PART XVI - The First Comeback
It had been nearly half a year since Azen decided to take a hiatus from Melee. He was into various other games at the time, including Maple Story and Gunbound, so I still interacted with him online through these games frequently, but overall I talked to him much less since I never went over to play Smash.
With Gettin' Schooled 2 (GS2) right around the corner, I decided to see if I could convince Azen to make his return. One day a month or so before GS2 I asked Azen to play Melee, and to my surprise he agreed. I went over to his house and finally got to play against essentially my Melee mentor once again.
To my surprise, Azen hadn't lost any skill at all. In fact, he seemed to have gotten better somehow without practicing at all. It's now something we consider to be somewhat of a truth, but it was the first I had seen of it: taking a break from the game seemed to clear his mind, and he was playing better than I'd ever seen him play. Azen in particular seems to benefit from this "hiatus boost" moreso than almost anyone I've seen, even to this day.
As we played I mentioned GS2 and how Ken and Isai were coming. Azen showed a small amount of interest, but didn't quite jump back in immediately. It took another couple of weeks of convincing, but I eventually did it: Azen decided it was time to make his return, and GS2 would be the tourney where it happened.
Smashboards was abuzz with the prospect of another Ken vs Azen vs Isai battle taking place, although some were understandably skeptical of Azen's ability to compete after his hiatus. Having played him myself I knew this would be no issue, but many predicted that Ken and Isai would take the top two spots with ease.
Sometime in early 2005, an incident took place on the online team-based game Gunbound which ended up altering the face of H2YL. Azen, Mild, ChuDat and I were playing 4 vs 4 against Ken and a few of his family members online. Naturally, with the rivalry that had built up between us in Smash, these were not the friendliest matches. Overall, they seemed to be beating us, which frustrated us and caused some internal arguments to start in H2YL. This was just within the context of the game, of course, but at one point Chu decided to swap sides in-game and play with Ken's team instead. Obviously the rest of us in H2YL weren't happy about it, but didn't think too much of it.
However, this seemed to finally be the moment that Chu decided to basically leave H2YL and claimed his loyalty was with the West Coast. He and Ken were very close friends, but Azen and I were also close friends with Chu and were upset by his decision. Despite this, and Chu now being "West Coast," we still talked and hung out with Chu as if he was still in our crew. Nevertheless, it certainly changed some of our practice sessions; we didn't practice with Chu nearly as much as we used to in 2004.
Although Chu was technically no longer in H2YL, Azen and I were very excited for GS2 regardless. I was thrilled to be attending another tourney where I actually felt like H2YL was represented, although it was still just two members. Azen and I stayed at Husband's house the night before the tourney and Ken ended up being there as well. Although Ken and Azen didn't play against each other initially, as people began sleeping and the number of people playing friendlies dwindled, Ken and Azen actually ended up playing each other for an extended session.
I was having trouble sleeping on the cold hardwood floor and thus ended up watching much of the Ken vs Azen session. It seemed like a rock/paper/scissors character counterpicking game was forming; Azen and Ken both used Marth, Fox and Sheik effectively, and Marth would usually beat Fox, Fox would usually beat Sheik, and Sheik would usually beat Marth, regardless of which player was using which character. I remember being impressed that Ken was able to use multiple characters at as high a level as Azen, since I'd only really seen his Marth. But moreso than anything I was thrilled to see that Azen hadn't lost his touch, and that he could still very much compete at the highest level. Finally, as the sun was coming up, Ken and Azen stopped playing and I did my best to get rest before the tourney.
Despite the lack of sleep I was yet again struck with excitement as I woke up: another huge tourney was upon us, and this time I felt more prepared than I had for any tourney since Game Over. GS2 was interesting because it was the first tourney I'd attended with a crew battle event. The Crew Battle was a brand-new concept which had been invented by the Ship of Fools, the midwest crew behind the Melee-FC series. Groups of players form a crew and then go head-to-head with another crew; the matches themselves are 1v1, but when a player was knocked out, the opposing player retained the stock count as it was when the match ended. This made for an exciting team-based battle despite the fact that it was still singles. Team Ben decided to implement crews into the tourney, allowing any groups of 4 to 6 smashers to enter.
Azen and I wanted to crew up with Chu, but we would've lacked a 4th in that scenario. This ended up being a moot point as Chu decided to continue his west coast loyalty: he crewed with Ken and Isai rather than us. We were a little peeved but decided to crew up with the next best players we could find: Caveman and Rob$ from Texas.
Ken, Isai and Chu were joined on their crew by Eddie, who despite being midwest was very friendly with Ken's family, having hung out with them several times when attending TG events in Cali. Also on the crew was HugS, an up-and-coming Samus player who was making his first out-of-state appearance.
Despite both crews being a bit randomly assembled, the crew event ended up becoming personal. Ken and Chu were teaming up against Azen and I for the first time since Chu became a turncoat, so regardless of our crew having Texas players and their crew having a Midwesterner we still knew pride would be on the line in these crew battles.
It was a double-elimination format since there were only 11 crews who entered, and to no one's surprise we ended up playing Ken, Isai and Chu's crew in winner's finals. Caveman did very well vs HugS before Isai took out his Young Link. We decided to put myself in vs Isai's 3 stocks, which proved to be a great decision as I only lost 2 stocks taking out his 3. Ken came in against me next, and to my surprise he picked Fox.
Ken had rarely used any characters other than Marth in tourney, so I was naturally surprised to be fighting his Fox, but his Fox was definitely better than I expected. He mostly outplayed me in the neutral, but a key shinespike allowed me to trade stocks and Ken's Fox ended up with 2 stocks left. Next up for us was Rob$ who was actually playing Sheik rather than his signature Falco; his Sheik did alright vs Ken's Fox, trading stocks to end up winning with three stocks left.
