Happy Birthday? Merry Christmas? Fighting game terminology can be confusing, but it’s the sign of a rich community that has built over the course of decades.
Every sport has its own terms and phrases. A header is a goal scored by someone’s noggin hitting a football (or soccer ball), while a lineout has two rugby teams in lines leaping into the air for possession.
Fighting games are the same way, but their terminology is certainly more strange than the average sport. “The funniest one to me is what’s called a Happy Birthday,” says Forever Classic Games co-founder, commentator, and fighting game tournament presenter Alex McCumbers. “It’s just fun, every time it comes up.”
In fighting game terminology, a Happy Birthday is a very particular kind of special occasion, in which an assist character receives damage because it was summoned into the fight at exactly the wrong time. “The opposing player catches them in a combo that hits both [characters], usually doing massive damage to that secondary character in a way that is really advantageous for them to get,” says McCumbers. “So when a happy birthday occurs, It’s like all the tables have turned.”
Happy Birthday isn’t, however, the only celebration-based term that has sprung from games like Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. You can also get a Merry Christmas, which involves catching all three characters in a combo. This is very rare, however. “I think it’s just Merry Christmas because that’s the day you get even more presents than your birthday,” says Don Meka, a long-time player in the competitive fighting scene.
These terms come from the community itself, helping them to identify certain mechanics or techniques within a game. For a newcomer to fighting games all this jargon might seem like a confusing barrier to entry. “I think it can be a stumbling block,” agrees Run The Mix fighting game tournament organiser, RTM Pete. “I’d hope it’s not something that turns off newcomers.”
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As he runs weekly tournaments at Wisdom Studios in the Mall of America, RTM Pete believes that ”learning and understanding the [fighting game] lexicon is something that serves as a communal understanding in the community, and provides a marker for an understanding that someone else is part of that community.”
These terms are therefore a way to connect people, and can sometimes take the form of in-jokes. For example, during many Marvel vs Capcom tournaments, people bring signs asking, “When’s Mahvel?”, a reference to streamer Woollie Madden.
RTM Pete also claims that “some terms are very helpful and descriptive – recovery, block stun, hit stop and other terms […] are a mishmash of forgotten lore and Japanese concatenated slang, like kara-cancel, oki, or Happy Birthday.”
At their best, these terms can therefore be both informative and help maintain a cultural connection to the genre’s largely Japanese origins. So if you’re digging Street Fighter 6, Tekken 8, and Mortal Kombat 1 this year and beyond, what’s the best way to learn these terms? McCumbers believes that, rather than merely trawl through Google, going to one of your “locals” is the best option.
“There’s a lot that you can gain by going to what we call the ‘locals’,” says McCumbers. “A lot of cities, a lot of communities have local tournaments, especially for some of the more popular games. Pretty much every city in the US, especially, has a Street Fighter tournament, or a Smash Bros Ultimate tournament.”
If you want to brush up on your knowledge, RTM Pete also recommends The Fighting Game Glossary.
Be careful, however: some of these terms can go extinct. The list of moves printed on the original Street Fighter II cabinet, labelling each button are, an example. “They were poorly chosen words to describe light punch, medium punch, heavy punch, light kick, medium kick, heavy kick,” says RTM Pete. “Those terms have essentially been replaced by LP, MP, HP, LK, MK, HK.”
Let’s return to an earlier question: can fighting game terminology alienate newcomers? RTM Pete thinks that those new to competitive fighting games should push themselves to learn the scene’s terms and expressions. “There are people who see this wall of terms they don’t know and offer suggestions for ‘improvement’ without fully understanding the usefulness or history of the terms,” he says. Others, he says, get “intimidated and just dip out.”
RTM Pete adds that while newcomers might think experienced players “use these terms to be gatekeepy and reject people who don’t know them”, the reality, he believes, is the opposite. “I think it can be helpful to approach the terms with an open mind and try to roll with it,” he says.
Community is what helps the best fighting games survive, often years after launch. Super Smash Bros. Melee, for instance, emerged in 2001, but it’s still regularly enjoyed by its community of fans – and the curious terminology that has sprung up around it and other fighting games is all part of that sense of belonging and community.
“Some people are just there to get their games in and maybe win – and that’s fine,” says McCumbers. “But a lot of people are there because it’s fun, because they like the game, because they like playing together. That’s what it’s all about.”
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