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Interview with Zass

Interview Date: December 2011
Hometown: Seattle, WA (Originally Oakland, CA)
Occupation: Software Developer
Years Playing SF2: Since World Warrior came out Day 1
Main Character: Dictator
Other Characters: Chun-Li, Boxer, Claw
Favorite Fighting Game: Super Turbo
Other Fighting Games: Virtua Fighter 5
Weapon of Choice: Egret II arcade cabinet, TE stick

STR: Welcome, Julien! Can you remember your first experience with Street Fighter and/or ST?

Zass: Yes I remember seeing it at the UC Berkeley arcade. I used to go to this arcade all the time, and I was the kid that was sticking my fingers in the quarter slots, looking for a spare quarter. There was this huge line on the sf2 machine, and it was amazing. A game that you could play FOR FREE… all you had to was beat everyone else. It was magical. The first character I picked was Zangief. I lost to dhalsim. I was instantly hooked. The idea that you could play against OTHER people! And there were so many fascinating characters. The military dude with the unpronounceable name.. was it Gweelie? Goile? Juile? Gayle? The karate siblings! The monster guy. I went home that day thinking about nothing else. All I wanted to do was go back and play. I even remember thinking If I only had my own machine… I could play EVERY character!”

The first pvp character I picked was Blanka, and I won! I had no idea what I was doing.

I also remember seeing my first combo. Remember nobody knew what anything was back then. It was this ryu player who would do jump RH, low RH. I remember realizing wait a minute, I *know* I’m blocking that low kick, but I can t! my theory was that if you hit a crouching opponent with a jumping attack, then the follow up low kick would be unblockable. Remember, people weren’t even conditioned to block high on jump-ins!

So the original days of world warrior were very fun. Throws were considered cheap, and you could get in real trouble, physical trouble, if you did them too much. Except Zangief, because that s all he can do . In fact there was a guy who was stabbed and killed outside the Oak Tree arcade in downtown Oakland because of street fighter.

By the time ST came out, I had been playing for a long time, and I was eagerly awaiting it. I saw the beta test at Sunnyvale Golfland, where you’d get a super flash for any victory. Even a low short at the end of the round would get you the super flash. ? It got old pretty fast!

When ST came out, this what when agsf2 was just starting. There was a lot of talk on the internet, mainly from UIUC (Seth Killian), Stanford (Cannon Bros), and Sunnyvale. MIT had a small but loud delegation. There was a guy from Sunnyvale (don t recall his name.. Matt something?). Since I often went home to california for the holidays, I offered to go play them. I got a lot of flak, because at the time I was claiming that T Hawk vs Ryu wasn t all that bad . Of course this was before the days of safe jumps, negative edge SPDs, DP installs, and walk-up Typhoons. No, I was playing fair T-Hawk, but even there he had some scary stuff. For example, if Ryu started the round with a jump in, Hawk could jab DP, which set up a cross-up splash, into low jabx2, SPD. Then you had just enough space to do a walk up short, SPD, which would exactly kill Ryu. Also a lot of Ryu players didn t realize that stand RH trades very favorably with hawk, and that his low forward is quite good at footsies.

Anyways I got to SVGL and played Matt. I won, and I ll never forget, he put his head in his hands and goes I can t believe I just lost to T HAWK! . Anyways the Sunnyvale guys were all quite good, and I remember being struck by the power of dictator, who nobody at MIT played. At sunnyvale the top 2 chars were Boxer/Dictator, and Graham Wolfe did really well with that team.

They had a weekly tournament, and I decided I d join. I knew I wouldn’t have a chance with hawk so I picked claw, my staple at the time. In the first round I played a Ryu player who was very nice and polite. I beat him by doing straight up jump small kick -> throw repeatedly in the corner (Back in those days the MIT crowd was a very loud advocate of tick throwing, so I was intentionally doing those tactics). After I won he was very nice, and shook my hand, and said wow you kicked my ass . I was very impressed by his players attitude.

I went on to win a few more in the tournament, and I think I eventually lost to Graham Wolfe Balrog/ Bison combo to get third place. The finals was Graham vs the Ryu player I had beaten in the first round. The Ryu player ended up winning the whole thing, to my surprise.

The next week I went back to Sunnyvale but nobody was there that I recognized. I went on a win streak, and chatted a bit with the owner. I’mentioned I was out of town and he said that I was playing newbs here, but that I d get destroyed by their local champion. He pointed to a board of tournament results, and there was this guy John who was 1st in every single tournament on the board. It was the ryu player from the other week. I told the owner I d beaten that guy in the first round last week, and the owner gave me a weird look. It turns out of course that that was John Choi, and that was the first and last time I ever beat him in a tournament. He destroyed me many times after that. ?

STR: You’ve been around since the a.g.sf2 days. How do you think the community has changed since then (if it has) and do you have any specific fond memories of those days?

Zass: Yes, I think the community has changed in two ways.

First of all, the beauty of Usenet was the lack of moderation. The trash talk that would stem from various areas was epic. In fact some of the flame-wars were so funny that I don t think I’ve laughed harder from anything in my entire life. I still go back and reread some of the classics (Like Seth s a t-shirt for Stiltman , which by the way I want to make ). I find that SRK will often moderate/close threads because either they get too hostile, or a topic that the moderators consider done . I find that really puts a damper on motivation and building of desire. It was that trash talking that got me fired up to make my scene the best. Getting the chance to shut up some guy on the internet who had been talking smack for YEARS finally getting the chance to play him in a tournament, and crush him like a tin can these were visions of revenge that drove me to practice hour after hour.

