Interview with James “jchensor” Chen
As like-minded game engine savants, James Chen and i first met while trying to unravel the mysterious juggle systems of CvS2, and we’ve been friends since. With all the changes taking place in the community, we sat down (asynchronously on opposite sides of the internet) to discuss everything from stream commentary to character design to combo videos.
Maj: Let’s start from the beginning. What got you into fighting games and the tournament scene?
jchensor: I got hooked into Fighting Games because they were new. I was hooked ever since the original Street Fighter II. And even way back then, I was entering tournaments for Street Fighter II. So it was just something I always did.
However, I can easily say I never REALLY got into the Tournament scene until Street Fighter Alpha 2. Previous to that, I was pretty scrubby. A2 is probably the period of time where I really made that leap from being good to being truly tournament worthy.
Maj: What was your first tournament experience?
jchensor: It was a classic Street Fighter II tournament. I think it took place at a mini-golf arcade. Me, my brother, and one of my friends were pretty good at the time, before others really got good as well. So we took 1st, 2nd, and 3rd pretty easily, though I was the one that got 3rd place.
Maj: Most people know you as a Cammy specialist. She’s been your main character in virtually every game since Super Turbo. What keeps drawing you back to picking her?
jchensor: I picked her in Super Turbo EXPRESSLY because she sucked. Back in the old school days, I was obsessed with using poor characters and trying to make them good and over-achieving with them.
Since then, I’ve kept using her pretty much because I somehow identify with her, and she’s just become a very familiar character. It’s like always starting a game out by choosing a best friend or something. I’ve definitely grown a strong fondness for Cammy now.
Maj: What part of the screen do you watch when you play?
jchensor: Mostly the opponent. I discovered this one time while at the arcade during college. One symptom of an impending migraine headache is that the blind spot in your eye (everyone has one) grows larger for some reason. And one day I was playing Alpha 3, my Guy vs. my friend’s Cody, and literally Guy disappeared from the screen.
From what I could tell, there was only Cody until I looked over back to my character. Guy would reappear, but every time I played, Guy would disappear. That’s kinda how I found out I look at my opponent more than my own character because the blind spot is always in the peripheral area of your vision, and it was my character that would keep disappearing. Needless to say, I got a migraine about an hour later, and it hurt like a mother.
Maj: Ten years ago, s-kill wrote an article about tournament player archetypes in which he defined “The Stylist” as a combo specialist who tends to underperform in tournament settings.
This line had a major impact on how i viewed “combo people” long before i made my first combovid: “Although everybody loves these guys, and they’ve typically got physical abilities in excess of basically everyone, these players are often weaker on certain fundamentals.”
Since he listed you as a specific example, i’ve always wanted to ask: What’s your take on this?
jchensor: When SRK first came about, I was more known as a guy who did Combos because of my Combo Videos, but no one knew me as a player who had any tournament experience. It was CvS1 where I started becoming noteworthy of being a competitive player.
I finished 2nd in the first and second CvS1 tournaments at Southern Hills Golfland (losing to Alex Valle… I like to pretend that I popularized the art of using 4 Ratio 1’s ’cause I was the only person doing that in those tournaments), and upon seeing the results, I remember someone commenting on the Shoryuken.com Forums, “Wow, he can actually play too?” – implying that it was shocking I wasn’t just a Combo Video maker.
So that sort of makes Seth’s categorizing of me justified. He was still in the midwest at the time, so he had very little exposure to anything I had done in tournaments. Back then, I was just happy to be mentioned in a Domination 101 article. Nowadays, though, I’d much prefer to be known as a tournament player than a Combo Video maker, though my performance at tournaments have still been very mediocre, something that disappoints me a lot.
Maj: Hm, personally i think it has more to do with combo makers spending too much time figuring out elaborate nuances that never come up in real matches. If my fundamentals are weaker than Seth’s, it’s only because my practice time is divided between matches and combo videos.
