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I have easily spent over 1000 hours playing Guilty Gear Xrd, and at least 95% of that time has been playing Chipp. When a competitive player decides to go deep on a fighting game, they’re usually not playing the game so much as playing a single character. Your character is the focal point of your effort; they’re what makes you think about the game when you’re not playing it. If you do not think about your character, you may win, but you probably won’t enjoy it, and you’ll probably grow to dislike the game. So how do you find your character?
Don’t rush the process
It can be tempting for competitive players to rush into choosing a main, because skipping around from character to character can feel like they’re wasting time, and going straight to a character they think is strong will pay off in early tournament success. But I think for most folks this is a counterproductive strategy.
Often, the folks who win early tournaments don’t stick around to see the game grow and evolve, because their motivation to stay on top is solely dependent on winning, and fighting games are rich and valuable for more than just winning. After all, it takes work to stay on top, and if you’re not syncing with your character, you will feel less motivated to do that work.
So take your time. Think of your character as a JoJo’s Stand, or a Gundam, or something similarly anime; you can’t be strong without a strong connection.
Playing the field
Hands down the most important part of looking for a main is simply getting play time in with as many characters as you can — even for just a day or two. When SFV came out, I switched characters every week for about two months, and it helped me learn matchups more quickly and build my general understanding of how characters differed in risk/reward and play patterns. Also, playing Random Select is hella fun.
But there’s more you can do than just playing matches. Watch high-level play and see who you think looks cool when they’re winning, or find a favorite high-level player that you look up. I mostly play Ryu in Street Fighter games, and that’s entirely because watching John Choi play convinced me early on that true strength was having a good Ryu.
Characters aren’t just gameplay functions, though, so don’t be shy about exploring other vectors of interest. Read the lore, play the story mode, find some fanart, look up some cosplay, check out the character Discord. (Heck, write a fanfic.) I’d be lying if I said that Chipp’s drug ninja weeb president background wasn’t in some way personally relatable. If there’s one lesson we all learned from Rock Lee, the wackest looking character on the select screen is one good fight scene away from being on the cover of the sequel.
You can look elsewhere for recommendations, too. If you have more experienced fighting game friends, see if they can think of anyone they think would fit you. You may find that their thoughts will give you perspective on how they see you and your strengths and weaknesses, and that may lead you to grow different aspects of your play in ways you wouldn’t have independently discovered! (Or maybe you’ll find out that your friends think you’re a Leo player.)
Our character choices often reflect parts of our identity or personality, and different games can give us chances to express ourselves through our character choice. I play Ryu because I play Street Fighter to work on my fundamentals, but I also play Laura Matsuda and Steve Fox (only a little bit — I blame Tekken 5) because I have practiced Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and boxing for almost as long as I’ve been playing fighting games, and so they are special to me. I play Athena in CvS2 because she was the first character I felt like I was good with. I have a pocket Zato in GG because playing against good Zatos make me feel super impressed. I play Chaos in UNIST because I wanted to see what other puppet characters were like after playing Zato.
Everyone has a hundred reasons for picking their character over all the others, and no matter how stupid or silly you might think your reason for choosing a character is, the only thing that matters is that you’ve found something about that character that makes you want to play them over everyone else. (A while ago I wrote a series called My Mains that highlights some of the things that got me to stick with certain characters, if you wanna check it out.)
The value (and wackness) of archetypes
Sometimes people will sort characters into play archetypes in order to describe how one character is different from or similar to another character. This can be useful, but the problem with archetypes is that invariably any kind of exclusive classification system will cost you some time spent pondering (and often arguing) about how to define and draw lines. And for games above a certain level of complexity, any given character’s toolset is likely going to be far too diverse and unique to really fit a meaningful archetype sorting, anyway.
What I do appreciate is seeing people describe characters using generalized gameplay descriptions, because it helps people find characters faster, and it helps us all get better at thinking of how fighting game characters work. For example, Guilty Gear players often refer to both Potemkin and Sol as grapplers, even though Sol’s initial read is aggressive shoto (think Ken, but Anime Dad), because it’s the threat of Sol’s command grab that makes the rest of his big-damage combo starters work. Characters like Venom and Johnny win in neutral with projectiles and big buttons, while Chipp and Jam use their mobility; these words can help us understand what a character does a little better than “Zoner” and “Rushdown”.
(As an aside, Evo 2019 GG champion DEB wrote on a related topic in an Evernote on defense in Guilty Gear a couple weeks ago, describing the cast as falling into two categories; characters either break through your defense by forcing you to deal with hit/throw mixups, or by making it hard to block with high/low mixups; it’s worth a read.)
Other defining attributes include specific input schemes or play mechanics. Giving a character charge inputs doesn’t define what the character itself does with those inputs, but people can feel so sharply about performing charge inputs that they’ll choose (or avoid) a character for that reason alone. “Puppet character” does not tell you what a character is doing with their puppet, but to the people who love them, it might not matter.
Your character isn’t just a set of tools. Choosing a character is one part choosing a musical instrument, another part choosing an avatar, and another part choosing a weapon. Your character should feel like they connect with you and say something about you, and will also connect you to other people whether you like it or not. (I play Zero in MvC3, which immediately alienates everybody.) Take your time finding a main. It’s good for you to feel comfortable with a wide variety of characters, and it’s even better when you feel one who you want to stick with.
Thanks for reading!