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An Interview with James "jchensor" Chen

Combo videos are a mode of fan production particular to fighting games. In the most basic sense, a combo video is a montage of clips from fighting games demonstrating one or more combos, where "combo" refers to a series of attacks that are usually uninterruptable by the opponent. These videos tend to require a fair amount of knowledge about the game being shown in order to understand and dissect what is happening.

As the form has evolved the creators have been moving away from mere how-to's: newer videos often push the limits of the game engine itself, and an emphasis on editing and entertainment can greatly broaden the video's viable audience.

James "jchensor" Chen is one of the more prolific combo video authors working today, and in this fascinating interview gives us a glimpse into his creative process, which reflects the trend away from demonstration and towards spectacle.

Begy: How did you get started?

Chen: When Street Fighter Alpha came out for the home consoles, it came with one of the greatest inventions ever: Training Mode. I used to always enjoy doing combos on the SNES Street Fighter games, and I did combos by using my foot to make the opponent block once I started hitting them. When Alpha came out and had the auto-block and opponents with infinite life, I was in heaven.

This was also during the time when TZW tapes really started making the rounds. I, like anyone else, was always amazed by them and I really wanted to make combo VHS tapes as well, since I liked doing crazy combos! And, a couple of friends visited me once, and I showed them a bunch of crazy combos and they were impressed. And I would tell people about combos but people wouldn't believe me. So all these factors really contributed to me wanting to record tapes of me doing combos... but editing VHS tapes was a big hassle.

So when people started making downloadable videos [for] the Internet, I immediately got into the act. I had just started my job, so I finally had money to spend on stupid, trivial, useless things... a.k.a. a capture device. ^_^ So I got one and started recording combos. The problem was... where do I host them? Well, everything magically fell into place when a couple of dude names Tom Cannon and Tony Cannon decided to create a website known as ^_^ A good friend of mine, Derek "omni" Daniels, was already helping them out, and when I told him about the videos I was recording, he suggested I put them on SRK 'cause the site had just started, and it needed content. So I asked, the Cannons said yes, and thus my Combo Video making career was born. ^_^

What are your primary considerations?

When I started, all I wanted to do was show off cool combos. Nowadays, I've gone to a completely different place. After making more and more videos, it really woke up my artistic side, I guess you could say. So nowadays, I usually only make combo videos if: 1) I have something worth showing. 2) I can do something that makes the combo video fun to make or to satisfy a weird artistic itch. That was pretty much the entire motivation for the 2-hit combo video. The original goal was to have a bunch of stupid combos, but edited together in a way that combo videos have never presented combos. Fortunately for me, Maj got involved, and turned the video into more than just an editing practice. He recorded a bunch of 2-hit combos that were actually GOOD. And so, thanks to him, there was actually a "cool" component from the combos as well as the editing.

And after making that video, to be honest, giving me something fun to edit has become probably the primary consideration.

Ode to the 2-Hit Combo part 1/3

How much do you think about things like editing and music?

They are probably almost more important to me than the content, these days. If you've seen my Capcom Fighting Evolution combo video, the combos in the video aren't really that great. In fact, Kamui, who was involved in coming up with combos, had come up with a lot of MUCH better combos than the ones that made it into the video. I was just not interested in trying to cap the really tough combos because they lasted LONGER, and would get in the way of the flow of the video. Probably a bad idea, but it's how I was thinking at the time.

So for me, I need to pick a great song. And once I do, I make sure to make the song a STRONG presence. So the editing always tries to follow the music. I always try to make sure clip transitions, editing tricks, etc. all support the music. So it's definitely something I take huge consideration in.

jchensor's Fun With CFE

Who are you making the videos for?

I wish I could say I was making them just for me. But that would be a lie. Every time, before, when I released a combo video, I would freak out for a while, scared of the kind of reception it would get. So I do make videos for people to enjoy. But to answer the question more succinctly, I make combo videos so that people who know the game will appreciate its content, but at the same time people who don't know the game at all can still enjoy the video. And if I can also make the video appeal to people who don't even play video games or know about fighting games at all, I will definitely try. I showed the 2-hit combo video, for example, to a lot of my non-gaming friends during the course of it being created to make sure those people could still enjoy the video as well.

Is there anything you think combo videos should always do? Or never do?

Always have something new to offer. If you make a combo video and don't focus on editing, make sure the clips you show are original, inventive, and are not (as far as you know) rehashes of other combo videos. If you don't plan on making crazy combos, then make sure the editing is really creative. There's a combo video for Tekken that used the REPLAYS at the end of the round. They basically recorded the start of combos as replays (by killing the opponent [at] the start) so they could show the combo starting from the replay angle, and then they would transition into the combo from the regular view. THAT was creative. That was really cool. It didn't even matter, anymore, that I can't tell one Tekken combo from another... I enjoyed the video anyhow.

