I met Randy when he was in the sixth grade and I was in the fifth. It was a Saturday in the middle of May; my dad had just given me his usual it’s such a nice day what the hell are you doing indoors sermon and booted me out of the house. I was riding around the neighbourhood on my bicycle when a kid I’d never seen before came waving and running toward me from the driveway where he’d been bouncing a basketball by himself.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m new here. My mom and me just moved from Mine Hill. I’m Randy.” He spoke diffidently, looked me straight in the eye. “Want to come over and play video games? I have Street Fighter, Mario Kart, and Donkey Kong Country.”
He had me at Street Fighter.
My love affair with Street Fighter had begun only three months earlier, when a classmate of mine threw a snow-tubing party for his twelfth birthday and I sneaked away from the group to check out the arcade in the ski lodge’s basement. It was a dinky little room with pinball machines, Lethal Enforcers, Ms. Pac Man, a few Konami beat ’em ups, a couple of racing games—and Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting, which seemed to tower over the rest like a blazing monolith. To my eleven-year-old eyes, it was almost transcendentally cool. It was the game the teenagers in snowboarder boots and jester caps crowded around in a dense circle, swearing, heckling each other, discussing the game’s secrets and esoteric tricks while they waited for their turns. The other kids my age looked on from the Ms. Pac-Man and Turtles in Time cabinets but kept a safe distance.
I heard muffled, incredulous snickers when I mustered up the nerve to put my quarter in the queue and try my luck. I got crushed, but then lined up another quarter and waited for my next turn. I lost every single round but kept coming back, trying out different characters and studying my opponents’ hands as they played, trying to figure out the button combinations that would make my fighter throw the fireballs and perform the unstoppable spin-kicks that kept killing me. When the boys realized I wasn’t going to quit, they started giving me tips and encouragement. On my last game I successfully executed a Hadoken and actually won the round, heaving a fireball right into M. Bison’s face, mid-Psycho Crusher. I ended up losing the match in the third round, but my opponent congratulated me anyway: “You put up a pretty big fight for such a little bastard.”
History lesson for the unsavvy: Street Fighter II: The World Warrior blew up the arcades in 1991, singlehandedly establishing a new video game genre. At Street Fighter’s core is a small menagerie of international martial artists with unique sets of attributes, abilities, basic moves, and special techniques. There are Ryu and Ken, the main characters, two rival karate fighters who studied under the same master; Chun-Li, the high-kicking kung fu beauty; Guile, the American soldier consumed by vengeance; and so on. You choose your character, and then travel the world fighting mano-a-mano matches against either the game’s A.I. or a second player.
Since ’91, there have been dozens of updates, sequels, spin-offs, and clones that play with Street Fighter’s essential recipe (two fighters, three rounds, one winner), and sometimes do it better. On the opposite end of the spectrum from the tactical and technical Street Fighter games is the gloriously chaotic Marvel vs. series, where screen-filling laser blasts and rapid aerial combos are the norm. Somewhere between the two are the Arc System Works games—mainly Guilty Gear and BlazBlue—which fuse the explosive ordnance and acrobatics of the Marvel vs. games with the clarity and strategy of Street Fighter. And then there’s the suspenseful and stylish Samurai Shodown and Last Blade, the hyperkinetic aggression of King of Fighters, the austere precision of Tekken, and a rich cornucopia of indie and doujin fighters. At their best, there’s not much better than fighting games, and the best fighting games are staggeringly complex and can take years to master.
But the payoff is an experience like no other. If you’ve never seriously played a fighting game, it’s impossible to describe the rush. It’s like a dance. It’s chess. It’s a mathematical psychodrama. It’s the mystical, sometimes magical ecstasy of the superpositional interval between wins and losses. It can be better than sex.
I’m getting ahead of myself. It was 1994, I was eleven years old, and I’d just been initiated. I was obsessed with Street Fighter. I pestered my parents into getting me Street Fighter II: Special Champion Edition for the Sega Genesis. I played for hours; I beat the game with every character, but something was missing—and it wasn’t just the arcade-quality graphics and sound. It was the competition. Even though I’d only played it in the arcade once, I understood that playing against the A.I. was just practice for the real thing. But my friends from school weren’t game. They only ever wanted to play Sonic the Hedgehog or throw Frisbees out in the yard.
So now here was this new kid Randy asking me to come over to his house and play Street Fighter with him. I was already inside before realizing I’d forgotten his name.
Randy had a Super Nintendo, so we played Street Fighter II Turbo—pretty much the same thing as Special Champion Edition, but it took me a while to get the hang of the SNES controller. I mostly used Chun-Li. Randy liked to play as Sagat and Vega, but performed best with Ken. We must have played for two hours. Maybe Randy won a few more games than me altogether, but all in all we were pretty evenly matched.
I went to Randy’s house a few more times during the next week, and all we did was play Street Fighter. On Thursday, Randy’s mom came into the living room just an hour after we’d started, and announced that playtime was over: Randy had to eat dinner and get ready for class. Randy shut off the SNES without protest.
“Class?” I asked, guessing a violin lesson or Kumon math program.
“Karate class,” Randy answered.
Randy was a blue belt in Isshinryu, an Okinawan karate style, and attended lessons every Tuesday and Thursday. While Randy got changed, his mother showed me a few trophies displayed in the living room. Third place, kata, 1993. Second place, kumite, 1993. First place, kumite, 1994.
Randy emerged from his room wearing a pressed and spotlessly clean gi. “You should come to class sometime,” he said with a smile. “Try the real thing out.”
“Is there any fighting?” I asked.
“There’s a lot of sparring, yeah.”
I envisioned Ryu and Ken back flipping over fireballs and tearing through the air with hurricane kicks and invincible dragon punches; I imagined that this was what Randy was learning to do, and I definitely wanted in. My father, who had been getting on my ass to take up basketball or soccer, was more than happy to enroll me in the dojo, and I attended my first class as a white belt the following week.
