Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Sounds with Blondfire and Strange Talk - House of Blues San Diego, March 25, 2014

The Sounds Weekend 2014 Tour Poster

The Sounds' 2014 North American tour hit San Diego last week at the House of Blues, and they were joined by Blondfire and Strange Talk.

I arrived to the show just in time to catch Australian synthpop band Strange Talk performing "Cast Away," the only song of theirs that I actually know. It's an infectious neon number that has been featured on some TV shows and in the video game Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2012). Their other songs were decent, but many just sounded like less inspired, overly samey variations on their best track—nothing that had me especially eager to check out their album (Cast Away, due for release in the U.S. on April 20). Still, for being the warm-up to the warm-up, they performed well above par. At times, they had three keyboards going at the same time.

Strange Talk was followed by Blondfire. While synth is a substantial part of Blondfire's sound as well, they built upon Strange Talk's opening act by bringing much more power and live energy to the evening. I had seen them open for The Mowgli's just a few months earlier, and I had thought that they were good, but, having since had more time to familiarize myself with their recently released album, Young Heart, I was better able to enjoy their performance this time around. Once again, they only played songs off Young Heart (so no "L-L-Love"), and I was disappointed that they didn't play one of my favorites off the album, "Kites." On the other hand, "Right Gone Wrong," the song I had considered the most boring on the album, was more impressive live, particularly when vocalist Erica Driscoll reached for the bigger notes toward the end. Music aside, Driscoll and the band seemed, as last time, fairly low-key, content to play supporting parts for the night.

After Blondfire finished up, the bassist from Strange Talk returned to the main stage, wheeling out a mixer, to play DJ during the intermission before The Sounds' set.

When The Sounds finally took the stage, I almost didn't even recognize lead singer Maja Ivarsson. Dressed in a leather jacket and with her hair tied back and a dirtier shade of blonde than in the poster above, she looked nearly like a normal person, but for the combination of stiletto heels and obscenely high-cut hot pants.

It was quite the contrast, having The Sounds come out after Blondfire, both of them cheery bands fronted by blonde female vocalists. Although I had thought Blondfire had rocked it with their set, the difference in the level of performance, once The Sounds came out, was night and day. To a degree, The Sounds' performance could have been described as businesslike, since the band wasn't all that chatty between songs, and I never got the sense that I was seeing them doing anything they hadn't done the same way hundreds of times before. But Maja exudes such incomparable charisma in her vocals alone—fresh, forceful, clean yet with a somewhat abrasive edge, absolutely spellbinding—and the amount of breath she must have to have been able to sustain that level of all-out singing through the night (plus another twenty-five on this tour) is astounding.

They played quite a number of songs (more than I could keep count of), their set drawing broadly across a catalog that has so far spanned five albums and more than a decade of stellar indie rock. Deep enough is their catalog, in fact, that they probably could have played a completely different set comprising none of the same songs performed that night, and it could have been just as excellent. Maybe the closest they have to signature songs are the brash inverted anthem "Living in America," off their debut album (2002) of the same title, and the catchy "Something to Die For," the title track to The Sounds' more synth-based fourth album (2011) and also featured on the soundtrack to Scream 4. They played both songs that night, as well as other such popular favorites as "Painted By Numbers," "Song With a Mission," and "Rock 'n' Roll." They did not, however, play my personal favorite, "Hurt You" (AKA "the song from that one Geico cavemen commercial") from their second album, Dying to Say This to You (2006). I didn't really expect them to, since it's a bit of an unusual song for them—more of a club track, where Maja splits singing duties with guitarist Felix Rodriquez, and the vocals overall take a backseat to the electric instruments—which probably would not have been the most suitable for a live show. (Although they did perform a lively rendition of the similarly structured "Tony the Beat"....) For me, the highlights of the night were instead "The Best of Me," featuring Maja's most epic vocal performance off Something to Die For, and "No One Sleeps When I'm Awake," with its addictive opening guitar solo to intro their third album, Crossing the Rubicon (2009).

To my recollection, they only played maybe half the tracks off their most recent album, last year's Weekend, spread across the night. My first impression of Weekend was that it was disappointingly their weakest album to date, and so I was glad not to have it dominate their live show. The only immediately compelling song on the album was "Shake Shake Shake," which, no matter how catchy it might have been, was clearly ill-conceived, being unfortunately and unavoidably associated, on account of its title and key lyric, with the KC and the Sunshine Band song. "Too Young to Die," the designated poignant song, in the tradition of "Midnight Sun" and "The Best of Me," was about as sappy as "The Best of Me," but it lacked the great hooks and just never seemed to build to anything. "Hurt the Ones I Love" was an even cheesier and clunkier variation on the same theme. "Weekend," the ballad, had the double misfortune of suffering from an already-tired-to-begin-with lyric that was then further exhausted through excessive repetition as the chorus. Or was "Weekend" actually the epic, and "Hurt the Ones I Love" the ballad? It was hard to tell, because in neither case was the band succeeding at whatever it was going for.

[soundcloud url="" params="color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true" width="100%" height='166' iframe="true" /]

(You can listen to the rest of the album on SoundCloud here.)

