The all neutral fighting game / What good are combos?

There’s a really interesting (and in my opinion fun) conversation going on in the thread started by Paul B on changes to the game for S3: (PaulB Talks: Season 3). If you haven’t taken a look I would encourage you to.

But one of the themes that is recurring is that people have different ideas about what constitutes good and legitimate fighting game mechanics. In that thread and elsewhere, many people place singular importance on the neutral game. If you “win” in neutral you should be rewarded. They tend to be dismissive of the KI combo/breaker/counterbreaker system as “guessing” and any successful break is “rewarding you for failing in the neutral game.”

I don’t want to reconstitute that debate here, but it brings to mind the idea of a perfectly “neutral” fighting game. What does that look like, and would it be fun? Well, I think Divekick would qualify. No combos, no special moves. Just all neutral all the time. I admit, I haven’t played it (sorry IG :grin:), but plenty of people think it’s fun. You can imagine other variations on “neutral” gameplay with more options than Divekick though. Probably Karate Champ and Yie Ar Kung Fu qualify. These were considered fun at the time, but have no significant following, no tournament scene and are not trotted out as examples of stellar FG gameplay. I never played SF 1, but SF2 already (accidentally) had combos. And the challenge of pulling of specials and combos has always been considered a big part of the game. But it is much more “neutral” than most modern fighters. Why don’t we all still play SF2?

So, without much additional rambling, I’m hoping to have a discussion on “what is the point of combos?” Especially if you share the philosophy that a “win” in neutral leads to a reward, why don’t we have fighting games that simply don’t have combos? A win in neutral means you hit your opponent. Period. What do the combos add to the equation?

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May I add what I believe is the extreme of Neutral gaming?

I find it funny, in MvC, I stayed out of combo because it scaled down the damage. KI, I may be lowly but I love the system.

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Thanks for posting that video of Divekick - I’ve never played it before and I had no idea T.J.'s accessories were based off of 1 of the characters (although I guess it figures considering who the devs are).

On topic, though, what about Smash Bros.? It has combos, I think, but they’re incredibly short.

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Depends on Certian situations, like Jab Lock (Look it up, It’s interesting and weird), or MASSIVE Hit stun to where you can do other moves.

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It’s “obvious” IG knows the Neutral game. I believe they fully intend to completely mess it up with KI :smiley:

PS: Here’s an oldie for neutral game wars with moves and mechanics you will see have been around a long while :smiley:

(also, fatalaties!)


Jeff Gerstmann over at Giant Bomb is known for rolling his eyes at long combos. When the first MKX ESL tournament came about, he remarked about how seeing the protracted combos made him not want to play. It’s an attitude I get: because you got blown up in neutral, now you have to sit there and wait through something more miserable than a loading screen before you get a chance to get up and- oh, you got blown up on wakeup, here’s another 5 seconds of not playing the game. Could you imagine if Super Meat Boy (a fairer game than the typical fighting game) made you wait through 5-second loading screens between retries? Even for the person executing the combo, they’re basically just playing Guitar Hero for said 5 seconds.

Honestly, I think I’d be more interested in Street Fighter if every move was negative on hit. Or if a few normals had enough plus frames to hitconfirm into less damage than you could get if you cancelled your initial hit into something unsafe on block. There should be no combos above 4 hits in those games, they’re totally bland and uninteresting and no compelling gameplay happens during them. An all-neutral Street Fighter would be ■■■■■■■ wonderful.

The problem is, combos are considered hype, and they’re an ingrained part of the culture that newbies can understand and get into training mode and grind away at and feel good about nailing even if they never learn to play the game properly, and there’s some meaningful gameplay in hitconfirming. So we’re kinda stuck with combos for the most part, even though traditional combos make for an objectively bad video game mechanic.

Where the KI philosophy discusses “2-way interaction”, it’s really about having combos without just having to sit and watch yourself get bodied. Instead, KI wants something impactful to potentially play out in those 5 seconds, and to that end presents mechanics which try to bring something akin to the tension and decision-making of pressure game to the combo game, whilst still being game-theoretically a different beast. You could argue that it’s a bit quick-timey and not as sophisticated or execution-heavy as defending against pressure, but also I think its simplicity is important in keeping combat design complexity low enough for players to grasp what’s going on.

