My wonderfully bizarre adventure at BigBadCon 2014.

BigBadCon 2014 was a really memorable experience for me. Not because it is one of the best role-playing conventions I’ve ever attended, because it wholeheartedly is just from the level of play exhibited by all of the players and game masters. No, the reason why it was so memorable was because it was an event I’ve been looking forward to for months that I tried to enjoy as best I can while fighting through honeymoon jet lag of the Japan and Taiwan variety. Not fun. Especially in an improv hobby such as role-playing games where energy level can make or break many a game.

Whiny Huy aside, BigBadCon is definitely a top notch event for those looking for role-playing games in Northern California. The clear focus on story-based systems rather than crunch-heavy systems brings with it a level of collaboration that you wouldn’t get otherwise. It hearkens back to the same creative freeform play of yesteryear of the more rules-light Basic Dungeons & Dragons, but made wholly to mimic story beats and narrative flow of some of our favorite fiction and their genres instead of the also fun dungeon-delving for treasure play of Conan the Barbarian.

In terms of logistics, BigBadCon is ran like a well-oiled machine. The people running it understand that your time is precious and that proper scheduling is paramount. The only downside to accomplishing this is that the sign-up period is a mad dash of securing the first slots available and it’s definitely one of the compromises that detract from the first-come, first-served system. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as happy and immediately sad from simply signing up for something since Comic-Con 2012 (I got into the FATE Star Wars game that I wanted, but didn’t get into the Tenra Bansho Zero game that I wanted). But at least I got it all out of the way instead of wondering for weeks on end whether I would get in so that I could plan for other games or obligations.

Where the games at?

So on the morning of the convention, I made a trek all the way up to what looked like a weird backwater section of Oakland. Little did I know that there was quite an accommodating hotel venue that was hiding between the airport and the warehouses. While that isn’t far from where I live in Mountain View, waking up especially early to attend my 10AM game —  Atomic Robo RPG: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness ran by Morgan Ellis — was especially hard since I was still jet lagged. So yeah, I was dead tired. But who could possibly pass up the opportunity to pretend being a weird human-animal mutant-hybrid from 80s and 90s cartoons? Not me. If the thought of that doesn’t make you smile, you either have no soul or didn’t grow up with enough fun in your life.

The game ended up being my first convention game with FATE, showing just how versatile and narratively focused the system is. It really does get out of the way and its ability to support the modeling of many stories that we love, with heroes should struggle and fail, but later succeed is beautiful. Morgan Ellis was extremely creative, coming up with things on the fly and he created a memorably demented mastermind character that Eric Lytle played off of. Eric Lytle and Stephen Hood also had a great dynamic going, playing both genius-level characters — one of magic and the other of science — that constantly bickered which approach was better. Monika Hortnagl played an especially stealthy ninja with a lot of descriptive flavor and I played…a science experiment crocodile commando with a trench coat and tons of guns. Heck yeah. That was fun. My commando was also a master of Galaga, as he leveraged a scene earlier demonstrating his skill on a beat-up cabinet, in our underground sewer, to shooting down dozens ninjas jumping down in Galaga-triangle formation from another building stories above.

Atomic Robo TMNT?!?!
Atomic Robo The Roleplaying Game: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?!?!

My second game was the game I didn’t get into at KublaCon 2014 (and it was the one game that I had to get in), so you know I was gleefully celebrating when I got the sign-up. I mean to play in such a big-scale 8-hour character-focused Star Wars game? A total dream. The only issue was that pent up fatigue hit me hard in the afternoon and all of the Thai food from the food truck out back couldn’t save me. I soldiered on though and with a great GM like Dovi Anderson, it was impossible to not smile constantly. The guy was prepared, with cameraman scene establishment, and walked through scenes like it was second nature to him. Best of all? He was also a real Star Wars fan, so you know he loved it as much as you did.

The game’s premise is that Master Kellian — a former Jedi that worked to establish the empire with Anakin Skywalker during Order 66 — deserted and hid to train force-sensitive students. The players are, of course, the force-sensitive students that he has picked up on his journey, destined to carry out some great task that only they can accomplish together. The only problem? They’re all built to conflict with one another, establishing connections that players can latch onto and build on right away. I won’t spoil the rest since I hope that whoever is reading this considers looking around for Dovi’s game — Kellian’s Fist — at a Northern California convention, but believe that the reveal is epic and definitely Star Wars.

One thing I do want to point out from the game is that Dovi asked us all to establish an opening scene. After being delighted by the other players around the table with great openings, I created an opening that I thought would suit my warrior-monk like force student. The scene starts with a huge icy cavern and large stalactites dripping from the morning’s sun. You see him waking up, wearing very little, but not wet at all. Then it pans out and you see hundreds of tiny buckets that are perfectly put in place to catch all of the water. Now I thought the imagery here was pretty cool, but then Dovi added that as I left the caverns to attend the morning’s lesson, my character force flicked a bucket across the room and a single drop of water enters it.

That was so right and I hope you understand how great of a game master Dovi Anderson is.

Other players like Gil Trevizo and Paul Bezultek created many memorable moments, especially Gil whose character demonstrated his evolution the most throughout the game. He played the most disagreeable character that also had the strongest tilt to bringing the group together. I asked him how he did it so well and he nonchalantly told me to just listen to the character. When he got his character sheet, he thought about where he started and where he wanted it to end. It really is always about the fundamentals.

Hanging out and talkin’ shop.