My opinion that Weekend is The Sounds' weakest album remains unchanged, but hearing some of the songs performed live and in that greater context of an overview of the band's collective history has given me a newfound appreciation for them. It's an uneven album, lacking in instantly accessible winners, compared to their more refined previous two albums. In some ways, it's more of a back-to-basics record, with songs that seem composed specifically with live crowds in mind, in contrast with the more electronic, dance-oriented Something to Die For.

They opened the show with the fun and playful "Emperor," which, after a few listens, emerged as my definite favorite track on Weekend. Maja sings this one together with guitarist Felix Rodriguez, whose distinctly high-pitched and endearingly accented English is really what makes the song. "Take It The Wrong Way" is another really good one, showcasing Maja's vocals in fine sassy form, alongside the most compelling guitar work on the album. "Outlaw" is not one of the band's better tracks, but it evokes the more punk sound of their earliest successes. Meanwhile, "Panic," which they did not perform live, carries on the dance vibe they had going in Something to Die For. And the acoustic "Great Day," the most surprising track on the album—almost The Sounds' take on country—perhaps best exemplifies the easy mirth that characterizes Weekend, overall less fiercely determined, for better or worse, than their previous albums.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Young Heart (Blondfire, 2014)

Blondfire Young Heart Album Cover

Blondfire's second LP, its first in six years, Young Heart offers seven tracks' worth of new material. After a blithe opening number in the laid-back "Young Heart," the album is front-loaded with the entirety of last year's four-track Where the Kids Are EP, while track 10, the serenely stirring "Life of the Party," previously appeared on the soundtrack for Dallas Buyers Club (2013). I thought the Where the Kids Are EP was excellent, and, although the amount of recycled content on Young Heart may be a tad disappointing to any fans who have already exhausted the old songs, what new stuff the LP adds is very much appreciated. And, for anyone not yet acquainted with Blondfire's offerings over the last two years, Young Heart is a substantial and thoroughly enjoyable indie pop record well worthy of a listen.

The combination of Erica Driscoll's voice, tender if almost too mellow, together with brother Bruce Driscoll's slick production, creates Blondfire's ethereal yet propulsive sound, while catchy melodies and buoyant lyrics arrest listeners into a daydream that is reflective in an uplifting way—the perfect soundtrack to lighten one's mood through an overlong summer. In the fresher middle section of the album, the synth is markedly less bombastic than on Where the Kids Are. The pulsing bassline of "Dear In Your Headlights" and the surging guitarwork in "Kites," along with Erica Driscoll's most spirited vocal performances on the album, make for irresistibly sunny jams that you can legitimately bob your head to. "We Are One" is another highlight, a more downtempo yet rousing anthem. The other tracks too are pleasant, with the sweetly understated "The Only Ones" closing things on the perfect note.

Blondfire will be playing in San Diego again this Tuesday night, March 25, 2014, at the House of Blues, opening for Swedish indie rock band The Sounds during their North American tour.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Case Against Fight Pads

Super Capcom Pad Soldier SNES

I originally learned to play Street Fighter II on a stock SNES controller. The peak of my fighting game ability probably came during the PS1 era, when I would play Street Fighter Alpha 3 on a DualShock controller. I have a hard time playing fighting games on gamepads now, because my hands start to cramp badly after a few rounds spent gripping a DualShock 3 or Xbox 360 controller. But I still sincerely believe that a good D-pad will always be quicker and less error-prone than even the best joystick lever. The advantage of a joystick is not the stick at all but the buttons, which more naturally utilize multiple digits of the player's right hand, providing faster access and superior ergonomics for when you need to press multiple buttons at the same time or in rapid succession.

As someone who has used both pad and stick, my position generally has been "play with whatever works for you." Contrary to the insistence of some arcade traditionalists (and posers) that joysticks are the only way to go for serious players, a great many pros have enjoyed success at the highest levels while playing on pads. All that said, as someone who principally plays on stick these days, I'm now going to discuss some of the objective shortcomings and frustrations particular to gamepads.

1. There are no uniform standards for gamepads.

It may feel like the opposite is true, since each game console has its own official first-party controller packed in with the system, whereas a joystick is always a third-party specialty item. But, actually, nearly every quality joystick at retail (be it Mad Catz, Hori, Qanba, or Razer) includes the same essential components—specifically, a joystick lever and buttons manufactured by Sanwa Denshi. Meanwhile, the standard controllers for Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo's consoles all use the respective companies' own patented parts (buttons, D-pads, analog sticks), each with their own distinct qualities and feel.

Moreover, none of today's pack-in controllers are especially well-regarded for use with fighting games. Most fighting games are fairly classical in design—still digital, even as the rest of the industry and technology have shifted focus to analog input—and today's controllers are not built with very much consideration for the genre. Of course, many skilled players have performed astonishingly well with stock DualShock 3 and Xbox 360 controllers. But, recognizing a demand for other options, companies such as Mad Catz and Hori have also released specialty gamepads designed specifically for fighting games. These "fight pads" all feature unique buttons and D-pads, which tend to be made from noticeably cheaper materials than the first-party controllers.

What all this means is that no two gamepads feel or perform the same, and there is no uniform experience when playing on pad. And that's just on consoles; things are even more splintered on PC.

2. Gamepads are difficult (sometimes impossible) to repair or replace.

This is probably the biggest issue with gamepads, and also the reason why the previous point matters.

