Saturday, December 20, 2014

Capcom Cup 2014

Capcom Cup 2014

All roads led to Capcom Cup on December 13, as the year-end championship pitted the top 16 Ultra Street Fighter IV players on the international Capcom Pro Tour against one another in a contest to crown the best player of 2014. In addition to the cup and the title, there was more than $50,000 in prize money at stake, including $30,000 (plus a bonus based on proceeds from a T-shirt sales campaign) for 1st place—by far the largest cash prize ever in the history of competitive Street Fighter. (Outside of Capcom Cup, a prize of $5,000 for 1st place would be considered a huge paycheck.)

Here were my personal highlights from the tournament:

Ryan Hart Goes Ryu

Ryan "Prodigal Son” Hart of the UK was the first qualifier for Capcom Cup, winning his ticket way back in March. Quite a lot happened between then and Capcom Cup in December, most notably the tour’s transition from Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012 to Ultra Street Fighter IV, which affected every player in some way. In Hart’s case, his main character, Sagat, already not a powerhouse in Ver. 2012, was downgraded for Ultra, and Hart was having a hard time moving past it.

Any time a game switches from one version to the next, every player understands that they face this possibility—that the tools they have come to depend upon could be taken away. When it happens, it can feel awfully unfair, to find essentially that the rules of the game have been rewritten to your disadvantage, your competitive capability crippled by something out of your control. But it’s rarely productive to get upset about it. You either adjust and make the best of it, or you find a different character (or even a different game) to play.

Hart did try competing more with some of his secondary characters, but, for his main in the bulk of the Ultra Street Fighter IV tournaments he entered, he continued to stick with Sagat—a character he clearly no longer believed in. That’s not good.

Furthermore, Japanese Sagat specialist Masato “Bonchan” Takahashi, after an already impressive 2013, was actually surging, following the release of Ultra Street Fighter IV, despite the changes to Sagat. Even just a year ago, there was an argument to be had over who the greatest Sagat in the world was—Bonchan or Ryan Hart. In 2014, there was no doubt that it was Bonchan, and Hart’s looked second-rate by comparison. At Capcom Cup, it would not have been a good look for any hopeful contender to enter as the second-rate version of another competitor present at the same event.

And so I loved Hart’s decision to go with Ryu instead. To me, this was Hart saying, Screw it. I did not become Europe’s top fighting game player of all time by relying on a character’s strength in place of my own.

Ryu is the one character that everybody knows how to fight as and against. He does have his favorable and unfavorable matchups, just like every character, but he’s not generally someone you go to as a counter-pick. So when Ryan Hart went to Ryu, it showed me that he was over playing the tiers or the character matchup charts, and was turning instead to his own skill, playing his own game, expressing his own ability through the purest character in the game.

His first-round opponent was one guy who has never worried too much about playing the matchups. The youngest competitor at Capcom Cup, Florida teenager Du “NuckleDu” Dang has had a lot of success with an unorthodox aggressive Guile that goes against all conventional wisdom on the “correct” way to play the character. Against Hart, he would go with his other character, Decapre, the newest, perhaps least understood addition to the game.

Although considered by some to be the least deserving qualifier into Capcom Cup, since he made it without winning any major tournaments in his own region, let alone internationally, NuckleDu knew how to work the crowd. Known for his penchant for performing taunts even in the biggest of matches, he got the crowd on its feet with his first one here. They roared even louder when Ryan Hart reciprocated. When Hart then lost that game, one got the sense that NuckleDu had been working not only the crowd but also his opponent, goading Hart into sinking to NuckleDu’s level. The next time NuckleDu went for it, Hart did not bite. Rather, he let the confidence on that last Shoryuken do the talking for him—the sickest moment in the tournament up to that point.

Hart’s next opponent was Japan’s Yusuke Momochi, the greatest Ken player in the world. These two had gone back and forth over their previous encounters, albeit those had been in different versions of the game and with different characters. This time, Hart kept it going with his Ryu, while Momochi, although capable with multiple characters, stuck with Ken.

Ryu vs. Ken is one of the classic matchups in all of Street Fighter—the oldest, in fact, dating back to the original 1987 arcade game, where they were the only two playable characters. Both characters have certainly changed a lot since then, but still this would be a match involving few tricks—truly, a pure contest to determine who was the stronger player.

Actually, it ended up being one of the least clean matches of the tournament. Momochi looked in his comfort zone for much of it, but then Ryan Hart, with that clutch factor that defines all the greats, would pull these crazy Ultra Combo comebacks to steal round after round. Again, it was not clean, maybe even the opposite—I’ve always hated Super and Ultra Combos on principle, as tools that nonsensically reward the player getting their ass kicked. But, like a true gamer, Hart seized the opportunity when he saw it.

Hart’s momentum would finally come to a halt against French rival Olivier “Luffy” Hay, who had had his number all year, but, still alive in the losers bracket of this double-elimination tournament, he ended up in a "double jeopardy" situation (sometimes, but not always, a sign that someone in charge screwed up the brackets), having to face Momochi for the second time in the same tournament.

Some would say it was karma. After all the times Momochi had rounds stolen from him, he finally got one back. Despite the result, it was still an impressive run for Ryan Hart, who proved that he was not a second-rate anything.

The Hardest Fight in the Game . . . Solved in Under 10 Minutes!

The first of several ding-dong bouts—a match between two players considered legitimate favorites to win it all—was that between Evo 2011 champion Keita “Fuudo” Ai of Japan and Evo 2012 champion Seonwoo “Infiltration” Lee of South Korea.

Fuudo has been perennially one of the most dreaded opponents on the Street Fighter IV competitive circuit. He plays a distilled form of Fei Long, arguably the strongest character in the game. There is no waste whatsoever to Fuudo’s game, as he dominates the ground with Fei Long’s superior pokes, and discourages jump-ins with his own peerless anti-air reflexes. The strategy is, on paper, nearly without flaw, and needs not discriminate for any opponent. I’ve always said that, in order to overcome Fuudo, a player needs something intangible beyond mere skill—something more akin to inspiration. Otherwise, even if you were to execute your own strategy to perfection, every simulation you could run of “the perfect match” would still have Fuudo coming out on top.

That said, there is only one player on the tour that I would consider to exude a more demoralizing presence than even Fuudo, and that is Infiltration. The most complete player in Street Fighter IV, in my opinion, Infiltration was just about untouchable in 2012, and, even two years removed from “the year of Infiltration,” the memory of his dominance still lingers strong in opponents’ minds, mantling him with an aura of invincibility that eclipses even the dread that Fuudo inspires.

Infiltration was the first true “scientist” of Street Fighter IV, a player known to study up on his opponents, always consulting the notes on his phone, or conferring between games with his partner/coach at the time, fellow South Korean player Ryan “Laugh” Ahn—tactics that were then unheard of even at the highest levels in Japan. Although best known for his Akuma, Infiltration is recognized also for having an arsenal of secondary characters, including relative obscurities, such as Gouken and Oni. These are not exhibition match novelties; Infiltration will turn to them in legitimate competition, even in critical situations, such as when facing elimination at a major, and, more often than not, he’ll win with them. The only dimension to his game that was once considered lacking was his level of charisma, as a South Korean who formerly spoke very little English and came off as somewhat detached while being almost “too dominating.” But Infiltration even eventually figured that out. Facing American underdog Eduardo “PR Balrog” Perez in front of a partisan US audience on the biggest stage in the world last year at Evo, Infiltration managed, with one inspired low-tier character choice, to instantly win the crowd. At Capcom Cup 2014 against Fuudo, Infiltration would bring to bear all of these facets to his game.

Fuudo was, of course, going to go with Fei Long, but Infiltration had a deep bullpen of characters from which to select. He had already used Chun-Li in the first round to combat Brazil’s Eric Moreira “Chuchu” Silva, and, besides Akuma, he was also known to play Ryu, Hakan, Rolento, and Evil Ryu. Even for those who had followed Infiltration’s season closely, however, his pick against Fuudo came out of nowhere. He went with Elena—not one of his known secondary characters, maybe not even a tertiary character!

A new addition in Ultra Street Fighter IV, Elena was considered one of the game’s more ineffectual characters, even after Taiwan’s Bruce “GamerBee” Hsiang nearly went the distance with her against Fuudo in the grand final of DreamHack Winter 2014, the last stop on the Capcom Pro Tour before Capcom Cup. That pick raised eyebrows when GamerBee pulled it out, but maybe the Taiwanese player knew something about the Elena-Fei Long matchup. And maybe Infiltration had spotted it too.

It’s one of the quirks of a game with such a large cast—that even a fairly low-tier character as Elena can actually match up well specifically against one of the strongest fighters in Fei Long. She’s not the better character, certainly, but her awkward attacks just happen to stick her limbs out in exactly the right places to foil Fei Long’s normally solid techniques.

What was all the more impressive was that Infiltration had allegedly only spent a day learning Elena, prior to taking her into that match against one of the toughest players in the world. That just goes to show how singularly awesome a player Infiltration is—1) that he figured out the matchup in so little time, and 2) that his fundamentals are so solid that he could cleanly outplay one of the world’s best while possessing only the rudiments of his own character.

Finally, this may have been bittersweet validation for the absent GamerBee. After working so hard all year to try to qualify for Capcom Cup, he was thwarted at the very end by Fuudo swooping in to claim the last ticket. But, with his final effort, GamerBee hit upon the answer to the perfect Fei Long, ultimately leaving it to others to see it through.

Super Effective!

Infiltration vs. Fuudo was immediately followed by an even more anticipated match, again between two Evo champions. This time, it was Evo 2013 winner Ho Kun Xian vs. Evo 2009 and 2010 champion Daigo “The Beast” Umehara. Neither had had their winningest year in 2014, but I would say that, more than any other top players, these two are the most passionate, the ones who invest the most of themselves in winning at Street Fighter. The amount of work they put in to perform is evident in their results: Xian competes at the highest level with Gen, possibly the hardest character to master, while Daigo is the No. 1 player on the Japanese arcade leaderboards, a ranking that is largely determined by the number of hours that a player commits to playing continuously at the arcade. But perhaps how much they care is even better reflected in how sincerely disappointed they look when they lose at big events. So you knew that these two players were going to go all-out to try to win Capcom Cup.

