Monthly Archives: February 2018

Beltway white men know best

From the way Willie Geist and “Morning” Joe Scarborough said “identity politics” yesterday morning you’d think they’d recited a passage from Mein Kampf. Identity politics, they aver, prevent the Democratic Party from coalescing around “a single issue” or “one candidate”; instead, the party is associated with “the afflicted” and “victims.” After all, Scarborough reminded the panel, weren’t Bill Clinton and Joe Biden warning the party in August 2016 that white voters were slipping away? Continue reading

Entertainment That Got Me Through 2017: #4, competitive fighting games (part 2 of 3: Street Fighter V)

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It’s been a hard year. I saw exactly one film in theaters, my favorite albums weren’t as phenomenal as my favorites in years past, and I can’t leave my phone in my pocket for one hour without the discourse shifting to the President’s tweets, another beloved celebrity being exposed as a sexual assailant, or some other Hell. So over the next twelve days, I’ll be counting down twelve pieces of entertainment that kept me sane in 2017.

Note: So this #4 entry will be long, and it will be six stories split across three games. I’ve already done Smash 4. Today, I’ll be telling the two biggest Street Fighter V stories. In a few days, I’ll finish with Super Smash Bros. Melee.

Just a note that I’m not quite as expert a spectator for Street Fighter as I am with either iteration of Smash. My fandom is a work in progress, as made somewhat obvious by my focus here on the game’s two biggest titles.

4. Competitive fighting games

Fighting games are simply unbelievable. And though ball is life, following fighting games has been far more rewarding as a hobby this past calendar year. Perhaps best thought of as an advanced system of rock-paper-scissors mechanics rewarding you for being a yomi level above your opponent, what you are watching as you witness top players doing their dance becomes easy to understand even if you fail to grasp the more technical aspects of just what they’re doing. And the word that best encapsulates watching these people? Hype.

The tension of two people dueling, constantly trying to outguess each other, is insane, and the release of coming out on top is infectious, extending to the viewer. Though fighting games’ closest very popular analogy might honestly be tennis (regrettably, the team-based competitive video games that make the bigger bucks are actually boring as fuck), that’s obviously a slow burn. But like in tennis, the storylines that tie into one-on-one showdowns are legendary.

Speaking of legendary, Evo. Let’s begin there.

Punk & Tokido

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After nearly committing suicide in March of 2016, the next December NuckleDu won Capcom Cup, finishing off Street Fighter V‘s first season by bringing home $120,000 at the age of twenty years old. It was perhaps the most impressive tournament victory by an American in the history of the franchise as a competitive game. And it was a thoroughly touching note to go out on.

As we entered season two, NuckleDu remained a top contender, but an even younger American found his star rising as we headed into the next summer. Punk, then only eighteen years old, brought home a whopping $150,000 from ESPN’s ELEAGUE invitational.

But there was a more important prize. Even though its top prize, not quite 38 grand, fell well over one hundred thousand dollars short of the biggest winnings of the year to that point (and over two hundred thousand short of the eventual biggest winnings), Evo 2017 far dwarfed the other tournaments in importance. Evo is the biggest name in the fighting community, the sort of stage people dream of winding up on when they buy their sticks.

And Punk’s dominance was terrifying. He tore his way to grand finals, not only staying on winners side by not dropping a set, but not dropping a game. Not only did he 3-0 both Kazunoko and Itabashi Zangief on the big stage in top 8 – his Karin being broadcast on ESPN 2 all the while – but the day before he’d soundly taken down two legends, the American Justin Wong and one of the five Japanese gods of Street Fighter, a demon that had given Punk trouble when they played friendly matches: Tokido. Remember that name.

(Evo 2017 Street Fighter V winners quarters: Punk vs. Tokido)

Going into his first Evo (!), Punk was the hottest topic, no question, and suddenly he was poised to be the first North American ever to win its main event long before you could legally buy him a drink. This young black man known for his pride and antics, who brought his mother who was rooting for her son with every inch of herself to Evo, seemed as good a representative as any to show the contrasts between the American fighting game community and the ones in Japan and Korea.

But while we awaited the coronation, another player came to define the top 8 much more. To that point, Punk had only played six games. But Tokido, who made it into top 8 on the losers side by beating HAITANI the previous day, dazzled everyone by beating Kazunoko, sitting Capcom Cup champion NuckleDu, and, each in tense last game situations, Filipino Champ and Itabashi Zangief.

Punk was caught for a quick interview after his Winners Finals victory over Kazunoko. Asked who he thought he’d end up facing for grand finals, he answered Tokido. Asked if was going to win this thing, he faltered. Most competitors would pump themselves up by announcing to the world their impending victory. But Punk was unsure if he could take down Tokido, even though he already had. Anyone else? Free. Tokido?

