Citizens of Earth and the Pitfalls of Mediocre Storytelling

Citizens of EarthCitizens of Earthfrom its very first trailer, was honest about its aspirations. Here was a comedic, satirical title poking fun at both modern politicians and old school JRPGs, all while aping the framework of the latter. I love JRPGs and I’m ambivalent about our politicians’ apparent ambivalence, so it seemed like a match made in heaven. Can it live up to its comedic potential? More importantly, does it provide a compelling and enjoyable gaming experience?

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Mechanically, Citizens of Earth Is a Lot Like EarthBound, but Not Exactly

Earthbound, Citizens of EarthMechanically, Citizens of Earth wants to be EarthBound. And Phantasy Star. Maybe Pokémon, too.

It leans heavily on the first of these, though, drawing on its very style, with psychedelic battle backgrounds and mundane enemies, items, and attacks. Most of what you’ll encounter is just a warped fever dream of reality, abstracted and played off as a cartoon.

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The Tired Politics of Citizens of Earth

Citizens of Earth, PoliticsCitizens of Earth is, front and center, a game about its humor.

Playing as the newly elected Vice President of Earth, you right wrongs, silence protesters, occasionally clear your besmirched name, and combat an alien invasion of the planet you now represent. You do all of this in spite of yourself (or, at the very least, you allow your party members to do it all for you).

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Cracked Knuckles: Rolling a Stone Uphill

I’m lying on the chilled mats, back to the ground, with a heavy bag motionless overhead. Atop me, 260 pounds of human male struggles to push my knee to the floor, but my ankles remain interlocked behind his thigh. Something in him shifts and, for an instant, I feel my legs being pried apart by the great lever that is his hips.

Then he’s beside me, knees digging into my hip and armpit. The entirety of his frame presses into my chest and I can hardly breathe, each intake demanding that I lift 70, maybe 80 percent of his generous frame.

I attempt to push him away and, in a flash, my arm is fully extended, his legs trapping my body as his hips force my elbow to open further. I feel the first of that irresistible pressure and tap. He releases me immediately, and we roll back to our knees, discuss my shortcomings, laugh a bit, then slap hands and grip each others’ sleeves once more.

catherine 1I’m sitting on the couch in a friend’s apartment. The PlayStation 3 hums softly on her television stand, hard drive spinning as it loads Catherine. She shakes her head as I navigate the cursor past “Easy” and “Normal” to “Hard.” It’s a game about ascending block towers. How challenging can it really be?

Vincent clambers up the blocks with his pillow clutched tight, ram horns inexplicably atop his head. He climbs swiftly, pushing, pulling, and even hanging from edges where appropriate. It soon becomes apparent that on Hard, one is expected to utilize maneuvers that aren’t normally taught until later levels. My friend helps guide me through, and we manage to clear the first stage with seconds to spare. The next stage, however, proves to be too much, and we become stuck a dozen steps up the tower. Blocks crumble beneath us, entire layers drop away, and Vincent plunges to his demise below. The controller, low on battery, dies in my hands.

The heavy bag swings in front of me, until my instructor Ahmad comes up and brings it to a rest.

Tyson “snapping” punches

“Don’t push,” he says, stretching an arm out in a pantomime of a jab, “but snap.” He sends the arm out again, pulling away as soon as he’s made contact with the bag. It doesn’t swing, but an impression of his fist remains within. Even as he drills us to throw punch after punch on the bag, I find myself fixating on this one task. Hit it, penetrate, return.

The chain that holds the bag to the ceiling jingles as it clatters against itself, the bag vibrating in place. He returns to correct my hook, then nods in satisfaction and glides over to another student. Sweat drips into my eye and I blink, shake it away.

This time, it’s someone else’s back on the mat. He attempts to wrap his legs around my waist, but I push his knee to the floor and pin his thigh beneath my shin, using my elbow to keep his hip in check. I shift the one knee up his body and my full weight presses down on him from the side. He attempts to roll away from me, and I flip over, trapping his arm across my waist in a scarf hold, what Judoka call kesa gatame. He defends a pair of armbar attempts and tries to break away, at which point I bring my knee up to his head, turn over once more, and “gift wrap” his neck with his arm. He resists when I attempt to make a gap between his neck and arm for my fist, and so I stretch my legs across him, pinning him as I extend his arm in a classic armbar. He taps.

catherine 2Moving to the floor before the television, I plug the controller into the PS3 and resume the second stage. Inspiration strikes and I make it a few more steps up the tower, grabbing a pillow that grants me an extra attempt. Finding a pillow each time I fall becomes rote practice, affording me an infinite number of attempts as long as I take this one path up the tower. Vincent’s movement becomes increasingly intuitive, the interactions between blocks developing a rhyme and reason in my mind. There is less randomness, more in the way of logical progression.

