Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories. But of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
There aren’t too many video game genres that I would say I’m “good at.” I can hold my own in first-person shooters (big and dumb or otherwise) and I’m confident that I’m one of the top 10 Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater players in the world (though, like Jerry Seinfeld choosing not to run, I refuse to prove it). But one genre that generally eludes me is fighting games. For example, when I reviewed Injustice 2 years ago, I declined to say much of anything about the mechanics, in favor of highlighting the fun of putting Batman in different outfits.
And yet I remain curious. I was a ’90s kid with a Super Nintendo, so I remember when fighting games were huge, and so—in honor of the release of The King Of Fighters XV and the fact that they sent me a copy—I decided to see how difficult it would be for me, a complete and total fool, to become the eponymous King Of Fighters.
As it turns out, it’s very difficult. The King Of Fighters is a long-running series, with off-shoots and tie-ins with other games and a complicated ongoing narrative featuring violent fighting teenagers, clones, and a woman named Mai Shiranui who you have probably seen on the internet. I don’t know anything about any of that, though, because I’ve never played a KOF, which raises an important question: After XV entries in this series, does KOF owe anything to newcomers like me?
The stance that King Of Fighters XV seems to have taken is “hell no,” and I respect that. The game has a tutorial that introduces you to the basic mechanics for the game, a standard training mode where you can beat up on dummy opponents, and a “Mission” mode that walks you through each character’s specific combo moves. But after messing around with these for a couple of hours and jumping into a basic match against the computer, I got my ass handed to me real bad. Embarrassingly bad. Like, the game literally took my Xbox controller away and told me to go outside. (Not literally.)
Special moves and combos in KOF are based on managing various meters and a lot of quarter-circle/half-circle gestures on the control stick, as opposed to something like the excellent (and, I would say, slightly more approachable) Mortal Kombat 11, which puts a greater emphasis on button combinations. I’m not bad at Mortal Kombat, provided I’m allowed to look up Kung Lao’s special moves before we fight, but those skills don’t really translate to KOF at all, even though they’re both fighting games.
So the actual in-game tools for learning how to play seem a little lacking. But I think that’s on me more than it’s on KOF. See, what I needed was more information about the philosophy of KOF. What does good play even look like? Should I hammer on the buttons until my bones hurt, or should I just have some go-to moves in mind and wait for opportunities to deploy them?
Left to fend for myself, I googled “help me, I’m trash at King Of Fighters” and found a very helpful video from a YouTube page called “rooflemonger” that lays out the basics of combat in KOF XV—stuff like “hops,” “cancels,” and “hyper hops.” Chaining moves together and knowing which moves can be chained together and reading my opponents well enough to predict what they’re going to do is still miles beyond me, but I came away with a very vague understanding of hyper hops at least.
With my 40 minutes of training complete, I decided to take another serious crack at KOF. Matches are conducted between teams of three, so I chose three characters to learn based exclusively on nothing but whether or not they seem cool: Krohnen, a guy who (from what I understand) is absolutely not Tetsuo from Akira; a soldier dude called Heidern whose name reminds me of American Dad; and a woman named King who does a lot of cool kicks and dresses like a magician.
After a grueling, finger-shattering half hour in the training mode, I returned to the regular computer matches with a very basic comprehension of my new friends and their special abilities. I chose a random team of computer opponents, jumped into a match… and won. For the first time in my KOF career. Then I won again. And again. And again. I was on top of the world. I was being fitted for the crown that would confirm my status as the king of all fighters. Me and King and Tetsuo and Naydern were unbeatable.
And then we got beat. And then we got beat again. Pretty badly, too. So I clearly still have some training to do, but I’ll say this: Putting in the effort worked. I know how to play, even if I can’t physically make my hands do it, and I can now comfortably say that King Of Fighters is cool. I can see why they’ve made 15 of these things.