The Only Game I Ever Mastered

I’ve been playing electronic games consistently for 36-years. You’d think I’d have at least a passing familiarity with it’s major milestones but I don’t. I’ve never played Zelda or Mario Carts, barely touched a Sega Genesis controller and the only portable gaming unit I ever owned was also the first game I ever played in 1981. When my friends were playing the first NESs, I was still on the Commodore. When the consoles moved up to 16-bit I moved up to a proper 386. Compared to my friends, my gaming skill-set was radically different.

This difference grew further apart as the two gaming biomes matured. Consoles excelled at physical games, where reflexes and muscle memory ruled. Computers could focus on more strategic fare with input devices (mouse & keyboard) and posture (up close to the screen) opening up design that would be impossible at couch distance with controllers. Even when computers did action games they did so with a joystick (long ago) and later with the mouse & keyboard. Even 40 years into the hobby most PC gamers have a single dusty controller somewhere if they have one at all.

I first noticed the gap when Chris Malitzia brought over his Nintendo for a sleep-over. Mario 3 had just come out and Chris was determined we’d be the first to finish it so we can send in a picture to a gaming magazine. He hooked the Nintendo to my C-64 screen (blowing my mind that it was just a small TV), the only screen we could be guaranteed full control of for the night.

only game i ever mastered
My favorite costume was the little frog. Little cute hoppity Mario. Good times.

The controller was a weird little brick in my hand. My green Luigi as clumsy and hapless as he looked while Chris’ red Mario displayed the grace of a ninja-swan-plumber. We powered through the vast game and its unlimited continues. The 2-player mode simply alternated lives. If either player finished the level then both continued. I provided no forward progress past the first few chapters, dying quickly and handing control over to Chris who often finished a level on a first play through. I grew bored as the challenge increased, my turns too short for any investment but enjoyed watching Chris navigate the outfits that gave his Mario wings or let him swim like a fish.

Chris went home the next morning, a Polaroid of the final screen in his pocket, and I went back to playing proper games with proper input devices.

only game i ever mastered
My brother would pick the worst team and give me the best. Then he’d score on me as quickly as it takes to get up the ice. Over and over again.

The gap reared up again on occasion. A visit to my brother’s business university was particularly humbling. He was the don of a floor full of bros and a sega genesis in the lounge somehow remained unbroken despite constant use. They only played one game – NHL 94 and my brother and a few of the guys had reached zen-like mastery of the deek move. Games were decided by double digit football-like scores when they played each other. When they played me it looked more like a Globetrotters-Generals game. The following summer I visited my other brother at his engineering program and everything went back to normal. Vast rooms of PC’s were filled with engineers in pajamas hunched over keyboards as god intended.

The gap did not show up again until my own quasi-university experience. I never finished high-school and had been working full time for 6-years when a strange set of circumstances deposited me in a 2-year pilot Game Design program in Winnipeg, Manitoba of all places. There the gap showed in both directions. My class, filled with 20 men (and 1 woman) of similar age and world view as myself, was itself a computer lab, networked and stocked with high-end graphic machines for the school’s very well regarded animation program. When lessons ended nobody went home. One of the best LAN environments on the planet was at our fingertips long before the rest of the world could enjoy large scale multiplayer mayhem online and we took every advantage of it.

But my classmates, like my friends of old, grew up on consoles. Even though I mostly played solitary strategy and RPG’s, Wolfenstein blew my mind and I played every FPS that had come out since. And FPS games is what you play when you have 30 computers all wired together. Compared to their clawed pawing of the mouse I was a zero-G god in Unreal Tournament and blurry death dealing crossbowman in Half-life, our 2 games of choice.

When we went home the tables were turned and my new friends exacted brutal revenge. First their superheroes beat the shit out of mine on the Dreamcast (Marvel vs. Capcom) then they showed me that the PC was not the only place to shoot your friends in the face in 1st person. They knew every corner of every level of Goldeneye. While they laughed and sniped each other in the eye from across the room in fast handguns-only matches I was getting distracted by all the motion a 4-player split-screen caused.

only game i ever mastered
In a year and a half we probably played this for 100 hours. I did not get a single kill.

Finally, as in most things in life that are not destroyed, an equilibrium was reached. Soul Calibur 2 on the Dreamcast became the bridge that spanned our two worlds. Their vast edge in dexterity with the controllers was dulled by the control scheme and my previous familiarity with the game (never owned a console but always played in arcades). Unlike Street Fighter, Mortal Combat and most other fighting games at the time, success in Soul Calibur was not dependent on complex circle moves or long combos and juggling. It was slower paced, every move could be reacted to in real-time once you learned the attacking animations and each individual hit was more damaging. It (and similarly Virtua Fighter which I also dropped a mortgage on in quarters in arcades) was a thinking man’s fighting game.