With a joystick, if your Sanwa lever or buttons break, you can order individual replacements fairly inexpensively (at least compared to buying an entire new joystick) and install them even without a lot of technical know-how. Meanwhile, if the D-pad or a button on your gamepad breaks, none of the various gamepad manufacturers is going to sell you just a D-pad or just a button from one specific controller model. Your only real option is to buy an entire new controller. And if the broken pad was a third-party controller more than a few years old, there's a high probability that you won't be able to find the same model for sale anymore. In that case, you'll have to replace it with a different gamepad, and learn to adapt all over again to the different buttons and feel.

3. Gamepads are not as durable as joysticks.

And this is why the previous point is such a big deal.

This is less of an issue with first-party controllers, but, as mentioned before, third-party products very often feature noticeably cheaper construction. For these third-party fight pads, there are also nowhere near the standards for quality control that Sanwa Denshi has developed over decades for its joystick parts. Unfortunately, even the fight pads from reputable peripherals manufacturers such as Mad Catz and Hori are virtually guaranteed to break with the sort of rigorous use that a serious fighting game player is going to subject them to. The D-pads especially just aren't built to withstand that degree of wear-and-tear. The problem there is that the simple rubber contacts on the inside, underneath the D-pad, get worn away with repeated use. The many negative customer reviews for Mad Catz's last batch of Street Fighter X Tekken FightPads suggest that it doesn't even take that long for it to happen, and these design flaws are maybe why Mad Catz hasn't kept its FightPad in production. They probably know that it wouldn't be cost-effective to design and manufacture a truly premium fight pad, since the high end of the fighting game peripherals market is really the joystick space.

Basically, fight pads aren't built to last, and, once they break, that's when you run into the previous issue of being unable to replace them.

4. Gamepads are difficult (if not impossible) to modify.

Gamepads are difficult to mod for mostly the same reasons that they're hard to repair—there's no way to get the right parts.

Why would you even want to mod your controller, you ask? Well, one popular joystick mod is to make your console-specific joystick compatible across other consoles. This is helpful because, when you enter a tournament, you have to play on whichever platform the tournament organizer decides. Xbox 360 is now the tournament standard for the current Capcom fighting games (because the PS3 versions have acknowledged lag issues), but that is something that has actually changed within the lives of those games (PS3 was standard as recently as Evo 2013). Much cheaper and more convenient than having a different joystick for each platform, one way to prepare yourself for all situations is to have a single joystick that works on both systems.

This is most commonly done by installing a custom PS3 circuit board (available from specialty retailers for $35-60, depending on features) into an Xbox 360 joystick. In that case, you would literally end up with both a PS3 and an Xbox 360 circuit board within the same joystick. That sort of mod is simply not possible with most gamepads, because you won't find two suitable circuit boards compact enough to fit together inside a gamepad.

Instead, if you play on pad, one option is to use an external adapter cable that is supposed to convert your controller to be able to play on the other system. But almost any converter is going to introduce some amount of input lag, which would be unacceptable at the tournament level.

This sucks because pad players also may not even have the option to buy the same style of pad on both consoles. If you play primarily on a stock Xbox 360 controller, that, being a first-party Microsoft product, is obviously not going to be available on PS3.

5. Wireless controllers introduce all sorts of problems when running a tournament.

In contrast to point #3, this is more of an issue with first-party controllers. Both the DualShock 3 and the stock Xbox 360 controller are wireless devices that can interface with the system without any physical connection. This can open the door to such situations as a match being interrupted by an uninvolved party from across the room. You may not mean any harm, but if your controller is, unbeknownst to you, still synced to that system across the room, then any buttons you press may remotely sabotage someone else's game. At a large tournament, there would be no way to realistically keep watch over all the wireless controllers that players in the room might be packing, so quite often such controllers are simply banned outright in order to prevent such situations.

Also, there is the possibility of your wireless controller losing connection or battery mid-match, which would obviously be undesirable. Since the vast majority of joysticks are wired, they do not present these risks.

* * *

The above points only really apply for hardcore players, who are more likely to stress their controllers with repeated use and furious D-pad motions, and who will possibly compete at a tournament level. The vast majority of people who buy and play fighting games will be playing them with stock controllers at only a casual level, and they needn't worry about any such problems. Even back when my coworkers and I were playing Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike on the PS2 during every break at the office, we were doing so just with stock DualShock 2 controllers, which would be handed from one person to the next, as their turn came up. We always played to win, but nobody was so serious about it that they were going to lug their joystick from home in order to become champion of the office. At that level, it doesn't really matter, and, in fact, it would be a pain if every person had to pause to swap in their personal peripheral when their turn came up.

And, even at the tournament level, many pad players have enjoyed great success, including champions like Darryl "Snake Eyez" Lewis (Evo 2010 champion in Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, current top 3 Zangief player in the world in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012) and Alioune Camara (multiple times French and European champion in the Street Fighter IV series, proficient with a wide range of execution-intensive characters). So, again, the most important thing is to find what works best for you.

