Some tips for learning combos (or: why your shit doesn’t work)

Patrick Miller
10 min readDec 9, 2019

[This essay was funded by my generous Patreon supporters. If you liked this and want to see more, please consider joining the crew!]

Millia’s combos are actually just a really long hair care routine.
I went over these combo tips on stream, if you’d rather watch a video.

When you are an old and wise fighting game player (like me) it feels like you can see the Matrix. Learning new moves, combos, and even entire characters only gets easier, because you know the rules of the game at a fundamental level, even hidden rules about frames and tick order and input buffers and cancel windows and all that other delicate beautiful bullshit that goes into a fighting game. The process of troubleshooting a combo is a pleasant problem-solving exercise, something like a Sunday newspaper crossword puzzle, because you’re old enough to remember seeing people older than you do Sunday newspaper crossword puzzles.

When you are a new fighting game player, troubleshooting a combo is like following an Internet recipe where the author assumes you already know enough about cooking that you don’t need each technique explained. You have a list of things that, when run through the proper operations in the correct order, will produce a delightful pot of curry, but you’ve never done step 4 before, and you’re unclear if it matters whether you throw the potatoes in first, or how to tell when the chicken is done.

I’m hungry.

But where recipes typically end in something edible even if you make a mistake or two, a combo will just not work, sometimes in inconsistent ways, over and over. Whether you end up getting it or not, if you can’t describe the things you did differently to get it to work or why those changes helped you get it right, it’ll still feel like a set of arbitrary and dumb hoops that you had to jump through in order to play the fighting game.

To be clear: I love combos. Combos are rad. But without the deeper understanding necessary to appreciate a combo and how it works, it’s super easy to write combo practice off as a timesink of dumb work that you don’t need in your life.

It is this deeper understanding of how fighting games work that makes the difference between brute forcing a set of inputs until it works, and deliberately troubleshooting your input sequence to figure it out. That deeper understanding comes with time and experience, and I couldn’t transmit it into your brain via a single essay even if I wanted to. So instead, I’m going to walk through a set of tools and tips you can use to troubleshoot your shit and figure out why it’s not working.

Turn on the input display in training mode

I know it can get kind of annoying and hard to read, but just turn the damn thing on so you can see what inputs you’re actually doing. Our hands are messy and rarely do what we want without tight feedback loops to train them, and seeing how the game is actually reading your inputs makes it much easier to learn where you need to clean things up.

Shoutouts to UNI’s training mode input display, which even tells you how many frames you’re holding any given input for, and can be combined with the Mission Assistance feature to see how specific combo trial inputs work.

If you haven’t used the input display feature before, you might be surprised at how many directions you’re hitting accidentally, or at how the button presses you think you’re executing so carefully are in fact a haphazard mess. Clean up your inputs, and you’ll make it easier for the game to give you what you want.

Make sure you know how (and when) each hit should connect

Take a Ryu combo like s.MP, s.MP, QCF+HP (Hadouken). As far as combos go, this one is pretty easy! But new players will often look at a combo like this and immediately start mashing each button as hard and as fast as they can, maybe not even looking at the screen to see what’s going on, and then wonder what they’re supposed to be doing differently.

That approach probably won’t work consistently, but it’s understandable, because all the game tells you is that the combo is these three attacks in order. Let’s get a little bit more specific with the annotation:

s.MP, s.MP xx QCF+HP

If you’re used to reading combo notation, you may recognize the “xx” in there as specifying that the way you combo s.MP into QCF+HP is a cancel (also known as a two-in-one, if you are old like me), and s.MP, s.MP describes a link.

In order to link s.MP into s.MP, you need to wait until the animation from the first s.MP is just about over, and press the button right when it ends. But when you combo that second s.MP into QCF+HP, you need to time the QCF+HP so that you finish the QCF motion and press HP when the second s.MP hits, canceling the remainder of the s.MP animation into the startup of the HP Hadouken.

So: When you’re going through a combo, start by paying attention to how one move is supposed to flow into another. If you see the entire animation for Move A finish before going into Move B, then you need to be carefully timing your button press for Move B right when Move A finishes; if you don’t see the animation finish, then you need to time Move B’s input for when Move A hits.

Finish the directional motion before you press the button

One of the things a lot of new fighting game players have a hard time getting used to is timing the button press for a special move after they’re done with the directional inputs; they’ll do the QCF and they’ll press the button, but they won’t realize that they didn’t finish the QCF before pressing the button, so they just get a crouching punch. That’s because when you input a fireball, you’re inputting the directions (down, down-forward, forward), then pressing a punch button. Once you press that punch button, the game will check through your inputs from the last couple frames to see if your inputs match any special moves, and give you the punch or special move as appropriate.

This is one of those things most other video games don’t force the player to think about, because they restrict your inputs to relatively simple stuff: single button presses, maybe some timed hold-and-releases, direction + button press, and a two-button chord sometimes. Also, action games typically let you move independently of performing other actions, so you don’t really need to worry too much about which order you do your moving and attacking, because the two functions don’t often interfere with each other.

One tip I’ve found to help me time my button press to the very end of the input is to think of the special move as handing something from my left hand (doing the input) to my right hand. It should feel more like your hands are quickly alternating between left and right — kind of like the cadence of typing a text message out and then sending it. If you’re constantly using your directions and buttons simultaneously, you probably need to slow it down and find your rhythm.