If it gets down to physical threats of violence, then yes, I agree with moderation. But calling someone out, insulting their intelligence, calling them names, making fun of them, that s what builds the fire of competition.

I traveled to other countries and played many people who were better than me. I mean better in the sense that they had better combos, better spacing, etc. But I was the one streaking on the machine. I remember one guy in Paris saying what s scary is that you re not even that good I can imagine how bad it would be if you were better . It s true. It s because I was playing to win at all costs, no matter what. Not to make the nicest combo, or to impress people. But win with dirty nasty stuff. And that s an attitude I got from all the a.g.sf2 trash talking, that made me build that fire.

We have a problem today in the local scene in Seattle that people play too casually. We have some very talented players, but there are a lot of complaints on the local boards that people mess around in casuals, and don t bring their A game at local sessions. I started having sessions called asshole mode , where people play to win no matter what. I think that comes from the agsf2 no holds barred mentality. Anger breeds motivation.

So I think moderation really squashes the drive for competition. What was really different was that people would post inflammatory things, and they were there PERMANENTLY, for everyone to see. It was a factor that would drive people to practice and practice and win and win no matter what.

Now, people will edit their posts, and moderators will close threads/ban people. I think it leads to a diluted environment with less competitive drive.

The other big difference has been YouTube and the accessibility of gaming videos. YouTube and online play really changed how players saw the game. Before YouTube, it was hard to convince someone of a particular strategy, because showing is so much more effective than explaining. So there was a lot of argument and discussion about strategies. And since there was no online play, arguments would go on for a long time until they were settled at a tournament. I think that build up, combined with the sense of trash talking I described above, really made tournaments a make it or break it event. There were scores to settle, and it was very exciting. Now, I think, people mostly already know who is good, so while there are rivalries at the highest levels, there aren’t that many of them overall.

I don t want to sound like I’m down on online play. In fact, one of the things I had always hoped would happen would be for a new influx of younger players to come in and shake things up. I think GGPO, Supercade, and HDR have been really great for that, and Snake Eyez is the perfect example of an unknown player who came out of nowhere with amazing skills. I think that s really great, and I think new blood is the most important thing to keep this game alive.

STR: You’ve spent a good amount of time in Japan in the past. Can you tell us what it was like to play ST there?

Zass: Japan was and is an amazing place to play ST. There were two main arcades that I frequented. The first and most famous was the now defunct MORE arcade in Shinjuku. The top players played there, and that s where I was exposed to Kurahashi, MORE Vega, Chikyuu Sodom, and other great players. The level at MORE arcade was absolutely world class. Casual matches were top 8 at Evo caliber. I called it the varsity arcade.. it could be a real blow to the ego to play there, it was very easy to not win a single game there. I would take visiting friends to MORE arcade, and they often came out demoralized.

The other arcade I went to was in Shibuya, and called Shibuya Kaikan. This was closer to my apartment, but more importantly the level of skill was not as high, so I could actually not just win, but was one of the better players there. It was a nice ego booster after the thrashings of MORE arcade. I met Yoshimi, Makoto, Tenchou, Akishima there

Finally there was another arcade called Game in Namiki (I think at the Shimo-Kitazawa station). This was an underground arcade with a nice feature, full free play on Saturday nights, and a weekly tournament of brutal talent. KKY, Gian, Tsuji, Akishima, all were regulars. To give you an idea of the power level there, in one tournament KKY was my first opponent, and I was relieved it was only him, and not someone really terrifying like Gian.

STR: Any other fond memories or stories from Japan?

Zass: I wrote up a few stories on a.g.sf2 and Shoryuken, it would be nice to link them here.

Japanese ST player report

X-Mania report

First run in with Kurahashi

One story I would like to mention is my last day in Japan. I had lived there for five years, and the ST players very kindly threw me a going away party. Gian, Yoshimi, and others organized the whole thing. It was at a very nice izakaya (a Japanese-style bar), and we spent a whole evening drinking, talking about ST. Near the end, Yoshimi told me something I will never forget. He said “Julien no kokoro ha nihonjin yori nihonji desu”, which means Your heart is more Japanese than the Japanese . I was very moved for him to say that, and that everyone had thrown such a nice party. Afterwards, of course, we all went to Shibuya Kaikan to play more ST!

There s another story that comes to mind. I noticed one day playing at MORE arcade that they had a lone A2 machine. I thought what the heck, I used to play that game I ll play it . I picked Chun-Li, and started amassing a little win streak with her by abusing her ridiculous CC in that game. One of my opponents (You can t see who they are, because the machine is head to head, this is one of the draws of the Japanese system, the sense of mystery of who your opponent is) played Guy. Guy is a fairly rarely played character in A2, in fact the only person I knew that played Guy was Ken Washington, an east coast player I had met back at B2, who had a very good Guy. Ken Washington was a high school student who was a fairly small African-American guy. Anyways, this Guy player here in Tokyo played *just* like Ken Washington. Right down to doing mk spin kick on wake-up. We played several matches, and I was thinking haha, god dammit, if I weren’t in Japan I swear I was playing Ken Washington. Too funny! .

After a few games I wanted to get up and see who my opponent was. My first reaction was, it s Vin Diesel! There was this incredibly big and muscular black guy with two beautiful Japanese girls, each one sitting in a chair next to him, holding his arms. Each girl had two arms around the tree trunks that were his. I have no idea who this is, but he looks like he should be fighting in Bloodsport. This guy (Vin Diesel), turns and looks at me, and his face splits into a grin. Julien??? Is that you!?? It’s me, Ken Washington! I thought that might have been you from the way you were playing Chun-Li .

