And then there were characters like Soul Calibur's Voldo, an emaciated, katar-wielding leather daddy, whose convulsive movements only seemed to compliment my already-erratic strategy. Scuttling like a beetle under a magnifying glass, Voldo saws back and forth, curling up into a wheel and whiplashing his wiry frame all about. Strangely, he is capable of fighting with his back to his opponent ... a handy trick when you're leaping about like an idiot in three dimensions.
As we progressed, we realized that for all its failings, my button-mashing strategy put my skills in a position of near invulnerability. If I won, it meant my opponent couldn't even beat "just some guy pressing buttons." There's something vaguely humbling about being bested by someone exerting no will or conscious effort on their part. It's like striking out in a game of Tee-Ball - things are set up in such as way that it simply shouldn't happen. On the other hand, if I lost, what did it cost me? "Oh, big surprise. You managed to beat me using actual moves and a coherent strategy. What was that, down-towards-punch? Must be nice."
Having freed my mind from the pressing task of actually playing the game, I could turn my attention toward that other productive outlet of competitive videogame play - a relentless torrent of trash talk. After I made a couple untoward insinuations about the standing of a player's mother, a fourth rule was tentatively suggested: no horrible, friendship-threatening insults.
I vetoed it. After all, I argued, I had to do everything in my power to win. Someone mentioned how that sounded like something the leader of Kobra Kai dojo in The Karate Kid would say.
"That's karate, not kung fu," I snapped. "It's different."
But right around then, the tide started to turn against me. Something was happening as we moved through those stacks of video games - as players went from one game to another, we saw how certain strategies worked in many of them, what sorts of combinations were near-universal. There was a general tightening of form from veteran players and neophytes alike, which began to show up in their performances. Everyone was getting better... except me. Where their performances were gradually being polished through reinforcement and repetition, I was as good as I was gonna get.
I started to lose - at first sporadically, and then more often and more decisively. Certain games turned into absolute thrashings. The Marvel Vs. games in particular stung - players can control two or three characters and can swap them in at will like tag-team wrestlers. So any player able to micromanage their teammates turned the entire endeavour into a gang-beating. One minute I would be pummelled into pudding by The Incredible Hulk, and during the next I would have the stuffing kicked out of me by a giant cactus in a sombrero. The Hulk I can live down - after all, Hulk strongest one there is. But when you start getting your ass handed to you by a sentient plant, it might be time to rethink your strategy.