Anyway, those are my general thoughts.


I actually think Smash is a good example of a game that is mostly neutral game dependent. Even if there are combo situations, it PLAYS like a game that is about neutral situations and in a lot of ways shows the type of evolution you would see if we really wanted to develop games where neutral is king. Ironically, it is also reviled by the vanguard of the FGC…

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The older Tekkens were pretty much all neutral influenced combos. Now the excessive wall splats and ground bounces take that away from once a neutral based game.

There are actually a lot of good things combos do for games. Let’s look at a few of them.

  1. They allow hits to transition into different beneficial properties. You might choose to do more damage with your combo, or get a hard knockdown, or get corner push. Conversely, you might choose to spend meter for more damage instead of in neutral. KI has obvious parallels here with different combo enders, but it’s just as important in SF (if Fei Long baits a DP, is he going to punish with st.HP into rekka for corner push, or st.HP into DP for damage, or link jab into sweep for a hard knockdown (in AE2012)?)

  2. It makes spacing matter. Not quite as much in KI as all hits will go into the combo system (with different starting KVs and different amounts of up-front damage), but in SF, whiffing a normal at low forward range probably doesn’t get you killed by much more than just low forward into fireball. But if you make a big mistake up close, the up-close combo is going to hurt a lot more. This can sort of be represented just by making some up-close normals do a lot of damage and far-ranging normals do less damage, but that lots of other balance implications that you might not want.

  3. It makes hit-confirming a thing, which is a really excellent skill to test in fighting games (something KI has as well, but it looks a little different, often following up with your combo OS or “hit confirming” a lockout). It rewards reactions and allows people to use safer (and therefore more fun) options up close without needing to commit to just a button, which probably has to be unsafe on block (see point 2 for why).

  4. It tests character knowledge. Think about a game like Marvel, which has tons of “scramble” situations and people converting stray air hits into combos is a really awesome thing to watch. These combos look different from your “canned” combos while they’re trying to figure out how to keep the combo from dropping, and it, again, also rewards reactions.

  5. It allows different types of games to be made with largely different flavors, and it allows balance in these games to actually be possible, because they can separate neutral game tools from combo tools. You suddenly aren’t limited to one up-close option and one at-range option which perfectly define your character (and would be massively hard to balance and differentiate between characters).

  6. They’re really fun.

To quickly mention the point that combo breakers can “save you from failing in neutral”, well… that’s kind of true, but it also largely depends on how the neutral was built into the game. In Marvel (and it’s also largely true of Melee), one of the worst things you can do is block. Most Marvel players spend the entire game making sure they don’t block anything, because if they block a multi-beam assist like Sentinel drones or Strange bolts, they are almost assuredly about to get opened up by the point character. In this case, you can think of Marvel neutral less about “traditional fighting game fundamentals like blocking”, and more about tricking your opponent INTO blocking (so you can run your patently absurd and wholly unreactable offense on him). Does that mean Marvel is a terrible fighting game? No, it just means the game is built differently.

KI is the same way, I feel. The game expects you to get hit, because they give these characters tools that would be absolutely silly in a standard Street Fighter game. They can, then, build the game around the notion that not every hit will lead to 50% damage, because combo breakers exist. It’s not so much that players suck in neutral and therefore get hit a lot, it’s that the game almost forces you to get hit. Now, this doesn’t mean blocking is bad in KI… in fact, I feel it’s the opposite (shadow counters are a very smart mechanic). But it does mean that people need to stop trying to pigeonhole fighting games into “you win the neutral”. In different fighting games, “winning the neutral” means drastically different things, which excites me as a fighting game fan! I’m a decade-long veteran of a half-dozen SF games, but if I played the same game that rewards the same things all the time, I’d have quit a long time ago. In KI, “winning the neutral” is only 50% landing the first hit (I’d sure hope that the game doesn’t pat you on the back and say “good job boy, you deserved it” because you opened up your opponent with Sabrewulf feral cancel mixups); the other 50% is getting a lockout.