Personally whenever i play matches, i intentionally focus on fundamentals instead of flashy combos. I mean, just because we make combo videos, does that necessarily mean we like to showboat during matches?
jchensor: Haha. To be honest, I think it more means that we CAN showboat during matches. We definitely have an ability that many others lack, and though it can be looked at as a bad thing, being a technician, it’s not actually something to be sad about.
I think the perfect example of this is Marn. I’ve always considered Marn very strong in execution (watch any of his Dudley videos) but his mind games are not on par with many of the other top players. But this hasn’t held him back. And I think that’s cool. It’s one of my favorite things about Street Fighter games that people of all sorts of skills can prosper.
Since my mind games are not as strong as many of the top players, I can try to make up for it via execution. I’m not ashamed of it, in fact I’m proud that I can land Sako Combos in mid combat with Cammy now. I mean, we have to do everything we can to win, and if it happens that my execution is better than others, I should definitely take advantage of it. It’s not to say our fundamentals are lower than other players, it just means we are taking advantage of our strengths.
But I will say this: I don’t showboat in matches, really, ever. Most of the difficult execution things I do are warranted. I won’t go for flashier combos if they do less damage than a better combo for example. My goal, after all, is always to win.
Maj: How did you start doing match commentary? Was it intentional, or did you just happen to be in the right place at the right time?
jchensor: Sort of a right place, right time thing. I started attending Wednesday Night Fights in Shglbmx’s garage, and at some point, AJ Papa, who is now part of Level|Up, started streaming the sessions just to learn how to stream. They wanted someone to do commentary, and I sort of jumped at the opportunity.
See, I’ve always hated 90% of the commentary on Street Fighter matches I saw in videos and on YouTube, and, frankly, I didn’t wanna be one of those “haters” who talked shit about other people but didn’t try to do better myself. So I took the mic at WNF and began trying to do commentary in a style I really wanted to try, in a way that I thought commentary should go.
The results have been mixed, of course. There are some days when I feel like my commentary, particularly when I’m paired with UltraDavid, is really great. Then, there are days where I scream “Are you KIDDING ME?!?! SERIOUSLY?!?” into the mic and sound like a buffoon. ^_^
jchensor: It’s interesting, because doing commentary, in a way, makes me a better player. I start looking for things a lot more and, thanks to it, I think I’ve noticed a lot more subtle things than I normally would have, and it’s improved my own game. In fact, some days when I’m playing in tournaments, I try to “watch” my own match while I play in a similar fashion, like I am a commentator, to see if I can spot where my mistakes are coming from.
I also just really enjoy talking about Street Fighter. I love pointing things out to the audience, and, when the chances are there, I love getting hype about games. I just love Street Fighter so much that I just like expressing that emotion and passion through the stream. Sharing your passion with a bunch of people who share that same passion watching the stream is just a lot of fun. It’s exhilirating.
The worst thing about commentating is that it means I’m not playing. Believe me, if I had to choose between being a commentator or being in top 8 at a tournament so that I couldn’t commentate, I’d pick the latter in a heartbeat every time.
Maj: If you had to fly to Japan right now to participate in a 5-on-5 team tournament in SSF4, which four players would you choose as teammates?
jchensor: I assume I can only pick U.S. players. So excluding Asia and Europe, I would pick Justin Wong, Ricky Ortiz, Alex Valle, and the last spot would be up for grabs. The last spot could go to anyone, like Shizza (super solid play evident from his top 8 finish at Evo), Combofiend (he’s Combofiend… ’nuff said), Online Tony (strong player with a character that I think would give Japan tons of problems), Ed Ma (probably one of the smartest and most knowledgeable players out there), Mike Ross (the “People’s Champ” and he made Top 8 at Evo)… really, there are a lot of good choices, none of which I think are wrong. I know this list is VERY SoCal biased and that there are a ton of great players outside of SoCal, but I’m not as familiar with their games, unfortunately, so it’s hard for me to choose one of them.
