I Suck At Fighting Games: Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament 9

All pictures from Xensin. I found the link at http://ufgtus.wordpress.com/. Check it out, they're really great! http://www.flickr.com/photos/xensin/sets/72157633637670661/

Last year, I bought Skullgirls and this heavy $200 arcade stick. I couldn't really play against many people online back then, but I kept myself busy by learning how to play each of the several fighting games that came out that year.

I've been able to play online with more regularity recently, thanks to getting a fiber-optic internet...thing. I have no idea how it works, I just know I can play fighting games online mostly lag free. So after training as well as I could, I got the crazy idea to go to my first tournament ever.

As I've said in previous blogs, the experience of playing online is hardly comparable to playing locally. I've had very few experiences playing games locally, and by that I mean “I have played Skullgirls against one of my friends a handful of times”. So the pressure of playing when you're sitting right next to someone, with a group of people behind you watching and talking is way higher than “if I lose, I'm gonna rank down”. So I'll go into each game I entered, and what it was like playing it IN REAL LIFE.

Friday

Persona 4 Arena: I might have psyched myself out a little bit before playing this game. I saw someone else playing my main character Kanji, much better than I can play Kanji. So I knew this person was in my pool, and I really didn't want to lose to them and make a fool out of myself. I ended up only playing a handful of casual matches before my actual pool began.

First game, I took a few rounds but ultimately lost. It was against a player who was clearly WAY above my level and played a character I had a terrible matchup against. So I didn't feel too badly about it.

The next game, I won handily against a player who was clearly better than me, but I could tell that he wasn't on top of his game. I think he just played a game and lost, so he was a little rattled and messing up where he normally wouldn't. Of course, I'm not too great either and my win was pretty sloppy. I could hear the Kanji player behind me talking trash about my play, which kinda made me feel bad. I haven't fully gotten over tournament nerves, so I was dropping what little combos I knew. Still, I'll take it.

The last game, I was playing against a player who I recognized from the Marvel vs. Capcom 3 community. I've seen him on the internet! But I didn't get starstruck or anything, because that would only make me nervous and make my chances worse. By this point, I didn't care that people were watching just a few feet behind me. But I DID feel stupid when I lost...badly. Kanji works best at close range and has few options when far away. His character was Yukiko, a zoner who kept me at basically full screen and chipped away at my life until I died. I got frustrated while being juggled and comboed with no way to retort, but didn't give up. I think I took one round but was thoroughly beaten, and with that, I was out of Persona 4 Arena.

Divekick: This game seemed to be incredibly popular throughout the whole tournament, and had an E3 style booth setup as well as a table to play casual matches. And while I've unfortunately heard a lot of complaining about the pandering in this game online, I feel like everyone should play Divekick. It might change their mind on it.

Divekick is a simple game, but even with two buttons each character is incredibly unique in terms of special attacks, movement, and hitboxes. I played a lot of this game before and after my pools to get find a character I liked. I ended up settling on Mr. N and Markman. There are character-specific matchups, but the tiers aren't so wide that there are “top tier” and “worthless” characters. What impressed me the most about this game is that it captures the essence of fighting games: reading your opponent. In most fighting games you want to get your opponent to do something, or convince them to slip up so you can hit a combo and do huge damage to them. In Divekick, one hit ends the round. So you spend the entire game waiting for your opponent to slip up, or scaring them into a situation that's advantageous to you. It's tough to explain, but after a few matches I completely understood it. At their core, fighting games are about reading your opponent and trying to predict what they will do. Instead of every match containing multiple instances of this guessing game, Divekick rounds only contain one. It's really tense, and really fun.

Anyway, I did somewhat well in this tournament! Didn't get out of pools, but I beat a fair amount of people and even “frauded” two of them (when you win five rounds to zero). By the time I was eliminated, I got a good amount of experience, and even got some direct training on how to play Markman by the tournament organizer (Thanks Keits!). I'll definitely be picking up this game when it comes out.

Saturday

Skullgirls: Holy hell, I did terribly in this game. I mean, I had an idea of how bad I was (because I lose every online match I play), but it was even harder to deal with in person. I played three matches and didn't take a single round from anyone I played. Didn't even get close. I did play a couple casual matches afterward, but didn't do any better or learn much from it. Then again, I didn't know where to start as "how do I get my ass kicked less?" doesn't tend to lead anywhere. Oh well.

BaraBariBall: I entered this tournament because of the free entry, and was pleasantly surprised when I finally got my hands on it. First of all, this game should have had some more exposure. Until the finals there was only one table with two setups to play on, in the back of the ballroom. It's a really fun game, a combination of Super Smash Bros and...whatever sport it is where you have to dunk a ball into the opponent's pool of water.

Luckily I shared a hotel room with two experts of the game and learned a lot of tactics from playing with them. I beat a few people in the tournament but was ultimately eliminated. Like Divekick, it's a game that's simple to pick up but takes a certain amount of skill to master. It is very accessible, but practice and character knowledge pays off.

Since I'm not great at explaining, here's a video of the aforementioned experts playing.

Mystery Game Tournament: This was really special, and something that sets UFGT apart from other fighting game tournaments. There was a small setup of three TVs near the main stage where you entered into a tournament playing...something. At seemingly random intervals, the tournament organizers would switch the game to something different. I saw Sonic Adventure 2 Battle being played, Virtua Fighter Kids, weird, obscure fighting games I had NEVER heard of, and Hydro Thunder during my pool.

To sum up how strange and fun this tournament was, one of the finals matches was Soul Calibur 2 on DDR pads. It's that real.

I had way too much fun and laughed way too hard while playing these weird games, and I will be entering the Mystery Game Tournament for sure at next year's Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament. Here's a video of the Grand Finals, where you can really see how most matches go: players scrambling to find out how to play before eventually figuring it out and putting on a really hype match.

Since I was eliminated from every game I entered by Sunday, here are some other things I just wanted to note.

CHECK-INS: Remember to be early for your tournament pools, everyone. Because sometimes they'll pronounce your name wrong and it takes longer for you to check in than everyone else. Most people don't use the term "perfidious" in normal conversation, you see.

MARVEL VS. CAPCOM 3: I watch a ton of streams, but I've never actually seen this game being played in real life, or played it myself. Holy crap, it is fast and flashy. The streams really don't do it justice. After watching some matches, I see why people get so into this game: it's like it was created specifically to draw attention and excitement.

People got REALLY serious about this game too. While I was in Divekick pools I heard some guy yelling at the station behind me. Turns out a full-on argument about the game/car ownership (?) had broken out and he was getting REALLY upset. So upset that photographers rushed over to capture a possible fight breaking out. And during finals, another fight almost happened on the main stage!

Myself and a lot of other players talk a lot of trash about Marvel vs. Capcom 3, but I really understand now why people get so into it and why it's considered the most hype fighting game out. I probably won't play it ever, but I get it!

FUN & GAMES: While I had some downtime, I checked out this fun little diversion. Located near the back of the ballroom, there were three $1 entry non-video games to play for fun and profit. Yes, games where you actually had to interact with people IRL.

If you won any of these games, you get a raffle ticket and a lot of “doubloons” to cash in for prizes at the prize table. To make sure everyone had fun (and kept giving money to play!) they even gave losers doubloons. Basically, you messed up if you left this tournament without getting SOMETHING from that prize table.

I spent most of my spare cash playing Divekick 21, a blackjack variant where you basically have hit points and can pass undesirable cards to others. So while my first few games were pretty amicable, some people want to play a little rough. That means DIRECTLY BUSTING OTHERS BY HANDING THEM CARDS in blackjack. It was really fun, and I even won a game!

I played a friend in Balrog Ball as well, which I can't describe but reminds me of a similar ball-rolling game that I played at Magic Mountain years ago...plus Street Fighter. The important thing is, I beat him and got another raffle ticket and some more doubloons.

I didn't win any of the raffles but left with a cool UFGT9 mug full of candy, and a small, fancy glass (also full of candy). I hope the Fun & Games tables return next year, as they're a great way to kill time between your matches. Or just hang out...I swear I saw some people just playing these games the whole tournament and never saw them play a video game. It was that good.

THE CROWD: This is another reason why I want to go to more tournaments. You really can't get the same energy watching a stream than you can watching these players live while sitting in the crowd. These people were absolutely hilarious. A man of questionable sobriety with a funny hat spent $100 combined in character auctions for Injustice and Marvel vs. Capcom 3, only to lose immediately and get mocked by the announcer on stage. But he won a raffle later so it's all good.

Audience members pulled out money to bet on an impromptu rock-paper-scissors match. People not only react loudly to someone pulling off flashy combos in a game, but yelling along with the characters on screen as they did super moves! My personal favorite being a few upstanding citizens yelling “FUCK YOU!” as Lobo flips off his opponent.

This match is pretty incredible to watch, but being there and hearing the crowd lose their minds at the conclusion made it unforgettable.

So, let me wrap it up because this blog is far too long already. Next year, I want to go back, improve my game, and bring my own console to play Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown with others. I saw some people playing it in the Bring Your Own Console area but didn't have time to join, unfortunately.

Going to a tournament was a humbling experience, as I learned that I'm nowhere near as good in any of these games as I thought. I have a long way to go, and I won't excuse it by saying “well, I spread myself too thin by playing too many games”. Nope! It gave me the drive to learn more and compete even harder in the future.

If you're even remotely interested in fighting games, go to a tournament. It was expensive for me, but it was worth it. I can't say what you'll get out of it, but what I got was a renewed interest in the games, and the motivation to improve myself even more as well as attend local tournaments.

It showed me, for better or worse, what games I really want to put more work into. At this point I'm still playing Persona 4 Arena regularly, I've gotten back into Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown as pretty much my “main” game and am playing it a lot, and I got so discouraged by losing in Skullgirls that I haven't touched it since...I don't know about that one now. We'll see.

So, thanks to Keits and his staff for making the tournament run smoothly and providing TONS of extra stuff to do outside of competition. Thanks to all those Godlike Sundays guys for sharing a hotel room, being hilarious and fun to hang out with, and keeping me up at 4 AM playing Capcom games, damn it. And thanks if you read this. Hopefully I've sold you on seeing a side of the fighting game community most casual players don't see.

I'm still playing all the fighting games I can get my hands on, too. I've got Tekken Tag Tournament 2, Street Fighter X Tekken and Injustice to work through so one of those will be up next.

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100 Percent Later: Saints Row The Third

Warning: This game came out in 2011 and I'll be talking pretty extensively about it. EXPECT SPOILERS!

A few days ago, I completed a gaming goal that I was working on since late 2011. My goal was to get 100% completion on Saints Row The Third, including every single Achievement. It took a lot of time, more money than I expected thanks to downloadable content, and it was completely worth it.

I'm not really gonna talk about the process of getting 100% completion, because the end of that writing would be “and then I did donuts in an airport for 40 minutes”. That's pretty boring, and not really the point. I want to talk about why I decided to perfect the game, and revisit it after taking a long break.

