Two-Player Game

by mushroompone

Level One

"It’s not a hard game," I said.

"Is that right?" Starlight arched her brows and leaned against the side of the cabinet. "Rainbow, you’re already sweating."

"Because it's hot in here!" I spat back, taking my hoof off the joystick for a precious second to wipe my brow.

Starlight didn't say a word, only smiled knowingly. And condescendingly.

"It's like. All you have to do is learn a few of the combos," I said, even though she hadn't asked. "And they’re literally printed right on the cabinet. It couldn’t get any easier if it just had a big red button that said ‘win’ on it."

"Sounds like a whole lot of excuses to me…" Starlight muttered.

I pounded the machine as I once again got slammed in the chest by a powerful buck from my opponent. My little digital wrestler hit the ground and landed in a pile of messy pixels.

"You lose!" the machine taunted.

Starlight watched the machine play out its humiliating lose sequence, pouting slightly, as if seriously considering it for the first time. "Sure could use that big ‘win’ button, huh?"

"Shut up."

"Explain to me again why this matters so much to you?" Starlight asked, once again taking her post against the side of the machine.

I sighed heavily as I slipped another bit into the slot. "I've had the high score on this cabinet since I moved to Ponyville," I said, swirling the joystick in endless circles as the game started up again. "Then some jerk swoops in and steals the top spot from me. So I'm staying here until my honor is restored as the highest scorer!"

Starlight scoffed. "Okay. I'm sure they weren't trying to hurt you specifically."

"I'm the best there is at Hoof-to-Hoof Combat!" I cried. "Whoever beat me worked hard to do it! And they had to top RBD on the high score list—no way they didn't know it was me."

Starlight just shook her head. “This doesn’t maybe have anything to do with the Wonderbolts, does it?”

I stiffened. “No,” I lied. “Why would you think that?”

“I just… well, I noticed that you’ve been a little cagey about us going to performances lately,” she said, slowly and carefully. “Did something happen? Because, y’know, there’s no shame in—”

“Nothing happened,” I lied again, as nonchalantly as I could manage. “I just don’t want you guys to feel like you gotta go to every single performance.”

Starlight arched a brow.

“And! And, also…” I struggled to find another reason. “I don’t like the way you’re trying to explain away my attachment to Hoof-to-Hoof Combat.”

Starlight’s brow climbed higher.

"Can't a mare just want to win?!"

Starlight looked at me, then at the cabinet, then back at me. "I mean. Maybe for you that's enough motivation to spend seven hours in the worst restaurant in Equestria," she said. "But for normal ponies…"

"Whatever," I muttered. I hunched over the machine and swished my tail against the tile as the game started again. "You just don't get what it's like in the high-stakes world of cabinet gaming."

"Well. Thank Celestia for small favors, I guess," Starlight said with a smirk, giving me a half-hearted pat on the shoulder. "I'm gonna get another soda. You want anything?"

I only grunted in response.

"Perfect. I'll get two."

I shuffled in closer to the machine, pushed away the echoes of Twilight telling me how bad that was for my eyes, and prepared for another round.

The goal of Hoof-to-Hoof Combat is super easy: you beat your way through a series of increasingly ridiculous pro-wrestler ponies in a quest to… well, I dunno. I always skipped the opening cutscene, if I’m honest. But it really was easy; just learn one good combo and spam it fast enough to wipe out your competition.

You don't get to the top of the high score list just by winning fights, though. There were bonuses for better accuracy, riskier shots, and all sorts of power-ups and junk you could grab along the way. The better you were at multitasking, the more points you could rack up, the higher you'd get on the board.

Currently, the board was a sea of me, topped with a single player known only as TMM. 

That was embarrassing. 

It made me look desperate.

Had it taken me months to fill the board like that? Maybe.

Was I going to stand in this stupid Hay Burger until I got the top spot back? Definitely.

Duck. Dodge. Duck, dodge, duck. Quarter-circle-B to charge, quarter-circle-A for a fireball, back to dodging.

The randomness of the whole thing made it hard to become a blindfolded expert. The ponies you fought had a predefined moveset, but they didn’t move in a recognizable pattern. It wasn't the sort of game you memorized to win—not like Super Mare-io or whatever. This was pure reflex.