Their rivalry had become rather lopsided in Daigo’s favor ever since the release of Ultra Street Fighter IV. Xian’s main, Gen, had suffered in the transition, while Daigo had switched to Evil Ryu, considered by many to be the best character in the game. When they last fought not long ago at Razer’s CPT Asia Finals, Daigo thrashed Xian, and the matchup had looked almost unwinnable for the Gen master.

That’s probably why Xian didn’t go with Gen against Daigo at Capcom Cup 2014. Instead, he went with a counter-pick that must have taken Daigo completely by surprise.

I don’t know if anybody saw the Dhalsim pick coming. It was a reasoned choice, though not an obvious one. Like Elena vs. Fei Long, this is another case where a character generally considered weak (Dhalsim) happens to possess just the right tools to handle a character otherwise considered very strong (Evil Ryu). But, more than that, Daigo, as a player, was believed to have a weakness to Dhalsim, having lost to that character at Evo 2014. Still, the Dhalsim-Evil Ryu match is hardly a free win for Dhalsim. Dhalsim takes away a lot of Evil Ryu’s options at long range, but all it takes is a single mistake to let Evil Ryu in, whereupon the advantage shifts completely.

Also, whatever his supposed weaknesses, Daigo is still Daigo; he’s not going to fall prey to any simple counter-pick tactic by a player using the character to only 50 percent. Most counter-pickers would more likely only be playing Dhalsim at closer to 25 percent, as this is another high-level character that takes a lot of dedication to play competently. But it just so happened that Xian’s Dhalsim was not strictly a counter-pick or pocket character. Most people watching wouldn’t have known this (because most people hadn’t heard of Xian back then), but, before he picked up Gen, Xian actually used Dhalsim as his original main. So he knew what to do with this character.

All in all, it was a brilliant play by Xian. Although the match actually ended up being pretty close, it had the look of a terrible performance by Daigo’s standard, as he was just never able to impose himself in his usual way against Dhalsim.

Afterward, Xian would catch a lot of flack for what many considered to be a “dishonorable” tactic—taking the “easy” way out with a favorable matchup against an opponent who wasn’t prepared for it, instead of relying on his own ability with his “own” character. I guess, to some, it was akin to a street fight between the world’s greatest karate fighter and the world’s greatest kung fu master, who then decided to use a gun—not explicitly against the rules, but still an offense against the purity of the sport.

I actually can somewhat appreciate their disappointment, but I think it has nothing to do with honor and rather stems from spectator attachment to the identities that players such as Xian and GamerBee have cultivated synonymous with their signature characters. One of the things that makes Street Fighter so captivating is the diversity of characters and matchups, but, when analysts debate how Gen or Adon fare at the highest levels, they’re really just basing it all on how Xian and GamerBee perform with those characters, because, in the real world, they are the only relevant competitors representing those characters. So if Xian were ever to abandon Gen, it could mean 1) the loss of a distinct sense of who Xian is as a player, if he went instead to a more common character already represented by other top players, and 2) the “death” of Gen, in the sense that that character would effectively no longer exist in high-level real-world Street Fighter IV.

Although I can appreciate that such an outcome would be a bummer, I personally have nothing but respect for how Xian and Infiltration both exercised real shrewdness in their preparations for Capcom Cup, readying characters in secret specifically to counter competitors that they knew would pose major obstacles. You have to remember that, although Xian and Infiltration, being from Asia, sometimes get grouped together with the Japanese players, they’re still too far removed geographically from actually being able to practice daily with the likes of Daigo, Fuudo, Bonchan, etc., who all get to train together in Tokyo. So how are they supposed to make names for themselves in the toughest region in the world, while not getting to enjoy the main benefit that their Japanese rivals get from competing in that region? Well, they do it through relentless self-motivated study, yes, but also with cunning and guile (no pun intended), playing the metagame with tactics rarely considered by the Japanese.

The Red Focus Heard ‘Round the World

Now in the losers bracket, Daigo’s next opponent was local NorCal resident Eduardo “PR Balrog” Perez, who knew a thing or two himself about Evil Ryu.

Since the release of Ultra Street Fighter IV, PR Balrog had picked up Evil Ryu, having lost some faith in his signature Balrog (boxer) after Topanga World League, where the Japanese players were breaking down his offense in ways he hadn’t experienced stateside. But PR Balrog never seemed entirely comfortable while playing Evil Ryu either, and he promptly switched back to Balrog after losing his first game at Capcom Cup with Evil Ryu. It didn’t make any difference in his first-round match, which he lost anyway to his NorCal teammate Ricky Ortiz.

It looked like PR Balrog, once considered maybe the strongest Street Fighter IV player in the US, was going to end his 2014 unremarkably, as he ran into none other than Daigo Umehara in the losers bracket much earlier than anyone would have anticipated. Daigo had been considered the safe money to win the whole thing. It is said that, in a closed-entry competition like Capcom Cup, where the supposedly random elements have been removed, Daigo will always emerge as the honest best. Xian had already proven with his Dhalsim, however, that even a closed-entry tournament was not immune to surprises. Maybe PR Balrog too could show Daigo something he hadn't seen before.

That Red Focus!

Ultra Street Fighter IV, the most radically altered edition of Street Fighter IV, is less than a year old, and players are still figuring out how to properly integrate some of the new systems into their playbooks. Red Focus was early on recognized as a great offensive tool that armed a few characters with devastating new combos. Here, PR Balrog utilized the much more rarely seen defensive form of Red Focus to offensive purpose, and Daigo never saw it coming.

I’ll add, however, that Daigo looked beaten well before that Red Focus. This is a guy who made his legend by playing in the moment, never succumbing to it, but actually owning it. In high-level Street Fighter, there has long been this concept of the “Psychic DP,” a Dragon Punch/Shoryuken that is not performed as an anti-air or to complete a combo (these being the move’s two intended functions), but rather connects seemingly out of nowhere based purely on the user’s intuition. Daigo was always better at this psychic game than anybody else (such that, in Japan, the technique is commonly referred to as “Ume-Shoryu”), because, according to him, he never thinks about the consequences. In the match against PR Balrog, the opposite was true.

He won the first game convincingly, but, once PR Balrog picked up some momentum with a round in the second game, Daigo began to fold. Just like in his loss to John Choi at Evo 2014, you could see Daigo begin to tighten up, back down, and play from a position of fear. I’ve been in that situation myself, albeit at a much lower level, with nothing real at stake. But still I recognize the tells. He was looking ahead, thinking about the outcome instead of feeling the moment, processing the possibility of defeat, and, cracking under the pressure to win (which, in fairness, was surely greater on him than on any other player), he began playing not to lose, which doesn’t cut it at this level.

As for PR Balrog, he had pulled off a minor miracle with his upset victory over Daigo, but things would not be getting any easier for him, as he next had to play another former Evo champion, Fuudo.

Again, the odds were against the American, but he now had in his favor two things that he has always fed off: momentum and the crowd. PR Balrog was, by this point, the only remaining American in the tournament, and, as he began to feel his way to some offensive flurries—precisely the sort of inspired play that it takes to knock Fuudo off balance—the crowd was feeling it too with a "U-S-A" chant that further fueled his confidence. When PR Balrog is playing with that much belief in himself, there may not be anyone in the world who can beat him.

His run would finally end with his next match, after he forgot to set one of his buttons to "3 punches." Stick-wielding snobs used to try to tell me that these sorts of "button binds" (mapping multiple inputs to a single button) shouldn't be legal for tournament play, since real arcades didn't have them. Now, even top pro players use them when playing on console.

Clash of the Titans

Back to the winners bracket, Infiltration and Xian’s triumphant plays against the Japanese giants that stood in their respective paths set up a potentially climactic semifinal showdown between the Evo 2012 champion and the Evo 2013 champion. This was one that fans had been waiting a long time to see.

During his championship run at Evo 2013, Xian did not have to face Infiltration, who had been beating Xian consistently during the earlier part of 2013. After Evo 2013, the two would not play until Topanga World League. Xian prevailed that time, but the result was not very satisfying, as Infiltration lost the first several games using Chun-Li instead of his signature Akuma.

Through the first two rounds at Capcom Cup 2014, neither had used their signature character yet, but there would be no gamesmanship now in this match between arguably the two greatest Street Fighter IV players of the post-Daigo era, as they both went straight to their mains.

Infiltration had some dominant sequences, but Xian gutted it out with his indomitable will. It was a great end-to-end match that lived up to all expectations, except that it was probably too short—a complaint that the competitors and spectators alike shared about the tournament's best-of-3 format.


Above were my personal top 5 stories of Capcom Cup 2014. But perhaps you’d like to know who actually won the tournament? Read on, then, for coverage of the final matches.

Losers Semi-Final

When a double-elimination bracket is down to the final four competitors—two left on the winners side, two on the losers side—the match between the losers is formally referred to as “losers semi-final.” At Capcom Cup 2014, it would be Infiltration facing off against Momochi for a guaranteed place in the top 3 (and the money).

Of his opponent, I recall Infiltration once saying, “Ken is easy, but Momochi is hard.” The compliment perhaps belied the South Korean’s dominant record against the Japanese Ken player.

The instant Momochi landed that raw Focus Attack to open the first round, I could sense that the match was already over. That Momochi would even go for such a brash maneuver showed that he was still on fire from his crazy comeback against Ryan Hart (which, despite how I’ve presented it on this page, actually took place right before this match). It’s another example of a play that comes out of nowhere and leaves the opponent stunned with the impression that you must be psychic. Infiltration began playing with too much respect, and Momochi was getting away with everything. When Momochi did it again in the second game, it was clear that he had gotten into Infiltration’s head.

Winners Final

On the other side, in the match between the final two in the winners bracket, it was a contest between this year’s Evo champion and last year’s.

