Big team battle!
The plan was simple albeit rather complicated. Test Street Fighter 5s accessibility by throwing six fighting game beginners in at the deep end of the punch-pool to see who sinks, swims, and floats awkwardly to the top as a bloated corpse. Because fighting games, despite being one of the greatest pleasures on Gods green Earth, are also something of a terrifying prospect for the more casual player. Perhaps its the focused aggression. Perhaps its the enclosed, one-v-one pressure. Perhaps its the demands of fast, tactical thinking and complex control inputs.
Whatever, myself and my long-time sparring partner Matt Elliott Group Commissioning Editor here at Future Games were on a mission. We love fighting games (particularly Street Fighter, which weve burned a dogs lifetime of hours into just since the release of SF4), and goddamnit, we were going to bring that joy to the people. So we decided. In conjunction with GR+ sister-magazine GamesMaster, we would run a noobs-only tournament. We would train up two teams of hopeless mash-meisters, and set them off against each other in what feels like Street Fighters friendliest game to date. How did it all throw down? You can find Matt's account in the the latest issue of GamesMaster, but here's my side of the story...
Meet Team GR+
My plucky recruits? Louise and Leon, our intepid news team, and Tom Stone from Official Xbox Magazine. Youll notice already that Team GR+ is somewhat of a misnomer, but needs must when Danis absence drives. I had originally drafted our Content Manager to the cause, but her unfortunate state of not-being-around-on-training-day saw an eager Tom step up as a replacement. Technical brand allegiances aside, the criteria were fulfilled with aplomb. Tom was as clueless to the ways of the Shoryuken as anyone.
I was all set. But who was I up against?
Meet Team GM
These were the dastardly curs we needed to vanquish. Matt Sakuraoka-Gilman, GamesMaster magazine Editor, Ben Griffin, Group Games Writer and frequent GR contributor, and Robin Valentine, GMs Production Editor. How did the opposition look? I had mixed feelings, with a small tinge of intimidation. Matt had long sat on the fringes of fighting games, not really getting involved, but perhaps taking in knowledge unconsciously, like a big, ambient violence sponge. Not too worrying, but one to keep an eye on.
Ben though? Potential dark horse, and not just because he looks a bit like a young, clean-cut version of the WWEs Luke Harper. Ive played multiplayer games with Ben before. Hes a bastard. A quiet, calculating monster, who blends self-effacing surrealist quips with sporadic bursts of malicious aggression. One to keep a very close eye on. But the real problem was Robin. You see, as well as sporting a marvellous name entirely fitting for an actual fighting game character, he was no novice. Well. Elliott had cheated, breaking the hallowed guidelines of combat by bringing in a ringer, and shattering the whole sanctity of the tournament rules. To mix fighting game metaphors, he was now the Shao Kahn to my Raiden. Whatever happens over the next few pages, know that he is the bad guy and I am the hero.
Training day: the knowledge
Before I even let anyone throw a punch, I hit the theory. After all, theres no point letting everyone go flailing at each other without knowing the basics of how Street Fighter works. It might lead to the odd flashy showdown, or accidental combo, but without a strong framework of the whys and hows, it would all be meaningless, and my teams play suicidal inconsistent. Like when someone dresses a monkey in a business suit. Sure, it looks cool initially, but that chimp has no idea how to use a calculator.
So I explained the finer points of blocking and safe retaliation. I explained how to attack with minimum risk. I explained why you should never, ever jump unless necessary (because it leaves you hanging in the air as helpless as a bandana-sporting clay pigeon). I feared at first that I might be blinding them with technical complication, but to my unending delight I then spotted that Leon, ever the pro, had pulled out a notebook and was taking proper notes as if at a university lecture. A+. Star pupil. I had high hopes for him in particular, and I was not to be (initially) disappointed.
