Hey, SRK readers! Lab Notes is a new series I’m trying out where I write about my own fighting game practice. Check out last week’s column on learning to gamble in fighting games, and please let me know what you think in the comments or on Twitter @pattheflip. Thanks for reading![hr]
When it comes to leveling up in fighting games, no one has a perfect picture of exactly how to get good — there’s no master list out there that tells you what order you need to learn things and how to learn them. In general, we expect that the player who spends more time focusing on serious competitive practice — picking a main character to focus on and practicing execution, drilling setups, and getting in lots of matchup practice — is going to get better faster. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll eventually get bored of playing your main 100% of the time. So, this week, I tried to see what I could do to stay active but avoid getting bored.
Bring an old main back
Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of after-hours games in against some of my co-workers, which is great — but when we’re logging 5-6 hours a week of the same matchups (Ryu, Yun, Ken), we’re going to end up spending a lot of time trying to find creative solutions to the same problems.
So, on a whim, I decided to go dust off my Adon, who I haven’t really played much since Arcade Edition came out. And even though I wasn’t boned up on his changes since then, I still did well with him — in part because my opponents weren’t familiar with the matchup, and in part because, even though I hadn’t played him in a while, my time playing Ryu instead made my Adon better. Weird, huh?
Each character in a fighting game offers you a different set of tools (your moves) to solve a problem (beating your opponent’s character); the process of learning and mastering a character is basically getting your brain to connect your tools to your problems. When you change characters, you’re changing up the kinds of things your brain needs to focus on, causing it to grow in different directions and work on different skills. Think of each character as a different kind of exercise for your brain, working out different aspects of your overall fighting game ability.
When I play Ryu, my brain has to track a lot more behaviors and variables over the course of a match that I don’t have to handle with Adon, because he has more mobility and simpler tools. Going back to Adon for a session or two felt like revisiting an old workout routine that used to kick my ass and realizing that it was slightly easier than I had remembered. By the end of the session, I felt refreshed and ready to sink some more time into Ryu.
(Also, if you remember my 18-game losing stream against Jon Lo’s Yun from last week’s column, it felt pretty good to blow him up with Adon. I know you read this, Jon.)
Play a new game
Somehow, on Friday night, I found myself at Monique Mendoza’s house, surrounded by five Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late setups and about 20-odd players, with nary an Ultra or Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 setup to be found. I’ve never touched UNIB in my life — my airdasher fighting game experience is pretty much limited to Guilty Gear and MvC3 (yes, it’s anime, deal with it) — so I just jumped in the deep end.
We’re kind of spoiled by modern fighting games, these days; competitive cycles are dictated by console releases, so we’re all used to being able to grab a copy of a new game and spend some lab time getting used to the new systems and practicing a bread and butter combo or two. But there’s nothing quite like learning a new game cold. Just sit down, call next, and ask the your opponent what the buttons are.
Yes, you’re going to get blown up, but that’s the point. You get to jump into a new game with zero expectations of how you’re going to perform, zero pressure, and perhaps most importantly, zero ego. Playing fighting games seriously can be stressful; the more time you spend practicing, the more emotional investment you have in your results. (I’m convinced that this is Marn’s secret power; the less he practices, the fewer fucks he has to give, unlocking his relentless aggression.)
Also, you get to learn while you’re trying to stay alive. It’s a great test of your ability to adapt and think on your feet — skills which, of course, are incredibly relevant in a tournament setting, when you’re running up against a player that you’re not prepared to deal with and have to download their style on the fly. And hey, who knows — you might find a game you like even more, and make a friend or two in the process.
Play different people in a different place
Once you get plugged into your local fighting game community, it can be easy to stick to the venues and gatherings where you’re most likely going to find top-tier competition — after all, you want to play against the best players possible. But that can also lead you into making excuses to play less; “I’m not going to bother going out to [different venue], because I don’t know if anyone good is going to be there.”
I ended up spending Saturday night with two friends checking out an arcade in East Hollywood called Family Arcade. I had never heard of it before, but it was a pretty neat place; they had six AE cabinets, a few Marvel vs. Capcom 2 setups, and even a Tatsunoko vs. Capcom cabinet (I didn’t even realize that game got an arcade release!), among others. There were about 5-6 people playing AE at any given moment, plus a handful of MvC2 players that actually hadn’t played MvC3 at all. (That’s a beautiful thing, honestly.) Of all the people I saw playing there, I don’t think I had ever seen any of them at a Wednesday Night Fights or anything. They were there to just play the game, have a good time, blow off some steam, and maybe learn a thing or two.
The Street Fighter IV players weren’t that good (I spent about $2 in an hour at 50 cents a game). But that didn’t stop me from learning things; I got to practice picking apart new opponents and playing a few new characters for the first time. Also, I got to feel like I was good at Street Fighter — and, honestly, when I look at all the people out there who kick my ass on a regular basis, it felt good to feel like a big fish in a small pond every now and then. (If any of the people I played at Family Arcade are reading this: Good games! Jump less. And shoutouts to that salty Guy player.)
What’s more, playing fighting games in an arcade has a certain social dynamic that is missing in console gatherings or online matches; you want to play in a way that will optimize your chances of winning (gotta save your quarters for laundry!) but you don’t want to blow up your competition so badly that they get demoralized and leave, because then you’re stuck playing against the CPU. (Back in the Capcom vs. SNK 2 days, this meant picking two characters you wanted to play around with, and then picking Sagat so you didn’t lose.) You’re not trying to win Evo here, you’re just trying to have fun and kill some time.
Mix it up
If you’re seriously burned out, the best thing to do is just put the stick down and do something else. (It’s like going back to character select between tournament matches, but in real life.) But don’t be afraid of breaking up your routine and having a little fun. You won’t be playing the same game or the same character forever (unless you’re playing Ryu in Super Turbo, anyway), so take some time to nurture your fighting game skill growth in a holistic sense.
Fact is, we play these games seriously because we care about them — and caring about stuff can be exhausting. If there’s one thing I learned this week, it’s that just playing to practice for competition comes with a load of emotional baggage, and if I focus too much on that, I’ll be missing out on learning stuff and having fun. Which is, ultimately, why I’m playing these games in the first place.
What do you do to avoid burnout and stay interested? Share your tips in the comments!