“Hard!” Ahmad’s order sends everyone into a frenzy. The class no longer taps the bag, they strike with commitment. A cacophony of jingling metal drowns out all else as heavy bags bend, swinging from the roof-beams with every blow. Jab, cross, left hook, right hook, left uppercut, right uppercut. Vary it up, mix the uppercuts and hooks together, throw multiple jabs or a jab-cross-uppercut, but always I catch myself returning to that base combo. Ahmad reminds us to breath on every strike, and I hear the chorus of exhales in response.

Dana wants to roll with me. It’s my first class under him, and he’s curious. His face is so relaxed as to appear on the verge of sleep, and he sits comfortably as I grab for his sleeves, finding his own grips on me in turn. I almost don’t catch the sharpness in his eyes before he lunges forward and snaps for the leg of my pants. I barely manage to throw it back in time, but he’s returned to neutral before I can even think to counter.

On his next attempt, he gets the leg and I’m on my back, his knee on my belly. He submits me with an armbar that starts from the back. We roll three more times before the night is through, with him submitting me each time. He’s a walking library of ways to put me down and, by the end, I’m exhausted. Dana is too, and he later confides that his stamina is lacking.

Much Finality

Again, Vincent falls. It feels as though we’re missing something, but we’re almost out of lives and both of us are getting to the point where we want to do something else. I save and quit the game, receive a “bad ending,” and move on. Images of Catherine continue to swim through my head, my desire to know its story clashing with that same pride that demands I master the title on Hard. That night, I dream of the game, thinking about what I may have missed, or how I might have misplayed my moves. Catherine continues to haunt me, and I end up surfing online for deals on a used copy.

Where focus mitts provide resistance, the “hit sticks” Ahmad holds are flexible foam, and practically devoid thereof. In a way, it’s frustrating throwing a punch only for it to press limply against them. He reminds me to snap, to shorten my hook and not turn it over; that I need to use my hips in the punches. When I focus on his advice, he nods at my combos, each strike popping against the hit sticks. I fall into a rhythm and, soon, eat a hit stick to the face on an attempted slip. He apologizes, but the message is clear, “Don’t get too comfortable. React, don’t anticipate.”

After we’ve finished the class, one of the club’s young boxers — who I’m told is top-ranked in the region — shifts from shadowboxing in the ring to hitting the heavy bag. He’s half a foot shorter than me, but each punch rocks the bag, sending it swinging on impact as he lights it up, bending it at its center on the return with powerful counter blows. He stops for a minute after a round and his trainer corrects him; his left hook is too wild. In the next round, he visibly tightens it up and, with it, his right hand learns to stay by his face, elbow in to guard his body.

Life is about challenges, and all challenges come with successes and failures. Generally the latter actually precede the former, which is unfortunate since they’re all the more discouraging. I’ve talked before about how one trains to improve, but that only covers maybe a third of the equation. Improvement, and therefore training, doesn’t always mean incremental successes piled upon one another. There’s also failure, which serves to provide that training with perspective, the mortar holding the whole experience together.

Without those, it’s tough to dedicate oneself to something in the long haul. Whether you’re trying to learn a game, improve at a martial art, refine your cooking, or play music, it all comes down to the long game. That means accepting that you’ll occasionally screw up, or be defeated. Sometimes you’ll have to try again right away, keep improving, while other times what you really need is time to reflect and refine your approach before you tackle it again.

Endless effort

Image Source: Imagine Sisyphus Happy

As in the myth of Sisyphus, this is a process that never truly ends. As you roll your stone uphill, it’ll get harder and harder to push it higher. There’s no top to that hill, even if it appears there is, and sometimes you’ll feel as though the whole thing comes tumbling down, taking you back to square one.
The difference between you and Sisyphus is that it’s your choice to walk away at any time, to let the boulder make its way back downhill and stagnate there, forever unmolested. Dedication is a choice, and it’s one we see through martial arts as well as through gaming, whether it’s the pro-gamer or the layman who just wants to make it through Plague Inc and unlock that Nano-virus.