Me and 5 of the guys from class spent every day together. We were all poor, having quit our jobs to go to game school and were stuck indoors for 9 months of the year (having moved to fucking Winnipeg). Whatever money any of us had went towards the communal weed bowl. Various girlfriends, non-gaming friends, other activities and all the normal things older college age students with no supervision and a very easy course load occurred but no matter what else was happening, a Dreamcast was hooked up to a secondary TV and 2 of us were playing. Winner stayed in, loser was replaced by anyone else near by.

only game i ever mastered
Part of Voldo’s effectiveness lies in his extreme creepiness. You get over aggressive trying to stomp him out like a spider. Then he hits you with his groin and stabs your face.

Two years of constantly playing the same game in an extremely competitive environment (all men, all with an audience, all with brutal mockery) honed our skills. We knew every move of every character but had truly mastered our favorites. Tim McManus, a good looking, jocky bro with a baseball hat perpetually stuck to his curls (we saw Tim without his hat once and it was unsettling so we told him to put it back on immediately) played creepy Voldo when he wanted to fuck with us and Cervantes when he had something to prove.

We all considered Cervantes to be a little cheap because of one specific move, but Tim didn’t care. If he really wanted to win, he’d pick Cervantes and spam that one move where Cervantes twirled both his swords and then either struck high or struck low. The initial blade twirling made it hard to counter or get close, and the final hit coming either high or low made it a 50/50 whether you blocked correctly. We were all roughly equally skilled which meant largely defensive matches where you had to trick your opponent to beat their defense and score damage. Having a move that hit 50% of the time was a massive advantage.

My moment of mastery came during such a Tim McManus Cervantes twirl. Siegfried, my personal champion, was slow, had great reach and could dish out huge damage. We did best when our opponent was at the far end of our massive sword and we had lots of time to slowly react. If speedy Cervantes got close enough to do his twirly move we were already in a bad spot. Tim had messed with my mind and slid under my sword and into range almost immediately and then pummeled me down to a hair of health without taking a hit himself. With my fighter prone he started to twirl forcing me to rise up in defense, unable to strike back until the twirling stopped, guessing either high or low to not lose the match.

I blocked low correctly, but unlike every other time it didn’t feel random. I didn’t know what I was reacting to but I was reacting to something. Tim did the move, switching this time to high and again I blocked. Then a third time. I could feel Tim glancing my way from the side, but I didn’t see him or avert my gaze. I was in that weed-fueled video game zone we’d all sometimes reach before becoming invincible. I blocked everything that came my way, occasionally throwing out just a quick jab when I knew it was safe.

By the end of the match a whole silent crowd had gathered. I had successfully defended more than a dozen times and now Tim’s tiny pixel of health was as small as my own. Circumstances had separated our fighters by as far as the arena allowed and as Tim charged in I performed an extremely rare Siegfried circle move, his slowest, most damaging possible. Tactically it was an extremely poor choice being so slow that Tim could react, move aside and kill me while I was still holding my sword aloft collected lightning. But I was in the zone and inside Tim’s brain. The imminent loss after such a commanding lead, combined with the crowd, the sudden ineffectiveness of his staple move and the completely unexpected (especially from me) dazzling lightning show attack made him freeze. His Cervantes kept running headlong, moving into his slide just as my sword came down like Mjolnir and massively over killed him.

only game i ever mastered
Fuck you Tim McManus. I remember you fondly 🙂

It was actually surprising how quickly we all learned to block that Cervantes move. Once our brains knew it was possible they quickly isolated the single frame in the long animation that showed (with exactly the right amount of time to react) if Cervantes was going high or low. And once we did that our skill levels climbed and reached another plateau as individual frames became the difference between a win or a loss.

When I watch top FPS players I can sense that same level of mastery, human reaction matching the smallest bits of data the game allows. Head shots on foes 2 pixels tall, clearing a known corner before the eye can even process the enemy, throwing a grenade exactly where an invisible foe will be when it detonates. I think I’m too old and disinclined to ever reach that level of physical mastery in a game again. But I remember it with pleasure and its a joy to watch when others display it.

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I want good games to be discovered. Running this website seemed like the most direct way to do that.

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