Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: August 2014






When I started playing fighting games seriously, there were things people would tell me.

There were things I didn’t understand.

I didn’t understand the difference between a link system and a chain combo system.

I didn’t understand what DP meant.

I didn’t understand what spacing was.

Someone would always insist that spacing in a fighting game, especially Street Fighter, was important.

It was an ethereal concept to me: What does that mean? What do I do with it?

Because I was usually the most inexperienced person in whatever FGC (Fighting Game Community) I was a part of, I focused on more obvious points.

I practiced combos in training modes. I worked on my blocking technique. I tried to pry open different fighting games’ design philosophies.

I couldn’t understand spacing, so I avoided it. I convinced myself I would get to it later.

It wasn’t obvious.

Capcom keeps their systems hidden. This is part of what led to Capcom’s ascension in the United States over SNK.

Capcom leaves guidance and discovery up to the community. They depend on the FGC to figure things out.

Because of it’s difficulty, Street Fighter mastery is considered one of the pinnacles of success in the FG genre.

SNK, though, enforces the subtle. SNK transforms the subtle into a lesson.

I believe this is why SNK has found success everywhere else in the world.

SNK fighters are lessons.

Every SNK fighting game has a shakiness to it.

From Fatal Fury to The Last Blade to King of Fighters, SNK games tend to either be mechanically broken or make viable only a handful of characters.

But SNK does something that Capcom does not: Force the player to pay attention.

Starting with Fatal Fury 2, SNK implemented an at-will two-plane system, the first of its kind in the genre. This allowed players to jump between the foreground/background of a stage.

With a two-plane system, the player had to be aware of which plane their opponent was on, the best way to move to that plane, and to avoid level hazards.

The Last Blade series had a deflect button. If the player pressed the deflect button just as an opponent attacked, the attack would be parried, leaving them open for a counterattack.

This forces the player to watch their opponent carefully, to read frames carefully. The Last Blade drills players’ focus faster than any other fighter I’ve seen.

Capcom tried to do something similar in Street Fighter III with the introduction of the parry mechanic: The player taps forward when an opponent’s attack connects and the attack is neutralized with no damage taken.

The parry mechanic along with a flood of other innovations led to SFIII becoming one of the most highly regarded fighting games ever made.

But because SFIII was tailored with immense precision, it garnered vast critical approval, but nowhere near the financial success of its predecessor.

When SFIII: Third Strike came around, the game was dead in the United States.

Even the ‘Daigo Parry‘ couldn’t save it.

Capcom tried to out-SNK SNK.

By building a solid, tactical, mechanically coherent fighting game with polish and little brokenness, Capcom suffered.

People didn’t expect that from them. They just wanted another SFII.

It would take Capcom 10 years before they would release another game in the Street Fighter franchise and Street Fighter IV was an exercise in back-tracking.

(Here is the best review of SFIII: Third Strike you will read).




At the same time Capcom released their most complex and technical iteration of Street Fighter, SNK put out its last iteration of the Fatal Fury series: Garou: Mark of the Wolves.

Garou and 3S are often considered companion games.

Both are beautiful. Both innovate on their established franchises. Both are technical.

Garou pushed the limits of what was capable on SNK’s Neo Geo system.

Even though Neo Geo was incapable of semi-transparency and 3D effects, SNK was able to simulate them using complex 2D techniques.

Like SFIII, Garou was a reset.

SNK even altered the signature look of Terry Bogard, the series mascot.

They also eliminated the two-plane system Fatal Fury had introduced and become known for.

With Garou, SNK pruned away all the excess a decade of half-finished ideas left them with.

Fighting games are usually loud. They scream. They affirm their place in the arcades.

In the mid-90’s, you couldn’t walk into an arcade anywhere in the world without being pummeled with SFII audio.

Garou is a quiet game.

Garou is serene.

The introduction shows nothing but Geese Howard‘s death and a small montage of Terry Bogard raising Geese’s son, Rock Howard.

Garou’s music is comprised of low-key, modern jazz and dance tracks. The music keeps the atmosphere light and reinforces the game’s growth.

No loud guitar music. No pop music with nonsense lyrics.

Keeping with this minimal style, SNK also paired back the roster of playable characters from the previous iteration by almost half.

Garou only has 14 characters.

There is a sense of intimacy in Garou’s world. There is a sense that the characters and places are all familiar to each other.

Because of the limited roster, each character has personality. Each character feels important.

The game does a profound job relating both characters and players to places in the world.

Garou’s greatest innovation is the stage introductions.

Before each fight, the stages are presented in short, animated clips.

There is no music. There is only ambient sound from the stage itself.

