Growing up in a low-income household with three siblings wasn’t always easy. Having two older brothers who I could never really match up to when it came to sports or other physical contests as a kid was rough - I always felt like the one holding them back. With four kids and work to deal with, our parents were very busy, and didn’t always have the time to give us the attention they wanted. I feel very fortunate that I grew up in the time period I did - the late 90’s, or basically the renaissance of multiplayer gaming. Video games gave me not only a way to compete with those older and bigger than me, but also an outlet to focus on if things weren’t going my way.
I never considered myself good at games growing up. As a child, while I was very into the culture of gaming and enjoyed playing video games, my actual experience was limited. We had a Super Nintendo, a Nintendo 64, and for some reason, a Sega Saturn, but didn’t have many games for each. Dedicating a lot of time to mastering a title became a recurring theme in my childhood, and if I had paid closer attention I may have noticed that this is where my true talent lay. But I already had an easy comparison in my older brothers, both of whom generally seemed to outperform me in the games we’d play, especially at first.
The N64 was our first real experience with gaming becoming competitive, although it was just amongst ourselves. Along with my older brothers and occasionally my younger sister, neighborhood kids and cousins made up our gaming community. Games like Goldeneye, Mario Party, and even Mario Tennis would bring out our combative sides quicker than we realized. And although everything at that age felt like we were just messing around for fun, it became clear that some of us had more ability to excel at these games than others.
I still remember sitting in my living room as my brothers unboxed Super Smash Brothers for the N64, a title I had only briefly heard of. My expectations of a Nintendo fighting game were immediately thrown into question when my brothers played their first match against each other - a timed 1v1 bout on Brinstar (since we only had 2 controllers, I was rarely the first to try a game). Confusion was my initial impression of Smash - what the hell was the percentage at the bottom of the screen? Why wasn’t anyone dying? One of them fell off the stage and toward the lava, and we assumed he’d be dead - but the lava just popped him back up. Our other assumption was that getting your opponent to 100% would kill them; this was also not the case, as one of my brothers passed 100% damage and nothing happened. Finally, a strong move sent my oldest brother flying, and he died off the top of the screen - another questionable event. What the hell was this game?
As we learned the game more and more and understood its format, we began enjoying it. These matches among myself and my brothers were nowhere near real competition, but the burning desire to defeat each other still made for some good bouts. My oldest brother as Link tended to win over the two of us, while myself and my other brother Burhan, who came to be known as Mild in the Smash community, contended for the title of “true Pikachu master” since we were both Pikachu mains. Although my 10 year old self would never admit this, Mild was certainly the Pikachu master as far as our family was concerned - I rarely won 1v1 fights over him.
Smash was an enjoyable game to be sure, but it didn’t jump out at us as anything special at first - it was just another awesome N64 multiplayer title, along with the others we played regularly. It made for an excellent party game too, which we loved. But for the first year or so of Smash’s existence, it meant little more to me than another gaming option. That was, until Mild met a new friend at school.
Mild met Chris McMullen in Algebra class in school, and the two became friends mainly over their mutual appreciation for video games. Eventually their friendship progressed to the point where Chris invited Mild over for some games, and afterward when Mild got home, he was raving about Chris’ ability. “This guy is amazing,” he said. “No matter what game we played, he was so good. But especially Smash… He makes my Pikachu look like garbage.” I was skeptical - although Mild tended to beat me, there was no way this Chris character was that good at games. Mild insisted that in a 10 stock match, Chris defeated him with all 10 lives left. At that point I couldn’t buy it - I had to see it for myself.
Mild invited Chris over to play Smash, and my initial impression of him was very unremarkable. He was just a quiet Asian kid. Interestingly enough, rather than introduce himself as Chris, he called himself Azen. I noticed from the beginning he didn’t talk much, but he seemed to be in a generally good mood, and gave off friendly vibes despite the lack of very much communication. As we sat down to play Smash, though, one thing became immediately clear: Azen had a lot going on in his brain, and even if he didn’t communicate it verbally, he certainly let his play talk for him.
The kid was a monster. I remember being completely blown away in my first match, which was against his Link; Link was one of the slowest characters in the game, yet Azen was making him seem lightning fast. And this low-tier character was destroying my top-tier main. As soon as the match was over, Azen immediately switched to another character, and dominated me even more. It was incredible, especially because the thought of advanced techniques like Z-cancelling didn’t even cross my mind; I just figured this guy really knew how to push buttons.
Although we had gotten slightly competitive with some games, Azen showed me that I wasn’t even scratching the surface of what gaming skill truly was. He handed down beating after beating, while Mild simply smirked at me, as if to say “I told you so.” All in all, I’m not sure if I took a single win from Azen that day. But it was the first time I realized the true potential in not only Smash, but videogames in general. The learning curve was huge, and I was nowhere near the top.
Rather than inspiring me, however, the short-term reaction I had was that I might as well give it up, since clearly I’d never be on the level Azen was. Regardless, Mild and I began to hang out with Azen regularly, and played all types of games, including Smash. No matter which game we were playing, Azen would be leading the pack, and most of the time he’d be way ahead. Perfect Dark, F-Zero, Mario Kart, Mario Party, you name it -- Azen was the best. It didn’t take me long to realize something: just as there are genius scientists and revolutionary professional athletes, Azen was a prodigy in his field, and I had a good feeling it wasn’t just because Mild and I were garbage.