The Star Wars game ended at 12:45AM and I’m sure you’re thinking — at this point, aren’t you dead? I mean jet lag should have done me over, right? Luckily for me, I actually ended up getting a second wind and was able to help cleanup and hang out with Dovi, Gil, Matt Steele (who came by after GMing a game), and another guy who hung out that I don’t remember the name of (darn). Now you might be thinking, why don’t you get some sleep for your next game? Well, like any convention goer you’ll ever talk to — it’s the hanging out that always makes the biggest impression.

We spent hours nerding out into the night about Star Wars, Marvel, foreign movies, RPG conventions, and life. I told these guys about my recent wedding ceremony and stories about introducing these nerdy things to my wife and favorite person. They could all relate. We laughed, we sympathized, and we cheered as we passed the night with the stories of sharing such hobbies with someone you cared for. We talked about the future of the nerd culture and the future of the RPG hobby. Everything about the convention was worth it.

Oh yeah, I also realized I was in no shape to play in a 10AM game the next day also ran by Morgan Ellis. I tried to tell someone to let Morgan know to not save my spot, but I felt really bad about not making it. I ended up waking up around noon when I finally back to life.

Star Wars Logo
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

The bottom-line for BigBadCon.

BigBadCon is a convention that you just shouldn’t miss if you want quality role-playing games or just want to meet great people. You’ve probably also undoubtedly seen many of these names in other places too and it just goes to show you how much of a cross section there is with everything. Here is a short list of the people that I encountered and credits that won’t do them justice:

  • Dovi Anderson (Pixar animator and convention GM). Thank you for running the Star Wars game, it’ll go down as one of the most memorable tabletop RPGs I’ve ever played. And thank you for just hanging out with Gil, Matt, the guy I wish I remember the name of, and me into the wee hours of the night talking Star Wars, foreign films, and super heroes.
  • Gil Trevizo (convention GM). Thanks for demonstrating expert-level playing skills and just hanging out. The best part of the convention was definitely just sitting around with you guys and talking nerd.
  • Matt Steele (RPG convention organizer, convention GM, and writer). For being awesome and again, hanging out with all of us that night. Good luck on that pilot script you were rushing through to write.
  • Morgan Ellis (convention GM and game designer). Thanks for running the TMNT game! It was my first convention FATE game and I was really excited to see it in action.
  • Stephen Hood (for me, the Storium guy). Thanks for playing and for just being a really cool guy. I backed Storium early on and I know the final product will be great.
  • Eric Lytle (game designer). Your evil genius character was hilarious. That is all.
  • Fred Hicks (Mr. Evil Hat himself!) . Didn’t get to say hi, but it was great to see the father of Evil Hat and creator the great system known as FATE.

Here’s to you BigBadCon! May you continue igniting people’s imaginations and fostering creativity for years to come. It was fun.

Stuff you probably didn’t know about Japanese arcades.

So I was talking to my brother Khoi over the weekend and I realized that I left out a lot of random factoids and tips out of my mega-post about arcades in Taipei, Tokyo, and Kyoto. So here they are all of my observations that weren’t included in that post specifically for arcades in Japan:

