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July 9, 2012

Of Virtua Fighter and Volcano Knees

A while back, I was having a conversation with my dentist about what I was going to do that summer.  “Do some writing” was the obvious choice, but with no small number of tools hovering around my mouth I wasn’t in much of a mood for conversation about the particulars.  So I just said “play some video games.”

“Oh?  Do you have Wii Sports?” he asked with a smile.  “My kids love that -- all that boxing and stuff.”  I told him that I did (though I’d loaned it out to a friend).  “What kind of games do you like?”

“Fighting games,” I answered -- though with his assistant currently shoving metal into my mouth, it sounded more like “Haahigg gaaaaze.”  I managed to raise my fists to illustrate.

It was a weird moment in more ways than one.  See, I like to think of myself as an intellectual gamer -- one that preferred titles emphasizing the mind and strategy instead of rote button-hammering and battering enemies with bullets and nail bats.  So I’ve collected my fair share of RPGs and strategy games -- a couple of Advance Wars, a couple of Disgaeas, a heaping helping of Shin Megami Tensei games…I even spent the better part of six months pining for Valkyria Chronicles.  I hold games that give you time to stop and think in high esteem...and the less said about my love of Phoenix Wright and 999, the better.

Given that, you’d think that I’d hate fighting games.  And to some extent, you’d be right. 

Even if you've got a sharp mind, there’s still a divide between fighting games in theory and in practice.  The game plans that you set up beforehand can crumble in an instant.  Strategy doesn't mean anything if you can’t do a simple combo -- and by simple I mean “requiring fraction-of-a-second timing” or “demanding hours of practice”.  The characters you love can hit a glass ceiling labeled “Tier List” (le sigh, Phoenix Wright…).  And even if you manage to become an ace, you can STILL lose to someone half as good as you, using a better character, and throwing out moves demanding that you shout “Shenanigans!” in retaliation.

That’s what fighting games are in the worst-case scenario.  In the BEST-case, however, they’re utterly amazing.  The chance to learn how to use a character, and develop your skills; the over-the-top action unrivaled by any other genre; the spirit of competition that can utterly transform you, turning you from a mere player into a verifiable World Warrior.  It’s an experience that I revel in -- and to that end, I’ve played and owned nearly every fighting game released this generation.  (Even Mortal Kombat, which I still think is vastly inferior to Street Fighter -- but hey, you know what they say about history repeating itself.)

Given that, you’re probably asking, “All right, so you love fighting games.  We get that.  So what are you hyped about?  What makes your trousers a size too small?”

And while the answer to that question would immediately be Persona 4 Arena, this post isn’t about me OR my hype.  No, this one’s about my brother -- the TRUE fighting game enthusiast.

It’s probably because of my older brother Rich that I even got into games in the first place.  He was the one who had the idea to ask for a Sega Genesis when I was entertained by sliding my butt down the stairs.  He had a stake to claim amongst his peers, and enlisting for the Console War effort.  But most of all, he has extremely fond memories of playing fighting games in their arcade cabinets at any chance he got -- chief among them, the Street Fighter II cabinet in the local grocery store.  He wanted to bring the experience home, and I can only imagine how excited he must have been when we eventually rented Street Fighter from Blockbuster.  He has a deep love for fighting games that I’ve only begun to fathom; whereas I can’t even remember what character I used to pick (Ryu?  Honda, maybe?  I think I chose Chun-Li once), he can remember the days when people would break into real-life fights over throw spam.

As the years passed, we ended up grabbing more and more fighting games, and putting each other to the test.  We both have poignant memories of the N64 gem Fighter’s Destiny, to the point where we still have conversations about it to this day.  (Neither of us had the skills to get Joker, and we banned Boro because of a certain highly-spammable move.)  I remember how often I cremated him in Soul Calibur 2 because he never blocked, and how I became a Deity in Tekken 5 when he couldn’t be bothered to make it to the Dan-ranks.  He had an extremely aggressive style in Capcom vs. SNK 2; I was more than willing to wait for an opening, and blow him to pieces with a well-placed Shin Shoryuken. 

But you know what?  All those games, and all those hours in Versus Mode were just practice to him.  If there was one game that defined the genre for him -- a single, perfect game that left him wanting -- it was Virtua Fighter 5.  It was the game that made the Xbox 360 worth the purchase -- and the game that shifted him from a mere player to a dedicated fanatic.

Had I known how important Virtua Fighter 5 would become to him, I would have paid more attention to Rich and his pre-release mannerisms.  “Man, Virtua Fighter 5 is gonna be so awesome!” he’d say several times a day, as he often did whenever he got hyped about an upcoming release.  He perused internet forums, looked at videos, searched for screenshots, and did who-knows-what behind closed doors when I went to sleep.  Every day that passed brought him closer and closer to getting the game in his hands, and plastered a bigger smile across his face.  The spirit of competition had seized him -- and I have to admit, I was starting to share his enthusiasm.  If he brought home a new fighting game, then inevitably I’d be the one he’d be going a few (hundred) rounds with.  By extension, everything that he’d expected from the title, I could expect too -- learning new characters and game mechanics, and claiming victory with one well-placed blow.

Were his expectations met?  Well, let me put it this way: Rich is a VERY pessimistic person.  If I’m the “Eternal Optimist,” then that would make him the “Ultimate Cynic.”  It doesn’t take long for him to expect the worst in even the brightest of circumstances, and the sooner he can cut down a person just for existing, the happier he’ll be.  And yet if I didn’t know any better (and if I took my eyes off the screen while we were playing), I’d say I was going up against a nine-year-old all over again.