I've been a fan of the Saints Row series since the first game, and was completely enthralled by Saints Row 2 back in 2008. So I was unbelievably hyped for Saints Row The Third, so hyped that I broke a years-long streak of not renting games in November 2011. I couldn't afford my own copy until 2012, but as soon as I got it I literally did not want to put it down. I convinced friends to buy copies to play co-op, I downloaded and uploaded characters to SaintsRow.com, I even obsessively hunted down all the original music in the game AND THEN obsessively tried to find out who composed it.

Well, I say that last one as if I'm not still doing it. I'm still trying to find out where some of this fantastic original(?) music came from. But I digress.

So, I liked the game so much that I didn't want to play anything else. Why not play it to completion then? To the point where I could say “this is one of my favorite games ever, and I've gotten everything I can get out of it”. And I did.

Due to the unstoppable train of games coming out and my backlog glaring at me, I knew I couldn't realistically play the game forever, as badly as I wanted to! So after completing the main story mode three times, I've pinned down why I like Saints Row The Third so much. It's not just a great game, I think it's a game that other open-world games should be taking lessons from. Let me explain.

The music.

The licensed soundtracks in open world games rarely stand out to me, just like the radio in real life. This one, however, grew on me in a way I wasn't expecting. The KRHYME station introduced me to rappers I'd never heard of like Yelawolf and Robert Raimon Roy. It encouraged me to find what other good, new rap was coming out in 2011.

I couldn't recognize any of the tracks on the electronica station by name, but they're all extremely catchy, and perfect driving music. Continuing the standard set in previous Saints Row games, the classical station is filled with some of the most recognizable songs of the genre. And Adult Swim has perhaps the best station in the game, spanning multiple genres and having genuinely funny ad breaks and DJ banter.

The radio isn't what makes the game really special though. The use of licensed music in missions is brilliant. This entire mission is memorable because of the music (open in Youtube, copyright won't let me embed it).

I was bored of Power by the time this game came out. Couldn't stand it anymore, from it being all over the radio and used in every other video game trailer/movie trailer out there. This mission still gives me goosebumps because of how perfectly the music is used.

It isn't just the few setpiece moments either. As opposed to many open world games, the missions are neither dead silent nor “spiced up” by a radio song you've already heard. No, there are original compositions everywhere in this game, from mission music to amazing store tracks to excellent end of mission themes. The music is used so well in this game, and the effort put into using an ORIGINAL soundtrack in this type of game is admirable. Well, at least I think it's original. I've been sleuthing around for a while to see if it's just a lot of lesser-known acts that were licensed out, or if it was produced in house?

Voliton, please respond to my emails on this. The people want to know.

The economy.

Every open world game gives you cash for completing missions, even if you don't know why or where the money actually came from. What do you usually do with that cash? Buy more weapons and body armor. Saints Row The Third actually has reasons for you to seek out the cash, really good ones in fact!

It's easy to piss off rival gangs, so how about having safe spots everywhere? Buying stores gives you that security, basically allowing you to call "base!" where enemies can't attack you, like playing tag when you were a kid.

Buying stores also gives you an increase in the money you gain every hour, which lets you buy upgrades for your character more often. The steady increase in the amount of money you earn is balanced by the steady increase of prices for upgrades. Some upgrades are locked until you get enough experience, which encourages players to either complete Saints Book missions or progress through the main story, because these activities result in higher experience gains.

The game encourages you to keep doing activities, build up your character, and drain your wallet. It's one of the few games in this genre where money is really important, not just a way to get better guns or refill your ammo. The whole system is genius.

There's always something to do.

It's incredibly tough to put this game down, because there's something around every corner. A new sidequest, a building to buy, collectibles, enemy strongholds to bust up, in-game goals to progress toward, and so much more. Even if you're just wandering around aimlessly, you'll get calls to come help in a random turf war! Again, many open world games give you your main quests and a few scant side missions. Saints Row The Third is stuffed with content, and most of it is fun to do. And if it isn't fun, it's at least profitable due to that great economy. I can rarely play this game in small chunks because of the constant allure of "one more thing to do" being right around the corner, at all times.

So, that settles it. If Saints Row The Third isn't the best open world game I've ever played, it's damn sure in the top 3. It's cheesy, but I feel like completing the game fully is a way of showing appreciation. Like, “thanks for making one of my favorite games ever, Volition”. I rarely take the time to perfect a game and I've never been a hardcore Achievement seeker, but when a game is this special and still fun to play multiple times, it's worth it.

It was a little bittersweet getting that last Achievement and uninstalling the game from my hard drive after so long. I can't explain the feeling, but I guess it's always tough letting go of anything that's been in your life for years.

I'll probably replay the game in the future, but it's time to move on to other things. Hopefully Saints Row IV gives me the same feeling as this game did. Or if not, I hope some other games realize what made Saints Row The Third such incredible fun and a true highlight of the genre and TAKES NOTES. Because I'd love to spend the time getting 100 percent on another game that's worth it.

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Game of the Year 2012: "When It's Done" Edition

Okay, April is late enough. I'm officially at the cutoff point where I feel like I played enough games in 2012 to make a list I'm satisfied with.

Most years, I struggle to find ten games I played that resonated enough with me to even consider a Top 10 Game of the Year list. Partly because of the unstoppable backlog carrying over from last year, partly because I might be a snob who refuses to step outside of my comfort zone.

Last year, I took a few steps away from the genres I normally enjoy to compile this list. The length of the entries may get longer as the list goes on further, but only because I appreciated many of them for reasons further than strong gameplay, which anyone can “get” by playing the game themselves.

It’s not a recommendation list or “10 Games To Play Before You Die”. They’re just ten games that I felt were worth the time, for one reason or another.

#10 - Prototype 2 - Radical Entertainment / PC/PS3/360

You're a very crude person, aren't you?

Lots of games get incorrectly labeled as “power fantasy” titles, where you are supposedly an unstoppable force who can do anything you want, making the world your playground.

Prototype 2 is one of the few games where the "power fantasy" label is correct. Open world games often make a misstep in having monotonous travel, but this is certainly not the case in this game. You can run or fly anywhere, and feel completely in control. The combat is a marked improvement from its predecessor, giving you multiple tools to deal with enemies while still respecting the combat style that each player will develop. No Whipfist domination this time. The difficulty curve is steady and while your enemies are challenging, there is always a way to overcome them and prevail.

The dread of facing skyscraper-sized enemies in Prototype 2 is only trumped by the satisfaction of taking them down. All the hits you land on enemies feel and sound like they hurt, giving each encounter a sense of bone-crushing satisfaction.

Prototype 2 also has an excellent final encounter that tests your skills and dexterity against a unique foe. The final boss battle plays nothing like any other fight in the game, and tests your skills unlike any other fight in the story. Prototype 2 keeps the pace up throughout, and ends up with one of the most satisfying conclusions of any game on this list. If flying across half of New York to piledrive a helicopter into the ground is wrong, I don’t ever want to be right.

#9 - Binary Domain - SEGA / PC/PS3/360

Everybody alive? Holler if you're dead!

Winner: The “Kill.Switch Award” For Excellence In Cover-Based Shooting

Well, this was ten dollars well spent.

Maybe it’s because of the budget price I picked up the game at. Or because SEGA’s failing track record. Either way, I was not expecting the level of quality I got from Binary Domain. On the surface, it’s a basic third person cover based shooter. But the enemy design is where Binary Domain steps it up a bit.

Each enemy you face is a highly intelligent robot that adapts to combat on the fly. There’s a cool limb damage system that makes them react accordingly depending on where you shoot: blast the rifles out of their hands, and they might scramble up to melee you or scour the field for a new gun.

Shoot their legs out, and they’ll crawl toward you, still attacking. The various enemy types, with unique reactions and weapons, really come into play once you start getting overwhelmed. The game forces you to prioritize targets on the fly: kneecap them all so you can have some breathing room? Take your time to aim for headshots and blow them up faster? The answer is never the same as the enemies get smarter and more types are introduced.

Speaking of breathing room, Binary Domain is impeccably paced. There are very few breaks in between the action, making it very possible to reach the game’s conclusion in one sitting. It rarely lets up.

The story also plays with science fiction cliches in a surprisingly thoughtful way. “Human-like robots take over” is hardly new, but your squad’s character development through the simple “Trust” system can make pulling the trigger difficult, even though it’s not a full-blown moral choice system. They start off as stereotypes, but as things get more personal, their true, and sometimes shocking, motivations come out.

The microphone gimmicks aren’t even a factor. Turn that off and enjoy the best sci-fi TPS of 2012.

#8 - Sleeping Dogs - United Front Games, Square Enix London/ PC/PS3/360

A man who never eats pork bun is never a whole man.

Winner: The “Friday The 13th” Award For Excellence In Game Over Screens

Making a really great open-world game takes effort that a lot of developers aren't willing to put in. Somehow, the troubled development of Sleeping Dogs lead to one of the most polished games in the genre and not a complete mess.

Most open-world games have poor hand-to-hand combat. By borrowing and refining the system popularized by Batman: Arkham Asylum, they made hand-to-hand combat that’s fun throughout the entire game. There’s always a new move to unlock or brutal environmental kill to see. You're even rewarded with bonus experience by varying your combos, so there's really no reason to do the same moves unless you're really boring.

Car chases in these games are poor, so the Sleeping Dogs team gave you plenty of options to make them less annoying. Shoot out the tires easily with a generous slow-motion feature. Ram into a car enough and it stops. Or you could just jump out of your car into the other car and rip out your target, Just Cause 2 style.

Even the mission structure is carefully crafted to tone down the amount of “drive here, shoot this man” missions that I'm tired of.

Simple stuff, right? It’s not a reinvention of the genre, it’s just a very thorough polishing. The polish carries over to the absolutely gorgeous graphics in both the city and character models. The story is predictable, but the excellent facial animations and voice acting still drew me in. Even the downloadable content is smartly designed. The game is full enough without buying more, but the content you can buy are additional, full-fledged story scenarios that don’t feel like they were egregiously cut from the game.

The game almost imploded during development multiple times, but I’m glad it didn’t. Here is how you make a strong open-world game. Just take out all the boredom and things that waste time. It's simple!

#7 - The Walking Dead - Telltale Games/ Mac/PC/iOS/PS3/360

You ruined that dude's face.

Plenty of games write video game characters like video game characters. Exaggerated personalities and actions that disconnect players from the character seems to be the norm.

What I enjoyed about The Walking Dead was the writers giving the characters realistic motivations and reactions. Not all of these are pleasant, but they felt like how human beings would react in dire situations.

Since the gameplay is limited to point-and-clicking through environments and action Quick Time Events, there’s no way to truly “fail” in The Walking Dead. There aren’t even many puzzles, despite the adventure game format.

Why this game kept me glued to my seat was a strong sense of agency. Your conversations and actions with others have a visible effect on how they treat you. How they feel about you comes into play when you’ll inevitably have to make a difficult decision. Instead of going through dialogue trees to exhaust every option, I found myself contemplating what to ask, to which person, and when.