What will you choose?

Cracked Knuckles: Martial Arts, Theater, and UFC

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There’s a distinct quality to stage acting that you won’t find in modern film. A movie might be shot using a selection of cameras, but theater is only ever viewed from the objective viewpoint. You sit in your seat, and the action plays out on the stage in front of you. Whereas watching something on a screen doesn’t allow for changes in perspective due to distance or position, this is exactly what happens when one watches a performance on stage. Additionally, no matter what, the people on stage are people, and the sets they’re on are sized relative to them. Distance becomes a distinct disadvantage.

While modern film acting seeks to mimic the fluidity of genuine expression as much as possible, stage acting is more bombastic and exaggerated. People in the nosebleed section aren’t going to see that questioning cock of your eyebrow. This distinction between subtlety and hyperbole bleeds into each medium’s action, as well. Stage fighting is very much a skill, requiring people to to punch, kick, and grapple in a way that allows for obvious and well-timed reactions. It has to look like it would hurt, like it would make contact, even when it doesn’t. Film, meanwhile, gets to use editing to its advantage. Freddie Wong provides a great explanation:

Some movies, particularly those out of Thailand (such as Ong Bak), use real contact where possible. The Protector stands out with one of the most impressively choreographed tracking shots of all time:

By this logic, games should have some of the most believable fight sequences of all. There’s no bar on contact whatsoever, no need for actors to have rehearsed and well-timed reactions in an unbroken sequence. Everything can be separated into its component parts, modeled or motion captured (depending) and replicated as need be. Given that, it’s odd how the games that should easily be the most realistic beget the most cognitive dissonance in their fighting.

I’m speaking of EA Sports UFC, and the Undisputed titles (published by the now-defunct THQ) that preceded it.

In the realm of dramatization, we have games like Ninja Gaiden and the Batman: Arkham games, which take distinct liberties with the ways in which people fight. I’d also put the Street Fighter series in this block, given that we’re looking at energy blasts and psychokinetic powers in addition to fisticuffs.

At the extreme end of fantasy, titles like Bayonetta and God of War delve deep into the supernatural, bolstering their combat with abilities that are beyond even what we’d dream of humans possessing. Devil May Cry is perhaps the most down-to-earth of this subset, which just feels odd to say. Tekken, Virtua Fighter, and even Sleeping Dogs offer a more realistic approach to combat, in the sense that most of what you see is modeled directly on real martial arts with few frills (ignore, for a second, Tekken’s non-human combatants). The arts in question may not have their interactions portrayed accurately, but that’s what MMA games are for, right? MMA is, after all, the great equalizer in combat sports. Far more than boxing or even kickboxing.

Well… Not so much.

I watched all 25 minutes of this fight. It’s actually pretty engaging,  but that doesn’t stop it from looking really weird. The fighters throw punches and elbows like action figures with “kung fu grip” and the way their heads snap back looks more like Rock’em Sock’em Robots than real people. It’s kind of unsettling, and takes away from the impact and realism of what’s being portrayed. But that shouldn’t be a problem, right? We’re talking about a medium in which these interactions can be programmed in, perfectly massaged until they look terrific and then set out in the wild. Hell, impact in the best action games is immensely satisfying. Why not here?

Games with great combat tend to offer terrific feedback for that combat. One of the most frustrating things I encountered in Ninja Gaiden II was heavy enemies, not because they took longer to put down, but because there simply wasn’t a lot of visual feedback to make me feel like what I was doing to them was effective (enemies like these are actually what drove me away from the first Castlevania: Lords of Shadow). On the other hand, having most foes’ limbs fly off after a few strikes (or explode, if one used a blunt weapon) was terrific. The lack of all dismemberment and decapitation from the original version of Ninja Gaiden 3 was actually one of the biggest alterations to that game’s entire texture. Razor’s Edge blessedly fixed that.

ninjagaiden

These reactions, though, harken back to theater. They’re incredibly dramatized, to the point of being overwrought. And that’s fine, because it works really well for what amounts to fantasy. These games, even the fighting titles, aren’t trying to simulate martial arts. They’re just drawing inspiration and form from them and applying it to a type of fantasy.