The “real thing” was a lot less flashy than the game. Nobody was throwing any fireballs, obviously, and aside from the occasional breakfall drill, there were hardly any acrobatics. I was instructed in the basics: the straight punch, the uppercut, the backwards elbow strike, the low, middle, and high blocks, the snap kick, the sideblade kick, the back kick. Every Tuesday and Thursday I joined the class in drilling through each move twenty times, ten repetitions on each side. Afterward we practiced our kata—choreographed routines to impress technique upon the muscle memory. As far as I was concerned, it was all just a warm-up for kumite—sparring—and that was the reason I kept coming back every week.
Kumite wasn’t really brawling, but more like semi-contact “tag,” with the aim of getting through your opponent’s guard and landing an attack on his face, chest, or abdomen. No knees, no elbows, no takedowns. It was a game, and I got hooked. Lower-ranked students—the white through purple belts—usually sparred against the brown and black belts, but on occasion I got to fight Randy. He was two years ahead of me, and at first he usually trounced me. But I was a fast learner.
Our instructor was Sensei Laudadio, a Vietnam War vet with a Jesus Christ tattoo on one arm and a snake on the other. Some of the other black belts called him “The Anaconda.” If you were a student and he heard you calling him that (or anything other than Sensei) when you were in uniform, he remembered it and corrected you the next time you sparred with him. He always pulled his punches, but they still hurt. “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” was his credo as an instructor. By hitting us, he was helping us, preparing us.
On some nights, I went to Randy’s house and played Street Fighter. Our games were competitive, but mostly civil until one of us scored a “perfect” by winning a round with a full health gauge, whereupon he would immediately receive a congratulatory dead arm from the loser. And on other nights, I went to the dojo and sparred against Randy. We talked trash when Laudadio was out of earshot, and when incensed we fought dirty against each other, deliberately stomping on feet and employing standing armlocks. But we tapped gloves before every match and always shook hands afterwards. Like Ryu and Ken, Randy and I were best friends and inseparable rivals.
Looking back, I realize how unalike Randy and I were from the beginning. Randy was an only child raised by his mother; he was the man of the house and knew he had to be tough. But he was introverted, gangly, and often awkward, unsuited for the wrestling or football teams, the usual destination for kids who thought they were tough or wanted to learn to be. So he took up martial arts instead. Randy was competitive because victory and defeat were a gauge of his toughness. Randy wanted to be the toughest, and winning was a means to that end.
For me it was always the thrill of the fight, whether it was on the screen or in the dojo. Outmaneuver, outthink, outfight—every match a Rubik’s cube, able to be solved if you could plan ahead and had sufficient command of a sufficiently trained mind and limbs to execute that plan. I just loved the game itself—and the game was most fun when I was winning at it.
Randy’s competitiveness wasn’t limited to sparring and gaming. He liked to compare report card grades, pull-up counts and mile times, and popularity with girls. He also liked to boast about the superiority of his SNES to my Genesis, and for a while this was the subject of heated debates at the school lunch table.
I tried to keep cool about it all. I began secretly going to the dojo for Saturday morning classes to get some extra practice in. I also successfully petitioned my father to get me a Neo Geo for my twelfth birthday. Soon Randy was coming over to play Fatal Fury 3, King of Fighters ’95, and Samurai Shodown II: newer, better-looking, and cooler games than Street Fighter II, and with more complex mechanics—dashes, sidesteps, sway planes, tactical rolls, hops, desperation attacks. My powerful new Neo Geo was the jealousy of all the kids at the lunch table. Randy’s advantage was quickly narrowing.
Both of us worked hard to close the gaps. He chose Genjuro in Samurai Shodown and stuck with Genjuro, and could match my Charlotte slash for stab. In the dojo, I had devised an elaborate hand game to get past his lightning fast and unerringly accurate spinning back kick (solar plexus, every time), baiting and punishing it with a barrage of punches while he retracted his leg and resumed his stance.
When I was in sixth grade and Randy was in seventh, the after-school program offered “mini-courses” to students. One of them was a Taekwondo class that met in the gymnasium for an hour on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. I didn’t think much of it until Randy told me he was signing up.
“Cool,” I said, more intent on winning the third and final round of our Samurai Shodown match than chatting.
“You should sign up, too. It’ll be great.”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on. You and me’ll be top dogs. Everyone else will be going in knowing nothing, and we’ll—”
The conversation paused as Charlotte and Genjuro clashed blades onscreen, and Randy and I both held our breath and mashed buttons furiously. I came out the winner, and nailed Randy with a strong AB slash.
“And who knows?” he went on. “Maybe we’ll learn something they’re not teaching us in Isshinryu. It’s always good to explore other styles.”
“Fine. I’m in.”
The instant after I said it, Randy executed Genjuro’s Gokouzan super, shattering Charlotte’s rapier and taking the match.
Randy smirked at me. I punched him in the shoulder.
So I signed up for Taekwondo. Within the first week, Randy and I established ourselves as the undisputed top dogs of the fifteen or so students in the course. All of us wore white belts, but Randy and I shamelessly flaunted our Isshinryu ranks when we sparred against our classmates, dominating matches with superior speed and technique, cocky tricks and traps that always worked, and booming kiais that made even the eighth graders pale and freeze up.
When school let out for the summer, Taekwondo was off the table. But an old friend of Sensei Laudadio’s had recently begun a judo program down at the YMCA, and visited the dojo a few times to give demonstrations. Randy and I both signed up. Although I was interested in learning more about grapples and throws, I had an ulterior motive: the YMCA was located a few blocks away from a pizza parlour with arcade games in the vestibule. Randy and I would get our parents to drop us off an hour early, and we’d beeline to the pizzeria to drop quarters into Marvel Super Heroes and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. There were times when I would have preferred to skip judo and keep playing, but Randy never agreed to it. And if I couldn’t play against Randy, there wasn’t much point in playing at all. None of the other kids who hung around could put up much of a fight.
Sparring. Dueling. Harpoons and ice bolts. Spider stings, berserker claws, magnetic shockwaves, magic series combos. Grab the lapel, jolt off balance, sweep the leg. Take advantage of momentum. Speed, reflex, strategy. Telegraph nothing; punish assumptions. Follow up every successful attack. Wild nights. Good fights. Best friends.