Maj: What if the same team had to compete in three different games: SSF4, SSF2T, and MvC2? Who would you choose then?
jchensor: This one is definitely a lot tougher. Justin Wong and Alex Valle would still be there, even though Valle doesn’t play MvC2 at all. But the thing is… Valle CAN play it and since Japan isn’t strong in the game, I think it’s more important to have stronger players in the other two games than MvC2.
However, having said that, it’s really hard to find anyone actually strong in both ST and SSF4!! By default, I’d have to choose people good at SSF4 and MvC2. Ricky may be rusty at MvC2, but I’m sure he could still beat most of the Japanese in the game. He’d be an obvious candidate. Combofiend also becomes a very strong choice because he’s so good at SSF4 and at MvC2.
But when I start thinking of all the old school guys who are awesome at ST, none of them stand out as top players in MvC2 or SSF4 these days. Maybe my mind is just drawing a blank right now.
Maj: Which fighting game character designs are your favorite of all time?
jchensor: Hmm. These answers are probably going to surprise most and seem way different than what people would expect, but these are the first ones that come to mind:
Jedah and B.B. Hood from Vampire Savior – Not for how they play or because I like using them, but because I LOVE their attacks. All of B.B. Hood’s attacks are accidents… grabbing at butterflies, turning to read a book, etc. Any attack where she intentionally tried to harm you, her face turns all evil. That’s just cool. And Jedah, well, the fact that a large portion of his normals are him cutting himself and attacking you with his blood is just really cool. Particularly Standing Medium Kick, where he slices his hand on his wings to spray blood at your feet.
Just really creative characters. I also have to give a shoutout to the original 10 usable characters of Darkstalkers and Hsien-Ko from NightWarriors while I’m here. They are all based off of movie monsters, but so oddly done. I mean, if you put a mummy into a game, would YOU have ever come up with Anakaris? And they put a Chinese Ghost into a game. A Chinese Ghost!! I always remembered that my Mom would tell me Chinese Ghosts walked on their toes, so that’s why it was a superstition that you shouldn’t walk on your toes a lot. Seeing Hsien-Ko standing on her toes when I first saw Night Warriors made me smile for that reason.
Spiral from X-Men: COTA – She was just soooo much fun to use. Having 7 different ways to throw out knives (regular launching by hitting Punch, three directions of circularly grouped knives, homing knives, spiral knives, and a frontal spray of knives) and being able to do all sorts of weird tricks (swapping places with the opponent, dropping quickly in the air, speed up, power up, and teleporting), she was just really fun to try and beat the opponent just by being as annoying as possible. There has never been a character with as many options and as unorthodox like Spiral in a Fighting Game ever since… not even Spiral herself in MvC2!
Gen from Alpha 2 / 3 – I was really happy to see Capcom experiment and do something so different with a Fighting Game character. Two Modes and being able to swap between them at any time was just a fascinating concept, even though in most games the Punch Mode has been the most useful. It was still a great risk Capcom took and I would like to see more things like this.
Makoto from Third Strike – I’m always partial to “real” fighters. I hate freaks like Twelve, Q, and Necro. But when it comes to characters like Dudley or Makoto or even R.Mika, fighters based off of something real are always preferrable to me. Makoto I liked in particular because I liked the idea of a speedy grappler. Even though her walk was slow, her Dash was super fast. Because it was such a far cry from the standard large, bulky grappler like Zangief, Birdie, and Sodom, I was instantly enamored with Makoto. Coupled with the fact that, as I discovered later, ALL of her normals moves are true Shotokan Karate attacks (even down to her Parry, which is a real blocking technique used in the Shotokan style), her coolness factor just kept increasing. If I ever had learned Third Strike, she would have been who I played. I was really looking forward to using her in Super Street Fighter IV until I discovered she sucked. And believe me, I’m WAY over my old habit of trying to overachieve with bad characters.
Samurai Shodown II – And a special spot has to go to the entire cast of Samurai Shodown II, just because the characters in that game are all just so cool. I didn’t even really play the game, but the personality oozes from the characters. I always loved Jubei, for example – he was my character of choice. And Wan Fu fights you with a stone pillar. A STONE PILLAR. That he carves himself into in one of his win poses! I’m always sad that the characters never got another worthy game after SamShoII. If any game needs a real worthy reboot, Samurai Shodown is the one.
