Seeing as I’m a child of the ’90s, I think of a few very particular genres of video games when I get nostalgic. There are platformers and JRPGs, which were my bread and butter for the majority of my childhood (platformers came earlier when everyone was trying to imitate Super Mario Bros. and JRPGs were a little later when I became more interested in consuming everything in Squaresoft’s catalogue), but those aren’t the only kind of games I loved as a kid. I got caught up in the fighting game frenzy that started with Street Fighter II and carried on through Mortal Kombat and all the imitators, though I was never very good.
The one big thing I remember about fighters is that they were a genre that dominated the arcades, which were a magical far off place that I hardly ever visited. I satisfied myself with the Super Nintendo ports of Street Fighter II, which I played by myself because I was a very socially awkward kid who didn’t master the art of making friends until I was much older. Consequently, my experience with fighting games has always been skewed in strange ways.
Though there were a few years where I briefly flirted with Mortal Kombat as a series (this was around the time Mortal Kombat 3 got its home console port, which was apparently around the time I was old enough that my parents stopped being quite so concerned about the level of violence in video games that I played), I’ve always been a fan of Street Fighter first and foremost. Like all fighting games, the story is pretty thin (contrasted with JRPGs which have always tried to put the story front and center), but the characters have an absurd quality that I can’t help finding compelling. Motivations in the world of a fighting game are usually incredibly pure (it’s all about getting stronger), and it’s a setting where that kind of simplicity is really okay. The reason people are playing is because they want to enjoy the mechanics of the game.
The problem, of course, is that the mechanics of fighters are extremely esoteric.
I think I played Street Fighter II for a couple years before I really got a handle on the controller inputs for basic special moves (my estrangement from the arcades also means that I’ve never been comfortable with the convention of playing fighters with an arcade stick; considering how expensive quality sticks can be, it’s just never been something I’ve wanted to explore). Until I was able to pretty reliably throw fireballs and do uppercuts, I preferred characters with simple control schemes that relied on button mashing to muddle through fights (Blanka was my first main character, primarily because I had a turbo controller that let me just hold down a punch button and spam his electricity attack nonstop). Probably the main reason that I’ve stuck with Street Fighter as a series is because the special move motions have remained pretty consistent, with the design for characters gradually streamlining so that there’s only a handful of inputs that are needed to be able to access the full scope of any given character’s toolbox (except for full circle rotations; I’ve never been able to do those well, and to this day characters like Zangief have totally opaque movesets for me).
Of course, the thing about the last paragraph is that for all my familiarity with the basic structure of how the game works, I’m awful at it. I struggle to finish the arcade mode in any given entry in the Street Fighter series on anything above the easiest difficulty setting (and yes, I know that the computer AI is always cheating and reinforces really bad habits for play against another person), and playing against anyone who isn’t a total newbie to fighting games usually leads to pretty sound defeat. I’m more or less shut out from participating in the larger community in any kind of satisfying way (participatory pastimes are most satisfying when you can be successful at them, and the inherent problem in a competitive pastime is that success involves winning at least some of the time), and there’s not a lot of recourse there. Remember all that talk about how it took me forever to get a decent handle on the basic command inputs for the game? Even with all my experience, I’m just not good enough to enjoy the genre on the deeper level that designers and high level players are able to.
Still, I keep coming back to these games. I’m not really sure why that is, exactly. Maybe there’s something in the fact that unlike other kinds of games that typically reward the player’s commitment to play with a decrease in difficulty (any kind of system for progressive power growth in a game is actually a system that gradually lowers the difficulty of the game while giving the player the illusion of becoming better), fighting games don’t offer that kind of rewards system. Player success is determined by player ability, which I know isn’t really an inclusive approach to gaming, but it kind of fits with that same pure narrative that permeates the genre.
Everyone wants to get stronger.