This is the first of a series of articles I will be doing focusing on fighting games, one of my favorite video game genres. Each article will focus on a different topic relating to fighting games, whether it be the fighting game lexicon, my viewpoints on characters or techniques, or overall impressions of upcoming or past fighting game titles. I play fighting games every day and there's nothing like the thrill of a one on one match with someone in person or over wi-fi. I am hardly an elite pro gamer that wins cash at every tournament he attends, but I do enjoy going to them and have gone to many of them in the past, so I can at least contribute with my own opinions on certain aspects of the competitive gaming community as they come along. This first article is about something most Super Smash Bros. players know very well that can also be applied to almost any game you play. And that is mind games.
I believe a good fighting game should be both fun and a challenge to master. The more difficult games let players develop complex combos to thwart their opponents and also find ways to utilize their character's moves in a way that surprises the competition. I have been hearing a lot of mixed thoughts on Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 and many consider it too cheap or too much of a button masher. While I do agree the game makes it easy to pull off cheap combos that do way too much damage, I also believe that like most fighting games, MvC3 require a certain finesse that is learned after many matches. You not only have to know your character, but also your opponent. Even if you only have 90 seconds on the clock to learn how he fights, if you're good, you can learn his faults and exploit them with some mind games.
A mind game can easily be described as playing with your opponent's head to your advantage. It exists in any team activity outside the gaming world as well. Sports involve mind games all the time, but they are called "psyche outs" or simply an act of "deception." But a mind game can be far more hurtful than that. I personally like the potential effects mind games can have on your opponent's psychological health during a match. I mean, if you're playing with someone, why not play with their heads too?
The first time I heard about the term "mind games" was when I started getting into competitive Pokémon battles online. I first heard of this "technique" when it tied itself with predicting your opponent's choices during a match. Will he predict my Earthquake attack and switch out to a Pokémon with Levitate? Or will he predict my thoughts and try to trick me by not switching out? Or will he use Protect? These types of questions were always popping up during an intense match - so much so that if you tricked your opponent by successfully predicting his actions and caused him to mess up, you had initiated a mind game.
One example I remember involved my Ninjask, a Pokémon that boosts its abilities and then passes its boosters to another Pokémon. Most people expect it to be a passive Pokémon, simply using Protect, boosting its speed, and using Substitute to protect it from attacks while it boosts its attack. But instead of switching it out a different Pokémon as expected, I would keep Ninjask on the field and use it as an attacker, taking down many Pokémon as they switched in. Because players were so used to one type of strategy with Ninjask, my unconventional tactics surprised and deceived many people. This surprise could only happen once since people who played me often would learn my playing style. But to solve this, I simply nicknamed all my Pokémon and gave two different Ninjask the same name. I would mix up my strategy, sometimes using the generic Ninjask and sometimes using my unconventional one. This is how I tricked many people into falling into my trap.
When playing a fighting game like Super Smash Bros. Melee, mind games can vary in flavor and execution as well. A common type of mind game involves predicting where your opponent will land or dodge. Some characters in the game have strong down smashes that spike others to the ground causing them to land on their backs. They have two options once they are on the floor: they can get up in place, or they can roll left or right to get back up. This means you have to anticipate what your opponent will do. If you think he will roll right, you can do a strong attack in that direction and cause serious damage. Your opponent's job then is to mix up how he will get up or else fall victim to a routine you have memorized.
Here is a video showing off some of these mind games in Melee.
In psychology, the term mind game is used when describing passive aggressive behavior used to benefit and glorify the user while demoralizing the victim. I think that making a fool out of your opponent is the best way you can really mess with his head too.
In Melee or Super Smash Bros. Brawl, doing a fighter stance in the middle of a combo or purposefully jumping off the ledge to fake your death can really put a strain on your opponent's fighting self-esteem and overall gaming ability. Two of the best, if not meanest, examples of playing with your opponent involve deception. Simply losing a stock on purpose or going easy on your opponent in the beginning of a match only to brutalize him later on can cause vast amounts of annoyance and even irritation. It makes your opponent think subconsciously that he has the upper hand in the match, and yet you know that it's just a ploy. After all, when playing a game or doing something that requires quick reflexes, concentration plays a pivotal role in your performance. If your opponent is too busy stressing out about your distractions, he might lose his focus and lose the match.
When playing the 2D fighting games like Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 or Super Street Fighter IV, the same principles apply. Using a projectile to cause your opponent to jump over it and then following up with an anti-air attack to hit him in the air is part of a strategy. The more you lure your opponent to jump over your projectiles the more you will condition him into doing what you want. Let's say that you don't do an anti-air and instead you jump as well and do an Ultra right over his head with someone like Ryu or Dante, for example. If you succeed, you've just performed a mind game.
Fighting games are mostly about winning, but who says you can't have fun while you're beating the crap out of people at the same time? Mind games can be annoying, but they can serve to give you the upper hand in a match. On the other hand, if you're too busy performing mindless mind games, you might get hit.