Randy got a PlayStation and Street Fighter Alpha 2. I got a PlayStation and Tekken 2. Perfects were still rewarded with a dead arm. The ultra-rare double perfect now invariably prompted a grappling match. (After all, it was impossible for the victor not to gloat, the loser not to retaliate.) Randy and I were evenly matched on the ground, but eventually one of us would have to tap out, and then we’d take our seats, return to the character select screen, and begin the next game.
Randy got pimples on his face and chest, and his voice cracked. I got pimples on my face and back, and shaggy hair on my legs. Randy went on to high school, while I had another year at middle school. I chose not to continue with Taekwondo. It wasn’t the same without Randy, and I had no other friends in the class. Besides, I had more than enough going on already. Isshinryu. Judo. Final Fantasy Tactics.
That summer, Randy made black belt in Isshinryu. This is no small accomplishment. First you have to put in three years as a brown belt—and with every year, the intensity of your training is stepped up. The black belts demand more of you, and they don’t spare the whip if your performance isn’t up to par. And then there’s the final test. Imagine “hell week” at a college fraternity house, but instead of binge drinking, you run through drill after drill and fight black belt after black belt, hour after hour. Randy actually broke a rib on the last night, but he made it through. I was happy for him, but anxious to catch up. I had only just become a first-degree brown belt and had a long way to go.
Any dojo is rigidly hierarchical by design, and as a black belt, Randy not only outranked me, but existed in a completely different stratum. When we were in uniform, he was a teacher and I was a student, and he enjoyed it a little too much. He got cockier when we sparred, and even though we were more evenly matched than ever before, the advantage was still narrowly his.
“Sloppy technique,” I remember him telling me after driving his fist into my nose one night. Despite the padded glove over his knuckles, he’d still hit it hard enough in the right place to get the blood gushing. “If you don’t want that to happen again, stop broadcasting your moves.”
He started hanging out with the other black belts and meeting up with them at the dojo for exclusive training sessions. I fell in with some kids from school who were into anime and fighting games, and routinely hitched rides to the arcades with an older brother. These arcades were the real deal—dim and dirty enough to be vaguely sinister, never closing before 1:00 a.m., and attracting a clientele that almost entirely wore black and smelled like either clove cigarettes or weed.
But these people came to play, and they played to win. Learning how to keep up with the regulars in Vampire Savior, Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves, and Street Fighter III: Second Impact taught me more in just six months than three years of playing with Randy and the other kids at the pizza parlour.
Randy sat most of these trips out. Schoolwork, Isshinryu, and judo kept him plenty busy on most nights, and his mother usually needed help around the house. But when he had a free night and could tag along, he proved himself a contender, or at least not as out of his depth as I thought he’d be.
“Don’t throw out supers just because you have the meter for it,” I once told him after a Mark of the Wolves match. He’d whiffed a Power Geyser and left himself wide open for a Ten-Ryuu Retsu-Kiba corner combo. “That’s what beginners do.”
He never did it again, and he beat me the next two games.
“You’ve got nothing on me,” he told me as the next player in line stepped up to take my place. “Remember that.” He was smirking, but in his voice I heard the same pedantic chilliness he used when speaking to me as a black belt addressing his inferior.
Alpha counters, hunter chains, aerial raves, guard cancels. Lure his guard down with a low kick, send a backfist into his face. Align your hips, roll his chest over your shoulder, let him topple. Let him know just how high you can kick when he’s expecting another jab-reverse. Never jump unless you’re absolutely certain it will work in your favour. Turn every successful hit into a combo if possible. Avoid falling into predictable patterns at all costs.
Randy got a 3.7 GPA. Mine was 3.2. Randy’s SAT score was 1170; mine was 1240. We debated the importance of one over the other at the lunch table, appealing to the same classmates who had once mediated our arguments about his SNES and my Genesis. Randy was the first of us to get a girlfriend when he started dating a purple belt, two years his senior, who showed up at the dojo on Thursday nights. I was first to lose his virginity when a goth chick tripping on cough syrup pulled me into a bathroom stall at the arcade one very special Friday evening.
I became a third-degree brown belt. Randy fought more aggressively when we sparred and sometimes stopped pulling his punches (and kicks) altogether. I held my own, though. If he held an advantage, it was only a marginal one.
I got a Dreamcast for my seventeenth birthday. Randy’s Captain America/Strider Hiryu team in Marvel vs. Capcom was persistently hard to put down, even with all the arcade practice I’d gotten in without him. What he lacked in technical skill was more than compensated for by his astonishing reflexes and tactics.
A yoga studio in a new shopping plaza down the road began hosting a Capoeira class on Monday nights. Randy persuaded me to try it out with him, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. It was too much more like dancing than fighting, and since it was pretty much all legwork, there was no keeping up with Randy. After a few weeks, I got tired of Capoeira. When Randy went to the yoga studio, I drove to the arcade to play Capcom vs. SNK, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and King of Fighters 2000. When we sparred in Isshinryu, Randy pressed his old advantage with a new arsenal of kicks that caught me off guard. When we played Street Fighter Alpha 3 on the Dreamcast, Randy stuck with Ken and the powerful but constrained X-ism, while I pummeled him using V-ism custom combos with Akuma. After a few weeks, Randy got tired of Alpha 3.
Two months after Randy graduated from high school, I finally made black belt in Isshinryu. It was a rough week, and none of the black belts went as hard on me as Randy. I remember the last night—I’d been sparring continuously for at least two hours, and was so exhausted that my arms just went numb and limp. Randy was merciless. He refused to let me rest until I landed a hit on him, and I couldn’t even keep up my guard, much less throw a punch. I got off the hook after he kicked me in the solar plexus, harder than he’d ever kicked me before, and I passed out.
Later on—after I’d been initiated as a black belt and had a day or two to recover—Randy told me that because I was his best friend, he owed it to me to push me past my limit. I suspect he also really wanted to take advantage of the last twenty-four hours he had authority over me.
At the end of August, he packed up and went to study at Rutgers. He sometimes came back to town on the weekend, but for the most part he stayed in New Brunswick. He wasn’t able to find another Isshinryu dojo in the neighbourhood, so he took up Wing Chun—a style of kung fu practiced by Bruce Lee.
