Universal Fighting Game Guide: Understanding Combo Systems Part 1 – The Elements


If you’ve ever had any sort of interest in fighting games, you’ve probably stumbled across a combo video or two. They’re very cool to watch, and you may have even taken it upon yourself to be as good as the person in the video by going to a guide and learning how to read an execute something like this from BlazBlue:

214D -> B (FC), 623D, dash, 3C xx 236236B, 214D -> C, 5C 2C 4D -> D, [j.C x n] [dj.C x n] xx j.214B – 50% Heat

While you may be tempted to learn the big fancy combos the moment you start playing a new fighting game, it’s not the best way to level yourself up. Mastering the physical execution of big combos is nice, but learning the big combos without knowing the context behind them first is like trying to run without learning how to walk. This is post 1 in a two-part mini-series about understanding combo systems. Part 1 will deal with the elements that make up most combo systems, while part 2 will discuss how to put context to those elements to shape your offensive capabilities. Let’s get moving with part 1!

What is a combo?

This may sound like a silly question, but it’s an important one to ask and a more important one to answer. A combo is defined as a series of moves that are unblockable once the first move in the combo hits. The roots of the combo in fighting games is kind of funny, as they were actually a design accident in Street Fighter II that grew to be a pivotal part of the genre. When it comes to offensive output, knowing combos is your best way to maximize your opportunities by hitting your opponent with the most damaging sequence of moves possible before they can recover.

What is a combo system?

To me, a combo system is the rule set that governs the possibilities and limitations of a combo. Most modern fighting game has a thought-out combo system that is designed for you to hit a series of unblockable moves if you land the first one while trying their best to limit your ability to abuse infinite combos and/or other game-breaking tactics. There is a lot of common ground between fighting games in regards to what works and what doesn’t work, but each game is tuned differently. I strongly believe that mastering the fundamentals of a combo system first will be more beneficial to your growth as a fighting game player.

Common elements in a combo system

Link Combos
From IGN:

“Link combos rely on hit stun and quick attacks that can take advantage of that hit stun.”

Without going into the specifics of frame data, link combos involve a series of moves that will hit your opponent as they’re recovering from being hit. Some links have very large timing windows and are relatively easy to execute, such as Ryu jumping hard kick into his crouching sweep. However, some links have extremely tight timing. For instance, many of the Street Fighter IV Cammy link combos Sako is doing in this video require you to hit the right buttons within 1/60th of a second of each other! While you don’t necessarily need to know the frame data for any given fighting game you play, you need to have an understanding of what moves connect in this manner.

Cancel Combos
Cancel combos involve one move’s animation being cut short in order to allow the follow-up move to come out faster. The most iconic cancel combo in all of fighting games has to be Ryu’s crouching medium kick into fireball (which is the first combo in the above video).

Cancel combos are a huge part of fighting games, so understanding what moves cancel into other moves is critical. It’s also worth noting that the act of cancelling doesn’t necessarily mean you’re cancelling from one attack to the other. You might be cancelling into a jump, a dash, or another technique. Cancelling also isn’t necessarily triggered by simply inputting another attack. There are advanced cancelling techniques in many games, like Focus Attack Dash Cancelling (FADC) in Street Fighter IV, X-Factor Cancelling in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Rapid Cancelling in BlazBlue and Homing Cancelling in Arcana Heart 3.

Target Combos
Target combos are pre-defined series’ of moves that connect to each other. These combos usually have lenient input requirements to the point where you can ‘dial it in’ and watch your character complete the sequence of moves you entered. The most recent fighting game where target combos play a major factor is the new Mortal Kombat game. Every character has a number of pre-defined target combos that are pivotal to your offense, as the new Mortal Kombat doesn’t really allow you to execute link combos. Memorizing these target combos and knowing how to connect them to other moves is the crux of Mortal Kombat’s combo system.

Chain Combos
Chain combos sort of work like target combos in the sense that they can be ‘dialed in’ like a target combo. However, they’re not governed by specific button sequences. Instead, they’re governed by a more general set of guidelines. For instance, the core of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is built around chain combos, which allows players to chain normal attacks from light, to medium, to heavy, to launcher. You can mix them up in different ways as long as they follow the general rule of thumb. Tekken’s combo strings sort of work like this as well.

Juggle Combos

Juggle combos occur when you string together a series of attacks while your opponent is in a juggle state. This is a huge element in Tekken’s combo system, as many of the game’s most damaging combos involve juggling your opponent in the air. Variations of juggle combos include combos that involve bouncing your opponent off of a wall or off of the ground. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 makes heavy use of juggle combos, as tactics such as air raids and off-the-ground (OTG) are key to extending your combos into extended sequences of pain. Make sure to learn what moves trigger a juggle state and what attacks you can use once your opponent is in a juggle state.