Virtua Fighter 5 ceased to become a game to him after a while; it sparked an absolute transformation in him.  The guy who I could bash about because he never blocked dedicated himself to gathering strategies, watching hours of tournament footage, and of course playing the game well into the early morning hours.  He gained experience by the barge-load daily.  Eventually, there was a point where the guy who never blocked became the guy who could slide and dash around my every attack, keep me stun-locked until I got turned into a sack of tenderized meat, and thwart my every move with a faster, combo-starting attack.  (Chief among them, El Blaze’s knee attack, which would make the announcer scream “KNEEEEEEEEEE!” time and time again.)  Much like the luchador acting in his stead, he was the ultimate.

But it still wasn’t enough.  Even though Virtua Fighter became HIS game (in the same sense that Tekken was/is mine), Rich kept fighting, and improving, and fighting, and winning, and fighting, and fighting, and fighting.  He plunked down the money for an arcade stick -- the first of two -- and used it as a platform for several fighting games to come.  The concepts and regimens he’d learned went on to help him succeed at Street Fighter 4, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and Street Fighter X Tekken.  Fighting games became a part of him, even more than when he was a kid with a roll of quarters at the arcade.

And then, one day, he came to a realization.  He couldn’t play Virtua Fighter anymore -- because there was no one left to play with.

Competition dried up.  He could find a Japanese player every now and then, but that was about it.  We’d play a few rounds every now and then, but Virtua Fighter isn’t the kind of game where someone who doesn’t know the game can beat someone who does.  And he laughed at the idea of fighting through Arcade Mode.  It was a grave moment; the game that he’d traded in and then re-bought had no more use for him.  He’d have to remain content with playing Street Fighter 4, complaining all the while about how much better Virtua Fighter was.  And like a trophy collecting dust, he kept the second copy of the game on the shelf, letting it gather dust day after day.

Remember how I said Rich is a major cynic?  And how you can always count on him to see the glass as half-empty?  Well, he could have traded in Virtua Fighter again.  He could have tucked it into his closet and never thought about it again.  He could have taken it out of our metal disk case and let it get mixed in with his CDs, dooming it to be clawed up and accidentally slipped into his car’s CD player.  But he didn’t.  Day after day, he held onto the slim possibility that the updated version, Final Showdown would get released in the states.  Considering how thoroughly Capcom fighters dominated Xbox Live, the prospects seemed slim -- to say nothing of Sega’s recent woes.

And wouldn’t you know it, the ONE TIME he had faith in something, it actually came through. 

His faith -- the unending, perpetual hype brought about by Virtua Fighter 5 -- carried him through his darkest hours.  And he’s been handsomely rewarded; he’s been hitting the combo lab for hours at a time, training his fingers for a slew of hard-hitting battles.  The excitement that he’d been nursing for months, and the passion that he holds for the game, have all led up to this moment.  He’s ready to don El Blaze’s mask all over again, and prove himself against hordes of posers and pretenders.  He’s ready to drag me into the room and force me to play, all so he can take revenge for the losses I dealt him in days past.

And you know what?  I don’t really blame him. 

We’re brothers.  We’re two guys who grew up playing video games.  We have different ideas, opinions, worldviews, and beliefs -- the tiger and dragon, in several respects.  We’re both getting older, and we both have to make a name for ourselves in the world. But the one thing that we’ll always have, and the one thing that’ll bring us together, time and time again, is the chance to grasp victory with a few well-placed punches and kicks.  So to some extent, I know what he’s going through.  I sympathize with, and even appreciate his passion.

Because if a new Virtua Fighter means I can play as Goh again, I don’t mind getting a little hyped.


  1. Damn dude, that was a pretty sweet little article. I honestly thought this was going to be some rose-tinted retrospective, but your brother's tale got me.

    Good work sirrah. And good gaming to both of you.

  2. I don't agree that VF5 is better than SF, but it's cool that he was really good at it. Did he go to tournaments??? His VF5 quest would not be complete unless he played in front of hundreds of people against the best in the world.

  3. "I don't agree that VF5 is better than SF"

    Fair enough, but don't EVER let my brother (or any number of other fighting fanatics) hear you say that.

    Anyway, my bro never went to any tournaments, what with being in school -- and largely penniless -- at the time. But apparently, he played against some of the guys in a club at his school...though as far as I know, he played more BlazBlue than VF5. I imagine he's good enough to go into tournament play, though; he just has to remember to calm down and not jump into the opponent's fist.

  4. Thanks, man. And speaking of good gaming, I just finished a few hours' worth of fighting with my bro. The final win percentage for the night in SF4? He won 50%, I won 50%.

    The unstoppable force versus the immovable object...there's more than a kernel of truth to that.

  5. I would be very interested to know what is your opinion about Lineage and Aion. I am hooked on them :).

  6. To be honest, I haven't played either of those games. I haven't played an MMO since WoW, and even then I was only playing it out of some sick sense of compulsion. Buuuuuuuuut, I will say that the two games you mentioned have some pretty nice concept art -- and I'm willing to assume that they're pretty fun in their own right.

    *scrolls through pictures online* Man...lot of good concept art. Hope somebody got paid well for --


    By the golden apples of Idunn! That is fan-TASTIC!