Growing the Scene: Fighting Games and the Mass Market

I like fighting games, despite not being all that good at them. I’ve loved them since I started playing the terrible SNES port of Mortal Kombat when I was way too young by most people’s standards to be playing Mortal Kombat. There has always been something deeply appealing about the direct, one on one competition against an equally capable foe that has always had a draw to me.

My neighborhood friends would gather at one of our homes, each of us bringing what multiplayer games we had to the gatherings, and fighting games would often dominate the playtime. The short matches meant that controllers could get passed quickly and everyone got hands on the game, though the fact that whoever was winning got to keep playing encouraged us to get better. I was never a child of the arcade, but we had something similar in our little friend groups.

This… is not a thing that happens so much anymore. Much has been said about how online has all but killed couch and Lan multiplayer culture, but I think the effect has been much more pronounced in fighting games. While I think there are definite and large benefits to fighting games going online, I think there are some major economic issues that are not getting addressed in the larger conversations about fighting games.

I’m not doing this to say online competition is bad. The internet has really been great for competitive fighting game circles. You are no longer limited by your geographic location in finding human competition. New tech can be learned quickly by checking forums online cutting down a lot of the initial grind of learning a new game. Though traditional couch gatherings of friends are no longer the norm, nearly any region in the nation hosts at least one regular fighting game meetup where enthusiasts can sharpen themselves against other enthusiasts. Competitive play is streamed from all over the nation and beyond allowing us all to see what it looks like when these games are played by the best.

And, I think this is kind of a problem for the success of these games as big triple-A projects. Everything that the internet has brought to fighting games has been a great boon for the competitive player and the enthusiast, but has been incredibly detrimental to casual interest in fighting games.

Once upon a time, your mettle was tested against whoever you encountered face to face. Most likely, this was your local friend group. If you had a local arcade with a machine for a fighting game that might prove as a gathering point as well. You’d test your mettle against this relatively small circle and, as long as you were able to keep up with your friends, you’d win a reasonable number of games and feel good about playing.

I feel like this was an important part of the commercial success of fighting games, because while the enthusiast and the competitor is going to want to seek out greater and greater competition to prove themselves to be the best or sharpen themselves against equally hardened competition, casual players in almost any genre of game tend to fall off when their win rate drops below a certain point.

Many other genres have ways of mitigating this effect. Many of the biggest multiplayer games on the market right now bank their success on these techniques. Call of Duty and Overwatch both give players moments of power above and beyond their competitors with killstreaks and ultimates, and in both games the weight of winning is spread across a team. Similarly in MOBAs, though you feel the rush of every victory, the weight of loss is easier to bare when you can blame it on your AWOL support or the top laner who fed. Fighting games are unique in that the pressure of winning or losing falls directly on the shoulders of one person controlling one character versus one other person controlling one other character.

Pressure aside, this also creates another problem in online environments. Skill Gaps. There is a strange phenomenon I have noticed in online fighting games. After the first month or so, online matchmaking among low end players gets really touch-and-go. It’s not that you cannot find matches. Rather, new players will reliably encounter the same pattern.

First, when you begin playing, you are paired with other novices. Many of these players will not even bother to play single player or training before hand, and if you have even a passing knowledge of fighting game conventions these matches will be free wins for the most part. Then, presuming you stick with the game for any period of time, there will be a sudden shift in gears and you quickly find yourself losing most of the time.

This occurs because there is a gap in skill progression among the community. If we were to use a 1 to 10 scale, where 1 is a complete neophyte and 10 is an international competitor, the 3-5 range is largely nonexistent in most online fighting game matchmaking. You have 1s and 2s who are just picking the game up, and they will either drop off when they get slammed up against a 6 or, if they tough it out, will get good and start winning again.

The problem is that sort of dedication comes from enthusiasts of the genre, and the results are apparent if you talk to anyone who plays video games but not fighting games. You will hear a lot about how they don’t want to put the time in or have to deal with getting stomped over and over by players who put more time into that one game than they have free in general. There is this general feeling of being at a basketball court playing one on one matchups where at any given moment Stephen Curry might just step up and play you. For some people this concept is super exciting, but for many the idea of being trounced by someone clearly in a different weight class than you sours the whole experience.