I couldn’t believe it. It was actually Ken! I was speechless, I think it took me a minute to pick my jaw up from the floor. It turned out Ken was in Tokyo for a while, and he had just randomly stopped at MORE, and so had I. What were the odds that two people who had played years ago, would end up at the same machine, in the same arcade, playing the same characters as each other. And not only that, WE RECOGNIZED EACH OTHERS PLAYSTYLES IMMEDIATELY. This to me highlights what I love about Street Fighter. A lot of friends and family ask me what I like about the game. I tell that I can win but also be creative and make my own style. This story is a perfect illustration of that. I could tell I was playing Ken, and he could tell he was playing me. Our styles were so distinctive to each other that even in these improbable circumstances, we could tell. I think that really shows how much you can make your character your own.

Taking on Nuki at EVO 2008.

STR: You seem to switch between characters quite a bit throughout the years? is there any specific reason why?

Zass: Yes, there is a reason for each one. I started back in the day as a very mediocre ryu player. I mean seriously mediocre. I had started in WW, and I didn’t even know how to do a two in one like low roundhouse -> fireball until hyper fighting. So I was bad. Really bad. I also messed around with Claw, but he was atrocious in that version.

Near the end of HF, I went to college, and the MIT arcade had a small but very dedicated SF2 scene. I lost a lot of games and my competitive fire really turned on. I wanted to get good.

When Super SF2 came out, I discovered T Hawk. For some reason I could do T Hawk s SPD, but not Zangief s. Also T Hawk was a new character, and nobody else played him, so I played him as my main during Super. I found a couple of neat tricks with him. Who would have guessed he would end up as a top tier character? I also played Claw as backup, since Hawk had so many bad matches.

When ST came out, Claw was really, really, really good. I played Claw exclusively, and became one of the good players at the arcade. But, there were some characters I really had a hard time with. I had a very hard time against O. Sagat, and Boxer, and Dictator. Anyone else I could do well against. I eventually decided that Claw had too many bad match-ups, and that I needed a second character. In retrospect, as I write this, it s kind of funny, because now I believe that Claw has no bad matchups. But back then I thought that Boxer and Dictator were like 8-2 disadvantage to claw.

Side note, I held on to this belief until I played MORE Vega at the legendary MORE arcade. I played him 20 games in a row with Boxer/Claw, and I lost every single game. In fact I don t think I won a single round either. He had an incredibly powerful torikage style, where he kept me in the corner with normals, never going off the wall, and stuffing everything I did. He would occasionally do a roll for blocked damage. Since he never wall dived, I could never use the dash upper or buffalo headbutt to hit him, and because he stayed at range, I couldn’t use my powerful close range normals. I then later came to believe that Claw beats Dictator too. But back in college, I was the only claw player around and so I came to early conclusions that were wrong.

So anyways, I asked our Boxer player, Scott, to show me the basics of Boxer. And wow was Boxer good. After a couple of days of playing Boxer I was beating everyone I had with Claw, and much less work. It really felt like baby-zone. I could play super sloppy, and still win. I felt that with a Boxer/Claw combination, I could take out just about anyone.

I kept this combination all through college, and in Japan. I still think Boxer/Claw is a great pair, and very strong for an american style tournament (where you can switch characters). They complement each other very well, and the bad match-ups for one are good for the other. I put bad in quotes because I don t know if either of those two have really bad match-ups at the highest level. But for me, I would say:

Boxer can have trouble with: Shotos, Sagat, Chun, Sim, Guile

Claw can have trouble with : Boxer, Dictator, Honda

O Sagat can be hard for both.

So if I was having a hard time against a Chun with Boxer, I d switch to Claw, and if I was having a hard time with Dictator, I d switch to Boxer. I feel this pair lets you counterpick just about anyone, and is still strong enough to be competitive even in the bad match-ups.

So I played Boxer/Claw for a very long time. But there was this player at the game in Namiki tournaments named Akishima that I could not beat. Not ever. He played like the Borg, if the borg played street fighter. He never made a single mistake, and I couldn’t touch his Chun with Claw. Couldn’t get a single wall dive in, every one would be slapped down with jump fierce. He didn t even use her neckbreaker, he would just jump in with mk every time for a cross-up. He didn’t even really use tick throws, he would just relentlessly win with blocked damage from lighting legs. He was unstoppable.

I found him very inspiring, and I asked him to teach me. He coached me through the basics with Chun, and I really emulated my style based on his. I had always seen Chun as an aggressive character, but he played her as a control character. I had always thought that you have to attack Guile – He showed me that it s Guile that must attack you. I started playing a lot of Chun in arcade matches, and found that she was a very solid and fun character.

There was also a local Dictator player that did these amazing combos.He would cross up, and insta-kill you from one hit. It was interesting and inspiring, but I never really played him seriously (foreshadowing).

When I moved back from Japan (2003) I gave up SF2 for years. I didn t realize that anyone in the US still played. I ran into Seth Killian in 2007, and he told me that yes, people still played SF2. Wow, really? I had no idea. I started looking into SRK, and found the local Seattle scene. I dusted off my rusty boxer, claw, and chun, and started playing in ranbats. I got into the scene, and even ended up buying an arcade cabinet. There was a lot of interest in ST in 2007-2008, and a lot of talented, but inexperienced players in Seattle. These locals were very skilled in MVC2, and so they had a lot of raw talent. But they didn t have the right play-style for example, they would jump in a lot, something that makes sense in MVC2, but in SF2 it s a bad habit.

