Ever since I was a kid, I have always found great joy in solving problems. Whether it be a math word problem, a puzzling new word that I couldn’t decipher, or a particularly challenging video game, I yearned for the chance to solve it, to overcome what seemed exceptionally difficult. Cut to today, and I have a new problem: the articles I’ve written for this site have been fun enough as a means of looking at dumb things outside fighters, but what am I contributing in a positive sense?
When I first started this blog, I intended to have one major goal: using my experiences to bring light to different issues in the fighting game community. But the more I write, and the more hits I see the blog get, the more I realize that perhaps I can also educate total newcomers to certain fighting games as to why some of the games I played in the past had the appeal that they did. In my prevailing need to point out the injustices (no pun intended) and foibles of the community, it can become easy to lose sight of why I love it in the first place, so I want to look back at the games that made me a part of this wild community at all with a new series called Run It Back. My goal is to hopefully try and capture even a small part of what made it fun to play these games using actual memories from my time playing.
Now, going back to that whole problem solving thing, let’s go back to the bygone era that is 2011.
It’s April of 2011. I am hard at work trying to be competitive in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, an endeavor that isn’t going very well. It’s a different game than anything I’d played before: ultra fast-paced, requiring a lot of dexterity and far more knowledge of character abilities and strategies. Just being one week behind meant you missed a whole hell of a lot, and I was already struggling to keep my head above water. Even so, a game was coming out that I just knew I’d have to put MvC3 aside for, just for a little bit, and that was Mortal Kombat, which I’ll be referring to as MK9 throughout the post.
Mortal Kombat was a franchise I had loved since my very early childhood. The ultra violent nature of the game was enough to satisfy any growing child’s thirst for their first taste of edgelord-dom, but I even loved the lore too. It played like a cool martial arts movie: ninjas, kung-fu masters, Gods masquerading as mortals, all that good stuff. I loved reading the short backstories that would play when you beat the game with a certain character, as well as the story modes of the later games that would provide a context to all the carnage happening on screen. There had not been a new entry in the series since 2008, which was a crossover title with the DC Comics universe that toned down the blood and violence, not a true MK title. But the time was finally upon us.
And I loved every bit of it.
MK9 was a reboot of the entire franchise, which meant that almost every memorable character from the games initial entries made the cut. The game’s storyline was presented in fully voice acted cutscenes that told the game’s wacky combination of magic and martial arts to its cheesy perfection. Finally abandoning the 3D movement of the later era games, MK9 returned the series to its roots as a fighter on the 2D plane, as well as returning the brutal fatalities (pictured above) and blood that had been missing from its previous installment. For all intents and purposes, MK was back, baby!
…Well, there was one little problem I was having, the same one I mentioned at the beginning of this post.
How did people take this game seriously as a competitive fighter?
I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it. There’s the old saying “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc.,” but whoever said that had clearly never played MK9. It moved on the 2D plane entirely, sure, but it maintained the old “dial-a-combo” attack combinations as the older, post-arcade era games. For the uninitiated, Dial-a-combo is an outdated derogative term meant to refer to the style of pressing button combinations in order to perform a full string of attacks before the animation themselves play out. It’s a typical standard in 3D-style games like Tekken or Virtua Fighter, but NRS games tend to have a higher level of flair, which meant that the strings tended to pop characters up and juggle them extensively for very long combos, as opposed to the quicker, more difficult Tekken style airborne juggles.
Combined with the 2D style of movement, it just didn’t click for me at first. What I was used to, what I had really cemented my thoughts around, was the Street Fighter or Marvel style, a mindset that I talked about in my last article. The jump attacks seemed too strong to me as well; the characters automatically turned around in mid air, and it seemed really difficult to knock people out of the air. With one exception, the game lacked invincible style moves like the Dragon Punch in Street Fighter, so one was forced to use either the traditional MK uppercut, which was just a regular attack attached to down and back punch, or use down and front punch, which seemed to have a good hitbox but was also by no means guaranteed. Worst of all was the block button, which I found incredibly stifling. How could I play meaningful footsies if I was always having to keep a finger over the left trigger to block, or couldn’t anti air my opponent past a certain distance?
I’ll admit, I was being a total scrub: I thought I knew more than I did, and it was blinding my view of the game. I will give credit to my younger brother and his friends for pestering me over and over again to play it with them so they could prepare for tournaments, because it was through those long sessions that I finally started to see through my scrub haze, if only a little. But I had to know if I had the right idea, so I went to a few locals during the Summer of 2011 to see how I was turning out. The results were…not pretty!
After playing against Juicebox, who was a very strong player locally in Street Fighter IV, I distinctly remember him stomping over to the commentary, plonking down, and bemoaning “I don’t know how to beat bad players!” It chapped my ass for a while, but I think now I can see his frustration. He, too, was a guy with a primarily SF-style background, and the game wasn’t making sense to him, so he was venting. And Juice is a nice guy, but competing can bring out the nasty side of anyone. I wasn’t in that great a mood myself; I was convinced that the offense in the game was too good, did too much chip damage and didn’t have enough gaps to reasonably get out. I took my match against Kung Lao, then my most hated character, and extrapolated that as the game at the highest possible level. Obviously I was beyond terrible, but that was my opinion and I was sticking to it.