During his first week back on winter break, he put on his old gi and paid a visit to the dojo to see everybody. I was hoping for a chance to face off with him, and as luck would have it, I got to spar with him under the observance of five black belt judges. I scored the winning point by catching the kick I knew was coming, heaving Randy off balance, and striking him in his unguarded chest with a fully-extended lateral reverse punch.
“Sloppy technique,” I told him.
Randy reddened, but said nothing.
When we went back to my house to play Street Fighter III: Third Strike, Randy used Urien and trounced me with an unexpectedly clever Aegis Reflector play. (Randy’s roommate had a Dreamcast, and from the sound of it, he was quite the fighting game enthusiast. After all, he’d figured out the combo potential of Aegis Reflector a year or two before the rest of the scene caught on.) I said something about Ibuki dropping in the tiers since I learned to play as her in New Generation, and I knew I’d just handed a point to Randy. Whether the cause is an unresponsive joystick, a sudden cramp, or tweaks to a character between games, you never make excuses for defeat. You only ever have yourself to blame.
I let Randy have his moment and then told him we’d been missing him at the dojo.
“I’ve been really getting into Wing Chun,” he said. “Honestly, from what I’ve already learned, I think it’s an altogether more effective style. You should give it a shot sometime.”
“Huh,” I said.
A year later, I went to The College of New Jersey and said my own goodbye to Sensei Laudadio and the dojo. I found a Taekwondo school on the edge of Trenton and attended class on Monday and Wednesday afternoons when I wasn’t too bogged down with course work. Even though I sometimes flaked on attendance for a week or longer, I stuck with it until the first month of my sophomore year, when I broke my knee. It was a stupid accident and entirely my own fault. I’d just picked up Guilty Gear X2 from Electronics Boutique and was starting down the escalator while flipping through the game manual. I wasn’t looking where I was stepping. Down I tumbled, and landed on the lower floor with a tibial plateau fracture.
Taekwondo was out of the question. Even walking was too much in most cases. I hobbled out of my dorm room on crutches for meals and classes, but for the most part I stayed in. Hearing about my fall, Randy e-mailed me, suggesting I try yoga when I was mobile. He told me he’d been practicing Ashtanga in addition to Wing Chun, and it was putting him in the best shape of his life. He also mentioned that he’d been playing SoulCalibur on occasion, but hadn’t much time for games lately.
I was almost happy to be laid up because it gave me an excuse to stay put and play Guilty Gear. I’d heard the hype and had high expectations, but X2 surpassed them all. It was better than anything. Not only was it the most visually impressive fighter I’d seen since Street Fighter III, not only was it the first 2D fighting port with truly twenty-first century sensibilities, and not only did it blow Capcom and SNK’s latest lacklustre offerings out of the water, but it was altogether better-designed, faster, more varied, and more complex than any other fighting game I’d played. Systems layered over systems and esoteric mechanics that sometimes actually differed between characters. Roman cancels. False Roman cancels. Fortress guard. Blue and gold burst. Dust loops. Super jumps, double jumps, jump installs. Instant Kills. I repeat: fucking Instant Kills. A Street Fighter or King of Fighters pro was impressive, but to master Guilty Gear was the accomplishment of a savant. I became single-minded in the pursuit of this goal.
It paid off two years later when I got an Xbox and could play Guilty Gear X2 #Reload against other players over the Internet via Xbox LIVE. It became all I thought about. I stayed up nights thinking about match-ups, the evolving tier list, and anti-Eddie tactics. I practiced combos and False Roman Cancels in training mode for at least two hours a day. I studied tournament footage and combo videos, and recorded a few combo expos myself. My name rose higher and higher on the Xbox LIVE leaderboards. People were talking about me on the Shoryuken, Orochinagi, and Xbox LIVE forums. I was an ascending battle god. The game had never been more fun.
By then I had stopped going to Taekwondo altogether. I’d attended class again for a month or two after my knee healed, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. Sparring wasn’t as exciting as I remembered, and Guilty Gear was far more interesting.
Randy’s mother moved to New Mexico to live with a boyfriend she’d met online. Before she left, she asked me if I wanted any of Randy’s old games, and I took home his SNES collection for nostalgia’s sake. By that time, Randy and I weren’t really keeping in touch. I remember he once sent me a Facebook message during the summer to ask how Sensei Laudadio and the rest of the folks at the dojo were doing. I had to admit I didn’t know; I hadn’t stopped by in a couple of years.
“That’s a shame,” he replied, and mentioned that he’d been getting back into judo.
I sent him links to some of my Guilty Gear combo videos.
Randy graduated with a degree in physical education and moved to Queens in 2004. A year later, I earned a degree in communications, moved back in with my folks, and signed on part-time with a temp agency. By day I did data entry, and by night I gamed. When I got bored of playing #Reload or Third Strike on Xbox LIVE, I logged into GGPO and played King of Fighters ’98 against the tigers and sharks from China and Singapore. On good nights with good connections, it was almost as good as Third Strike. I bought custom-made arcade sticks for the PC, PS2, and Xbox. None came cheap—but it was preferable to shell out an additional $500 for an extra two sticks than lose matches because of the millisecond of lag time induced by a controller converter. Truth be told, I racked up a bit of credit card debt, so I lived on almost nothing but packets of ramen noodles for a couple of months to pay it off. It was worth it.
I found people from the SRK forums who lived in the area. Once a week or so we’d meet up at one of their places, drink beer, guzzle Red Bull, pop Adderall, and stay up all night playing Guilty Gear XX Slash, Hokuto no Ken, Melty Blood, Last Blade 2, Capcom vs. SNK 2, and sometimes binged on obscura like Project Justice, Waku Waku 7, and Kizuna Encounter. Sometimes we went to the Willowbrook Mall to play Marvel vs. Capcom 2 at the arcade. When we were feeling adventurous and confident, we drove into Manhattan to mix it up with the hardcore crowd at the legendary Chinatown Fair.
Those nights at Chinatown Fair were my best experiences as a gamer, bar none. When I told people my Xbox LIVE and GGPO handles at Chinatown Fair, three out of five times they’d heard about me, played against me online, or watched my combo videos. They came gunning for me when they saw me at the Third Strike cabinets. I spent a lot of tokens and lost a lot of matches. But I learned from every game, and by and by, I started winning much more often than I lost. Like a dojo, an established arcade with a regular crowd is hierarchical, and I was swiftly climbing the ladder.
