Exploring Combo Systems in Fighting Games


Earlier this year, I was enjoying the indie fighting game Blade Strangers. Despite having put a number of hours into it, I hadn’t been playing it in the traditional sense ever since I wrapped up the review. The online community is virtually dead, making it extremely difficult to play with another human. I haven’t even been fighting against the computer much.

Instead, my primary focus was to explore the game’s combo system through training mode. One by one, I’ve been training with each character as a means of understanding the game’s combo mechanics. Will be the first to admit that this is an odd way to consume a fighting game, but let me explain.

Combos are one of the most mystifying concepts in fighting games. These series’ of attacks that are unblockable once the first hit connects are a sight to behold and a blast to perform, but they often require a level of skill and knowledge that eludes many. Even with a list of commands in front of you, it can be difficult to understand how to make those inputs work in the game.

For years, I struggled with Street Fighter IV not knowing how to perform the game’s advanced link combos. I kept reading about combos having a 1-frame window for inputs, but I completely misunderstood what that meant. How I thought it worked was that when you hit a button, you have to hit the next button 1/60th of a second after in order for the next input to work as a combo. If I drew it out, it would look like this:

TIMELINE FOR WHAT I THOUGHT

First Input > Second Input Immediately After

While some combos do have 1-frame windows for link combos, that window is never immediately after the previous input. Here’s what it actually looks like:

TIMELINE FOR HOW IT ACTUALLY IS

First Input > (delay, with the exact delay depending on each link) > Second Input

I didn’t realize this until I watched a particular episode of Excellent Adventures with Gootecks and Mike Ross where I could hear their button presses along with seeing how the game responded to it. That made me realize that there’s a bit of delay between presses. Between that insight and learning how priority linking (or “plinking”) works, the game opened up in a way that completely changed my worldview on fighting games as a whole.

It was at this point where I became aware of this concept I coin the “language” of combo creation in fighting games. As with any form of communication, there’s a structure in which you organize your words and phrases to create a sentence. You don’t think about the rules for how to string the words together anymore, but they’ve always existed.

Combos are the same way. Links, cancels, juggle properties, hit-stun scaling, and more are all part of the rules that define which moves connect as a combo and which don’t. There’s an overarching language to fighting games, as they all leverage the same core fighting game mechanics. But then from game-to-game, there are nuances that make them unique. I think of them as dialects if we’re still using language as an analogy.

During my time with it, I got really into studying the dialect of Blade Strangers. Within its combo structure, the game’s basic combo flow looks like this:

[Chain combo: light attack > light attack > light attack > heavy attack] x special move x super move

Three light attacks and a heavy attack that you immediately dial in. Then it’s a special move that you perform immediately after pressing the heavy attack. Then it’s a super move you perform immediately after performing the special move.

The game also has a unique limiter that penalizes you for using the same move more than once. However, with the use of it’s Offensive Skill technique (basically a Roman Cancel in Guilty Gear), along with EX moves that can trigger effects such as ground bounces, wall bounces, and juggle states, there is still a lot of room for wacky stuff. Over the course of a few weeks, I went through the process of working through each character and seeing what was possible. Not even so much for the purposes of playing the game seriously, but just to better understand how it all works and how I can squeeze every ounce of combo potential from each character.

Even Fight of Gods, which is a bad game in almost every respect, has a unique combo dialect that I wanted to explore. Beyond its universal 3-hit chain combo, the game was weirdly loose in its juggle restrictions. This allowed for Jesus to keep opponents in the air for flashy juggle sequences that were really fun to perform. Still can’t recommend this game to anyone, but I still may go back to it to further explore all of the different ways that characters can smack each other with style.

Playing fighting games like an archaeologist or scientist is not the most traditional way to play. But for someone like me who geeks out over the way in which game designers create their fighting game mechanics, I greatly enjoy this process of exploration and discovery. I’ll probably never be a good Blade Strangers player within the context of an actual fight, but maybe I’ll squeeze out a cool combo video or two while having a great time figuring out what works and what doesn’t.


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