TL;DR: Play Guilty Gear

All illustrations by Irene Koh.

Reviewing a fighting game is tough. You can review a product to tell someone what is good and bad about it. Fighting games are products in the way that an airplane ticket is a product; you can review the flight easily, but not the journey itself. And fighting games are journeys that contain more highs and lows and twists and turns than even the developers themselves can know, changed by every single person who plays it.

I’ve been on my Guilty Gear journey off and on since I was eighteen years old, when an arcade buddy found me salty after washing out early in a Capcom vs. SNK 2 tournament at Sunnyvale Golfland and showed me this new game that just came in — Guilty Gear XX. A few months later he sold me his modded PS2 and his imported copy of GGXX, telling me his parents were insisting that he quit video games to focus on his career. I still have them. Thanks, Ed.

14 years later, I drowned in Street Fighter V pools at CEO 2017 and felt nothing but mild irritation at having wasted my time on a game that didn’t feel like it respected mine. When I lose and feel nothing, it’s time to find a different game. I recognized this feeling from the last time I entered an Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournament, at Frosty Faustings a few years earlier, and now it was SFV’s time.

I came home and started regularly haunting netplay lobbies. My wife noticed an immediate change in my mood.

“You just don’t get mad when you’re playing Guilty Gear,” she told me. “You seem a lot happier.”

She added: “Not like Street Fighter.”

What follows is my attempt at a proper fighting game review.

If you play fighting games, read this and ask yourself if the game you play makes you feel this way. If you play Tekken, you might feel this way about Tekken. If you play Street Fighter V, you might think you feel this way about Street Fighter V.

If you don’t play fighting games, but you think you might want to try them, read this and ask yourself if you want to feel this way.

Heaven or hell, let’s rock.

“it’s like meeting the love of your life”

Fuck Zato, Marry Chipp, Kill Leo.

Finding a character to play in a fighting game is the single most important decision you will make in that game. In some games, your character choice may be an expression of utility; the announcer shouts your pick’s name as a declaration of How You Intend To Win. They may be a tool in your toolbox, or a component of a highly-refined, personalized team.

When you buy Guilty Gear, what you’re buying is a combination personality-test-dating-app that will pair you up with a soulmate, a hated rival, and maybe an affair or two.

Finding your main is like meeting the love of your life.

I started out playing Sol because that’s where most people start. I switched to Chipp Zanuff, a speedy ninja with the lowest life in the game, because his teleport was fun and his basic combos were pretty easy to do. I never stopped playing Chipp.

I tried to switch characters a couple times. I felt like his tools weren’t strong enough, that he wasn’t overwhelming enough on offense, that his low health was too great a liability for tournament play, that his true excellence demanded such comprehensive game knowledge and immaculate execution just to maintain parity with the other characters.

“I’m quitting Chipp to play Axl,” I’d say one week, Ky another week, Sol the week later.

I learned to play Zato=1 after getting absolutely destroyed in a long set one weekend, and was absolutely smitten with his power and elegance.

Zato=1 is a character who can summon a shape-shifting shadowy creature named Eddie.

Press a button, and Zato=1 performs an attack; release that button, and Eddie performs a different attack. Playing Zato=1 is thus learning to control two characters at once. Individually, they are both fairly weak, but together, they are perhaps one of the finest examples of expressive, technical power in video games.

But I couldn’t quit Chipp. I stopped playing Guilty Gear for a while. Each time I came back, I’d learn a little more. I was not wrong in my assessment of Chipp; his faults are real. But playing Guilty Gear has been a process of gradually acknowledging my own faults as well.

Chipp’s offense isn’t overwhelming if I do not attack with confidence. His low health is only a problem if I expect him to be something he’s not. His power requires rigorous execution and study; if he is not strong, it is because I do not deserve it.

Compromise. A strong relationship requires compromise.

I know some other Chipp players. To watch Bears attack is to witness his confidence from years of experience and study; to watch RikkoTDC attack is to see an alacrity borne of optimism in the best possible future. Sarvets’s mixups feel like your dad’s jokes after an eighth of some good shit. Our Legendary Three Ninjas are Endou, Chappu, and Summit.

