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."

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