As the winner of Evo 2014 (and about a half-dozen other big tournaments this year), Olivier “Luffy” Hay entered Capcom Cup as the No.1 seed, with more than twice as many ranking points as the next closest person. Seeding Capcom Cup based purely on ranking points may not have been the fairest or most sensible approach, as the distribution of events on the Capcom Pro Tour clearly favored some regions over others. This meant that a player could potentially work very hard, collecting many ranking points to earn a high seed, only to be paired up in the first round against a very tough Japanese opponent, who ended up with a low seed only because they didn’t travel to US events.

For Luffy, the brackets did actually work out quite favorably, as he had a leisurely path through to the winners final, beating a Blanka (the weakest character represented in the tournament), US Rufus player Ricky Ortiz (not pegged by anyone to be a factor at Capcom Cup), and longtime rival Ryan Hart (whom Luffy had not lost to in months). His opponent now was a different story. Among other achievements, Evo 2013 champion Xian had the distinction of having been the only player to notch a victory over Luffy at Evo 2014. The match had not been streamed, so nobody was sure how it had played out or how close it had been, which only fueled anticipation for this rematch.

It went back and forth, but Xian ultimately prevailed convincingly, proving that his previous victory over Luffy was no fluke.

Losers Final

Xian’s win sent Luffy down to the losers side to face Momochi, a player whom Luffy had soundly defeated at Evo 2014.

There would be no repeat of Evo 2014. Normally one of the most confident players in the world, Luffy still looked deflated from his loss to Xian, while Momochi was coming in hot from his victories over Ryan Hart and Infiltration.

Grand Final

In the Capcom Cup 2014 grand final, we had, on the winners side, last year’s runner-up, Xian, who, after the Ultra edition nerfs to Gen had some counting him out, was looking very impressive, defeating three Evo champions in a row. His opponent, coming from the losers side, was Momochi, a top 10 player in Japan through the entire life of the Street Fighter IV series. Although never the most exciting competitor, he had the ability and experience to contend with any other player in Japan, which obviously meant he could hang with anyone in the world.

Although Momochi’s Ken had beaten Xian’s Gen pretty badly in their last encounter at South East Asia Major 2014 in June, Xian had already proven his astuteness in learning from his losses, so now we just had to see what he might have figured out about the Ken match. Also, unlike the rest of the tournament, the grand final was best-of-5, plus Xian had an extra set to give, since he was coming from the winners side, so there would be at least a few games for him to experiment with.

The Poison pick showed some promise, but, honestly, after a while, it started to feel like Xian was playing in slow motion, because Momochi seemed able to see his every move coming a mile away. That was actually how most of Momochi's opponents had looked all day, except for Ryan Hart.

Unfortunately for Xian, things did not get better when he switched back to Gen. Until Gen can score a knockdown, the character's only real approach is with his crouching medium punch. Once Momochi got the lead in any round, this move would be all he had to look for to defend against, which, with him somehow slowing down time, was no trouble at all. That left Xian with no other option except to toss up random prayers in the form of unsafe jump-ins. Xian landed a few, but it’s equivalent to an American football team having to go Hail Mary every possession; the odds just aren't going to work out in your favor in the long run.

To be honest, I found it to be a very anticlimactic finish. After some great moments (Ryan Hart's comebacks, Xian's Dhalsim pick, PR Balrog's Red Focus), Momochi ended up taking it with very little drama. Technically, he's a superb player with no apparent flaws to be exploited. In the matches I've seen him lose before, it was usually because he was not, in that moment, as mentally or emotionally tough as his opponent. That wasn't happening on this day. After his Ultra Combo comeback against Ryan Hart, he must have been feeling close to invincible. I don't have much else to say about his play. It’s like watching the San Antonio Spurs win the NBA Championship. They don't do scintillating; they just play the game the right way and come out on top. But, at the end of the day, they don’t have LeBron James or any other superstar that you would seriously pay money to see, so what is any of it worth to the viewer?


Looking Ahead to 2015

Capcom Cup 2014 closed with a trailer and demo for Street Fighter V, still a long way off from completion.

Maybe the most stunning moment of the entire event, however, was the announcement concerning the future of Capcom Cup and the Capcom Pro Tour. First, producer Yoshinori Ono confirmed that the tour would be happening again in 2015—a nice early heads-up to competitors and tournament organizers to start planning out their schedules. Then, addressing Street Fighter V being console-exclusive to the PlayStation 4, he stressed how beneficial the partnership with Sony was going to be for everyone (yes, at an event that had, naturally, just been conducted entirely on Xbox 360, because the PS3 version of the game had been rejected as laggy). Elaborating, he proceeded to drop the bombshell that next year’s prize pool would be upped to $500,000.

There are a lot of questions that still need answering before people lose their minds over this. Is that money going to be split between only the top 3 at Capcom Cup 2015? Is it going to be spread out across events over the entire season? Will it be in the form of US dollars or in Sony Store credit?

In a best-case scenario, this could be a game-changer. I mentioned at the start of this post that the $50,000 prize pool for Capcom Cup 2014 was already the biggest ever for a single tournament. If next year’s purse really is ten times that amount, that would be money that not even the most decorated of the competitors at this year’s event has ever seen before. How might that affect the fighting game community? Could this be the beginning of true professional play in Street Fighter—top players (plural, so not just Daigo!) competing as their full-time jobs, not merely paying the bills but actually living enviably off the winnings? With this much money at stake, might some of the spirit of fun be lost, everybody becoming much more cutthroat? How will this affect the competitive scenes for other fighting games? Will all the Mortal Kombat and Guilty Gear players promptly abandon those games to go full-time Street Fighter and vie for the real money?

It’s not even certain yet what game(s) will be the focus of Capcom Cup 2015. It’s unlikely that Street Fighter V will be out anywhere near in time, so I’m guessing we’ll be seeing another year at least of Ultra Street Fighter IV. That extra time should grant players a deeper understanding of the game, thereby producing yet higher-level competition for next year, but, really, this is, at its core, a game that is already now more than six years old. An extra-large cash incentive is probably what’s necessary to motivate bored players to continue to take it seriously. But, even then, what version? Maybe the upcoming PS4 port? It’s hard to imagine Sony putting so much money into the tour, if it were to continue to run on Xbox 360. But it’s even harder to imagine all the players and all the event hosts ponying up the dough for expensive new PS4 setups and joysticks (unless part of the $500,000 will be going toward covering that).

Some of these questions should be answered shortly, and the others, we'll have to wait and see.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Capcom Cup 2014 Preview

After ten long months of grueling competition through more than a hundred tournaments in over twenty countries and also online, all roads will converge this Saturday, December 13, at The Warfield in San Francisco, where the sixteen most distinguished players during this year’s Capcom Pro Tour will assemble to finally settle things in Ultra Street Fighter IV at the 2014 Capcom Cup.

Whereas last year’s Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012 championship included a mere eight competitors, each of whom had to qualify by winning a different major tournament from the second half of the year, this year twice as many spots were up for grabs, with a few different routes to qualification. First, a select ten tournaments deemed the biggest in the United States, Europe, and Asia, and spread out from March to the very end of November, were granted “Premier Tournament” status on the Capcom Pro Tour. Victory at any of these ten competitions earned the winner a ticket straight into Capcom Cup. The remaining spots, then, would be given to the next six players who had accumulated the most ranking points on the Capcom Pro Tour. Placing in the top 16 at any Premier Tournament earned a player ranking points according to their performance. Besides just the ten Premier Tournaments, however, there were more than forty additional “Tier 2” events granted “Ranking Tournament” status. Ranking Tournaments offered fewer points than Premier Tournaments, but the sheer number of Ranking Tournaments meant that a player who entered a lot and performed consistently well could amass a lot of points without necessarily having to win a major. Finally, there was the “Street Fighter Online Series,” which consisted of 28 online tournaments, each worth “Tier 3” points, open to PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 players in the Americas and Europe.


Qualifier #1: Ryan Hart

The UK's Ryan Hart has been the most famous player in Europe for over a decade. He was one of the first Europeans to travel beyond his home continent to compete. Internationally, he made his name in 3-D fighters, such as Tekken and Virtua Fighter, as pretty much the one guy in the world who could go toe-to-toe with the South Korean giants. But Hart goes wherever the competition is, and these days he is known for having been one of Europe’s top 3 Street Fighter IV players throughout the life of the game.

Hart was the first player to qualify for Capcom Cup 2014 back in March. He did it by winning Final Round 17 in Atlanta, GA, USA. The release of Ultra Street Fighter IV was still months away, so this first Premier Tournament was conducted on Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012. To win, Hart had to get past South Korea’s Infiltration and NorCal’s PR Balrog. Although primarily a Sagat player, he foiled the former by shrewdly picking Yun as a hard counter to Infiltration's Akuma, then impressively turned back the freight train that was PR Balrog.

Hart followed up his Final Round victory with another big win in the US, taking Chicago’s Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament 10 in May. He remained a consistent performer through the remainder of the Capcom Pro Tour, almost always placing 2nd or 3rd at European events. Still the No. 2 player in Europe, he has been a distant second since Evo, however, to longtime French rival, Luffy, whom he has not been able to defeat in a tournament in months. The transition to Ultra Street Fighter IV has clearly hurt Hart, and he has openly expressed his frustration with the changes to Sagat, raising serious questions as to his mental preparedness for Capcom Cup.

2014 Accomplishments:

Final Round 17 (2014) - Winner
UFGT 10 (2014) - Winner


Qualifier #2: PR Balrog

NorCal-based Puerto Rican player Eduardo “PR Balrog” Perez has been the most successful Balrog user through the entire Street Fighter IV series. At both Evo 2012 and Evo 2013, he was the highest-placing American, getting 3rd and 4th respectively, leading quite a few analysts to declare him the best player in the US. The Japanese even invited him to be the American representative at this year’s Topanga World League, to compete against the best players in Asia.