  • The #1 difference between American and Japanese players is that Japanese players go for optimal combos that they never drop–as my brother Khoi has noted with interviews with foreign players. All of their setups are tightly practiced.
    • I know that the only reason I was able to compete in Japan in Ultra Street Fighter IV was that I was playing Guile and his optimal combos are dead-easy to do now with the +1 on hit buff that they gave his jabs. Chaining jabs into a c.MP link, canceled into Sonic Boom or Flash Kick or s.HP link is no issue at all–leaving someone like me who doesn’t even practice SF4 Guile doing his optimal links 100% of the time. In addition, when the biggest Guile combos are along the lines of Focus Attack Level 2 > d/f+HK > Flash Kick, executing Guile at top-level is no problem at all. That combined with facing non-explosive characters was the only reason I was able to hang in Japan. You guys would have loved watching my Guile there since it felt like I rose up to the occasion versus just playing a very simple character. I’m sure if I played an Ibuki, Yun, Viper, etc.–I would not have stood any chance due to my lack of match-up experience and them always landing their setup or combo. Anyone with a high-ranking Nesica card would have put me on blast, I know the two Goukens with 5,000+ matches played on their cards did.
    • Even random females and normal casual players play on the level of good tournament players in the United States because of their execution and knowledge of combos and setups.
    • They’re so optimal that you can see the changes in combos all of the time. Let’s say you were playing a game with ABC combos and you typically fish with B and complete it with C into special and whatever else. Well in Japan, if it was a whiff, they’ll punish with C to lower the stun scaling, damage scaling, and potentially open up different follow-ups 100% of the time. This may sound like common-sense, but many players in the United States started with games where starting their combos with A or jabs is considered optimal (or near-optimal anyway). But if Japanese players can get 50 more damage in a 2500 damage combo, they will do it. Lets not even get started with meter as they’ll have ways to properly do meterless combos, use 25% meter, use 50% meter, use 75% meter, use 100% meter, and use 150% meter along with burst extensions in games like Persona. They will even have variations for complex setups if they’re giving up damage. This means that most Japanese players have 3-5 combos for the 5-10 main situations (from jabs, from long-ranged pokes, from counter-hit, from whiff punishment, from air-to-air, from ground to air, from air-to-ground, from throws, from overheads, etc.) in which they get combos.
Sagat vs. Abel? Yeah, I've fought this match up many many times.
Sagat vs. Abel? Yeah, I’ve fought this match up many many times.
  • The overlap between rhythm game players and fighting game players definitely exist. I suppose the reason for this is that executing rhythm games and doing combos aren’t so far apart. You can even see this changeover if you’re there during the afternoon where many rhythm game players oftentimes migrate to the fighting game floor later in the evening and at night.
  • Players stand up after they lose 100% of the time. You stand up, look around the room to check out if anyone is waiting on your cabinet and if there aren’t any, you can sit back down and play again. This etiquette is key in Asia and is the way you respect other players who are waiting to play. Funny enough, games like Persona 4 Arena Ultimax (PS3)–where they have virtual arcade lobbies–show the characters standing up off the cabinet and having you wait to sit back down to simulate how proper Japanese arcade etiquette work. You may also have people putting 100YEN down if the turn around is fast or super popular.
  • 100YEN either gets you 1 credit in a fighting game (arcade route, score attack, versus, etc.) that is 3/5. If the game is 2/3, you will get 2 credits for your 100YEN, effectively making it 50YEN per play. There are only a few main exceptions like Tekken Tag Tournament 2 being 3/5 (since that’s normal for 3D fighters) and also 2 credits for 100YEN. Most new popular games for arcades are set at 3/5 for 1 credit at 100YEN.
  • In popular arcades that play Guilty Gear, you’ll often see Guilty Gear Xrd cabinets and Guilty Gear AC+R cabinets side by side because people still want to play characters that they can’t in GGXrd.
People playing Guilty Gear Xrd! Note that Sol and Ky are VERY popular.
People playing Guilty Gear Xrd! Note that Sol and Ky are VERY popular.
  • People do smoke in certain arcades (and there are even ashtrays because they know it happens). Smoking and non-smoking floors are designated usually by the stairs. Arcades that have zero smoking sometimes offers full meals and drinks on certain floors.
  • Capsule toys and gashapon still sell quality toys in Japan since the culture is there. This leads them to mostly being around 300YEN ($3) rather than the cheaply made toys, oftentimes stickers or putty hands, that you find in America.
  • Arcade operators will change the game in Nesica cabinets when tournaments are running for additional setups. I was there during a 3v3 Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax tournament at Sega Akihabara and they cleared all the machines running Guilty Gear Xrd, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, BlazBlue Chrono Phantasma, Dead or Alive 5 Arcade, etc. to Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax until the tournament ended. And yes, I saw a lot of crazy high-level play in Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax.
Side shot of the Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax 3v3 Tournament.
Side shot of the Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax 3v3 Tournament.
  • Almost all fighting game cabinets featured Sanwa Denshi joysticks and Sanwa Denshi buttons (non-clear and non-silent). However, these sticks are way more loose (not broken at all) and require less force than the stock Sanwa sticks that you find in commercial products in America–either due to use or lighter springs. If I were to replicate what a Japanese cabinet felt like, I’d undoutedly use HORI’s Hayabusa stick (since that feels like what Sanwa sticks feel like over there stock) as well as using Sanwa Denshi buttons (non-clear and non-silent). Alternatively, you could just play on your Sanwa stick a lot and loosen it up or try to find a lighter spring. Khoi told me later that the Street Fighter III: Third Strike cabinets featured Seimitsu sticks likely due to parrying.
  • Always push the stool that you’re using back in after you’re done playing. I saw lots of foreigners play, leave their stools out, and arcade operators having to make the rounds to push them back in so that the aisles stay zen and spacious. Don’t be one of these people.
I got a lot of matches with this dude in Dead or Alive 5. He's easily one of the best players I've played there at a-cho, sporting a Leon, along with a Hayate across from him. They both had more than 4,000 games played on their cards each.
I got a lot of matches with this dude in Dead or Alive 5. He’s easily one of the best players I’ve played there at a-cho, sporting a Leon, along with a Hayate across from him. They both had more than 4,000 games played on their cards each.
  • Your significant other, family member, or friend sitting at stools is totally fine when the arcade isn’t lively. However, when it even has a moderate amount of people or if your buddy is sitting at a the single open cabinet for a particular game, arcade operators will request that they stand up and leave the seat to attract potential customers.
  • Arcades are open way later than any other business (besides the seedier ones I suppose). Plan to visit arcades after you’re done with shopping, sight-seeing, and dinner as they’ll still be open then. Playing in the arcades during the day on weekdays is really only productive if you plan to play single-player.
  • It is typically in good form to buy vending machine drinks that you’re drinking at the arcade, at that very same arcade. Recycling bins for bottles are also located next to vending machines a well.
  • Taking pictures is only allowed in arcades when taking pictures of friends, family, etc. This is such a big concern in terms of culture that they even have signs in English that say so since foreigners break the rule so often. That didn’t stop me from taking pictures of random people though. So there. Also, taking video is always restricted, friend or not.
Nothing will stop me from taking pictures of random people! Not even a 3v3 Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax tournament!
Nothing will stop me from taking pictures of random people! Not even a 3v3 Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax tournament!

So there you have it guys–I’ll likely update this post and include more facts if I think of any.

The arcade scene in my trip to Japan and Taiwan in October 2014.