They are so well-done, so elegant, so subtle: They could be meditation objects.

Garou is a cohesive game.

All the aesthetic innovations are matched by the mechanical.

It introduces the ‘Tactical Offensive Position’ (T.O.P.). TOP is a customizable comeback mechanic.

After selecting a character, the game asks the player to choose a portion of the character’s lifebar (roughly one-third).

The player can choose the beginning, middle, or end.

During the fight, if that portion of the character’s lifebar is reached, they will begin flashing, indicating that TOP has engaged.

TOP grants the player access to a move that isn’t normally available, some health regeneration, and increased damage output.

TOP is a proto-X-Factor over a decade before Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

SNK also introduced a ‘Just Defend’ mechanic similar to the SFIII parry. If the player blocks just before an attack connects, they recover more quickly from block.

All of Garou’s mechanical developments lead to an encouragement of offense.

Many of SNK’s fighting franchises are defensive and tactical.

Garou is a massive divergence from SNK’s traditional formula.

Lifebars disintegrate as fast as they did in SFII and the game’s offense functions on how well a player can use their normal attacks.

With its speed and small levels, Garou reinforces the importance of spacing.

It is a perfect exercise in learning what spacing is.

There is nowhere to run and attacking without thinking is easily punished here.

Garou wants the player to be offensive, but not stupid.

It wants the player to not only think about what attack to use, but about the potential space of that attack.

With Street Fighter III, Capcom sought to slow the game down. They wanted players to take their time and think. They wanted each hit to count.

Defensive players flourished in SFIII’s space.

Garou taught players how to attack. It was the antibody to a generation of SFII button-mashing.

It is by no means a perfect game, but an important one.

It is a game I would encourage anybody to play.

Garou is important as a whole work.

It reinforces FG basics in a soft, clear, beautiful way.

Brandon Sheffield once referred to Garou as being ‘holistic’.

And it is.

This is a game designed with clarity.

This is a game that balances light and seriousness with grace and perspective.

The gaming world has never been as toxic or as melodramatic as it is today.


And Garou’s softness, humor, and expectation are both reaffirming and cleansing, 15 years on.











1) Nintendo Wii U Gamepad


The gamepad is bloated plastic.

It is expansive.

Even with all its technology (touchscreen, console streaming) it feels empty. It feels like a pastry puff.

The face buttons have a deep, low click when pressed and a higher-pitched, muted release.

There is stiffness to them that both speaks to the solid build of the device and of over-engineering.

Everything on the device presses like a face button except the analog sticks.

The D-pad is enormous, making it difficult to use, and clicks hard on presses, tiring the thumb.

It is nice to have triggers that snap rather than melt against your finger, but the ability to gauge force is gone.

The gamepad is not a subtle device.

It is gaudy, heavy, and tight.

It is empty, but with the right amount of friction.

A friction born from Nintendo’s first-party games.

It lacks subtlety, it lacks the hidden finesse Nintendo games demand from the players.

It’s almost as if the gamepad is a reaction to the Wii controller’s light weight.

But there wasn’t any subtlety there either since the Wii depended on inaccurate motion-control.

Nintendo gave up the sword to build the tank.


2) SNK Neo-Geo X


The Neo-Geo X is a gorgeous machine to look at.

It is a contender for the most beautiful handheld ever made.

Everything about it is understated: A black and gold color scheme and a layering of texture.

The face buttons are tighter than the Wii U gamepad, but not as audible. The buttons make the same noise being pressed as they do being released.

This lack of noise from the face buttons is offset by one of the few innovations the Neo-Geo X possesses: The joystick.

Catering to arcade/action games, Tommo built the Neo-Geo X with a microswitch joystick.

Any tap in any direction creates a loud, audible click.

The NGX has great density, but lacks the puffiness of the Wii U gamepad.

It doesn’t sit comfortably in hand.

One of the best features of the system is the split shoulder buttons.

Rather than have two long shoulder buttons at the top of the console, Tommo cut each shoulder button into two, making the NGX the only portable console with four shoulder buttons.

The PS Vita could have benefited from this feature with PS4 remote play.

The downside to Tommo/SNK’s approach to the shoulders is the difficulty in curling fingers to tap L1/R1 since they are stunted to make room for L2/R2.

The NGX has a soft rubber back that feels sticky and decadent.

This is a texture more hardware manufacturers ought to use.

In spite of its problems, this is one of the best handheld gaming devices ever made.

Even better than the Neo-Geo Pocket Color.


3) Xbox 360 Controller


The Xbox 360 controller is pretty. Its lines are both direct and subtle.

It has a better silhouette than the Sixaxis.