Training day: the practical test
Time then, to throw all of this into practice, before assigning character choices based upon each of my students individual strengths and weaknesses. I open up a training dojo, using series all-rounder Ryu to get across the basic anatomy of recreational skull-crunching. Testing my protgs ability to defend against my attacks and land hits of their own, Ill admit that on several occasions I found it difficult to resist dropping Morpheus Stop trying to hit me, and hit me! line from the Matrix training sequence. I didnt want to intimidate them too much, but then again, Morpheus tutelage did eventually lead Neo to bring about peace between humanity and the machines. Maybe one day one of my team might bring about peace between humanity and the machines. Its a warming thought.
Everyone actually does remarkably well. Even when I get tricksy and start throwing in mix-ups of high and low hits, my team adapts admirably. Im impressed, both by how quickly they grasp how to stay safe and attack appropriately (Louise in particular quickly gets the hang of high, rangey kicks for anti-air hits and horizontal pokes to control immediate space), and by how clearly Street Fighter 5 opens up its game to newbies. With much friendlier combo timings and a great deal of clarity as to whats going on despite the glorious, cartoon spectacle on-screen it feels like this really could be the series most welcoming game.
Time to hand out the fighters theyd be using, then. Leons remarkable grasp of dynamic Street Fighter play all rapid combo openers, strong follow-up hits, and slick air defence demands a nippy, versatile warrior. I give him series newcomer Rashid, whose speed, versatility, and immediate ease of use should make him a great fit. I am wise in doing this. Within moments, Leon is controlling space, homing in at the right times, and otherwise unleashing sustained, acrobatic Hell.
Louise is showing a strong basic game, but having real trouble executing special moves consistently. As she tells me, with a facial expression evoking disappointment, frustration and only mild hatred at me for ever involving her in this, Its like trying to crack a safe. Thinking back to my own, early days with Street Fighter 2, I can empathise. I spare her a character-building 50 push-ups, and instead decide to work around the problem, giving her Vega. His massive, multi-directional reach and ease of movement should stand in well for a lack of specials. And Tom? Tom liked the idea of playing a great big brute of a character, and he has a beard in real life, so I gave him Zangief. Easiest decision of the day.
Fight 1: Zangief vs. Necalli
First battle of the day, and already Ive made a huge mistake. You see, while Ive trained Tom in the storied, Zangief tradition of get in close, then grapple their arms off Zangief is lethal at close range, which leads most opponents to keep their distance - Ive neglected the cardinal truth of fighting game newbies. Because no-one really knows what theyre doing, they dont know how things are supposed to work, and so anything can happen. Tom is totally set up to wreak steady, advancing pressure against retreating prey, using the big whirly arms of the Spinning Lariat special, and Giefs new ability to nullify incoming damage with his Iron Muscle shielding. But his prey isnt retreating. His prey is Ben, as Necalli. And Ben is going loopy.
Matt, despite being an evil, honour-flouting cheater, has been smart with this character choice. Necalli, you see, is an unpredictable, terrifying explosion of aggression, hard to read and capable of utter devastation when his lid pops. As such, hes basically what youd get if you scraped out Bens brain into a Hulk-shaped mould and then threw it at a TV screen. With no respect for the keep-away game, Ben detonates messily in Zangiefs direction - part-chaos, part-control - and somehow ends with his show-stopping Critical Art finisher. Accident? Carefully planned bait-and-switch? With a wraith-like enigma like Ben, we will never know. What I do know is that I want to move on to the next match immediately. Leon is up. Leon is good.
Fight 2: Rashid vs. Nash
This is a much more even balanced contest, praise Ono. In fact, given that Leons Rashid is going up against Robin Im actually so good at fighting games that putting me in this tournament is like entering Vin Diesel in a deep voice competition for nine-year-old girls Valentine, keeping things even is akin to dominating. I couldnt be more proud. Both men are convincing from the off, with Leons mobile aggression particularly impressive. He almost wins the first round, which, on aggregate, is the equivalent of becoming champion of Evo 2016. Did I mention that Matt cheated by putting Robin into this tournament?
However, something goes wrong in round two. Put simply, Leons head falls off. Perhaps resulting from over-thinking things, perhaps the product of losing his concentration after a close loss, Leon ceases to function effectively, unable to lay down his special moves or gain any combo momentum. Its something Ive seen before. Its something Ive suffered before. We all get it, sometimes, that glazed disconnection as something jolts us out of our fighting flow and we stare blankly at the screen, unable to get a handle back on proceedings. Fighting game fumble-brain, I call it. Its a common affliction, and it costs Leon the round and the match. But given his opponent, Im marking this one down as at least a draw. Matt cheated, you see.