Use your character’s actions as timing hints

Fighting game inputs are also generally higher-commitment than other games are; most other action games are designed to make it so your character responds to your inputs as often as possible, because that makes the player feel like they are in closer control of their character. In fighting games, if you tell a character to do something, you’ll have to wait for them to finish that thing before you can give them something else to do (unless you can cancel the move).

As a result, you have to pay attention to each specific attack you’re doing in a combo, because that’s how you time your next input. Let’s revisit the s.MP, s.MP xx Hadouken combo.

If you’re linking s.MP into another s.MP, then you’ll need to get used to timing the rhythm of the two attacks, because if you wait until you see the first s.MP finish it’ll be too late to hit the second s.MP. And if you’re canceling the second s.MP into the QCF+HP, you have the time between when you press s.MP and when it hits (7 frames plus however many frames of hitstop SFV has) to perform the QCF and then the last punch to throw the fireball.

If everything went well, you got what you wanted! And if you didn’t get what you wanted, paying attention to what you got instead will give you a clue as to what you messed up:

  • If the first s.MP came out and the second one didn’t, you pressed the second MP while Ryu was still doing the first. Slow down.
  • If both s.MPs came out but the combo counter doesn’t say 2 Hits, then you pressed the second MP too late and the enemy recovered. Try pressing it earlier.
  • If both s.MPs comboed but you didn’t get the fireball, you most likely messed up the input (check the input display) or finished the input too late and missed the cancel window.
  • If both s.MPs comboed and you got the fireball but the combo counter says 2 Hits, then you need to do the fireball earlier, finishing the input while Ryu is still connecting with the second MP.

By learning to read the results of your failed combo and comparing them with the input display, you should be able to figure out why you’re missing your combo, and adjust your inputs accordingly.

For charge characters, down-back counts as down AND back

Even Smash players know about crouching Guile.

I see a lot of people get tripped up on charge characters because they don’t realize two things:

  • Holding down-back counts as charging both down and back.
  • You can hold a charge while doing other stuff (attacking, moving, whatever) as long as you keep holding the direction you need to keep the charge.

When you want to combo crouching MP into Guile’s Flash Kick, you start charging before you press MP, and cancel into the Flash Kick with up + any kick button to release the charge. You generally want to start the charge as early as you can in the combo (or even before the combo starts). If your combo starts with a jump, you could tap up-forward to jump at them and start charging down-back while you’re still in mid-air.

Let go of the dang stick/d-pad/whatever sometimes

Get in the habit of letting go of the stick. Unless you need to hold the stick in a direction (because you’re blocking or running or whatever), get in the habit of returning to neutral when you can. Not only does it make it easier to get to whatever directional input you’ll need to do next, it also makes it easier to get the thing you want, since in some games returning to neutral clears the input buffer faster. Don’t release it with any velocity, mind you — I often see newer players “flinging” the stick to up/right while doing a quarter-circle forward motion, which is risky — just let go and let it return to the center position.

Also: You are probably using more force than you need to on your stick or d-pad. Relax your grip, and try pushing and pulling it more gently when you’re executing your motions.

Stop mashing

Calculated mashing only.

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen people do combos by mashing each button one at a time. People often learn this stuff in 3D fighting games, because their attack animations are longer and their combo strings have a wider input leniency window, so you can get the basic strings without having to be too accurate with what you’re pressing and when.

Do yourself a favor and practice doing the combo with as few inputs as possible. You’ll develop cleaner input habits this way, and you’ll minimize redundant inputs that could risk giving you something you don’t want.

Try the combo out in different settings

Once you’ve done the combo a couple times and gotten your hands comfortable with the timing, you’re ready to change your mindset from troubleshooting to practice. Here are a couple techniques you can use to develop the consistency necessary to execute this combo in a tournament match:

  • Consistency on both sides is important, so challenge yourself to do the combo five times in a row on the 1P side, then five times in a row on the 2P side, resetting the count each time you mess up. Then try ten times in a row. (This is also a good way to warm up before starting a netplay session, by the way.)
  • Get better at hit confirming your combo by setting the training dummy to random block. That way you can get used to the situations where they block your combo opener and can practice your pressure combo routes (or escape plans, depending on the combo).
  • Practice on an AI training dummy. Grinding combo reps is nice, but in a real match you’ll have to think about a lot more than just landing that combo. By practicing on a moving, attacking AI, you’ll learn to identify the situations that lead up to the combo, and get your hands ready to do it right when you need to.

It’s okay if you can’t do a combo yet

Combos are hard to do. It’s kind of like playing music on your opponent’s face. You may you have a list of moves in front of you that combo together, but that doesn’t mean you have a combo yet. It takes time and practice to teach your hands to just do the combo at all, and even more to learn it so well that you don’t have to think about it.

You’re probably not going to master a combo in your first practice session. You may have some combos that you put off until you feel ready for it. Try learning easier versions and using those instead, then learning harder versions when you’re ready to upgrade. You’ll do it when you’re ready to, and that’s fine.

Thanks for reading!


-patrick miller

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Patrick Miller

a little bit miyamoto musashi, a little bit yoga with adriene.