Back in high school, I had a group of friends that was united mainly by our love of video games. Almost every weekend we would converge at one of our respective houses to hang out and play our favorites of the moment. Apart from the rare NFL Blitz or Bomberman 64 tournament, these were almost invariably fighting games.
When it came to fighting games, the group was unofficially divided into two main segments: the mashers and the masters. The masters would take each new game that came along and practice on it for hours at a time. They would memorize move lists for characters and devote complicated techniques to memory. The mashers, as their name suggests, would mash buttons with some semblance of strategy based on their limited play time and knowledge of the game. For some games, this was enough to triumph. For others, it was not.
I was a masher throughout high school. I wanted to be a master. I tried to learn the techniques of the masters in the group by studying their play style and asking about their strategies. But between my schoolwork and a busy schedule of watching lots of TV, I just didn't have the time or innate skill necessary to rise to their level. It's like they were playing a different game.
Which brings me to the point of this rambling story: There are at least two very distinct experiences a player can have when playing Guilty Gear X. Which one you get depends on whether you're a master or a masher.
This became clear to me when my friend Jeremy hosted a small reunion of our high school gaming group a few weeks ago. Jeremy was arguably the most skilled master of the group, and his decisions of what games to buy and play usually influenced our gatherings. Though Jeremy and the other masters had long ago moved on to more advanced games like Soul Calibur II, I convinced them to turn back the clock and give Guilty Gear X a try.
Before the reunion, I had played my fair share of Guilty Gear X against the computer, but any fighting game fan knows that beating up on the artificial intelligence is no real gauge of skill. By playing against the old high school masters, I would know whether my days of being a masher were behind me.
It quickly became obvious that they weren't. While I pathetically used the few special moves I had bothered to memorize in a seemingly random fashion, the masters quickly pulled out advanced techniques that I had never seen before. While I knew some basic techniques like air blocking and dashing, Jeremy and his friends would use techniques like Roman Cancels and Overdrives to make quick work of my characters. I accused Jeremy of finding hidden moves and techniques on the Internet; Jeremy insisted that they were all in the instruction book.
When I checked later, I found that they were. I hadn't bothered to read the instruction booklet carefully before I started playing. I thought my natural gaming skills and the in-game command list would be enough. When I opened the book, I found there were dozens of techniques ranging from simple to extremely complicated. I was amazed that anyone would be able to memorize, much less execute, the command for a dead angle attack: "during guard, press forward and any two attack buttons simultaneously." Never mind that the move requires your "tension meter" to be 50% full, just something else that I would doubtless not be able to keep track of in the heat of battle.
But Jeremy and his ilk had memorized and mastered all of these moves. They had a full understanding of the intricate rock-paper-scissors relationship between each move and its counter. A dust attack beats a low block. A low block beats a low attack, but loses to a mid attack. Mid attacks can be nullified by a dead angle attack. And this is just taking into account the universal moves that any character can perform. Factor in the endless combinations of character-specific special moves, and it's too much for humble masher like me to take.
As soon as I realized this, I discovered how utterly pointless my review would be to many gamers. I could easily crank out a few hundred words on the more technical aspects of Guilty Gear X; how the character designs are imaginative and well animated, how the story is convoluted and full of nonsense English (like the fight-opening "Heaven or Hell" announcement), how "fun" it is to just sit around and beat up on your buddies. I could even take a shallow look at the gameplay, attempting to make an educated analysis based on my masher's style.
But to the masters that today's fighting games seem geared towards more often than not, this analysis would be meaningless. For them, technical concerns like the story and graphics don't matter. They're looking for a good game; a test of strategy that allows a maximum application of skill with minimum chance for the mashers to eke out a lucky win. The level of commitment necessary to understand a game that deeply is more than a masher like me is willing or able to give to a fighting game.
Which brings me to the end of my roundabout tale. After losing handily in a few matches against the old masters, I went up against Mitch, one of the masters who was particularly skilled at the game's sequel, Guilty Gear X2. Mitch beat me easily in the first round, but I got in a lucky second round win with a devastating three-hit combo that involved one controller button. I didn't even fully know how I had performed it. By the third round the tension was high and the whole room was watching as the eternal battle of the mashers and the masters was fought by proxy by our on-screen avatars. In the end, I pulled out the win, amid much trash talk.
So in one sense, I'm ill equipped to review a game that has levels of strategy that a masher like me can't begin to understand. On the other hand, the game is accessible enough that I had a chance to defeat a master that I rarely come close to beating on other games. Two totally different, totally enjoyable experiences of the same game from two totally different points of view. Take from that what you will.