In that respect, Punk was probably on the edge of his seat watching the losers bracket sort itself out. He nearly didn’t have to face the murderface, but Tokido made his way to the losers side of grand finals.

(Evo 2017 Street Fighter V losers eighths: Tokido vs. Filipino Champ)
(Evo 2017 Street Fighter V losers semis: Tokido vs. Itabashi Zangief)

But still, Punk had a cushion. Having made it through winners, Punk would need to lose two consecutive sets to fall out of the double elimination bracket. He’d need to beat Tokido just once. He had two chances.

But it suddenly felt like he didn’t have any. The bracket was quickly reset, Tokido sometimes even breaking from his murderface image to throw some friendly taunts Punk’s way. And after that reset, not only would Tokido execute a perfect round, he’d unnecessarily finish a game in the flashiest way possible: the Raging Demon.

Before long, Tokido himself stood in Akuma’s Raging Demon pose, triumphant. Punk choked back tears. The fighting game community across the world consoled him, and though it’s uncertain if he will ever be as in front of the meta as he was in early 2017, it’s true that this loss could be just the beginning of an immensely satisfying arc.

(Evo 2017 Street Fighter V grand finals: Tokido vs. Punk)

Not unlike the arc of Tokido! Though North America has never taken the prize, Tokido had never won Evo, either, and it was a title that he’d come close to but had eluded him. Oddly, the community wasn’t sore that their fellow American came up short. The consensus seemed to be: this wasn’t what we wanted, so why does it feel so right?

While being interviewed by Gootecks, Tokido was asked if he wanted to say anything to the people back home, and he stopped in thought, perhaps possessed by sudden, overwhelming inspiration, and decided to take it another direction entirely.

“Just one thing I want to say. Fighting game…is something so great.”

That was simply too much for commentator James Chen, the weight of the entire weekend crashing down on him in that one moment.

MenaRD

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$250,000. Capcom Cup, the conclusion of a yearlong circuit, is, Evo aside, the most prestigious title in Street Fighter, and its enormous cash prize, this year’s $250k being the biggest-ever prize for a fighting game tournament, making it even more desirable.

Especially with previous champion NuckleDu dropping out for personal reasons, Tokido and Punk entered the tournament as favorites, but last year’s Capcom Cup had seen some early exits by some of the most dominant players, most notably Tokido, Justin Wong, and the reigning Evo champion Infiltration all going 0-2.

But Punk’s instant exit from the winners bracket was a little unfair. Nemo, winner of the last chance qualifier, was clearly far better than his seed. And though Punk put on a show, taking down Brolynho, Mago, and Xian, he fizzled out against Moke, dropping his last set of Saturday and missing out on top 8.

An entire section could be dedicated to Nemo, who had decided that winning a last chance qualifier tournament was simply easier than qualifying by participating in the circuit and then finished in an astonishing third place. His 3-1 whupping of Itabashi Zangief in losers quarters produced the most iconic moment of the tournament.

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But the story of the tournament came through the winners bracket. Tokido, for his part, played the role of favorite shockingly well for such a volatile game. He beat Ricki Ortiz (last year’s second placer), Gachikun, Bonchan, and Yukadon all in 3-1 sets to advance to winners finals with little incident.

But the other side of winners was more fraught after Punk’s early loss. We’ll focus on a Birdie player named MenaRD, an 18-year-old from the Dominican Republic. He was a solid player, for sure, but his best result at a premier was two months earlier at SCR, and still only good for a fourth place finish. Still, he beat his fellow teen, Punk, and he was a player on the rise.

His bracket was anything but easy. His very first opponent was Xian, winner of 2017’s first premier tournament, Final Round XX, and although he’d had less success in the latter half of the year, he was as decorated a Street Fighter player as any, winning Super Street Fighter IV at Evo 2013.

But Mena held his own. The first game looked lost until an absurd comeback in the final round sent him up, but the set was back and forth.

It came down to a final round.

(Capcom Cup 2017 Winners Top 32: MenaRD vs. Xian)

Mena’s next opponent was about as decorated. Kazunoko came in third at Capcom Cup 2016 and was the Capcom Cup 2015 champion. He had some strong recent results at premier events in Asia along with a third place finish at Evo 2017, and he was always a threat to perform at any event.

This was more commanding. After Mena went up 2-0, Kazunoko began to pick steam and took three straight rounds (nearly making it four and evening it up 2-2), but Mena put an end to it.

(Capcom Cup 2017 Winners Top 24: MenaRD vs. Kazunoko)

But his next opponent would be the most prolific yet.

Daigo “The Beast” Umehara is the most notable fighting game player of all time, the winner of several Evo titles and the hero of the fighting game community’s most famous moment.