Now, if you don’t enjoy playing the combo breaker game, then that’s fair. I think there’s a lot more to it than on first glance, and I think a lot of players who dislike it are oversimplifying the mind games because they are going with what seems to work right now but isn’t actually the full end-game of the system (most people thought they figured out no-limit hold’em too, until the internet boom fundamentally changed the game), but you’re allowed to dislike it, that’s fine. I just think you can’t get away with saying “KI rewards bad habits”, which is a much different statement than “I don’t like KI’s specific implementation of the neutral game”.


A thorough and thoughtful answer, as always.

In response to point 1. I think it’s a great point that combos give you options after the hit. How often is that really used though? In most games I just see people going for the highest damage combo they can pull off in any given moment. Obviously there are a lot of games out there, so I’m sure there’s some variety but most of the KI critics play SF, Marvel or MK. Frankly, I think KI’s easy execution combos provide a lot more opportunity for strategically choosing an ender than most.

Moving past that, just as a straw man: If opening someone up in neutral lets you damage them and combos allow you to control where the fight goes (through spacing or damage etc.) then aren’t you being doubly rewarded (at least in theory) for a single mistake the opponent makes in neutral?

It’s not that I’m opposed to combos, I’m just trying to kind of tease apart all the things that people seem to be concerned about but selectively apply to different games. It seems like we can take some of these suggestions and carry them to logical extremes and the results aren’t going to make people super happy.

PS thanks for bringing up 6. That gets lost in a lot of these discussions. Fun can include just looking cool, showing off to your friends etc.

Yeah, I understand why you’re going through this exercise, and I know the exaggeration in your first post is a devil’s advocate thing more than your point of view.

Actually, a lot! In SF4 specifically, it happens often. Corner push and positioning are just as important as damage. I could list you dozens of examples if you like; not counting the Fei Long one above, here’s a sample of a few more:

  • Abel choosing to not finish a CoD in the corner to keep his corner positioning
  • Zangief doing atomic suplex (less damage) instead of fierce SPD (more damage) because he wants more meter build and a mixup
  • Akuma finishing with sweep or light DP after tatsu to get a vortex, rather than heavy DP or EX DP for damage

And I guess I should also add that combos allow for corner variants that do way more damage (in SF games especially). If every punish was one button, the corner doesn’t matter as much.

Not really, you’re just choosing what brand of reward you want. You always get some baseline damage as a reward, but then you get a bonus reward. Do you want to take the meter build, the corner positioning, or the extra damage as your bonus? Either way, you’ll get something you can hopefully use to your advantage. KI distills these concepts into their enders in an extremely literal sense (a corner ender, a meter ender, a damage ender) but the concept comes from Street Fighter.

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[quote=“BigBadAndy, post:10, topic:2049”]Moving past that, just as a straw man:
If opening someone up in neutral lets you damage them and combos allow you to control where the fight goes (through spacing or damage etc.) then aren’t you being doubly rewarded (at least in theory) for a single mistake the opponent makes in neutral?
… In KI, they’ve got a failsafe for that… But you already knew that :smiley:
Since someone has already openly linked a article elsewhere, here is one on allowing crazy neutral/combo mechanics, ie, Failsafes.

PS: Sirlin is not the word. He just happens to be a great resource and an “authourity” on FG’s and game design in general :slight_smile:

There’s also a lot of people with short attention spans, who even having played the game for quite some time, have no patience and always get locked out in the first seconds of the combo, effectively rendering themselves out of the 2-way interaction, jumping into spectator mode and claiming they hate the combo system. Many people does not have patience to break on reaction and just want to get out of the combo now. Since KI combos are lenghtier than in other games, they claim to hate the system because they can’t “press buttons” as often

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Burst. This is the most blatant solution: a move that lets you break out of a combo. This taboo concept is very rare in fighting games, after the semi-fiasco of the “c-c-c-combo breaker!” in the game Killer Instinct. That game allowed the victim of a combo (who usually cannot do anything at all until the combo ends) to input a paper/rock/scissors guess that would allow him to escape the combo. This guess had no cost, so it was extremely common (too common) to break out of combos in that game.*

“Semi fiasco”? “This guess had no cost”? ummm… Have they really played classic KI or are just talking out of their bums?
KI classic had lockouts, and the original breakers were like the new ones, you could read, guess, react or mash. The rock paper scissors mechanic was fun because it was reactable.

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Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful responses. This is great.