These days online play is the best most of us can hope for, but it’s nothing compared to the high-level arcade experience. When you and your opponent stand shoulder to shoulder, when you can feel him beside you, smell his sweat, sense his muscles twitching and his heart pounding, hear him breathing, it becomes so much more personal, so much more intense, and there’s so much more on the line. It’s a rollercoaster of tension, frantic exhilaration, and rage. Tempers are prone to flaring. In fact, during my first couple of years as a Chinatown Fair semi-regular, I can count three or four times I nearly got into fistfights with sore losers of close games.
2007 was my crew’s first year at EVO. The big leagues. The Olympics of fighting games. We registered for EVO East, and I signed up for the qualifiers in Street Fighter III: Third Strike and Guilty Gear XX Slash. The day was a mixed bag—I came out almost $100 ahead in money matches, but ultimately didn’t qualify for the finals in Vegas. I got ninth in Third Strike because I’d been training harder in Guilty Gear. But on some insane whim of the tournament’s organizers, it was decided that Guilty Gear should be played in teams. The problem was that I could only be as good as my other two teammates, and (no offense to them) they held me back. I won all my games, but they lost too many of theirs. We finished in the top twenty, but we had to make the top five in order to qualify. Before the day was over, I was already looking ahead to 2008.
I noticed Randy posting on Facebook every now and then. He was still living in Queens and working as a housepainter. At different times, he referred to practicing Sambo and Muay Thai. Randy had always been wiry, but unless you could see his limbs, he was so thin you might have thought he was scrawny. In the photographs he’d been posting, I could see that he was finally acquiring some bulk.
Unfortunately, EVO 2008 was a bust. It was announced that there wouldn’t be any regional qualifiers; the whole thing would take place in Vegas, and I couldn’t swing the cost of a plane ticket and three or four nights in a hotel. Too much credit card debt, too few work hours. The world circuit would have to wait. I didn’t like it, but for the time I had to content myself with continuing to elevate my status in the Chinatown Fair pecking order and the online community.
Meanwhile, Randy kept posting Facebook updates about his stints in New York’s mixed martial arts scene. He’d already won several bouts, upsetting some fairly well established fighters. Shortly after linking to a couple of sports blogs who called him somebody to watch out for in the future, he announced that he’d quit his day job.
The next time he contacted me directly was in September, a month after the EVO that wasn’t. He asked me if he could expect to see me at Sensei Laudadio’s funeral. I’d had no idea before Randy told me; the old man had died of a stroke. I felt honour-bound to attend, but was uneasy about all my old acquaintances from the dojo seeing me walking with a cane.
A couple of months earlier, my knee started acting up. The doctor told me I hadn’t exercised it enough, and I’d gained more weight than it could handle. Since then I’d been taking diet pills and trying to watch what I ate, but in the meantime I had to gimp around with a cane.
I had less to worry about than I thought. Most of Laudadio’s old students had stopped training years ago, put on some fat, lost their muscle, and softened up after years of office work. Randy was the exception, with muscles like steel cables and not an ounce of flab. Everyone was awestruck by him.
After the service, some of us went to a bar to catch up with each other. Everyone crowded around Randy at the table, and hung eagerly on his every word as he went on and on about his Muay Thai and Sambo training and his venture into the MMA scene. His most recent opponent, he told us, was from Brazil: a jiu jitsu fighter with a powerful ground game. He’d tried to blitz Randy at the bell, to get him on the mat and into a grappling match right away. Randy surprised him with a roundhouse that came out so fast that it went completely undefended, pounding him upside the head. That was it. He was out cold. The match had lasted fifteen seconds.
“I felt bad about it!” Randy told his open-mouthed audience. “Sure, I won the match—but you couldn’t even call it a match! It was like—like—”
“Like winning a round in Time Killers by cutting someone’s head off in the first five seconds,” I offered.
“Exactly! It’s not fun for anyone involved.”
“Anyone else remember Time Killers?” I asked. “One of the best worst games ever, right?”
“I’ll bet he was pissed when he woke up,” someone remarked.
“From what I hear, he was livid. Next time I’m in Rio, I’m gonna have to watch myself.”
“Next time?” someone asked.
“Well—first time. We’ll see how this next year shapes up. There’s a good chance I might start travelling.”
Just about everyone took turns telling Randy how much they regretted straying from martial arts, and that he was amazing, brilliant, an inspiration. I couldn’t get a single word in that wasn’t about Randy and how wonderful he was. I finally managed to extract him from his fan club by inviting him to the bar to buy him a beer. We talked face-to-face for a few minutes; I asked him if he’d checked out Street Fighter IV yet.
“So they’ve finally learned to count to four, huh?”
“Yeah. It’s arcade-only for now, but it’ll be out on the PS3 and 360 sometime next year. It looks great—it’s 3D, but it’s got absolutely beautiful cel-shaded models and is still functionally 2D.”
I explained the new Focus Attack mechanic and Ultra Combos, and told him the entire cast of Street Fighter II Turbo was in—plus Akuma, plus some new guys, and plus Gouken. “Master Gouken! For real this time, no hoax.”
“That’d be cool to see.”
“Chinatown Fair has it. We should hit it up together sometime. Hell, how about this Friday?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure what I’ve got going on. Why don’t you call me then?”
After we exchanged numbers, Randy asked about my knee. “How’d you bust it the second time?”
“I didn’t,” I answered, and told him it was the same injury, come back to haunt me.
“Well, damn, dude—that’s what happens when you don’t take care of your body.”
“What, are you a doctor now?”
“Did you ever get around to trying yoga the last time?” Guessing the answer, Randy continued, “It can really help. I can show you some techniques.”
Before I could say no thanks, Randy had gotten down on the grimy pinkish carpet and was showing me some sort of leg contortion whose name I couldn’t pronounce, and telling me the names of the muscles it engaged. It seemed kind of fruity to me, honestly, and people were staring—particularly the women back at our table.
“Have you learned Yoga Inferno yet?” I asked Randy when he got back up on the stool.
“Or how to stretch your limbs across the room? Breathe fire, show me a Stretch Armstrong bitch-slap, I’ll be impressed.”