Fight 3: Vega vs. Necalli
Now this one is a very interesting match-up. Possibly my least confident player albeit one notably better than she thinks she is vs. the unreadable, raging hybrid of Ben and Necalli. A hybrid that, while packing the potential for total destruction, currently lacks grace or cohesion. If Louise mastery of Vegas lengthy hit-range can keep the notorious, close-range monster at bay, she could easily have a win here. And you know what? She does! Nearly.
Ben takes the first round rather emphatically, his berserker rage getting past Lous defences before she can put them up, and his mastery of the brick-subtle (but also brick-effective) jump, kick, sweep combo keeping her off her feet long enough that she cant regain her momentum. Round two, though? Shes back in the game, feet and claws whirling in a ceaseless barrage of high-kicks, keep-away pokes, and screen-crossing swipes, punctuated by the occasional flurry of advancing aggression. Theres a razor sharp perimeter of death around Vega at all times, and its beautiful to watch. In very little time, missing specials aside, Louise has got a really strong grasp of Vegas core game, and how it relates to dictating a fights flow. Necalli cant get close without traversing a no-mans-land of pain.
Until he does, and takes her down with a barrage of lazy sweeps. But thats not the point.
The rest of the tournament: Who cares?
Look, its just Team GM fighting amongst themselves at this point. It hardly matters. I mean, who wants to hear abou Oh you do? Damnit. Okay. Robin I still shouldnt be in this tournament Valentine goes up against his Editors M. Bison, and actually finds himself challenged theres even a double-KO but eventually makes it through to the final. Matt SG puts in a great showing though, having mastered Bisons newly defensive, retaliatory game rather handsomely. Another player with a great grasp of his characters capabilities.
The final? Robins Nash vs. Bens Necalli. And you know what? In a twist that gives me no small amount of ambivalent, grim satisfaction, Ben walks away with it. Had the ringer won this, then our experiment would have been for naught, and our training of the noobs meaningless. Like raising a child from birth to adulthood, only to discover that it is actually a watermelon with a face drawn on it. But Ben, promisingly and disturbingly, is evolving. Hes not just an out-of control ball of rage and easy sweeps now. Hes blocking. Hes playing more tactically. Hes controlling screen space with something resembling strategy, looking beyond his characters surface abilities and seeing the deep, tactical framework underneath. He might have beaten two of my team, but seeing him grow in skill like this makes it very clear that both Elliott and myself not to mention Street Fighter 5s designers have got something very right. Even if Matt cheated.
So what have we learned?
The main thing weve learned here - the important, brilliant thing that I really want you to take away from this - is that learning fighting games does not need to be intimidating, or complicated, or frustrating. Anyone can do it. All you need to do is to find a character who suits you, and then experiment and play about in a fun, non-serious environment, If the game youre playing is designed with clarity and a sense of immediate fun, you will get a feel for it. And it wont take long. Especially if youre playing Street Fighter 5, because, as Matt and myself had suspected, it really is the friendliest fighting game in a long, long time.
It still has oodles of depth, of course. The two of us have put in a terrifying number of fight-hours now, and weve evolved our game using just our two main characters - in radical ways. Its just so easy to experiment, discover and succeed, to have fun your way, without feeling restricted or dictated to by a correct way of doing things. Hell, weve gained several converts just through running this tournament. Ben is seriously considering making Street Fighter a long-term pastime. Tom from PC Gamer wants to get involved now, too. And we already have Jen from Official PlayStation Magazine hooked. Will any of my team play again? Im uncertain. But Im going to try to tempt Leon. His Rashid has potential, and given how easy Street Fighter 5 is to learn, it would be a crime if it wasnt realised.
And don't forget, if you want to read all the lies, deceit, and slander of Matt's tournament report (which I begrudgingly admit is very good), it's all in this month's GamesMaster, which you can get right now.