PR Balrog qualified for Capcom Cup through the second Premier Tournament, April’s NorCal Regionals in Sacramento, CA, USA, where he bested Infiltration for the third time in as many events this year. Their rivalry having taken off with some classic bouts at Evo 2013, PR Balrog has continually proven himself one of the few US players ready to hang with the Evo 2012 champion. Unintimidated by Infiltration’s record and seeming aura of invincibility, PR Balrog treated him as he would any other player, which is maybe what gave him an edge. His aggressive play style was not so much disrespectful as it was fearless, but, either way, it got him the win.

PR Balrog's results declined somewhat after the tour transitioned to Ultra Street Fighter IV. In what was increasingly a trend among top players, he picked up an alternate character, Evil Ryu, to complement his main character, Balrog. Evil Ryu is undoubtedly one of the strongest characters in Ultra Street Fighter IV, whose overpowering offensive tools should suit PR Balrog’s play style. Still, some analysts feel that splitting time between Balrog and Evil Ryu has diluted PR Balrog’s potency.

2014 Accomplishments:

NorCal Regionals 2014 - Winner
Final Round 17 - Runner-Up


Qualifier #3: Momochi

Yusuke Momochi has never been the most explosive of players, but his fundamentals with Ken are among the most solid of any player even in his home country of Japan. It is his strong core game that has allowed him to place highly in Japan's last two elite Topanga A League invitationals. He sees through flashier players' gimmicks and takes them to school.

That is precisely what he did to Ryota "Kazunoko" Inoue at South East Asia Major in June, the third Premier Tournament on the Capcom Pro Tour, and the first to be conducted on Ultra Street Fighter IV. Against the world's preeminent user of Yun, the game's greatest offensive powerhouse, Momochi kept his cool, cooled off his opponent, and managed to take control and impose his own pace against a character that should have been much faster than his own.

Momochi had no other major victories in 2014, but he did make Top 8 at Evo and finished 2nd in the 4th Topanga A League. Also one of the most versatile players, he does have other characters to cover his bases for potential matchups at Capcom Cup. If the situation calls for it, he can go from Ken to Juri for a little more juice. The opponent he'll probably most have to look out for is the next guy on this list.

2014 Accomplishments:

South East Asia Major 2014 - Winner
CEO 2014 - Runner-Up
Evo 2014 - 7th Place
4th Topanga A League - Runner-Up


Qualifier #4: Infiltration

Two years ago, a nigh-invincible Seonwoo "Infiltration" Lee had the most dominant season in Street Fighter IV’s competitive history. He was a problem that nobody could solve, but for the occasional Cammy player. He was not quite as much a terror in 2013, but still, any time he entered a tournament, the other players understood that they would need to have a solution to him, if they were to have any hope of coming away with the trophy. As Japanese pro player Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi put it, “The path of victory goes through Infiltration. If you want to win any major, you must defeat him.”

Heading into Community Event Orlando (CEO), the fourth Premier Tournament on the Capcom Pro Tour, the South Korean was coming off back-to-back victories in the first Ultra Street Fighter IV competitions of the tour, including wins against both recent nemesis PR Balrog and also Ryan Hart, whose Yun pick did not work a second time. At CEO 2014, Infiltration's own path to the Capcom Cup ticket would take him through Justin Wong, PR Balrog, and Ricky Ortiz, the top three players in the US, who were all sponsored by Evil Geniuses. Infiltration used three different characters to beat the US members of Team Evil Genius, then punctuated his victory by utterly breaking the team's Japanese ringer, Momochi, in a grand final with mainly pride at stake (the rules did not permit Momochi to "double-qualify," so the Capcom Cup spot would be going to Infiltration, no matter the result of their match).

Entering Evo 2014 two weeks later as the No. 1 seed, Infiltration would finish disappointingly tied for 25th. He then took most of the rest of the year off from competition, which leaves him an ominous question mark for Capcom Cup. There’s no telling what form he’ll be in on Saturday, but if he’s at his best, there may not be anyone who can beat him.

2014 Accomplishments:

CEO 2014 - Winner
DreamHack Summer 2014 - Winner
SoCal Regionals 2014 - Runner-Up
NorCal Regionals 2014 - Runner-Up
WECG 2014 Korea Qualifier - Winner


Qualifier #5: Justin Wong

Although we wouldn't know it until much later, Justin Wong’s 5th-place finish at CEO would be enough to get him into Capcom Cup via ranking points. He earned most of his points from Ranking Tournaments in the US during the first half of the year, when the tour was still running on Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012, and he never really contended for a Premier Tournament ticket after Ultra Street Fighter IV came out. He experimented for a period with playing as new character Elena, but has since gone back to playing Rufus almost exclusively. Rumor is, he’s got another character that he’s been saving just for Capcom Cup.

Justin will be an underdog, for sure, but the Evo 2009 runner-up should never be underestimated. His triumph in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 at Evo 2014 showed what he’s capable of when he really dedicates himself to a single goal, and now that the scene for that game has gone quiet after Evo, Justin has been able to focus all his competitive energies on training for Ultra Street Fighter IV and Capcom Cup 2014.

2014 Accomplishments:

Texas Showdown 2014 - Winner
PAX East 2014 - Winner
Stunfest 2014 - Runner-Up
PAX Prime 2014 - Winner


Qualifier #6: Luffy

The premier Rose specialist in the world (and, for a long time, just about the only one in international competition), France's Olivier "Luffy" Hay has long been one of the strongest Street Fighter IV players in Europe, but this year saw him take his game to another level. He qualified for Capcom Cup by winning an even bigger event.

At Evo 2014, Luffy ran through a veritable Topanga A League of Japanese players, en route to a final showdown against the 3rd Topanga A League winner himself, Sagat master Masato "Bonchan" Takahashi. The bracket may actually have worked out in Luffy's favor in the grand final, however, as he brought with him countless battles' worth of experience against one of the best Sagat players in the world in Ryan Hart, whereas Bonchan had never faced a Rose that was anywhere near Luffy's level.

Luffy's victory at Evo 2014 would be only the beginning. He would go on to win more tournaments than any other player in 2014, proving that there was nothing random about his victory at Evo. Even against the big Japanese names, he'll surely head into Saturday as one of the favorites. Heck, he already beat most of them at Evo, so he's not likely going to be intimidated at the prospect of running into any of them here. The biggest threat to him may be Xian, who was the only player to take a match from Luffy at Evo 2014, after having defeated him at Evo the previous year as well.

2014 Accomplishments:

Evo 2014 - Winner
Stunfest 2014 - Winner
DreamHack Valencia 2014 - Winner
DreamHack Stockholm 2014 - Winner
Red Fight District III - Winner
VSFighting 4 - Runner-Up


Qualifier #7: Bonchan

On the Capcom Pro Tour, Evo was its own tier beyond even the Premier Tournaments. The winner would get an instant ticket to Capcom Cup, of course, but additionally the ranking points at stake were four times as many as at regular Premier Tournaments. For coming in 2nd, Bonchan received 512 ranking points—easily enough to qualify him for a spot at Capcom Cup. The world's greatest Sagat player continued to add to his points total, however, by placing highly at event after event in arguably the most competitive region in the world. His record definitely makes a strong case for him being the best player of 2014.

If he has one weakness, however, it would perhaps be his inability to adapt quickly enough when facing unfamiliar matchups. Reviewing the Evo 2014 grand final against Luffy, it was clear that Bonchan was completely lost on how to approach the Rose match. At the Mad Catz Tokyo Game Show Tournament in September, Bonchan again went virtually unchallenged on his way to the final through a field including every top Japanese player, before running into one Yudai “Pepeday” Furushima, a walk-on entrant from the remote southernmost island of Japan. For all his honed skill with Sagat, it was once again clear that Bonchan had no idea what was going on in this match against this hidden El Fuerte master, and, even in a longer first-to-5 set, he could not figure Pepeday out.

Before anybody gets to thinking that Bonchan simply chokes in grand finals, I'll add that he did dominate September’s Thaiger Uppercut, one of the biggest double-elimination tournaments in Asia. Against such known competitors as Xian and Itazan, who could not surprise him, Bonchan had no trouble at all. For Capcom Cup, he has also vowed to be ready this time for the Rose match. Unless any of the other qualifiers have new tricks saved up just for him, he may well end up running over the field.

2014 Accomplishments:

Evo 2014 - Runner-Up
Thaiger Uppercut 2014 - Winner
Mad Catz TGS 2014 - Runner-Up
Taito Arcade Nationals - Runner-Up


Qualifier #8: Valmaster

Valentin "Valmaster" Petit of France is perhaps the greatest Chun-Li player active right now. He first drew international recognition toward the tail end of Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012, a Chun-Li specialist at a time when the character had gone nearly extinct at the tournament level and was regarded as among the weakest in the game. Rather like Evo champions Luffy and Xian, Valmaster emerged then as a singular specialist maximizing a seldom-seen character perceived as mid-tier at best, and so excelling with her that public estimation of the character became almost solely determined by the one player’s performance with her. In Europe, to say that Chun-Li is a threat is really to mean that Valmaster is a threat with her.

Valmaster's breakthrough major victory came in March at Hypespotting 3 in Scotland against Ryan Hart, and he followed that up with an impressive performance at Stunfest, where he defeated Japanese fighting game god Tatsuya Haitani. One of the best players not present at Evo 2014, Valmaster's first major in Ultra Street Fighter IV would be VSFighting 4 in Birmingham, UK, one of Europe's two Premier Tournaments, where he became the player to snap Luffy's post-Evo winning streak.

Valmaster will go into Capcom Cup having never faced most of the other competitors. Thus, it will be hard to call many of his potential matchups, especially in a best-of-3 format. His first-round opponent happens to be Xian, however, who has faced and beaten him before.

2014 Accomplishments:

VSFighting 4 - Winner
Hypespotting 3 - Winner
Stunfest 2014 - 3rd Place


Qualifier #9: Xian

One of the most technically skilled players in the world, Ho Kun Xian of Singapore was the first and still only player to win majors with Gen, perhaps the most execution-intensive character in the game. Last year, Xian played that character so far beyond anyone else's understanding that he made winning Evo 2013 look effortless, when in fact it was a lot of hard work. That probably led to Gen being unfairly weakened in Ultra Street Fighter IV, and, in 2014, along with some of Gen's tools went a bit of Xian's confidence.