But if you are a casual pad player considering taking your game to a more serious level, then you should be ready with answers to the potential setbacks I've pointed out. If, for example, you've grown accustomed to playing on a DualShock 3, what are you going to do when you find that wireless controllers have been banned at a tournament you want to enter? Or what if the tournament is held on Xbox 360, and your PS3 controller won't work anyway? (The answer, by the way, for both scenarios is to get a DualShock 1 or 2 instead, along with lagless adapters for PS2-to-PS3 and PS2-to-360.) What if your favorite no-longer-in-production gamepad breaks or is lost or stolen, or it's not compatible with new or different consoles? Will you be willing and able to adapt to playing on a different controller? At least, if you learn to play on a joystick, you'll effectively be "future-proofing" your proficiency at the game, since almost all legit joysticks now use Sanwa parts (or something similar) and perform virtually the same, and it doesn't look like that will be changing any time soon.

* * *

One final important point on the "stick vs. pad" debate is that there are actually yet other options. When I used to play emulated versions of SNK fighting games on PC (because, for a long time, there were no good console ports of King of Fighters and Samurai Shodown), I would use a keyboard (with my right hand for directions, no less), which actually offered quite a number of advantages. When every direction is its own separate key, there is none of the ambiguity and consequent risk of error that accompanies playing on a joystick or even a D-pad. At the same time, a keyboard, like a joystick, lends itself more naturally to playing with multiple digits, allowing you to more easily hit multiple buttons in rapid succession. The concept is carried even further than on a joystick, because, on a keyboard, you can use multiple fingers for not only the attack buttons but also the directions. The disadvantages to playing on a keyboard are 1) a typical cheap keyboard is definitely not built to withstand rugged fighting game play, and 2) keyboards are not compatible with console versions of fighting games.

One other thing to consider with keyboards is that, although being able to use multiple fingers for the directions should make you quicker in many respects, having each direction assigned to its own key also means, on the other hand, that there are no "shortcuts." An old trick on D-pads, for example, is to slide your thumb in a "forward, down, up" motion in order to perform 360-degree techniques such as Zangief's Spinning Piledriver. The Spinning Piledriver actually requires the player to input 6-7 directions (depending on the game) in one continuous motion, so "forward, down, up," which seems to only encompass three directions, shouldn't be enough. The trick works because, on a D-pad, you're likely to incidentally hit the other required directions as you aim for "forward, down, up." And it's useful because it's quicker to think "forward, down, up" than it is to consciously try to hit every direction in between. That doesn't work on a keyboard, however, because the directional keys are separate from one another, so there are no incidental inputs. On a keyboard, every directional input must be deliberate. You've got to mean it! For longer motions, such as 360 and 720-degree maneuvers, that means you're going to have to hit a lot of keys. This is not necessarily a disadvantage, but it takes some getting used to.

A recent contraption is the Hit Box, a controller designed specifically for use with fighting games, which resembles a premium joystick in size and construction, except, instead of a lever, it uses discrete buttons for the four directions. I've never used a Hit Box, but the theory behind the directional buttons makes perfect sense to me. It's the same principle that makes keyboards advantageous for fighting games: having each direction be its own button translates to less ambiguity and greater quickness. Compared to a keyboard, the Hit Box is designed more ergonomically specifically for fighting games (although, with the "up" button located below the "down" button, it is unlike probably any keyboard config you've ever used, so there will be a learning curve), and it features the same high-quality Sanwa buttons as on most high-end joysticks. And it's built to be compatible (and tournament-legal) with PS3 and Xbox 360. I can't personally see myself shelling out that much money for such a specialized peripheral, when I already own multiple joysticks and fight pads while not even competing at a tournament level. But I absolutely approve of the Hit Box concept and would not be surprised to see people start winning tournaments with it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Decapre Joins Ultra Street Fighter IV

Well, after months of teasing and speculation, Capcom finally revealed the fifth and final new playable character for Ultra Street Fighter IV at this past weekend's Final Round 17 tournament in Atlanta, GA, the huge news even generating enough buzz to make it onto Yahoo's "Trending Now" list the morning after.


A lot of people, myself included, had already deduced that the character was going to be Decapre—Cammy's Russian "sister" with the face mask and claws—and a lot of people were becoming irritated at Capcom for drawing out the suspense for what was certain to be no more than a "clone" of an existing character. For me, the identity of the fifth character had become so obvious with the last clue given at December's Capcom Cup that, with enough time to brace myself with lowered expectations, I was able to come back around to being excited again, as I was sincerely interested to see what cool tricks Capcom would arm Decapre with to distinguish her from Cammy.

As it turns out, Decapre's design takes some cues from another Cammy clone—Juni from Street Fighter Alpha 3. Like Juni, Decapre is a charge character with teleports and a midair Cannon Drill. She has even more tricks than Juni, though, including a rapid-fire Hundred Hand Slap-style special move, and her own superior (pending further tuning) version of Dhalsim's Yoga Catastrophe Ultra Combo. I am a bit disappointed that they've deemphasized her Vega-esque attributes—her mask, originally a full face guard in her past unplayable appearances, is now more of a masquerade mask that only covers the top half of her face, and her claws are now retractables that only come out for a few specific attacks—but, overall, I think she looks cool, potentially strong, and sufficiently distinct from Cammy.

