How I Learned to Love a Fighting Game

I’ve often considered myself fairly open-minded when it comes to trying out different kinds of games.  During my childhood I spent most of my time zipping through Green Hill Zone, commanding and conquering futuristic armies, and trying to Catch ‘Em All.  Once I got to middle school and high school, I found myself racing around Rainbow Road and blasting aliens on the amazing ringworld Halo.  And in recent years, I’ve pumped up the crowd in Rock Band, galloped through the Old West, and taught Clementine how to fend for herself in a harsh, unforgiving world.  But there was one genre that always seemed foreign to me: fighting games.

My experience with fighting games is extremely limited.  Up until this year, the only fighting games I’d spent any real time with are the Smash Bros. games (which I thoroughly enjoy, but have never been very good at playing) and Soul Calibur 5 (which I rented for a couple days out of curiosity).  The extent of my skill was spamming a few decent moves and hoping that my opponent wasn’t smart enough to work around it.  Looking up move lists for a character didn’t help much, either.  Deciphering the arcane combinations of letters and directional buttons was like trying to read another language; “…left, down, A, B, G, K…wait, there are no G or K buttons on my controller!”

So when Microsoft announced a reboot of the Killer Instinct franchise for Xbox One, I was a little caught off guard when I realized that I wanted to learn more.  I loved the raw, intense art style, and the way that the announcer screamed “ULTRAAAAAA!!!” until his lungs gave out.  Over the coming months, the game’s developers discussed the various modes that would be available to players for free, including a tutorial that taught all the basics of playing KI, and I started thinking more seriously about giving it a shot.  “I can learn how to do this,” I said to myself.  “I learned how to navigate the twitch-based waters of first-person shooters like Halo, so who says I can’t play a fast-paced fighting game?” So upon picking up my Xbox One in early 2014, Killer Instinct was the first game I downloaded to my shiny new console.

Once everything was ready to go, I dove into the tutorial mode, ready to be instructed in the ways of adrenaline-fueled fighting game action.  It started off easily enough; jumping, blocking, and executing a few basic kicks and punches.  “Hey, this isn’t so bad,” I gloated, “I’ll be winning games in no time!”  And then the game asked me to make a Z-shape motion with my control stick.

“Huh? I have to go right, then down, then diagonal?  And I have to do it that fast?”

This was the first time in a long time that I had to learn basic muscle movements for a game.  Years of playing first person shooters had burned proper camera controls into my brain, and I had no problem navigating tricky platforming segments in old Sonic games, but this?  This was something completely new, and I had no idea if I could even pull it off.  “…Maybe I can’t do this after all.  Maybe fighting games just aren’t for me, and I should just give up and wait for some other games that I’ll be more comfortable with.”

But I kept at it.  I forced myself to repeatedly bang my head against a wall until I finally figured out how to pull off an uppercut…some of the time.  And then I pushed myself into stringing together a few hits; and then a full combo; and then a combo with thirty hits that took out half of the opponent’s life bar! Those small, but hard-earned victories gave me the motivation to persevere until I could keep up with other people online, some of whom have far more experience in fighting games than I.

And just like that, I’d learned how to play a game in a genre that, for all my life, had been a mystery to me.  Conquering those basic moves and knowing that I could experience a whole new type of game was one of the most satisfying experiences I have had in all my years of gaming.  Since then I’ve played hundreds of matches online, picking up tricks from other players, learning how to play with a few characters and how to defend against others.

Am I a very good Killer Instinct player now?  No.  I still find myself on the losing end of most matches.  I still can’t pull off a Z-shaped move with any consistency.  And if you put me in just about any other fighting game, I’m still the easiest of prey.  But I’m getting better, and ultimately, the satisfaction of simply learning a game in an unfamiliar genre was worth all the effort it took to get there.