And though Daigo’s very best days were behind him, he’d always be a threat to make deep runs into bracket, and he actually won a premier event, Esports Festival Hong Kong, in August. And after Nemo had just shocked the bracket by taking down Punk, Daigo annihilated Nemo 3-0.

If all that wasn’t daunting enough, Guile is a pretty bad matchup for Birdie.

The winner between the Street Fighter legend who had seen the very most and one of its very youngest stars would make top 8 on the winners side.

It was another back and forth set, with Mena overcoming Daigo’s projectiles to force a deciding game five.

(Capcom Cup 2017 Winners Quarters: MenaRD vs. Daigo)

In fact, in a bad matchup, Mena had made things look really hard for Daigo.

A day passed, and Mena’s next opponent before Winners Finals was Itabashi Zangief, who had a pretty darn consistent 2017 with solid results but no wins, most impressively getting fourth at Evo.

…Itabashi Zangief was not a problem for Mena. He handily won 3-0.

(Capcom Cup 2017 Winners Semis: MenaRD vs. Itabashi Zangief)

Mena had been tested to his limits by Daigo and Xian, but running into the reigning Evo champ in winners finals was different.

As he had become accustomed to in recent months, Tokido brought out measuring tape to make sure his chin was the optimal distance from the display.

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It was a classic set. Despite Mena convincingly taking the first three rounds and making things look incredibly hard for Tokido’s Akuma, Tokido barely scraped his way forward to win an insane set.

If the rest of the tournament had been anything else, this 3-2 set, going down to the last round, would be its highlight. Tokido staving off Birdie’s pressure to clutch it would be the biggest moment of Capcom Cup 2017.

(Capcom Cup 2017 Winners Finals: Tokido vs. MenaRD)

But this was not Tokido’s story. Not this time. Not again.

(Although I do recommend that set just as much as I’ll recommend the grand finals.)

In fact, everyone was beginning to suspect that it was Nemo’s story. After beating Infiltration to win the last chance qualifier and then beating favorite Punk, his loss to Daigo just begat another incredible streak: Dogura, Didimokof, Bonchan, Problem-X, Itabashi Zangfief, and finally Moke before making it to MenaRD in losers finals.

With his handshake offering to Itabashi Zangief already blowing up Twitter, it felt like destiny that the last chance qualifier might actually take the tournament.

No.

MenaRD won in a stupid quick, brutal 3-0 thrashing, even landing a perfect. He beat his chest, knowing he’d have another chance at the Evo champion.

(Capcom Cup 2017 Losers Finals: MenaRD vs. Nemo)

And this was the story: the new kid versus the guy who’d been around forever. Just as Evo had been.

Their winners finals set and their grand finals would be an instant classic. To anyone who might ever want to dip their toes into top level competitive Street Fighter, the Tokido/Mena sets are a perfect entry point.

Tokido came out swinging, going up 2-0, notably snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the second game’s first round by finishing in style with Akuma’s Raging Demon, just as he had in Evo’s grand finals.

Down 2-0, Mena began to feel the frustration.

Mena managed a win, but even after climbing out of a 2-0 deficit, he found his tightest position yet.

So down 2-1, down a round with none of his own, and with Tokido still in losers bracket, it looked like this.

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The idea of Mena taking the tournament after being put in that position seems ridiculous.

But after coming back from that, he rode the wave to reset the bracket. He got the hell up out of his chair…

…before getting right back in it. He still had more to do.

Despite the reverse 3-0, Mena’s momentum didn’t overwhelm Tokido, and the set was still tense.

But it wouldn’t come down to a game five like the other two sets. It was on the precipice of going there, but suddenly it was finally over.

(Capcom Cup 2017 Grand Finals: MenaRD vs. Tokido)

By far the two best players that weekend had played a three set classic, Mena losing 2-3 before winning 3-2 and 3-1. The second season of Street Fighter V’s second season came to an incredible end, and the eighteen-year-old from the Dominican Republic was rushed by his fans, immortalized, and so much richer.

It remains a mystery if he’ll be able to become a regular at the top level like Tokido, or like so many of the names he took to win it all.

But that was a question for later. For now, he had won a prize that would make any of them jealous.

___
(previously)

#12: Doki Doki Literature Club
#11: Riverdale
#10: 4:44
#9: 
The Young Pope
#8: Life Will See You Now
#7: Super Mario Odyssey
#6: Better Call Saul
#5: The Wicked + The Divine: “Imperial Phase”
#4: competitive fighting games (part 1: Smash 4)

Worst Songs Ever: Rupert Holmes’ ‘Him’

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Rupert Holmes’ “Him”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #6 in April 1980.

