There are a few names that get around the fighting game community that even casual punch-and-kickers might recognize. You’ve got Daigo Umehara, for instance, The Beast, one of the most successful pro gamers in the fighting scene. You’ve got Justin Wong, the other side of Daigo’s coin; a video of a Street Fighter III match between the two culminating with a mind-blowing parry sequence from Daigo has accrued over 6 million views on YouTube. It doesn’t take years of practice to recognize the accomplishments of high-level fighting game players – just check out a match or two.
There’s a lot of theory behind the competitive fighting game scene as well, though, and when we’re talking about that one of the names that springs to mind is David Sirlin. Along with being a skilled player in his own right and working with Capcom on balance for Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, Sirlin is known for his writing and games. They’re all about the integral aspects of fighting games, namely the importance of knowing one’s opponent and using that knowledge to outplay them. He’s certainly a personality; what else could be said about a man who decided Chess, the game of kings, was lacking and decided to create a sequel?
Sirlin is the president of his own game company, Sirlin Games, and he’s been cranking out titles for some time. There’s the aforementioned Chess 2: The Sequel, for instance, a card-fighter called Yomi, and several other titles that have made their way to the digital marketplace. We’ve now got a new expression of those efforts in Fantasy Strike, an actual honest-to-god David Sirlin fighting game that’s currently undergoing crowdfunded development. I recently had a chance to check the game out in its current state.
Fantasy Strike is a fighter that’s all about boiling away the cruft surrounding fighters. This is a genre that’s somewhat known for being difficult to get into; the best players seem amazing beyond one’s reach, of course, but even a gamer who’s been casually playing Street Fighter off and on over the course of years is going to wipe the floor with somebody who’s just had the controller put in their hand. You have to learn your characters’ movelist, the moves of other characters, concepts like crossups (landing an attack in such a manner that the correct direction to block isn’t immediately obvious) and safe attacks (attacks that don’t leave you open to counterattack if they’re blocked) and so on before you’ve even got a chance of competing. Fantasy Strike doesn’t completely demolish this relationship – you can still practice and get better here – but it shrinks the gap between “completely clueless” and “competent enough to put up a fight” in several ways.
Perhaps most significantly, the concept of the execution barrier is largely removed here; essentially, that’s the idea that special moves should take complex controller motions to execute, like the classic down-to-forward roll that produces a Hadoken. The obvious example of where this can be a problem is when it comes to grappler-type characters like Zangief and Birdie from the Street Fighter series, where their most powerful moves are gated behind a 360-degree joystick motion that can be difficult to perform. In Fantasy Strike, similar characters can execute those moves with a single button press at any time.
There are quite a few implications here; for my money this is an improvement to the fighting game concept. If we’re playing Street Fighter and I beat you because you weren’t able to execute a move’s motion successfully, did I really beat you as a player? In other words, did you lose because I’m the better player or because the move was needlessly complex? To what degree is execution of moves just a means of rewarding players for muscle memory rather than skilled and thoughtful play? In Fantasy Strike this question is answered by simply stepping around it; your moves are all at your fingertips, and winning is about understanding fighting game fundamentals and knowing the opponent rather than a move list.
“Knowing the opponent” is a central point to the Sirlin philosophy. In Yomi, Sirlin’s fighting game-based card game, it was the entire point of the whole affair; Yomi could be boiled down to a take on rock-paper-scissors with cards where winning was about being able to predict your opponent’s next move. Fantasy Strike encourages this sort of forethought, in particular with the Yomi Counter technique, where if an opponent is going to throw you (normally, not with a throw performed as a special move), you can perform a brutal counterattack by simply releasing your controls. This deals a lot of damage, fully charges your character’s super attack (which can then be performed with a single button press like any other move) and results in an impressive animation besides. Sirlin himself points out that one of the uses for this technique is to stymie the reflexes of experienced fighting game players by releasing the controls at points that would normally provoke a throw.
That’s not all, of course; there are plenty of other mechanical nuances that get a second look in Fantasy Strike. Characters’ life bars are clearly segmented, for instance, and attacks do a specific amount of damage measured in segments. This extends to combos, where the scaling concept used in most fighters is not present and attacks always do the same amount of damage. A corollary to this is that “chip damage” – minor damage caused by blocked special attacks – is not a thing here, and instead repeatedly blocking specials will gradually wear away a segment of health that will regenerate when not directly under attack.
The game’s input buffer is generous to say the least, making combos much easier to perform than in other games (contrast with the specific rhythmic timings needed to combo in Tekken, for instance.) There’s no crouching and thus no low attacks, and jumping is by default mapped to its own button rather than occurring when you press up on the joystick, mitigating the need to think about blocking low and avoiding accidental jumps. There’s more still, and it all works together to produce a fighter that I’d be comfortable introducing less experienced players to, both as a joy to play in its own right and as a gateway into more advanced fighting games.
There’s a colorful cast of characters that previous players of Sirlin games might recognize. Having dumped way too many hours into Yomi, for instance, I immediately gravitated to Valerie the artist, who was a favorite from that game and who worked conceptually much like she did in the card game by encouraging extended combo attacks and mobility. Many Fantasy Strike characters are clear homages to characters from more established fighting game series; Geiger the watchmaker, for instance, owes a lot to Guile with his flash kick attacks and Sonic Boom-esque gear throws, while DeGray the diplomat has a powerful sliding punch that immediately recalls Guilty Gear’s Slayer, and the aforementioned Valerie is a close-range rushdown character with multi-hit special moves somewhat like Street Fighter’s Fei Long or BlazBlue’s Noel.
Characters tend to be archetypal, in other words, and that works to Fantasy Strike’s benefit as a foundation fighter by offering familiarity to experienced players while allowing new players to come to grips with character concepts they’ll encounter in other games.
All in all, it’s a simplified fighter that embraces new players and their fresh takes on the genre. Nintendo’s had success in producing fighters that are easy to get into as well; look at Super Smash Bros., for instance, or Pokkén Tournament, or even the recent ARMS. All of these simplify execution (or at least appear to do so, as in Smash’s case) as Fantasy Strike does, but they aren’t immediately identifiable as legitimate fighting games in the same way that we see here. Unlike Nintendo fighters, in other words, the lessons that Fantasy Strike wants to teach players can be carried over to other games in a direct and clear manner thanks to the obvious parallels it both draws and encourages.
As someone who’s really into games and would really like more people to enjoy them just as much, I can’t really say enough about concepts like Fantasy Strike. Would that we could see similar ideas for other genres known for their learning curve; where’s my simplified Monster Hunter, for instance, or my foundational Dark Souls? For all the talk of expanding and diversifying the gaming landscape, it’s hard to think of a more practical approach to the issue than something like Fantasy Strike, which opens its doors to newcomers and offers them a level playing ground without stooping to condescension.