One wrong misstep could lead to someone who supported you saying “screw you, do this on your own” when you needed help the most. The things that end up happening to you and BECAUSE of you feel like hard punches to the gut, and it is effective because the characters feel more like people than plot devices.

The Walking Dead was a watercooler game for me. I enjoyed the episodes as much as I enjoyed talking with friends who played the game, debating why we made some of those messed-up decisions we did.

I value replayability of games because of how few of them I play. However, I don’t think I’d replay The Walking Dead soon. My own experience with it was something I want to keep in my memory, and playing it through to see all the different permutations of the story would somehow make it less special. The way the story played out was my creation, and the emotional payoff of The Walking Dead is so strong that I could remember it if I didn't play again for years.

#6 - Mark of the Ninja - Klei Entertainment/ XBLA/PC

The beginning of a kill is like embracing a lover. The end, of course, is not.

Winner: The “Ratchet & Clank” Award For Excellence In New Game Plus Design

When I really sit down and think about it, I can’t remember a single moment of Mark of the Ninja where I wasn’t entertained. There are a few weak levels, and it definitely goes on for too long. Yet, I engaged throughout the entire game.

It’s one of the most well-designed stealth games I’ve played. On paper, it sounds like your character would be too powerful with the information provided you. You can tell when you are visible, what items you can hide behind, the range of your ninja tools, even how much noise you are making through audible sound waves.

This information proves to be necessary to level the playing field. Each room is a tension-filled puzzle, because enemies can kill you in an instant. You’re driven to maximize your score by eliminating enemies in unique fashion, but you are given the equipment to kill them all in direct combat or sneak past them if need be. It’s not the typical stealth game where being spotted leads to battles with poor controls: you are always capable of escaping the situation or killing all of the guards without being taken out, because the controls are excellent and all of the visual design perfectly communicates what you can do.

Each level adds a new layer of complexity in the environments and enemy types, but also gives you more tools to deal with them while teaching you how to use these tools effectively.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying it’s an excellent stealth game, one of the best available, even. The tension of being so fragile that one mistake can kill you mixed with the feeling that you are clever and well-equipped enough to kill everyone else without a scratch. It’s a specific type of tension that few of these games get right.

Also, the New Game Plus completely changes turns the tables. It’s a much different challenge that’s worth going through even after finishing the campaign once.

#5 - Persona 4 Arena - Arc System Works, Atlus/ ARC/360/PS3

Let me teach you the secret to bodybuilding. First thing: protein. Second thing: protein. Third, fourth, and fifth? More protein.

Out of all the games on this list, Persona 4 Arena made me lose the most sleep. Before bed I was watching some combo videos for my main character, Yosuke. A few hours after I fell asleep, I got an idea for a new combo. So I got up, scribbled some notation on paper, set it on my desk, and went back to bed. Oh, and I watched a couple more combo videos before sleeping.

I might have a skewed perception of this; after all, most people don’t play Persona 4 for 38 straight weeks, but Persona 4 Arena was worth my money for the story. If you’ve beaten Persona 4 and had the brief “I’ll never play another game this good” blues as I did, get Persona 4 Arena. All I really wanted was a direct sequel to the game I spent hundreds of hours on, and I got it. I got to spend more time with those flawed but endearing characters, as well as some from Persona 3, solving a mystery like only they could do. The script is just as sharp and well-acted, the style is all there including the vivid colors and fantastic soundtrack, and it doesn’t shy away from including the same type of highly emotional moments that Persona 4 did so well.

Plus, there’s a really good fighting game in here. I’m fairly new to the genre, but Persona 4 Arena goes out of its way to be accessible in ways that most fighting games don’t. There’s a tutorial that teaches you every mechanic in the game, a feature-rich training mode, and advanced tutorials for each character to teach you their special moves and combos. There are limited comeback mechanics like an invincible reversal move to get you out of bad situations, and a Burst that lets you break an opponent’s combo roughly once per round. Even though my characters aren't “the best”, I feel like my losses are because of my own mistakes and not character choice. Each member of the cast are very different, yet feels balanced enough that you can choose a character you feel comfortable with and win, if you can take advantage of their unique strengths.

The system is deeper than it looks as well. You can mash the Auto Combo for a while, but it’s easy to block and the game quickly encourages you to branch out to explore all of your options. It takes a lot of time to learn what your character is capable of, what combos work on which characters, and when the heck to use stuff like the short hop (the answer is just don’t). This all works because the feeling of mastering your character is worth all the work.

Persona 4 Arena is mandatory playing for any fan of Persona 4, and an easy recommendation to anyone looking for a great fighting game.

#4 - Rock Band Blitz - Harmonix / XBLA/PSN

Getting rid of baby fat

I’ve spent more money on Rock Band that most rational human beings should. Between buying instruments, downloading new songs, and buying countless bottles of Pepsi (long story), I’d say I've spent…well, let’s not think about it too hard.

Yet, I haven’t played Rock Band 3 in quite a while. By the time it came out, I had pretty much hit the peak of my skills in guitar and bass, and had no room for any other instruments. So when Rock Band Blitz was announced, I was feeling like I might be done with the series. Little did I know that Blitz would prove me completely wrong.

Rock Band Blitz favors competition heavily over co-operation. The chase of a high score, and the ever-present leaderboards and options to start betting competitions against friends for in-game currency made me realize something about myself: I’m extremely, dangerously competitive.

The high-score strategy for Blitz rewards multiple plays of the same songs to get higher scores. I experimented with the combinations of different power-ups and passive boosts to get high scores on songs I already played ten times before. (Hint: Use Super Vocals on "One Week". Not Super Drums!)

In the end, Rock Band Blitz did something the series never accomplished before. It made every single song fun to play, regardless of the chart. I spent years building my Rock Band song collection back when I played it with fake plastic instruments, and this new game started the cycle all over for me. Sorry, wallet.

#3 - Lollipop Chainsaw - Grasshopper Manufacture / PS3/360

Ha ha! It IS fun! It makes me forget that most of my friends are dead!

Winner: The “Saints Row The Third Award” for Excellence in Licensed Music

My opinions for most games associated with Suda51 can be summed up in a short statement:

“This game’s style is fantastic! But it really became a chore to play.”

It’s a shame because the games nail everything else except keeping the gameplay interesting throughout. Imagine my surprise when Lollipop Chainsaw averted this for the first time.

It’s in the same style of a Bayonetta or Devil May Cry game, but it doesn't feel as fluid as those games. Still, I never felt like the game would benefit from dodge offsets or switching weapon sets on the fly. Upgrading the combos expands Juliet’s moveset to incorporate some moves for animation cancels, necessary crowd-control moves, and a few instant kills. And even though you’re only facing zombies, there is enough variation between them to keep you on your toes. They get much fiercer as the game goes on, and you’ll need to really learn how the game’s system works if you don’t want to spend it knocked on the ground.

It’s not all combat, however. Each level has a few goofy minigames like macabre variations on high school sports, and one truly memorable level where you play arcade games. It’s much better than it sounds, trust me.

Tying all of it together is the trademark style that seeps into every game Suda51 puts his name on. The soundtrack is fantastic, with incredibly clever uses of licensed music complimenting a huge original soundtrack. The bosses are just as elaborate and colorful as the main attractions of the No More Heroes series, and the humor is gleefully insane. It’s the type of game where most of the gore is replaced with hearts, rainbows, and sparkles and it makes sense.

The marketing and fanservice isn't there to distract you from a thin story. In fact, the story still has layered themes you’d expect from games associated with the developer. It’s a refreshing look at exploitation in a way you wouldn't expect. Juliet isn't as ditzy as she seems, and Nick ends up being more sympathetic and hilarious than most severed heads are. It has all the raunchy humor and surprising sweetness of a teen comedy, but there’s more to it than the cover implies.

Lollipop Chainsaw is worth starting because of its manic sense of humor, and worth seeing to the end because the gameplay is just as silly and frantic as the script. More like this please, Grasshopper.

#2 - Far Cry 3 - Ubisoft / PC/PS3/360

Why would someone place these pink and fuzzy stripper handcuffs here?

Winner: The “Banjo-Tooie Award” For Most Unexpectedly Scary Game

This is a good time to explain why I like the Assassin’s Creed games so much. The setting makes it. I enjoy the game fine enough, but the combination of a stirring soundtrack, cast of people you might recognize from history class, and absolutely beautiful landscapes to traverse makes the experience much more memorable.

I feel like the Assassin’s Creed franchise lost its way with Assassin’s Creed 3. The beautiful graphics and fresh setting drew my interest, but I never finished the game due to its awful control, frustrating mission design, and pointless sidequests.

So, I brought that up to bring this up. Far Cry 3 contains everything I like about Assassin’s Creed and nothing I don’t.

These comparisons aren’t completely random, as the structure is similar enough to invite them. Main story missions in FC3 are open at any time, but you are encouraged to climb towers to uncover your map and nearby side missions. Why this structure works is that every side mission is enjoyable and has a desirable reward.

My personal favorite were hunting down animals for their skins, which sometimes leads to encounters with powerful “legendary” animals. These hunts give you the provisions you’ll need to improve the amount of items you can carry. It also highlights one of the most intriguing things about the game: the interaction between the various animals on the island and your enemies. I remember a time where I was attacked by two bears while staking out a pirate camp. Instead of sneaking into the camp to take out the pirates myself, I ran directly through it. After a few seconds of confused shouting and frantic gunfire, the bears and pirates were dead, and the camp was mine.

Far Cry 3 is full of “I wish I recorded that" moments. The story is serviceable, but doesn't live up to the cool things you’ll inevitably do while exploring. There are some disturbing moments that take full advantage of the perspective to be genuinely horrifying in ways that most horror games aren’t. If you’re paranoid about things sneaking up on you, prepare to spend a lot of time jumping and shouting when something unexpected sneaks up on you. And the excellent voice acting and facial animation makes the main character’s actions pretty disturbing, but unfortunately the story loses steam quickly and peters out due to plot holes and a poor ending.

Despite that, Far Cry 3 is an example of first person shooting and open world gaming at their peak. The combat supports whatever playstyle you want, from tactical cover-based combat, to fully realized stealth, to picking up the biggest machine gun you can find and finishing missions with guns constantly blazing. I personally played the game like Assassin’s Creed, relying on distraction, knives, and silenced weaponry to take out enemies with minimal direct combat, and the game’s open-ended structure makes me wish there was an option to replay missions, just to see how much I could experiment with it.

There is a lot to do in Far Cry 3, and I didn’t even mention the skill tree, economy, minigames, multiplayer, and co-op. The thing that sets it apart from that other Ubisoft game is that all of the distractions are fun and directly rewarding to accomplish. It never wastes your time, and you feel like your time was well-spent, whether it’s spending ten minutes hunting down boars or thirty minutes playing poker.

