the educated gentleperson’s fighting game primer

| patrick

Kid, I hear you got beaten up at school the other day. Got hit real bad, didn’t ya? Who were you fighting with? I bet he used Ken, didn’t he. There, there, son–calm down. It’s okay. That’s what I’m here for.

Foreword: Why Fighting Games Matter

Introduction: Here Comes a New Challenger!

Chapter Zero: On Execution

Chapter One: The Anatomy of a Fighting Game

Chapter Two: Ryu vs. Ryu (everything you need to know about fighting games)

Chapter Three: Fleshing Out the Design Skeleton

Chapter Four: Intro to Combos

Chapter Five: Eleven Tips For Not Sucking At Street Fighter

Appendix: Recommended Reading

Foreword: Why Fighting Games Matter

Fighting games have long been dismissed by philistines as “button mashers”. This is, I reckon, because “speed-chess-poker-magic-the-gathering-rock-paper-scissors-fighting” is kind of a mouthful, and frankly, most of the people who think fighting games consist of mindless button-mashing never got deep enough into a fighting game to get to the speed-chess-poker-etc. part to begin with.

You might be reading this simply because you want to learn how to become reasonably competent at a fighting game. That’s a pretty good reason! But I am calling this article “The Educated Gentleperson’s Fighting Game Primer” because, well, I know plenty of Educated Gentlepeople who ought to learn more about fighting games, but don’t have a clue as to how to go about doing it.

Odds are, if you’re reading this, you’re probably big into videogames; maybe you’re a devoted enthusiast, maybe you’re a journalist, maybe you’re an academic or amateur scholar of some sort, maybe you even make your own videogames. If you are significantly invested in the production and consumption of videogames as a medium, on a personal or professional level, you ought to know something about competitive fighting games as a matter of basic literacy.

Learning how to beat another person in a fighting game involves understanding elements of game design, psychology, programming and basic machine input/output, human physiology, motivation, and several other serious bodies of human knowledge — and then applying them to go beat down your buddy’s virtual avatar. You must train yourself to understand complicated situations and react to them with complicated physical movements within fractions of a second. Perhaps most importantly, you must learn how to get better at something: How to absorb good behaviors and discard bad ones, how to push yourself, how to practice, how to diagnose problems and fix them. I think it’s a good thing for people to do, period. To paraphrase MMA legend Renzo Gracie, “Fighting [games] is actually the best thing a man can have in his soul.”

As a budding professional in the games industry (I edit a magazine), I can directly trace my career path (for which I am incredibly grateful) to my early love of fighting games. Studying Street Fighter felt like seeing the Matrix as ones and zeros for the first time. Now, I can understand that not everyone feels the same about Street Fighter as I do — Street Fighter eventually led me to pursue actual fighting as another all-consuming hobby, so clearly I’m just kind of wired to like that kind of thing — but I maintain that a functional understanding of competitive fighting games is a worthwhile asset for any budding professional in the games industry.

The most fundamental thing that sets games apart from other artistic media — books, film, whatever — is that games demand a physical interaction between the text and the player. These days, we’re seeing games do all kinds of interesting things, from experimental narratives to designs intended for wildly different control schemes to engines so powerful they accurately model the way light works in real life. But amid all that, we’ve found it very challenging to develop games that express sheer joy at the level of the physical input itself. Fighting games require you to be proficient at the physical aspect in order to enjoy them, and as such I think they really do address the essence of the videogame as a medium.

Moreover, the process of playing a fighting game against another person can essentially be considered “game design, in reverse”. Playing a fighting game means you’re studying a game down to individual pixels, animation frames, processor cycles, and its player (your opponent) down to behavioral patterns, tics, and state of mind — all in order to make the game as miserable as possible for the other person. Your job is to take the tools the designers have given you — characters with moves — and turn the game into a sheer mess of broken parts that no one ever wants to play again. “Look at what you’ve made, designer,” you say, “Do you think this imbalanced, hackneyed crap is worth pouring my life into? Try again.” Your opponent is merely a canvas upon which you may paint with your brush of pain; the designer who dared suggest that this game was worthy of your time is the audience. (Of course, your opponent is trying to do the same thing to you, and somehow, both of you have a good old time and the game developers make some money.) Perhaps it’s not quite surprising why established fighting game veterans seem to be breaking into the industry; all they’d have to do in the office is, well, the opposite of what they do in the arcade.

So read this article. Maybe you’ll be bitten by the bug, maybe you won’t. If you’ve ever watched The Daigo Video and thought, “Man, I should learn how to play a fighting game sometime,” congratulations: Now’s the time.

Introduction: Here Comes a New Challenger!

I am convinced that fighting games are one of the most interesting things going on in videogames, and that they have been for a long time. I get the impression that lots of other people, smart people who often think a lot about videogames, think so too, but that they’re intimidated by the relatively high barrier to entry. Which is fair. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 26 because I was intimidated by the DMV, so, you know, priorities.

Here is the thing: Fighting games are not actually that hard to learn how to play, and play somewhat competently. But they’re very hard to teach . Most of us battle-scarred veterans learned how to play games by getting our asses beat for years before we even began to understand what we were doing wrong. That is not the way it has to be, mind you; just the way it is right now. Learning how to play fighting games by yourself (or with someone just about equally clueless as you) is kind of learning how to actually fight by yourself; that is, stupidly hard.

