Book review: Evo Moment 37 by Glenn Cravens

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I have written previously about my recent infatuation with fighting games. As I said last time, this is a little curious considering that I have never really been that into them. When I was 14, I played the odd round of Street Fighter II like everyone else, and when I was at university I played some Soul Edge (it hadn’t yet been released in English as Soul Blade) with my friend Timothy, who had that unheard-of thing, a PlayStation. I just remembered the other day that the common room at my college also had Virtua Fighter 3, or possibly 2, as well as a Marvel game, possibly Marvel Super Heroes. I dropped quite a lot of cash into them, but I was never really great at them, and they couldn’t compete with the other arcade cabinets they had, which I seem to recall were Puzzle Bobble and Metal SlugMetal Slug is pretty damn great, let’s not lie.

So I didn’t really become interested in the genre until a year or two ago that I read an article by Ben Kuchera on the old Penny Arcade Report, in which he linked to this video:

Now, if you know anything about fighting games, you know what this video is without even having to click on it: it’s the famous “Daigo Parry,” in which Daigo Umehara, one of the world’s most successful Street Fighter players, pulls out a seemingly-impossible victory against American player Justin Wong. This clip is so famous partly because you need so little context to understand it. For the uninitiated: Daigo is playing Ken, the guy in the white, and Justin is playing Chun-Li, the woman in blue. Justin has reduced Daigo to a tiny fraction of his health; if he takes a single hit, he loses. Justin then launches a “super art” — a special attack that, even if blocked, will do a tiny amount of damage. Normally, this minor damage, called “chip damage,” isn’t much to worry about, but it’ll be enough to take care of Daigo.

The only way to avoid chip damage is to parry the attack — to push forward on the stick at the exact moment the attack connects. Parrying is very unforgiving; if the player’s timing isn’t right, the attack will hit, so it’s a gamble. Block and you’ll take a wee bit of damage; fail a parry and you’ll take much more. Of course, it makes no difference to Daigo here; he can’t afford to do either. But not only does Daigo have to parry the first attack, he then has to parry fourteen more, each at the exact moment it hits. To do this, he has to know what his opponent is doing at the same time his opponent does — or even before. It’s a tremendously powerful and simple demonstration of one of the core elements of fighting games; anticipating what your opponent is going to do and reacting accordingly. 

And now there’s a book about it: Evo Moment 37 by Salinas, CA-based sportswriter and video game enthusiast Glenn Cravens. You can get it in paperback here or on Kindle here.

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Now, I’ve talked previously about historical themes in videogames: for instance, in Skyrim or in FarCry 3. But I don’t think I’ve talked much about the history of video games. And this is especially interesting, I think, when it comes to fighting games. Despite the fact that they’re a very early form of competitive gaming, fighting games have never really taken off in the way that some other types of game have. Their community remains small and their corporate backing pretty minor. And as a culture, the fighting game community (FGC for short) seems to be divided about whether it wants to be “esports,” or whether this will get rid of the underground, grassroots feeling that is such an important part of it.

So there isn’t a lot of historical material out there about this community, or at least not material that’s easy for a newcomer to access. The history of the community gets handed down as folklore (although check out this fantastic oral history of the development of Street Fighter II). But now we have Cravens looking at the context of this famous event. What can looking at the Daigo Parry teach us about the FGC, its history, and why people play fighting games?

Craven’s structure is basically a narrative: he starts with the story of downloading the video himself (back in the days before YouTube) and relates it to the stories of other people encountering it. From there, he moves into the background — the generally poor reception of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike in the US, the growth of the tournament scene, and the early career of Justin Wong. He evokes the arcade scene as it existed in the early 2000s and talks about the logistical, behind-the-scenes challenges facing tournament organisers.

Gradually, we move through a series of other tournaments (including the butchery that was the 2003 USA vs Japan 5 v 5 match) and incidents to EVO 2004, with an interesting aside on where the “Evolution” name came from and the format changes that went with it, which at the time many people probably thought would eclipse the events of the tournament itself. We get the expected breakdown of the tournament, its brackets and results, and then, perhaps most interestingly, the aftermath of the event, including the viral spread of the video, which has been viewed, according to one estimate, around 30 million times.

There’s some analysis, but in the end this is a largely narrative story — a tale with a beginning, middle and end in which the parry itself is a climax, but not the climax.

What’s good about it?

I found myself turning the pages of Evo Moment 37 pretty rapidly — which is a bit of a feat considering that I, like anyone who might be motivated to pick up this book, already know how the story ended since it happened 10 years ago. It’s a slender work (it feels like it could have been a magazine article or series of blog posts, but got beefed up with extra material) but I felt like it covered the whole period and did a good job explaining the significance of the parry and the accompanying parry video.

