Online. Kicking and punching cold, invisible opponents you'll never see, you'll never meet. Alex Valle is a Street Fighter II player living in a Street Fighter IV world. And he's ready to kick your arse.
"Arcades are where you can truly level up your game against many opponents with no lag issues or rage-quitters," Valle says. "Maybe those rage-quitters can still leave mid-match and cause a scene or something. Playing online on a console is more of a tool for execution and strategy." In short: Play online if you want to practice, play in arcades if you want to fight.
As with most in his generation, the 31 year-old Valle came of age when online home console gaming wasn't event a glint in SEGA's eye, an age American arcades got golden again. Players slapped down stacks of quarters and could find SFII cabinets anywhere the things could fit — not only the obvious slick carpet-covered arcades, but also dingy laundromats and musty corners in gas stations. "I'm an arcade gamer," says Valle, "so I was used to playing the arcade version of whatever fighting game there was available." And that means, playing at a stand-up cabinet, standing next to your opponent.
"Back in the 90s you either played sports, decked out your car, or played Street Fighter II," says competitive fighting champ Valle. And some, like Valle, played SFII like it was a sport. Valle would walk into arcades with his gelled hair and wife-beater tee and other players would whisper, "Hey, it's that Ryu guy." When he wasn't getting kicked out for winning too much, Valle was drawing crowds — first in local tournaments, and then in national and international ones. Street Fighter was the game he started playing competitively, and not just in arcades against punters, but against the best of the best.
Players needed guts of iron. Way back in '96, Valle put himself on the map with his fight at Southern Hills Golfland arcade with rival John Choi at the B3: Battle By The Bay, the unofficial West Coast Street Fighter Alpha 2 arcade grand championship. Two years, at the SFA3 World Tournament, Valle went head-to-head against Daigo Umehara (yes, that Daigo) in Daigo's first international fight.
Before he went on to dominate to tournament scene between 1996-2001, a young Valle first cut his teeth on early arcade fighter Karate Champ. It wasn't until later that he began seriously playing titles like Street Fighter II, Virtua Fighter and Tekken.
Born in Lima, Peru and raised in Los Angeles, Valle recalls his home country in context of gaming: "I went back to Peru around my 13th birthday, just around the time Street Fighter 2 Championship Edition was released. Only thing I remember from Peru was that I gave up my old-school first-gen Gameboy to my cousin."
Valle excelled at more than fighters — platformers, sports games, whatever. But it was playing against others and playing against others in arcades that kept drawing him to the genre. "I love fighters because of the different styles of competition and the satisfaction of winning more matches than anybody in any given day," says Valle. "Life is good when you made that guy break another 5 dollar bill in the quarter machine."
His style was and still is aggressive. Aggressive and relentless. Relentless and brutal. "Almost instantly, Valle understands your game, and from there he gets inside your head and just violates you," says Seth Killian, long time Valle pal and resident Street Fighter expert at Capcom. "While some other top players would hang back and try and grind you down, he pioneered his own 'rushdown' style, where he was on you so fast, and in so many different ways, you were constantly on the defensive. While you were trying to figure out what just happened, he was on you again with a new setup, so his opponents would really just fall apart. It's paralyzing." Valle explains, "There isn't much time to think when the game starts, so my strategy involves overwhelming my opponent before they can adapt."
As the 1990s drew to a close, more and more arcades fell by the wayside. Home console kept gaming in the living room. "Our beloved Southern Hills Golfland closed down as well as a lot of other arcades soon after," Valle recalls. "Competition was very rare to find and no new games to play either."
While Valle initially had slight difficulty in adjusting to playing fighters on consoles ("I'm an arcade gamer," he points out), he's completed the transition and plays Street Fighter IV on Xbox LIVE Arcade evenings after his day job at an MMO company doing Spanish QA and web functionality for our game portals. He's not simply blowing off steam from a day at the office, and these sessions are less "playing" and more "training" for the upcoming EVO Championship Series in Las Vegas this July. Valle enters EVO, because of his history with the tourney — it goes way back to when it was the B series. "EVO also knows how to cater to fighting game community better than any organisation out there," he says. "Plus, EVO is the hardest tournament to place in the US as a national tournament."
As American arcades have diminished and declined, the gap between consoles and arcade hardware has closed. "Console and arcade versions used to be vastly different back in the day," Choi says. "But that is no longer the case today and arcade and console ports are 99% accurate for the most part." The usual gameplay differences, Choi continues, are due to the hardware processing speed and minor bugs. "General gameplay is usually the same."
General gameplay, but not arcade gameplay. They're different, and anyone who has played both knows it. "I'm just fortunate to have grown up at a time where fighting game competition was at every corner," Valle says. "The experience from crushing my opponents on a 2-player, side by side arcade cabinet far outweighs online gaming." According to Valle, the younger generation will take time to overcome that type of pressure from playing someone up close and personal. "Sometimes the best chance of winning is the presence of confidence rather than the skill at hand."