Here’s a related question - assuming we all like combos (which we probably do since we are on a KI forum). How much damage from an unbreakable combo should a player have access to? Looking at a game like MKX you see combos upwards of 40%. These are held behind an execution barrier so they are not accessible to most players (like me), but they are ubiquitous in high level tournament play. Although the pros seem generally okay with that, plenty of people complain about it. SF is usually more modest, with most combos under 30% although you can get up in the 40s burning meter and ultras etc. SF V actually looks more weighted to combo damage to me, but I haven’t played it.

So, because damage is the simplest measurable reward for a combo (if not the only one as @Infilament has made clear), how much automatic damage is a fair reward for opening someone up? How much unbreakable damage should come from a single combo?

Personally, I think anything above 25% starts to be excessive. It seems to me like there should have to be at least 4 interactions involved in a standard round. Thoughts?

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I don’t mind it when low hitting/unblockables use up “super meter” for similar effect as other FG’s… I do when it’s matchup specific on being able to exploit certain “easy” combos. Foregone conclusions leave nothing to the imagination :wink:

I don’t like MK’s current style, even though it uses meter like MvC originally did.

Not sure what I could say knowing how much damage one can do by “simply” using Jago Block -> DP pokes to end the match in I believe it’s 5 interactions… One can play a long match over only 5 interactions if they truly know the match, both players and character, and it’s the right of a fighter to do so if they can… So what are players allowed to do to gain resources in Neutral before getting in their unblockables?
I could not judge, only observe the long term and tell you that I like watching “dogfights.”

Max has noted each beta build has gotten farther from combos and increasingly into footsie-wars. On top of that, only 3 (maybe 4) characters have a projectile and everyone has a very reliable anti-FB.

For an unbreakable? 15% aprox

25 its too much. Two 25 unbreakables and a lockout full of resources, you are out. And the defender only failed one breaker.

You have to gamble more for big damage

IMO, of course

I agree that for KI the % unbreakable damage should be much lower. I was just speaking about fighting games in general.

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Oh ok, I thought that we were talking about KI in that subject. I usually dont accept more than a 33% of total life.
Marvel: you have 3 chars, I can accept that you can kill each char in one full resources combo, considering each char a 33% of your total life. So in 4-5 open spots you can win
SF: 33 % without full resources, around 40% with full resources

It’s a complicated question because characters aren’t built equal. Some characters have poor footsies, but high damage (SF4 Dudley, for instance), so his combos are built to hurt more. Some characters try to kill you with lots of amazing pokes that don’t have a lot of teeth to them, damage-wise (but you’ll probably run into them a lot).

Also, discussion about the game pacing is very important as well. Some anime games you can die in two (or one!) openings, whereas in SF4 you can die in two openings in some very rare instances (someone lands two jump-ins on you + a stun combo), but most often you’re expected to make 12-15 “mistakes” per round, but the mistakes you’re making are low risk.

Anyway, for a game like SF4, I think you should be able to do at least 50% damage if you blow all your resources and your opponent makes the worst mistake possible (most characters will do much more). For mistakes at footsies range (ie, where the game starts), the mistakes need to be less damaging because you haven’t made any big mistakes yet; SF4 damage numbers are around 60 damage (average life bar is 1000, so 6%) for mediums (ie, amazing pokes like Ryu low forward, Chun stand strong, etc), and ~90 for fierces (Chun stand fierce, Adon stand roundhouse, Cammy stand roundhouse, Rose stand roundhouse). I think the “average” whiffed DP punish in SF4 for 1 EX was right around the 280 damage range (I once calculated this number for all characters and put it in a chart on SRK, that post is probably lost now). Some characters only got 200 damage, while some others got 350 (Dudley, Cody).

For KI, I think the S2 damage is pretty good. Some characters probably do sliiiightly too much damage (Wulf, Thunder) but it’s not super egregious, while other characters probably do sliiiiightly too little damage (Maya, Cinder) but it’s not super egregious. I like that most combos start at around 10% unbreakable using normal -> opener, or around 15-18% for normal -> shadow opener. I like that if you one-chance the first one you’re probably in the 18-20% range, and if you one-chance the second one, you’re probably in level 3 ender territory and at around 25-27%. Those are perfectly acceptable numbers to me.

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