So Winnie and I decided to hit Taiwan and Japan for our honeymoon and I couldn’t help myself from making trips to the arcades while we were there. Ever since we were children, I grew up with my brother Khoi playing fighting games together, hoping that we’d someday make it to Japan to play and challenge the best–so that was a really big aspect of the trip I was hoping to see for me when when I was finally out there. A fulfillment of a childhood dream. Really, the only thing that could make it sweeter is someday going out there with my brothers and friends. Back to this post, I’m going to talk about what games are being played at this moment, what I think about said games (and their future in the States), my arcade impressions, and of course my personal play log!

In typical fighting game fashion, let’s start with a Japanese tier list. For fighting game popularity. Yup.

The Japanese arcade fighting game popularity tier list.

Note that this list was created by visiting Akihabara in Tokyo and Kyoto both on the weekdays and the weekend. The arcades included here are Sega Akihabara, Club SEGA, Taito Game Station, Hey! owned by Taito, Sega UFO, and A-Cho.

Standing in front of the legendary Taito Station.
Standing in front of the legendary Taito Station.

S+
Mobile Suit Gundam: Extreme Vs. Full Boost (technically not a fighter, but is very close to one)

S
Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax
Tekken Tag Tournament 2

A
Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-

B
Ultra Street Fighter IV
Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax
BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma

C+
Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown
Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate
Arcana Heart 3: Love Max
Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code

C
Street Fighter III: Third Strike
Guilty Gear: Accent Core + R

C-
Super Street Fighter II: Turbo
King of Fighters XIII

F
Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late

Aside from these games, you had a wide variety that saw cross-pollination either with fighting game players or didn’t see much play at all. Of the ones I noted, many rhythm games had players who later migrated to fighting games during the night on weekdays since the skill-set of those games (executing combos) shares lots of similarities between the genres. From these rhythm games, it was clear Taiko Drum Master, Kumamoto, Hatsune Miku Project Diva Arcade, Groove Master, etc. were all popular. Then you had arcades like “Hey!” owned by Taito that had lots of great classics as well as shoot-em-ups (shmups) like Gradius that had lots of good play. Cabinets that were plentiful, that I never saw people on included lots of light gun games, Puzzles and Dragons Arcade, Dragon Ball Z Zenkai Battle Royale, etc. There were some plenty of other games that had cabinets and play, but none so popular that they need special mention here.

A streamer, streaming directly from A-Cho! I told him that Khoi and I always watch his channel and he laughed and thanked me.
A streamer, streaming directly from A-Cho! I told him that Khoi and I always watch his channel and he laughed and thanked me. The stream setup was on the quiet side of the room so that he would have breathing space and less noise–smart man.

Taipei special mention–Tom’s World.

Taipei is a special case and deserves to be separated from the Japan tier list above simply due to how different it is. Arcades here are dead. But nestled in the heart of what they call the “Taipei Akihabara” is a single arcade, named Tom’s World, at the top of their main electronics building. This arcade is a weird mish-mash of a Japanese arcade (in terms of some modern offerings of rhythm games and Gundam) and third-world arcades (Mexico, Brazil, Korea, Singapore, etc.) in that classic King of Fighters still dominate the scene. It just reminds me of how SNK needs to recapture that magic.

King of fighters machines in Taipei--legions of them.
King of fighters machines in Taipei–legions of them.

S
King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match Final Edition
King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match

A
Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition 2012 (hopefully they update to Ultra soon)

B
Tekken Tag Tournament 2

C
BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma
Mobile Suit Gundam: Extreme Vs. Full Boost

The games and my play log.

Here, I’m going to go over the games, my impressions of how it’ll fare in the States, and my play log if I got any matches in with said game.

Standing in front of Sega Akihabara, the one arcade you need to visit here for fighters.
Standing in front of Sega Akihabara, the one arcade you need to visit here for fighters.

Mobile Suit Gundam: Extreme Vs. Full Boost

Gundam deserves a special mention here, despite it not being a true fighting game because quite frankly, it’s played by many fighting game players and shares many of the same skills with spacing, resource management, positioning, setups, and canceling. The magic of Gundam–besides the awesome robots–is that you can always find someone playing it no matter the arcade you’re in. Even during the weekday when no one is around, you’ll find a good amount of people to play. During prime-time on weeknights or weekends, you’ll see Sega Akihabara’s floor filled with only Gundam machines (something around 20 head-to-head setups or 40 cabinets) be totally filled up and lines of people waiting for next.

With Bandai Namco choosing not to localize these games and trying to push their US Gundam clone, Rise of Incarnates, we’ll likely never see the adoption here that this game deserves. When I left Japan, I kept thinking that I wanted to put in my PS3 copy that my friend Justin Li imported and learn how to really play. If only there were enough other people back in the States.

Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax

Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax is clearly the #1 fighting game in Japan right now. It also won’t be localized and will likely not be relevant in the United States. This game is the “Marvel vs. Capcom” crossover game of Japan, featuring characters from ASCII Media Works’ Dengeki Bunko light novels. This includes a lot of popular franchises that are synonymous to the anime genre for better or worse. It also features two of Sega’s characters as end-bosses, Akira Yuki with his assist Pai-Chan. And while Sega is “making it,” it’s Ecole Software and French Bread (UNiEL and Melty Blood) that is clearly the main mechanical force behind the game.