But EA Sports UFC is trying to simulate reality. It still wants to preserve balance and consistency, so things that would be fluid or imperfect in reality are often somewhat idealized, but reactions to getting hit, and landing hits, in real life aren’t as dramatic as they are in games and most media. Except when they are, or are even moreso. There’s this unpredictability to it and, when you’re not choreographing a set chain of events, but trying to account for a vast and ambiguous cloud of potential things players might do, things get a little strange. At once, there still needs to be feedback to tell the players whether what they did was or wasn’t on some level successful.

And so, we have weird springy necks and over-emphasized parries and slips. A callback to theater.

Cracked Knuckles: Training Like a Street Fighter Pro

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Last weekend, I decided to try something different in my continuing martial journey. Saturday morning, I threw on some exercise clothes and made my way out to a Kyokushin Karate class, taught out of a Krav Maga studio (just under a BJJ school, no less). For those unfamiliar with Kyokushin (previously mentioned in this issue of the column), it’s a knockdown form of Karate that has drawn a lot of recent attention for its “do mawashi kaiten geri”— a falling wheel kick.

Here’s the maneuver in action:

Obviously, this isn’t the sort of technique that you can learn after one day of practicing, but it’s fairly indicative of the spirit of Kyokushin, which seems to center around weathering punishment in the name of exposing opportunities to demolish your opponent. My primary background is in Taekwondo, which has many techniques that are mechanically similar to those of Kyokushin, but is fought under a different set of  rules that tend to favor fast, accurate kicks and evasion. Both arts teach forms (kata in Kyokushin, poomsae or tul/hyung in Taekwondo) and involve striking drills that are performed without resistance. In Karate, this is called kihon.

I have a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, so the actual structure of my basic techniques needed only minor adjustment (twenty years of experience will do that for you). But I found that I was focusing so much on how to perform each sequence in the kihon or kata that it actually detracted from my proper performance of these techniques.

You’re probably asking yourself how this relates to video games. And if we were talking about playing games for enjoyment, it really doesn’t. But if you’ve ever held aspirations of becoming a professional – or even just competitive – gamer this applies to you. Actually, if you’ve ever wanted to be good at anything, the same principals apply.

Crawl before you walk. Walk before you run. The first things that must be mastered, in any martial art are the basics, the techniques that form the foundation of everything else. The boxer works the jab, works footwork, even as the nak muay  drills a roundhouse kick against a heavy bag (or, more traditionally, a banana tree). The karateka practices a reverse punch while the most advanced judoka still practices the “small throws” (o uchi gari and ko uchi gari, so often used to setup bigger throws).

In the same way, a competitive fighting gamer has to practice those basic combos for their character, regardless of how many times they’ve been done before. Justin Wong, one of the most recognizable faces in that community, still spends thirty minutes on basic combos before he even begins drilling for specific situations. In fact, his entire training regimen mirrors that of a martial artist, beginning with drills on the basics (as a warm up, at the very least) before delving into drills for specific situations, “footwork” drills (“zoning” is just as important in martial arts as it is in fighting games), more drills for specific situations, and wrapping it up with the fighting game equivalent of shadow boxing.

You can draw further comparisons when it comes to competition. Playing matches against teammates is akin to sparring, pick-up games are like “smokers” (amateur matches), and tournaments are the actual competition, where your skills are put to the test. At those higher levels, in sparring up through tournament fighting, you’re only going to be successful if your basics are strong enough that they come out without a surplus of thought.

For example: If I was playing Rufus, I would work on his dive kick, standing light kick 2x, into standing hard punch, into hard punch Galactic Tornado…

– Justin Wong

In the middle of a match, Justin can’t be concerned with this combination’s execution. In the same way, a jiujiteiro doesn’t have time to think through the mechanics of a triangle choke; if the opportunity presents itself, they need to be able to just go for it. This applies defensively as well.

This is the famous “Evo 2004 Moment #37.” For those unaware, Street Fighter III introduced a parry system in which attacks could be defended, without any damage even from special or super techniques, as long as the player moved into the attack rather than away from it. There are a few caveats that make this far more difficult than simply blocking:

  1. The parry must occur at the moment of impact. There’s a very small window in which the parry may be successfully executed.
  2. Attacks that hit low must be parried  by pressing “down” instead of “forward,” which means an attack must be properly read in addition to the parry being properly timed.
  3. Every hit of the attack must be parried individually.