It was an interesting evocation of the fighting game community — and perhaps of gamer culture in general — at a certain place and time. I found it fascinating the number of people who feature prominently in the text who are still leading members of the FGC today: the same three guys run EVO, for instance, and if you watched the 2014 finals of Ultra Street Fighter IV, you heard the same announcer calling the match that you hear on the 2004 video, Seth Killian (who discusses the parry in this PAR article). 

I thought the discussion of the spread of the video, first through sites devoted only to fighting game fans and then through good old YouTube, was fun. 

Cravens drew on interviews with many of the participants to form his account (although we don’t hear very much from Daigo’s perspective; Umehara doesn’t speak English and is reputedly a hard man to get hold of), and the view into their lives is very cool: the story of Justin Wong hiding his career as a video gamer from his family even as he became more and more well-known sounds bizarre; it’s hard to image it would be possible today, in the full flowering of the internet, but perhaps I’m wrong. 

What could be better?

I think there were three main problems with Evo Moment 37. The first is that this book really needed a good going-over by an editor. Leaving aside frequent errors of tense or word choice, it’s heavily overwritten. For instance, instead of saying “Capcom games” or “games made by Capcom,” Cravens says “games born of the Capcom brand” or words to that effect. It isn’t the ideal word choice, and even if it were, it wouldn’t be the right way to express the idea. Now, Cravens is a journalist, so I know he knows that. It just goes to show that you can’t edit yourself. It reads like a first draft, not in terms of the information it conveys but in terms of how the writing flows. 

Perhaps relatedly, I mostly skimmed the blow-by-blow accounts of each fight. I didn’t find them exciting, and I found Cravens’s attempts to liven up the writing unhelpful. This, I think, is just a fundamental problem in writing about such an inherently visual thing. I’m willing to accept that this is a matter of taste. I did like the way the fights were broken down by the amount of time remaining on the clock, which is a good way of reminding the reader how little time is passing as all these strategies and counter-strategies are taking place. It keeps the tension high, and that’s good. 

Lastly … I don’t know if this is a criticism so much as an observation. I’m not sure who this book is for. For example, at the beginning, Cravens describes the video in detail, explaining who Chun-Li and Ken are as characters, and then later telling us about Third Strike as a game. Which is all well and good — but later on, he mentions things like Urien’s Aegis Reflector attack without explaining them at all. 

I want you to try to envision the hypothetical reader who doesn’t know who Ken and Chun-Li are but does know what the Aegis Reflector is. At least Dudley’s Machine-gun Blow is exactly what it sounds like: a rapid series of punches. So the introduction is based on the idea that you don’t really know much about fighting games, but the blow-by-blows won’t make any sense if you haven’t played Third Strike at least a time or two. 

I suppose, honestly, that the target audience is someone like me — someone who has a basic familiarity with the genre but hasn’t been around long enough to know anything about the community’s history. So I guess that’s fair. 

Overall

Initially, I thought the roughness of the text was going to hurt my enjoyment of the book, but I didn’t find that it did. It could definitely do with some hard-hearted editing (a future second edition, perhaps?) and perhaps a clearer statement of its thesis. Perhaps if you’re a veteran fighting game guy it won’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. I can’t speak to that — for me, the most interesting part of it was the surrounding context. The parry itself is very impressive, but it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff that I found particularly compelling. If you’re interested in the history of video games — or perhaps more accurately, interested in the history of video gaming and gaming communities — I think this is worth a read. 

It occurs to me that I own a lot of this kind of geek history and I should probably write more about it. At another time, perhaps; this has gone on way longer than I intended it to. 

And also … 

A week or two ago, Third Strike went on sale on XBLA for like £2.49, so I grabbed it. It was the first time I’d ever really played a fighting game since my teens, and I (can you guess?) stank at it. Stink at it, I should say, because I’m still practicing and learning a bit, even though I can barely beat the computer. 

The other day, I was plugging away in training mode, and I did something right. Which might not sound like a big deal to you, but believe me, it is to me. I saw where the computer character was, and where I was, and I said to myself “I bet that it’s going to do this … so what if I do this …“. Sure enough, my prediction was right, my counterattack landed and I felt like the greatest strategic mind of the century for the 3 seconds it took for the opponent to get up and start using me for target practice again. 

But I can see why these games are addictive. 

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Book review: Evo Moment 37 by Glenn Cravens

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