Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Like A Boss

There is a natural order to fighting games that has been established over the years.  Usually it goes like this; Fight a set number of opponents which range from 'braindead easy' to moderate to challenging, and then you face the boss which is a mixture of the moderate to challenging difficulty mixed with a bit of cheapness for good measure (No such thing as fighing dirty in a street fight, am i right? ). While other companies follow this to the letter, SNK has turned the formula on it's ear for decades now with their brand of boss-isms. Fans of games like KOF, Art of Fighting, or any of the other SNK fighthers know what I'm talking about as well - The bosses can be cruel, vicious and downright insidious when they want to be. Throwing out massive damage with ease, and making you feel like after your playthrough you should go file a police report and have a doctor run a kit on you, because yeah...

After much time spent playing SVC Chaos, KOF XI, and other fighters over an extended period of time, it's believed that the reason SNK has been doing this for decades, but it isn't done deliberately to crush the spirits of would be Kings and Queens of fighters, actually quite the opposite.

The symptoms of Boss Syndrome.

First of all let's look at the symptoms of Boss Syndrome in order to better understand what it is. SNK wiki has the info.
The syndrome manifests by an overall weakness that is made up for by unfair advantages. There are several recognizable traits that can be linked to a small number of core symptoms typically stemming from poor programming.
  • Arbitrary advantages over playable characters in the game
  • attacks with unreasonable damage, priority, speed, range or recovery
  • greater defense than average
  • immunity to chip damage
  • unavoidable moves that hit the player regardless of their position, and can only be blocked
  • Disregard for established gameplay rules
  • no dizzy state when featured in the game
  • infinite or costless super special moves
  • unblockable moves
  • Absence of reaction time, command input and "human error"
  • ability to read the inputs of a human player and/or appropriately reacting to the player's inputs at the same time as (or even before) the player's own character does
  • inhuman consistency in achieving maneuvers that require precise timing or difficult commands
  • never falling for a command counter unless initiated during the start up of the boss's attack
  • ability to follow up every hit with a combo on reaction regardless of the frame window of the first hit
  • ability to execute special and super special moves without inputting a command
  • ability to do so on reaction
  • ability to counter a fast attack with a faster super move on reaction

This syndrome is often looked down upon as a lazy way of adding difficulty, by putting unfair disadvantages in the way of the player instead of taking the time to design a genuinely challenging AI. SNK bosses typically suffer from various programming flaws as well, leading to exploits and patterns that are most often the easiest way to defeat a boss.
Although named after SNK, the syndrome can be found in many other fighting games, and is not exclusive to bosses; higher difficulty settings are likely to have the AI engage in some degree of this behavior.

Now that we have that understanding underneath our collective belts, we can discuss the cons of the issue. The biggest one being that Boss Syndrome makes the games so difficult to finish that the average gamer will easily be deterred from the game. This is very prevalent in games like Savage Reign; where Kage Shishioh, aka King Lion had a weakened state which was difficult and a powered up state (Shin Shishioh) that seems near impossible to beat. There are plenty of other examples as well; such as Neo Geo Battle Coliseum's Goodman, who throws spectral animal auras on unsuspecting players with the greatest of ease (Perhaps he's a metaphysical zookeeper on his off hours?). The more recent offenders have been in the currently concluded KOF storyline "Those from the past" which featured Ash Crimson as the main character. There, the bosses ranged from ridiculous to "oh effing come on!!" levels of difficult. All of them with fullscreen supers and heavy priority, every one of them incredibly cheap to the point of having to resort to poking or low sweeps in order to overcome them.

Above: Magaki and his purple pred clouds...

This is a far cry from the early days of KOF where at least you felt like you stood some sort of chance against guys like Rugal or Goenitz (who was the first boss who you learn is succeptible to low sweeps inbetween his fullscreen whirlwind attacks). In any case, gamers can liken SNK's brand of bossery to crossing the tracks from Capcom's nice neighborhoods, whith moderate challenge to a vicious neighborhood that the abulance visits at least once a week (twice on a good saturday). It's there Murder happens often, and hopes and dreams are crushed  into some sort of delicious jam that Rugal, Shishioh, Magiki, Samural Showdown's Amakusa, the demon  Minazuki Zankuro, Rashojin Mizuki and the other bosses devour on toast while sipping tea and talking about their most recent plunderings.

However, there is a theory in the middle of all this despair; What if this is the whole entire point? Or better yet, what if the adversity is needed in order to force you, the player to dilligently succeed? Let's look at the bright side of this folly in greater detail.

What doesn't kill you......

We've all seen this - You're in a dire situation with no clear resolution in sight. the odds are deathly stacked aainst you, and you're feeling like your only option is to give up. Pretty bad, right? But what happens when you eventually overcome the odds and defeat the obstacle in your way? You feel this rush of exhiliration and an overwhelming sense of accomplsihment right? This is exactly the same feeling that occurs after defeating a difficult boss. After playing SVC chaos for a month it was discovered that yes, Serious Mr Karate was horribly overpowered, with his triple Haoh Shokokens and three phase - seventeen hit shoryukens (okay so that's a bit of exaggeration on the author's part), but in the end you feel like a much more capable fighter once you observe and understand his patterns and gain the upper hand in defeating him. The same can be said for Orochi Iori, who in the same game, as in other games can be a bit of a pain in the rear.

This is expected of SNK's bosses. Shin Gouki and Violent Ken can be problematic, but nowhere on the level that the SNK bosses are, but naturally you can say that has much more to do with the 'hometeam advantage' (Read: bias) given by the programmers. With all that being said, it still makes sense that the programmers stack the deck against you in order to force you to become that much more stronger as a gamer and this teaches you to observe certain patterns and respond with logical rebuttles - a skill that comes in handy when dealing with human opponents.

In turn making the game challenging also makes the game more replayable. Players get too far in the game to turn back, and want to see the game's ending, or just have bragging rights for defeating an incredibly difficult game. This was the mentality that was used back in the 8-bit era of gaming (Remember when 'Nintendo hard' actually meant some soul-crushingly difficult games?). The more humiliating the defeat, the more you kept coming back with token after token, or with a stack of quarters, ready to take on that overpowered thug that cheaply made quick work of you in the second or third round. It's essentially arcade mentality only spread out into the console age, and damn it if it doesn't work!!

So what is the point - the moral of the story if you will? SNK had been teaching us life lessons all this time? When life gives us brutal beatings we make (grape) lemonade? or pretty much punch and kick those lemons into submission and apply the ass kicking to our friends who dare step to us in KOF or any other fighter for that matter? Possibly. On a more serious note, Essentially it falls back on the proverb that Nietzsche instilled in us all; "That which does not kill us makes us stronger" (I love how the link ends with "kill stronger" lol)- which means that it's more an issue of overcoming adversity to become a stronger individual, or in this case become a much more capable fighting game player.

 Wow, That's pretty effing philosophical for a discussion about games that feature beating the crap out of people as their main draw.

Game On!

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