I decided that I would pick a new character, to learn while they learned. MORE arcade in Japan is not the time to pick up a new character, but a new scene with players that want to learn is a great time to learn a new character. I spent some time with T Hawk, playing with the option select SPD stuff. Very fun, but it wasn t so fun for the locals, because once you get in that loop it s over. I tried DJ a bit. And then I figured I d try Dictator. I had shied away from him because he seemed very hard to play, but I figured with my own machine and infinite credits, why not. I started playing him and realized how fun he was. I ve always been an attacking player at heart, and Dictator was all about the attack. Plus, there s something so satisfying about that five hit series whether on hit or on block. So I started playing Dictator too.

Now this whole time I considered Boxer/Claw to be my tournament mains, and Chun/Dictator to be just fun characters. I brought Chun out for her first tournament event at Evo 2K9, and did pretty well with her, I was the highest Chun placing that year. I also OCV s two teams in the 3v3 tourney with her, so I felt that I had graduated her to tourney level.

The next year, I had a bad showing at Evo. It was my first time not making it out of pools. I felt pretty bad about myself, and then I saw Snake Eyez win the whole thing. He really inspired me to just play your character, and forget the counterpicks. So I decided to hell with it. I have fun playing Dictator, and that s all that matters . So I just started playing Dictator and to hell with it. Now my main combo is Dictator/Chun, and Boxer/Claw have sort of fallen by the wayside. I tried picking up Claw against Daigo at Evo and against Cole at Northwest Majors 3, and both times it was a huge embarrassment. I d say my Claw is now pretty atrocious. ?

Battling it out at NorthWest Majors from November 2011.

STR: What area would you recommend new / intermediate players to work on to improve their game?

Zass: Interesting that you ask this, because I’ve gone through a few cycles of teaching new players. I have a set of exercises that I do with them. This is for raw beginners that have never played a fighting game below. This section may be too basic for someone already familiar with fighting games but you might be surprised at how many players still can have problems with these tests .

The first reason that novices lose is blocking. They simply don t block well. In fact, if you watch two novices play, the most devastating tactic is to pick Ryu and do jump RH, low RH. I call this the dreaded high low attack. Novices cannot block properly on reaction, and so cannot deal with this. Since low RH results in a knockdown, then the attacker can jump RH again and repeat the whole thing. So here s how I train a novice.

First, their job is to block. I will attack them, and the ONLY thing I can use to attack them is low RH. All they have to do is hold down back the entire round. Sounds easy? Most novices can t deal with even this. I will shutter step back and forth, etc, and this will confuse them. So we play this mini game until they graduate (graduate means they don t take a single pixel of damage).

We then go through a sequence of mini games like this. In each mini game, their job is to block. My job is to attack with only the allowable moves. I will list the sequences in order. The attacker and defender should both be Ryu.

* Low RH only

* Jump RH only (no crossups)

* Jump RH and low RH (no crossups)

* Jump RH and low RH (with crossups) note : try this one with your friends. You d be surprised who fails at this!

If they can make it past the last test, I don t consider them a novice anymore. At this point we move to counterthrows.

The game is, we both play Ryu. I will always do one low short, then throw. Then they will do one low short, then throw. Every time, no variation. Just low short, and throw. The job of the defender is to counter throw. The defender should be able to counter throw roughly 50% of the time. Many players have a problem with this. I started playing this mini-game with the local Seattle players that wanted to improve. Their win rates went up dramatically after going through this routine. Even today in tournaments I know that I can make my way through a lot of rounds by exploiting my ability to throw/counter throw.

I also wrote a post for beginning level players on this topic here:

http://tea-hawk.blogspot.com/2008/12/rapid-improvement-part-1.html

http://tea-hawk.blogspot.com/2008/12/rapid-improvement-part-2.html

STR: What are some common mistakes or bad habits that you see players do that they should eliminate to improve their game?

Zass: Trying to go for wake-ups every time. I actually saw this a lot in Japan, players that would go for the reversal DP no matter what. Don’t be afraid to just block! Blocking is a very powerful move, not used enough!

Jumping in for no reason. A lot of players, when they don t know what to do, will jump. If you want to get close to your opponent, do so by walking, not by jumping. Only jump in on reaction/in anticipation of something like a projectile.

Throwing out a super just because you have one. A lot of players see the super light up in the corner, and think it s a sign that means You need to super RIGHT NOW . I call it “Superitis”. It s perfectly fine to hold on to that super. In fact, sometimes not using it is better than using it. There s a saying in chess The threat is stronger than the execution . You can make your opponent play around the super, and if you don t use it, then they have to keep playing around it!

Fundamentally, I believe that ST (like most games) is a game of big mistakes and small mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Top players make only small mistakes. Other players make a mix of big mistakes and small mistakes. Whoever makes the most big mistakes will lose. I see players fixating on small mistakes I can t do the 40% damage hard combo, I can only do the 30% damage easy combo when they are still making big mistakes (Jumping in for no reason). Fix your big mistakes, don t worry about the small mistakes. A good player to be inspired by here is Graham Wolfe. Graham doesn’t do flashy combos. If you watch him play, you might not even think he s that good because you don t see crazy max damage combos. But his spacing and timing are top notch. He has very good use of normals and throws. His fundamentals are very very good. That s a player who doesn’t make big mistakes.

STR: How much time do you spend playing ST/Street Fighter these days and how much did you spend at your peak?

Zass: These days I don t play at all. Sadly the Seattle ST scene has dwindled away. I d say when the scene was still active (2007-2008), I d play probably 3 hours of HDR every day on average. In college and in Japan I d play 4-6 hours every day.