#1 - Hotline Miami - Dennation Games/ PC/Mac

Winner: The “Spec Ops: The Line Award” For Excellence In Making You Feel Like A Terrible Person

My hand aches because I’ve had the mouse in a death grip for ten minutes. My eyes start burning as I become aware that I haven’t blinked in about the same amount of time. I get a little self-conscious as I realize that I’ve been nodding my head and tapping my foot along to the music almost involuntarily. I realize how fast my heart is beating because I’ve held my breath too long. I felt like that at the end of every level in Hotline Miami.

This is the one game that grabbed my attention every second that I played, and refused to let it go. Most games let me put down the controller and space out during cutscenes, but that never crossed my mind during Hotline Miami. I was always on the edge of my seat, jamming to the music and the rhythm of gunshots and slashes as I wiped out buildings full of white-suited faceless goons. Each room in the game is a thrilling combat puzzle, and figuring them out requires quick thinking and faster reflexes. It demands your concentration at all times, and while the punishment is swift and often, the reward of solving each battle is great.

I’ll admit that I’m biased toward games with great soundtracks, but Hotline Miami’s music is more than just window dressing. It’s such an integral part of the experience that you can’t just turn it off or switch it out and fully "get" the game. The soundtrack is bass-heavy, driving, and sinister. Sinister because it serves to distract you from what you’re doing. I’m nodding my head to the beat as I crack an enemy’s skull open with a baseball bat, and watch him pointlessly crawl around the room. I’m tapping my foot to my favorite song as I punch over a mobster and take him out with a power drill, in the most awful way a power drill can be used.

The simplistic graphics and loud music distract you from what’s really going on. The player is committing some really terrible acts of violence to get a high score. Eventually, I started to see things in a different light as the story opened up. Am I really the bad guy here? Are these actually mobsters wearing the same suit, or am I looking through the eyes of a traumatized individual who is seeing things the way he wants to see them? It becomes even more difficult to excuse when you start facing enemies who can’t be considered “evil” in any sense.

Hotline Miami’s use of an unreliable narrator and slightly vague narration are a little confusing, but not in a frustrating way. The subtle audio and visual cues start to expose what’s actually happening without stating it outright. It’s open to interpretation in a way that means my view of the story might be different from yours, and they’re both valid.

It could be a critique of violent games. it definitely made me question why I enjoyed the violence in this game and others so much. Am I a bad person for committing mass virtual murder for fun and relaxation? Is the violence necessary to make a compelling narrative in games? Why does so much media rely on constant violence? Do we even need it?

All I know is, I took out that whole floor of enemies with just the power drill execution. It’s kinda slow, but that’s how you get the most points, you know. Try to beat my score.

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I Suck At Fighting Games: Dead or Alive 5

Part 6 of my attempt to confuse my own brain by playing a lot of fighting games in a short period of time.

Before I start talking about this game, I think I should point out that I'm not trying to be condescending when I make certain statements. It just so happens that the particular feelings I have about this game might sound that way, and you should know that I'm definitely not trying to sound like a jerk...even though I might anyway.

The sentiment of “I understand why you like this, but I cannot like it” is what I'm referring to. People seem to get offended pretty often when someone else says this, maybe because they feel like they're being patronized. Unfortunately, this is exactly how I ended up feeling after spending a good amount of time playing this game.

I see many of the reasons why people enjoy this game, but for a variety of reasons that might only make sense to me, I cannot enjoy the gameplay Dead or Alive 5.

I like a lot of things about Dead or Alive 5, and I feel like I should outline what those things are before I go on. Now, I've never played any games in this series, so jumping right into the Story mode is a great idea, right?

Of course it was! I enjoyed the Story mode of Dead or Alive 5 a lot, probably because most of it was just incomprehensible. It's obvious that this is a story that has been ongoing for years now since the very first game. I respect their commitment to keeping up the storyline, especially in contrast to other games in the genre which either have no story at all, or have a lackluster story you don't care about, SOUL CALIBUR V.

So, it was cool seeing this pretty lengthy story mode with fully animated and voice acted cutscenes and excellent music. I was oddly captivated by the worst anime cliches, uncomfortable incest subtext, and the best fight over a dumpling that I've seen in any video game:

From the perspective of an outsider, this was like stepping in on episode 50 of an anime series I've never watched before. It's so utterly predictable in terms of all the anime tropes it hits that it should be annoying, but due to the great production values and oddly charming characters...it works. It really shouldn't, but it works.

Starting off on the Story mode was also a good idea because it is the closest thing the game has to an actual tutorial. You play as most of the characters on the roster, so you're getting fight experience with them that will hopefully aid in picking a character to stick with. Also, each Story mode match has a bonus objective which gives you an element of the game's systems and lets you put it into practice.

This starts with things as simple as “Land Mid Kicks” and goes all the way up to teaching you how systems like Power Blow and Critical Burst work.

I like how the game teaches you in a hands-on manner. At the same time, I have a few problems with the teaching of the systems ONLY being in Story mode.

If you want to go back to see a lesson again, they are not clearly marked. The chapters are organized by character and name, but you cannot tell which chapter contains which lesson. I wanted to go back into the Story mode to practice Combo Throws. So to find what chapter contains the Combo Throws lesson, I had to look it up online. I don't think I should have to do that! Either label them clearly in your Story mode, or put a Tutorial option somewhere else in the game where they ARE clearly labeled.

You can only practice these tutorials while a pretty tough AI beats on you. I found myself getting knocked out sometimes before I could even complete certain tutorials because you're expected to defend yourself AND do commands which are sometimes, quite difficult.

By "tough AI" I'm mostly referring to losing to Christie EVERY TIME I FOUGHT HER

This is somewhat balanced by the game's Training mode, which is very well developed. It's easy to set up your AI opponent to do certain moves. For example, I had to set them to do every height of punch and kick because I wasn't going to go back into Story mode to try to find the mission that tells you that Forward+Hold is your counter against middle kicks.

The Training mode has every feature one could ask for in a Training mode. A wealth of options to customize every aspect of the AI's behavior, input display and frame details, and an option to jump directly into Command Training without a load time.

Command Training isn't perfect, however. At any time, you can click in the right analog stick to watch the AI demonstrate what you should be doing. I found myself needing this more than once on moves when the timing was unclear. The complaint I have is that I'm using an arcade stick, which only has one analog stick. And it's definitely not a right one. So if I needed to see a demo, as I often did, I had to have a regular controller handy to do so. Maybe it's the game's way of subtly telling me that I should be using a normal controller, but I tried and the arcade stick is more comfortable for me. Sorry!

Also, a few moves have notations that aren't entirely clear. What's the difference between white arrow and a black one? The game doesn't really tell you, so I had to find out for myself that white arrows mean hold this direction while pressing a button, and black arrows mean tap the direction and the button at the same time. What does it mean when a button has a white arrow on top of it? Or when they have smaller arrows stuck to the top-right or bottom-right of them? Well, I don't know and the game won't tell you. I assume that's something else I'd have to look up on the internet.

It may seem nitpicky but I have played other games that clearly spell out the notation for each arrow and allow you to view move demonstrations in Training mode even if you're using a non-standard controller.

This is one Command Training that I don't think I can ever finish.

My next few points get more into the territory of things that probably wouldn't bother me as much if I was a veteran of Dead or Alive games. Since I'm not, I just found a few things to feel weird to me in the gameplay. It's not something I expect everyone to relate to, but hopefully I can explain in more detail why this game doesn't feel natural to me.

When you hold back, you block. There is also a Hold button which blocks as well. This is a little redundant to me. Sometimes I don't want to block, I just want to walk backwards and put some space between myself and my opponent. However, the game is forcing me to block and move backwards really slowly, which doesn't help with the “putting space between us” part.

The Triangle System is what sets Dead or Alive apart from a lot of fighters. Holds beat Strikes, so if the opponent is attempting to Strike you, a well-timed Hold will deflect their attack and damage them. Strikes beat Throws, so if the opponent is trying to throw you, a Strike will often hit them first and cause extra damage. Throws beat Holds, so if the opponent has whiffed a Hold, you can throw them and get a damage boost from that as well.

In theory, I really like the idea of Holds. Few games have options to get out of long combos, and in some of them it can feel unfair as you get juggled through the air with no way to really stop it. Having a hard counter is a good idea in theory. In practice, Holds became necessary too often for my liking. Each character has a fair amount of moves that put you in a stunned state. You can't do anything in this state except Hold, and if you guess wrong you'll be very vulnerable, take extra damage, and possibly be juggled into the air where you are defenseless until you hit the ground. I started feeling like there was no reason to Hold unless I was put in a state where I could ONLY Hold.

I may be describing the system badly, but it's something that's about feel for me. I didn't feel like using Holds was necessary when it usually led to me messing up the Hold and taking extra damage. Throws seem to miss unless your opponent is a completely neutral state, but sometimes even that wasn't guaranteed, so I found myself using less Throws as I played more and more.

The Power Blow is a sort of super attack that any character can use once their health bar gets low enough. It has a long charging period where you are vulnerable, however. The move does a lot of damage and could be a legitimate comeback mechanic if you weren't so vulnerable during it. It's quite easy to predict when a Power Blow is being charged and either step out of the way or just hit someone out of it. Good idea in theory, but not in practice.

I like the ideas the game has, but when I was actually playing I found that the best option was to knock your opponent into the air and juggle them as much as I could. The combination of feeling bored by the gameplay and not finding any character that fit my playstyle may be something that only I experience. I am by no means saying Dead or Alive 5 isn't a good game. It's just not a game I can enjoy.

What I Liked:

-The ridiculous, hilarious, and surprisingly well-produced Story mode.

-The soundtrack. Half of it is so bad that it's good, and the other half is so good that it's great.

-The presentation. The character models all look great and the effect of them sweating and getting dirt on their clothes as they fight looks much better than expected. Each level having multiple stages and hazards makes fighting in them feel different, which is something that most fighting games don't have.

-Training Mode is one of the best in the genre and has every option you'd ever want.

What I Didn't Like:

-Some awkwardness in character movement. Throws seemed to miss when they shouldn't, holding Back to block and having a Block button seemed redundant. The Hold system in general.

-No dedicated tutorial mode, which meant hunting through the Story mode or looking up certain tutorials online.

There's a lot of this game that makes me wish I could like it. The characters are interesting and unique, the stage hazards add to the gameplay without feeling unfair, and that soundtrack is so awful. And so good. I will recommend playing this game if you have an interest in it, as I feel like it is accessible despite the slightly screwed-up method of teaching game mechanics. In the end, my dislike of the game came down to it feeling a bit clunky for me and not finding any character that “clicked”, and that's something completely subjective to me. In the end, it's just not something I could see myself spending a lot of time playing but I can see the appeal.

It's a weird feeling.

I'm running a little low on current fighting games that I'm interested in playing, so I'm thinking of a slightly different idea for the next time I do one of these. I'm thinking of playing an older game that isn't part of the current wave of fighting games. A lot of them came out in 2012, but there are a few games that came out before the current "wave" that I'm interested in. Or I'll just finally cover Street Fighter X Tekken. We'll see.

