Rather than turning this column into a 14-part series in which I analyze the precise contours of my defeat in agonizing detail (as Id like to do), I thought Id try doing something actually useful instead. So heres a quick survey of some of the magic behind top Japanese play. And it is magic. While theres no question that theyre not some other-worldly unbeatable gods, I saw nearly every character in every game played better than Ive ever seen them played by anyone in the States (outside of MVC2, which they dont yet understand). Not better in a supernatural way- just better. They knew the matchups better, they had more techniques, better setups, etc.
But setups and techniques aside (since we can just steal those- hehe), what REALLY set them apart? Youve heard me go on about it here already. If you didnt believe me before, believe it now: its all about execution. This is ground zero of good SF. They had simply amazing execution in all regards. As Ive already pissed away an entire column going on about the importance of execution in general, Ill try and talk here about a few specifics instead…
The first and most basic aspect of their execution is just what youd expect- there are a lot of combos and techniques that US players are aware of, but regard as simply too difficult to be practical. “Save it for the combo vids- youll never get away with that in a real match!”. Now, sometimes you wont get something in a real match because it has an extremely contrived setup- a “trick shot” combo. Fine, yes, no one (including the Japanese) gets those in a real match, and people who spend their time trying spend even more time getting killed for the effort. But there are others that arent impossible to setup, theyre just really hard to actually perform. These are the ones that the Japanese players are tossing off. How? No national secrets here- its just practice. So why dont you see that in the US as well? Because Japan has the additional ingredient missing from the US scene: competition good enough to reward the effort. This is key. Sure, maybe you COULD do that really tricky crouch-cancel electricity Blanka VC, but you dont NEED to practice that to win- you can beat everyone you know with just reglar ol crap. So why bother? Thats a fair question in US arcades. In Japanese arcades, theyll give you the answer to “why bother”- because you HAVE to be able to do that to beat the guy next to you. Skill tends to rise to the level necessary to insure victory, and not much beyond there. Intense competition breeds better, tighter play (duh), and the competition in Tokyo is intense like nowhere else. Walking 2 blocks in Shinjuku, you pass more and bigger arcades (with constant competition) than you see in the entire Chicagoland metropolitan area.
So thats the most boring, predictable way in which their execution was impressive. But wait! Theres more! A lot more. In addition to actually doing the combos we usually judge to be impractical, they also tended to be better at taking full advantage of the techniques we do use. I dont just mean they perform them more consistently (though thats probably also true), I mean they use them to better effect. The best example of this is probably kara-throws from 3s. You interrupt a normal move that advances your character sprites to increase your throw range. Although its an important part of the game, weve known about that for a long time, no big deal, right? Wrong. The Japanese players were getting flat out more range on their kara-throws than we do. Okay, so a little more throw range. Cool, but youre still wondering what the big deal is. The big deal is that you can exploit this with matchup shattering effects. Makoto, for instance, can get Hugo-SPD class range (seems like even more, actually) on her semi-throw, when “karad” to its full extent. So suppose youre getting worked by Akuma (as Makoto mostly does). Say youre down to like 20% life, and Akumas working on a perfect. But… uh-oh. You parry into super-ranged kara grab. Then you combo that into the 2 super 100% Touch of Death combo. Peace out, Akuma. You become threatening in a way you never were before- like a mini-Zangief (worse, actually). Playing against that is also incredibly unsettling, so there are psychological bonuses too.
While distinct, these types of execution obviously arent exclusive of one another. Combining them, you see devastating stuff like the karad walk-up 720 Gigas Breaker from Hugo. Extending the range on the super grab is already pretty cool, especially since he could perform it as a walkup (without having to tick into it, etc). But the mastery of basic techniques goes even further: One weakness of special grabs in 3s is that they can all be escaped simply by jumping away. Hence, to avoid wasting the superbar and insure a successful grab (and a win for that round), the Hugo would wait to do the walkup 720 until he saw you crouch. Jumping from crouch (rather than a standing position) requires an extra frame before you get airborne (you go to the standing animation, and then to jump, though it all happens very fast). This is just long enough to prevent you from being able to jump away- you waste your “escape frame” merely going from crouch to standing, and are grabbed at that point. So once you crouch- bam. Grabbed, dead. This would seem like an amazing display of reflexes (reacting to a crouch!) if you didnt realize that that was exactly what the Hugo player was waiting for you to do, and why. While this was pulled off by an excellent player, it was pulled off consistently, and in an extremely deliberate way. So you have technical excellence (the ability to do a walkup 720), a thorough understanding of supplementary techniques (real kara throwing) and a detailed knowledge of the game-engine. The routine combination of all these things begins to paint a picture of what youre up against when facing Japans finest.
