Always Punch The Hawk!-Karateka

Jordan Mechner is responsible for stealing a sizable portion of my adolescence. He created Prince of Persia, the pixel-precise platform game that I spent hours in front of. The idea was simple; you’d been usurped from your rightful position on the throne and had to fight your way out of the dungeon avoiding traps, fighting off guards and jumping from fragile platform to fragile platform. If you were off by a pixel you died. If you were too slow, you died. If you were too fast, you died. It was precise and elegant and completely addictive.

Now, Mechner has re-made his original game; Karateka. Again, the plot is ridiculously simple; Princess Mariko has been kidnapped by the evil warlord Akuma and as her boyfriend, you must scale a large cliff face, kick a tremendous amount of men in the head and win her back. So far, so Shaw brothers and that’s both the point and merely the starting point.

It’s the point because I’ve rarely seen the martial arts film experience captured as perfectly as it is here. A good fight has a story to it, a genuinely great fight has ebb and flow and psychology, the struggle for physical control manifested in the tics and motions of the fighters. It’s something you see in professional combat sports all the time, but it’s almost never been present in fighting games before. Fight Night Champion flirted with it, and did some imaginative things with the different stipulations for various matches but even that was window dressing. Here, the lone hero versus lone villain model is the foundation of the game as well as the gameplay. The two fighters approach each other cautiously, the strikes when they come are chained, precise and graceful and if you fail to block too many in a row, your opponent will mockingly let you take a couple of cheap shots. There is very little more satisfying than those cheap shots being the ones needed to finish him off.

However, the game’s clear love for and knowledge of the genre goes even deeper than that. At one point you’re confronted by a notably larger guard than the ones you’ve fought before. When you wear him down to half energy, he takes a step back, wipes his nose and chuckles appreciatively. It’s a tiny little character beat but it’s one which is so perfect and so perfectly captures that moment from countless movies that you almost feel bad for beating him unconscious and knocking him off a rope bridge into the sea. Almost.

Later still, you find a guard sitting down, clearly drunk. He looks up at you, blearily, stumbles to his feet and you fight him. When his energy’s halfway gone, he backflips to his bottle, downs it and pops back up, his movements sharper and his energy far higher. The first is a classic martial arts heavy, the second is a drunken style kung fu expert. Both are martial arts movie staples and seeing them here gives you a very different glow of nostalgia. This isn’t just a game that knows its routes, it’s a game that celebrates and loves them, even as it uses those roots to do horrifically violent things to you.

Karateka’s true genius lies in its mechanics rather than its trappings though. The first is how you fight, defending by tapping the screen a number of times equal to your opponents’ strikes. Hit the screen at the right time, and the right rhythm, and you block each strike with graceful skill. Miss a couple and you still look quite good, but take some damage. Miss them all and your opponent beats you, then beats you again and keeps doing so until either you die or you work out when to block.

This mechanic is simple and  elegant, a necessity on a screen two inches long, but it’s also a unifying factor between you and the character you’re playing. You get it wrong, he gets hit, you get frustrated, miss again, he gets hit again. The game plays with your mild fatigue from holding the phone and the frustration of not quite hitting your marks to mix your character’s growing fatigue with your own. It’s a masterstroke and it’s only built on by the fact you get precisely one life. You have the opportunity to refill your health bar from blue flowers scatted, far too occasionally, around the castle, but if you miss those, or if your health is too low between fights, you will lose. Once again, your characters’ health directly influences the game play. You have to do well, because he’s only human and can only take so much damage.