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I Suck At Fighting Games: Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown

Part 5 of my ongoing efforts to try a lot of fighting games until I find one I can get good at.

I know I go overboard on the background when I'm talking about these games sometimes. That's because I'm trying to gain some sort of basic understanding of it. All of the fighting games I've played so far have some basic connections but are EXTREMELY different. So even if I don't know what I'm talking about, I want to have some knowledge before starting.

What did I know about Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown before playing it?

It's really hard. The voice acting is terrible. And you can do somersault kicks.

I'm being introduced to this franchise late and unprepared. I'm running to Virtua Fighter 101 to take my final exam and I haven't even purchased my books or met the teacher yet. I'm going to stop making this terrible metaphor.

To put it simply, I've never played a Virtua Fighter game before. I had no knowledge of the characters, what the tiers look like, or even the hilarious inside jokes that I seem to miss out in EVERY fighting game. Really, isn't that the best part?

So after downloading the game, I jump into the tutorial. There's a fair amount of characters, but I'm not totally overwhelmed by what I see. I picked Vanessa and began working down the list.

I feel like I'm picking up the basic concepts easily, and there are only three buttons in the game (Punch, Kick, Guard), which makes it seemingly less complex than the last 3D fighter I played. And the first thing I noticed is that this is an EXCELLENT tutorial. It teaches you every basic action in the game, AND advanced ones that I keep forgetting to use, AND they each include several pages of text so you'll know which situation to use these moves in.

At one point, the tutorial turns into Sparring Practice: a fight against an AI opponent. So I think “hey, they'll probably be just a punching bag. It's a tutorial after all!” NOPE. He whooped my ass! If I didn't have infinite life, I would've lost this TUTORIAL fight. That also stuck out to me: the AI is tough but fair. And if you don't take advantage of many tools you have, the game is not afraid to kick your teeth in. The tutorials get more complicated after this point, and I spent more time than I'd like to admit on the last two: they're hard.

After finishing the tutorial I headed into...Command Training? I love command training! I complained about Mortal Kombat not having it, and I was delighted to see it in Virtua Fighter.

It's something I think every fighting game should have, and after exploring how different each character is, I appreciated having the “flipbook” style training where you must complete a move before you go on to the next one. Really, my only issue with it is that only certain moves have video demonstrations. Some of the most difficult moves DON'T have an accompanying video, which just seems weird. It's like they chose the moves to record at random as opposed to demonstrating the most difficult ones.

The Free Training Mode is good enough for offering the ability to set your training dummy to be an AI controlled sparring partner and being able to tweak every single aspect of their behavior. What was interesting to me are the statistics you can put on the screen during training. I don't know what the hell most of them mean, but I'm trying to learn because they look really useful. “Detailed stats” appears as a pop-up on the screen that shows you execution, the amount of damage a hit does, and your advantage. I'm assuming having a positive advantage number (+20 for example) means you will recover to a resting state more quickly and be able to defend yourself, while a negative advantage is an “unsafe” move that leaves you open to counterattack from your opponent. Input display, I have no idea what the hell it is. It shows your inputted commands on the screen alongside numbers, and I just do not know what the numbers mean. If you can explain it to me in a way that I'd understand, that would be great.

The single player offerings in this game aren't too deep: Score Attack and Arcade are in pretty much every fighting game and are self-explanatory. Special Sparring is locked unless you buy all 2400 Microsoft Points worth of DLC, and since I'm not crazy, I didn't do that and don't know what it is.

Then there's the License Challenge mode, which is almost another form of training. Each Test is a set of five fights that have conditions for each match. If you lose a fight or fail to complete a condition, you're going all the way back to the beginning of the ladder. Tough, but fair.

Pictured: the source of at least 90% of my License Challenge failures.

I say it's another form of training because they force you to use basic concepts of the game in a real fight. You need to guard X amount of moves in one. You need to perform a 3 hit combo in another. You need to remember to do Defensive Moves (sidestepping) and Offensive Moves (dashing forward during a sidestep) in a test I kept failing because I don't naturally use Offensive Moves.

Unfortunately, I can't play any games online. It sucks because I know the best test of skills in fighting games is against an actual opponent: learning to read their moves and behaviors is arguably more important than being able to string together a 30 hit combo. But the AI in Virtua Fighter is more than competent, it's actually quite tough. The enemies in License Challenge become more difficult as you rank up, and Score Attack opponents rarely give you a break.

The reason I mentioned so much training material is that the game seems to know it NEEDS it. This game is hard. Each character has a HUGE amount of moves to memorize, and most seem to have some kind of alternate stance with even more moves! My character Vanessa has offensive and defensive styles that can be easily switched between, but determining when I need to switch between these styles and remembering the moves on the fly is a lot to take in. The damage output in the game is high, so a few mistakes could lead to a very quick loss. You will almost certainly get destroyed if you don't know how to block properly, but blocking too much will open you up to getting thrown, and you do NOT want to get thrown in this game. It hurts.

So, it's difficult. It also prepares you for the difficulty with its vast training options. The amount of damage each character is capable of putting out in a short time is intimidating, especially if you're knocked off of your feet and juggled. On the other hand, the gravity is realistic so you usually can't be juggled for long, and there are lots of options for a quick ground recovery. Vanessa has a move that allows her to grab her opponent's legs from the ground and do a VERY painful grapple. It's pretty neat.

Despite not being able to play online, I'm drawn to keep playing this game. I find myself loading it up at least a couple times a week to do some more License Challenges and mess around in training mode to put together some sloppy combos. I keep playing this game despite not having the option to play online for now.

The only thing I worry about is it not having a long-term audience. I know IPLAYWINNER and 8WAYRUN host weekly tournaments featuring Final Showdown, but the game is 2 years old. I think it's a fine game, but will it be around next year? All I know is as soon as I can get online, I'm going to be all over that. I'm just hoping other people will be there.

What I Liked:

-Robust training options. Command Training, a Tutorial that covers EVERYTHING, and the fun License Challenges that force you to use the game's mechanics in combat. Even those input displays in Training Mode that I cannot decipher look useful!

-Tough AI. They never feel unfair, but they put up enough of a challenge to make single player feel rewarding.

-Fair gameplay. You can recover from being juggled easily, and since the damage output is high, mounting a comeback is always possible if you're skilled enough. It's not the type of game where you just get juggled, eat supers, and die. The only comeback mechanic is skill.

What I Didn't Like:

-Locking out an entire mode as DLC. There's no way to unlock customization items in the game without paying $30? Kinda crappy.

My complaints about the game have nothing to do with the core gameplay. It's incredibly solid all around and I want to keep playing it. Like I already said, once I can play online I will be playing this online A LOT. The game hits the perfect sweet spot of being “easy to pick up, but hard to master” and it's one of the few fighting games that would be perfect for someone new the the genre to pick up. It just teaches you everything you need to know and rewards you for putting in more time and learning the game.

Next time I'm either going to talk about Street Fighter X Tekken or Dead or Alive 5. Vote in the comments for which one you'd want to see! And I'll pretend like I haven't already bought both and decided!

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I Suck At Fighting Games: Mortal Kombat

Part 4 of my ongoing series, in which I try lots of fighting games to find one that I'm good at.

It's been a little too long since I've devoted some time to trying out another fighting game. I played Persona 4 Arena a lot, and enjoyed it thoroughly because of my appreciation of the Persona series. On the other hand, I haven't been playing it much recently because I burned myself out on it. I liked the Story mode but it was REALLY long. In fact, I played more Persona 4 Arena more than any other fighting game I've played this whole year just working through all that single player content. I'm still not sure if it's the game I'll be devoting a ton of time to in the future, but I've played too much of it to not come back at some point.

Since then I picked up another game I've been interested in for a long time. Mortal Kombat Komplete Edition was $20 at GameStop. That's a full game, four DLC characters, and that awesome Mortal Kombat movie from the 90s for 20 bucks? How could I not get that?

I don't know why that always makes me laugh.

Mortal Kombat was one of the first fighting games I ever played. Being a kid in the 90s, I looked at this game with intense violence and gallons of blood and said "I need to play this because my parents hate it!". And I did! Granted, I only played it in short bursts at a friend's house, but I still have memories of laughing hysterically at the ridiculous Fatality moves in the original game.

So, my first reason to pick up this game was my innate fondness of the Mortal Kombat aesthetics. I love the ridiculous violence, stupid costumes, and bone-crunching sound effects. The game just looks and sounds BRUTAL.

The second reason I wanted to try this game? I was persuaded not to.

As I do with every fighting game I'm interested in, I watched a lot of videos and streams of the game before and after trying it. People in comments for the EVO 2012 Mortal Kombat matches HATE this game! Whether it be complaining about certain characters being cheap, being upset that such a casual friendly game is played in high-level competition, and worst of all, calling the game boring. I can't ignore such negativity.

I also know some people who were pretty negative about Mortal Kombat and as far as I knew, haven't played it. That's always been an interesting phenomenon I've noticed with gamers, especially those in the "fighting game community". They love seeing things fail. If a game didn't get the amount of entrants that you personally needed at a major tournament, it's dead, move on to the next one. If a game you don't like is being played it's dead and no one else should play it. When a new game of a similar style comes out, the old game is DEAD and we will all move onto the next game now (example: Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is out. Every other 3D fighting game must now be ignored. This is what people actually believe)

It's a unique form of pessimism that I'm not too keen on, so maybe I haven't been playing fighting games long enough. But I don't care to follow a trend and stop playing a game because someone on the internet told me it's dead. In fact, the negativity towards this game just made me want to play it more because that's just how my brain works.

So, I'll stop ranting and talk about the actual game now.

There's a lot to talk about for this game, perhaps more than any game I've played for this series so far. There's a TON of content in Mortal Kombat.

After finishing the tutorial, the first place I went was the Challenge Tower. This isn't just a lot of increasingly difficult fights, it's full of unique match stipulations, mini-games, and activities that I don't think you can replay anywhere outside of the Tower. So far I've done Test Your Sight/Might mini-games, a pseudo shooter level, played matches where I could only use special moves or can only defeat my opponent while having half of my moves locked, and even had a rather pointless fight over a teddy bear. Seriously.

After progressing to a point where I got totally stuck in the Challenge Tower, I switched over to the Story mode. HOLY CRAP this is a great story mode! I don't know anything about the Mortal Kombat mythology as a whole, but this story mode felt like an abridged, yet slightly altered version of events that happened in past games. The graphics and overall presentation are superb; I especially enjoy the way cutscenes seamlessly transition into fights without a loading screen. The fights are generally without gimmicks as a contrast to Challenge Tower, but I was so enthralled by the story itself that I didn't care. I did have to drop the difficulty to Easy at one point to progress, but the fights are still significantly challenging on that difficulty. The 1v2 fights are still unfair and took many replays to pass, but the game even fixes this issue by subtly dropping the difficulty if you fail too much.

