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Combos are one of the defining elements of the fighting game genre. Win neutral, and you earn a chance to play a mini-rhythm game on your opponent’s face. But they’re also often a very divisive aspect of fighting games, and I often hear people who don’t play fighting games tell me that they’re intimidated by having to learn combos. So let’s talk about what combos do for fighting games, and why they’re worth learning to love.

The most common complaints I hear around combo systems usually follow one of these patterns:

  • “I don’t want to memorize a bunch of button presses, that doesn’t sound like fun.”
  • “I don’t like being stuck in hitstun for a long time.”
  • “I just want to play neutral.”
  • “I don’t think I’m good enough to learn combos.”

Most people who sit down to play a video game want it to feel fun and playful all the time, and when they’re hit with something that feels like work, like practicing unfamiliar movements or memorizing attack sequences, that fun turns to frustration. So why bother having them at all? Why are combos so important to fighting games?

In neutral, each player looks at the screen to check their position relative to their opponent, picks a position on screen where they think their opponent is going to be in the next second or two, and performs a combination of movement and attacks to cover that space. Each character has many attacks in their kit, and each attack is defined by a risk/reward calculation in both space, through hitboxes and hurtboxes, and time, through its startup, active, and recovery frames.

For games that don’t emphasize combos heavily, like Samurai Shodown, Divekick, and Smash, the main thing you care about is whether your attack is going to beat the opponent’s attack, and your goal is to pick the attack that wins with the most damage. It’s a lot like single point sparring in traditional martial arts, where the fighters are reset to neutral after someone lands a hit.

No oki allowed.

A game with a good combo system adds depth to the neutral exchanges by giving the designers room to make attacks with a much wider range of risk and reward. When each attack has different combo potential, you have to choose your attacks in neutral based on what will get you that first hit and the sweet big damage combo payoff. Yeah, you could be winning neutral more often by landing a bunch of fast attacks, but if they don’t do much damage, you’ll have to win neutral a lot more often. In martial arts terms, it’s like going from a single-point ruleset to fighting for a knockout, like boxing or Muay Thai.

When attacks can have a wide range of payoffs, then there will be some attacks that tempt you to use them even though it might be a bad strategic idea, which adds a lot of richness to the core combat design. Having space for these kinds of tempting attacks creates room for players to communicate confidence or desperation based on how they use them, and it allows their opponents to punish them for being greedy.

Now, combos aren’t the only way to differentiate attack payoffs, but they do it in a really cool way, because the payoff is dependent on the player’s skill. Unlike Divekick, where every hit immediately KOs, and Smash and SamSho, where attacks are mostly differentiated by damage and hitpush, games with rich combo systems force you to earn that extra damage by studying and practicing the game. After that first attack in neutral, you need to recognize that the attack hit, check the screen to see which combo you should do based on the screen position, and execute the combo appropriately. Some games will even check to see whether you have specific optimizations based on screen position, character size and weight, and scaling in damage, hitstun, pushback, and gravity.

All this work is important for fighting games because it is what allows players to differentiate how hard they hit. In real fighting, different people hit with different power based on their strength, speed, technique, and fighting style, but in fighting games, my Ryu standing heavy punch does the same damage as yours. With combos, if I work harder than you do, my hits can do more damage and keep you in hitstun longer. And if my hits do more damage than yours, you’ll play neutral differently, because you won’t be able to take as many hits as I can. Through combos, every hit in neutral has a lot more depth and richness, not because of hitboxes, frame data, and damage numbers, but because the players can earn bigger payoffs through practice.

If you’re a combo complainer, you’re probably thinking something like “Yeah, and I don’t want to practice a fighting game, I just want to play it.”

…And that’s really the most valuable thing that combos contribute to fighting games. A fundamental promise of fighting games is that the player who works harder should win more — not all the time, necessarily, but more often than the player who works less hard. Being good at fighting requires you to not only make smart decisions, but to make them very quickly, and you can earn the right to make even smarter decisions by getting faster and stronger. This stuff is work, and the fact is that most people don’t start out playing fighting games and think “Wow, I love doing all the stuff I’m supposed to do to get good.”

Fighting games test us to do so many different things to get good. We have to practice combos, we have to study matchups, we have to learn how to ask strangers for help, reflect on our mistakes, and a million other things that people generally find uncomfortable at first. Very few people come to fighting games and think that every single part of the experience of learning to get good at them is uncomplicated fun, and this is a critical part of what makes fighting games valuable and beautiful, because it means that everyone who plays them shares in the central experience of having to push themselves to do something they don’t think is fun in order to improve at a skill they care about. In other words, it’s a sport.

When I go to a Guilty Gear tournament, I’m surrounded by people who all agree that Guilty Gear is so cool that it’s worth working to get better at, and that shared understanding alone is often enough to make strangers into friends. And when those new friends hit me with a combo, I know I’m hitting the lab as soon as I get home so that I can hit them back with a better one next time. And that makes combo practice a lot more fun, because the work that I do will be the fuel that motivates my friends to work, and in working hard we will all get stronger and have more fun, which makes the work feel less like work.

Thanks for reading! If you found this essay valuable and want to support my work, please do not hesitate to share it around on your social channels, follow me on Twitter, check out my Twitch stream (Mon-Thurs 830PM-1030PM PST), or join my Patreon.

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-patrick miller

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