In David Mamet’s Redbelt, a movie he inexplicably made about karate, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a champion karateist. He explains to a woman how martial arts can teach her to control difficult situations. To demonstrate, he indicates a place across the room from her.
“Could I strike you from there?” he asks.
“No,” she says.
He stands close enough to grapple her, where his arms can’t move freely.
“Could I strike you now?”
“Where can I strike you?”
She takes a step backwards, spaced so that his arms would be able to throw a punch and connect.
“Don’t stand there,” he concludes.
And that’s what I like about fighting games.
After the jump, let’s go to gain a little patch of ground
The most basic form of conflict is fighting over territory, and that’s true of fighting games as well. But you won’t know that for a while. The first stage of experiencing fighting games is just grooving on all the cool animation that happens when you slap buttons. The second stage is probably appreciating the timing. But the third stage is understanding that it’s about controlling space. It’s about not standing there, and instead getting the other guy to stand there. I’m at the verge of this stage, and I’m sure there are at least four or five more important stages to follow, but heck if I know what they are.
BlazBlue Continuum Shift drives home this point with a few unique character abilities. In fact, when it comes to unique character abilities, BlazBlue is the game to play. Many of the characters even have their own unique interface elements. So when Bang can drop his crazy pinball bumper jump assists, or when Rachel can call down her lightning rods and change the wind, or when Litchi positions her staff, I get the clear sense that I’m basically changing the shape of the arena, in much the same way that you’d build defenses in an RTS. I’ve seen glimpses of this in other fighting games (Phoenix’s traps in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, for instance), but no game makes it as explicit as BlazBlue Contiuum Shift.
And that’s BlazBlue in a nutshell: no game makes things as explicit. From the tutorial on, BlazBlue is probably the best documented fighting game I’ve ever had the pleasure of being utterly overwhelmed by. For instance, I had no idea why cancels were called cancels until the BlazBlue tutorial explained it. It was fascinating going through the tutorials and having light bulbs go off in my head. I realized things about other fighting games I’d been playing, things that the other games didn’t bother to explain. It was like back in high school when I took Latin; suddenly I was learning stuff about English that I never learned in English.
Perhaps more than any other fighting game, BlazBlue Continuum Shift has taught me an intellectual appreciation of these games. But it’s not just an introduction to the strategic elements; it’s also a master class. As I work my way through the tutorials, as I nudge the difficulty level up during the battles, as I try matches with friends locally, I start to see the limits of simply knowing. I am constantly confronted with the game’s demand for reflexes and timing.
And I simply don’t work that way. I’m not a quick fellow, although I did once catch a ball. I must have been about fifteen. It happened by accident, because the ball landed in the cook of my arm and lodged there when I seized up. But beyond that instance of inadvertent athletic prowess, I have always trusted my God-given instinct to get out of the way when something is hurled at me.
So I can’t really keep up with the reflexes required to play BlazBlue competently. I know in theory I should probably be watching the other character, trying to parse whatever’s going on with the animation, learning patterns, reacting accordingly, recognizing the tempo and beats of individual frames, and feeding those signals directly from my eyes to my fingers, do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not waste time firing neurons to process what I’m seeing. This is an integral part of playing BlazBlue. If you hope to gloss over it, you’re missing a significant part of the design. It’s like playing Civilization without learning how to build military units, so you have to keep the difficulty level so low that none of the other civilizations will attack you. It’s a viable way to play a game. But it’s not a viable way to experience a game’s design.
One of my favorite things about BlazBlue is the character design, which is asymmetric to a fault. No two characters are alike. One of them is a heap of pudding that summons bugs. Another is actually two characters. Another is a witch with electricified pumpkins and pink frogs. Another is a cat whose sleeves are too long. But in addition to these broader gameplay strokes that distinguish them, each character has specific combos you should practice to optimize your attacks. These aren’t general combos that you can practice to get better at the game, as is the case in a more accessible game like Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Instead, they’re specific muscle memory exercises that apply only to that character.
When I watch someone play Rock Band on Expert, I tell myself that, yeah, sure, I could practice and get that good. But life is too short and too full of other distractions beyond this one. At my age, with as many things as I like to do, I have to choose my distractions carefully, weighing the level of commitment. I’ll watch The Wire before I’ll ever get around to figuring out how to play Rachel or Litchi or Bang Shishigama with any meaningful degree of skill.
So I shouldn’t say I like BlazBlue, because I don’t even really play it. Instead, I respect it. I admire it. I appreciate that it exists. I love how well documented it is. I love the different ways to defend and how they’re simultaneously powerful and limited. I love its sense of humor and its sharply defined anime look and its mostly adult tone. I love the look of the levels. I love the different ways to play, which recalls the generosity of the latest Mortal Kombat. But I will mostly love them from afar, while playing something less demanding, such as the game I’m going to tell you about next.
Mortal Kombat review
Monday: the real grindhouse
Tuesday: you’re wearing that?
Wednesday: amateur night
Thursday: the worst best one