We are all Chipp players, but our Chipps are all shaped by their interactions with our personalities. As we grow as people, our Chipps do not converge on a single Optimal Pattern but instead branch out further away from each other, our mastery granting us further room for expression.

Few fighting games can offer this sort of range within a single character; fewer still can offer this across the whole cast. (If you’re a Melee player looking for a more-traditional 2D fighter to learn, you would do well to play Guilty Gear.)

And if that sounds like too much, just pick Leo, press buttons, and hope it works out.

Leo is a perfectly-realized version of a swashbuckling swordsman from a fantasy movie. Seeing him win feels like watching a movie protagonist slash his way through a dozen nameless henchmen. Losing to him makes you think less of your opponent’s intelligence.

Guilty Gear is love. Guilty Gear is also hate. Just as our personalities bleed into our characters to form something special and unique, so too do they infuse into your matchups to make you hate each opponent character for special reasons.

When you hate a matchup in Guilty Gear, you can’t wait to sit down and spend some time figuring out the key to making the next jerk who has the goddamn nerve to pick that character regret their decision every time they find you in a lobby. You’re going to watch all the tape you can find, you’ll play them in casuals, you’ll go through their frame data with a fine-toothed comb and if you didn’t know what an option select was before this you’re going to learn about them now because you will take that cheap shit and you will break them.

In other games, “fuck this character” usually leads to “fuck this game”; in Guilty Gear, “fuck this character” leads to “fuck you.” And it makes all the difference.

“it’s like learning to drive in a Formula One race car”

Guilty Gear has enough universal systems to power three lesser fighting games. You have three different blocking systems (instant block, faultless defense, and regular block), three active defense systems (Burst, Blitz Shield, and Dead Angle Attack), an airdash, and a double jump. There’s a lot of stuff to get through before you even get to the relatively opaque system mechanics like Tension Pulse or Guts. It even teaches you a basic throw option select in the tutorial. (And that’s before we get to all the character-specific exceptions to the rules.)

Every Guilty Gear character would be a boss character in a different game.

If Street Fighter V is like learning to drive in your dad’s minivan, Guilty Gear is like learning to drive in a Formula One race car. You’re going to run into a lot of shit before you can take the thing to the McDonald’s drive-thru.

If Street Fighter movement feels like a super-powered MMA match, Guilty Gear’s feels like swordfighting on ice skates.

This is a good thing for people who love fighting games, but it can be a turnoff for some players. Specifically, the players that think they want to play fighting games that let you get to playing the Real Game, the game that you can only play when you know Everything as soon as possible because that’s where the Fun Part happens.

The problem: The time you save by getting to the Real Game more quickly is a wash if the Real Game is wack. I have spent hundreds of hours playing Guilty Gear in my life; I do not think I am playing the Real Game. Not yet. But the game I’m playing gets closer to Real every day, and it gets more fun, too.

You do not have to know the dozens of systems before you start playing; you do not have to know how to use this stuff to have fun. I played for a long time before I felt comfortable using Blitz Shield; I didn’t use it because I didn’t know when I was supposed to use it over any of my other half-dozen defensive options. I resented its existence. How dare a thing be in this game if I simply cannot see its use.

Then one day I realized that people were using it to beat some of my left-right mixups, and ding, that’s when I started to think about how I could use it to beat someone else’s left-right mixups. I wasn’t ready to learn, and then I was. It felt organic.

I didn’t know why it would be worth learning how to use Jump Install with Chipp until I found myself having issues being predictable with my movement and leaving combo damage on the table, and then I saw stronger Chipps using Jump Install to help with both. And so on, and so on. You will learn by asking yourself questions, answering them, then asking new questions and answering those. A strong player in Guilty Gear is just one who has learned enough to be ready to begin learning.

As you go on, the things you learn become smaller. A new player learns how to perform the various blocking techniques, a mid-level player learns how to tell which situations are best suited for FD or IB, a high-level player learns to recognize their opponent’s blocking patterns, an expert learns to leave misleading patterns.