STR: Is there a routine you do in order to get ready for a tournament?

Zass: Yes, I think it s very important to be well rested, well fed, and well hydrated. I’ve beaten players much better than me because they stopped caring. I make sure I get a lot of sleep (I try to get 10 hours) before a tournament. I don t go out drinking the night before, and I make sure during casuals to take breaks, and eat. It s very easy at somewhere like Evo to get swept up in causals, and next thing you know it s 4 PM and you haven’t eaten all day. That s a great way to lose a tournament!

STR: Why do you think ST has had such longivity and popularity?

Zass: I think that it s because there s a compelling reason to play each character, and that you can play that character in your own style. So you have the fun of winning, but you can put your own creative style on winning. Even characters that I consider linear to play (like Claw) have tremendous variety. Tokido, More VEGA, Ganelon, are all strong claw players that play completely differently from each other. I also think there s a character for every style. Want to go all in on the attack? Dictator. Want a defensive powerhouse? Guile. Want a slow keep away slog, and then the satisfaction of massive damage in a short amount of time? Zangief. Pure control? Dhalsim. Well rounded mix of control and offense? Chun-Li. Want a confusing bag of tricks of overwhelm your opponent with? Blanka. Are you great at execution and want to be rewarded for it? Fei Long.

Finally, I think the depth of the match-ups contribute to the popularity. Chun-Li was considered a mid tier character for a very long time. Hawk was considered terrible for even longer. Changes in play-styles, and discoveries of new techniques make it a game that is very rewarding to play over time.

Facing kuroppi during the HDR team tournament at EVO 2009.

STR: What do you think about HD Remix?

Zass: HD Remix had pros and cons. The art and music quality were a step down although the sprites are higher resolution, it just ended up looking like a flash game, and I think made the game look worse than the original. From a game-play perspective, I was happy with some changes and unhappy with others.

I agree with the general design philosophy of making inputs more consistent and simpler. I completely support making the DP execution window consistent, and making cammy and fei s moves more normal motions. I especially don t like button mashing moves like ST Honda s HHS, which I think is too taxing for me to get out normally, and can cause damage to equipment people people mash them out so hard. In fact I hate mashing of any kind, I sometimes wonder if it s a conspiracy by arcade parts manufacters to get people to break their sticks by mashing so they will buy more. ? So I was very excited initially about Chun’s easier lightning legs. I was also happy to hear that her down/forward small kick would be removed.

However, as I played, Chun Li for me became simply not fun to play. Her super did so much less damage now that it changed the core strategies of being able to use it as a real threat against Shotos. Her neck-breaker kick became very risky to use, as it would sometimes land her facing the wrong way after being blocked (so if you try to finish a block string, her move would whiff as she was facing the other way, and so be punishable). This greatly hurt her comeback potential. Also the air SBK coming out when trying to do a jumping neutral RH from crouch was really bad, as this is a key move in some match-ups. So Chun just lost her appeal for me.

I really liked the way Dictator was done, though. I had a lot of fun playing him. I think his fake slide is a fun trick, and I really like the devils reverse escape option.

Claw badly needed the wall dive nerf, even though I was one of its main abusers. ? I agreed with that. Boxer seemed fine as well. I was also happy with Sagat getting changed, since O. Sagat is really not fun to play against IMHO in ST.

What I don t agree with is inputs change that drastically change game-play. Zangief’s new SPD not requiring an up direction means that he now has options that weren’t there before. Hawk getting a whiff animation really destroys the entire point of the character, which is of being a terrible character that can murder you if he gets in once.

I also think that in terms of power balancing, I disagreed with the philosophy of bringing everyone to top tier level. I would have tried to bring everyone down to core tier level. To me, the core tier in ST is:

Ryu

Ken

Guile

Dee Jay

(some readers may opine that additional characters are in the core tier too. Those four to me stand out as very well designed and well balanced, it is not meant to be an exclusive list)

All of those characters are very strong in the best hands, but nobody would call them the best characters. I would have kept those core characters intact, and brought the other characters to their level.

What was done instead was to take the top tier, and balance everyone up to the top tier level. I call this the buff up system. I think that s a riskier approach, as you have to make more drastic changes to take a low tier character to top tier, than taking a low tier character to middle tier. So the core intact system is less risky, because instead of having to make big changes to some characters, you only make small changes to characters. Also, you make fewer changes overall since the core tier characters are not touched.

The other reason I would have gone with the core tier approach is that I find core tier fights much more fun than top tier fights. I don t actually find fights with O. Sagat or Claw fun (I agree with the Japanese soft ban). But I love playing against Guile.

So in summary, the core tier approach is

* Less risky, because fewer changes are done.

* More fun, because core tier fights have more options and more thinking.

At the end of the day, HDR just didn’t stick with the player base. I’m happy to play ST or HDR, frankly, as both games are pretty close. But the demand is just out there for ST, and that s what people prefer to play.

STR: Who are the top 3 ST and HDR players in your opinion?

Zass: I ll break that down into Japan and USA

Japan

Kurahashi really made a big impression on me in Japan. His mastery of Ryu, Guile, and Boxer, his incredibly precise play. I always learn something from watching him.

Akishima will deny that he is the best Chun-Li. He will say that Otochun is. But to me Akishima was the most inspiring, as his controlling play really reminds me of walls slowly closing in on the opponent. Nowhere to go, nowhere to run. All you can do is choose to die more slowly, but die you will.