The game plays like UNiEL meets Persona 4 Arena meets Marvel vs. Capcom. Here is a quick bullet list of things I found within my first quick play-through:

  • Ground-based play with no air-dashing, but still juggling and chaining like UNiEL.
  • Universal armored overhead that leads to an air combo like Persona 4 Arena.
  • If you burst someone mid-combo (while they’re in hit-stun and you’re in recovery), they’ll pop-up, likely reducing hit-stun deterioration and damage scaling exactly like One More Burst in Persona 4 Arena.
  • The game also features a push-block and suffocating assists that lead to extremely nasty pressure much like Marvel vs. Capcom.
  • The game had a burst that came back about more frequently than I’m used to.
  • You can cancel out of things and call your assist instantly if you’re willing to use up a stock.

For my limited arcade time (I am on a honeymoon after all), I made sure to put in sometime with it since everyone was playing it. I even happened to stumble on the arcade on the night when a huge 3 vs. 3 tournament was going on and they had to change half the cabinets to be running the game. So when I sat down with the game for the first time, I ended up picking the main character of Sword Art Online, which I don’t even know the name of (just seen him in a lot of promotional material for the anime or game or whatever). I know, I know–I don’t watch much modern anime and even I know you anime connoisseurs consider Sword Art Online really really bad, written for fans who are okay with the terrible writing and mainstream generic-ness that much of the genre is plagued with. So don’t send me hate mail about anime, I know a lot of mainstream anime nowadays never lives up to the manga its based off of with its poorly-paced adaptations (caused by being too decompressed), I know many never live up to the games that it constantly rips off of, I know many are laden with too many tropes, I know many are too derivative, and I know that many of them are outright trashy in its animation. But, I also know there are some non-mainstream jewels that deserve more attention like any other form of entertainment out there. Just have to take everything with a grain of salt.

Now that we’re past that, the reason I picked him was that he was a standard looking guy with a sword–I knew he was going to be easy to play. I quickly grasped the game, noting a lot of things above. I also noted that his jump normals didn’t cross up on most characters well and that he gets two activations of a super sword mode (throughout the entire battle) that he can cancel out of anything to extend combos as well as increase the range on all his normals (solving the cross up problem). I quickly came up with a standard combo ABC > 236C > A+C (activation) > ABC > 236C > 4C > 6C > 8C to end it with an option 236B+C (2-stock super) or 214B+C (3-stock super) to end it. I also quickly found out that I could get into an activation off of the universal overhead to launcher A+B stuff with j.ABC > air 236C > A+C (activation) and I also noted that if you caught someone with a jumping air normal that you could likely do something like j.BC > land > j.BC > air 236C > leading to the same stuff above. It was also obvious that the character was going to be mostly a fundamental character with good hit-boxes and reach rather than pressure and mix-ups. I tested a few assists and was good to go. First match, I almost won. Went 1/3 with a very close round. The one that I won was super stylish. I had to head out though, so I left thinking about how to better play the game. Later when I came back to the arcade, I lost horribly to a very seasoned player. Later again, when I finally started putting everything together (and just had 2 arcade routes and 2 actual matches under my belt), I was winning. I was winning a lot. 8 game win streak from good spacing into 2As and 5Bs to smart resource management for damage led me to those wins. I was eventually defeated by a weird zoning character with a brutal assist pressure trap that I wasn’t used to, but I felt pleased. I never reached that level of success again, but I continued the rest of my visits with moderate success, trading wins and losses.

It’s funny to see Sega finally put effort in a new fighting game, but know that it will make no attempt to make it popular in the States. While this does align with their stance on games like Yakuza, it’s still a shame to see. I suppose it’s hard to blame them when the cast is filled with so many pre-established characters that most Americans don’t know. The game is solid though and easily replaces UNiEL, but I doubt I will ever put in a lot of time with the game with Guilty Gear Xrd coming so soon and Persona 4 Arena Ultimax already here.

Huy playing Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax for the first time.
Huy playing Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax for the first time.

Tekken Tag Tournament 2

Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is easily the one game franchise that I felt guilty for not playing. Everyone played it, everyday. Weekdays? No problem, there is still a line. Just visit Sega Akihabara and see the ten head-to-head setups (20 cabinets) filled with lines waiting to play all night long. The game is a heavy favorite there with its colorful cast, advanced movement canceling (all Marvel players who love the Marvel movement should be playing Tekken), and  flashy offense. When you see it in the arcades here, you realize why the Tekken franchise is the favorite son of Bandai Namco and not Soul Calibur–it’s clear that its complexity and charm is what keeps people coming back to it, night after night. Simple games lose that appeal quickly. It’s also this very reason that it dethroned Virtua Fighter after its resurgence with Tekken 5. Considering that Tekken Tag Tournament 2 has been home in consoles for two year, its turnout is ridiculous to behold. No other fighting game that has been offered at home even comes close in comparison in terms of this popularity.

Tekken has obviously been well represented in the States. While the recent years have seen some diminishing turnouts, Tekken 7 aims to do right by the franchise soon enough. I wish I put some time into this game when it came out more and will likely think heavily on trying to now that I’m back in the States. I don’t have much else to say about the game other than the fact that the game is so popular that it is the only game that can support a cabinet that only supports the game with a card customer/replay viewer that you can see below. For those in love with Tekken, you have to make it out to Japan.

There are lines for Tekken Tag Tournament 2 all the time despite its console release.
There are lines for Tekken Tag Tournament 2 all the time despite its console release.

Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-

Guilty Gear Xrd was a clear third after Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax and Tekken Tag Tournament 2 in terms of popularity. While Xrd hasn’t seen a console release yet, I’m sure that for gatherings and weekends, it’ll still see a lot of play after release this December.