In the above video, Daigo Umehara successfully parries an entire super attack from Chun-Li and counters to win the match with only a sliver of health remaining. This is doubly impressive since the super Chun-Li uses is often considered to be the fastest in the game.

This almost unbelievable parry isn’t a matter of luck, though. It’s clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Daigo has practiced and prepared for this exact moment, such that when the opportunity arises in actual competition, it’s possible for him to pull it off. Don’t believe me? Daigo was waiting for this very attack. Despite having only a sliver of health, and seeing that Chun-Li is attempting the move, he does nothing to move out of the way in the seconds before Justin properly executes it. Further, that first hit comes out so fast that one actually has to begin the parry for it before the screen freezes for the super.

And, in case you were still convinced this was only a fluke, here’s the same thing happening ten years later with the same participants:

Daigo even follows up with the exact same combo.

The point is this: in whatever you do, or for any skill you want to learn, be it related to video games, martial arts, or something else entirely, start with the basics. Those basics are your foundation and they need to be second nature. The cool shit will come with time.

Cracked Knuckles: Don’t Be Like Batman

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About a year ago, I wrote about the role of rhythm in gaming combat, particularly the superb sense of rhythm Batman: Arkham combat system provides. It is, in fact, the closest mirror to the flow of an actual hand-to-hand encounter I’ve ever experienced in a game, fighting games of all stripes included.

This is largely because the Arkham games simplify combat down to its essentials. There’s a button to defend, which relies on reading your opponents and timing your button presses accurately. Another button helps with “movement,” keeping your foes off-balance and chasing you. A third allows you to quickly confuse them (sort of like a feint), while the last is your attack button.

The attack button, in concert with the analog stick, determines who you’re going to attack. It’s all very intuitive, allowing you to fluidly mix offense, defense, and movement so that you’re able to remain focused on the situation at hand rather than making Batman act like Batman.

There are more advanced abilities available, but they’re largely optional. Sort of the backspin-hook-kick to the roundhouse of a kickboxer’s arsenal.

Coincidentally, while the Arkham games provide a terrific sense of what a martial contest feels like, they do an absolutely terrible job of representing the actual tactics and skills involved in the one-versus-many encounters they so gleefully simulate. In fact, many of the best strategies in the games run directly counter to the best strategies one might employ in real life. This isn’t a knock against these games — they’re bound by the Rule of Cool and the Batman mythos — but it does provide some serious food for thought.

Batman Arkham Asylum screenshot

Before we jump into the specifics of why Arkham-universe Batman is actually terrible at his job, let’s talk a little about real self-defense. When we talk about how Batman is mishandling a group encounter, it has to be understood that we’re already eschewing the most basic elements of self-defense: situational awareness and deescalation. Batman chooses, with frightening regularity, to jump into situations he knows are dangerous without any attempt to calm his opponents and disengage.

Batman is also a fictional vigilante, and since I doubt the majority of individuals reading this column are real ones, it is extremely unlikely that you have any worthwhile reason to flout your preliminary self-defense skills. This behavior on its own won’t count as a strike against Batman, because it’s largely integral to him doing his job; he’s far from your average Joe.

Strike One: Flashy Technique

The first two Arkham games take place within the cluttered halls of an asylum overtaken by criminals and on the streets of a walled-off section of Gotham City. We’re talking about “street fighting” in the sense of fighting outside of a ring or martial arts gym; real risks, high stakes, and no oversight. There are no second chances, either, which makes Batman’s acrobatic fighting style in the Arkham games somewhat unbelievable.

He flips around, does handsprings into double-leg kicks and jumping, spinning punches. A lot of his technique does seem rooted in existing martial arts, but it often feels like its momentum is overwrought. A strike that has already extended, in animation, will make almost gradual contact and still serve as a knockout blow.

Ignoring the issue of strikes that shouldn’t work but do, Batman just moves far too much. He’s all over the place, covering absurd amounts of ground back and forth, in grand, sweeping motions.

This video, of a perfect Arkham City combo, shows a bit of the problem. Batman is frequently using large, grandiose movements, including jump back kicks and spinning elbows. These techniques, while technically sound and potentially effective, use lots of energy and need to be adequately set up so as not to be easily countered or avoided. Batman throws them at will.