When he takes too much, the game’s real genius is revealed. The difficulty curve for a normal computer game goes in one direction; up. Here, it goes down, becoming progressively easier when you lose a life, because of the price you pay for that loss. Your first character, the Princess’ love, is replaced by a Monk who cares for her, a platonic, aesthetic love instead of the true romance that the first character shares. The Monk inevitably has less to do because you can’t access him without dying the first time, and, if the Monk is killed, then a third character can be used. The Brute is a huge woodsman with vast strength and it’s entirely possible to finish the battles with the final bosses, Akuma’s last guards and Akuma himself with the Brute. It’s possible to do it with the Monk and the Princess’ True Love, it’s just progressively more difficult. You can finish the game with the first character, but you will finish it with the third and the challenge of doing so in turn heightens the danger and raises the narrative stakes. Every single punch you take counts, every single blow you land means something.

Even if you win, the game is still happy to leave you with a moment of real narrative ambiguity. The Brute’s victory animation sees the Princess cautiously approach him and be carefully, and, it seems, reluctantly carried away over his shoulder. The implication for many is disturbing, but I don’t see it that way. The animation plays like someone relieved and grateful to be saved, trying their best to cover their disappointment they weren’t saved by the ‘right’ person. It leaves the game with a real moment of ambiguity. One that the Monk ending shares, as he escorts the Princess home, clearly attentive and affectionate but also chaste and stern. For the Brute, the Princess appears to be a prize. For the Monk, she’s a student to be returned to the fold.

As for her True Love? I have no idea. I haven’t beaten the game with him yet. Although it has been awfully fun to try. Karateka’s reverse difficulty curve makes for engrossing, at times very frustrating gameplay but, for a game which is barely 40 minutes long, it’s completely engrossing. The stakes are high, the danger is palpable and the emotional investment, in such a minimalist game, is surprisingly big. Even better, this time around, there are no pixel perfect jumps to make. Maybe in the sequel…

Aleister Crowley Can Throw Down-Krav Maga

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, Crowley once said. He was talking about ethics, morality, and of course sex, because Crowley was a big fan, but the same can be applied to fitness in general and martial arts in particular. Do what thou wilt. Do what you want, and sometimes what you want is nothing.

It’s been a rough few weeks. A death in the family has led to a lot of emotional heavy lifting coming on the heels of the ongoing plans to move back to England, to a new city, a new school and the next stage of our lives. On top of all that, for me, has been an ongoing reassessment of what I write and how I write it. I’m looking at goals I set myself a couple of years and realising not only that they aren’t practical but they aren’t healthy. The brass ring is always just out of my reach and the only person who puts it there, just like the only person who screams at me when I don’t get it, is me. So, things are being reassessed, goals are being changed and in amongst all this, fitness fell by the wayside a little. And by a little I mean completely. The occasional bike ride notwithstanding I’ve not had any meaningful exercise for several weeks.

That changed last night.

Smash Gyms is a local martial arts studio with several branches that teaches Krav Maga, Brazilian Jujitsu and Kickboxing. We went to our first Krav Maga lesson last night and it was exactly the right sort of difficult, exactly the kind of difficult I’ve been missing.

Getting there was, to use the cliché, the hardest part. I’ve got no physical confidence in myself, and it’s a ridiculous state of affairs to be in because I may be overweight but I’m at least averagely healthy. I’m strong, I’m flexible but I like pie and I eat when I’m stressed and guess what? I’ve been stressed. So, driving out there last night the year of Judo, the two belts I achieved during one of the hardest years of my life, the three months of Thai boxing during one of the most miserable employment experiences of my life, the running, the weight training, all of it felt like absolutely nothing. Fat and slow and pointless. Do what thou wilt becomes sit on the sofa and complain about how unfit I am.

Except…it didnt. We were both nervous going in, both, frankly, a little scared. There’s a real element of trust to a new martial art that isn’t there with any other sort of physical activity. You’re going to go and train to hurt people by…practising hurting people. If you don’t trust your partner then you don’t learn and if you do, then you’re trusting them not to hurt you badly enough that you can’t train or compete. I’ve been hurt badly enough by a partner that I can’t train or compete. As a result, trust comes a little harder for me than it should. But still, we got up, we got out, we went to the session and my throat only closed with fear instead of actual nausea so that’s a win.