However, this left us with an awful counterpicking disadvantage we didn't consider: Chu's ICs was now coming in vs Rob$'s Sheik. If we weren't aware of how bad this matchup was yet, we definitely learned during this match. With 3 stocks, Rob$ couldn't manage to take a single stock off of Chu's ICs. We were now at an extreme disadvantage stock-wise: Azen, with 5 stocks, was our only player left, against Chu's 4 and Eddie's 4.
Azen was unphased, however. With some careful play, Azen brought Chu to 1 stock and just SoPo while he had 3 stocks remaining. We thought we'd be in excellent shape with Azen's 3 stocks against Eddie's 4, but shockingly Chu's SoPo managed to take another stock off Azen despite being over 90%. This was a heartbreaker, as the crew battle went from winnable to seemingly impossible with that single stock swing.
Yet again, however, Azen maintained composure as if it was an even matchup. Eddie took Azen's Marth to Yoshi's Story, a good stage for Ganon but perhaps an even better stage for Marth. Azen started off slightly shaky, but suddenly with an excellent combo Azen had tied up the crew battle, two stocks to two! Eddie finally managed to take a stock, but Azen immediately responded by tying it up, and suddenly it was 1 stock to 1, 0% to 0%. Continuing with the same collected, patient play that had brought him this far, Azen calmly disscted Eddie's Ganon on the last stock and brought it all the way back - we won winner's finals.
I jumped out of my seat yelling - Azen was back in full force and had just shown why he was considered one of the best players in the country, retirement or not. Grand Finals of crews ended up being equally intense; their crew managed to narrowly defeat us in the runback, which set up the very last crew match to decide the tourney.
The last set of crews was very interesting; Isai decided to use Fox this time around, while Ken decided on Dr. Mario. Doc was an extremely unconventional pick from Ken, but he did manage to take 3 stocks off Caveman's Sheik before getting knocked out. West coast then decided to put in Isai's Fox, and we were completely caught off guard by what happened next.
Isai's Fox solidly defeated Caveman's Sheik while only losing a stock, leaving him with 3. Next we decided to put in Rob$'s Falco against Isai's Fox; after all, Rob$ had 5 stocks and Isai only had 3, and surely Isai was less experienced in the matchup than Rob was. This ended up backfiring completely. Somehow, Isai's Fox not only won the matchup - he only lost one stock while taking out all 5 of Rob$'s. It was an incredible display, with Isai shinespiking Rob$ multiple times and really demonstrating his prowess with a secondary character, but for us all we could think of was how badly Rob$ had just let us down - we were now losing 14 stocks to 10, with only Azen and I remaining, in the final, deciding crew battle.
Hope seemed to be lost, so I decided to go in and see what I could do. Strangely, since the crew battle seemed to be already decided, the pressure seemed to be completely off - Rob$ just cost us the crew battle, so hopefully Azen and I could make it respectable, but we knew it was over.
I took my 5 stocks into the match vs Isai's 2 Fox stocks - Isai's Fox didn't seem quite as dominant as it had in the previous match and I actually ended up knocking out his 2 stocks while retaining all 5 of my own. Next they put in Eddie's Ganon, who I had never played in tourney before; we did play friendlies at Game Over which went roughly even but I had no clue how I would fare.
Again, despite the fact that I closed the gap to 3 stocks, the crew battle still seemed decided already. And yet again this seemed to remove any bearing that nerves may have had on the match; I played fearless and confident, and before I knew it, I had taken out Eddie's 4 stocks only losing 2 of my own. Without really thinking about it, I had suddenly tied the crew battle, when we were down by 5 stocks just two matches earlier.
Next up was HugS - I only had 3 stocks remaining to his 4, and even back in 2005 I was already a bit weak at the Samus matchup since it had been over a year since Jtanic's retirement. My goal was simply to take a couple stocks off - just weaken him for Azen, who had 5 stocks left and would be able to deliver the finishing blow. To my utter surprise, with a couple of well-placed up airs on my last stock, I actually even beat HugS - I basically just took out half their crew on my own, and still had a stock to boot.
I was ecstatic. Suddenly we were winning, and my performance alone had put us from 5 stocks down to 2 stocks up. Chu was their last player, and managed to quickly take out my last stock; I finally exited the crew battle after taking 10 stocks from the opposing crew. This set up an epic final battle: Chu's 4 stocks to Azen's 5 to decide the crew tournament.
Chu started off incredibly well, slowly chipping away at Azen's stock lead until they were on the same stock, and suddenly by the last stock it was completely even. Azen managed to quickly tipper Nana, leaving just Chu's SoPo to take on Azen's Marth. It was the battle of H2YL versus the traitor - even if Chu was still a good friend of ours and there wasn't really much bad blood, it still meant a lot to us to be able to take down Chu and Ken teaming up against us.
Azen and Chu's SoPo traded a few hits, but Chu's great DI couldn't survive two straight Azen tippers. Chu disappeared off the top of the screen as our crew erupted in cheers - after 3 grueling sets which all went to the very last stock, we emerged victorious! We were thrilled about our performance, and as much as Rob$ let us down, without his flub I wouldn't have been able to put on the greatest crews performance of my life. It was a big moment for me: although H2YL seemed to be on the downswing and my performances had been slacking, I instantly proved that not only was I still competing at the highest level, but I could dominate.
As excited as we were with our crews performance, however, we knew the main event was yet to come: the singles tournament. With the big three in attendance plus Chu, myself, DA and a slew of other top talent, it was sure to be an extremely competitive event. With our crews win amping us up, Azen and I were determined to make this a tourney to remember.