To say that I spend much of my free time playing video games would be an understatement. Although I haven’t quite joined the elite ranks of pro gamers or poopsockers, one of the two seemed like a distinct possibility at one point in my life. Some gamers tend to have a specific genre or game that they devote all their time and energy to, which is why they either become so good that others actually enjoy watching them play or they become so consumed that they cast aside all conventional hygienic practices in favor of a full set of planar gear. I tend to go through short-lived phases of obsession. I recently overcame one such obsession with Street Fighter IV.
Gaming is big in China. Changchun is no exception. Before I had an internet connection in my apartment, I would spend about an hour every day checking e-mail and news at an internet cafe on my street. Most of the other customers were malnourished Chinese males in their teens and twenties on day-long World of Warcraft, Defense of the Ancients or Counterstrike benders. I had a Chinese professor who used to tell our class how much he hated the internet cafes in China because he thought they were destroying China’s youth. Although online gaming dominates the youth-destruction market, there’s still a healthy arcade culture here.
I believe arcades provide a physical enhancement to video games that gets lost through network cables. Winning a fighting game is satisfying. Winning a fighting game and listening to the guy you just beat yell and shake the machine is one of the greatest joys life has to offer. I spent a lot of time in arcades as a little kid yelling and shaking machines. Deep down I’m sure I felt pretty good for the asshole next to me. By the time I got old enough to actually understand the finer points of fighting games, there weren’t a lot of arcades around.
After I discovered that I could once again waste hours of my time in an arcade playing fighting games, I developed a routine to do so. First I’d a forty minute bus ride to Hongqi Street, a commercial hub of Changchun. Then I’d walk a few blocks to a gigantic mall named Wanda Plaza. I’d resist temptations to stray towards such iconic fashion vendors as Plory and Hotwind on my way to the “Super Player Park” nested comfortably in the back of the mall. Finally, I’d buy ten tokens and hope that I didn’t lose ten times in a row.
There are two Street Fighter IV machines in the back of the Super Player Park surrounded by endless rows of every game in the King of Fighters series, by far the most popular fighting game series in China. The machine’s design is a thing of brilliance. Rather than stand adjacent to you, your opponent stands on the opposite side of the bulky apparatus. This means that you have no idea who’s landing seemingly impossible combos and winning every match unless you take a very intentional step around the side to peek, which of course results in thoughts like, “Hey, this guy actually looks like a pretty cool dude. I’m glad he won.”
If someone is already at the Street Fighter machines when I arrive, I don’t put my token in immediately. I wait until right before the guy wins his match against the CPU, hoping that the “Here comes a new challenger!” announcement throws him off and annoys him. This is about the full extent of my psychological game. The only thing I can do from here on out is pick Balrog and hope for the best.
|Balrog vs. Generic Projectile-Spin Kick-Uppercut Guy|
I’ve fought against a Zangief player on a few separate occasions. I’ve never won a single round against him. It’s okay that he wins though because I just love the game and it’s an honor to watch someone who really knows the ins and outs of his character go to work. I watch in awe as I lose half of my health to one ultra combo. The way Gief is totally unapproachable from the air and easily counters my own ultra combo attempts constantly reminds me of what a fun time I’m having. I guess I’d have to say he’s the most talented player I’ve gone up against.
|All too familiar|
After dinner with my friends Bill and Luke in Wanda one night, I told them my crippling addiction to video games would cause me great pain if I didn’t play a few rounds of Street Fighter. They agreed to accompany me. When I got to the machines, a guy around my age was already there. He played Ken. I beat him without much difficulty. He kept putting in tokens and at one point, stopped playing Ken and began hopping around from character to character. His skill level seemed to take a nosedive. At one point, Luke walked around the machine to see if I was fighting the same guy, which I wasn’t.
“It’s like, a kid who’s nine years old,” he said.
My friend Bill suggested letting him win a round. I considered the suggestion. Would that really have done the kid any good? If he wasn’t having fun he would’ve stopped pumping tokens into the machine. He could’ve moved to the adjacent machine and play against the CPU. Deep down, I’m sure he felt pretty good for the asshole across from him. I know I felt pretty good. I was straight up kicking his ass. In any case, he was probably the least talented player I’ve gone up against.
There was a delay between one of my victories and the next “new challenger” announcement. Luke took another peek around the side and said there was a new guy playing now who looked pretty confident. He picked Blanka. He beat me three times in a row. I would have been crushed, if not for a mysterious onlooker who entertained me by bothering Luke with bizarre questions, like whether or not I hate my opponents.
Spectating is an incredibly popular activity at the Super Player Park. Perhaps even more popular than playing video games. Pouting girlfriends and creepy middle-aged loners excel at it. Sometimes a gamer will bring along a posse of several friends to assist with the duties of holding a plastic cup full of tokens and leering around the side of the machine so the gamer doesn’t have to. Of all the spectators I’ve seen, two have stood out.
My second-favorite spectator gets paid to spectate. He struts around the arcade armed with a microphone, announcing games he deems worthy of his talents. He spends most of his time pacing back and forth between a wildly popular Dance Dance Revolution clone and the fighting game nook. The first time I saw him, I thought I’d interrupted a Street Fighter tournament but when I saw him week after week, I realized he’d been intrigued by my presence the first time I went and hung around the Street Fighter area for an inordinate amount of time, then gradually lost interest when he began to recognize me. He generally wears a suit but on the day that I brought my camera, I was pleased to discover that this was not the case.
|PAY ATTENTION TO ME|
I almost didn’t like my favorite spectator when I first met him. I was fighting a guy who played Dan and lost a bunch of times, then switched over to Ken. He got better real fast; we were about even. Just as I was getting immersed in the game, a guy sat down next to me and stared vacantly at the screen. He asked me a barrage of questions in a thick northeastern accent that I couldn’t understand, which irritated me. Every now and then he would slam his fist down on the buttons of the machine he was sitting at, which annoyed me further. As he continued to ask questions with complete disregard for my unresponsiveness, I decided to ask him to leave. As I turned to face him, I realized that would have been a terrible mistake. The same mysterious onlooker who had bothered Luke several weeks prior was now bothering me.
|Do you hate your opponents?|
My win streak had poisoned me with hubris. I neglected he who brought me comfort in a time when I got my ass handed to me. I tried not to view his incessant questioning as a nuisance so much as a charming quirk. It did still piss me off when he bashed the buttons on the pad though. Fighting pads command respectful and responsible use. Please don’t needlessly destroy them. After a while, the guy brandished a knife and either threatened me with it or asked me questions about it. I told him several times that it was a great knife. This seemed to please him and he continued to watch me play without producing any further weapons.
|I’m only going to ask you one more time. Do you hate your opponents?|
I was really enjoying my matches against the Ken player. So much so that when I ran out of tokens I decided to give him a friendly wave on my way out of the arcade. He had a companion with him who held his token cup. After I waved, they excitedly waved back. The companion extended his arm and rattled the cup at me. I declined. The Ken player nodded emphatically and grabbed a fistful of tokens, presenting them to me. I figured he probably wanted to play me more than the CPU and took one, which lasted a few more games.
I gave the guy another friendly wave as I got up again to leave. I actually did leave that time. I haven’t been back to Wanda since. Perhaps it’s because our shared experience left such an impact on me. Although we could only communicate to a slight degree verbally, so much was said without any words. Damn. Although our cultures are so radically different, we both felt equally passionate about something most people would consider so trival. Shoot. More likely, it’s because Bill picked up Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and I’ve been playing a lot of that.