Xian struggled early in Ultra Street Fighter IV against the Japanese players at South East Asia Major, which was actually his home major (it was hosted by Tough Cookie TV, the gaming cafe that Xian manages). He started to find his form again after Evo, however, winning Ranking Tournaments in South Korea, Vietnam, and Singapore. By the time he made the trip out to The Fall Classic in Raleigh, NC, USA to try to win a direct entry to Capcom Cup, he was already close to a lock on points anyway. Xian proceeded to steamroll through the field while barely dropping a game on his way to the grand final. He left little doubt that he was still one of the strongest players in the world, as he crushed Sanford Kelly’s Oni with new alternate character Poison, then doused Dudley specialist Smug, who was usually one of the hottest and most entertaining players on the tour.

The victory over Smug secured Xian enough ranking points to guarantee a spot at Capcom Cup, but he still wanted to go one step further and win a Premier Tournament. Standing in his way, unfortunately, was Snake Eyez.

The two memorably played one another at Evo 2014, and, although it was close, it was apparent that the defending champion was not comfortable with the Zangief match. Snake Eyez took it, and then Xian had the misfortune to run into another Zangief player, Japan’s Hiromiki “Itazan” Kumada, who eliminated him in the losers bracket. Two months later, at Thaiger Uppercut, Xian lost to Itazan again, thoroughly exposing the Evo 2013 champ’s weakness to this character. Against Snake Eyez at The Fall Classic, Xian lost to Zangief yet again. Clearly, the character is Xian's demon, and Snake Eyez will be the player he'll most hope to avoid at Capcom Cup.

2014 Accomplishments:

Saigon Cup 2014 - Winner
The Fall Classic 2014 - Runner-Up
CPT Asia Finals 2014 - Runner-Up


Qualifier #10: Snake Eyez

The foremost Zangief player in the US, Darryl "Snake Eyez" Lewis of Southern California has been considered by many to be the highest-level Street Fighter IV player in the country. The only thing that has held him back from winning more major tournaments has been the number of near insurmountable mismatches that his character faces against hard counters, such as Sagat and Dhalsim. In 2014, with the release of Ultra Street Fighter IV having brought with it some improvements to Zangief, however, Snake Eyez has been having a banner year.

At Evo 2014, Snake Eyez made it all the way to 4th, the highest-placing American. He only seemed to grow in strength after that, and pretty soon there could be no argument anymore that he was the best in the nation. He has been handily defeating Justin Wong and Ricky Ortiz on a consistent basis, becoming the top-ranked US player on the Capcom Pro Tour leaderboard. With his victory over Xian at The Fall Classic, he also became (along with PR Balrog) only the second American to win a Premiere Tournament.

Even as Snake Eyez is Xian's demon, however, the Zangief player may have to face his own demon at Capcom Cup in the form of Fuudo. The Japanese Fei Long player has won all of their previous encounters, thwarting Snake Eyez at the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary Tournament and again at Evo 2014.

2014 Accomplishments:

Evo 2014 - 4th Place
The Fall Classic 2014 - Winner
San Diego Comic-Con - Winner
Absolute Battle 5 - Winner
Winner of Wednesday Night Fights Ranking Season


Qualifier #11: Nishikin

The very same weekend as The Fall Classic, October hosted the finals of the Taito Arcade Nationals in Japan. The Japanese national championship for Ultra Street Fighter IV, this was, for the Japanese, maybe as coveted a prize as either Evo or Capcom Cup itself, for which it served as a Premier Tournament. Like Capcom Cup, it was conducted in stages, with regional qualifiers before the national finals, and it was held entirely on arcade, making it a true purist’s dream tournament. Yet the final result was more baffling than anything else.

The No. 1 Blanka specialist in the world, Hiroshi "Nishikin" Nishikido was a known player, but his record did nothing to suggest that his character was anything but bottom-tier. US stream watchers would remember him from CEO 2014, where he got perfected by Smug and then eliminated by Infiltration, who was using Hakan, one of his tertiary characters.

How this guy took the national championship, ahead of Bonchan, Momochi, Daigo, Kazunoko and the rest, is a riddle. Even watching the matches that Nishikin won at the Taito Arcade Nationals doesn’t really clear anything up. His character is gimmicks, and not even anything too out-of-control, but just parlor tricks that work the first time and probably shouldn’t be tried a second (and, to Nishikin’s credit, he seems to recognize this). We’ll see if his bag of tricks goes deep enough to carry him through Capcom Cup. Definitely the long shot, if nothing else, Nishikin could play spoiler by winning in the first round against No. 1 seed Luffy, who likely does not have as much experience with Blanka as he does fighting the other qualifiers’ characters.

2014 Accomplishments:

Taito Arcade Nationals - Winner
WECG 2014 Japan Qualifier - Winner


Qualifier #12: Chuchu

Elsewhere, the news out of South America was that one Eric Moreira “Chuchu” Silva had won the Ranking Tournament at Brazil Game Show 2014, thereby guaranteeing himself a qualification spot at Capcom Cup. For most hearing this news, the immediate reaction was a “Who?” followed by a “How?”

To most, Chuchu was an unknown player who had beaten a bunch of other unknown players at a random tournament in the middle of nowhere. So how was he qualifying ahead of players like GamerBee and K-Brad, who had traveled extensively during the Capcom Pro Tour and even won Ranking Tournaments themselves?

As it turned out, the majority of Chuchu’s ranking points came controversially from online competitions, which some pro players had early on criticized as poorly conceived, poorly publicized, poorly run. Even with online tournaments occurring almost every month, with ranking points up for grabs, very few known players bothered to enter. This created an opportunity for any high-level player who did participate in all or most of them. Recognizing that the field would likely be mediocre, a shrewd competitor could swoop in while everyone else slept and quietly win a bunch of points without ever leaving home. That is exactly what Chuchu did. He was one of only a few players to participate in nearly all of the American online tournaments, both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Now, Chuchu will enter Capcom Cup as the wildcard of the tournament. There is footage of him out there, in case the other competitors want to study up on him, but, even then, he plays Sakura, Chun-Li, and C. Viper all about equally, so it will be very hard to come up with a specific plan for dealing with him. It so happens, however, that his first-round opponent at Capcom Cup will be Infiltration, the one guy out of the entire group who has faced Chuchu before. If Chuchu was hoping to rely on the surprise factor of being the least known player, it is perhaps unfortunate that he will start off against Infiltration. On the other hand, maybe the fact that he actually beat Infiltration in their previous encounter will give him the confidence boost needed to get off to a good start.

2014 Accomplishments:

Brazil Game Show 2014 - Winner
Winner of 4 Street Fighter Online Series Tournaments


Qualifier #13: Ricky Ortiz

Like fellow Rufus player and Team Evil Genius member Justin Wong, Ricky Ortiz started the year quite strong, winning multiple Ranking Tournaments in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012, but then fell off somewhat as the tour wore on. The Evo 2010 runner-up did have a very impressive run at Evo, which included a victory over Capcom Cup 2013 champion Naoto Sako, but afterward she had to grind along all the way to the final Ranking Tournament, traveling down to Thunderstruck in Monterrey, Mexico to collect some free points to just barely qualify.

Also, Ricky began to openly identify as female this year—news that probably slipped by anyone who only watches the games and not the players' Twitter accounts. Maybe she prefers that this be considered separately from her professional gaming, which is why this wasn't made into a bigger story. The lack of reporting did cause many people, myself included, to make asses of ourselves by continuing to refer to Ricky using masculine pronouns for months before we got the memo.

In any event, Ricky will be an underdog at Capcom Cup, but at least she is now the strongest female player in the world by a fair margin.

2014 Accomplishments:

Evo 2014 - 5th Place
Civil War VI - Winner
East Coast Throwdown 2014 - Winner


Qualifier #14: Daigo

A player who needs no introduction, Evo 2009 and 2010 champion Daigo Umehara was the competitor most conspicuously (and, for spectators, disappointingly) absent from last year's Capcom Cup.

2014 has so far not proven quite the comeback year he might have hoped for. He started strong by winning the Topanga World League. Then, with the release of Ultra Street Fighter IV, he switched from his longstanding main of Ryu to arguably the new strongest character in the game, Evil Ryu, and quickly rose to the top of the Japanese arcade rankings. But Daigo was not able to win at any of the major elimination tournaments on his selective schedule. After his earliest exit ever at an Evo, he rejoined the Capcom Pro Tour fairly late, but just in time to contend in the Capcom Pro Tour Asia Series, a group of Ranking Tournaments that then culminated in a Premier Tournament.

In the grand final, Daigo faced off against Xian, who was playing with house money at this point. The Evo 2013 champ had already secured his Capcom Cup spot via ranking points, but still his performance here could have had a huge influence in shaping Capcom Cup 2014. Xian was still eligible to receive the direct ticket, so if he had won here, it would have slammed the door shut on Daigo's chances at entering Capcom Cup, as Daigo had not accumulated enough points to qualify except by winning a Premier Tournament. But, of course, Daigo did win, and in convincing fashion over Xian.

Even when he's not having the most consistent season, it's always hard to bet against Daigo, especially in a tournament like Capcom Cup, where he'll know ahead of time all of the opponents he might have to face. Daigo completely dominated the CPT Asia Series Finals and the 4th Topanga A League, which were both closed-entry competitions.

