Going from footsies to neutral

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Guilty Gear is a hard game to learn for anyone, but it’s especially hard for people who have only known fighting games that operate at a Street Fighter-ish power level. So I figured I’d put some words down on how to adapt your fighting game skills for GG, specifically when it comes to learning how to play neutral. This essay should be generally relevant for most anime games (even UNIST, which has a lot of footsies in its neutral), but I’ll be focusing on GG because that’s my shit.

Before I jump into this, I want to make sure I mention that Machaboo wrote a cool essay on GG fundamentals, and Shinjin translated and interpreted that essay over here (“Machaboo on fundamentals for those that want to become good at GG”). It’s a fantastic read that everyone who wants to GG should chew on, though, like Guilty Gear, it’s one of those works that you’ll need to come back to because some stuff might not make sense to you until you have enough play experience to understand the situations they’re describing. Personally, I’ve found this very useful at describing a lot of neutral interactions, and it helped me break down this stuff into what you’ll read in this essay, so be sure to check it out later.

Now, let’s start with the most important thing for non-anime players:

Neutral != Footsies

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This is not neutral. The purple player has clearly landed an attack and placed the opponent in hitstun.

Neutral is the phase of the game where both players are free to move, attack, and defend. Your goal in neutral is to assess the situation, determine what you think your opponent wants to do next, figure out where you need to be and what you need to press to stop them from doing it, and then do the thing. Based on what you did and what your opponent did, your neutral exchange will resolve in an outcome that either keeps you in neutral (neither of you did anything, you both whiffed, one person backdashed, etc.) or one person comes out ahead (you beat their attack and knocked them down, you had to block a poke that led to a pressure string, you get the idea).

In a classic Street Fighter-style fighting game, footsies are a core skill for winning in neutral. That’s because the characters in these games are generally designed so that their attack ranges are similar enough that both characters need to be in a similar space to land an attack, and the attack speeds and mobility options are slow enough that if you can trick someone into attacking and then walk slightly out of range, you can punish their whiffed poke (“whiff punishing”).

So when you’re at footsies range, both players are trying to do low-commitment stuff (walking back and forth, whiffing jabs) to bait players to do medium and high-commitment stuff (sweeps, jumps, fireballs) that can be punished on reaction. This is what leads to the “footsies dance”, where both players just look like they’re taking a step forward, then a step back, then pressing a button that probably doesn’t hit, and it goes on for like 20 seconds until someone does something big and it either works or it doesn’t.

If you’re playing the Ryu mirror, for example, you’ll have low-commitment stuff (walk forward/back, whiff jab, crouch block), medium-commitment stuff that can beat those options if you call it out right (sweep and medium kick beat walk forward and whiff jab), and high-commitment stuff that can beat more stuff (fireball beats pokes and block but loses hard to jump, DP beats jump, etc.).

When you’re playing footsies, you’re trying to do low-commitment stuff to bait out high-commitment stuff, and looking for opportunities to use your medium-commitment stuff to beat their predictable low-commitment stuff. It’s real fun once you get good at it, and it’s real easy to find yourself thinking that this is as good as neutral gets.

Good news: Footsies is not the only way to play rewarding neutral, but it takes a while to understand what good non-footsies neutral feels like, because if you try to play footsies in an anime game you’re going to get your shit rushed down and murdered and then you’re gonna be like:

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“This game has no fundamentals”

So here’s the thing: Anime games are not, generally speaking, designed for footsies. Footsies interactions do happen every now and then (whiff punishing is still useful!), but the neutral is not designed around that careful, delicate, just-out-of-sweep-range dance. There are a lot of basic shared properties about an anime-style fighting game that discourage footsies:

  • Chain combos mean that landing any hit will probably give you a knockdown at least, so the difference in value between landing a sweep vs. another button that chains into sweep is small
  • Walkspeeds are often very slow, run/dash speeds are fast, and attack ranges tend to be larger, so the “just out of attack range” space is more like ½–⅔ screen
  • Having a run and airdash that conserves momentum (so that when you go into your attacks from that state, you’re still moving forward) means that whiff punishing isn’t usually possible, because you can’t move backwards far enough and quickly enough to make the attack whiff and respond with your own attack
  • Having air mobility + defensive options mean that going to the air is lower-commitment than SF, and it won’t always lose to anti-air options, so you have to think of how they move around in both vertical and horizontal space, which is not as much of a concern in SF-style games
  • Blocking and getting knocked down are real bad, because anime characters have such powerful offensive tools relative to SF characters, so you often can’t afford to eat a hit or two in neutral to train them into doing something else