“Like Dhalsim,” he said, as though he’d just remembered, and pretended to laugh. “Right.”
“You ever been to Chinatown Fair?” I asked.
“Until now I’ve never even heard of it.”
“It’s the best arcade for miles. Maybe on the East Coast. It’s got everything—just about. The only things it’s really missing are Guilty Gear and King of Fighters XI. I’m not gonna lie; the crowd is pretty serious, so don’t expect anyone to go easy on you. But it’ll still be cool for you to see some of the games you’ve been missing out on these last few years. I bet you’d like Neo Geo Battle Coliseum.”
“I look forward to it,” said Randy, finishing his glass. “I’m gonna head back to the table. You coming?”
“In a minute.”
Randy rejoined the group. Within thirty seconds I heard one of the girls offering him a gift-wrapped prompt to regale them with stories of his yoga practice for the indefinite future. I finished my beer and made a discreet exit. Later on I sent Randy a text message apologizing for leaving so suddenly and promising to hit him up toward the end of the week.
I called Randy on Friday, but he didn’t pick up his phone. I went to Chinatown Fair without him. It must have been a full moon—the place was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, and folks were out for blood. When there’s fierce money matches on Arcana Heart 2, you just know it’s going to be a savage night. I came hoping to get in some practice with El Fuerte in Street Fighter IV, but when my turn finally came up I played it safe and went right for Akuma on the character select screen.
Akuma is a perennial favorite, especially of scrubs. Too few people understand how to use him properly. He’s got such strong and unique advantages in the sheer size of his arsenal: he’s got the exclusive air fireball, the multi-hit red fireball, a teleport move, a dive kick, and obscenely easy combos. Too many amateurs just treat these as magic bullets rather than tools to be used tactically—and in light of Akuma’s consistently low defense and correspondingly low room for error, tactics are crucial. (I’ve always maintained that you can gauge a player’s general proficiency in Street Fighter by seeing how he uses Akuma in a given game.)
It took me a few minutes to warm up; fortunately, the first three players weren’t anything to write home about. Then my old Xbox LIVE nemesis Yella Fever appeared out of nowhere and chose Zangief, and shit got serious. After being brought down to less than 10 percent health in the third round, I stole the match by focus-cancelling into a dash and cancelling that into the Shun Goku Satsu Ultra for the win. The crowd went crazy. Ruined, they shouted. Wrecked. Raping Demon for the win. Yella Fever escaped quietly and went off to nurse his ego by victimizing the other outcasts at the SVC Chaos cabinet.
Randy didn’t know what he was missing. When I texted him to tell him so, he responded: cool sorry another time bro.
I tried to stay in touch with Randy, but for the next few months we communicated exclusively over Facebook. He’d point me towards “classic” MMA matches and instructional videos for therapeutic yoga techniques, while I posted trailers for BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger and Street Fighter IV match vids on his wall—which actually cost me my job. I was taking a break from typing to find a good video involving Gouken, and got caught by the supervisor. He reported it back to the temp agency, and they decided to make an example of me. After all the trouble I went through to get a crisp recording that showcased what Gouken was capable of doing, I was a little annoyed when Randy didn’t even comment on it.
I didn’t actually see him again until the first Friday in February. That night I was planning on hitting up Chinatown Fair because they’d finally got BlazBlue. I gave Randy a call and extended him an invite.
“Not tonight,” he said, shouting over the locker room commotion in the background. “I’m actually having a party at my place.”
Right—a party. I might have actually heard about it. I remembered from Randy’s Facebook boasts that he’d recently won some really important fight or other and wanted to have a get-together to celebrate.
“If you’re going to be in town, feel free to stop by,” Randy said. “I’ll text you the address.”
“Want me to bring the old SNES?” I asked. “Revisit the glory days?”
I heard a gust of percussive noise from Randy’s end.
“I said—” I began, but the connection had already been lost. A moment later, Randy’s text message appeared in my inbox, and I decided to take it as a yes. I dug his old SNES and Street Fighter II Turbo cartridge out of my closet, tucked them into a backpack with two controllers and all the cables, and hit the road.
Traffic was unbelievable. I had expected to arrive before 7:00, but it was around 8:00 by the time I found parking down the block and made it to the doorstep of Randy’s building. He came the door with a can of Heineken and a cheerful buzz on, and ushered me in through a narrow, dimly-lit hall and into a tiny studio apartment where about a dozen people stood around in three or four clusters of beer-levied laughter and conversation. They were mostly meatheads and gym bitches, if all the TapouT t-shirts, yoga pants, and Skele-Toes shoes were any indication. I actually saw a guy holding his drink in one hand and a grip trainer in the other. I guessed these were the only people Randy really had any opportunity to get to know these days.
Randy offered me a beer, but I had to decline. Since discovering that instead of losing weight I’d actually gained seven pounds in the last four months, I had adopted an austerity policy with regard to my calorie intake.
I introduced myself to a few people, but after they stopped looking surprised when I told them Randy and I used to take karate together as kids, we didn’t have much else to talk about. I hovered around the place looking for a TV so I could hook up the SNES and get some games going. Randy’s apartment was so sparse as to almost seem like a prison cell. I passed a bureau covered with trophies; a set of hand weights, resistance bands, and weighted training clothes; a short bookcase full of titles like The Art of War, Bushido: the Soul of Japan, and Tao of Jeet Kune Do; a little MacBook with that hackneyed tsunami block print set as the wallpaper; but no TV.
“Don’t have one,” Randy said when I finally asked.
“Damn. I brought the old SNES. And Street Fighter.”
I’m certain I noticed a few people nearby overhear me and perk up at the mention of Street Fighter.
“Another time,” Randy suggested.
“What if I got a TV?”
“Sure. I’ll just run back and get a TV from my place. Traffic’s got to be better by now; it won’t take more than ninety minutes. Party’s not going anywhere, right?”
“If it’ll make you happy,” Randy said at last.
It would make me happy. And I knew it would make him happy too, once he actually sat down and got back in the groove.