As for things combo videos should never do, well... there have been lots of threads on SRK that cover that topic, and a lot of parody videos. But for me personally, there's really nothing that's off limits truthfully speaking. I think, from an artistic standpoint, there can always be a legitimate reason to do ANYTHING you want. So there's nothing I can think of that should never be done no matter what. If you can figure out a way to justify it, do it. In my CFE video, I have a horribly grainy, zoomed-in clip of a badly animated character in the BACKGROUND of the game. But it... somehow oddly works, as stupid as that clip is.

A parody video - ULTIMATUM -RED SIDE-

Are there any combo video authors, or videos in particular, that you are particularly fond of or inspired by?

I will always have respect for TZW. I mean, you have to. He started it all. He was the first to do it. And his videos are still really impressive even today. Even in the early days, he did some weird, super technical stuff. Pretty much everything was pioneered by this guy.

After TZW, I would easily have to say Maj, my partner in crime for the 2-Hit Combo Video. And that's not because he helped me make the 2-Hit Combo Video or anything. It's because everything else he's done that has nothing to do with me is super fantastic! I'm not sure if you saw his Ryu video that premiered at Evolution 2009 this past year, but the thing is fantastic.

Maj's SF ? Ryu Exhibition - EVO 2009

Could very well be the best combo video I've ever seen in terms of choreography, editing, and just style. I mean, in the very last Combo, he even makes Ryu go through a costume change. Watch carefully! Amazing, amazing stuff. And I talk to this guy a lot. When it comes to combos and game systems, I'd almost call him a genius. I once joked to him that he was the Beethoven of combo videos. Beethoven was deaf and could still make music, and Maj doesn't even need to test anything and can make up Combos. The reason I called him that was because, during the making of the 2-Hit Combo Video, I needed one last combo for the section where I do some CvS2 EO [Capcom vs SNK2: Easy Operation - ed.] combos, where I do super cancels using P-Groove. I had made 7, and I knew I needed 8. While chatting with him on the phone, he said, "Hmm... how about this? Try using Eagle, get a screen away from Sim [Dhalsim], uppercutting Dhalsim's arm and a fireball at the same time so the uppercut move knocks Dhalsim up AND reflects his fireball diagonally up. Then super cancel the uppercut move so that Dhalsim gets put into a jugglable state and the reflected fireball will hit him." And it worked! Just like he said it would. And he made it up on the spot.

The last person I want to mention is kysg from Japan. I hear Japan isn't as big into combo videos as Americans are, but kysg is one of the best in the world. Even though he's a pure program pad combo video maker (similar to where Maj is moving towards, as his last two combo videos have all been program pad videos [programmable controllers that allow for inputs that are faster and more precise than a human is capable of -ed.]), kysg is another super technical guy who will do things not because it gets him the most hits or because it does the most damage, he'll do things just because it's friggin' COOL. His series of Third Strike videos is rife with that sort of thing. He had one combo with Elena where his only goal was to land as many DPs as possible. [There is] another one [where he] tried to make sure he used every single one of her special moves at least once. He had a Ryu combo where he used a Hurricane Kick solely for transportation... it didn't hit at all, it just made him travel so he could catch up to the opponent and continue the combo. He made sure to find 100% damage combos with every super art for Alex. He ended combos that kill someone but ends up comboing Chun's EX Hazanshu's since that move can't be comboed any other way, really. But he'll do it JUST to get it into a combo. He even makes sure that any time he dizzies the opponent, he programs them to shake out AS FAST AS POSSIBLE to prove that they couldn't have escaped it if they tried. If you just watch his stuff carefully, you can totally see him trying things... like, really trying to do something specific with each combo, so that every combo looks different, feels different, and is just also technically very impressive and sound.

On top of all that, his editing is really solid. I still love the Chun Li video he made.

kysg's Street Fighter 3: Third Strike vol 2- Chun Li

I thought the editing was great. The intro section just kicks. And the song was so catchy, I've actually since found it and bought it (yes, that's right... I do not pirate music... call me old fashioned!): "Angels Go Bald:Too" by Howie B. I dunno, I just really admire his stuff.

There's a lot of other combo video makers I really enjoy as well, but the ones I've put above are the ones that stand out to me in particular.

Thanks to James Chen for putting up with my questions and letting me post his responses. Blame any typos or misspellings on me. -Jason Begy

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