It’s easy to simply shake off these worries and tell casuals to get good. After all, if they care, they’ll put in effort. If they don’t, who cares? But we live in a world where Street Fighter 5, the biggest fighting game in the world today, is failing to meet sales expectations. This should be worrying to fighting game fans. The first fighting game dark ages came from market saturation, leaving an era without competitive titles that didn’t end until 09 when Street Fighter 4 brought fighting games back to the market forefront. I’m worried that we might be slowly heading back towards another dark age as fighting games become more and more niche and fewer and fewer players are willing to put in the time and effort to break into the genre when so many others provide much smoother introductions to competitive gameplay.

I think part of the reason people don’t like to talk about this problem is that it doesn’t have an easy solution. Online and in game resources exist, but casual players don’t want to have to study a game before they play it. I honestly feel like a lot of this could be alleviated with better single player AI opponents, but that is a field that could be a major time and money sink and is of little interest to the core fighting game audience. Ultimately the best thing that can be done right now is outreach. I didn’t know about my local fighting game group until I ran into them at a public event. Gathering new players and building a base of new and intermediate players can do a lot for the health of a local scene, and if this happens in enough cities, you may actually begin to see an effect on matchmaking.

Fighting games are bigger than they have ever been, and despite the fact that I’m not actually all that good at them, I still love them. I love the struggle. This year I got to see the biggest fighting game tournament in the world broadcast on ESPN2. I want to continue to see scenes grown and new fighting game players be born. I’d hate to see things begin to backslide because the next generation didn’t have a group of peers to get their start with.

12/14/2016 EDIT: Turns out I’m not the only one with these concerns. Here’s many of the same points being made by someone wildly more qualified to make them than myself.

Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon: Just a Weird Freaking Game

So, recently I got the odd urge to hook up my Nintendo 64 and be nostalgic for a little bit. Then I remembered that my Nintendo 64 had died some two or three years ago, and found myself checking local used game shops. It took a couple weeks of looking around before one of my regular shopping stops got one in. When I got home and unboxed it (thing was in its original box, no joke) I played a few minutes of a handful of titles. Perfect Dark, Turok, WWE No Mercy, Mischief Makers, they were all good, and I drank it in.

Then I popped in Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, and remembered that before my old N64 went kaput I was set on revisiting this old title. A save file, an hour and change into the game, sat on my memory cartridge. I decided to give the game a whirl, and that whirl lasted until last weekend when I beat the game for the first time since I’ve been legally able to drive.

I won’t say that the game hasn’t aged, or that it aged exceptionally well, but I do think that it is unique in ways that makes it an interesting study in game design. You see, MNSG (I cannot shorten it to just “Mystical Ninja” as that is the title of the games SNES predecessor) is an open world adventure game of the same variety as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. At first glance one might even accuse MNSG of being a sub-standard rip-off. And that would be understandable, but misinformed, as Mystical Ninja came out a few months ahead of Ocarina of time. So, what we have is in fact an earlier, rougher attempt at what Ocarina of Time would later perfect, and it is interesting to see what another team earlier in the N64’s lifetime chooses to do without yet having had a 3D Zelda game set so many of the conventions of that particular genre in stone.

I suppose I will start with the basics. At its core, MNSG is an action adventure game. You travel across Japan visiting towns, talking to villagers, and clearing through dungeons, referred to as castles in this case. On the way, your party of two, of whom you can only play as one of at a time, grows to four, and each of the four ninjas gain new abilities and equipment that both increase there general capabilities and serve as solutions to various roadblocks along the way.

Occasionally, giant robot battles happen.

Seriously though, at very uneven intervals over the course of the game, there are boss battles where the game you have been playing gets set aside and your party summons a giant robot. At this point you are treated to a brief minigame of the robot, Impact, blasting his way across the landscape to get to the battle, then the battle itself, which is done from a first person perspective within the robot during which you have no control over your movement, and must defend yourself from attacks by punching, kicking, mouth beams, and nose bullets.
The battles are mandatory and have controls of similar complexity to a fighting game, though the controls are not explained outside of the instruction manual, which is exacerbated by the fact that of seven boss fights, the giant robot fights are fights two, five, six, and seven. Also, six and seven are back to back, forming a marathon final boss battle.

This is the sort of design direction that informs MNSG as a whole. The whole game has these moments where you can practically hear the game designers saying “sure, why not.”

The four characters, though visually interesting, offer little in terms of gameplay variety. Ebisumaru, the fat best friend ninja, primarily exists to bypass certain sorts of doors, with the only gameplay affecting equipment in his repetoir being a hammer made of meat that, though not increasing in damage as you level up your primary weapons, guarantees that enemys will, if they drop anything, will drop health pickups. That said, there are only two things enemies drop, the other being money, so you rarely find yourself hurting for health that bad.