Common limiters in a combo system

Damage Scaling
Damage scaling is a common combo system used in modern fighting games to limit the amount of damage an extended or infinite combo will do. Each game usually has some sort of algorithm that calculates how much less damage an attack will inflict after a certain number of attacks hit in succession. Off the top of my head, the most dramatic example of damage scaling I can think of is Desk’s 191-hit Chun-Li combo in Super Street Fighter IV. In any Street Fighter match, you usually need far less than 191 hits to win a match, let alone a round. However, because these 191 hits are within the context of a single combo, every hit is subject to damage scaling. After a certain point, you can see that the hits do virtually 0 damage.

While you likely won’t get affected by damage scaling this dramatically, damage scaling is absolutely a factor worth considering when you decide to create or execute a combo. In many cases, certain combos aren’t the most efficient use of your button inputs or your special move meters because the damage scaling affects them too much. You may be better off with a combo that does less hits, but does more damage because of the way damage scaling works. This is just one of many things you need to consider when damage scaling is involved.

Hit Stun Scaling
Hit stun scaling is another combo system element that’s often found in modern fighting games. It works similarly to damage scaling, in the sense that an algorithm is used to gradually reduce the amount of time you have to connect one move to the next. You’ll often see this in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, where a character who is stuck in a long combo will ‘magically’ pop out of it, even though it seems like they could have been hit more. Hit stun scaling isn’t as big of a factor as damage scaling, but it’s definitely worth understanding as the consequences of having your opponent fall out of a combo due to hit stun scaling could change the complexion of a match.

Combo Breakers
Most synonymous with Killer Instinct, the combo breaker is a technique used by an opponent to break out of a combo. Modern games that incorporate a combo breaker technique include the new Mortal Kombat, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom and the air exchange aspect of Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Oftentimes, combo breakers either require strict timing or cost you super meter, which is the trade-off for being able to break out of a combo. As an offensive player, you must understand how a game’s combo breaking system works, then find ways to work around it to your advantage.

Specific Combo Limiting Systems
If you’ve ever played a Mortal Kombat game and tried to throw Scorpion’s spear repeatedly, you’ll notice that it doesn’t allow to connect that move infinitely. At a certain point, the game will stop you from doing so. This is a specific combo limiter put on a specific move. These types of limitations aren’t common, but do happen.

One game that has a new method of limiting infinite combos is Skullgirls. This upcoming fighting game has a combo limiting system that detects infinite loops and stops you from performing them. While the developer has stated that they want to stop infinite combos, the game engine will allow you to string together long combos as long as they don’t include loops.

In Summary

– A combo is a series of moves that are unblockable if the first move connects

– A combo system is a rule set that defines how combos work in any given game

– Combos are your best method of maximizing your damage opportunities

– There are a number of different elements that make up a game’s combo system. It’s more important to have a firm grasp on the fundamentals than to have the ability to read and execute a combo from a guide.

Part two of this sub-set will discuss ways to wrap your head around all of a game’s combo system elements to define your offensive strategy and tactics. Stay tuned!

7 thoughts on “Universal Fighting Game Guide: Understanding Combo Systems Part 1 – The Elements

  1. Josh August 19, 2011 / 6:54 AM

    Jett, how long did it take you to finish this post? Either way thanks for the commitment, really great stuff in there shame I can’t seem to really put this to use at the moment I am going to have to give the games a break for 2 weeks or so because of some exams at school but I will do my best to make good use of your in depth look into this genre, thanks so much for writing this up though, much appreciated!

    • Jett August 19, 2011 / 10:40 PM

      The act of writing it wasn’t so bad. Maybe 4-6 hours. It’s the thinking through what I want to cover that takes the most time. Glad to know that you find these posts interesting. They’re really hard to think through and write, but I’ll keep it going for as long as I can.

      • Josh August 20, 2011 / 7:38 AM

        Thank you for continuously writing them for your readers but please don’t be under the impression that I don’t find them useful, I would love you to keep writing these and also in the same amount of context as this one but I haven’t played my games in a while, if you are wondering my sister is actually the one logging in to my account and playing just in case you were wondering. Thank you so much for your effort Jett and as long as you write it I will at the very least read it.

  2. JoshuaEvo January 6, 2012 / 1:40 AM

    Kinda late on the uptake on this one but there’s a lot of awesome detail covered in these fighting guides and they’re very well written. Being primarily a fighting gamer myself, it’s always good to see people writing things like this to help out the growing community.

    • Jett January 6, 2012 / 6:58 AM

      Thanks for the comment! I’ll keep the posts going for as long as I can. They do take a lot of work, but if people find them helpful I’ll do what I can to keep the series going.

  3. dude October 15, 2018 / 9:34 PM

    Great article ! Thanks !

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