Lab Notes is a new column about practicing fighting games. Check out last week’s column on avoiding burnout, and please leave me feedback in the comments or on Twitter @pattheflip. Thanks for reading!
Confession: I have bad execution. I usually choose characters with low skill ceilings because I don’t like spending time in training mode, and I don’t have the confidence to believe I can actually use a high-execution character well enough to succeed in competition. So, for this week’s Lab Notes, I’m gonna talk about getting better at the physical part of fighting games.
There’s no getting around the fact that competitive fighting games are physically challenging activities. Every time we step up to the stick, we’re testing our ability to assess a threat and respond with a series of delicate movements. However, we don’t talk too much about how we actually move our bodies to make these moves happen onscreen.
Break down your execution into individual movements
In real-life martial arts, it’s hard to find two teachers that teach any given move exactly the same way. The basic boxing jab is taught with dozens of variations and nuances depending on the situation, your coach’s background, and so on. What’s more, the way you learn the jab is different depending on how your coach describes it. This applies to fighting games, too — when I first started playing fighting games, I struggled to do DPs for months until someone described it to me as just “forward, then fireball” instead of the “Z” motion I envisioned in my head.
Even the humble fireball motion is complicated. If you’re standing on the 1P side, do you push the stick with your fingers, your wrist, or your whole shoulder? Now, when you switch to the 2P side, are you still using the same muscles to pull the stick, or are you doing something different? Personally, I tend to execute “pull” motions with just my fingers, and “push” with my wrist and shoulders. My fingers tend to be more accurate but slower for doing complicated motions; my wrist and shoulder take a bit longer for me to get moving, but once they do, they finish the motion much more quickly.
In practice, this means I hit Zero’s Lightning Loops more often on the 2P side because the combo stresses accuracy over speed, but I miss Ryu’s DP FADC Ultra more often on the 2P side because I’m using my fingers. And when I’m on the 1P side, I’ll have a harder time hitting anti-air DPs on reaction, because it takes my body just a frame or two longer to actuate my wrist and shoulders to do a DP, meaning I need to react earlier to hit it.
Pay attention to your whole body
Just because you’re only using your upper body to perform your inputs doesn’t mean you only need to pay attention to your hands and arms. If you’re anything like me, your posture, leg placement, and all kinds of other variables can affect how you execute.
When I first started practicing Zero’s Lightning Loops, I got to the point where I could hit them pretty consistently in training mode after a week or two, but I’d almost always drop them against a human being. It took me months of practice before I figured out a really strange trick that helped me get it. It wasn’t about timing, or audio cues, or getting the tiger knee motion down (I prefer to do the tiger knee version over the neutral jump version).
All I had to do was stretch my legs out.
I usually prefer to sit at a chair with the stick in my lap (unless I’m playing with a MAS, anyway), and if I’m feeling relaxed, my legs are kind of sprawled out in front of me with a slight bend in the knees. When I’m about to execute something complicated and I’m worried I’m going to mess it up, my body tenses up a bit and I tuck my legs in underneath the chair. Whenever I tuck my legs under the chair, I have a dramatically higher chance of dropping the Lightning Loop. Now, as soon as I activate Sougenmu, I’ll use the brief cutscene to make sure my legs are in proper Lightning Loop position. It’s weird, but it works for me. Your legs, your back, your shoulders, even your breathing cadence could potentially change the way you execute your movements, so pay attention!
I’m convinced that part of Eduardo “EG|PR Balrog” Perez’ superhuman fighting game ability is somehow connected to the way he leans into the stick when he plays. Where most players tend to slouch or sit up straight, Eduardo’s posture looks like he’s a lion about the pounce on the TV in front of him; he actually looks like his entire body is devoted to tearing apart the match he’s in for clues on how to break his opponent. Funny thing is, when I’ve tried to emulate that posture, I also found myself focusing more intently on the match — but my mind couldn’t sustain that focus, or that posture, for more than 20-30 seconds.
Don’t be afraid to experiment
I had never thought twice about how I hold an arcade stick — hand wrapped around the side and top, which I think is pretty normal for American fighting game players — until I was playing games with Joshua “TS|NerdJosh” Jodoin one day and he showed me the general idea behind the “wine glass” grip: Grab the ball-top palm up, with the shaft of the stick either between your middle and ring finger or your ring and pinky finger, depending on which is more comfortable.
As far as I can tell, most North American fighting game players use a variation of the “side-and-top” grip. This is probably at least in part because the first arcade sticks most of us encountered were Happ-style bat-tops, usually with pretty high-resistance springs that forced you to really put your whole upper body into some of the faster motions. Japanese-style ball-top sticks let you grab underneath the ball, which emphasizes finger and wrist motions instead of shoulders.
Of course, the thought of relearning how to hold an arcade stick — literally the first thing you learn when playing a fighting game for the first time — was intimidating as heck. I’ve been playing with my grip for well over a decade by now, and I was anxious about the prospect of changing up my style just to experiment. What if it’s just a waste of time? What can I really get out of messing with my stick grip? Shouldn’t I just be practicing combos instead?
Then I told myself, “Patrick, you’ve been playing with this grip for well over a decade and you still haven’t won Evo. What do you have to lose? Stop making excuses and try something new.” So I took the wine-glass-grip for a spin against my regular Street Fighter IV practice partners at the office. It’s a bit too early to make any solid conclusions, but so far it definitely feels like I can execute Dragon Punch and Ultra motions significantly faster with the wineglass grip (maybe this is the secret to the Umeshoryu?) — I just need to relearn a lot of my combos and movement.
My Xbox Live ranking has taken a bit of a beating, but it’s exciting to have something new and different to work on. And I suspect that, ultimately, the real secret to getting good at fighting games lies in constantly seeking out new challenges to overcome — physical or mental.
So, what’s the biggest execution goal you’ve overcome, and how’d you do it? What’s next on your list?