Even if Decapre herself was not the most amazing reveal, the way Capcom handled her debut was pretty hype. They chose to unveil her at a tournament, and they didn't just treat the crowd to a trailer but actually had Capcom USA's resident expert, Peter "ComboFiend" Rosas, throw down the gauntlet, challenging the tournament's winner, Ryan Hart of the UK, on the spot to try to defeat Decapre in a first-to-3. Capcom put $500 on the line to incentivize Hart to really try to win, and they even opened up the Edition Select option, allowing Hart to try such famously overpowered characters as Vanilla Sagat and AE Yun. Still, Hart was up against a character he had never faced before, who was armed with moves he would only be seeing for the first time mid-contest, and who was being controlled by a former top player, Rosas, who had been testing this character probably since her behind-the-scenes inception. The odds were stacked against Hart, and clearly the point was to "make a statement" by having the newcomer introduce herself by steamrolling the champ.

Not exactly a fair contest, but, in some ways, it's actually a really pure and romantic concept—the champion ever in search of new and greater challenges, ultimately seeking not to conquer or be conquered, but rather to be revelated by arts never before seen. It also harks back to a time, before YouTube and Wikis made it so easy for pros to share knowledge, when top players would develop secret techniques that they would keep to themselves, saving them to spring on their rivals from across the state or country, ideally during the finals of the one national tournament of the year.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Crown CWJ-303A Arcade Stick Lever

After a few mediocre years of playing with the Sanwa JLF, I decided recently to swap the ubiquitous Japanese joystick lever out of my Mad Catz Arcade FightStick Tournament Edition S and install in its place the less widely known Crown CWJ-303A.

Crown CWJ-303A Mad Catz Arcade FightStick Korean Edition

Fighting game enthusiasts may recognize the Crown as the arcade stick lever of choice of South Korean player Seonwoo Lee (AKA "Infiltration"), who used it throughout his dominant run in 2012, during which he achieved the "double-double" of winning both the Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012 and Street Fighter X Tekken championships at both Evo and the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary Tournament. Infiltration is not on Crown's payroll, nor has he ever actually endorsed the stick as key to his edge over the competition. By all accounts, he uses the Crown lever simply because that's what he first learned to play Street Fighter on, and so he's personally more comfortable with it. It makes sense, because Crown is a leading manufacturer of arcade parts in Infiltration's home country of South Korea.

Introduction to Korean Joysticks

In Japan, Sanwa Denshi has long been the market leader in manufacture of arcade parts, its JLF lever the established gold standard among serious fighting game players. Japan being the originator and reigning power in most tournament fighting games, the rest of the world tends to follow its lead, and Sanwa lever and buttons are nowadays considered mandatory on any commercial joystick marketed as "premium," "pro," or "tournament edition."

That said, South Korea has its own history as an undeniable powerhouse in fighting games. In addition to being the home of Infiltration, South Korea has been recognized for generations now as the strongest region in the world for Tekken competition. There has consequently been, among hardcore enthusiasts of Tekken and other 3-D fighting games, much attention paid to the distinct qualities of Korean joysticks.

The first thing one probably notices about the Crown stick is that it features a "bat top" (referring to the shape of it resembling a baseball bat), as opposed to the "ball top" found on virtually all Sanwa-based joysticks sold by Mad Catz, Hori, Razer, etc. The Crown stick should not in any way be confused with the similarly shaped sticks manufactured by Happ, which were prevalent in American arcades in the days of Street Fighter II. (And, to this day, if you happen across an old Street Fighter II arcade machine in a random bar or wherever in the U.S., the joystick will more than likely be a Happ.) Happ sticks are bigger, have a matte texture, and are noted for their heavy resistance (or "clunkiness," depending on whom you ask), whereas the CWJ-303A has a smooth finish and is much closer to the Sanwa JLF in its lightness. To be sure, depending on one's grip style, a bat top may offer a substantially different experience from a ball top. But the more essential difference between the Crown and the Sanwa is not anything that can be discerned from a photo, but rather in how the Crown lever handles.

The Fanta Stick Difference

The Crown CWJ-303A is what is known as a "Fanta stick" (get it?). Unlike the majority of sticks, including the Sanwa JLF, Korean Fanta sticks do not contain springs to center the lever, but instead utilize a rubber grommet to provide resistance. The rubbery tension of a Fanta stick is often described as "mushy," and I really can't think of any better way to put it, but the difference in feel is immediately apparent. The Crown is somehow both looser and tighter than the Sanwa. Compared to the Sanwa, the Crown lever is less stiff when in neutral (that is, when the stick is in its default centered position). It will actually jiggle a bit if you just flick the top with one finger, whereas the JLF will barely budge. On the other hand, when you pull the Crown lever to the side, although it still pulls easily, the Crown offers slightly more resistance than the JLF, as you can feel the rubber wanting to pull you in the opposite direction back to neutral. The effect is difficult to convey in just words, but I would say it is as though the rubber exhibits a readiness to both follow you out of neutral and also to guide you back to neutral. The spring-based Sanwa JLF, meanwhile, only bends to deliberate force (no jiggle), but, once you apply that force, it becomes limp in your hand, only going where you take it, until you let go of it altogether.

The practical advantage of the rubber tension system is that it helps you to more effortlessly go from neutral to a direction to again neutral. Anybody who has played a lot of Tekken should understand why that would be a huge advantage in that game. Nearly all attacks in Tekken and other 3-D fighting games depend not only on which button you press but also on which direction you hold (or non-direction, in the case of neutral), so, in order to properly utilize your full repertoire of attacks, you must be able to switch between directions and return to neutral in an instant. Also, in Tekken, standing guard is performed by leaving the lever in neutral, so it helps to be able to quickly snap to neutral for defense. Given the advantages that rubber-based Fanta sticks offer, one begins to grasp how the Koreans have so long been dominant in Tekken.