While there, I managed to play through multiple arcade routes during the day when few were there, getting a hands on with Sol, I-no, Ky, and Ramlethal. The overall game feels meaty and weighty with new character models that occupy big parts of the screen with slower X axis movement. This is alleviated with roman cancels, which are now easier to do since they can be canceled at any point, slowing down the opponent allowing you to outpace them for a small amount of time. These changes end up making the game feel right and more importantly, feel like Guilty Gear, yet still inviting new players.

Sol feels like Sol, back to his classic #Reload incarnation for the most part. His nuanced combos based on characters are a lot less complex here and there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be one of the directions they keep developing him as the game moves forward. Continuing on the same note, Ky feels almost exactly like his #Reload incarnation and everything that you know about Ky will work the same way. He feels right and there’s a reason why I make comparisons to Ryu and Taskmaster when I talk about Ky. I-no on the other hand has had a huge overhaul, mainly around her new horizontal and vertical chemical love. Since this move has changed to its simple 214 (or qcb) input, it also had to be rebalanced, leaving her with versions of the projectile that only cover about 50% of the distance it used to. This is extremely noticeable and her ability to zone well has dropped dramatically. Her style of bad normals and weird movement that leads to fuzzy pressure still creates a huge charm for the character though and for those that keep at probably one of the most awkward characters in the cast to get a handle of, they’ll be rewarded with a stylishly fun character. Ramlethal on the other hand takes extremes on a new level. Her normals are either extremely short-ranged and fast or long-ranged and requiring a lot of setup. This awkward gap of not having auto-pilot chains, needing a lot of setups for simple pressure, and a lot of forward planning should give people a complex character that will take a lot of time to unlock her potential and have fun with. The consolation is that her high-damage combos seem to be easy to achieve once the hit is earned.

Also, 4/5 setups had either Sol or Ky on them. One of those four setups likely had Sol vs. Ky–so if you hate mirror matches or need to be a unique snowflake, these characters aren’t the ones you’re looking for. Other than that, Slayer trailed slightly behind those two and I saw equal representation across the board for every other character with skilled characters other than I-no. I didn’t spot an I-no player once the entire time.

In the United States, more than any other air-dasher, this game stands a chance to bring a whole new set of gamers in as well as converting the old ones with its rock and roll charm and its quirky designs. We’ll see many types of players pick this up from other communities, from the new Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 crowd who is too sheepish to learn BlazBlue or Persona 4 Arena, but needing a new game to the old fighting game players who still remember when Guilty Gear carried the scene with the most innovation.  Even the Street Fighter 4 crowd that has never air-dashed before stand a good chance to be united with Xrd’s big models and slower gameplay that drills down to the essential mechanics that make Guilty Gear. The future is bright for Guilty Gear Xrd.

Ultra Street Fighter IV

Ultra Street Fighter IV sees no play during the weekdays at all. The only time you’ll really see people play it is during the weekends, where a eight head-to-head setups (16 cabinets) will be filled in Sega Akihabara. While there won’t be any lines for it, you’ll be sure to find intense competition with everyone doing long links and ambiguous setups at a very high proficiency.

While I was there, I had the chance to sit down and play many games of it against competitors. I picked Guile because he was by far my best character, primarily because of my lack of effort with the Street Fighter IV series and him being so close to what he was in Street Fighter II. I was able to take quite a few players–including those that played Poison, Sakura, Blanka, Ken, and Ryu. My longest streak was 6 games, but I was eventually ousted by a Dictator (while I was playing Sagat–I could never figure out that match-up despite playing Denny Pryds so many times) and later a Gouken. One of the things I forgot about the Ultra changes that make Guile even easier to play was the fact that his jab links have become stupidly easy. I don’t think I dropped jabbing into s.HPs or c.MP xx special the entire time. Lots of successful reads and just solid SF2 style play got me the wins. Japan isn’t really that scary like many think, but I didn’t play the guys who were running explosive characters like Yun, Evil Ryu, Ibuki, etc.

As for the game, until Ultra Street Fighter IV, the Street Fighter IV series lived in a precarious state for me. On one hand, it brought SF back to its roots (kind of) and revived the United States fighting game scene. On the other hand, I didn’t grow up with it and it certainly isn’t my favorite Street Fighter.  I also didn’t really like the game very much until Ultra Street Fighter IV, at which point, I felt kind of late to the party. I disagree with many of the design decisions such as cramming together characters that shouldn’t be in the same game engine (without real changes to their kit) and I didn’t think many of the universal decisions were even reasonable until the latest version.

I mean shoehorning classic SF2 designs and balancing around them such as SF2 Guile and Honda meant that if those characters were ever the best, the game would be dumb since they could just deny characters from doing things the entire time. Even if they were designed to be competitive (as they are), they’d be using only a handful of moves that had to be tuned to be extremely effective since they didn’t have that much nuance to their move list. Factor in early glitches/balance problems like true unblockables, the vortex nature of best characters of the cast being extremely effective, and looking at design decisions like allowing DP xx FADC > Ultra confirms just made for a lot of dumb auto-pilot play. Ultra Street Fighter IV fixed all of these and the only gripes I really have left is that plinking is in the game and that block-strings still don’t feel as right (as they do in any other SF and even in SFxT), but that is minor.

