How Mortal Kombat’s Dial-a-Combo System Impacts the Initial Learning Curve

Starting with Mortal Kombat 3, the franchise has used a dial-a-combo system for multi-hitting strikes. Quickly dial in the predetermined sequence of moves into your controller and watch your character rattle off each move in succession. Can’t speak to how the games between Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 and Mortal Kombat 9 handled it, but all of the modern games in the series use the dial-a-combo system as its foundation.

While this is a dramatic departure from most fighting games, where combos are usually created through links and cancels, the benefits of this system are clear. For one, players don’t have to worry about spending weeks in the lab trying to get the feel for that one-frame link that allows you to connect a standing medium punch from a standing light punch. The system is loose enough so that as long as you hit the buttons in quick succession, the combo will complete itself. Two, it allows characters to perform more unique moves without having to add extra buttons to your controller.

Even within such a rigid system, there’s a lot of room for creativity. Between the modern Mortal Kombat and Injustice games, I can easily spend hours in training mode, stringing together combos that seemingly juggle forever. As fun as it can be, the dial-a-combo system is not without weakness.

My primary issue with the dial-a-combo is that it requires a lot of memorization. You can put me in front of any Street Fighter game and I don’t need to look at a move list. Thanks to the underlying logic of how Street Fighter games are built, I can pick up any character and figure out their special moves and combos on the fly. I know that the game leverages the same handful of special move commands for every character. I know that one of the crouching heavy buttons (usually kick) is a sweep. I know that I can link medium attacks into other normals before cancelling into a special move. Not saying that I’ll be instantly good with every character out of the gate, but the orientation period is much quicker for me because the language is the same across every character.

Every character in Mortal Kombat uses the same dial-a-combo language, but the specific inputs are different from one character to the next. And not in the way that Ryu throws a fireball with a quarter circle motion and Guile throws a Sonic Boom with a charge command. Each character has at least a dozen unique two-to-five button sequences for you to memorize. And it’s not even the same sequences for every character. As a hypothetical example, hitting front punch, back punch, front kick for a Sub-Zero combo might not do anything for Scorpion. There are seemingly dozens – if not hundreds – of unique ways to create these combo strings, and Mortal Kombat seems to use every possible variation and spreads them across its roster.

Because of this, it’s really hard for me to just jump in and just enjoy the game without putting in the time in training mode with each character and learning the dial-a-combos. Unless you’re systematically trying to dial in every possible combination of attacks, you won’t figure out what every character has to offer on your own.

As much as I love the storytelling in NetherRealm’s single-player campaigns, this format of jumping between characters is a nightmare for me. For the duration of those campaigns, I feel like I’m fighting at a disadvantage. Scraping my way from one fight to the next, I’m forced to fight with a new character every few matches with a whole new set of commands to memorize before I’d even gotten a feel for the last character. Though I’m certain many have no issue playing these games this way, it’s a major sticking point for me.

Please don’t misconstrue this as me saying that the dial-a-combo system is bad. It’s just different. I’ve loved all of the modern NetherRealm fighters I’ve played and was deeply invested in Injustice back in the day. Once you put in the time to memorize your main’s strings, it doesn’t take long to then make the jump to smacking foes with huge combos. It’s just that initial hump is a tough one for me due to the immense amount of memorization it asks of you.

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