2014 Accomplishments:

Topanga World League - Winner
4th Topanga A League - Winner
CPT Asia Series - Winner
No. 1 Player on Japanese Arcade Rankings


Qualifier #15: NuckleDu

Florida teenager Du “NuckleDu” Dang was the only player to qualify for Capcom Cup without winning even a Ranking Tournament. He is not an unknown, as he travels quite regularly to events in the US, and he also qualified last year for the Street Fighter X Tekken championship at Capcom Cup. But, like Chuchu, more than half of his points this year came from online tournaments. Indeed, he leapfrogged GamerBee and other players in the rankings very suddenly and very late in the game by winning the final two American online tournaments on both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

NuckleDu’s most impressive performance was probably his match against Pepeday at The Fall Classic, where he turned the tables on the master of the esoteric El Fuerte by playing Decapre, a character that the Japanese player had probably never encountered before at a high level.

NuckleDu’s primary character, however, is Guile. One of the best Guile players in the world, he plays the character quite a bit differently from others, favoring an aggressive style that would seem to run counter to the character’s entire design philosophy. One of NuckleDu’s signature moves is Guile’s “Shades of Glory,” where Guile puts on sunglasses, which then stay on for the round unless the player performs the move again to take them off. To be clear, this is a taunt, nothing more; it has no practical use. I can’t think of any other top player who would dare to perform a taunt in a real match, but NuckleDu does it all the time, including this year on the Evo main stage, generating quite the reaction from the crowd.

Without actually digging up the stats, I'd wager that NuckleDu has either a losing record or none at all against each of the other players qualified for Capcom Cup. But I'd also guess that that doesn't bother the young showman.

2014 Accomplishments:

First Attack 2014 - Runner-Up
GUTS 3 - Runner-Up
The Fall Classic 2014 - 4th Place
Winner of 4 Street Fighter Online Series Tournaments


Qualifier #16: Fuudo

The final qualifier, Keita "Fuudo" Ai, made it in by winning the last Premier Tournament, DreamHack Winter in Jönköping, Sweden just two weeks before Capcom Cup.

For the Evo 2011 champ, this was a year of mixed results. Fuudo finished a very strong 3rd at Evo 2014, but then performed abysmally in the 4th Topanga A League, finishing dead last. He did not travel very much this year, and seemed to have no interest in joining in the hunt for Capcom Pro Tour points. It was really quite unexpected when he was added at the last minute to DreamHack Winter, and it was kind of heartbreaking when he took the spot by defeating GamerBee, who had worked so hard all year long to try to qualify.

But that's Fuudo in a nutshell. He's a crushingly indiscriminate combatant, dominating with a complete disregard for who his opponent might be. His character might be, on paper, the strongest in the game, and Fuudo's exceedingly patient, systematic play style represents the most perfect distillation of Fei Long's strengths. Fei Long's excellent poking attacks control the ground, while Fuudo's unparalleled reflexes make jumping in on him almost impossible. Winning is consequently almost automatic to him. Beating him requires more than just training and scouting; it takes some inspired play.

That said, the opponent Fuudo will definitely want to avoid is Luffy, who, at Evo 2014, crushed all three of the top Asian Fei Long players, Fuudo included. I don't think Luffy has lost to that character in a tournament in years.

2014 Accomplishments:

Evo 2014 - 3rd Place
DreamHack Winter 2014 - Winner


Finally, just for fun, my prediction for the final: Infiltration over Daigo.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Long-Term Fictional Enmity

Following up on last week's "Montreal Screwjob" post discussing the blurred lines between reality and fiction—how the characters that pro wrestlers play are really just versions of themselves—I am reminded of a 2008 Fresh Air interview with Jenna Fischer, known for playing Pam on the The Office—a show that, not altogether unlike pro wrestling, was entirely scripted but presented in the guise of real life caught on camera. Regarding this tricky verisimilitude, I remember, there was something that just really struck me about the way Fischer put it, which I will now present out of context:
It is the strangest thing—to have a long-term fictional love interest. It's a type of relationship that is very intimate, and it's very powerful, but it's fictional. There is a part of me that is Pam, and there's a part of him that is Jim. And that part of me is in love with that part of him.

My immediate reaction at the time: Whoa. Then does this mean that there is a part of The Undertaker that really IS that character? If so, then... oh no. Oh no! Somebody needs to tell the cops to get to Hulk Hogan's place right away, because his life is in great peril!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Evo Moment #37, 10 Years Later

Evo Moment #37

Evo Moment #37. If you’re reading this site, you more than likely are already familiar with the video. It is perhaps the single most iconic moment in competitive gaming history. This past weekend, Super Arcade celebrated the 10th anniversary of “the Daigo parry” by running a throwback tournament at the original venue at Cal Poly Pomona, and by inviting the original participants to compete once more in an exhibition match in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike.

To provide some context, the year was 2004. The event was the third annual Evo, the biggest international fighting game tournament in the world (although that wasn’t saying so much back then). The competitors, Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong, were the most famous Capcom fighting game players in Japan and the U.S. respectively. And the prize, the championship for Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, was probably the most coveted in what was then not yet known as the “fighting game community.”

The Street Fighter III series originally did not catch on in the U.S. There were no console ports of Street Fighter III until three years into the game’s life, and then only for the doomed Sega Dreamcast. Veteran arcade players of the Street Fighter II and Street Fighter Alpha games did not immediately take to the “parry” mechanic, an essentially unbeatable but extremely execution-intensive technique that, if mastered, completely shattered many established fundamentals of competitive Street Fighter. With only a few scattered adherents in the U.S., the game was actually dropped from the tournament lineup from 2001 to 2002.

Meanwhile, over in Japan, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike was definitely Capcom’s most popular fighter in arcades, even ahead of newer releases, such as the Capcom vs. SNK games. In the USA vs. Japan team competition in 2000, Team USA saw just how far ahead the Japanese were in 3rd Strike, as the Americans lost by a score of 19-1.

It was clear that the U.S. had a lot left to learn about the game, and, as cross-Pacific dialogue and competition started to become more common, U.S. players began to take a renewed interest in this formerly overlooked generation of Street Fighter. In particular, the hungry new class of U.S. fighting game champions, Justin Wong and Ricky Ortiz, relished the challenge of taking on the Japanese.

Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike was added back to Evo in 2003, and a confident Ricky Ortiz, using Chun-Li, the game’s most dominant character, looked in prime position to place in the top 3 at least, only to end up humbled by Daigo’s Ken and by Japanese 3rd Strike specialist Keisuke “KSK” Imai playing the low-tier Alex. Kenji “KO” Obata, a premiere Japanese Yun player, took the top prize, and Tetsuya “Ino” Inoue, the top Capcom vs. SNK 2 player at the time, rounded out an all-Japanese top 4. Still, Ricky’s match against Daigo was probably the most memorable moment of Evo 2003. The American actually fought the Japanese legend to a draw by time over, and was only robbed of the win ultimately by some obscure technicality in the rulebook that granted Daigo an extra life. Despite the result, what the U.S. scene took away was that Ricky had gone the distance against the biggest name in the game. Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike was thereafter an Evo mainstay up until Street Fighter IV was added to the lineup in 2009.

Ricky Ortiz vs. Daigo in Evo 2003 Top 8

(Note: The fourth game is a do-over of the third, which the Evo judges ruled to scrap.)

(Video uploaded by Preppy.)

In 2004, with it becoming increasingly apparent that nobody could touch Justin Wong in Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (traditionally the marquee game, in which the Japanese were a non-factor), it was the 3rd Strike competition, particularly the U.S. vs. Japan dimension, that everyone was most anticipating.

The 2004 contingent of Japanese 3rd Strike specialists at Evo was the largest yet. Among them was Toru “Raoh” Hashimoto, who was billed as Japan’s top Chun-Li player in 3rd Strike—in other words, supposedly the best player of the game's strongest character. When Justin Wong then prevailed against Raoh in the Chun-Li mirror match, not only did an ecstatic U.S. crowd dub Justin on the spot “the strongest Chun-Li in the world,” but also his victory guaranteed him a place in the top 3.

Justin Wong defeats Raoh in Evo 2004 Top 8

(Video uploaded by Joey Cuellar.)

Justin then faced off against Daigo, and history was about to be made.

Justin looked in masterful form with his aggravatingly conservative East Coast turtle style. He was controlling the pace of the match and had Daigo seriously on the ropes. Daigo’s Ken was down to only about a pixel of health, and Justin had Chun-Li’s mighty Houyoko-Sen multi-kick super combo locked and loaded. Daigo’s options were severely limited, as Houyoko-Sen could punish on reaction almost any offense he attempted. Justin, meanwhile, had been extremely patient thus far and been rewarded for it, but, this close to the end, he could not resist trying to take the easy way out. He let rip a raw Houyoko-Sen from about 3/4-screen distance.

It was not a bad call at all. Once Houyoko-Sen activated, it would be impossible for Daigo to jump over Chun-Li on reaction; the super was going to make contact. Blocking the maneuver normally would have greatly reduced the damage dealt by each kick, but that would have been no help to a character with as little health remaining as Daigo’s Ken had now; Houyoko-Sen would have chipped him to death well before Chun-Li’s animation completed, which was what Justin was counting on. 99.9 percent of the time, Justin’s play would have been a safe bet. Unfortunately for Justin, this case was that other 0.1 percent.

Daigo did, in fact, have one other option, albeit most would have considered it impractical: he could attempt to parry the Houyoko-Sen. Parrying, unlike blocking, nullifies all damage completely. However, it’s a lot harder to do than blocking. Instead of holding back, you have to tap forward with proper timing as the hit is about to connect. And, for a multi-hit move, you have to parry each hit separately.

In Daigo’s case, he needed to parry at least the first fourteen kicks of Houyoko-Sen. That is not at all easy to do, and most players on the planet can’t do it. Even the best players in the world would not be expected to be able to do it in live competition, and so, again, this should have been a safe bet for Justin. And even if a player were to practice enough to get down the specific timing for all the hits of Houyoko-Sen, the really tricky part is just parrying the first hit. At this range, it actually wouldn’t have been possible to parry the first hit on reaction. Daigo would have had to input the motion for the parry before the visual cue for Houyoko-Sen even activated. In other words, Daigo needed to foresee the exact moment when it would be coming.

But, of course, he did.

Daigo vs. Justin Wong in Evo 2004 Top 8

(Full match below, uploaded by TheShend. Skip to 2:16 for "the moment.")