Maj: I still remember how you showed me all of Jedah’s and B.B. Hood’s animations by pausing the game. I had no idea they were so meticulously detailed.
What about Tekken? Any particular characters you’re looking forward to learning when the Street Fighter x Tekken crossovers arrive?
jchensor: Tekken fans will hate me but… no. I honestly have a very hard time telling the difference between most Tekken characters, and the ones that are obvious feel more like weird freaks than anything. King, Jack-5, Yoshimitsu, Roger Jr… they are all kind of strange characters. But guys like Paul, Kazuya, Jin, etc… they all feel the same to me.
I mean, obviously they have different move sets, but the thing about Street Fighter characters and most other fighting games, the characters just stand apart more to me. I love the disparity between Zangief and Ryu and Bishamon and Lord Raptor. I don’t know, I even really like a lot of Virtua Fighter characters. Shun Di and Lion come to mind, as well as Lei Fei. I dunno why, I’ve just never liked Tekken characters much.
jchensor: I’ll continue playing SSF4. I’ve been trying to learn BlazBlue, but it’s harder to find comp for it. Seeing as how I never played MvC2 competitively, it would be nice to learn MvC3. So I’ll try to learn it, but my concentration will remain with whatever version of Street Fighter IV is the current game.
Just recently I saw King of the Fighters XIII and it looks really nice, actually. Maybe I’ll dabble in that if anything just to support the GREATEST FEATURE EVER MADE for an arcade Fighting Game: arcade Training Mode!!! You can put in a credit and play 5 minutes of Training Mode in the arcades!! That’s… the best idea EVER!!! And if someone challenges you and you win, you are reset back to the full 5 minutes! Where was this feature in my Combo FAQ writing days??
Maj: Speaking of which, are you planning on making any more combo videos, or are you done with those for the foreseeable future?
jchensor: I think if I found an appropriate topic, I would love to make another Combo Video. The whole reason for making the 2-Hit Combo Video, however, was because I knew I could no longer keep up with the crazy combos people were coming up with in games anymore.
I simply just didn’t have the time to dedicate to finding weird Combos anymore. Experimenting with things for Combo Videos takes a great deal of time, and trying to keep up competitively at the same time is almost impossible.
But yeah, if I could ever find something that is worthy of a Combo Video that I feel very passionate about, I can totally see myself making another Combo Video in the future. I still get requests for the Ode to the 3-Hit Combo Video. ^_^
Maj: As one of the first people who pioneered combo video production, what do you hope to see in future combovids?
jchensor: More attempts at being artistic. Combo Videos can be entertaining for many reasons, but for me, Combo Videos were always a form of creative expression and should be treated as thus: a creative outlet. I think the space for very artistic Combo Videos exist, regardless of the subject, and I wish more people would try to do more with the editing.
I always like to point to the Capcom Fighting Evolution video I made as an example at the risk of sounding egotistical. It’s kinda subtle, but I was really happy and proud with a lot of the way I edited the video. First of all, it’s a super odd choice of music, not one that someone would ever expect to use for a Combo Video.
Secondly, everything goes with the music, timing-wise. I particularly like the K.O. from Yun in the middle and post K.O. hit. It all matches the music perfectly.
And third, I always joke it has a “rhyme scheme.” And by that I mean that the song really drives how I edited the video. The song itself has a few distinct “parts.” There is the intro part, the choruses, the style of verses, the second style of verses, the instrumental in the middle, and the bridges. And you’ll notice that the intro section and the part that sounds the same as the intro during the instrumental use one style of editing.
The choruses are always a showcase of four characters from the same series (Third Strike and then DarkStalkers). The first style of verses are always alternating between something super silly and quick combos. The second style of verses are always two Custom Combos.