One fact stands though as a testament of how great Ultra Street Fighter IV is and it is that it is easily the most balanced Street Fighter ever made. Almost every character is usable at any level of play given the right amount of work and they’ve managed to make a game where a simple character like Guile can face off against a nuanced character like Ibuki–two characters that shouldn’t even exist in the same game–work. That in itself makes SFIV worthy of its name. I just wish it was designed with more interesting risks that were taken with its universal mechanics like SF3, A2, A3, CvS2, etc. or with design decisions that didn’t hurt and skew the games for so long. I do appreciate what it did for the fighting game community though–it revived the scene in the United States. But it really is looking long in the tooth now and needs a sequel, despite Ultra being so good and the Omega update promising a lot of fun.

Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax and BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma

These games now occupy a weird space since they both have been ported to the console with very feature-rich ports and good netplay. You can tell that many of the machines that the arcades have invested in have suffered as a result. But despite that, you can always find a few players ready to play there. And they’ve brought a lot of coins and their Nesica cards as well.

While I didn’t play any of the games directly, I find it sadly ironic that I was here in Japan while the US release of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax happened in the United States. I can’t wait to crack it open and put some real work into it. I know I’ll love it.

As for its adoption here in the States, Arc System Works fighting games have done historically well leading the air-dashing sub-genre–both with good turnout and now prize pools. With more companies directly contributing to prize pools such as Atlus or Arc System Works themselves, these games will find a skilled audience here in the States.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is front and center of many stores--but that doesn't stop them from selling Persona multiple times by listing Persona 4 Golden next to it.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is front and center of many game software stores–but that doesn’t stop them from selling Persona multiple times by listing Persona 4 Golden RPG next to it.

Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown

Virtua Fighter is in a very precarious state of affairs. You cannot find any VF5:FS machine anywhere, but Sega Akihabara. Given the indicators of Sega developing Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax (which is impressive since it’s been awhile that Sega has developed another fighting game property other than VF), how Sega has been pulling out localizing triple-A games like Yakuza that they deem too Japanese, and the fact that VF5:FS came to us in such a stripped-down manner (especially when compared to the excellent classic console version of VF4:EVO)–you have to wonder if another VF is coming.

However, despite how bleak Virtua Fighter’s future looks, you can still find people playing this franchise on a floor dedicated to it in Sega Akihabara. The age demographic  for this game is interestingly skewing much older with many players in their 30s-50s, likely those who came onto the franchise during its heyday. Sega just doesn’t seem to want to attract new players anymore with VF. And without Yu Suzuki, maybe they don’t know how.

Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate

Dead or Alive has a special place in my heart since I made one of my best friends, Michael Ferguson, playing it online way back in Dead or Alive 2 Ultimate. Boy, the landscape to online play has changed so much since then. To see it come back full-circle to the arcades in a cabinet meant a lot to me and to see it regularly played by people with Nesica cards was a treat. Despite that, there are only a handful of players, though they seem to be dedicated enough to have thousands of games played on their cards.

While I was in Japan, I definitely played this game a few times. I beat a few casual arcade players; an Ayane and a hooded Kasumi player with my Ein. Then I traded a few games with a Hayate and Leon who both came with their Nesica cards and many coins. It was a hell of a time and I wish I was doing higher-level things besides playing such a basic character and using such universal mechanics. Despite that, it was still a blast.

Dead or Alive is already alive and well in the United States, especially in the east coast and majors like Summer Jam, Northeast Championships, and The Fall Classic where it is one of the headliners. If you love Soul Calibur, there is no reason you shouldn’t be playing Dead or Alive. I definitely feel like I should be playing this franchise more now that I’m back in the States instead of having neglect it for so long. Only time will tell.

King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match Final Edition and King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match

It’s great that these games timeless classics remain being heavily played in countries (who still have an arcade scene) outside of Japan. Seeing the rows of King of Fighters head-to-head cabinets in Tom’s World brought a tear to my eye–it was beautiful. Since the Neo Geo had a lots of legs in these countries, you have a subculture created around the crown jewels of SNK, King of Fighters ’98 and 2002. They were subsequently updated and still played, regardless of hardware, simply because of balance, ease of play, and fun. Seeing Tom’s World in Taipei reminded me of why it’s no surprise that many of these best KoF players are from Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, Singapore, and Brazil. For those looking to try these iterations of these classic fighters, Shoryuken.com reported that we’ll be seeing them soon at the end of this year for the consoles.

Arcana Heart 3: Love Max, Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code, Street Fighter III: Third Strike, Super Street Fighter II: Turbo, King of Fighters XIII, and Guilty Gear: Accent Core + R

There isn’t much to say about these games other than that you’ll definitely find people that play it if you look in the right places for the small groups that still play it. So without further ado, here’s the list of places I know you’ll find people to play:

  • Arcana Heart 3: Love Max can be found with about five head-to-head cabinets (10 cabinets) in Taito’s Hey! in Akihabara.
  • Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code can be found in Sega Akihabara in the corner of the Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown floor with three active head-to-head setups (6 cabinets).
  • Street Fighter III: Third Strike can be found being played at almost any arcade, just on a single cabinet though usually.
  • Super Street Fighter II: Turbo can be found at Taito’s Hey! for only 10 YEN per play! Lots of old-school players love the place.
  • King of Fighters XIII can be found usually being played on one head-to-head setup (2 cabinets) in Sega Akihabara.
  • Guilty Gear: Accent Core + R can be found in a-cho in Kyoto where the Guilty Gear scene is alive and well. You’ll still see people playing the previous version side-by-side with the new Xrd because their mains are the older characters such as favorites like Johnny or Anji.

Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late

I decided to mention this game because of its recent popularity in the States and unfortunately the game is effectively dead in Japan. Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax plays so similar to UNiEL with the additions of Persona and Marvel vs. Capcom mechanics that it has just simply replaced it. I feel bad for French Bread Developer since they wanted to create a new original property that would stand against the tide and remove themselves from the Melty Blood association, but until another revision comes out, I can’t imagine it fighting the gigantic light novel crossover that is Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax. I certainly didn’t see anyone pick this up once even during weekend prime time. I’m sure it’s being played elsewhere in some arcade somewhere and has a decent turnout at tournament brackets, but it’s gone from normal arcade play, which may simply be the cause of the console version coming out.

Quick impressions of the various arcades.

Upon visiting Japanese arcades, you’ll quickly realize that–like everywhere else–people have to go to work and school. However, when the weekend comes or when you hit the place later at night, you’ll find ample opponents ready to challenge you. So plan your trips to the arcade after all of the other major locations and stores close down at 6PM-8PM–people will be there.

At a casual level, you’ll find many UFO games and photo booths occupying the bottom of floors of these arcades (or sometimes the entirety of it if it is devoted solely to it) to attract various customers not interested in the hardcore offerings. You might even stumble into an Adores, which looks like an arcade chain until you realize that all of the machines in there are for gambling games. But as you ascend the steps of these legendary arcades, you’ll find yourself in a place where you can test the limits of your execution with the latest rhythm game or test your wits with the latest fighters. Just don’t be one of the foreigners that is too afraid to challenge someone.

Here is a quick list of Japanese arcades and their rundowns:

  • Sega Akihabara – The main arcade you see when you get out of Akihabara station–go there. Many fighting games.
  • Sega UFO – The small arcade you see on the side of Akihabara station, go there only if you want to play UFO games for prizes.
  • Taito Game Station – Very small and really, not that many cabinets. Even when Daigo is known for playing Ultra Street Fighter IV there, there is only three head-to-head setups there for it.
  • Taito’s Hey! – Located near Sega Akihabara, before Club SEGA, this place has almost every memorable cooperative game out there. Looking for Final Fight, Raiden, Gradius, X-Men, etc. they’re all here. Go here for all of your beat em’up and shoot em’ up needs. They also have Super Street Fighter II: Turbo on 10YEN setups for those who are dying to play the classic for dirt cheap. Add in some old fighting games and some niche fighting games and you’ll find a pretty awesome arcade.
  • Club SEGA – Unfortunately, this place is no longer as cool as what Virtua Fighter  4: Evolution told us it would to be (in their virtual quest mode where you visit Japanese arcades). It has plenty of older games as well as new games, but not many people playing any of them. If you want to play single-player during prime-time for many of the big games currently out there, this place will usually have a cabinet or two for it.
  • a-cho – Located in the heart of Kyoto, it continues to be a hotbed for all of the fighting game competition and streams, definitely a must visit for fighting game fans in Kyoto.
I saw many Japanese girls playing...Japanese girls. This girl playing Asuka will kick your ass and many other girls in other fighting games like Street Fighter will be doing optimal Sakura combos and resets 100% of the time.
I saw many Japanese girls playing…Japanese girls. This girl playing Asuka will kick your ass and many other girl gamers in other fighting games–like Street Fighter–will be doing optimal combos, setups, and resets 100% of the time with the obligatory Japanese girl character (in SF’s case, Sakura of course).

My closing thoughts on all of this rambling.

If someone told you right now that Killer Instinct doesn’t matter; Injustice and Mortal Kombat don’t matter; Soul Calibur doesn’t matter; Marvel vs. Capcom doesn’t matter; Even Smash doesn’t matter.

You’d call them crazy.

Yet that’s what Japanese arcades tell you. And they’d tell you with a straight-face, saying you’re playing the wrong games.

It’s amazing that there is still an arcade culture somewhere out in the world and Japan definitely fosters the most impressive one. I’m not sure how many people grew up like me and my brother Khoi, but the dream of finding the strongest opponents still live on here. While the desire to travel has been dulled greatly by the advancement of good online netcode for many as well as the internationalization of EVO, there is still some magic here. Lots of it. There just isn’t any place to play fighting games like there is in Japan.

Standing in front of the legendary a-cho.
Standing in front of the legendary a-cho.

Want more stuff on Japanese arcades? Check out this post with arcade tips in Japan!

Hello world.

You know, every time I try this blogging thing–it never really works out. I’ve debated why internally quite often. I mean it’s not that I don’t want to write. And it certainly isn’t that I don’t have things to say. It’s just…the feedback loop, you know?

If you know me, you’d know I often obsess over doing the smallest things to make someone’s experience of gatherings that I host just that much better. Thankfully enough, this type of effort is met with honest excitement and interest and the feedback that I get from it makes the effort worthwhile. This loop of creating or contributing something and knowing that it was received is what I think has been missing from my blog posts in the past. My rocky move to host my own things never took off because they were silos off in the distance. My effort to post on Tumblr didn’t pan out because people don’t really want to read stuff there–it’s really about the pictures. So here is another attempt, this time in the most well-known platform out there, WordPress.

So with that out of the way, I hereby proclaim, “My name is Huy Tran and I vow to write more!” Good luck to me, I’ll need it.