Finally, YuuVega and Taira (yes I’m cheating here by naming four players) really are the reasons I play Dictator. What I admire about YuuVega is his deadly consistency. Not 80% of the time, not 90%, but 100% of the time that he hits you, you are dead. There is something very appealing about that. He s like a loaded gun, his opponents are afraid to even do basic moves because of the sheer terror of failure. Taira is very exploratory and original. I have a list of insights that I’ve gleaned just from watching his videos.

USA

Damdai has really pushed the boundary of execution in ST. I honestly didn t think I d ever see anyone in the US take Hawk to that level. He s really put in the time and dedication, and it shows. If I had to pick one player to represent the USA in ST, it would be him.

AfroLegends is distinguished in my mind because of his variety and skill across characters. He reminds me of Kurahashi every character he plays is absolutely excellent. He is most famous for Deejay and Boxer, but his Ryu and Claw are absolutely first class. I would be proud to be that good at any one of those characters, it is a rare person that can reach that level with so many.

Graham Wolfe also deserves special recognition. It would be unfair of me to say that I think he is better than John Choi. I don t. But I put him on this list because he is the example of what a human player can achieve. I don t know that I will ever have the pure raw technical ability of AfroLegends, or the incredible precision of Akishima. But when I see Graham play, I am inspired because I think I can do that. I could actually do that . He s doing human things, and winning. Graham doesn’t land every combo, he messes up occasionally. But you can see in his play a superb understanding of the key points of a match. He smartly focuses on what is the most effective thing to do. If there is any player on this list who is the best role model, I would say it s Graham. Many players see Daigo and then spend hours in training mode trying to hit that parry. That s not going to get you that win. Instead, games are won by understanding the flow of the match. Who should be attacking? Who should be controlling? When should you start running away? When should you press your advantage. Graham understands those things at the master level. His play is impressive because it is unimpressive .

For HDR, I ll just add a couple of notes

Snake Eyez is a world class player, that I’m sure will be excellent at any game he chooses to play. I have never seen such a complete thrashing as I did when he destroyed everyone after Evo 10 in room casuals. It was a complete spanking. I was very impressed at his creative use of the new tools Zangief has in HDR. A very smart and talented guy, I hope he keeps playing others games, and I hope he will play ST!

Thelo is an excellent Honda player who, like Snake Eyez, was able to change my opinion of key matchups. He has very smart mix-ups, and an uncompromising attitude to play through tough match-ups. Both Thelo and Snake Eyez have inspired me to stick to my guns playing Dictator and try to rely less on counter-picking (although I admit I do still counter-pick under pressure!)

STR: What is your involvement with the Street Fighter / ST scene these days?

Zass: After Evo 10, I thought I would stop playing. In fact I didn t play at all from the end of Evo 10 until literally the morning of Evo 11 when Damdai texted me with an airfare deal at 7am. So I’m quite out of practice. Fortunately there was an ST tournament at Northwest majors 3, which happened recently. I don t play online and our local scene is mostly focused on SF4, so my ST cabinet is collecting dust most of the time. I’m an opportunist.. if there is a gathering to play I will play, but I no longer host sessions or gatherings for ST (although I still do so for VF5).

STR: What is the fondest moment in your SF career?

Zass: This story is in one of the threads I linked above, but it s definitely my fondest moment. I will re-post it here. It s kind of funny and nostalgic to read as written, because back then players like Kurahashi and Tsuji were not well known. Anyways, here it is, warts and all

The way X-Mania worked (back in 2000 or so) was a 3-on-3 team tournament. You see, in Japan, tournaments aren’t run like in the US. In the US (at least back in my day — mid 90s), you’d generally double blind pick characters. Then, the person who lost would get to change characters while you’d be stuck with yours. This led to a lot of metagaming, and counter character strategies.

In Japan, you picked ONE character and you got ONE game. Needless to say, tournaments were pretty brutal and unforgiving. So the game in Namiki weekly tournaments were a pretty fast affair. Depending on the size, it would either be single elimination or round robin. Game in Namiki tourneys usually had a dozen people attending. With three head to head machines, you’d play everyone else once, and the person with the most wins won the tournament. A very fair system (unlike double elimination, which really only places 1st and 2nd accurately). Brutal, but fair.

So X-Mania was a huge tournament, and worked a little bit differently. You had a team of three players. Every player had one character, and you could order your team however you wanted. Whoever won the game would stay on the machine, and would fight another player from that team. The first team to lose all of their players would lose the game. The tournament was single elimination, so if your team lost, it was sayonara.

I played one year with Kuni, and another gaijin named Joe. I had Boxer, Kuni had Zangief, and Joe had O. Ken.

That year, we did pretty poorly. I went first, with Boxer against the other team’s Honda. This is a match I would rate as advantage Boxer — but it’s very easy to lose. Jumping back fierce hits all torpedoes, and you can do a dashing kick rush to knock any jump in out of the air. Low strong hits the HHS. The main risk is ending up cornered having to block a series of flying “superman” moves, with the threat of oochio throws. So position is the key to the game (imho), and it’s much better to be safe and do blocked damage than to do the risky move and go for big damage. For those of you who play Magic: The Gathering, Honda is the “beatdown” and Boxer is “control”.

Anyways, this was my match to win, and I lost it. I felt really bad about this. Kuni had Zangief next, and as we all know, even the most valiant Zangief is no match for Honda. I’m not sure if Joe won or lost, but we lost the match, and that was it for that X-Mania. I felt so bad — I felt like I had let my team down, and put them in a losing situation. Kuni, if you’re reading this, I’m so sorry for letting you down!