I was the largest person on the mat, by a comfortable margin. I was the slowest, by a comfortable margin. I was one of the only people to take breaks. I was wheezing. This is a new occurrence, in the last eighteen months, and it’s a signifier that the stress weight is just that, stress weight. I’m carrying too much and when I work too hard, my lungs start complaining and I end up sounding like an imminently deceased donkey labouring up a mountain with several very large heavy things on it’s back. That metaphor got away from me but the point is I sounded like crap and I sounded like crap early because Krav Maga is not a martial art that believes in holding your hand. Unless it can then use that hold to break your arm, throw you into a wall or hurt you quickly and badly enough to get away.

The warm up was a run, followed by running punches, followed by descending amounts of punches interspersed with mountain climbers, which is where you drop to all fours and push each leg, alternately, up into your chest. Then back up, then more punching. It was brutal and the instructor, a cheerful ex-military officer who had exactly the right combination of care for his students and magnificent disregard for their limits, made it clear that was the point. Because Krav Maga isn’t a sport martial art in the sense of there being a ring, or a mat, and rules. It’s a martial art designed to let you hurt whoever is attacking you as quickly and effectively as possible and then run like hell.

This, for someone who’s a bit of a martial nomad at the moment, was very, very good news. Especially as, after he tried to murder us with cardio drills which included the infamous ‘Krav massage’ (You follow your partner as they jink around the mat, patting them on the shoulders, they drop, you jump over them. Then you swap. My partner, the junior instructor, to his eternal credit, realised that jumping was not something that was on the cards for me any time soon, and dropped flat. Bless him) we got to the fun stuff. By the fun stuff I of course mean the hitting.

We did three drills, the first about teaching us to transition from close to middle to short range. This involved one of you holding a strike pad whilst the other threw five groin kicks off each leg, five punches off each hand and five kneestrikes off each knee. My inner Thai boxer, who up until this point had been playing Dead Space, got off the bench and had some fun. My balance is rough, so the kicks were enthusiastic if a little inaccurate, whilst the punches were a little more accurate and a little harder but the knees? The knees worked. The two things I was comfortable with in Muay Thai were fighting at range (I’m six foot two so when I throw a front push kick and it connects, then you move backwards) and fighting close in (I’m six foot two so when I clinch, as long as I’m set, I can put my knees pretty much anywhere I want to). So I landed some good meaty knee strikes and then almost threw up and neded to go and get some water (I’m six foot two, and over three hundred pounds, and I’ve not done this for a while).

The second was a headlock escape, which was a pretty perfect encapsulation of everything Krav Maga does well. The style folds itself to your body and to your skills and it’s, for a style which is very up close and personal, full of breathing room. The basic move we learnt was simple; if someone has you in a side headlock then you windmill your hands to their groin, for a short hard groin strike and their eyes, dragging backwards as you go. Hit them both at the same time you’ve got the psychological impact of a groin shot as well as the pain, coming at the same time as altering their centre of gravity so they fall backwards and you either hurt them, or run. The preference, most of the time, is run, because this, as we were told again and again, isn’t a sport. This is a set of self defence techniques that lets you finish a fight and get out of danger as fast as you can, to the point where we were taught to run two steps, scanning as we went. Always be moving, always be looking for the next threat, always be looking for an exit strategy.

The last drill was another headlock escape, this time from behind. Again, it was very simple; you reach up and behind, turn your head towards where their hands are locked, yank them forwards, step sideways and you’re holding their arm at full extension and are all the way clear. In both cases we were shown multiple options to get out of the hold and damage once you’re out. Get out of a side headlock? Scrape your foot down their shin, they’ll fall over, limp and you can run. Can’t do that? Grab them by the balls, lift and drop them on their face. Can’t do that? Kick their inner leg out. Likewise, got your opponent at arm’s length? Spin them through 180 degrees and bounce their head off something, or break their knee with a side kick, or their elbow with a knee, or hammer fist them in the back of the head until they pass out. Hurt them before they hurt you, or, as my old Judo instructor memorably described it ‘Fuck them up first.’