Before going any further, its important to note that a major component of the Japanese technical excellence and execution is their superior hardware. Japanese sticks and buttons are just straight-up better than ours. Thats not to say that playing on them was initially fun- it was a painful adjustment in a lot of ways (I got more accidental Spinning Bird Kicks during the week in Japan than I have in probably the last 5 years combined- including in the tournament itself, unfortunately- and a lot of people were having trouble doing DPs). “Jumpsuit” Jesse Cardenas, ST player par-excellence and combo technician had an old post in the forums about how impressed he was at the difference when he bought a cabinet with Japanese sticks installed. I wont repeat all of his points here, but I agree, and theres really no comparison. The keys are the tight responsiveness and small base on the joysticks, and the sensitivity of the buttons. The smaller-based, shorter joysticks allow you to hit a lot more points with a lot less wrist action, and in a shorter time. The buttons are also a lot more sensitive- they can be triggered merely by brushing them, you dont have to slam them, or push all the way down. This makes a lot of stuff possible that would be totally out of the question on US sticks (things like the walk-up 720 with T.Hawk in ST that I saw- a feat that no one understood, and which should be almost literally impossible). I should also mention that not only are the Japanese sticks and buttons inherently better- they also WORK. The arcade employees in Japan arent just another bunch of slack-jawed yokels punching the clock that could just as well be working at McDonalds- theyre all required to know how to fix the machines, do so routinely, actually seeming to like their jobs.
Even here, however, the top players dont just take these advantages at face value- they make the most of their tools. A lot of top players in Japan will leave the stick in neutral when not actively performing a move, or being forced to block (there are a number of advanced benefits to this- e.g. you can execute a variety of commands from neutral faster than you can from, say, a defensive crouch, and youre actually smaller (less sweep-able, for instance) than you are when crouching). To get back into this “ready” neutral state, they just let go of the joystick- it naturally snaps back to center itself immediately. If you tried to let a big American 360 snap back to neutral on its own (I have), youd be amused to see it actually bounce from def. crouch, through neutral, to off. jump, and back and forth. Thats what happens if theyre tight. When theyre loose (which actually tends to be better), they dont snap back at all- at least not reliably, and certainly not faster than you could put it there yourself.
Another example: Daigo (the Beast!) Umehara in particular has developed an interesting “failsafe” technique for performing specials (something like this was first championed in N. America by Chris Finney, many years ago). He would drum his fingers lightly, in quick succession, over all the relevant buttons. So, for instance, if he wanted to perform a DP, hed start with the button appropriate to the move he wanted to do (i.e. start with jab if hes going for a jab DP), but then also hit strong and fierce in quick succession- to give himself as many chances as possible to make sure some dragon punch comes out, at least. He fills the entire window with inputs, brushing each button, getting the benefit of the press and the release (which can also trigger a special, of course) for a total of 6 inputs in a fraction of a second. What does this insure? Execution. He executes better than anyone. Not only does this technique help to guarantee that the move actually comes out, hes also able to do his moves with reversal timing with remarkable consistency. Additionally, hes getting his counter moves off as fast as is technically possible, every time. This can really make a difference. Youre forced to give him the benefit of the doubt on all his reversals- if hes going for it, he gets it so often (like, every time) that it doesnt pay to challenge him straight up. You cant ever count on him to miss a move due to technical difficulty, or pressure. Youre forced to out-think him.
These are but a few more (Japanese-flavored!) in the long list of the benefits that flow from excellence in execution. So although your slop is good enough to beat the drooling local chumps, do yourself the favor and go it one better- hone your technique as best you can, and dont settle for the least you can get away with. Maybe theres no one at the mall whos demanding more, but they ARE out there…
PS- Since Im not planning on doing a log right now, regarding the trip overall: Although everyone seems to enjoy pretending that things were super-dramatic and loaded with nationalism (they werent), the trip boiled down to a great time with great players and great guys (in a fantastic city). Our hosts were incredibly gracious, helpful, and fun throughout, and we all owe them a huge debt for putting together the best SF event ever. Deafening shout-outs to Julien Beasley, Kuni Funada, David Dial, Mr. Matsuda, Wakamatsu, TZW, Harahi (aka Blanka God) and all of Team Japan (except that surly guy with the bad moustache, because he smelled bad and looked shifty- you know who you are, punk!). That said, (in addition to the vicious tournament beating =), my exploits included:
Going 4-6 in a 10 game Chun v. Ryu series with Daigo (the Beast!- who we thought was playing better than any of the team members we faced).
Splitting evenly (lots of games) with “Brother” Ken (team member who plays a better Ryu, a great Bison, and a great Dhalsim).
A winning record vs (team member) “Kurahashi” Guile.
4-0 vs TZW. Woo!
So yes, I stunk, but not the whole time- just when it counted =)