Also, the fact that he’s spending so much of his time airborne or kicking is problematic; one typically wants to keep their feet more grounded in a real confrontation, since being thrown or otherwise taken down is much more dire with neither a mat beneath you nor a ref beside you. This, along with the above video of a “perfect” freeflow combo, leads us to mistake number two.

Strike Two: Poor Positioning

Within the context of Arkham City’s combat system, this YouTuber is excelling at positioning. He attacks enemies who take him away from strikes he doesn’t want to counter, and makes liberal use of the vault maneuver to keep Batman from being ganged up on. The thing is, acrobatic maneuvers like this are all but a death sentence in real life. They’re slower than simply using tight, controlled footwork and head movement.

Frequently, our Batman player finds himself in the midst of a group of foes, surrounded on all sides. The goal of any actual one-versus-many confrontation is to keep the many on a single side of the one so that they remain in sight and unable to attack in tandem.

Check out this fight between one (much larger) guy and his two opponents. He lets them swarm him and gets taken down. Yes, he manages to get back up, but he’s frequently put at a disadvantage because his opponents can surround him. Imagine if there were more than two of them and he allowed that to happen.

Credit where credit is due, though: there are points at which he backpedals as they try to surround him on subsequent rushes, but it’s not a tactic he seems to consciously maintain.

Strike Three: Taking on the Knife

We’re actually going to start this one with a video. Warning: These videos will contains graphic content!

These cops have guns. There’s a concept called the “21-foot rule,” which is that someone with a knife, within 21 feet of someone with a gun, can get to them before they can unholster, aim, and fire their sidearm.

The thing to remember about knife fighting is that, for a knife wielder, any part of your body is a potential target. It isn’t just about controlling your joints, striking your head or your chest to knock you unconscious or take the wind out of you. It’s about causing damage, and a knife can slice through the flesh of your hands, wrists, feet, legs, back, anything. Puncture wounds can cause intense blood loss, while slashing wounds potentially strike major blood vessels and cause immense superficial damage to boot. Even if you know how to fight with a knife, it’s not a good idea.

This is a Dog Brothers gathering. The Dog Brothers train Filipino martial arts (in the vein of styles like Escrima, Kali, and Arnis) with an eye toward hard sparring in minimal safety gear, to emphasize protecting one’s own body in addition to aiming to score hits. These gatherings see stick fighting, bare-handed, knife fights (simulated knives), and asymmetrical contests as well.

Often, someone will get tagged on a limb mid-strike, when, in a bare-handed context, you’d be comparatively safe. This is, in many ways, the reality of knife fighting. That Batman, in the Arkham games, is able to consistently take on knife-wielders relatively unarmed is patently unrealistic, but I’ll certainly give the developers a nod for demanding special tactics for dealing with such enemies.

None of this is to say that the folks at Rocksteady are to fault for portraying Batman as an unrealistic street-fighting god. That’s part of his character, and the Rule of Cool still applies in full force. It extends to Wei Shen of Sleeping Dogs and Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man as well (though, in Spider-Man’s case, one of his superpowers is knowing when shit’s coming at him).

It’s worth noting, though, that Batman’s original core arts were Boxing and Judo/Ju-jutsu. Bloody Elbow has a great, three-part write-up on the martial arts of Batman. This means that, in reality, a Batman fight against a group of thugs would probably look something like this:

Yes, that’s a single man taking on multiple attackers by using footwork and positioning, along with short parries and good boxing, to keep them on one side and force them to come at him more or less one at a time. He stays on his feet and exclusively uses his hands to defend himself. The only person who kicks winds up on his ass the next second. This is your real life Batman, folks.

So, yeah. If you want to be Batman, take up boxing. It’s at least a good start.

Cracked Knuckles: Grappling Vs. Strikes

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Welcome to the inaugural entry of “Cracked Knuckles,” a column in which I combine my lifelong adoration of video games with my love for hitting shit.

Luckily, games are full of fist-based violence. From old-school beat’em ups to modern, open-world opuses like Sleeping Dogs, there’s a whole world of gaming violence out there. We even have fighting games, a genre based entirely on one-on-one (or sometimes team-based) conflicts between different-but-mostly-equal opponents. And many of them bring some martial arts flavoring to the equation. Let’s look at the flagship characters of these games.