All of the above factors mean that when you play neutral in Guilty Gear, you end up with neutral interactions that look less like footsies and more like the end of a samurai movie duel, where both players run at each other and go for an attack, except that instead of a delayed dramatic cut, the winning attacker gets a counter hit combo for 40–50% with corner carry. And if you want to beat their charge, you can do it by bringing a slow fireball with you, or by instant air-dashing over their attack and kicking them in the face, which means they have to start thinking about checking your air movement with anti-airs, and so you end up with a neutral game that’s super mobile and dynamic and occasionally pays off with some big juicy counter hits.

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I think every GG opening has a moment where Ky and Sol are swinging at each other. It’s how you know they’re True Friends.

In this world, you still have low/medium/high commitment options, but unlike SF-style fighting games, most of your choices will leave you in a different position than you were when you started them. So rather than dance backwards and forwards, your movement has to flow from position to position, smoothly and quickly using your attacks to control space that you think your opponent wants, avoiding your opponent’s attacks, and staying ready to punish your opponent’s high-commitment stuff like fireballs or instant air dashes on reaction.

Playing neutral in an anime game, then, means you have to get good at stuff like this:

  • Figuring out your low-commitment options — most anime games give you more access to the mid/high commitment options, and good players are the ones who can win advantages with smaller decisions and lower risk profiles
  • Baiting out someone’s extra air options before you commit to anti-airing them
  • Reading the screen position to get used to not-quite-neutral situations (air to air, air to ground midscreen, air to ground corner, etc.) that all have different risk/reward factors, where an SF-style game generally has a smaller set of situations to learn
  • Using your resources to buy better offense or defense, undo mistakes, that kind of thing
  • Most importantly, learning a LOT of move interactions

Once you get moderately good at footsies, you can use that skill to avoid learning a lot of move interactions (“in this situation, move X beats ABC and loses to DEF”), because if you’re really good, you won’t need to clash their buttons against yours. In Guilty Gear, it’s much harder to get stuff to whiff, and so even if you’ve managed to get to the position you want, winning the neutral means you’re still going to have to pick the right button for the job.

A framework for learning Guilty Gear neutral

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This is not the framework I recommend learning for neutral, but it’s pretty good anyway.

“Learning button interactions” sounds real boring, especially if you’re coming from Tekken and SFV, which are very reliant on frame data to determine which buttons beat which. (SFV buttons are probably the most reliant on frame data, since most fighting happens in a range where the hitbox/hurtbox difference doesn’t affect move outcomes so much; Tekken has frame data plus high/mid/low and sidestep direction to add a bit more complication to the mix.) You could just sit in the lab and have the training dummy go every move, one by one, and test which of your tools will be those. However, that won’t really prepare you for real matches.

My preferred method is to just play against people, pay attention to which moves are really blowing me up, and spend some training mode time the next day figuring out how to deal with them. That’s because in Guilty Gear, learning the situation that you’re dealing with against any given button is a critical part of learning which options you should be practicing to deal with them — as a Chipp player, my 6P and 2H will beat a lot of stuff, but I need to be just right with them to work, and if I’m too predictable with them I’ll get blown up, so I want to make sure I’ve got a range of options to deal with anything.

However, I’ve put together the beginnings of a framework for thinking of Guilty Gear neutral that help me think about these things systematically. If you want to feel a little less lost in your Guilty Gear learning, this may help.

So: Neutral is a phase of the game where you examine the situation, interpret what your opponent wants to do next, and then decide on a series of actions based on that interpretation. Basically, you’re asking yourself these questions:

  • What is going on here?
  • What does my opponent want to do?
  • Where do I want to be?
  • What do I want to press?
  • When do I want to press it?

Of these questions, the first two are determined by your understanding of the overall character matchup (How does Elphelt want to play vs. Chipp?) and player matchup (How does this Elphelt want to play vs. my Chipp?), and the latter three are about learning to play neutral within that context. So let’s dive into the Where, What, and When.

