There’s something special about arcades. Dark rooms, lights from hundreds of cabinets illuminating the faces of the kids crowded around various machines, all waiting their turn or losing their quarters. I grew up in arcades; as the only child of a family that was thoroughly against having video games in the house until I was about 10, arcades were my only way to play. When my mom inevitably went to the mall with her friends, who were the mothers of my friends, they’d drop us off with $10 and tell us they’d meet us back there later.
Figuring out what to spend the money on was the hard bit. Racing games, light gun games, and on-rails shooters always got a portion of our budget, especially if the arcade in question had Star Wars Trilogy Arcade. But we always came back to fighting games. It was cost-benefit analysis in the purest sense of the phrase. Fighters were cheap, and if you kept winning, you could stay on for a while, pulling down a string of free games. Better yet, we could all play together, even if it meant playing against each other.
We loaded quarter after quarter into Street Fighter II and III, Mortal Kombat, Tekken Tag Tournament, and Soul Calibur. And we were good. Big-fish-in-a-small-pond good, mind, but we could run a machine for a while, clearing the people lining up behind us. Sometimes we even managed to stay on until our parents got back.
But there was always the fear that you’d lose, too. No matter how good you were on any given day, there was always someone better and if you were on a machine long enough, they’d eventually show up to kick you off. There was no malice in it. Whatever trash-talk there was ended with a “good game,” or “Man, you played that round really well.” But it didn’t take the sting out of losing.
I hated losing. It meant I was out a quarter, at best ponying up again for another try against the dude who’d just kicked me off and at worst making my way to the back of the line to try to figure out what to do next. It wasn’t just the losing; it was not being good enough. But somehow, I always managed to come back – unless my mom showed up or I ran out of quarters.
Arcades died. They’d been dying as long as I was alive, but it’s harder to see the death of a thing when you’re in it. I moved once, then again, and again. Fighting games came to consoles that didn’t have online multiplayer. Unless you had a local arcade or a community to play with, you mostly played alone. I spent a long time in single-player modes or refining arcade times.
Fighting games came back, of course. Street Fighter IV kicked off a fighting game renaissance that saw the resurgence of old favorites like Marvel vs. Capcom and Mortal Kombat and the emergence of new series like BlazBlue. Tekken and Soul Calibur put out strong entries. Even my beloved Guilty Gear returned. It was a golden age for fighting games. Finding people to play with was easier than ever.
I should have been playing online all the time. But something had changed in the ten years between my arcade heyday and the genre’s resurgence. When you lost online, it didn’t cost quarters, just your pride. But that mentality of not being good enough stayed. In the years since I’d become obsessed with numbers. Kill to death ratios, win/lose statistics, the number or name beside my online handles that indicated my rank. The thought of losing – of not being good enough – was both scary and stressful. It was easier to just not play.
That’s not to say I never did. When I did choose to play, I was pretty good. I have a winning ranked record in every fighting game I’ve ever sunk time into online – BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, Mortal Kombat 9, Soul Calibur IV and V, and several Guilty Gears, among others – except Street Fighter IV. I was bad at Street Fighter IV, but I didn’t care. I remember my time with it fondly. Mostly, I just wish I’d played it more.
When I look back at my teens and twenties, I mostly feel regret, not for what I did, but for what I didn’t do. The opportunities I didn’t try for, the risks I didn’t take, the things I wanted but didn’t have the courage to chase, much less admit. If I was afraid of failure, I wouldn’t do it. And I was always afraid of failing.
The pandemic forced me, like many people with the privilege to do so, to take a hard look at my life. 2020 was a lonely year, one I managed largely by playing games with friends, especially fighters, and by thinking about what I wanted out of my life. I used the time to acknowledge what I wanted to change, and to be honest about where I was. I wasn’t always happy with what my introspection revealed. But, as my therapist once said, “Don’t imagine what will happen if you don’t get the thing you try for. Imagine what will happen if you do.”
I’m learning to love losing again. To love the hard-fought loss that kicks me to the back of a line in an online lobby, to appreciate the ranked match where I realize how much I don’t know. To enjoy the experience, to learn from it. To watch the replays and hit training mode and practice the problematic combo until it’s so familiar that I don’t even have to think about it.
Games teach us to love winning because it’s literally the point of playing, to monitor our stats and count our wins and beat our rivals because we want, desperately, to be good or at least good enough. We obsess over winning and are upset when we don’t.
But the best moments, and the best stories, come from the comebacks. And it’s not just us; it’s the pros, too. EVO Moment 37 wouldn’t have been possible if Daigo’s Ken hadn’t spent most of that round getting thoroughly beaten by Justin Wong’s Chun-Li. Justin Wong’s incredible Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 run at EVO 2014 wouldn’t have meant as much if he hadn’t had to beat every player that had stymied him year after year to pull it off.
The best moments are born of loss, of overcoming the things that hurt us and hold us back. Without the losses, the wins wouldn’t be special. Without learning why we lost, we can’t learn how to win. We have to do the work, whether we’re fighting in virtual streets or just trying to live our lives. And every time you attempt to do anything that matters, you run the risk of coming up short. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying.
Fighting games taught me I’m not competing against my opponents. I’m competing against myself. I’m testing my knowledge, my skill, my ability to react and adapt under pressure. To lose gracefully and learn from it. To be better today, in that next match, than I was in the one before.
Arcades are dead and gone, and I’m a different person than that kid who walked into them awash with wonder. But I still have a pocketful of quarters and a love of the fight. All I have to do to win is be brave enough to show up and play.