I’ve always thought of fighting games as the truest representation of kung-fu within gaming, and not just because they involve characters beating the living tar out of one another. There is a certain intricacy to some fighting games, a reliance on lightning quick execution of complex sequences that connote mastery and elegance. You can learn a lot just by watching these sorts of contests. In the pulp kung-fu movies of the 70’s, fighting style often served to indicate the nature of a character. A bandit prince might adopt a low, sweeping style like Hu Quan, or Tiger Fist, relying on graceful but refined footwork to set up ferociously powerful strikes. A lone warrior might wield a form of He Quan, or Crane Fist, joining theatrical steps with an impressive grace and reach. A cunning trickster might employ the capering Hou Quan, or Monkey Fist, an acrobatic combination of tumbling, leaping and quick, vicious jabs.
As a kid, I used to watch dozens of these campy old films, until I knew each set of motions by heart. When a new character was introduced, I didn’t wait to hear what he would say or do, but, rather, how he would spar. To paraphrase Tyler Durden, how much could I know about someone if I hadn’t seen them fight? In the same fashion, the choices that players make in fighting games reflect a gaming philosophy. Perhaps you’re a brutal competitor, sticking to a small handful of punishing techniques to win efficiently and effectively. Perhaps you’re an aesthete, stringing together intricate juggles for a seamless victory.
Or perhaps you’re like me, and you hit buttons until someone is dead.
I am an unrepentant and incurable masher. Normally, I would be the exact sort of gamer to pore over and memorize a character’s entire move-set, but it just doesn’t stay with me. Once “the madness” takes over, all bets are off. This isn’t just fiddling with the controls until I’ve hashed out a few solid moves. I’ve made a commitment to disorder, almost Zen-like in its dedication to pure, mechanical randomness. If play choices in fighting games correspond to kung-fu styles, then I figure my shameless mashing is like Zui Quan, or Drunken Fist: an erratic, weaving style of seemingly harmless motions that puts an opponent off-guard.
And sometimes, stupidly enough, it works. Part of it is the sheer pragmatics of fighting games, where if you punch the other dude enough times, you win. This is aided by its complete incomprehensibility – it’s impossible to read your opponent’s poker face if he thinks he’s actually playing “Go Fish.” And part of it is the uncomfortable fact that some fighting games are just Hungry Hungry Hippos with hadoukens.
But how far can you really get without actively learning to play? To test the prowess of my button-spamming non-technique I decided to propose a tournament of tournaments, played across the history of fighting games. My opponents would be allowed strategy guides and FAQs but I would not. Their order pit against my chaos to answer that burning question: Whose kung-fu is the best?
Through some impressive scrounging we managed to gather a little over thirty fighting games across a host of systems. Some were timeless classics that we had devoted hundreds of hours to in the arcades of our youth, while some were moderately obscure titles that we had heard about but never played, borrowed from friends of friends. Others were rescued from the bargain bin, bought solely because they had “fight” in the title, or pictures of guys punching each other on the cover. Once we assembled all of these games, and everyone had settled in, we hashed out a few basic ground rules.
1. No handicaps and no cheat codes. Any of my wins would have to be legit.
2. No playing characters that are already masters of drunken combat. No Shun Di in Virtua Fighter, no Brad Wong in Dead or Alive, no Chin Gentsai in King of Fighters, no Bo’ Rai Cho in Mortal Kombat. We decided that the playing field was only big enough for one Drunken Master. Plus Bo’ Rai Cho kind of sicks me out.
3. No blaming your controller. Because, come on. Who does that?
I came out swinging. First on the list were two versions of Guilty Gear XX, first #Reload, then Λ Core Plus. These metal-infused fighters are paragons of excess, boasting bizarre characters and a thudding, insistent soundtrack. I cast my lot with Faust, a bean-thin maniac with an oversized scalpel, wearing a paper bag over his head. Faust’s move set, full of wild lunges and sudden extensions, seemed perfect for the part. Though a complex and frenetic technique, occasionally, random button-mashing threw me the odd bone – the Guilty Gear games, in their devotion to over-the-top combat, have the possibility of one-hit-kills which I was able to unlock through no fault of my own. In one fever-pitched round of inspired mashing, I must have hit the sweet spot: my character strapped my opponent to a gurney, whipped out an explosive plunger, and blew up the stage, leaving nothing but blasted desert where the battlefield once stood. We chalked that down as a win for me – what more is there to do once you’ve blown up the world?
A lot of moves ended up working that way – rather than being trusty mainstays that allow for a disciplined control of the fight, my characters would blast forth special moves willy-nilly, often at the strangest times. Instead of seeming like a part of my own repertoire, they seemed to spring up out of nowhere like magic, and disappear just as quickly. At other times, I encountered old techniques cast in a new light.
In one match in Street Fighter II, while playing as the man-beast Blanka, I hunched over and electrified my body… then stayed that way for the rest of the fight. My opponent waited patiently as the clock ticked down, but my Blanka had hunkered down into a groove, with no sign of stopping. He may be somewhere out there still, glowing incandescent against the Brazilian night.
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.
Something had to be done. I started cursing my controller under my breath, but was reminded about rule number three. I started openly wondering if I didn’t deserve a handicap after all, and was reminded of rule number one. Halfway through one humiliating pounding, I flat out decided to walk away while the match was still going to see about snagging a beer from the kitchen, to see if my Drunken Fist would be complemented with some actual booze. But there wasn’t a drop to drink, save some ancient soda pop lurking in the back of the fridge. Things were grim… my kung-fu was being utterly destroyed, and I was pretty sure there was no such thing as Fresca Fist. This was worse than that time, all those years ago, when I struck out in Tee Ball.
But there was one more game in the stack – a yellowing old copy of Karate Champ for the original Nintendo. Voices were raised in protest.
“That’s karate, not kung-ku. They’re different.”
I gave it some thought. “I changed my mind. They’re both awesome, so they’re pretty much the same. And they both have ninja chops, right?
“No. Ninjas have ninja chops. Karate has karate chops.”
After a heated argument about which kind of chops reigned supreme, we decided to blow the dust off the cartridge and give it a try. Karate Champ was one of the first fighting games, released in arcades in 1984. And it’s bad – gloriously, wonderfully bad. Half the buttons have you attacking in the opposite direction of your opponent. We would stand there, backs to each other, kicking and punching the air like cretins. Maybe you’d take your opponent down, and then immediately a bonus round would kick in, pelting you with flower pots and debris, killing you instantly. Struggle as they could, after honing their skills on newer, better games, no one could make heads or tails of it … except my Drunken Fist, which became unstoppable.
Mashing randomly, I watched as I kicked, punched and chopped my opponents into oblivion. I had finally found a game as bad as me – a game that, for all purposes, seemed to punish strategy and reward chaos. It was a moment of perfect Zen. As I mowed down all of my opponents, I caught myself humming a few bars of music over and over: the song played during the montage at the All-Valley Karate Championships in Karate Kid. I was the best around. Nothing’s gonna ever keep me down.
I am Karate Champ.
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where they don’t have “Fight Club,” but they do have “Polite Club.” He hones his unstoppable blogging techniques at www.kingandrook.com