Learning hitbox, two weeks in

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Just about two weeks ago, the homie Starsky came through with an upgrade I had been eagerly awaiting:

Zaku, Epyon, Tallgeese. (Mine is the purple one.)

I’ve wanted to learn how to play on a hitbox for a while, and after two weeks with it, I’m not yet at 100% but I’m definitely sold. As a competitor, it’s hard to turn down the pure technical advantage you get over joysticks and gamepads by being able to use four independent fingers to input directions instead of having to coordinate your whole hand or thumb. Blocking, jumping, dashing, special moves; all of it gets faster, cleaner, and more accurate, because you’re able to feed the game the exact inputs it needs to get the thing you want.

The downside is that you have to feed the game the exact inputs it needs to get the thing you want. Joysticks and gamepads are easier to pick up and play with because moving your hand or your thumb in a direction doesn’t require as much conscious, deliberate thought as pressing individual buttons does. Hold away from your opponent to block; press up-forward to jump forward. With fighting games, it can take a long time for new players to get comfortable on a stick or pad, and it takes even longer to take the crude quarter-circles and DP inputs of a new player and clean off the accidental overshoots and delayed directions. With your right hand, you mash buttons; with your left, you mush directions. Learning hitbox is just as much about cleaning up your brain as it is your hands.

Fortunately, I have played a lot of fighting games on keyboard (shoutouts to Rising Thunder and a folder full of ROMs I’ve had on every computer I’ve owned since 2001), so I wasn’t starting from scratch. And since I’ve played on stick for a long time, I don’t need to learn how to use the right-hand buttons differently, just the left. I know people can play on a pad just fine, but man, I don’t know how anyone could pass up the chance to hit those big, satisfying arcade-style buttons. But instead of jumping straight into relearning my Rev2 Chipp routine, I figured I’d use this as an excuse to dig into the GGPO +R rollback beta.

Picking up a different game or character is a good way to test out changes in your fighting game practice because you get to frame it in your mind as learning how to do something new instead of relearning how to do something you already know how to do. Instead of being constantly frustrated because you can’t hit your bread and butter combos or block the mixup you know is coming, you get to return to a state where you have zero expectations of yourself and can focus on learning and playing. And as you get more acclimated to the hitbox, you’ll get to see your gains in big, satisfying chunks. Once you see yourself doing things you couldn’t do with your other controller is when it starts to get really good. (You just have to stick it out past the point where you’re relearning half-circles and tiger knees. Chipp has a lot of those.)

It can be tempting to stick to training mode until you’re feeling comfortable with your usual stuff again, but I’d recommend getting plenty of PvP time in too, because learning to play neutral on hitbox is a different beast. I found that being able to move so crisply and deliberately without having to move the lever around uncovered many inefficiencies in my movement patterns because I was giving myself extra time to account for the lever movement. So grind those games and collect those Ls gracefully. You’ll have your revenge soon enough.

So: Two weeks in, I’m loving it. Arcade sticks still look and feel cool as hell, so I’ll still keep using them (and buying them…) but learning hitbox feels like I’m re-learning fighting games in a really good way. I don’t know if I’d recommend them to new players — I find that their desire to learn as efficiently as possible usually leads them to burn out from the challenge of learning a new genre and input device at the same time — but if you’re looking for a way to get a little bit closer to perfect play you should definitely try it out.

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-patrick miller

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