Anyways, despite the sour feeling in my stomach, I stuck around to watch the rest of the tournament. It ended up being won by a team with YuuVega playing Dictator, and I’m not sure who else. YuuVega was very good, and deserved to win.

After the tournament, there is a tradition at X-Mania where Kanto and Kansai play against each other in a giant team battle. For those of you unfamiliar with Japan, Kanto and Kansai are where the two smallst cities in Japan are located, Tokyo and Osaka respectively. There is a huge rivalry between the two cities/regions, in everything from sports, to politics, to culture. This rivalry extends very much to games, and Street Fighter was no exception!

So after X-Mania, the tradition is that each region forms a giant team. Then the teams go head on in one giant elimination bout. So basically, imagine all the players from the Kanto, and all the players from the Kansai standing in line to play on a machine. All Kanto is on the left and all Kansai is on the right. When a player lost, he was out for good. The battles are projected on a gigantic screen that everyone can see. So each player has his own private machine, and there’s a huge screen towering over everything so that everyone can watch.

Now obviously, in such a situation, you’ve got your great players (Kurahashi, Shooting D, etc), and your “randoms” (Beasley, girls, eight year-olds, trained monkeys, etc.). The line was more or less mixed, and so you’d get fairly small win streaks when a top player would hold the machine for his side for a small number of games.

Now there is a Kansai player named Tsuji who has a very good Boxer. He’s probably the best Boxer in Kansai, if not Japan. I won’t say the best in Japan, because in my very humble opinion, Tama-chan (Tamashima) and Kurahashi are both incredible. Of course, both Tama-chan and Kurahashi are from Kanto, and I tend to rate the Kanto players higher since I’ve played them and lost first hand.

Anyways, Tsuji got on the machine, and he started a rampage. He started winning a few games, and then all of a sudden it was a lot. Kurahashi’s turn came up, and there was a huge “oooooohh” from the crowd as the Great One approached the machine. I was sure that that would be the end of Tsuji’s reign. This was a master of epic skill! But, to my dismay, Kurahashi lost. Arrgh! Tsuji was beating everyone, even our best players! His win streak was something like 15.. at this rate, it wouldn’t even be a contest. It was unthinkable that Kansai rip through our entire team with ONE PLAYER. I was shocked.

And then, my turn came up. As my name was called, there were a few smattered claps from those that knew me (thanks whoever clapped! Kuni probably. ? I was a “random”, certainly not Tokyo’s best. I took a deep breath and sat down on the machine. I wasn’t really nervous. I had lost to some random Honda, not even made it past round one, and I didn’t have any illusions. I just figured I would try to not embarrass the Kanto area.

So the game started, and I just went for the attack. Standing fierces, low strongs into rushes, and ticks without mercy. Hell, if I couldn’t win I would at least throw the hell out of him! I was doing ok, and before I knew it, I had won a round! Yay!! I won a round! I was officially not an embarrassment to Kanto. I could now leave with my head held high.

Round two started, and I don’t remember much except that I lost. I didn’t get creamed, I did some damage, and I felt like I did okay. At this point, the battle was to save face, and lose in dignity, not ignominy.

Round three. Again, I don’t remember much, but I know I hit him with a few standing fierces, and got him cornered. At this point, I went for the trap I had learned from Kurahashi. Jumping strong, low jab x 2, jow strong, dash upper-> buffalo headbutt. It worked! Then I did it again, except that after the dash upper, I just threw. And then I just did a low forward, throw (my favorite! What can I say, the basics work!). I then looked at his lifebar. Oh my god, he had almost no life left! Holy shit!! I dawned on me that I could win this!

Trembling, I stepped back, and did the super motion. Please Jesus, don’t screw it up. Don’t screw it up. The super came out in slow motion.

BLARG (4 ticks of life)

BLARG!! (3 ticks)

BLARG (2)

BLARG (1)

BLARG!!!

The screen went bright yellow. My hands were shaking, my arms were shaking. And then I heard it.

A huuuuge cheer came up from the Kanto team. I saw in my peripheral vision arms being raised, and people clapping. I had won! I’d beaten the huge win streak! I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I had represented the Kanto side.

After that, I played a Chun-Li player, whom I beat, and then another one, whom I lost to. It didn’t matter. I had done well for my team this time. I felt this sense of euphoria. It was silly, this was just an exhibition “fun” game, but I really felt like all of those countless hours playing had paid off. I had done well.

There is one other, non tournament, memory that I have that brings a smile to my face. In 1997, I was spending the summer at UC Berkeley to study Japanese in preparation for my trip to Japan. UC Berkeley was an arcade where I had played street fighter in high school, and it was sadly no longer as popular as it had been back then. But, they had an ST machine in beautiful condition. Nobody ever played it, but I would sometimes go after class to play a couple of games against the computer. I was playing in one such solo session one day when a guy came up to the machine and put in a quarter! I was surprised that anyone actually still played.

We played a few games (I was Boxer, and he was guile), and I won them. I sort of expected him to leave, but he kept putting in quarters, nonstop, after every game. We hadn t spoken a word to each other.

At game 20 (I remember it was game 20, because in head-to-head, it tells you how many games have been played total), he said the first thing he’d said all evening. In a very serious tone, he says: I don’t care how much money it takes, you are going to walk out of here the loser.

I was thinking wow, this guy is really serious. I’m going to make sure to NOT lose, no matter what. So I really focused and made sure to really play to win, every game.