But I've never been a player of the 3-D games, and I picked up the Crown CWJ-303A specifically for use with Street Fighter. So what advantages does a Fanta stick offer there? In Street Fighter and other 2-D fighting games, there isn't nearly as much occasion for having the lever in neutral. Amateur players will even often "hedge their bets" by holding "down-back" in the middle of their attacks, so that, in case the attack doesn't succeed, they're ready to crouch-block (which, rather than neutral, is the safest "default" posture in most 2-D fighting games). The one essential Street Fighter IV technique that a Fanta stick can help immensely with is dashing (also a huge deal in 3-D games), which is performed with the repetitive motion of "forward, forward."

If you play these games primarily on a gamepad (which is how I first learned Street Fighter) or keyboard, then it probably isn't too tricky a task at all to tap "forward" twice in rapid succession. But this is the one motion that I've always had an especially hard time translating to a Sanwa JLF stick. The motion would really be more accurately represented as "forward, neutral, forward." On a gamepad or keyboard, that neutral input is so subtle that it might not even register in your mind that you did it. The game registers it, however, in that moment when you lift your thumb or finger off the "forward" key the first time, right before you press it again. On a joystick, there's no "lifting" of fingers off directionals. The equivalent might be letting go of the lever, so that it automatically re-centers to neutral, but nobody would ever seriously let go in the middle of a match. Still gripping the lever after pulling "forward" once, the joystick player must then guide it back to neutral as a deliberate motion, before pulling "forward" a second time. Obviously, you want to do this as quickly as possible, but if you do it too quickly, you might accidentally shorten the motion, failing to return all the way to neutral between the two "forward" inputs, in which case the game would just read it as you pulling "forward" once and then holding it, leading to your character merely walking forward instead of dashing. The CWJ-303A and other Fanta stick levers make the dashing motion much easier to perform, because the rubber tension system more naturally snaps the lever to and from neutral, assisting the player's repetitive motions almost in the same manner that gravity guides the back-and-forth swinging of a pendulum.

Rubber grommet versus spring aside, one other distinguishing characteristic of the Crown stick is that it comes with a circular restrictor gate. This is the hole that restricts the range of motion of the lever. For comparison, virtually all Sanwa-based joysticks at retail feature square gates. Square is the established standard in Japanese arcades, but there have always been vocal adherents of octagonal and circular gates as well. Each has its advantages, and mostly it's a matter of preference. As you might expect, a circular gate makes for smoother circle motions (for special moves like Ken and Ryu's Hadoken) than a square gate. On the other hand, because there are no sides or corners on a circular gate, there is consequently less certainty as to where one direction ends and another begins. This is of particular concern when playing as a charge character like Guile, which requires you to constantly hold "down-back" for ready access to both the Sonic Boom and Flash Kick. With a circular gate, since you don't have corners to help you feel out the diagonals, you kind of have to just intuit where "down-back" is located.

My Experience

I tried out the Crown lever on a number of games, including Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition, and even Tekken 6 (even though I really haven't a clue what I'm doing in that game). Spending just a few minutes with it in training mode in each game, I found myself instantly preferring it to the old Sanwa JLF. The quickness of the Crown's return to neutral was almost a revelation, as finally I could dash consistently on a joystick.

The one motion that was at first a little tricky on the Crown was the Flash Kick ("down (hold for 2 seconds), up"). As the lever crosses from "down" to "up," it has a tendency to linger for just a split-second as it passes through neutral, which is something that doesn't happen on the limp Sanwa. That split-second difference was screwing up my timing, but it's nothing that can't be overcome with a bit of practice.

So would I recommend the Crown CWJ-303A? Yeah, sure. Using Infiltration's stick won't all of a sudden make you the equal of Infiltration. Still, the Crown at least felt better to me than the Sanwa, and, that minor difficulty with the Flash Kick notwithstanding, I personally didn't feel I'd given anything up in the exchange.

Final Considerations

I ordered my Crown lever from Mad Catz for $24.99 plus shipping and handling. It comes with a wiring harness, which is necessary if you intend to install the lever in any of the standard retail sticks from Mad Catz, Hori, Qanba, etc. No instructions whatsoever are included, however, and the process is not exactly plug-and-play intuitive. I managed to install it with the aid of a helpful YouTube tutorial by Donovan Myers, and, even then, the wires on my harness did not correspond to those of the same colors in his video, so it took a bit of trial and error.

Alternatively, you can also import the lever from eTokki, the South Korean shop operated by Ryan "Laugh" Ahn, the former training partner of Infiltration and a world-class Street Fighter IV competitor in his own right, who was involved in the development of the CWJ-303A (also known as the CWJ-303FK, which appears to be just a different regional code). It's slightly cheaper there, but you also have to order a wiring harness separately (maybe one with colors matching those of the Donovan Myers install guide), as well as deal with international shipping times.