The plot of the game is simultaneously straightforward and really, really muddy. The game starts with a group in a peach-shaped spaceship shooting Oedo Castle with an “Instant Stage Beam”, turning the castle into a european-style castle full of robotic minions. You then go in to rescue the inhabitants of the castle, then go on to travel Japan, righting the typically strange wrongs committed by these “Peach Mountain Shoguns”. On the way you begin gathering the four Miracle Items, though it is not revealed what they are for until over halfway through the game, and the exact nature of the antagonists’ plot, once clarified, is absurd to the point of bordering on surrealism.

The level design is super busy. It is probably the biggest contrast between this game and Ocarina of Time. Where the dungeons in Ocarina of Time feel quiet and ominous, with punctuated moments of action, in MNSG the dungeons are alive, frenetic, and feel live a working mechanism. They tend to have a fun house aesthetic, and as such they are really entertaining to maneuver when the platforming cooperates.

Which is not nearly as often as I would like, as there are nearly no camera controls in this game. The C-buttons on the N64 controller are all applied elsewhere, so the closest thing you get to camera controls are that if you stand still the camera will attempt to position itself behind you, though its luck of the draw as to which direction around you the camera will swivel, and often the camera will get stuck on walls or other bits of the environment.

Still, going back, I really, really like the game.

It’s super different. The developers took a lot of risks and tried a lot of new things. The world feels really large and alive, and despite the fact that most of the location names are in Japanese I found them all unique enough that I rarely had difficulty finding my way. The music is a super catchy mix of traditional and pop Japanese stylings, and the dungeon themes in particular are all super high energy. The writing, though somewhat mangled in translation, is super fun and quirky.

Overall, Ocarina of Time is a better game, no doubt there. But, there are elements of this game that I don’t see much anymore that I miss. I would love to see some of the frenetic level design used in Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon to make their way into more modern games. For that matter, I would love to see another Mystical Ninja game in this genre.

Unfortunately, that seems unlikely. Starring Goemon was a departure from the norm for the Mystical Ninja games, and the following game, Goemon’s Great Adventure, was a return to formula. What Goemon games have been made since haven’t made their way stateside.

If you have an interest in game design, I highly recommend seeking out this game and giving it a spin. Its not the best game, but like many smaller game productions on the market recently, its a game that is playing by its own rules towards its own goals, and is an interesting design study as a result.

What Even Is a Final Fantasy

Promotional material for Final Fantasy XV has been circulating around the internet for some time now, and it is no surprise that people are really rather impressed with what they are seeing. The game looks beautiful, another non-surprise coming from Square Enix, who, if nothing else, has proven capable of producing breathtaking visuals much more reliably than they have engaging gameplay as of late.

The images are very modern and polished, the understated tone a nice change of pace in many ways to the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy’s bombast. But, there was something that bothered me when I saw the images that I had difficulty putting into words for quite some time. Then I realized what was bothering me.

It did not look like a Final Fantasy game.

I almost took this thought at face value and went about my day, but then, when I thought further, I realized something that made me have to rethink the above thought. I realized that, when I tried to put to words what a Final Fantasy game looked like, or even was, I could not effectively do so in a simple statement. I am not entirely sure what the Final Fantasy series is anymore, and part of me wonders if Square Enix may be having the same problem.

Early on in the series, Final Fantasy games tended to be medieval high fantasy adventures, oftentimes with smatterings of fantastical or steam-punkish technology, such as the ever present airship. Characters were colorful oftentimes by necessity just to make them stand out from one another and the background. The first Final Fantasy had only an implied back story for the main heroes, as each of them were created by the player and working enough text into an NES game for a decent plot was an undertaking as it was. Later games would more strictly define the player characters to allow for better writing.

Final Fantasy VI, released as Final Fantasy III stateside due to II, III, and V not originally getting stateside releases, represented a significant shift in the series. Though V had featured technological and science fiction elements heavily, they were still part of (and in many ways counterpoint to) a fairly traditional high fantasy setting. Final Fantasy IV sets the tone by having your character marching out to battle in a magitek armor, a magically powered steampunk-styled set of power armor.

This was a new status quo. These technological elements were no longer oddities in the setting. They were the standard. In fact, in Final Fantasy VI, magic as a power on its own is a force that has been absent from the world for quite some time, making magic the strange outside force in a world of reason and technology.