We played for hours. The counter went up to 40, 50, 60. He kept putting the quarters in, each time. I was getting thirsty, and I had to pee. But I wasn’t going to stop playing, not even for a second, until he left first.

Sometime around game 70 or so there was game I still remember. I was very low on life, and it was the third round. I had super charged. I couldn’t afford to eat another sonic boom. His guile was in the corner, and I KNEW that he was going to throw a boom eventually. I was staring at the screen, just waiting for that boom to come out so I could super it. He started throwing the sonic boom have you ever been waiting on something so intently that when it happens, it’s almost like slow motion? That’s how that sonic boom was. I could see Guile’s arms reach back, and it felt like I had years to input the super motion. I did the super, and went through his sonic boom, to take that match. That had been the closest match so far.

The guy then said something else. Without even turning his head to look at me, he goes Did you use a trick to get that out? . He meant a trick like Chun-Li or Honda’s stored super. I shook my head no, and said no . He didn’t reply, and put in another quarter.

We kept playing. We were the only ones left in the arcade, and they were starting to shut the machines down around us. They announced that they would be closing in five minutes. It was round 98.

We played on. We played till match #100, which was right when they powered down the arcade. I was exhausted, thirsty, and my bladder hurt so much I had to cross my legs. We played one hundred games, nonstop, standing up the whole time. I had won all of them, and I was not walking out of there the loser.

The guy silently grabbed his bag and his motorcycle helmet. I wondered if he was going to say anything. Without a word, he walked away, and up the stairs, out of the arcade.

I never saw him again.

That was my longest win streak, and definitely the most intense, most grueling, one on one match of anything I’ve ever played.

STR: ST still has a nice hardcore following in Japan with many of the legendary players still playing. There is still a dedicated scene here and while some old school players are still entering tournaments when they get a chance, many have kind of disappeared. Do you think a big ST event could bring a lot of these great players back to the scene? Would you like to see something like that happen?

Zass: Popularity breeds popularity. The more people play, the more chances there are to play others at your level, the easier it is for a new player to learn, the more invested players become. It’s a mistake to focus on bringing the “old school” players back. The key is to bring *new* players into the game. Old players will naturally come back if new players play.

It’s hard to get new players to play. SF2 used to be the only game of its kind… now there are countless fighting games to choose from. As we have discussed, even SF2 was fractured by having ST and HDR competing for the same players. We now have to compete for the attention of new players.

How to get newer players into the game? Tournaments. Tournaments are the best way to get people from observers to participants. You may have heard players say “I don’t even like game XXX, but I have to play it for tournaments.”. Tournaments give people a deadline, a reason to play a game. A gamer has many choices in which game to play — faced with so many choices, he will play the game that has a compelling external reason.

So yes, I think a big ST event would do a lot. But it’s important to give new players a reason to enter. A common mentality is “why should I enter this tournament if XXX is going to just win it”. New players have to be able to feel they can “win” something, something achievable they can strive for. A couple of possibilities:

* Rookie prize: Prize given to the best new player.

* Singleton character prizes. Recognition given to the best pilot of a given character. Eg: Best Honda goes to ….

These are just a couple of ideas, but I want to emphasize that it’s very important to not turn into an introverted “closed” community, always wanting the “old school legends” to come back. I think it’s important to look for future, new players. So the question you ask is the wrong one. It shouldn’t be “how do we get the old players back?”, it should be “how do we get more new players in?”. Snake Eyez winning Evo was a great example of this, a new player that came out of the blue to win the whole thing. A perfect inspiration for new players. It’s really too bad that SF2 was removed from the Evo lineup.

I also think an important way to get new players is commentary videos. We see this with Starcraft: Commentary videos in English of the top players has really helped bring the game to more people. It would be great if we could start doing commentary videos of top matches, getting people to understand what is going on behind the game. Making it a good spectator sport drives desire and competition, and motivates people to get better and learn.

To finally answer your question, yes I would like to see that happen!

STR: Anything else you’d like to tell us about you that people may not know (hobbies, special skills, trivia) or any final words?

Zass: I’d like to alert people to some other games I find fun. Maybe people that like ST will like these games:

VF5: A very fun game that captures a lot of what I love about the best ST fights. You can play your own style, you can win with your own character, there are a lot of decisions to make. Plus the graphics are beautiful! I can t wait for VF5:FS to come out this summer and I hope it will be there at Evo! VF5 is the only video game, like ST, where I can play all day, non stop, and not get tired of it.

Assassin’s Creed Revelations: This may sound strange, but it is actually a very fun and interesting multiplayer game. In the game, you are in a city full of people. Most of them are CPU controlled civilians, and only a few of them are assassins like you. Your job is to find one assassin, your target, and kill him. The catch is that there is someone who is trying to assassinate you too! There s a lot of thinking and observation. (insert link to video here)

Agricola: This is a board game, and in my opinion it s the best board game ever made. It has consumed me and a group of my friends, we play this several times a week and even play online. The only problem with it is that I used to love many board games, but now I have no interest in any of them other than Agricola. On the surface, it’s a game about making a farm, with each player trying to make a farm too. Whoever has the nicest farm wins. Sounds peaceful and non competitive, doesn’t it? But it s a very deep game with very interesting decisions to make, ruthless punishment, and fascinating interactions. If anyone wants to play online, I’m on www.boiteajeux.net (the online server) as Zass30.

Other than that, sometimes people ask me where my handle Zass comes from. When I was a toddler, I would walk around and point to things and say Zass! Zass! . So that’s why I picked that as my handle.

STR: All these interviews have been great but this is perhaps my favorite old-school interview. Thanks so much for your time, Julien!

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