Over time, you will find that systems that once felt vast and impenetrable eventually begin to feel subtle and nuanced. Some learnings are only for certain matchups; some details are only for certain opponents. In some games, learning the small stuff can feel trivial and disrespectful of your time; in Guilty Gear, it feels like you’re going from a magnifying glass to an electron microscope to better know the world.

“it’s like two masters sparring”

So: Guilty Gear has complicated characters and complicated systems. It is not “elegant” design. When you pick it up and start putting things together, you’ll feel okay, and then you’ll play someone competent and you will feel like you are a baby triumphantly taking its first step and then getting punched in the face halfway through its second.

This complication is not “lazy” design. It’s not “excessive” or “unrestrained”. It’s just a lot.

Guilty Gear’s complex design creates a rich set of meaningful choices. Those choices vary in the ways they test the acting player and the responding player. The volume and variety of these tests create a total game space which is practically impossible for a single human being to know, much less keep on their mind perfectly while making decisions at the pace Guilty Gear imposes on its players.

Humans play Guilty Gear. Humans are also complicated, and do not approach such massive game spaces uniformly. Each player of Guilty Gear will find themselves biting off chunks of Guilty Gear in an order that only makes sense to them.

Playing Guilty Gear with someone is for the first time is playing a personality test against them. The tenth time is talking about “how things have been, you know, “lately”. If I’ve played you over one hundred times I have probably mentioned you to my wife at some point.

These conversations happen at different levels. Playing with a new player is like talking to your toddler cousin; playing with someone a little bit more experienced like talking to a teenager; getting bodied by an expert like learning from a cool aunt, and so on.

As a fighting game, Guilty Gear is not particularly popular. It is not hard to find other Guilty Gear players. It is hard to find a big group of Guilty Gear players. At Guilty Gear locals, you are grateful for everyone who enters. The community is large enough that you do not need to be everyone’s friend, and small enough to not have space for big jerks. It feels like when fighting games were smaller. If playing Street Fighter in 2018 is prizefighting, playing Guilty Gear is two masters sparring.

Every day on the Guilty Gear subreddit there is someone who got into Dragon Ball FighterZ and was thinking of picking up Guilty Gear because it’s on sale and is asking which version they have to buy. There is someone else asking about whether the netplay community is dead because they can’t seem to find anyone in the public lobbies.

Let it be known that the current version is called Guilty Gear Xrd: Rev 2. That is the thing you need to buy in order to play Guilty Gear; on PSN you can buy it here, and on Steam you can buy it as a DLC upgrade to Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator (get the Rev 2 All-in-One, No Optional DLCs here). It’s confusing.

The game is not large enough to sustain active regional lobbies or a ranked queue. If you do get a match in ranked queue, it will be probably someone in Japan, and you will have at least a dozen frames of delay.

Do not play ranked.

No one cares about online ranks. It’s really nice. If you’re looking for a game, search for player matches. If nothing shows up, start your own. It’s confusing if you’ve never played games without matchmaking before.

When it comes to lag, 3–4 bar connections are great, 1–2 are somewhat playable, 0f is yikes. The player match browser UI will show you your connection to the host of the lobby, but because the GG playerbase is so small, you may find other peoplein a lobby have a better connection to you, so it’s worth popping in to see if anyone is up to play.

There is no skill-based matchmaking. If you want to play Guilty Gear, you play with whoever you can. Some days you’re the hammer, other days you’re the nail. It’s nice, though at the beginning you’re going to be the nail a lot.

Everyone has something you can learn from them. Weaker players are a chance to experiment and play; stronger players give you a wall to keep running into until you figure it out. This is true for all fighting games, but this is not how most fighting games are played online. It’s nice, though if you’re new you’re going to be the nail for a while. Everyone was ass, once.

No ranked mode means no rankings. All that matters is who you can beat, and who you’re working on trying to beat. If you suck, no one cares, just keep playing. And anyone can get it. Tournament games and first-to-ten sets are great, but the realest match is when you’re playing to stay on the setup with five people waiting on it. It’s like the thrill of gambling except we took risk of crippling addiction and financial ruin and replaced it with a soreness from your brain workout.

You will play against people who can beat you a hundred games in a row, and you will play people who you can beat a hundred games in a row. Don’t worry about it. They’re here for the same reason you are: You want to play some fucking Guilty Gear. If they don’t want to be there, they’ll go do something else.

