ARMS and the Continued Miseducation of Fighting Game Players

I am currently smitten with ARMS. Nintendo’s newest title is a novel take on the fighting game that is one of the most accessible fighters in quite some time. For a brief moment, I thought that maybe this would be the game that magically conquers the genre’s accessibility problem. After browsing online to see the response from players on message boards, Reddit, and Twitter, it was clear that this was not the case.

Just like with any other fighting game, there were complaints about throws being too cheap. About certain characters (coughcoughNinjaracoughcough) being too overpowered. Some were calling the game a mindless waggle-fest or button-masher.  You don’t have to look far to find opinions rooted in conjecture. The reality is that getting a wider audience to understand and enjoy fighting games at a satisfying level far more complicated than just creating a simplified game.

The above statement shouldn’t come as a surprise. Street Fighter IV was the genre’s first concerted attempt at accessibility in modern times, as Capcom stripped away much of the complexity and unfamiliarity that came with Third Strike by leveraging the core gameplay and cast of Street Fighter II.  Since then, developers have gone to great lengths to lower the mechanical barriers in their games, including the creation of heavily-simplified games like Divekick, which only gives players access to one button and one move.

Regardless of how low the barrier goes in ARMS or any other fighting game and regardless of how good the in-game teaching tools are, good players will continue to win and many not-as-good players will lose without understanding why they lost or how they could get better. Some will straight up refuse to ask themselves the tough questions and simply deflect the blame on their opponents, the game, their online connection, or anything that isn’t themselves. Players have to work for their skills, which will always be easier said than done.

One of my favourite explanations for this phenomenon comes from Core-A Gaming, who made a fantastic video explaining why fighting games are hard. I highly recommend watching the whole video, but below is my favourite quote from it:

The reason why I think it’s so hard to get that satisfying, high level of play in fighting games, is because you have to get out of your comfort zone, and get bodied by real people over and over again. I mean, you’re playing a one-on-one game, where you’re represented by a character on the screen, who screams in agony when you fail to block, and no one is there to help you. There is no save-and-reload feature, there are no teammates to share the blame, and when you lose, the game will write a personal message for you in huge letters [YOU LOSE], and an announcer will read it out loud…

…Then in order to improve, you have to watch yourself losing all over again in a replay, to find out what you did wrong. And on your journey to getting good at the game, real people will insult you, hate you for winning, tell you to quit, and sooner or later, you’re going to get taunted and “perfected” by a young kid, and when you have an emotional reaction to that, you’ll be told to man up by an old school veteran, who has knife wounds from winning too much in Street Fighter II in the 90s at his local liquor store.

Any way we slice it, fighting games are hard. One of the hardest genres of video game to understand. This reality makes it very difficult for the genre to make it big in the mainstream or rise as an esports juggernaut among the likes of League of Legends, DOTA 2 or Overwatch among many other. At one point, the genre basically died because it drowned in its own obtuseness. I only want to see the scene grow and I certainly don’t want it to wallow in obscurity again.

It’s an uphill battle, but for the good of the genre, we have to keep fighting. The scene needs to continue to attract new players in order to grow. Many will continue to be put off by how difficult these games can be, but some will stick around and form the future of the scene.

Part of the responsibility for growing the scene comes from the games themselves, though I’m reluctant to say that every fighter should be dumbed down to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I think as long as the scene has a variety of different options that span different tastes within the genre, we’ll be alright.

The key to all of this I think is motivation and education. Ultimately, the path towards fighting game enlightenment is a tough one, and every aspect of the fighting game experience has to make it worth it for new players to take the journey by means of cool games, a competitive community or something to just enjoy with friends. New players can stay motivated by having the right education to keep them on the right track. Beyond a game’s ability to teach players how to throw a fireball or perform a sick combo in the tutorial, players have to learn the underlying concepts of how fighting games work and how to succeed at them. In-game teaching tools are part of that equation, but it will take more than that to move players to the next level.

For me, I turned the corner when I started listening to Gootecks’ podcast in the early 2010s. He’s never given me any sort of personal advice, but his words on the perspective I should be looking at fighting games from fundamentally changed my trajectory. No longer was I mashing out special moves and wondering why I lost over and over. Instead, his teachings were able to get me to think analytically about how these games work and what I could do to get better.

In my own way, I’ve tried to pay it forward with the Universal Fighting Game Guide. Though I haven’t made a meaningful contribution to it in years, it’s still by far the most popular section of the site. No idea how many players have actually turned the corner on their fighting game journey with my help, but I hope that someone out there was able to enjoy fighting games at a higher level thanks in part to something I wrote. Most recently, I added a post with tips on improving in ARMS. Check it out!

The modern era of fighting games has been one heck of a thrill ride. There are many games in the genre that have their own fanbases that play locally, online, and in tournament. However, the scene still has its work cut out for it in order for it to grow even further. ARMS is a brilliant game, but its brilliance is lost on those who don’t know what they’re looking for.

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