There’s a stereotype of boxers, with their elbows held in tight and hands squeezed close at face level, that they have “T-Rex arms.” Alluding to the diminutive upper limbs of that most famous of cretaceous carnivores, the label pokes fun, but also highlights one of boxing’s greatest strengths. With that high guard, it’s difficult to sneak a punch in and strike the head and, since the elbows remain in close to the body, it’s easy to shift them enough to cover the ribs and abdomen from blows (Muay Thai, in contrast, tends to maintain an even higher guard. The legs can be used in conjunction with the elbows to form a “wall” against strikes to the body).
When you’re talking about martial arts and video games (or movies, or anime, or just about any other visual medium that relies on drama), the Rule of Cool is in effect. If you’re not familiar with the term, that’s probably because you spend less time thinking about realism than giggling at explosions. But, just so we’re all on the same page, here’s how the folks at TVTropes define it: “The limit of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to the element’s awesomeness.”
If something is awesome, we don’t usually care if its believable.
But since this a column about martial arts, and I’m a martial artist, I want to spend a little time breaking down the Rule of Cool as it applies to in-game combat. This will allow us to critique the choices that video game developers make when they’re choosing between believability and awesomeness.
Here are the four major Rule of Cool categories:
Video game characters have an absurd predilection for whipping themselves into a frenzy to deliver a blow. I know I’ve criticized Batman for this kind of behavior, but he’s far from the worst offender. Everyone from Link (spin-slash) to Ryu Hayabusa has at least one move that involves twirling around before delivering a blow.
Yeah, this happens in martial arts. Taekwondo is particularly guilty, often becoming almost indistinguishable from tricking during demonstrations. That’s just it, though; this stuff is for demonstrations. In reality, very little damage would be done when Taki of Soul Edge/Calibur does a roll into a head-stand, spinning her legs around. Ryu’s turns his staff into a rotor, one-handed; it would fly out of his grip when it came in contact with his enemy. And attacks that involve spinning your whole body (especially multiple times) to deliver a single, powerful blow? Good luck landing those if your opponent decides to step back (or, worse, into you, interrupting your momentum).
These are strikes that are more dramatic than effective. I’m not talking about those long, looping punches thrown by the enemies in Arkham. In the context of street thugs, those make perfect sense (especially as a contrast with Batman), and are generally what you’d expect from an untrained fighter. Dante’s Stinger is a good example. It sends him dashing forward for a single stab from his oversized sword.
So what about Paul Phoenix? What the hell is that charge-up punch for? Or Hitomi and Ein in the Dead or Alive series? I hate to break it to aspiring martial artists, but spending a lot of time tensing up and slowly pulling back before lunging forward does nothing to increase the power of one’s attack. It only tells the enemy what you’re planning, which is a bad idea in a fight.
This is often combined with “Spinny Shit,” both in real life and in video games. Taekwondo, again, is the poster child for this stuff, with its 540 and 720 kicks.
The ninja characters from Dead or Alive, Kasumi and Hayate, spend much of their time in the air. Dante and Bayonetta possess several airborne attacks, even if they just involve attacking normally for a while. Plus, lets not forget about those “helmet breaker” finishers, which defy gravity before smashing down on top of the enemy’s head.
There’s also a defensive element to the Rule of Cool: Acrobatic Shit. I have no problem with acrobatics, and games like Assassin’s Creed and Dying Light are making parkour a popular method of escape. But there are a few games allow for acrobatic defenses. Batman, for instance, does massive flips over his foes or evades while throwing down a blob of explosive gel. Many characters are capable of the dodge roll, but in Ninja Gaiden Sigma, Ryu handsprings to the sides and back. He’s also capable of jumping across his enemies’ heads. This is common in movies, with martial artists throwing in flips and handsprings to get around for no apparent reason.
These are the four elements of the Rule of Cool. But what is their purpose? We’ll go into that next time on Cracked Knuckles!
Citizens of Earth, from 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?
Mechanically, 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.
Citizens 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).
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.
I’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.
Moving 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
- The parry must occur at the moment of impact. There’s a very small window in which the parry may be successfully executed.
- 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.
- 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.