Final Fantasy VII pushed this even a step further with an almost cyberpunk dystopia design, at least for its primary city. In VII, magic has been subsumed by technology. It is something that we mine (in the form of materia) and is a known, scientific phenomenon that is sold in shop in every town and is usable by anyone with the money to buy them. Instead of an evil empire or kingdom, there is a corporation. Instead of dark temples, they have power plants that are draining the planet dry. Instead of a group of heroes lead by a noble knight, you play as a group of ragtag eco-terrorists lead by a mercenary.

Describing it in this manner, Final Fantasy VII feels like a dramatic shift, but at the time it did not feel so much that way. Most were more taken by the change in visuals, as VII was the first of the series to be rendered in 3D. That said, the game still felt very much like the same series mechanically, though it was using the familiar mechanics of the series to tell a story in a much different setting.

Final Fantasy VII was hugely successful, and VIII looked to be “VII but more so” in pretty much all ways. VII had a highly modular take on character ability development with the materia system, and VIII pushed that further with the junction system. In VIII, magic is drawn from enemies or occurs naturally in the environment to such an extent that the process is never, to my knowledge, discussed in detail. Magic is so common that it is no longer worth discussing. These things just work.

The setting is now a full blown military political drama on the macro scale and a love story on the micro scale. Right and wrong get very muddy very fast, and time shenanigans play a heavy role in the plot. We also see a shift towards what, at the time, passed for realism, as one of the major criticisms of VII was that the super-deformed look of Final Fantasy’s old overworld sprites did not translate over to 3D nearly so well as they would have liked.

VIII, though not on the whole as universally accepted as VII, did rather well sales wise. Square (who were still simply Square at the time) had done well with these forays into stylized techno-fantasy. With their next game, Final Fantasy IX, would try to get back to their roots, and that is the point in the company’s history that would determine its trajectory to this day.

Final Fantasy IX is very much a return to form. The setting is much closer to Final Fantasy V in that it is a high fantasy setting with technological elements. There are kingdoms and knights and mages with pointy hats, and the game is almost aggressively nostalgic with its imagery and themes. The villains are much clearer, the stakes are clearer, and the outcome leaves little to be questioned. The setting is colorful with an almost Renaissance flair to it, and the world is full of people of all shapes and sizes. Most of the characters are of a small-bodied big-headed build that, while reminiscent of old sprite models from the 2D games, have a level of fidelity that is much more appealing to the eye than VII’s overworld sprites. Everything is just a little exaggerated and over the top, and the unrealness of the characters fits the over the top setting and conflict.

Unfortunately, though the game did well critically, it was not what the market wanted at the time. Fans of the series had just gotten their first tastes of what the felt to be darker, more mature stories in VII and VIII, and the visuals were an immediate turn off to many who felt that it was a step back into a younger, less mature era. They wanted more brooding shades-of-grey heroes in techno pseudo-utopias. They wanted more grit. They wanted more realistic visuals.

This is why we no longer see Final Fantasy games in this vein. The market spoke, and they listened. Final Fantasy X returned to more realistic character models and a more shades-of-grey plot, and did quite well for itself. X-2, the first direct sequel to a Final Fantasy game, not so much. While not an absolutely terrible game, it was clearly a sort of side project.

Final Fantasy XI… was an MMO.

At the time, most presumed Final Fantasy XI was a momentary dalliance into an odd corner of the market. Little did we realize we were watching the death of the turn-based Final Fantasy series.

Final Fantasy XII was not an MMO, but still played like one, and what a mess it was. Vaan, who is initially introduced as your protagonist, is actually a side character in the plot of the game. What looks like is meant to develop into the story of a street rat looking to avenge his military brother turns into a grand military political drama in which he only has a minor role. The mechanics of the game are clearly more suited to a multiplayer, so much so that one of the major points of XII is using “gambits” to essentially design your party’s AI behavior.

Final Fantasy XII was kind of a mess. Final Fantasy XIII was an absolute train wreck.

XIII is still fresh on most of our minds, so I won’t get too detailed into what is wrong with it. The “tutorial” portion of the game lasts well over 10 hours, the plot is a mess of nonsense names and unclear goals, combat is weirdly floaty and disconnected from the player, visually combat is a mess, and the two sequels, while addressing some of the gameplay concerns, makes the plot exponentially more convoluted.

XIV was another MMO, this time with a reception so botched they literally had to shut it down and re-do it.

So here we are. What is a Final Fantasy. It is a role playing game that is sometimes turn based, sometimes high fantasy, sometimes an MMO, and sometimes good. What will Final Fantasy XV be? Who fucking knows.