Traffic hadn’t gotten much better at all. I left Randy’s well before 9:00 and got home around 10:30, just barely catching my dad before he turned in for the evening. (When you’re walking with a cane, it’s hard to lug around a television set, even a relatively small 24” LED, by yourself.) Once I’d talked him into helping me transport the TV from my room to the back seat of my car, I boomeranged it to Queens as fast as I could. I repeatedly tried Randy’s phone, but could only get his voicemail prompt. At this point, giving up and cutting my losses wasn’t an option. I’d invested too much time to call it quits.
At last I managed to find parking six or seven blocks from Randy’s place. It was just about midnight. Moving with the cane, I couldn’t get to his door and press the buzzer any sooner than 12:20.
Nobody answered. I buzzed again.
Finally, a bleary-eyed Randy opened the door, dressed in sweatpants and an old Isshinryu T-shirt. “You’re back?” he asked, squinting at me.
“Yeah. Guess the party’s already over, huh.”
“Where did you go?”
“Back home. To get a TV so we could play Street Fighter. Remember?”
He squeezed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger and bowed his head. Apparently he’d stopped drinking a good while ago, but had been pretty sloshed by the time he did.
“You did,” he muttered. “You did, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. So I guess there’s no chance you’d want to play, huh?”
He yawned. “Sure. Let’s do it.”
“Great. Awesome. I’ll need some help, though. The TV’s still in my car, and I can’t carry it myself. I’m parked just a few blocks up the—”
“Whoa. Whoa,” Randy interrupted, running his hand over his scalp. “Never mind. I’m good. No thanks.”
So that was that. All that driving, all that time—all that fucking money on tunnel tolls and gas—wasted for nothing, when I could have been at Chinatown Fair, playing BlazBlue …
Randy wasn’t so drunk or dense that he didn’t understand. “Sorry. Why don’t I walk you back to your car?”
He needed to put on a jacket first, so I followed him back inside. Now that all his friends had left, his little apartment seemed even more austere and empty than before. While he took a leak, I examined some of his trophies. First place, Wing Chun, 2003. Second place, Judo, 2004. First place, Wing Chun, 2004. Second place, boxing, 2005. Second place, Sambo, 2005. Third place, mixed martial arts, 2006. Second place, Muay Thai, 2007. First place, mixed martial arts, 2008 …
I thought of the impromptu BlazBlue tournament I was probably missing, and realized the evening might be salvageable after all.
“Chinatown Fair is open for a couple more hours,” I told Randy when he came out of the bathroom. “Want to head over with me? We don’t even have to stay for long. It’d just be cool to—”
“Look. Thanks, but no thanks. I’m good. I’m over it.”
“What do you mean ‘over it’?”
He threw up his hands. “I mean I’m over it. I’ve outgrown games.”
It wasn’t just what he said—it was the chilly, familiar black belt tone he said it with.
So there it was. Hajime. We went back out to the sidewalk.
“So,” I said, “what makes you think you’ve outgrown games?”
“I don’t think I’ve outgrown them. I’m certain I have.”
“What made you decide that, I mean.”
“I don’t know. I tried getting back into them a few years ago—had a friend I used to do Taekwondo with, and we played a King of Fighters game. I forget which one. And I just wasn’t feeling it. All of a sudden it just seemed so … infantile.”
“Which King of Fighters? Some of the newer ones are shit.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Was it 2D or 3D?”
“Dude, seriously. I don’t remember. I’m over it.”
“Do you think I’m infantile, Randy?”
He shook his head, but wouldn’t look me in the eye. “Look, I’m sorry. I don’t want to fight with you.”
“Seriously, do you pay any attention to what’s going on in the world outside the goddamn locker room? You sound just like those clueless ‘games can never be art’ Luddites, and I’m sick of hearing it. You know these games take serious skill, just like any sport. And the—”
“What did you say?”
“I said bullshit. It’s not the same.”
“Give me one good reason—”
“Because you’re pretending. It’s all pretend.”
“The scene isn’t pretend. The community isn’t pretend. There are professional players. It takes serious skill. You know that.”
“It’s a pretend game people play because they want to be fighters and champions, but are too lazy and undisciplined to actually become the real thing. You know that.”
I nearly swung at him. I swallowed it and kept walking.
“Damn it,” Randy groaned. “Listen. I’m sorry. That was harsh, but come on. On some level you’ve got to know you’re wasting your time on this stuff.”
“Who the hell are you to say it doesn’t count? What makes what you do any different?”
“Are you seriously asking me that?”
“You heard me.”
“I mean—other than the fact that you sit on your ass and control the movements of a little imaginary karate puppet?”
“That’s the most meat-headed bullcrap I’ve ever heard.”
“But it’s true! You’re like—you’re basically a puppeteer. A puppeteer playing with a pretend Akuma puppet.”
“So what does that make you?”
“I am Akuma.”
“You’re an asshole, Randy.”
Randy sighed. “I’m sorry. Just, whatever. Do what makes you happy.”
I knew Randy, and knew he couldn’t resist scoring a cheap point. Right on cue, he began: “but I honestly think you’d be better off going back to the real thing. Getting back in—”
I cut him off; I told him I didn’t want to hear it and that I could get back to my car on my own.
A day or two later Randy sent me an email. The subject line read “sorry man.” I deleted it without reading it.
I had a rough couple of weeks after that. I had a job interview at GameStop, but didn’t hear back from them. I filled out dozens of other applications but never got any calls. I kept getting into stupid arguments with my folks. I spent a lot of time on GGPO but was in some kind of awful slump, losing match after match in King of Fighters ’98 and Third Strike. When I got together with my crew, each of them beat me at Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus, one by one.
It wasn’t because of Randy. I knew he was wrong. I was just having a rough time, and thinking about him didn’t make it any better.
It happened exactly two weeks after Randy’s party. I was sitting at home and channel surfing by myself when I flipped from a documentary about dolphins and suddenly saw Randy onscreen in gym trunks and fighting gear, putting in his mouth guard and stepping into the centre of the octagon to begin his match. It was live. The announcer was talking about him, calling him a very deserving upstart with an impressive grappling game and maybe the most dangerous kick on the East Coast.