If you're not ready to perform a stick mod, Mad Catz also sells the pre-built Mad Catz Arcade FightStick KE (Korean Edition) for PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. This stick comes with the Crown lever and Sanwa buttons, but they're cased in the smaller body normally used for Mad Catz's "Standard Edition" FightSticks, despite the FightStick KE being priced at the same premium rate (currently $129.99) as their full-size "Tournament Edition" sticks.

In any case, it's a bit of an investment, so obviously the Crown lever should only be a consideration for players who are serious about fighting games.

Finally, it's worth mentioning that the CWJ-303A is not, by most informed estimates, a top-of-the-line Fanta stick lever; it just happens to be the only readily available option that can be installed in the most common high-end joysticks currently on the market. Performance aside, I can tell that the build on the Crown product is cheaper than what players have come to expect in a Sanwa-dominated market. My Crown bat top has a pronounced parting line in the mold, a tacky "CROWN" etched across the top, and a sharp edge on the bottom. All of these present minor and needless sources of tactile discomfort not present when playing with a Sanwa JLF.

The import-only Myoungshin Fanta Stick is the original Fanta stick lever, and it seems to be regarded among enthusiasts as the gold standard for Korean sticks, but there is no Myoungshin Fanta available that will fit inside a Mad Catz FightStick without a lot of extra work. If you're hardcore enough to even consider the Myoungshin Fanta, then maybe the importing and modification processes involved would be no great hurdle to you. For me, the Crown is as far as I'm willing to go right now.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Hyper Street Fighter IV?

At last weekend's SoCal Regionals fighting game tournament, Capcom unveiled the new "Edition Select" mode in its upcoming Ultra Street Fighter IV.

Since Capcom had already confirmed that the fifth and final new playable character would not be revealed until the Final Round 17 tournament (March 14-16) in Atlanta, GA, I didn't anticipate there being anything else hype-worthy left to announce about the game before then. But this Edition Select mode is actually a really awesome and unexpected surprise that is maybe even more exciting than the identity of the fifth character (since the safe money is on her being just a Cammy clone).

Edition Select allows players to select from all the different editions of characters throughout the Street Fighter IV series. There have been four major editions of Street Fighter IV to date: Street Fighter IV (informally referred to in the community as "Vanilla"), Super Street Fighter IV (Super), Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition (AE), and Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012 (AE 2012). Ultra Street Fighter IV (Ultra) will be the fifth. Usually in the interest of game balance, Capcom has adjusted characters from edition to edition, with some getting stronger and others getting weaker to make things fairer for everyone.

Players who were around for the original SFIV will surely remember how ridiculously overpowered Sagat was in that version. Three editions later, Sagat is now merely upper-mid-tier in AE 2012, while Cammy is the new cheapest character in the game. Even as the rankings get shuffled, however, many competitive players will stick with the same character through every edition, experiencing all the highs and lows in the evolution of that character's design. When looking forward to a new version of the game, you of course hope that your main character will get some nice improvements ("buffs") to increase their competitive standing. If, on the other hand, Capcom sees fit to weaken ("nerf") your character, you may find yourself, upon losing a match in the new edition, wistfully thinking, "If only my character still had the tools they had two versions ago, I would have won."

That's not an uncommon sentiment; it comes up with pretty much every tournament fighting game that goes through multiple revisions. Even as players recognize that a balanced roster with no overly juiced characters is the objective ideal, still it's always a bummer when it's your character that gets nerfed. Typically, though, you just have to get over it and move on, because, however powerful a character used to be in a previous edition, that's irrelevant now, since the latest version of the game is going to be the tournament standard, and nobody is seriously going to go back to that old edition.

So the Edition Select mode is cool precisely because it makes all that knowledge of previous versions of characters suddenly relevant again, and it allows players to finally put to the test whether they really would have won, if only they had had their old tools.

Edition Select exhibition at SoCal Regionals 2014, presented by Level|Up

This sort of mode has actually been tried a few times in the past. Super Street Fighter II Turbo (Super Turbo (ST)), the fifth edition of Street Fighter II, included hidden versions of characters, which were based on how those characters played in the fourth edition, Super Street Fighter II (Super). As ST was by far the most radical revision in the SFII series, going back to the Super (also referred to simply as "Old") versions of characters often provided a very different experience. Most notably, "Old Sagat," with his ability to fire off projectiles at a much higher rate than basically any fighting game character since, was the preferred version of Sagat, and also one of the strongest characters in the game, period.

Ultra Street Fighter IV's Edition Select feature is probably more directly modeled after 2003's Hyper Street Fighter II, which was the sixth edition of Street Fighter II. Released nine years after ST—that's nine years after ST had been the tournament standard version of SFIIHyper Street Fighter II allowed players to select from all versions of every character throughout the SFII series. It briefly reinvigorated the oldest contingent in the fighting game community, because, although ST had been the only version played competitively for about a decade, there were quite a number of respected veterans who had always maintained that Street Fighter II': Hyper Fighting (HF), the third edition, was the better game. By 2003, most competitors were too young to have ever even played HF before, so discussions of that edition had taken on a near-legendary character, involving fabled classic combos that could only be described but never observed. Street Fighter II': Champion Edition (CE), the second edition, was even more mythic, with old-timers relating war stories about the ungodly CE version of M. Bison or the unassailable fortress that was CE Guile (which, no matter what anyone might try to tell you, is the strongest version of Guile ever, the World Warrior version being truly more myth than substance). Finally, thanks to the release of Hyper Street Fighter II, all those stories became relevant again, and younger generations could experience for themselves the might of the old characters.