Then there's a whole Extras menu to explore. Every time you finish a fight in pretty much any mode, you get koins to use in the Krypt. This is where you piss your pants from jump scares unlock concept art, extra fatalities, codes to input before fights, music...more concept art. There's a ton of stuff to unlock, and therefore, a lot of reasons to keep playing. Since I cannot actually play online, I appreciate when a game gives me plenty of reasons to keep playing in single player, and Mortal Kombat has a TON of reasons to keep playing.

Now, I got all that out of the way because I need to discuss my issue with the game. It doesn't teach you how to play it very well. I'm probably spoiled by having playing games with really in-depth tutorials and combat training, but Mortal Kombat does not have that. And I think it could use that.

The game's tutorial teaches everything a basic tutorial should. What each of the five buttons do, how to perform special attacks, and the mechanics of the tag system. That's serviceable, but my issue with this is that it doesn't go far enough. There are over 30 characters in this game, and they often don't share commands. Besides the basic Crouch+Back Punch for uppercuts and Away+Back Kick for Sweeps, that is. The tutorial teaches you Johnny Cage's pop-up move to begin Juggle Kombos but no one else's. You'll learn how to do special attacks for a few characters, but every character has several special attacks with pretty different commands. I think what this game really could have used was a command tutorial.

Trying to learn the moves of so many characters in training mode was a pain. I'd have to pause, look up the move or kombo, and unpause to try it out and hope I got it right. It's a simple process, but when I'm playing a new game I like to test out every character's capabilities and see who fits my playstyle the best. Doing this for every character in the game is immensely time consuming and could've taken much less time with a command tutorial.

There are also some quirks in Mortal Kombat that took getting used to. I've never played a 2D fighter with a block button before. The same basic principles for fighting games apply, you block high to avoid middle and high attacks, you block low to avoid low attacks. The thing that caught me off guard was that there are a LOT of overhead attacks (high attacks that must be blocked high), and a fair amount of combos that seemed to just break guards randomly. I never figured out why my guard would be broken on certain attacks or combos, and the game never mentioned guard breaking moves so I found myself getting a little frustrated when I got hit when I thought I was blocking correctly.

The combo system doesn't exactly work like any other game I've played. I got stuck on the combo section of the tutorial for a long time until I looked up this little tip: you have to input these combo commands as quickly as possible, or they will not work. It's strange to get used to and makes the character's movesets feel limited when you don't really experiment to get certain moves to link: if you're not doing the particular combo on the movelist and inputting commands as quickly as possible, it's not gonna work.

One unique Mortal Kombat element I did understand and immediately took a liking to was the way the meter works. It's not just a meter that lets you know when you can use your special attack. When it's full you CAN do a very damaging X-Ray move, but in some cases this might not be the best choice. You can use one chunk of this bar to use an Enhanced Special Move, which is just as it sounds: a stronger version of one of your special attacks. If you have two bars you can perform a Breaker to get yourself out of a combo, and this could turn the tide of the match. The meter also carries over between rounds. I wasn't expecting it, but this game has one of the smartest applications of a super meter I've seen. If you're about to lose, it might not be the best idea to save your meter for an X-Ray attack because you might get KOed before you can use it. On the other hand, the meter seems to go up more quickly for successful blocks and taking damage than hitting your opponent a lot, so you could use an Enhanced Special Attack or X-Ray as a comeback mechanic. The Breakers seem almost necessary when you're in the unfortunate position of being juggled in the air (which happened to me more than once in online matches.

What I Liked:

-A TON of content. Even if I don't see myself getting good at this game, I know I'm gonna keep coming back to it for a long time. Either to play some goofy fights in Challenge Tower, finish the incredibly-well done Story mode, or try to figure out the secret commands I can make my Avatar do in the online lobbies.

-The game's overall presentation. These characters aren't realistic but the sound effects are bone-crunchingly BRUTAL and these moves look like they hurt a lot. The X-Ray and Fatality attacks are a bloody hilarious spectacle that I never got tired of seeing.

-Unique application of the traditional Super meter. The X-Ray meter can be used as a comeback mechanic since it builds faster for taking damage than attacking, but if you're taking too much damage you'll just be dead. Breakers are a good risk-reward spending of meter because it can get you out of trouble but usually leaves the bar empty. Enhanced Special Attacks do extra damage but can easily be blocked if you use them incorrectly.

What I Didn't Like:

-The training and tutorial modes don't go far enough. You learn a few special attacks and key elements of the game from the tutorial mode, but it leaves out a lot and would be better served with a full command training mode. They even split some more basic training elements away from Training/Tutorial and put them into the Challenge Tower, which doesn't make much sense. Since every character is different in terms of some basic commands and Special moves, why not put in a mode to help me learn these moves better?

-The fact that you need to input most combos as quickly as possible to do them successfully. It makes the combat system feel a bit more stiff and not open to exploration.

-Difficulty in single player modes, especially Story mode, was pretty harsh. Even on Easy some of the fights seemed unfairly difficult.

I left Mortal Kombat feeling a little conflicted. I love the game's presentation and single player modes, but I don't feel like the game ever gave me the tools I needed to get any better than mediocre at it. I passed a lot of Story mode and Challenge Tower but felt like I was kinda flailing through it, and my online fights were ALL miserable failures. It would take me a lot of time to get better at this game, and some research outside of the game to do so. And while I do like the game, I don't think I like it ENOUGH to do this. That could just be my problem though. I had fun but the game isn't very friendly to newcomers.

Since I have an admitted preference for 3D fighters over 2D fighters, I've bought Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown and will probably get Dead or Alive 5 soon. It'll take a bit more time to learn the systems of new fighting games while so many other good games have been coming out this year, but I'll keep at it until I find the one game that I'll get really good at. Unfortunately I don't think Mortal Kombat will be that game, but there's so many more to try. Seriously, what's up with fighting games this year? There's like a million of them...but there are worse problems to have than "there's too much stuff to play", right?

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I Suck At Fighting Games: Persona 4 Arena

Part 3 of my ongoing series of trying and failing miserably to get good at any fighting game.

It's been a while since I've written one of these. My immediate positive reaction to Soul Calibur V lead me to try more 3D fighting games, and since then I've gotten a little better at that game and I'm trying to learn Virtua Fighter V. Before I get back into those things and really committing myself to my "main" game, I got significantly distracted by a 2D fighting game based on an eyeball-explodingly popular PlayStation 2 RPG.

I don't know if you knew this about me, but I love Persona 4. It has a permanent place on my top five favorite games of all time list and I don't think that's changing any time soon. My fondness for that game, and knowledge that Persona 4 Arena continues the story of Persona 4 sealed the deal. I HAD to buy this game.

Persona 4 Arena was developed by Arc System Works, the developers of BlazBlue. At least, that's what I've heard. To be honest, I know very little about BlazBlue and Guilty Gear and I don't really care to play them. Those games seemed incredibly complex and impenetrable before I was even trying to get good at fighting games, and they still do now. I like the character design of BlazBlue, but nothing about the gameplay is for me. I also don't care for the company's tendency to release multiple iterations of BlazBlue in seemingly short time periods. I could be wrong but it seems like there was a new BlazBlue every year, and they all had downloadable content including alternate versions of characters and new fighters. It's just a little off-putting to me.

I probably just lost all my street cred for dissing BlazBlue so bad. Oh well.

On the other hand, Persona 4 Arena has excellent character design AND understandable gameplay. It's complex, but not overwhelmingly so. A big part of that is the multiple learning tools the game gives you.

I've said it before, but I love when fighting games actually try to teach you how to play them. I'm not just talking about giving you a move list, I mean giving you basic commands, telling you how and when to use them, and then slowly working up to more complex concepts. I praised Skullgirls for doing this, and Persona 4 Arena does it even better.

(Side-note: I learned the "keypad" notation before starting this game, and since most players refer to it when talking about certain moves, I figured it was important to learn. I can't really explain it well without looking at it, so just look at this and hopefully it makes sense. 2 is Down.)

The first learning tool they give you is Lesson Mode. For a four button fighter, there are a LOT of commands to remember in this game. The Lesson Mode gives you all of them and has helpful text boxes that tell you why you should use these moves. I still haven't fully learned how and when I should be using certain techniques (the short hop and One More Cancel in particular), but I'm glad the developers went out of their way to explain why these things are useful.

The second learning tool the game gives you is Challenge Mode. Each character has 30 challenges that get more difficult as they go on. These challenges are basically a list of combos every character can do. So not only does the game teach you basic concepts that apply to every character, it gives you tips on how to play them and goals to strive towards. I can do at least 20 challenges for each character so far, but some of them took a long time to get down and took a lot of practice. It's really rewarding to get the big "CLEAR!" message when I finally finish a challenge I've been grinding out for an hour, and as I'm doing these, I'm understanding how to use every character better. And since the roster is small, it is feasible to get a basic understanding of how everyone works and what combos you can reliably pull off with them.

How To Play Mitsuru: Always use this move.

The final learning tool the game has is a fantastic training mode. You can set the dummy to multiple states like jumping, blocking, etc. You can even record the dummy's behavior and play it back, which I've used to learn how to avoid certain attacks that always hit me. Like Mitsuru's Furious Action. Damn that move.

I won't really talk too much about the Story mode besides that I'm enjoying it a lot. There are some weird discrepancies between the stories though, because it is a tournament and not EVERYONE can win in the tournament. Therefore the endings for each character are different, and it's tough to tell WHO was really fighting that final boss or who truly "won" the tournament. Maybe it's because I haven't unlocked the True Final Path of Truth yet.

I can't speak about the Story mode in a wholly unbiased manner either. I can say that if you like Persona 4, the Story mode is a sequel to it and you need to see it. If you don't like Persona 4, maybe skip the Story mode. I think it's good, but if I didn't like Persona so much I would get annoyed at reading so much text and fighting so little. Luckily Arcade mode condenses the talking and has a lot more fighting, so that might be a good single player choice if you're not a crazy person who played Persona 4 for thirty-eight weeks.

tl;dr time

What I Liked:

-Lesson Mode and Challenge Mode actually doing a LOT to teaching how to play the game. If you're new to fighting games, this is one to check out. It'll ease you right in.

-Consistent rules for every character. Everyone shares the same commands for certain attacks/actions (Evasive moves, Sweeps, Furious Actions) and super moves. SP Skills are almost always Double Quarter Circle Forward (236236) + C/D, Awakened SP Skills are almost always Double Quarter Circle Backward (214214) + C/D

-It's a sequel to Persona 4!

-For the most part, the gameplay is pretty fair. You can Burst out of seemingly endless combos to get some breathing room if you need it. When your health gets low enough you get some extra meter and access to a REALLY powerful super move that could change the tide of battle. Throw escapes are really easy, and the game even tells you if you were blocking a move incorrectly so you know to do it right next time.