Where: Guilty Gear characters have a whole bunch of freedom to move around the screen that SF-style characters do not have, but they still tend to follow fairly predictable rules, so as you get used to the way gravity and conservation of momentum work, you can look at any given neutral situation and predict where both characters are going to intersect, especially if they’re running, jumping, and airdashing all over the place. For example, if someone is running at you, they’re most likely going to continue moving forward, so prepare for them to keep moving forward and get an attack ready for the location you think you’re going to clash in.

Of course, since attacking characters generally take up more space on screen than moving characters, you’re going to need to adjust your prediction to account for attack size and timing, so let’s move on to the When and What.

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Sin is about to pole vault at Venom, giving him a fairly predictable movement arc over the next 60 frames or so.

When: Once you’ve identified the place you think your characters will clash, when do you want your attack to be active? You can either be “early”, “late”, or “on-time” — if you’ve read the Machaboo/Shinjin essay, this is somewhat similar to the “three-structure”.

  • Early: I will press a button that beats the button I think you’re going to press
  • On time: I will press a button that will hit you whether you press a button or not
  • Late: I will press a button meant to hit your whiffed early button (or give me something real good on hit/block if I think you’re not even gonna swing)

You can place these three in a rough rock-paper-scissors relationship — early buttons generally beat on time, but will whiff against late buttons; on time beats late, late whiff punishes early. It’s not perfect for describing all interactions, but paying attention to the timing of your exchanges is important because if someone is consistently timing their attacks in the same window, it’ll be easier for you to narrow down your options to beat theirs, and if they don’t adapt to it, you might be able to just win off timing alone.

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What: Once you have the time and space, you need to decide on the right button. Not only does the button affect the time you hit (startup, active, recovery) and the space you hit (hitboxes + hurtboxes), you also have to factor in the cost (did you spend a resource?), the risk (are you counter-hittable for a long time?), and the payoff (what do you get if you win?). Each move is essentially a calculated risk, and some buttons are riskier than others.

It’s a lot to learn, but fortunately, a lot of this information is communicated by the specific button itself: P and K attacks are fairly low-commitment, HS and D are high-commitment, S is in the middle, and crouching/command normals (6P, 6K, 6D) tend to be a little bit higher-commitment than their standing neutral equivalents. Over time, you’ll learn to recognize which moves are conservative/average/greedy and how to beat them, the same way you learned how to beat predictable walk-forward in footsies.

Now, this sounds like a whole lot of stuff to do to learn to play a video game better. You might be asking yourself something like:

“Why the heck would I want to do all this when I could just play a normal ass fighting game?”

As it turns out, that’s exactly the right question you should be asking.

The most useful question is “Why?”

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“Why isn’t anyone playing with me?”

Everything you do in fighting games has a reason.

Everything that everyone does in fighting games has a reason.

Even the hardest masher of buttons has a reason for why they do what they do — it’s usually some variation of “Well, I don’t want to learn all this complicated stuff, so I’m just going to make sure I always have a move on screen, and besides, mashing feels good.” So even though they might not know the reason they’re doing those things, there’s still a reason.

I found this framework to be useful for learning Guilty Gear neutral because I’m not just learning the move interactions, I’m learning the intent behind the moves. Every single thing your opponent does has a reason behind it — a reason that indicates what they’re thinking about, what they want to happen, what they’re scared of, how deeply they understand the game, how deeply they understand you.

So when you get hit by something, ask yourself why you got hit by it, and what you could have done differently.

Why did your attack lose? Because your button was too slow.

Why did you pick a slow button? Because you wanted the counter hit combo. The verdict: You got hit because you were greedy.

But maybe you picked a slow button because you were expecting them to do a slower attack, like they had done in that situation before. The verdict: You got hit because you were making a hard read based on a pattern you had seen.

Over time, these explanations add up and you’ll start to see patterns. You lose because you get greedy a lot. Certain players will catch on to specific patterns faster than others. And so on.

The first common pattern you’re going to run into is realizing that you’re pressing some buttons for really, really dumb reasons.

In playing Guilty Gear, we learn to go deep on ourselves and our reasons for doing things, and we test them against each others’. We press buttons for reasons; we play Guilty Gear for reasons; after a match, we ask each other “Why did you do that?” because, in win or loss, we must know, for that is how we become stronger, in life and in Gear.

And if you don’t ask yourself this, you’ll lose to Bears, who will ask you “Why would you do that?”

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Daymendou is the real hero in this one tbh.

(TL,DR: Play Guilty Gear.)

Thanks for reading!


-patrick miller

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