Still, because my brother and his friends were so into it, it was hard to escape. Trust me, when everyone around you is playing something, you will fight through even your most staunch objections to join in on the fun, and that was what I started to do. And as much as I hated Kung Lao, god damn man he was cool. Mortal Kombat was cool! When they started going to local casual meetups, I followed, and even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of the game proper, I was still having fun playing and interacting with the players, so why not stick with it? I had done about as well as I was going to do in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and Super Street Fighter IV was really simple to go back and play again, so I pretty much moved MK9 to being the main game I played.
After a poor showing at Devastation 2011 (where I lost to another goddamn Kung Lao!!!) in September, I decided that I needed to re-evaluate how I played, and more importantly, who I played. At the time I was using a mixture of Kano, Nightwolf, and Sub-Zero, a combination that I’m sure just made any MK9 player reading collapse like Squidward.
It’s easy to say they are bad now, but the first 6-8 months of MK9 was like the Wild West; the game’s training mode was very subpar, the online modes even worse, and there were only a dedicated few working to get accurate frame data for the game, so knowing what was good and what wasn’t was more or less a matter of trial and error. Not only that, but MK9 was, in what would become a bit of a reocurring trend, changing at a rapid pace. Every week some new tech would come out and just create problem after problem, but to NRS’ credit, they went through and tried to fix as many of them as they could. Unfortunately for the players, it meant that keeping up with what changed from patch to patch was rather difficult at times, and much like a roulette wheel, you could wind up with a big win for your character (buffs) or totally crap out (no changes).
And boy did I crap out! Kano and my other characters were very poor at what dominated the metagame, which was mid-range control that lead into heavy pressure. Kano was terribly unsafe on everything and did little damage, and Sub-Zero could play heavily defensive but lacked a substantial offense game outside of the corner, along with poor tools to actually push someone in the corner. I needed something stronger, something that could cover up my lack of skill but help me learn the game at the highest possible level.
I needed Kenshi.
Kenshi had been released as downloadable content in July, and, and because of bans to recently released DLC characers, he wasn’t getting a lot of attention. He was one of my favorite “newer” (he’s now like 15 years deep into the MK canon) characters, so I took him for a whirl, and it was love at first sight (he’s blind but you know what I mean). Unlike Kano, he was safe on virtually all of his moves and strings, and unlike Sub Zero he actually had great ways of bullying the mid range and pushing people toward the corner. To add to all of that I thought he was genuinely awesome: telekinetic energy projections and a katana to hack people up? What’s not to love?
Further, he was a very simple character: he had one move, the Spirit Charge, that was so strong that his whole game sort of revolved around it. Since the move involved Kenshi sending out an astral projection of himself to do a very quick shoulder tackle, it acted almost as a fireball would in SF, except it started up and recovered way faster. It was even safe on block for the most part, so there was no reason not to do it constantly. The cherry on top of that delicious shoulder barge cake was the enhanced version, which went nearly full screen, was advantageous on block, and had armor from the beginning of the move’s startup. With Kano and Nightwolf I was juggling a bunch of different specials trying to make them all work, but Kenshi’s other specials all revolved around how he made you react to his Charge. He was the perfect character for a novice to learn the game with.
And so born anew was my interest in MK9. I hit up casual sessions all the time, trying to soak in as much as I could about how to play the game. It was a small group, usually only about five at the most, but the players were dedicated to playing the really strong characters like Kabal, Sonya, and Kung Lao. I even got some good experience against lesser used characters like Sektor, Shang Tsung, Smoke, and Raiden. The nice thing about MK9 was that the game was simple, which meant fine-tuning a character was really only a matter of figuring out how they worked at mid-range and then layering in offense slowly. Since we really only played amongst ourselves, it was important that we get as much character knowledge as possible, regardless of our long term intentions. We didn’t hold many tournaments, so we were able to practice casually with a lot of characters just so our higher level players could help break down the gameplay and the counters to it.
It was a lot of work, and the progress was slow; I still had a hard time consistently getting games on scene standouts Alex “Detroit_Ballin” Rayis and Mark “MortySeinfeld” Camps. I was, however, beginning to be on par with the players in the tier below those two, so I at least noticed some improvement. To further light a fire under my ass going into 2012, Alex and Mark went to the then mecca of MK, the East Coast, in December, and did extremely well, with Alex winning the big Northeast Championship tourney and Mark taking 4th. Almost all of the top competition of the time was gathered there, and it felt like a big moment; our tiny AZ scene done good. Both Alex and Mark had impressed at the Devastation tournament, but there could be no argument now that Arizona wasn’t a force to be reckoned with in the realm of MK9.
By the time of the new year, I was happy: I was playing with some of the best players in the nation at least once a week, I had money saved up to travel to major tournaments, and that meant I was finally going to be a strong player at something, I thought. Soon. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. Maybe it would take many weeks. Or months. Or a whole ‘nother year. But soon. I just needed to be patient and play a lot; my time sink would be vindicated in strong results in 2012.
Or so I thought.
Well I think I’ll cut it off there and wrap ‘er up, this has already been going pretty long. As you can see by the name of this post and this abrupt ending, this is going to be my first two parter. I’m hoping to have Pt. 2 up by the end of this week, so stay tuned to my Twitter for updates on that. Give me a follow if you’re interested in content like this, and I hope you didn’t cringe too much while reading this. Until next time!