And another look at Evo Moment #37:

(Video uploaded by evo2kvids.)

In an absolute do-or-die situation, on the grandest stage, and with not only personal but national pride at stake, Daigo had the near-clairvoyant read on Justin to see Houyoko-Sen coming, he had the execution to parry fourteen kicks in a row, and, finally, even though he could have begun his counterattack after that fourteenth kick, he had the presence of mind to instead jump up and air parry the fifteenth kick, so that he could initiate his own combo with a jump attack to maximize the damage and thereby close out the round right then and there.

And that was Evo Moment #37.

Ten years later, nobody really remembers that Daigo actually ended up losing in the grand final to returning champion KO, who was probably the favorite all along. Not only was the game against Justin not the grand final, but it wasn’t even the end of their set. People watch that video now and marvel at how nonchalant Daigo seems even as the crowd is going nuts all around him. That stoicism may well have been a real part of Daigo’s personality, but also it would have been premature to celebrate, because the match wasn’t over yet. He and Justin had to go right back into it with another game.

Still, it was pretty damn amazing, and has only grown more impressive over time. Not a few armchair warriors would afterward claim that they or their buddy could parry the full Houyoko-Sen with ease, and that all it took was a bit of practice in training mode. True enough, other players before and since have performed multi-parries that, on a purely technical level, have been comparably skillful. But nobody else has ever done it on as big a stage or with as much on the line. Hell, Daigo himself probably couldn’t do it again!

Or could he?

This past Sunday, at “Moment 37 Reloaded,” Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong were invited back to the original venue to compete once more in a Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike exhibition match. That stage, once upon a time the biggest in the country, now seemed miniscule—suitable for what would nowadays be a mid-level tournament. Going back to their original characters, Ken and Chun-Li, and even the same “Subway Station” level, the players too were not quite so formidable ten years later, as neither practices the game anymore. Justin still competes at the occasional rare 3rd Strike tournament and can still beat most anyone in the country without really trying, but Daigo clearly hadn’t touched the game in years and was far off his old form.

It would have been unreasonable to expect them to be able to reenact Evo Moment #37 live, but, even realizing that it was a lot to ask of the Japanese player especially, who had just flown in late the night before, still all everyone wanted was to see “the Daigo parry” once more. Even Justin wanted that, and so he went for it. And so did Daigo!

Daigo vs. Justin Wong in Moment 37 Reloaded exhibition

(Full match below, uploaded by IEBattleGrounds. Skip to 4:47 for "the moment.")

Ten years later, Daigo “The Beast” Umehara did it again! Well, almost. Everything except the win.

No, not quite the same. And, with this being only an exhibition, it’s even possible that Daigo and Justin could have staged this moment together. I’m not saying that they did, but if they were to do it, the way it happened is exactly how it would be done. As has been pointed out repeatedly, any player, given dedication and hours and hours to practice, can simply go into training mode to master the parry timing on all but the first hit of Houyoko-Sen. Parrying that first hit is not normally something you can train, as it all depends on when and where the opponent goes for it, which isn’t something you can control. In this case, however, the last action before Justin’s Houyoko-Sen was a grab attempt by Daigo, which Justin successfully broke, causing both characters to reel back. This would be the perfect way to telegraph the super, as Chun-Li will always recover off the missed throw with the exact same timing and spacing. If Daigo knew that Justin would then go for Houyoko-Sen at the earliest possible instant upon recovering, then Daigo would have known precisely how to time the parry. They wouldn’t even have needed to have discussed it beforehand. It was clear that Justin was trying to give Daigo every opportunity to attempt to recreate Evo Moment #37, as this was actually the second round in a row where Justin went for a raw Houyoko-Sen when Daigo had no health left. And high-level Street Fighter is all about “reading” your opponent—getting to know the other person, heart and mind, purely through their play, to the point where you know what they will do before they do it. In that split-second of recovery, both players could have read the shared intention—that this was the moment.

Regardless, it’s still pretty amazing that Daigo was able to do it again live and under pressure of so many people watching and hoping. Then and now, the guy truly is "The Beast."

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Revisiting the Montreal Screwjob

Montreal Screwjob

Sports Illustrated published an interesting piece the other day that had Bret “The Hitman” Hart revisiting one of the most controversial events in pro wrestling history, the “Montreal Screwjob.” This was a pivotal moment in the history of the industry, which integrally shaped the five years that followed, and, arguably, even dictated the course of professional wrestling all the way to its present decline. I’ve always thought that this particular story could be the basis for a great film, on account of how much it reveals about the sickening truth of pro wrestling (such as there is to be had). Indeed, when Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler released in 2008, garnering widespread critical acclaim and accolades for Mickey Rourke’s performance, all I could think was that a more honest and more relevant pro wrestling picture should instead have focused on the Montreal Screwjob. It should have delved into what a truly dirty business pro wrestling is, defined over the last four decades by a behind-the-curtain megalomania that has always dwarfed any of the on-screen personalities.

To summarize, in 1997, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), Bret Hart’s employer of more than a decade, was not able financially to fulfill the remainder of his long-term contract, and so he was preparing to pack up and take his talents to World Championship Wrestling (WCW), WWF’s longstanding arch-rival, which had finally overtaken it over the preceding year of competition. There was one problem, however: within the scripted universe of pro wrestling storylines, Bret Hart was the reigning WWF Champion.

With the “Monday Night Wars” between WWF and WCW growing increasingly spiteful and cutthroat, WWF owner Vince McMahon did not want Hart “taking the belt with him” to WCW. Wishing to part amicably, Hart agreed to vacate the title during a farewell show for WWF. But that wasn’t good enough for McMahon, who knew that WCW would jump at any chance to boast that they had gotten the reigning WWF Champion to defect. McMahon needed Hart to lose the title in a match to another WWF wrestler.

From McMahon’s perspective, the obvious venue was Survivor Series, as it was the only remaining pay-per-view event that Hart was contracted for. Hart had two problems with this: 1) Survivor Series was taking place in Montreal in Hart’s home nation of Canada, and 2) Hart’s scheduled opponent was Shawn Michaels, with whom he was in the midst of a scripted (but truly ugly) “U.S. vs. Canada” feud. Hart did not want to lose in Canada to a guy who had spent the preceding weeks and months dissing Canada. Thus, in order for McMahon to get his way, he conspired with a select handful of his employees to go behind Hart’s back and plot a “screwjob.”

Heading into the Survivor Series match against Michaels, Hart received one script, which was supposed to end in his victory. Meanwhile, the other key actors in the ring—Michaels and referee Earl Hebner—would secretly be working from a different script. At one point in the match, Michaels would catch Hart in Hart’s own signature submission hold, the Sharpshooter. Hart understood that he would then reverse the hold, but, before he could get the chance, Hebner immediately rang the bell to signify that Hart had “tapped out” to the Sharpshooter, even though Hart had given no such indication of surrender.

An irate Hart stood up and spat in Vince McMahon’s face at ringside. Shawn Michaels grabbed the belt and was quickly ushered out of the arena, foregoing the traditional in-ring victory celebration. The pay-per-view broadcast cut off right there, and anybody watching could tell that something peculiar had happened, but the result was in the books now.

(Video uploaded by illusive255)

I wonder if Vince McMahon ever considered the possible negative repercussions of the Montreal Screwjob. Yes, he had prevented Bret Hart from taking the WWF Championship to WCW, but the manner in which he had handled it actually created more fodder for his rival and other critics to paint the WWF as a disgrace. I suppose the scheme was only as ridiculous as one would expect coming from people who made their living plotting pro wrestling storylines.

In any case, the biggest story in pro wrestling became, in the immediate aftermath and for months following, not any of the scripted feuds at all, but the controversy over the Montreal Screwjob. Discussion among fans was far less concerned with who held which belts in either WWF or WCW, and far more interested in whatever real-life animus might exist between the involved parties. And, in an industry that has never known what it is to sink too low, both WWF and WCW were eager to capitalize by integrating this real-life dirty laundry into their scripts.

WCW responded by getting “Ravishing” Rick Rude to directly reference the incident and call out both Shawn Michaels and Vince McMahon on an episode of WCW Monday Nitro. This sort of explicit trash-talking across competing programs was unprecedented (not to mention risky, since WCW may have been inadvertently encouraging its viewers to watch WWF in order to catch the other side of an unintended “crossover”), but the moment was especially memorable because Rick Rude also appeared on WWF Raw Is War that same night.

In the WWF storyline, Rude was a member of Shawn Michaels’s gang. But, in real life, Rude was a personal friend of Bret Hart. So, when the Montreal Screwjob happened, Rude hatched a scheme of his own together with WCW. With his contract with WWF coincidentally due to expire right after the Montreal Screwjob, Rude made a verbal agreement to extend his stay, only to then go behind Vince McMahon’s back to sign with WCW instead. He then taped his final episode of WWF Raw Is War, where he appeared with a full beard. Then, on the very night that the episode was to premiere, Rude also appeared on live television on WCW Monday Nitro, but with his beard shaved! On the West Coast, WCW Monday Nitro aired hours before WWF Raw Is War, so Rude’s appearances completely exposed that WWF’s program, although always advertised as live, was actually taped days in advance.

(Video uploaded by WWE)

In the moment, this must have seemed quite the coup for WCW. Of course, nobody could have known it at the time, but this was the beginning of the end for WCW, and it was really WWF that would come out far ahead.

WCW tried to run with its own this-time-totally-scripted “sequel” to the Montreal Screwjob, in which a different corrupt referee was supposed to screw over a good guy wrestler, only to have Bret Hart intervene on the side of justice. Unfortunately, the intervention was so unconvincingly executed that it became a fiasco unto itself, which, naturally, also became integrated into the ongoing plot. Afterward, Hart had no other memorable storylines in WCW, where he effectively ended his career with a whimper due to health issues. Rick Rude’s tenure there was even less remarkable; he never was able to get into ring-ready condition before dying suddenly of heart failure.

