – were enhanced by me studying frame data and hitboxes.
My Vega began to get stronger, despite being bottom tier, and I earned a bit of a reputation in my area for being a fearsome player. Once I began attending local ranbats, I had a lot of success, and in a lot of cases I was beating players who were using higher-tiered characters like Sagat or Ryu. At this time, I figured that because I had picked a low tier character simply because I liked him, and continually went the extra mile just to ensure my character would be on a level playing field with a high tier character, I was having more success than they were. My knowledge base was bigger, and I knew more about the matchups, and knew more about my own character.
I exploited gaps in their knowledge and abused my own tricks and shenanigans that my opponents couldn’t catch on to. The more I played Vega, the more success I had, and the more I enjoyed playing Vega, simply because as time went on, my Vega became more and more complete. I had answers to dangerous scenarios, and I had a use for every one of Vega’s moves. I was beginning to see why fighting games were so fun, compared to my earlier days of just using random moves.
I wasn’t just playing to win, I was playing to learn.