Street Fighter: Ryu and Ken are karateka, their style (Ansatsuken) is loosely based on Kyokushin Karate. Trivia: Kyokushin Karate was formulated by Masutatsu Oyama (born Choi Yeong-eui) in 1964. It and its offshoots (such as Enshin and Ashihara) are notable for practicing knockdown, bare-knuckle competition. Despite Ryu and Ken’s designation (along with Akuma) of being “Shotos” (in deference to Capcom’s original assertion in the US that they practiced Shotokan Karate), the character whose fighting style is most similar to Shotokan Karate is Makoto, with her longer, linear stance and fast, dashing punches (also seen in Uechi-Ryu Karate).

Tekken: The entire Mishima family features prominently, and they all practice a form of Mishima Karate (except for Jin, in later games, who practices “traditional Karate” instead). Mishima Karate seems fairly traditional, especially in Heihachi’s case, with long, deep stances and moves that appear singularly powerful.

Mortal Kombat: Liu Kang is usually our main character, though we’ve had games that don’t even include him as a playable fighter. His style seems to be a heavily stylized form of Chinese martial arts, most likely based on Bruce Lee’s Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do. This is supported by his penchant for lead-hand strikes and flying side-kicks (as well as his, erm, unique vocalizations).

Virtua Fighter: Akira Yuki is the poster-boy for the Virtua Fighter series. Despite his obvious Japanese ancestry and clothing (he’s wearing a tattered dogi), Akira’s style is Hakkyoku-Ken, which sounds very Japanese until one realizes that it’s pretty much a literal translation of Bajiquan, meaning “eight extremities fist.” The latter is a martial art from the Hebei province of Northern China, with a focus on short, powerful movements, low stances, and strikes with the elbows.

Dead or Alive: Kasumi, Ayane, Ryu Hayabusa, and (later) Hayate. They’re ninja. In the context of the Dead or Alive universe, this seems to mean they can do whatever acrobatic and impractical (if not downright impossible) flippy shit the devs thought looked cool at the time. There might be a loose basis in Japanese and Korean martial arts for some of their repertoires.

These are, as far as I’m concerned, the most representative individuals when it comes to martial combat in video games.

There is not a single grappler on this list.

And, in fact, when grappling does work its way into a fighting game, it’s often as a bit of an afterthought. Sure, each fighter has a couple throws (maybe more, in some games), and there are characters like Zangief (Street Fighter) and King/Iron King (Tekken) who are largely based around “command throws,” but these characters are more inspired by professional wrestling than anything else. Oddly, both Tekken and Street Fighter have characters with “mixed arts” based on “Judo,” which is a completely grappling-focused style (while modern, Kodokan Judo lacks much in the way of a ground game in competition, since its focus is predominantly on gaining “ippon” by way of a complete throw, it should be noted that Judo’s newaza is related to the much more complete ground games of both SAMBO and the increasingly popular Brazilian Jiujitsu).

Silva Sweep

Probably not what you think of when someone says, “Sweep.”

Image Source: Attack the Back

The aforementioned fighters, Paul Phoenix and Abel, do little that resembles Judo. Sure, it’s in there in some of their throws, but Paul’s most damaging single move is a punch, and one of Abel’s ultras involves a long string of strikes followed by a throw that uses none of the body mechanics on which Judo relies.

Dead or Alive fares the best in this respect, actually, with characters like Bayman and Leon who use arts that resemble Combat SAMBO, mixing their striking with takedowns that actually transition into submissions. They don’t hold these submissions, many of which would be fight enders or at least leave the opponent at a severe disadvantage through limb destruction. Even in this case, when the takedowns and submissions are applied, there’s either complete resistance on the part of the opponent (they avoid the move entirely) or none (they simply fail to react). It ends up looking stilted, just as the techniques, themselves, look a bit ridiculous when they’re applied as though they’re “grabby strikes,” doing damage by virtue of the character having had control, rather than any real pain of injury they would have inflicted.

Compare:

To this:

Notice how clean those both were, but how we see nothing in the way of resistance in either. Now look at the same technique applied in competition:

Not as pretty, is it? That’s the reality of things, though, whereas video games are very much beholden to the Rule of Cool when it comes to martial arts.