Even the Instant Kill mechanic (yes, there is an Instant Kill) is pretty much for the person who is already going to win. Even then, it is possible to miss it so it's not even guaranteed.

Oh, and can I talk about how cool the Instant Kill is for a moment? Not only is the character doing some intense, visually AMAZING attack, it plays that awesome final boss song from Persona 4. It's basically the hypest shit EVER.

What I Didn't Like:

-Even as I'm having a huge fangasm about the Story mode, it really is a TON of reading. It's a cool story, but perhaps a poorly delivered one. And it's full of plot holes.

-THE MUSIC DOESN'T LOOP. For a game with such fantastic presentation in terms of visuals and audio, why is this even a problem? It's not a problem in any other fighting game I've ever played. The music just fades out and restarts from the beginning, as if it's a one-song CD with no Repeat function. It's a little annoying in Story mode but TERRIBLE during fights. Those awkward moments of silence before the song starts again. Wow. Terrible.

-No Rematch button in Versus.

I probably won't be trying any other Arc System Works fighting games, but I like Persona 4 Arena a lot. It's accessible for newcomers but has such an absurd amount of depth that I'm not sure I'll ever really get good at it. It's really fun to play, and I'm personally glad it wasn't just a cheap cash-in on the license: this is a legitimate, tournament ready fighting game.

I'm trying hard to get started on another game, but I'm having too much fun with this one at the moment. And I've gotta see how the story ends! So I'll be back next time to talk about another fighting game that I might get good at. Maybe one where the music loops (SERIOUSLY?!)

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FutureSex/LoveSounds is one of the greatest albums of all time.

I know what you're thinking already.

"Justin Timberlake making one of the best albums of all time?" you say. "Impossible. It's pop music, soulless trash written solely to make a profit and not any artistic statement. No pop album can ever be worthy of such lofty praise! Go listen to an actual album."

That's how you sound. And my point still stands that FutureSex/LoveSounds is an important landmark in the world of pop music and music in general. It is less than ten years old, but I still believe that many musicians should take cues from it and learn how to craft a truly great album. Let me explain.

I've been a collector of CDs for most of my life. I don't mean buying them on iTunes, Amazon, or illegally downloading them from the torrents. No, I buy and own the physical discs themselves, and have amassed quite a collection. And while I still buy new CDs and love music in general, I feel like "albums" these days are in general, not as good as they used to be.

I'm not saying that the general quality of music has gotten lower, which is VERY debatable (and in my opinion, not true). I mean the way ALBUMS are created has changed dramatically in my lifetime.

These days, most albums may as well be mixtapes. They are simply collections of songs loosely linked together with some insultingly vague theme. They follow a similar format: brief intro track, 2-3 radio singles, some throwaway songs, more radio singles, ending track. Maybe some skits thrown in if they are feeling particularly fancy.

The albums that almost NO ONE seems to make anymore are like FutureSex/LoveSounds. This album bucks the trend of these lazy pop albums by being incredibly well crafted instead of a glorified mixtape. It's far from a concept album, but the songs on this album share a theme and most importantly, seamlessly blend into each other. This is something pop music has lost these days. I'll explain better by going over most of the tracks on the album.

I'll skip over track 1 (FutureSex/LoveSound) and track 2 (SexyBack). They're fine songs, but they don't really illustrate the brilliance of the album. They're the "throwaway" tracks.

Where the album truly begins is track 3, "Sexy Ladies". This song effectively ends at 4 minutes and transitions into "Let Me Talk To You (Prelude)".

Instead of making a skit, "Let Me Talk To You" is attached onto the end of "Sexy Ladies" to make sure the listener doesn't skip over it. And they SHOULDN'T because this song isn't just a skit, it's the introduction to the next track, "My Love". It's lyrically related, obviously. But it's also musically related, as the chorus is basically a faster version of the chorus of the next song. The interlude is a perfect warm-up for "My Love", and by the time that track starts, there's no way you aren't already totally into it because of the warm-up!

The transition into the next song, "Lovestoned" is subtler, but this is entirely on purpose because this song is essentially two songs on its own and needs to stand alone from "My Love" to work.

Throughout "LoveStoned", violins swell up at several points in the song. An instrument typically reserved for more emotionally heavy songs doesn't really fit in a silly love song, does it? But maybe this isn't just a silly love song? On one listen, the song could be about the song's narrator lusting after a woman. On another, the song is about the narrator being not only infatuated, but obsessed with this woman. The song breaks down into a sparser production, and the violins move from upbeat to almost sorrowful.

Then, at 4:50 the song transforms. It's no longer upbeat, there's no more beatboxing, and the violins get straight up depressing. The lyrics are the same, but the delivery is sadder now. It's all about context here: the narrator knows that the this woman is the only one for him, but they both know it can never be.

Also, this song is long as hell. 7:24 is far too long for a typical radio single, but Timberlake didn't care. He didn't compromise his artistic vision for radio play, but the song still became a massive hit on the radio and was only slightly edited down for the radio: 5:26 is still VERY long for a radio song.

There's no transition between this song and the next one, but the tone stays. "What Goes Around...Comes Around" has the violins and guitars stick around. The song is lyrically and musically as downbeat as the "I Think She Knows" interlude, and I find it really weird just listening to this song alone. It works so well as a follow-up to "LoveStoned/I Think She Knows" that I feel like I'm missing something when I don't listen to the two songs in succession.

This song is ALSO long as hell because it's another two-parter. The first half is a warning to not be TOO in love with someone, as that will only make it hurt worse if they betray you. Like in "I Think She Knows" when the narrator admits he is obsessed with his lover; they've gone from the highest to the lowest points of love in the two songs.

At about 5:23 in this song, the production in the song gets harder: the drums hit harder and the lyrics become much more direct and talk SPECIFICALLY about the betrayal the narrator felt, and his joy that his lover suffered the same thing. It's a meaner song, and the instrumental changes to reflect this.

Not much to say about this interlude, but do take note of the piano riff and dudes shouting "Ey!" at 6:38. It links into the next song...

"Chop Me Up". Not much to say about this one besides the harder drums, piano and dudes shouting "Ey!" carrying over from the previous interlude. The narrator is still in a somewhat aggressive mood after the previous interlude, but is changing the energy from anger at his previous lover to finding someone new.

The next song "Damn Girl" doesn't have a seamless link to the previous, but it has some interesting musical and thematic connections. The drums on this song sound live and organic as opposed to the processed rap drums of Chop Me Up. The thudding piano is replaced with a 1960s-esque funky synthesizer/organ (I'm bad at instruments, I apologize). And the horns make the whole song feel like something the previous wasn't: live, organic, and natural. Timberlake has returned to singing in his natural falsetto as opposed to the sorta-forced half-rapping. I think this song is meant to represent finding love again, but doing it the right way as opposed to being an aggressive jerk about it.

Not much to say about the next track Summer Love. It's a continuation of the theme of the last song: finding new love, being excited about it, all that jazz, etc. The interlude "Set The Mood" starting at 4:13 is the interesting part. It slows down the pace set from the previous two songs, and sets up the next song, which is much slower. Just need to note the harp here, and how it continues into Until The End of Time.

Now the album is winding down, and the narrator has settled down with someone new in this song. And this is also where my track-by-track commentary will end. The final two tracks are very good (especially the storytelling in Losing My Way), but unfortunately they don't share much besides being slower and less energetic than the beginning and middle of the album.

The key point I want to make here is that FutureSex/LoveSounds is an album that is incredibly well crafted. Not just in terms of the production of the songs, but how it is a totally cohesive album. The interludes at the beginning and end of some songs link together in masterful ways, without being broken up as obtrusive skits that you'd just skip anyway.

Pop albums aren't made like this anymore. Most albums in general aren't made like this anymore, and it makes me sad. I love buying CDs and I still do, but it's been a long time since I've heard an album that flows together as well as this one does and demands to be listened to in its entirety, in one sitting. Too many albums these days are just mixtapes full of singles and skits. FutureSex/LoveSounds is an album that you are truly listening to WRONG if you've got it on random or are just skipping to the singles. That's why it's one of the best.

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I Suck At Fighting Games: Soul Calibur V

Part 2 of my ongoing series of trying and failing miserably to get good at any fighting game.

I'm just gonna get straight to the punch here. I love this game. It's my favorite fighting game right now. It might be the best game I've ever played online. Not just for fighters, the best online game I've played in ANY genre.

In my previous blog I detailed my past experience with Soul Calibur. I played a little bit of 1, a LOT of 2, a TON of 3, and some of 4. I'm more familiar with this series than probably any other fighting game series. Maybe that's why I actually feel confident playing this game.

I picked Xiba (aka, Justin Xiba) and jumped into training mode. After some slight problems with button configuration on my arcade stick, I started trying stuff out. I read the move list and HOLY CRAP. There are a billion of them. Moves for if your back is to your opponent. "8 way run" moves. Moves with Guard Impact qualities. Moves for if your front is to your opponent. Stance switches to open up even more moves. Reading this move list was totally overwhelming. So I just closed it and just started hitting the dummy.

Now, I picked Xiba because he basically plays like Kilik in the old Soul Calibur games, who was my main character. I haven't played any Soul Calibur in at least two years, but despite switching to an arcade stick (as opposed to a pad like I used to play) and being rusty as hell, I was figuring things out. The training mode in this game isn't great and it isn't as in-depth and incredible as Skullgirls was, but it has some cool features.

1. The game lists several moves for each character and explains them in depth. It doesn't do this for every move (because there's too many) but it gives you some important tools for each character.

2. There is a video demo available for EVERY move for EVERY character so you can see if you're doing it right.

3. You can set your training dummy to a variety of stances, like Attack, Counterattack, Attack Then Block, Blocking, etc. Much better than Skullgirls in this regard.

They call him Justin Xiba because his hair is so pretty.

So, I jumped into the online mode after spending some time training. I know this sounds like very high praise, but it's 100% true: Soul Calibur V possibly has the best online features out of any game I've ever played.

The Player Match, where I spent most of my time, is a small lobby where two people fight and everyone else spectates and chats. It's so cool to get some sort of insight into your upcoming rival's strategies before facing them, and the social aspect of being able to chat in a lobby is really nice too. Even if no one talked when I was playing...

The Ranked Match is simpler, it just pits you against someone around your level. Not much to say about it. I did appreciate that the characters are blindly picked, so I don't feel like I'm getting maliciously counterpicked by my opponent like I did in Skullgirls.

The Global Colosseo is the most unique. You enter a larger lobby with several other people where you can choose to challenge someone directly, get into a random match, or join a ranked, structured online tournament.

Global Colosseo is a lot simpler than this image makes it look, I promise.

All these features, plus the ability to mark certain players as rivals (which allows you to consistently compare statistics with them whenever you want), plus a pretty good replay feature are why I'm saying that Soul Calibur V's online mode is incredible. Every fighting game should strive to have online features like this.