And the bridges that come before the Choruses always show something that lasts long and is very silly and repetitive, always on the same background (Chun’s headstomps on Hauzer, Chun Infinite on Hauzer, and the Just Defending thing against the squid guy). Only the instrumental is allowed a sort of randomness. And the end run of the song, the Combos start to get too long to adhere to the previous scheme, but everything still starts on beat.
I would really like to see things like that in Combo Videos… put more production and thought into them. Your Ryu Combo Video is a perfect example. I’m sure a TON of extra time was used just to come up with all the possible transitions between clips. And I love how you saved the 3-D for the end, and the Gouken ending was just fantastic.
Another great video is the recent Fireball Exhibition edited by Rithli. I can’t say enough about how much I love the energy of the video. It’s so exciting and quick and it just pops right from the get go. And it never lets up.
Like, I love how you can almost tell that some of the clips had more stuff before and after the parts shown, and the fact that they are “missing” and that you start in the middle of things and end before they finish makes the video that much more hyper. And a lot of clips start with Super freezes, which automatically grab your attention.
And it’s completely weird to say this, but one of my absolute favorite parts is the moment the first credit pops up at the end. Most videos choose to use a very “ending”-ish song, but Rithli chose a song with as much energy as the rest of the video. And something about that moment just kills it for me. It’s like such a build up with all these quick cuts and awesome clips and then the ending is just a release of that energy. It’s just a very excellently paced video.
Combo Videos are a form of art, and I’d like to see people take advantage of that more.
Maj: Briefly, what’s your take on manual execution vs tool-assistance?
jchensor: In the end, to me, everything is about the Combo Video. Whatever it takes to make the Combo Video, I’m down with, as long as everything is still legitimate.
Combo Videos, at first, WERE a means by which to show off your skill. I think Combo Videos have transcended that, and are now a showcase of creativity. So whatever it takes to do that, I think is perfectly fine.
Maj: As a regular contributor to the Evolution tournaments and now the levelup series, where do you see the fighting game community in two years? Five years?
jchensor: Two years ago, before Street Fighter IV, I thought Fighting Games may some day become big, but I was confident that it would happen only after I had grown old so that I would not be able to really be a part of it.
But then Street Fighter IV came and changed everything. Seeing how Evo was this past year and the year before have blown my mind, and I think the sky’s the limit now. Seeing how quickly things can change in two years makes it almost impossible for me to predict.
I have no idea what will happen in two or five years, but I will say this: if it goes any way that I would hope it goes, Fighting Games would be the biggest spectator eSport in the world within the next five years. It has the most potential for it, and I don’t see it as such an impossible goal anymore. It feels very real to me now.
Maj: Wow, really? To be honest, it’s difficult for me to imagine video game coverage making the leap from reality TV garbage like Ultimate Gamer (where they’re essentially ridiculing us for existing) to legitimate sports coverage (where athletes are always shown in a respectful light).
You really think there will be a day when “journalists” stop asking us to act out our favorite Street Fighter moves on camera?
jchensor: Yeah, I do. I honestly do. Two years ago, I would have answered no. But now, I can actually say yes. There is definitely a lot of potential to get people to notice. I mean, the amount of people on the stream for Evo, the amount of people in the room watching Super Street Fighter IV’s finals… these kinds of crowds and people cannot be ignored for too long.
Yeah, there’s a danger of the scene turning “mainstream,” which is usually the death knell for most elitists and purists and hardcore, but I think this could really work out. And I honestly think that Fighting Games have one of the biggest potentials for that over all the other types of games.
In fact, I wanted to write a whole article on this topic, and, well… if I say that out loud, maybe more people will bug me to write it and that will give me more incentive to sit down and hammer out that kind of an article finally. ^_^
James “jchensor” Chen has been actively contributing to fighting game community development in one way or another for over a decade. Whether writing comprehensive Combo/Systems Guides, producing combovids and Evo Trailers, or updating his blog biannually – it’s impossible to measure the impact of everything he’s done for the community. Chen will be providing live stream match commentary at Season’s Beatings: Redemption in October and SoCal Regionals in November.