Sunday, September 14, 2014

Smash is the way you deal with your life

To remember gaming, from my current vantage point, is to remember the never-agains.

Most are the provenance of aging--finishing 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. before the school bus arrived in the morning--or even time itself, and the frustratingly irreversible nature of human experience. No experience can be experienced again, of course, and irreversibility is not sufficient for any kind of profundity. The never-agains are more qualitative, the moments where my ability to grok the text, to play with it, to move with it, and the social space it enabled, approached the sublime.

For years, fighting games were my genre of choice. I'd always played, but fighters were something else: the only competitive genre I'd ever really been interested in, and arguably the only competitive activity I'd ever been interested in. Now sufficiently schooled to delineate the difference between the genre itself and my experience with it, I can say that the latter peaked with the release of Street Fighter Alpha for the PS1, a seemingly arcade-perfect translation of an arcade game I'd never had the opportunity to play. New aesthetics, new narrative hooks, new secrets, and (as far as the combined skillsets of our limited audience went) near-perfect balance. With the possible exception of some of Adon's supercombos--which, in retrospect, kind of foreshadowed the weirdening of the series that would continue in the sequels--it was an exceptionally parsimonious design: a place for everything, and everything in it's place.

My brother and I were both living at what is now thought of as my parents' house, and it's hard for me to imagine why I didn't think of that as a constitutive element of the game, like the hardware or the TV we played it on. A relationship of sufficient patience to handle intense, recreational hostility, and play it with a sense of humor. It shaped my ideas of game design for years, and my place within games culture. Fighting games were an identity, and a conditional one at that, with every victory making me wonder what a vague intangible concept like "skillset" or "play style" actually meant. What did it say about me that I could overwhelm with the impossible combos or unmanageable screwdriver throws, but never be ready for the opportunistic sweep when I rose from the ground? Fighting games are a machine for practical narcissism, bathed in dopamine and smelling like an IHOP at midnight or a river in rural Ontario.

Eventually, my brother moved out. Eventually, I did too. And while my feelings on gaming had been cooled somewhat by the ongoing tragedy of my personal life, it still seemed sensible to drag my N64 to my dorm. I'd heard GoldenEye 007 multiplayer was kind of a thing with the kids in those days.

I was pleased and surprised to find that I lived in a dorm specifically enamored of Super Smash Bros., which I had thought of as a somewhat obscure title. I'd been surprised it existed at all, upon its announcement, and was even more surprised to find that it was a lot of fun. I'd only played it solo.

I'd never get myself up to speed, exactly, but I played well enough with my group. Smash was a continuity, a reminder that genres and living arrangements changed, but experiences could be remade, that no never-again need ever be the last never-again. With the first Smash, I walked into a liminal clique already in existence, and found a place to bury my overflowing anxieties and be who I still thought of myself as being, instead of the brooding mystic I tried to play or terrified lunatic I actually was. A gamer was a thing I could be. I could be pretty good with Link, or Mario, or even Yoshi. It would get me through an evening now and then, to feel like I was moving in the same direction as everyone else, at the same speed.

When Melee came out, I was nearing the end of undergrad. Once again reeling from an implosion in my personal life, but pleased to find I had something of a life to fall back on. Inevitable grousing aside, it was better than the first one in almost every way: juicier and more subtle, with more variety and fewer cheap tricks. The larger cast was mostly welcome, although the unlockables did gesture toward roster inflation. As far as I know, there's no agreement on exactly how many characters you can put in a fighting game before they start feeling too much like each other; in my experience, the number is about 14, with the attendant margin of error. Despite Melee being better, it never aroused in us the same level of passion, as measured in profanity and inappropriate sexual remarks, as did its predecessor. We had Monkey Ball for that.

Still, as I moved toward Massachusetts in what I laughingly thought of as my adult life, Smash stuck with me. As I got deeper into nerd culture, I got a better sense of the breadth of Smash fandom, and the energy that enervated it. But the break between Melee and Brawl was a long seven years, and while I was excited about the new release, I no longer had any friends who were into fighting games. Under the circumstances, it had been a lot easier to reevaluate my genre preferences than crack the crushing inertia that permeated that doomed little apartment on Elm Street. I played it a couple times, but it was tough to commit to it without the promise of eventually being able to play it as part of a group. Maybe I just didn't like being reminded. At any rate, the issue was rapidly rendered moot; as my girlfriend became too ill to spend much time out of bed, the Wii was repurposed into a Netflix delivery system, where it has since remained.

I find, with two new Smash games on the way, that I had been ready to forget about the series, to relegate it to an obsolete identity of all-nighters, anarchism, and gnostic Christianity. I find that I had expected to be someone new by now.

A friend has already given me a download code for the demo. I try to remind myself that it's a game, a text, not a time or place. It's not an identity. It's not youth or potential or hope. It doesn't mean buying a Wii U, and it doesn't mean the attendant cognitive work involved in trying to make having purchased a console worthwhile. It doesn't mean caring. It won't hurt to remember. I can play.