30 March 2011

The Block Button...[]

There is feature which has divided fighting games since the days of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat and which continues to divide them today. Seen in both 2D and 3D fighters, it is either hated or loved (or just accepted, but rigid dichotomies are so much more interesting!). It is the block button.

While offense is the only way to win in a fighting game, defense can never be ignored; it is central to any fighter's strategy. In many fighting games, defending against attacks is accomplished by holding the joystick/directional button away from the attacker, a tradition that goes all the way back to the original Street Fighter, if not earlier. However, games such as Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter, and Soul Calibur use a separate button for blocking and defense-related techniques (such as Soul Calibur's parrying system, mastery of which separates the experienced from the rookies). Yet why have a separate button, when it seems so natural to use the joystick for defense?

One reason might be for mobility reasons. Soul Calibur uses an 8-way movement system with the joystick/directional buttons, making deft sidesteps easy to perform. Crouching must be done by holding down while pressing the Guard button, and similarly for jumping. But why? The Tekken series, for instance, seems to have no trouble combining a hold-back-to-block system with sidestepping (although in only four directions), and Virtua Fighter has both a block button and crouch-by-hold-down. There must be other reasons.

Parrying also comes to mind. In Soul Calibur, one can block a series of attacks and parry midway through the opponent's barrage to take the upper hand. Yet games such as Street Fighter III: Third Strike have parrying as well, using well-timed directional inputs (toward the attacker as opposed to away), and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 has the Advancing Guard maneuver, which involves pressing two attack buttons while blocking to push the opponent away and avoid being trapped by a barrage of attacks.

When you get right down to it, what sense does it make to tie up a button when a directional input could do the same thing? Is it just to make the game system stand out among others? Certainly, Mortal Kombat had to do something to pull arcade-goers (an endangered species these days) away from Street Fighter. It can be something of a trip-up to go from playing a game like Tekken to one like Soul Calibur (especially when you're the one guy who plays the same character in both series), which has the potential to turn away players who might otherwise have gotten into the game.

Arguments can be made for either side; I personally like being able to press a button and know that I'm now entering a blocking state (except when I forget to block low), although force of habit often finds me holding back at the same time anyway. If nothing else, it makes for a more diverse cast of fighting game systems. If they were all the same, after all, playing one would be enough. What a horrible world that would be...


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