Between the travesty of the original Xbox controller and the success of the 360, Microsoft learned quick.

Borrowing design elements from the Sega Dreamcast, the 360 controller has one of the most unique faces of any modern console.

One analog stick positioned high on the left, bottom left sits a rolling D-pad, and further to the right the second analog stick.

The setup does seem obtuse at first, but the obviousness of its design begins to show when moving around three-dimensional spaces.

The controller itself has a nice heft and sticks in the hands.

By far the 360 controller is the most stable to hold.

It just fits.

Though the buttons are not exceptional.

Even the NGX has better face and shoulder buttons than the 360.

Its face buttons require quite a bit more force than the PS3 or the Wii U and stick out much higher than they need to.

The face buttons are too stiff.

This is strange to me when combined with the presence of a well-made rolling D-pad.

The rolling D-pad is part of what made the Sega Genesis controllers so wonderful, perfect for fast-paced action games.

Why combine a tool used for quick, fluid movement with slow, stiff buttons designed for something like inventory management?

The shoulder buttons are also difficult to press.

They are both small and require exceptional force at strange angles.

They feel almost as stunted and difficult as the NGX, but where SNK/Tommo made their decision based on space conservation and utility, Microsoft has no excuse.

The trigger buttons are actual triggers and have a strange arc to them that doesn’t work on a controller.

They are uncomfortable.

The 360 controller is an elegant, confused piece of hardware that is trying too hard to be too many things.


4) Sony PlayStation Vita


While the NGX is a product of subtle, layered design, the Vita is a powerhouse of interaction.

It has an enticing weight.

It is a very dense machine and that density is justified by the overwhelming amount of technology within.

An OLED touchscreen on the front, a touchpad on the back, two analog sticks, and front/rear cameras.

The D-pad is near perfect. It feels like a flat, rolling D-pad. Each directional press has a very subdued click that is felt more than heard.

The analog sticks are short, but responsive. They have a balanced tension that sits somewhere between the 360’s tightness and the Sixaxis’ give.

I enjoy the NGX because of its combination of textures.

Its joystick is a matte, rough plastic. Its face buttons are a clear, smooth plastic. Its case is all gloss on the front. Its back is a sticky-smooth rubber.

The Vita would have benefited from more experimentation with texture.

It would have been better without any of the gloss, like the 3DS XL.

Sony already used matte plastic around the D-pad and beneath the face buttons, they should have extended it to the whole system.

It is slippery.

It is too thin to hold comfortably and manipulate all input options.

It puts enormous strain on the wrists and hands.

While making the system larger would have been questionable, it would work better with some grips built into the back of the system rather than the two large dimples it does have.

The Vita’s highlight is its face buttons.

They are tight and responsive. They don’t feel cheap.

They have two clicks each when pressed and released, felt deep in the bones.

Pressing buttons on the Vita is a joy.

The face buttons alone are enough to make someone find reasons to play with it.

It draws you in with its innate experience.


5) Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP


The Game Boy Advance SP is one of my favorite handheld consoles of all time.

A console that drips with intimacy.

When closed, the SP is appealing and understated.

It feels good to hold and to look at: A slight rectangle with rounded corners.

It has an appealing thickness as well. It doesn’t suffer from the hyper-driven thinness of most handhelds today.

On opening the console, the proportions are less appealing.

When open, the SP looks worse than the Game Boy Pocket.

It does maintain the intimacy: The screen is small and bright and the controls are simple and obvious.

On its face the SP has only two buttons, D-pad, backlight adjustment, and Start/Select.

The whole console is matte plastic, which gives it the right amount of friction.

Nintendo positioned the Start/Select buttons near the bottom, making pausing awkward.

The SP D-pad feels similar to the Vita D-pad.

There is more space between the directions on the SP, but it has a great rolling effect. Otherwise, the SP D-pad has the same tight click as the Vita’s, without feeling difficult like the Wii U gamepad.

What’s amazing about this is that the SP predates the Vita by almost a decade.

Not only is the D-pad ascendant, but the A/B face buttons are also as good as the Vita: Dense, heavy clicks that reverberate in the thumb.

The GBA SP does have two shoulder buttons as well and while they are tight and loud, they are just as awkward to press as the NGX and the 360.

This doesn’t affect the SP as much as the other two since the shoulder buttons are not utilized in critical situations.

It’s inspiring to see what Nintendo is capable of when they get things right.

The SP came out on the back of one of the worst-designed handheld systems in history: The Game Boy Advance.

Much like with the PSV, the SP is so satisfying to interact with, it makes you find reasons to play it.

In 2014 it still doesn’t feel dated.

This is a portable device that continues to hold its own, almost 10 years later.