Most folks don’t bother to get salty in lobby chat. This is because when you are salty at someone in private messages you feel like you’re a Divine Messenger of Righteous Fury, but when you’re salty in front of a group you mostly just feel really embarrassed.

Besides, this is Guilty Gear. Everyone has some cheap shit, and everything is beatable if you put in the work. And you can only take yourself so seriously when you spend hundreds of hours making anime characters punch each other. It’s not a setting that is hospitable for excessive egotism. Feeling yourself when you win is reward enough.

“it’s like weightlifting for your spirit”

In Guilty Gear, you lose when you get hit too much. If you got hit, it was because you did A, your opponent did B, and B won. So you learn what B is, why B hit you, and that you could have done C instead to beat B. Then you look for something to tell you to expect B, so you can get ready to do C. So you try C, and it’s okay, but you find that you could do D instead if you have meter, or if you’re willing to bet on a hard read you can go for counter-hit E and get a free combo after. And it turns out that if you didn’t let him do X earlier, you never would have been in that situation in the first place. So now you’re learning about X. And so on.

Over time, you come to form a map of How The Game Works. It’s a big map, so you’ll need to develop shorthands and abstractions to help you sort through the map you’ve got, and theories to help you figure out which direction to explore next. Sometimes you’ll revisit an old chunk and realize that you weren’t wrong, per se, you were just missing a few details. Sometimes you’ll compare maps with someone else and argue about them, then later realize that they look different because you think about things differently. You have your truths, and you test them every time you play.

At first my matchup notes were in a notepad file. Then I switched to a Google Doc. Now it’s a spreadsheet with a sheet for each matchup, sorted by Neutral, Offense, Defense, and Misc., with formatting that accommodates for multiple contributors. It’s shared with the Chipp Discord. (My hope is that Evo Top 8 will one day be all Chipp players, and we will fight to be the strongest ninja in the village.) They’re probably not that useful to most people who read them, though. All our brains are too different.

They say that Ogawa, the player who is the closest thing to a Zato=1 master, keeps notes that he looks at before matches. These notes aren’t matchup notes. They’re reminders about his bad habits. When a player plays Guilty Gear, they are testing themselves, seeing how they are lacking and finding ways to fix themselves. Some people seem to find that terrifying. People who play Guilty Gear generally have fun with it.

After all, it’s not like there’s any money in this or anything. If you’re here, you’re here because you have fun learning to play this real complex fighting game. All you get from a game is data for the next one. It’s like weightlifting for your spirit. You are the protagonist in your own shonen manga.

“it’s the Dark Souls of fighting games”

I do not play Dark Souls. I have played it once, for about two hours, and decided that was enough; it felt like it was for someone who wanted to play a fighting game, but without all the dang people. It felt clumsy and slow and inelegant. I didn’t feel the need to play it any more.

Years later, I’d watch an all-bosses speedrun of Dark Souls III. It looked like they were playing a rather restrained version of Devil May Cry. In that moment, I think I understood why people played Dark Souls. They are willing to feel very bad at the game, because that’s what makes them work hard to get very good at the game. The grace with which the speedrunner flowed through the game was earned through countless devoted hours of study and practice. The only difference is that Dark Souls is the puzzle to be solved, and Guilty Gear is the medium by which people solve each other.

Every fighting game does this to some degree. I don’t think any of them does it quite as well as GG does. The cost you pay to make a more-simple fighting game is that the people you play with also feel more simple. In Guilty Gear, the cost you pay is your time and energy to keep learning.

I have long believed that given a long-enough time playing fighting games, everyone eventually comes around to Guilty Gear. I think that if you love 2D fighting games, Guilty Gear is for you, though you may not be ready to love it back. If you want to know why people love 2D fighting games, Guilty Gear will show you why, though you may decide it’s not worth the work.

tl;dr: Play Guilty Gear.

patrick miller

If you read all this and still feel like playing some Guilty Gear, follow me on Twitch. We got a chill group going, Mon-Thurs, 8PM-1030PM Pacific. Newbies welcome.