The Street Fighter IV series obviously hasn't had quite so extensive a history as Street Fighter II, nor have characters varied as widely from one edition to the next. The most notoriously broken characters in SFIV's history are Vanilla Sagat, who just dealt way too much damage, and AE Yun, whose divekick offense a majority of the cast simply had no way to cope with. So, Ultra Street Fighter IV's Edition Select mode will allow players to realize that oft-debated and formerly purely theoretical "dream match." Of equal interest, it may prompt a rediscovery of those old versions of characters that were maybe not recognized as strong in their own time, but only because their intricacies did not get fully explored and showcased before the community moved on to the next edition of the game. As much as Vanilla Sagat is remembered as the dominant force in that game, there are some who actually believe that, had the community continued competing on that edition a while longer, Vanilla Seth would have emerged as even stronger. And, while there may not be any long-lost mythic techniques in the series, there are plenty of old tricks and unique move properties that historians of the game can point to as having disappeared in later editions—minutiae that has largely been forgotten or was never common knowledge, and that would be neat to see brought back out of the vault.

I loved Hyper Street Fighter II, I loved the hidden "Hyper Street Fighter Alpha" mode in Street Fighter Alpha Anthology, and I'm really stoked to see this same concept included in Ultra Street Fighter IV. Counting all the different editions of characters separately, Ultra Street Fighter IV will have 182 playable characters, and exponentially more matchups than any other version of SFIV. In practice, not every version of every character will be that interesting or distinct, of course, but there will still be a ton of matchups to play around with.

Two questions remain. First, how will the game handle the new "delayed wakeup" mechanic when playing with characters that predate it? This defensive mechanic has been devised to frustrate the "vortex" offense that currently makes Akuma and Cammy so powerful in AE 2012. With the "vortex" no longer a factor, it is predicted that the Ultra versions of Akuma and Cammy will be significantly less deadly. Since the "delayed wakeup" mechanic is brand new to Ultra, it stands to reason that only Ultra-edition characters should be able to utilize it. But should that extend to Ultra characters being able to perform it against characters from previous editions? On the one hand, it would give the Ultra characters a unique advantage (which I predict they'll need in order to keep pace with the Vanilla characters, who have the unique advantage of dealing more damage across the board). On the other hand, it would negate a unique strength of old versions of Akuma or Cammy, as well as, to some extent, the whole "dream match" concept of pitting the strongest characters from each edition against one another. The "vortex" is precisely what makes Akuma and Cammy the strongest in AE 2012, so if they can't even apply it against the strongest Ultra character, then that's no true strength-versus-strength "dream match" at all.

The more pressing question, though, is how the tournament scene will deal with Edition Select. Will competitors be free to play their preferred version of any character, or will Edition Select be banned in tournaments, locking players into using only the Ultra versions of characters? Right now, it's looking like Edition Select will be a non-regulation "just for fun" casual mode, whereas tournament standard will be Ultra characters only. There's a couple of obvious good reasons for this. First, adopting Edition Select as standard would completely undermine the impressive amount of public testing and collecting of player feedback that Capcom has been conducting these past several months to try to tune the Ultra cast to be the most balanced of any SFIV edition to date. After all, what would even be the point of all these ongoing tweaks toward fairness, if every player is just going to end up picking the cheapest version of their character?

Furthermore, at the competitive level, a fighting game is arguably only as playable (or, at least, as tolerable) as its most broken character. Sure, it's possible that Ultra Street Fighter IV could turn out more balanced with Edition Select than without. AE 2012 has been regarded as a fairly balanced fighting game, with ten different characters getting play in the top 8 at Evo 2013, but recent tournament results have definitely evidenced a trend toward Cammy steadily eclipsing her top-tier rivals, Akuma and Fei Long, while characters such as Chun Li and E. Honda have fallen off dramatically. For Chun Li and E. Honda loyalists, Edition Select could even the odds against the current crop of Cammy players by allowing them to go back to older, very strong versions of their characters. That's the promise of Edition Select, anyway. But it's likelier that AE Yun will just end up stomping any versions of those characters and also AE 2012 Cammy to boot, so Edition Select would end up hurting them more than it would help. That was essentially the fate that befell Hyper Street Fighter II. Hyper Street Fighter II at first breathed new life into SFII, but, after only one appearance at Evo, during which CE Bison was found to completely destroy the game balance, it was dropped by the community and Super Street Fighter II Turbo brought back as the tournament standard.

Edition Select mode probably won't have any character as ridiculous as CE Bison, but it will include a number of characters that are known to have been overpowered (Vanilla Sagat, Vanilla Akuma, AE Yun). Maybe they'll turn out to be balanced against one another, and the mode will end up with a top tier as inclusive as that of any other fighting game (even most of the best fighting games don't have more than 3-4 characters sharing the top). But, starting out, since the Ultra characters are the ones that Capcom is actually making a deliberate effort to balance against one another, going "Ultra characters only" for tournaments may be the more sensible route. I would, however, like to see at least some Edition Select exhibitions or invitationals at major tournaments, so that we can see how some of those "dream matches" really play out with the strongest characters in the hands of the best players in the history of the game.