Confessions of a button masher

Button mashing. It’s when you’re playing a video game against somebody else, usually somebody a lot better than you, somebody who’s wiping the floor with you, laying waste to your virtual avatar. It’s cheap. But sometimes there’s absolutely nothing left to do. You’re backed into a corner, chances of survival are looking grim. So you tighten your grip on the controller and you start mashing.

It doesn’t work on sports games. If you try to mash on a racing game, you’re going to wind up with Lakitu, that stupid cloud guy, hovering in your screen telling you that you’re going the wrong way. One time I tried to button mash on a game of iPhone Scrabble, and I wound up texting a whole bunch of gibberish to my boss.

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It has to be a two-dimensional side-scrolling fighting game, like Mortal Kombat, or Street Fighter II. Different fighting games will feature different characters and various weaponry, but at heart they’re all basically the same (with Super Smash Brothers being the exception.) You and your opponent are facing each other, and you have to fight until they don’t have any more energy or life or whatever it is, and they die.

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All of your buttons represent a rudimentary move, for example, A for punch and B for kick. Put simply, if I move my character over to yours and hit A, you’ll get punched, and you might lose like one percent energy. If I keep doing this, punching you a hundred times, you’ll eventually die. But that’s not very fun. And so fighting games employ combos. Combos make your fighter do cooler stuff, and they exact more damage from your opponents.

So you might press down, down-right, right, A, and your guy might shoot out a fireball. Or start hitting Y in rapid succession and you’ll start doing this hyper kick, totally demolishing anything that comes your way. In theory, you’re supposed to figure out these moves, and employ unique sets of combinations to overpower the enemy’s unique set of combinations.

That’s the idea anyway. First of all, none of the games ever tell you which characters work with which combinations. You’re kind of left to figure everything out by yourself. Or, that’s how it was when Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat came out when I was in the third grade, before the Internet, before we could go online and look everything up.

I had the Internet freshmen year of college. I was totally able to go on the Internet and look up the different combinations for every character in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, our dorm floor’s fighting title of choice. But try as I might, regardless of how many classes I skipped so I could memorize button combos, despite all of the hours I clocked in practicing level-ups and power-ups and special bonus combos, I could never really get to the point where I could rely solely on my reflexes and my bank of stored knowledge to successfully get through a fight.

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Eventually there would come a point, I’d be getting clobbered, the end clearly in sight, I’d have no choice but to forgo any sort of strategy and start wildly hitting all the buttons. The thing about button mashing is, it works. You just take your thumbs and start hitting both sides of the controller as furiously as possible. All of the sudden all of those ultra high-level combos, the ones you’ve only seen performed by the highest level computer players, you’re doing them. Sure, it’s not happening in any particular order, and maybe you sent a couple of attacks in the wrong direction, but just keep mashing, keep going, it’s starting to work, you’re starting to close the gap.

The thing about button mashing, I already told you that it’s really, really cheap, but it’s also kind of unsustainable. It quickly depletes whatever energy your hand muscles have stored up. And if you somehow manage to get through the debilitating thumb cramps, pretty soon the skin on your fingers is going to give, the constant friction. A video game blister is nothing to laugh at.

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And so you’ll start button mashing, the surest sign that there is of a desperate player staring death in the virtual face. And you’ll look to your real life opponent, and he’s just kind of like, really? You’re really going start button mashing? Fine. I’ll still kick your ass. But you start coming back. He can’t get close to you because you’re character is throwing everything it’s got, everything the both of you didn’t even know it had in it. And after that gap gets closed, holy shit, it looks you might actually win here. And then maybe you take the slightest edge.

Your opponent unleashes a guttural cry, “You fucking cheap fucking button mashing asshole!” and then he starts mashing buttons also. Now who’s desperate? But where your hands are calloused, built up, used to the unrelenting pain and pressure that come from the repeated thrashing button mashing doles upon your hands, he’s too technical of a gamer, unfamiliar with the art of pure gaming chaos, the wild unknown of giving everything your fingers have to a PS2 controller.

And so it’s a noble attempt, to stoop to my level, but it proves unsuccessful. As my opponent’s player hits the ground in 64-bit slow motion, he takes his controller and slams it to the ground, “Get out of my dorm Rob! You’re not allowed to play this game anymore! So fucking cheap!” He’ll calm down. It’ll gnaw at him from the inside, the chance to beat me fair and square, to prove button mashing isn’t a real technique. But I’ve got to tell you, it works. It’s not for everybody, but button mashing is a viable strategy, an art form even. OK, not an art form, but it works. Try it.

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