On a more personal level, I actually felt like I stood a fighting chance against people in this game. In Skullgirls I just lose and lose and lose forever. I know it takes a long time to get good at a new fighting game, but I don't ever feel like I'm improving and it gets discouraging.

The opposite is true for Soul Calibur V. Maybe it's because of my past experience with the series, but I feel confident in every match I play. I know my character well, and there isn't really anybody on the roster who I feel like I'm ALWAYS going to lose against. And I'm actually winning matches consistently as opposed to just losing all the time! Winning once in a while and having a replay feature to analyze why I lost makes me feel more confident in my game. I feel like I could actually get good at Soul Calibur V.

There are some things I don't love about it though. Soul Calibur has always had a fairly good storyline following multiple characters throughout multiple eras. I always appreciated how they gave each character a story with cutscenes and had some kind of fun, replayable single-player modes.

So where the hell is that stuff? Story mode is lazily produced and only follows two characters ever. The timeskip between 4 and 5 got rid of several characters and brought in new ones...but they didn't even give them a back story besides in the art book? Come on! I know the competitive multiplayer is the crux of any fighting game, and Soul Calibur V nails that. But the game always had a well-thought out story and cutscenes for every character and now it's just gone. The single player modes are just a bummer.

I'll wrap this up before it gets as long as the last blog.

What I Liked:

-Absolutely fantastic online experience. Flawless netcode, great replay feature, marking rivals, and a multitude of modes. I love this.

-Easy to pick up and play. Since I'm trying to get good at fighting games, I appreciate this. I feel like I can actually play and win as opposed to just getting stomped into the dust all the time.

-Pretty good training mode. It doesn't fully teach you how to play the game and know all of its systems, but it does teach you a few strong moves per character and has a lot of options for your training dummy.

-Fine character customization. I don't really make characters, but during my first online match I fought a man in a pink pimp coat who used a dildo as a weapon. That made my day.

What I Didn't Like:

-Less, and WORSE single player modes than previous games in the franchise. I know fighting games aren't really about single player stuff, but it's jarring when you got it RIGHT before and just got it so, so WRONG this time. I'd like a story for all these new characters. I don't think that's too much to ask for.

-Training mode could do a better job of explaining systems. I had to look up Guard Impact and Just Guard online to find out how to use them. Don't do that, game. Teach me that stuff in the game.

My experience with Soul Calibur V has kind of changed my perspective on the genre in general. I like this game so much that I think I'd rather be playing 3D games than 2D games. Virtua Fighter 5 just came out on Xbox Live, and I think I'd like to play that. If I hadn't played Soul Calibur V before and gotten that experience with 3D fighting games, I would have completely ignored it.

So my next blog will be about either Virtua Fighter 5 or Persona 4: Arena. I've been looking forward to the latter for a while, but the former is already here and I'm really interested in it. Might be a while because I have no Xbox right now, but I'll get on it as soon as possible.

Play Soul Calibur V! It's great.

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I Suck At Fighting Games: Skullgirls

I'm gonna start chronicling my futile attempts to get good at fighting games in a series of blog posts. I'll spend some time with a game, explain why I got into it, and detail my attempts at not totally sucking at it.

I've never been more than a casual player in most fighting games. Like most kids I dumped quarters into Mortal Kombat machines at the arcade because blood is cool as hell, picked up Soul Calibur 2 for Gamecube because Link is a pretty cool guy, and messed around with Street Fighter 2 because it was on every console. I think the deepest I got into a fighting game was Soul Calibur 3, which I played consistently for about a year but never really got good at. So since then I can't say I've sunk any meaningful amount of time into a fighting game, definitely not enough to get good.

Last summer, a couple of my friends online were watching the livestream of EVO 2011 and since I was bored and they absolutely refused to talk about anything else but the streams, I checked it out. I'll be the first to admit that I had no idea what the hell was going on in these games. What's a wakeup DP? Why does everyone want that guy to lose so badly? How can you even ascertain what is happening on the screen right now?

(That last one was for Marvel vs. Capcom 3. A year ago, I would not be able to tell what was happening in this screenshot:)

(WHAT IS THIS?!)

So it was entertaining in a way, but I couldn't fully get into it because I didn't know what was happening. The terminology being thrown at me, all the crazy flashing lasers and particle effects on the screen, the completely daunting HUD...I couldn't grasp any of it. I figure it's the type of thing that you spend a LONG time getting familiar with before you can truly appreciate it. So I liked watching EVO, but I didn't really "get" it.

Then I got God Hand. I picked up this game for cheap at a Gamestop, and little did I know this would be a turning point in my understanding of fighting games. God Hand is NOT a fighting game. Or is it?

Well, no it actually isn't. But I was shocked at how much depth was in this beat-em-up. It wasn't like the old games in the genre where you mash punch until your opponent falls down and flickers out of existence. In a lot of ways, God Hand has the soul of a fighting game. I discovered this quickly after I tried mashing my way through levels and failing miserably. Then, I went on forums and God Hand fansites to find out strategies of how to suck less. I was a little blown away by how complex the game was.

You need to recognize enemy's attacks and launch counterattacks. See them winding up for a super long move? Punish them by hitting them with a quick jab and starting a combo. Learn which of your moves have invincibility frames so you can get yourself out of a tight situation. Manipulate counterhits to do even more damage depending on the attacks your enemies do. These terms- punishing, counterhits, supers..all sounded pretty familiar after watching EVO. So over the next few weeks, I watched streams of fighting games and God Hand videos regularly because I was seeing this strange overlap. I got really good at God Hand, and its deceptively deep systems made it nearly impossible for me to put down. God Hand is my favorite game of all time, but I can't really keep playing one game forever. So why not take a step out of my comfort zone and start playing some honest-to-goodness fighting games?

After watching so many streams of fighting game tournaments in the months that followed, I couldn't really find a game that was for me. Street Fighter IV looked cool but the huge roster of characters was daunting. How could I possibly devote the time to learning all of these characters to find the one I liked? How badly am I gonna lose online until I can get good? More importantly, will this game even have an online community in the near future? It's kinda old now. So I skipped over that game. I skipped over Marvel vs. Capcom 3 as well partly because I was nowhere near understanding how tag fighters work, partly because the game just looked unfair. Once you get caught in an air combo in that game you're just gonna eat it until you die. And X-Factor makes these guys doing huge damage in combos even MORE powerful? There's no way I'll play that, I'll get annihilated.

The game that sounded like something I could actually get into was Skullgirls. I was interested in it from the beginning due to the fantastic art. I decided I'd definitely get it when I heard that it had a fully-featured training mode that gave newcomers enough learning to really understand how fighting games work. So I followed the streams and videos from the game, and when it came out last week I downloaded it immediately. And after just over a week of playing, here's my experience with Skullgirls so far, and how the game is helping me suck less at fighting games in general.

What I like:

-The small roster. Like I said earlier, when I'm looking at the character select screen for Street Fighter IV or Marvel vs. Capcom 3, I just don't know what to do. Which of these characters play similarly? What is their style? Which ones are so low tier that they're not worth using?

Skullgirls, having only eight characters, has none of these problems. I've felt no pressure in committing to the "wrong" character because I can get extensive practice with all of them. They're all very different but share enough that switching from one character to another is not like re-learning how to walk.

And the music on the character select screen never gets old.

-The tutorial mode. It cannot be overstated how helpful this is to a newer player of fighting games such as myself. This thing taught me all of those fighting game terms I keep hearing in tournaments. It lays out what they all mean and then you practice them. I had no idea what "hit confirms" were until I went through the "hit confirmation" tutorial. Same with canceling moves into supers, button notation, mix-ups, blockstun...it's just crazy how this game lays out all this terminology so quickly, in such an easy to understand format. Does any other fighting game do this, or are you just expected to know what a delayed hyper combo is and how to do it by messing around in training mode? I don't know, but I do know that this training mode is incredible and more fighting games should include it, instead of just assuming the players know what everything means. Some of us are still new!

-Tough, but fair AI. I can't play online very well right now due to connectivity issues, so I've been spending a lot of my time playing against AI. Every time I finish Story or Arcade mode as one character, I ratchet up the difficulty and try it again to keep my skills sharp. The AI doesn't mess around in this game once you get to Normal mode. Peacock and Ms. Fortune stand out the most, as the former WILL fill the screen with garbage and chip you to death without mercy and the latter WILL relentlessly rush you down and hit you with moves that you can't really tell are high or low. So it's a little rough at times, but if the AI was braindead I'd never get better. I appreciate it.

-Pretty easy inputs. So far I've had the most trouble with Double and Valentine because they have a LOT of moves that have some funky inputs, but for the most part I feel like I can do everything I need to do with my standard 360 controller. Most Blockbusters are just quarter-circle-forward (or backward) + two punches (or two kicks). Same with special moves. I have a little trouble doing dragon punch motions, but overall the inputs aren't difficult.

What I didn't like:

-The training mode. It's missing a lot of stuff and the best way I can explain this is by comparing it to a Smash Bros. game. The training mode in Smash Bros lets you manipulate time and set the enemy AI to various states like blocking/jumping/actively attacking you, and is overall pretty good for a not-so-serious fighter. So why can't Skullgirls have all this stuff? I appreciate the blockstun bar and Sparring Mode, but this desperately needs more options.

-AI isn't ALWAYS fair. Maybe it's just me but I have the WORST trouble with Ms. Fortune on every difficulty. I'm consistently playing Arcade mode on Hard now and not having trouble until she pops up. And just to test this, I dropped down the difficulty to the lowest and was getting annihilated by that specific character. Playing against her is the only time where I've felt that the AI is being genuinely unfair and reacting in a way that a human character cannot...but that could just be me.

-Ratio system needs tweaking. Right now I see no reason to use more three characters unless your opponent is also using three. The damage you take when you're playing as a team of three is enough to completely put me off three person teams, no matter how good some assists are. It doesn't seem practical.

-Lack of polish. These are just general nitpicks, I know it's a $15 Arcade game but the load times are really long and frequent, the Story mode, while well written, has bad Powerpoint syndrome where characters need to blink off screen and come back with different faces instead of subtly transitioning, there's a strange and frequent (for me) glitch where characters briefly turn into hitboxes, and there's an "Extras" menu that clearly has room for some extra options that just aren't there. The biggest complaint is the lack of an in-game movelist, which is kinda silly when the game is so good at tutorials but lacks a basic feature such as this. And you can see the names of the moves when you program assists so that's even worse.

Overall, I'd say Skullgirls, specifically the tutorial mode, has given me a significant step forward at not sucking at fighting games. I had some prior knowledge of the genre just from watching so many damn streams and playing so much God Hand, but I really appreciate it teaching me legit tactics and fighting game terminology that I don't have to scour the internet for.

Sorry about the blog being incredibly long-winded, but I needed to give a starting point on my experience to set up my journey (man that sounds lame). Next time I'll just be talking specifically about the game I'm playing, which should be Soul Calibur V. Hopefully I'll have an arcade stick by then too.

Go buy Skullgirls! And God Hand too.

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