The difference being here you have the freedom to do what your first instinct is. For Marguerite, with an Aikido background, it’s deliver your opponent to the ground, hard. For me, coming from Judo and Muay Thai it’s throw them, immobilise or break a limb or land a couple of meaningful strikes that will make them think pretty seriously about doing anything other than being in a lot of pain. It’s all right, all of it works, all of it’s permissible. Do what thou wilt, before it’s done unto you.

In one hour I sweated, I gasped, I wheezed and I took four breaks. I was the heaviest, slowest person on the mat. And it was serene, perfect. This is the sort of exercise I respond to, work so hard and so consistent that I get rendered down to nothing but my body, my breath and the technique we’re practising. Two years ago, I’d have been busy castles in the air about how quickly I could learn, what I’d have to reach for to consider myself accomplished, how far I’d have to go. Not any more. Now, all I want is this, is the simple, tranquil feeling of being pushed to your limits and knowing you’ve worked honestly. This is why I train in martial arts, not to fight, not to grade, not to compete. To work and know what I’ve worked at. Aleister Crowley can bang, but in my own way and at my own pace, so can I. And today, that’s enough.

Want to talk to me about this piece? Come see me on twitter at @alasdairstuart or email me.

324 and Counting

 

I’m taking a break from Judo for a while. Not permanently, but I need six months or so away from the mat to get the rest of my life in order. However, I not only don’t want six months away from the mat, I literally can’t have it.

 

I weigh 324 pounds.

 

I’ve never been heavier in my life. Not ever. I could, and at one point quite wanted to, talk about why this happened, how it made me feel, what I wanted to do get around it, how upset I was. There’s no point,it’s all pretty much laid out in that sentence. I weigh a cartoon weight. I am the heaviest person I know. I may even be the heaviest person you know.

 

It’s a shitty, unfair, upsetting start and I hate it so much I can’t say . But it’s a start, and the road to losing weight starts, for me, with exercise. I have a geological metabolism, I can actually gain weight by looking at food. It’s ridiculous, it’s a situation I’ve failed utterly to deal with my entire life and it’s one which I’m bored of. Which is why although I’m taking a break from Judo, I’m not taking a break from the martial arts. That sort of explosive, edge of the red line exercise is very good for me and I want, and need, it to continue to be a part of my life. Which is why I came up with the plan, and the plan looks a little something like this: I exercise every second day. Without fail. It doesn’t matter what it is I do, but I do something, for no less than half an hour at a time. Running, walking, fighting in some form, yoga, whatever I can lay my hands on. The first stage is kickboxing, and I went to my first lesson last night, after two weeks of being too stuffed full of cold to go.

 

Or rather, I didn’t. I walked 3.7 miles, I know, thanks to Google maps. I actually walked PAST the building, and had to ask directions from several people who were probably a little frightened by the tall, broad, intense looking dude in the WRITER hoodie asking where the community centre was.

 

I showed up. The class didn’t. Wrong night. I went home, got some food and took some solace in the 3.7 mile walk. But only some, because believe me losing weight is frustrating in a way very little else is. It takes ages, it requires constant vigilance, you start from a position of weakness and live on a thin gossamer thread of success that only ever goes back a week. It takes faith and it takes courage and neither of those are particularly easy to come by. That’s the bad news.

 

The good news, and yes even I can see that there’s good news, is this. I’ve started. The next few months are going to bring kickboxing, Aikido, Yoga, climbing, any and everything is going to get tried and I’ll find ways to stick with the things that work. It’s not the best start there is, but it’s mine, and I intend to make the best of it. And to keep me on track, I’ll be writing about it here. Next week? My first kickboxing lesson, this time with added kickboxing. It’s going to be great.