You can't get real Street Fighter skills if you play by yourself. Same goes for Marvel vs. Capcom, or Mortal Kombat, or any fighting game. You have to leave your house. You have to lose, hundreds of times, to better players. You have to learn why they win before you can do the same. You have to go to Fight Night.
Arcades are dead, but the fighting-games community has straggled on without them, via gaming meet-ups in stores, bars, and basements.
I first went to a fight night at a store in Framingham called Game Underground a couple of years ago. Actually, I guess my first fight nights went down at arcades in my elementary school years . . . and never stopped. I've been gaming across all the genres, from Counter-Strike to StarCraft to Diablo, for what feels like forever, and I've been writing about games professionally for five years. But I've never felt good enough at any one game to compete in a tournament. I can usually beat my friends at fighting games in particular, though. So I feel ready to get schooled by a more experienced set.
GU still hosts fight nights every Tuesday and Friday night, so I go back on a recent Friday. I walk down into the windowless basement, armed only with a five-dollar bill and a chip on my shoulder. I hand the cashier my money. He looks confused.
"It's five dollars, right?" I say.
He pauses. "For Fight Night . . . ?"
No, for tampons. What else?
I am a woman. The only woman in a basement of 25 guys. No ladies descending the stairs with a joystick in hand. Not even a bored girlfriend retrieving a McDonald's cheeseburger for her sweetheart. I'm on my own in here. And I'm about to invite a room full of strange men to kick my virtual ass.
I see a few backs stiffen with discomfort and a few hard looks in my direction as I turn from the cash register and walk toward the circle of TV screens. Women don't come and play fighting games here. It. Just. Doesn't. Happen. The guys are confused. They're uncomfortable. But I promise you, no one is more uncomfortable than I am.
Nearly everyone has arcade sticks with them, except for me. Take that metaphor and run with it. And right now, I miss my old arcade stick more than ever; I gave it away after my ex-boyfriend moved out and took the PS3 with him. Instead, I've been practicing with an Xbox controller all week, and I'll just have to make do with one of those tonight.
I see a bearded guy with a controller in hand — the only other person without a stick.
"Where'd you get the controller?" I ask him. He either doesn't hear me or ignores me.
"Oh, you didn't bring a controller?" someone else pipes up.
"Last time I was here, I used the game-store ones," I mumble.
"When was that?"
"I don't know. A couple years ago." I'm not just a newbie — I'm also a misinformed, out-of-date newbie. Great.
Someone hands me a controller. I clutch it and watch Controller Guy playing Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. He's losing. He's not happy. He grunts about unfairness.
His opponent doesn't rise to the trash-talking and just keeps his mind and fast-tapping fingers on the game. He's been on a lucky streak all night (or so the surrounding players say), and he's not backing down now. After the two guys play what feels like 200 matches, someone asks me if I have next game. I say yes, and realize I should've said that earlier.
If you don't shout "Next!" every few matches, the guys gaming in front of you will try to sneak in more and more clicks of the old Rematch button. You might even have to grab a stranger's shoulder and demand to cut in. You've got to be a jerk about it, because everybody else is going to be.
The longer I wait, the more convinced I become of my impending embarrassment. There's no way I can win. But I'm here. And I have to try. This is the beginning. All heroes start out at rock bottom. Cue Rocky theme.