That’s sort of the problem when it comes to grappling in video games. To the outsider, a grappling match, or an MMA fight that has gone to the ground, looks like little more than two adults humping each other on a mat, gradually jockeying for position and control while a million subtleties play out beneath the surface, eventually culminating (maybe) in a brief instant of explosive movement that results in a either victory or at least a dramatic change in position. Striking, though, is easy to understand. There’s less in the way of leverage to worry about, fewer tangles of limbs, and a lot more impact. A lot more blood and bruises, too. It’s fast-paced, dynamic, and transitions well to the gaming landscape. Grappling, in contrast, is awkward even when done by games in which it’s a core mechanic, such as UFC-Anything and EA Sports MMA.

Will a developer get it right some day? Maybe. Perhaps the next edition of EA’s UFC series will make it both meaningful and engaging, but for now, electronic entertainment is very much a striker’s game.

The Persona Q 3DS XL Is a Bittersweet Victory

Atlus' Persona Q Special Edition 3DS XLPersona Q, Atlus’ mash-up of the Persona universe and Etrian Odyssey‘s masochistic dungeon-delving, is getting some hardware accompaniment when it launches this winter (November 25th, for those who crave such knowledge). It comes in the form of a special edition 3DS XL dolled up to look like a monolithic, blue grimoire. It’s a GameStop exclusive, with a retail price of $199.99.

I loved Persona 4. I had the good fortune to review the expanded Vita version of the game back in the day, and found myself playing it long after the review had been submitted, edited, and posted. As one might imagine, I’m also excited for Persona Q.

Additionally, I’ve been in the market for an awesome 3DS XL, as I’m currently using the much less ergonomic (though badass) Zelda edition 3DS.

Zelda Limited Edition 3DSI skipped the aesthetically disappointing A Link Between Worlds edition (sorry Josh, but it is) and, unfortunately, the Shin Megami Tensei IV 3DS XL never made it to the States. The Persona Q edition should scratch that itch, so why am I torn?

Because this comes right on the heels of Nintendo announcing a brand new edition of the 3DS and 3DS XL with distinct hardware upgrades and, in some cases, exclusive software. Now Atlus’ full-price last-gen 3DS XL (which doesn’t even come with the game it’s named for) is a short-sighted purchase at best, with an unequivocally better option on the horizon.

So, “Yay,” because the west is finally getting a Persona-themed 3DS XL and, at the same time, a deflated, “Ugh,” because all the damn thing brings with it is existential (and financial) conflict.

The Terrible Translation of Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment

SAO Hollow Fragment vitaOnce upon a time, shitty translations of Japanese games were de rigueur. The Japanese language comes at conversation from a completely different standpoint than English, and with a wholly unique cultural context. A lot of ideas that exist in one language and culture simply don’t in the other, or aren’t so readily expressed.

Games for older systems also suffered from character limitations. While eight characters from the Latin alphabet is barely enough to write “Wirtanen,” Japanese uses two syllabaries and logographic kanji; each of the latter represents an idea, and combining them can present an entirely different idea. Eight characters can be enough for an entire sentence in Japanese.

While size limitations are no longer an issue, the cultural divide still remains. By and large, translation has improved; in addition to translators, who perform the actual task of converting the script from Japanese to English, there are now often separate employees whose role is to take the raw, English translation and rework it into something that is more palatable to a native English-speaking audience, improving its flow and phrasing as well.

SAO vitaIt’s pretty apparent that Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment had no one like that on its team. The translation is incredibly rough, and clearly little more than a draft. The script is riddled with typos and grammatical mistakes, as well as awkward turns of phrase and just a general sense that these people are speaking very differently.

One major tell is that characters often refer by name to the person with whom they are speaking directly. This happens fairly regularly in Japanese, due to the way it’s structured, but is completely out of place in English, giving the proceedings an oddly juvenile bent.

The real problem is that this poor translation carries over to the in-game instructions, which are so obtuse as to be wholly indecipherable. It took me far longer than it should have to figure out how the game’s combat worked and, since it’s really just not that complex, I felt silly for taking as long as I did.

There are other weird examples; interactive conversations between Kirito and other characters are completely nonsensical in every sense, and it leads to one’s “choice” (you can pick between “…” and “Great!”) being an absolute shot in the dark.

This is one area in which I really wish Bandai Namco hadn’t skimped.