This blog has a fascination with the jeremiads of snubbed white men and their despondent guitars. Rupert Holmes will be the last I cover for a while. After several listens, it’s clear “Him” should have killed the genre if not white men. “It smells like Salem cigarettes,” my buddy Hector remarked this afternoon when I announced my pick. The singer-songwriter of “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” knows what men do to quash their sorrows. Just as his giant #1 smash in late 1979 summed up a decade in which men and women, newly liberated from the erotic shackles of their parents’, accepted the Madison Avenue ad man’s valuation of themselves as a generation of unusual self-absorption, “Him” offers the ruminative aftermath, theoretically. Continue reading

She’s got herself a universe – ‘Ray of Light’ at twenty

Happy birthday to Ray of Light, Madonna’s shrewd attempt to position herself as an older woman whose newborn conferred Wisdom and Experience. The other day I remarked that the production – mostly by William Orbit but Marius de Vries and longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard get credits too – is the aural equivalent of the sleeve’s aquamarine backdrop. It’s like a soap bought at a high end resort hotel store: delicious, sure, but your body sweats it off in hours. This was said about Ray of Light at the time: her voice, strengthened by coaching, was stiff if not inflexible on otherwise strong material like “Mer Girl” and “Drowned World” (I still giggle over Rob Sheffield’s comment on the latter: “She enunciates the word lovers as if she’s never met any”). Perhaps the ubiquity of those awful Victor Calderone remixes in gay clubs was an attempt at redress. There was a sense in which Music and its return to dance floor insouciance was the Real Comeback; I thought so, despite liking ROL a lot. Now I can barely listen to most of Music‘s non-single filler while ROL boast her most bewitching album tracks after Erotica, as my list below acknowledges.

So, accept the plaudits, girl. Orbit’s dense rhythms, many of which with faint psychedelic tints, complement your vocal melodies; he’s got unexpected instrumental filips too, like the harsh guitar on “Swim” and the piano line on the chorus of “Sky Fits Heaven,” the best of the album’s spiritual plaints. Savor Ray of Light. Appreciate Oprah’s mom dancing to a live performance of the title track.

1. Skin
2. Sky Fits Heaven
3. Swim
4. Candy Perfume Girl
5. The Power of Goodbye
6. Drowned World/Substitute For Love
7. To Have and Not to Hold
8. Ray of Light
9. Nothing Really Matters
10. Frozen
11. Mer Girl
12. Shanti/Ashtangi

Worst Songs Ever: Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #2 in July 1986

Kenny Loggins, everyone agrees, could drive on a highway; everyone agrees he knows about “zones”; but “danger” is as foreign to him as One Direction is to Thomas Jefferson. Thanks to a proven record in the eighties of sending movie themes into the top ten, Loggins became Columbia Records’ pick as vessel for the Giorgio Moroder-Tom Whitlock composition that became the Top Gun soundtrack’s lead single. It worked: at the peak of the Tom Cruise-Kelly McGillis flyboy epic’s popularity in the summer of 1986, “Danger Zone” easily soared into the top two. Continue reading

‘Black Panther’ a valentine to Afrofuturism

(WARNING: Spoilers included. Also, I’m unfamiliar with the comic).

Although it hews closely to the expectations of the average Marvel property—secret identities, tortured villains, the scrappy sidekick, a final confrontation between the purported hero and the purported villain—Black Panther is a singular viewing experience. Its Afrofuturist sheen encompasses Grace Jones, Public Enemy, and Kendrick Lamar. It sports a trio of powerful women who save the hero’s ass several times. It explicitly calls out the CIA for poisoning the development of this tortured villain. With the help of editors Michael B. Shawver and Claudia Castello, writer-director Ryan Coogler has created an adaptation of a beloved comic that has the look of a Broadway production but the attitude of a wise-ass Netflix sitcom. My audience was alive to it.

Continue reading

Stronger than the universe: A Bee Gees miscellany

Treating myself to a Bee Gees weekend I pretended it was spring 1979 and the party’s still going.

1. Dionne Warwick – Heartbreaker
2. Al Green – How Can You Mend a Broken Heart
3. Barbra Streisand – Woman in Love
4. Andy Gibb – I Just Want to Be Your Everything
5. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton – Islands in the Stream
6. Rufus and Chaka Khan – Jive Talkin’
7. Diana Ross – Eaten Alive
8. Yvonne Elliman – If I Can’t Have You
9. Jimmy Ruffin – Hold On to My Love
10. Robin Gibb – Boys Do Fall in Love
11. Barbra Streisand – What Kind of Fool
12. Celine Dion – Immortality
13. Nina Simone – Please Read Me
14. Percy Sledge – I’ve Gotta a Message to You
15. Billy Corgan – To Love Somebody