Duck. Dodge. Duck, duck, fireball—

Something touched my hoof.

A little voice way in the back of my brain told me the thing touching my hoof was a spider, even though it probably wasn't a spider, and I made a wimpy little squeaking sound and nearly crawled up onto the cabinet to get away from it. After a second of sheer panic, I managed to redirect myself coolly off to the side.


There was a pony coming at me now.

I blinked a few times. I couldn't see anything past the super bright Hayburger lights. 

Maybe Twilight was right. Maybe video games were bad for your eyes.

"Sorry, sorry," the pony said, bending down in front of me. "Just dropped my pencil!"

"You lose!" the machine shouted at me.

I reached up to rub my eyes. "Uh… th-that's okay."

"Oh, gosh." The mare giggled. "I made you lose your game. Oh, I'm sorry, Rainbow."

I squeezed my eyes shut tight and sprung them open again. Finally, I could make out the pony standing in front of me.

"Hey, you're, uh…" I looked the pony up and down a few times. I knew I knew her! How did I know her?

She smiled at me, polite and awkward. I was making it awkward. Rainbow, for pony's sake, figure out who she is!

She had nice eyes. Her mane was… I dunno, not curly, really. It just had those swoops at the end of every lock. Kinda like the bottom hook on an umbrella. Definitely on purpose. She definitely did her mane like that in the morning. Every morning.

She was also really, really pink, which I guess should have helped, but weirdly not as much as the look she gave me when I hit a full minute of not knowing who she was. A weird sort of disappointment, mixed with genuine concern.

"Scootaloo's teacher!" I beamed with pride at having remembered. "Uh… Miss Cheerilee! Hey, didn't you used to date Big Mac?"

Cheerilee frowned. "That's—that isn't—" She paused, shook her head, and tried again. "You can drop the 'Miss'. We're the same age, Rainbow."

I didn't know how to respond to that. It certainly didn't sound right. "Oh."

Cheerilee made another face.

"I mean—or you could start calling me Miss Dash," I said quickly. "Since I… I'm teaching now, I guess."

Cheerilee blinked. "You are?"

Genuine shock and confusion.

I forced a smile.

"You are!" Cheerilee quickly recovered. "Wow, that's… that's so great!"

"Uh… yep!"

Cheerilee forced a little laugh, and her eyes drifted back down to the floor. "Where are you teaching these days? Flight school in Cloudsdale?"

She looked down at me with genuine interest.

She was so much taller than me.

That was… weird.

"Uh… n-no, I actually teach friendship stuff at Twilight's school," I said. "Loyalty stuff. Like, we read books and write essays about, uh. L-loyalty."

Cheerilee made a face that said she had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. That was probably fair. Most of the time, I felt like I had no idea what I was talking about.

"That's… really cool!" she said. "Wow! I-I'm so happy for you, Rainbow. That's a great school."

I nodded. "Sure is!"

Sure is?

That's the best you've got?

Cheerilee laughed again. Awkwardly.

I laughed back. Twice as awkward.

I'll be honest: I didn't know how to end this little encounter. I think I mostly just stared right at her, waiting for the little afterimages of blinking lights to leave my vision once and for all.

"Well, then," Cheerilee said. "I've got to get back to my papers. End of semester grades are due soon, and I've got a stack of poorly-written essays to praise."

I'll be honest a second time: that joke did not register for me in the moment.

"Cool," I said.

Cheerilee made a face like a dog holding something it shouldn't have in its mouth. "Yep," she said. "Cool."

She walked away.

After a very long pause, I went back to the game.


The sudden voice right next to my head caused me to seize so hard I nearly hit my head on the cabinet.

"That was hard to watch," Starlight said, setting a glass of cola down beside my right hoof. "But a really good science experiment. We now know that it takes exactly two hours for video games to suck the social skills out of a pony completely."

"Shut up."

"Can't argue with data like that."

"Why are you even here?"

Starlight shrugged. "I just told you: I'm here gathering data on nerds," she explained. "And to get you soda. But I can just go home if—"

"You can stay," I muttered.

Duck. Dodge. Duck, duck, dodge.

"Aw." Starlight gave me a friendly nudge. "What a softie."