Meanwhile, Vince McMahon recognized that the best move he could make was to fully embrace the image that the fans now had of him as the corrupt owner of the WWF. Originally, “Vince McMahon” the character had been only a ringside announcer. Most viewers who only followed the action on TV and nothing behind the scenes wouldn’t even have known that McMahon was actually the head honcho, which was how McMahon had preferred it. But now that he had been fully “outed” by the Montreal Screwjob spotlighting him as this tyrannical mastermind, and finding that the vitriol that fans felt for him was the biggest reaction of any kind that the WWF had gotten in a long time, McMahon shrewdly recast himself as his promotion’s chief antagonist, whom fans loved to hate. McMahon’s scripted feuds with his wrestlers proved wildly successful, as well as increasingly ridiculous, as McMahon began to wrestle himself, and also brought in his real-life wife and children as characters, who, yes, also wrestled.

WWF (later WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment)) was also, no doubt, helped financially by being able to jettison Bret Hart’s massive contract. With the departure of Hart, nearly all of the “old guard” superstars were now gone, which actually freed up WWF to cultivate and thrive off a new generation of edgier characters, while WCW began to flounder off the diminishing returns of the many aging has-been egos still headlining its shows. Less than four years after the Montreal Screwjob, McMahon was able to purchase his ailing competitor, effectively achieving a monopoly, which, in the long term, has been a victory for nobody, as pro wrestling’s cultural currency has continually declined under his absolute control. That's not a subjective qualitative assessment; WWE's stock has also been tanking over the past half-year.

Reading Hart’s thoughts on the Montreal Screwjob now, one of the weirder things, at least for anyone not immersed in the fiction of professional wrestling, might be whom he accuses of having been behind the plot. McMahon was obviously in charge of everything, but Hart believes that the other two key conspirators were Shawn Michaels and Paul Michael Levesque (AKA “Triple H”). This is surreal because Michaels and Triple H were, at the time, not executives or creative directors in charge of storylines, but were, like Hart, mere performers (in other words, actors), so why would they have been calling shots alongside McMahon? Moreover, not only were Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels bitter rivals in the fiction, but the two did not like one another in real life. As for Triple H, he was Michaels’s friend, both in the story and in real life, and, again, someone Hart did not get along with in either. So the lines between reality and pro wrestling fiction get very blurred, and you almost wonder if Bret Hart was the one having a hard time keeping things straight. Maybe he started out only being pretend enemies with Michaels and Triple H, but then he got so method into his performance that he came to despise them off camera as well. Then, when he got screwed in real life (and also in the story, I suppose), he named his pretend nemeses as the culprits only on account of their fictional enmity.

In fact, all parties’ accounts, Michaels’s included, have corroborated Hart’s suspicions, so evidently he’s not paranoid. But isn’t that even crazier? That the heel characters always scheming against him in the storyline turned out to be scheming against him in real life also? And in precisely such an underhanded manner and for precisely the same reasons (i.e. to take his belt) as in nearly all pro wrestling storylines?

Actually, I have always had a suspicion that the Montreal Screwjob was a total fiction—that is, a multi-level angle—and that all the actors, including Bret Hart and maybe even those running things in WCW, were in on it (and still are). There’s almost no way to ever know for sure, but, frankly, every aspect of it strikes me as ridiculous. But maybe that’s the point. If the Montreal Screwjob did not begin as an angle, both WWF and WCW certainly turned it into one. So maybe “real or fake” has never been the proper question when it comes to pro wrestling, and everything instead just exists in this bizarre gray area in between, where every character is but a version of the actor playing them—heightened or fictionalized, perhaps, but still that person at core. And the really insane, disturbing, and frequently tragic part is that the actors themselves cannot clearly separate fiction from reality. That includes all the wrestlers, who are sincerely competitive, even if none of the fighting is real. And it includes Vince McMahon, the principal man behind the curtain, who got swept up in his own stories and onto the stage, where his real-life business decisions, working relationships, and even family members bled into the scripted delusions.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)

Snowpiercer Movie Poster

Snowpiercer is a South Korean English-language production based on a French science-fiction graphic novel. The premise—in a post-apocalyptic ice age, the human race survives only aboard a high-speed train that perpetually circuits the globe—is certainly intriguing, but the first thirty minutes are more confusing than compelling. In the tail of the train, we see the lowest caste living in squalid conditions resembling the barracks of a concentration camp. Mistreated by the guards and fed propaganda (along with some unappetizing black protein blocks), the citizens plot a rebellion to take the train, but it’s hard to follow their hushed scheming or even to understand what all is at stake. Having seen only the inhospitable, industrial-looking cars of the back, and not knowing how or whether other sections live much more comfortably, one wonders how well the poor could truly better their lot in a space that is, by its nature, cramped and confined.

Dialogue also comes across stiff and unnatural, especially as delivered by Chris Evans as the rebel leader, Curtis. I can imagine the difficulties that writer-director Bong Joon-ho may have encountered working across language and culture barriers to convey his already offbeat vision. One suspects that Evans never actually understood his character’s motivations, and so didn’t know how to act accordingly, whether as leader, soldier, or proletariat. Classically trained English actor John Hurt, on the other hand, probably never needed to understand any of the lines he was speaking, and he remains always on point as Curtis’s derivative sage mentor. Tilda Swinton, as the mouthpiece for the train’s enigmatic engineer, gives the most memorable performance—a walking, talking political cartoon.

The film takes a dramatic turn for the better, once the rebels commence their operation, and the back three-quarters of Snowpiercer are superb. The ingenuity and precision employed in the first maneuver, as the citizens push forward through armed guards and as many mechanized doors as they can, make for a marvelous sequence. From there, both the revolt and the plot progress from car to car, rather like the levels of a video game, and the film reveals its true nature—insane, over-the-top, endlessly clever, and still somehow moody and contemplative.

Each new section of the train is its own distinct set piece, each offering a different experience within the continually refreshing whole. Some cars host fight sequences, which are nicely varied and brilliantly conceived, given the close quarters in which they had to be staged. Other sections are less action-oriented but serve to fill out the panorama of this appealingly absurd world of the train, while also providing moments for exposition on the history and characters. We see how increasingly decadent life is for those toward the front of the train, as well as all the perverse machinery that keeps the train’s fantastical ecosystem running, never to the benefit of those in the rear, according to the totalitarian vision of the engineer. Even Chris Evans’s apparent blankness in the lead role clarifies into a conflicted aloofness on the character’s part, as he finally and somewhat beautifully (in the film’s typically grotesque manner) tells his incredibly unsettling story, explaining why he knows he is but a hollow hero and not the man his followers perceive him to be.

It takes a while for the movie to pick up steam, and there remain bits of bloat even when it does—the teenage girl’s unexplained clairvoyance, the pudgy bodyguard who randomly becomes the Terminator midway through—but the bulk of the experience is forcefully and invigoratingly unique. Snowpiercer is, by its masterful design, a brutal yet beautiful wreck, from which it is impossible to avert one’s gaze.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Voyager (Jenny Lewis, 2014)

Jenny Lewis - The Voyager Album Cover

With her 2014 solo album, The Voyager, Jenny Lewis, formerly the frontwoman of the now disbanded Rilo Kiley, proves an artist to grow into midlife with. The Voyager is also my pick for album of the year and maybe the best work Lewis has ever done.

The breezy sound of the production barely masks the gloomier contemplations contained in Lewis’s lyrics throughout The Voyager. Catchy lead single “Just One of the Guys,” produced by Beck, came packaged with a gender-bending music video that was much shared across the blogosphere.

Starring Anne Hathaway, Kristen Stewart, and Brie Larson, the video’s images of the women portraying sleazily mustachioed caricatures of masculinity suggest a defiant satire of society’s expectations of women approaching a certain age. But, taking the track in the larger context of the album’s overall directness and introspectiveness, one wonders whether “Just One of the Guys” is truly ironic, mock serious, or rather something more honest and unpretentious after all, when Lewis sings, “When I look at myself, all I can see / I’m just another lady without a baby.”

It perhaps echoes the sentiments of “She’s Not Me,” wherein Lewis addresses a former lover, who has since moved on. The song’s title lyric would deny any envy on her part toward the woman who has taken her place, yet, as the story develops, it becomes quickly apparent that any lingering regret over the failed relationship is only the narrator’s own and not the former lover’s.

The song and the album relate to a generation of listeners who are just now seeing their friends and former lovers all at once moving on from them, getting married and having children. As Lewis lives with her choices, she does not submit to others’ standards, but neither is she immune to society’s glare, nor unaffected by her own observations of the joys filling others, as they live the lives she might have.

Lewis’s strength as a storyteller also shines on mid-album highlight “Late Bloomer,” a coming-of-age tale, wherein a restless teenage traveler meets a “big sister” character, with whom she falls into a passionate obsession resembling love. Yet, when the trip ends and they part ways, it is the narrator who fails to keep in touch. This ultimate lack of fulfillment speaks to the void of human existence—a persistent alienation, which we can only keep at bay through finite companionship (or resolve by starting families, so society would have us believe).

Even as Lewis looks back, she is finally resigned to the one-way momentum of life. While peers move forward with their lives, this is also, for many, the age at which one must begin to seriously confront the mortality of their parents’ generation, as Lewis did, when her father passed away during the period since her last album. Death and loss consequently figure into The Voyager’s existential themes, as we consider those departed to put into perspective where we ourselves are on this journey.

Thus does Lewis bookend her album with its most poignant tracks. Opener "Head Underwater" is a wrenching and incisive reflection on the lives she has led up to this point. Again, it balances an upbeat sound against lyrics that, on closer inspection, are quite dark and haunting. She is at a loss to discern from her own experiences where she was ever headed, but she is determined to march forward anyway. There is uncertainty but also wonder. Closing things on that note is the cosmic title track, "The Voyager," one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful songs of the year.

[soundcloud url="" params="color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false" width="100%" height="450" iframe="true" /]

Jenny Lewis will be playing in San Diego on Saturday, October 25, 2014 at the House of Blues.