Thursday, September 2, 2010

What the arcade game Final Fight and other late1980's beat 'em ups taught me about friendship

My Final Fight adventure would have cost me 22 quarters in an arcade. Surprisingly, Ben would have cost us nearly as much! Turns out, Final Fight sucks quarters indiscriminately.

The first time Ben and I sat down to play Final Fight I pepped myself up by talking smack to my husband.

You ready to get beat, loser? You ready for my shirtless fatty Haggar to beat your effeminate, pretty-boy Cody down?”

Hon, this is a co-op game. We're playing together against the bad guys. Not against each other.”

Oh right. Co-op.”

Competitiveness runs through my veins like Carl Lewis. It's my default setting. I can quickly get behind a sports team just to see whether they win or lose. Too many hours of my life have been spent cheering on Casey on Top Chef or the nerdy couple on The Amazing Race or Jeannine on So You Think You Can Dance. I will actually stop to root for Miss Florida in the Miss America pageant. I live for awards shows.

But unlike the characters on Final Fight, I'm multi-dimensional. While I am competitive, I also really want to make other people happy. I remember when I was about five or six and my family was on a boat trip.I was bored and my Dad said he'd play a game of Memory with me. I placed all the red and white marbled cards face-down on the table in the boat cabin. The whole time we were playing, the boat lightly rocking in the river's chop, I was feeling a bit tortured by a dilemma. I didn't know who I wanted to win the game. Of course I wanted to win because winning feels good and winning would make my Dad proud of me. But I also adored my father. I didn't want him to ever feel disappointed or sad about anything. I didn't want him to have to lose, either. I wanted us both to win! Towards the end of the game I started purposely picking up mismatches so I'd lose. I remember my Dad asking me if I was letting him win and I said yes. He told me he didn't want me to do that. He wanted me to try as hard as I could because having fun and challenging yourself was what really mattered, not who won.

I've struggled with competitiveness my entire life. It has affected my friendships, my schooling, my hobbies, and my business decisions – sometimes in positive, and sometimes in negative ways.

I've been making things lately. Inspired by a few very creative, productive, inventive, and brave people I know, I decided it was time to focus on creating, showing, and possibly selling the things I make. I have to stave off the jealous twinges I get when I see other people's work in stores or at festivals or hanging on museum walls. I have to force myself to stop comparing my work against anyone else's and just enjoy the process of making things and sharing those creative moments with my son and husband. But that can be difficult for me....either because of competitiveness or insecurity.

The video game community has really brought this to my attention. I recently played several independent games suggested to me by a friend and reader of CoaGW. I'll speak about those games in depth another time, but what struck me while playing the indie games and what often impresses me most about the independent gaming community of developers, artists, programmers, writers, and designers is their willingness to support each other, share with each other, and advise each other in order to further the art and craft of video game development. I so deeply want to emulate their behavior, to embrace other creators and artists, share with them, learn from them, and support them rather than compete with them.

At the same time, I know the competitive nature of business and video games are a big business. Video game developers must share my struggle. I've seen it in the recent iPhone development gold rush. Two developers have the same idea for a game. One gets the game out more quickly than the other. One receives accolades and millions of dollars, the other quits or tries to somehow find a way of improving upon the original. I saw it in my own small business. I felt the constant pressure to be the best, the feeling that one mistake with a customer could affect your business's ultimate success or failure. Competition can lead you to be the best you've ever been and can make you feel like you could crash to your death at any moment should you make one wrong move.

Final Fight, one of the first of these arcade beat 'em up games of the late 80's, early 90's was one of those originals that set off a chain reaction of a dozen copy cat versions: X-Men, Spiderman, Ninja Turtles, etc. For anyone who has never played Final Fight, the game is a side-scrolling beat 'em up in which the mayor of the city, Haggar, a former professional wrestler, his daughter's boyfriend, Cody, a martial arts master, and Cody's sparring partner, Guy, tear through the big city fighting a street gang who has kidnapped Haggar's daughter, Jessica (THE perfect name for a game made in the 1980's...I can vouch for that!). The goal is to fight your way through Metro City's many districts to retrieve Jessica and hopefully bring an end to the city's crime problem.

Ben and I played on arcade sticks and I pretty quickly learned Haggar's fighting moves, although I didn't master the jump-kick until the end which is a shame, because that move is essential! Ben refers to these games as bro-op, and I can see why. It really does seem like an adolescent boy's ideal way to spend a roll of quarters. Pretend for a while that you're the toughest guy in the city, beating up bigger hairier men to save the blonde damsel in distress with your best friend by your side. You pick up whole turkeys and giant hamburgers for your vigilante characters to consume to restore their health. I can see the appeal. Plus, for being so old, the game's graphics are big and pretty impressive, the controls easy to master.

After about an hour of A and B button mashing while watching my muscle man punch and kick people of all shapes and sizes, I started to glaze over a bit. The game doesn't present much variety. But I hung in there and we beat the game and returned Jessica to the muscular arms of her father and her boyfriend.

One thing that separates Final Fight from many of its copies is friendly fire. I once asked my parents what friendly fire was. Their answer made me feel sick. I couldn't imagine a worse reason for a soldier to have to die. Wrong place, wrong time. An accident at the hands of one's peer. I guess that's what happens when you are surrounded by people trying to learn how to shoot machine guns and blow things up.

When Ben and I started playing Final Fight,Ben said that we'd need to communicate about who we were going to go after so we didn't get in each other's way. He warned me that we could punch and kick each other and accidentally deal damage. “Friendly fire,” he called it. I quickly realized what he meant. I kept forgetting what his character looked like! When six dudes rush at me simultaneously, I tend to start punching and kicking with wild abandon. Sometimes Guy or Cody got in the way...especially when I figured out the jump-kick timing and got a little jump-kick happy.

I played a little of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men knockoffs of Final Fight that didn't allow the main characters to accidentally inflict damage on one another. Strangely, I missed the friendly fire. I mean, not being able to accidentally hurt each other was certainly one less thing to worry about, but that worry was what made Final Fight interesting. In a real fight, you would have to watch out for your friend. You would have to make sure your buddy was out of the way before throwing the enemy across the subway car. You'd need to make sure you weren't going to land on your buddy while performing a crazy body slam on the bad guy. The times when I did accidentally punch or kick Ben's character were some of the funniest of the game. And sometimes Ben had to sacrifice a little health so that I could get in one last deadly blow to the enemy.

In any venture you need your friends alongside you. You need people to support you, get your back when you're ganged up on, carry on the fight while you put in another quarter. Sure, you might have to share the burgers and turkeys when you'd rather eat them all yourself. Your poor fighting might bring down your partner's game for awhile and vice versa. You might compare your scores to your partner and occasionally wish you'd done better than them. You might even get caught up in a little friendly fire along the way, But this is a bro-op! You need each other, because there are way too many giant men running at you at once. Because there's a pretty girl in trouble who needs your help.

Learn from Final Fight. Avoid an accidental punch to the gut through communication and care, and when you accidentally and inevitably whack your friend instead of the other guy, say you're sorry and keep fighting your way to that final boss...together.

Next game: TBA

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