I never watched any of the videos Randy had tried to show me. This was my first time seeing him in an MMA match. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t look away or change the channel. When Randy kicked at his opponent I remembered when Randy kicked at me, when I blocked Randy’s kick and punished him for throwing it. Even in the early minutes of the fight, there were moments when Randy’s whole being—his hale physique, the shark-like efficiency of his technique, and the will to victory I saw in his eyes, his face, and the ferocious intent of his blows—really did remind me of Akuma.
In more ways than one it was like watching high-level match vids of a game I knew inside and out. As I observed Randy I noticed I could usually predict what he’d do next. After a fierce tussle in which both fighters took a few shots to the head, I thought: he’s going to test his opponent’s stamina by throwing out a few punches. An instant later, two jabs and a reverse from Randy. When his opponent rushed in for a grab, I expected Randy would repel him rather than engage in a ground game that hadn’t begun on his terms—and sure enough, in two seconds the commentators and crowd were bellowing and cheering at Randy’s swift, surprising deployment of the tomoe nage, a distance-gaining throw he and I had learned together in judo class (and also Ryu and Ken’s K grab in Street Fighter). When Randy kicked high but didn’t fully commit to it, I knew he was trying to raise his opponent’s guard so he could aim his next attack low. It was more than unconvincing; it was a telegraph. When Randy dove in for a double-leg takedown, his opponent was primed to catch Randy in what the announcer lauded as a gorgeous, beautiful guillotine chokehold. Randy thrashed, refusing to submit. His opponent could only take him down. Seeing the way Randy landed—squarely on his upper back, neck bent so far forward that his chin nearly touched his collarbone—I knew right away something was wrong. His opponent realized it too, and immediately released him and backed away.
Randy didn’t get up.
The match was stopped. The medics hurried in to examine him. As the commentators expressed their regret and implored viewers to take to heart this unfortunate reminder that no sport is ever accident-free, and as the audience either gawked or shuffled out toward the bathrooms and snack stands, Randy was carried out of the arena in a stretcher. The next match would begin shortly, said the announcer.
I kept calling Randy’s phone. Four or five hours later, somebody finally picked up. It was one of Randy’s friends; I didn’t know which one, but he told me he remembered me from the party. (I was “the big guy,” he said.)
“It’s not looking great. The good news is that it’s not a neck break.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“It’s an upper spine fracture. Just below the neck. He can’t—” He began to sputter, and I was glad not to be there in person. “He can’t feel anything below his abdomen.”
“Where is he? When can I see him?”
I was made to understand that Randy was currently in the operating room at Beth Israel Hospital in Brooklyn. The soonest he could receive visitors would probably be Sunday.
I was out the door at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, and arrived at Beth Israel at 10:45, fifteen minutes before visiting hours began. To my immense relief, the hospital staffer who checked me in and told me where I could find Randy didn’t ask any questions about my backpack.
Randy had a room all to himself. The TV mounted on the wall in the corner was tuned to some game show with the volume all the way down, but he wasn’t watching. He just sat up in bed and stared out the window at the maculate greyness of the city and sky. He didn’t even look at me when I came in.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” he answered after a moment, without turning his head. “Didn’t expect you to come.”
I took a seat on a chair beside the bed. For a long time neither of us said anything. Randy looked out the window and I looked at Randy, and we listened together to the hum of the medical instruments and “… Baby One More Time” playing at a low volume over the PA system out in the hallway. Randy cleared his throat.
“They’re saying it’s not looking good,” he said quietly. “They’re saying I may never walk again.”
“I’m done. I’m finished.” He looked at me for the first time since I walked in. I saw desperation and fear in his eyes “It happened on live television. All I’m ever going to be now is that guy. The casualty.”
He was right. I’d googled his name a few times the day before. It was a relatively low-profile match, so it hadn’t made headlines outside the sporting press—but it was all the MMA news sites were talking about. They kept reiterating that this was the first time something like this had ever happened in the ring. For every reader who expressed sympathy in the comments section, at least one other called Randy a fucking idiot for letting it happen and inviting the wrong kind of attention to the sport.
“What do I do now? What can I do?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
Randy turned back toward the window.
I stood up. “I brought something for you. Maybe it’ll help.”
“I seriously doubt that.”
“You’ll see.” I unzipped the backpack.
As it happened, I’d overestimated how much I had to extend the AC adapter and RF switch cables to reach Randy’s beside. There ended up being at least four feet of slack on each, but I had to err on the side of caution. It was essential that the controllers could reach the bed, so it made the most sense to extend the connections to the outlet and television rather than try to solder any controller cords. I plugged everything in and hooked the RF switch into the cable jack. Randy was watching me. His eyes were cold.
I set the TV to channel 3, turned up the volume, and hit the power switch on the console. I didn’t even have to blow on the cartridge. The Capcom logo blinked on the screen. Randy’s old SNES and copy of Street Fighter II Turbo were still in perfect working order.
“I hope you’re ready for this,” I told Randy, setting the 2P controller on his lap. “I know I am.”
Randy looked out the window and tried to ignore me. After a few moments the game went into demo mode; Ryu and Blanka battled it out on the roof of a Japanese castle.
“I can wait,” I said.
Randy pushed the controller out of his lap. I stooped and picked it up off the floor.
“I can wait as long as you need me to, bro. I got nowhere else to be and it’s not like you’re going anywhere.”
The demo looped back to the title screen.
“It’ll be like old times. Now nut up.”
Randy turned on me with a glare that was all ice. I held out the controller to him with my widest smile.
He reached out to take the controller—but it was a feint. He seized my lower forearm with one hand and the back of my palm with the other. His grip was like a steel clamp. I held on to the controller as Randy began to apply pressure, slowly, bending my palm down towards my wrist.
“Randy. Don’t be a baby about this.”
Pain stabbed and stabbed into my carpus; another couple of seconds and snap. I kept smiling. “Relax. It’s just a game. Right?”
Randy loosened his grip. The pain and pressure ceased. He looked at me. The demo cycled back to the title screen. “Friday and I’m in Love” was playing out in the hallway.
There would be no continues or rematches.
Patrick Roesle is from New Jersey. He mains Alex in Third Strike and used Rachel in BlazBlue until they nerfed her in Continuum Shift. He wrote a novel called The Zeroes, keeps a blog and a webcomic, and likes to spend his free time pacing and wringing his hands.