What makes things even harder is that literally the vast majority of Game in a fighting game is locked away from you until you are able to physically and mentally perform at a certain level. Starcraft is one of the most physically taxing game franchises out there, but it’s comparatively easier to get people hooked with a taste of the actual Game by teaching people different openings and game strategies and unit compositions, and then remind them that all the theorizing isn’t worth jack shit if they can’t attain a minimum level of physical execution. With Street Fighter , it’s like you have to basically take it on faith that there is an amazing game available to you after you spend years of your life training with the Wu-Tang Clan.

What follows is my attempt to give you a crash course in fighting games. I’m writing this because people frequently express to me the desire to learn how to play fighting games in the same sense that people tell me they wish they had time to cook more often or work out; if I write this, then I can just link it the next time you express this sentiment and save us both the trouble. Luckily, right now is probably the easiest time in the world to learn how to play fighting games, so really, you have no excuse. I may not make you a champion, but if I can make you literate, that’ll be enough.

Who I am: I am not a professional player or coach, or a professional game designer or anything like that. Far from it, in fact. I’ve played fighting games seriously since about 2002 or so. I’ve taken my licks as a tournament competitor, but I’ve only won a crappy little Third Strike tournament at an anime convention at Cal State Northridge, and my prize was some crappy Street Fighter anime DVDs (one of which I already owned). I’ve had the privilege of losing to some of the greats, but that’s about it. But I do think very seriously about the process of developing new skills — how to learn, how to practice, how to teach — whether those skills are about games or martial arts or whatever.

About this guide: There are many ways to learn how to play fighting games. For me, I spent years playing at the UC Berkeley BEARCade (RIP). My game of choice was Capcom vs. SNK 2 , which, as an introduction to fighting games, is kind of like learning a language by memorizing its dictionary and hoping for the best. As a fighting game, CVS2 is splendid. One of the best, really. But there is simply too much stuff in it — too many characters, options, tools, etc. — which makes it very hard for a budding fighting game player to improve. If something isn’t working, a newbie’s first instinct is to think, “Well, I’ll change to one of the other 40-odd characters , or use a new ‘groove’ (a set of different design elements like air blocking, parries, rolls, different super meter management, and so on)”, when it really should be something like “Hey, I should probably not jump so much.”

As a result, I spent years messing around with CVS2 — and by “messing around”, I mean “playing a lot ” — without ever getting that much better. This one guy at the BEARCade named Eric (“Meaneric”) Choi would demolish me for free, and I never understood why he could do that. It just seemed like he always had a dragon punch when he needed one, or a throw when he needed one. I must have spent a few hundred dollars trying to beat Eric. It took years before I beat him even once.

One day at the BEARCade, we were running through our usual $1-entry weekly tournaments, and Super Street Fighter II Turbo needed one more person to have a full 8-man bracket. Eric was the favorite to win, so he encouraged me to enter. “Okay,” I told him, “But you’ll have to show me how to play, first.”

“ Easy,” he said. “Just pick Original Sagat.”

In ST, you can pick “original” versions of the character cast that have slightly different movesets and properties than the normal versions. O. Sagat, as it turns out, has a fireball that is downright oppressive in its speed and recovery. So I picked O. Sagat, threw fireballs, and when people tried to jump over them, I’d hit them with a dragon punch. Simple and effective — and yet, it’s something I had never really thought about when playing CVS2, because when you throw fireballs in that game, your opponent can jump OR short hop OR roll OR parry OR Just Defend OR any number of options. Up until that point, I had never thought about how the fireball and dragon punch were supposed to complement each other, because I had been playing too many games which tried to mix up the fundamental blueprint established by the original Street Fighter II series by adding new and different elements to the mix.

I ended up getting second place, losing to Meaneric in the finals. Which, at that point in my fighting game career, was the best I had ever done in a tournament before. I continued to mess around in ST for maybe another week or two after that, and then went back to CVS2 — and found that I had, mysteriously, gotten better at that, too. Looking back, I think it’s because CVS2 is simply ST with a whole bunch of additions and abstractions and options layered on top of it, and I had mistaken those additions for the game itself . After coming to understand the basic game interaction — fireballs, jumps, dragon punches — everything else just kind of made sense .

In this guide, I’ll attempt to recreate that approach. The meat of this piece will focus on dissecting about 10 seconds of gameplay that contain pretty much everything you need to understand about fighting games. There are other people out there who will try to teach you about fighting games in other ways. This is my way, because it’s how I learned to play them. I have played fighting games for a long time now, but I consider that moment to be when I started learning how to play them. At the end, I’ve written a series of concrete, immediately-actionable tips that will give you very concrete ways to improve your game, but they won’t really make sense if you don’t have the proper framework to understand them first.

I don’t make any claim to understand the game perfectly; there are far better players (and teachers) out there you should learn from, and I have no doubt that there are many people who will read this that point out that I have misunderstood a detail or grossly oversimplified a matchup. I’m sure I have! And I welcome feedback — hit me up on Twitter @pattheflip, or comment on this article if you dare navigate our byzantine comments system. I will not pretend to expertise, here. I’m just a guy with an arcade stick who likes to write.

A note on materials: This guide will mention a few games, but most of the basics will just be in Super Street Fighter II Turbo / HD Remix , so grab that on your Xbox/PS3 (or emulate it on your PC) and you’ll be good. I would highly recommend buying an arcade stick — any variant of the Mad Catz TE (which typically run about $100 or so, though you can find them cheaper on Craigslist and such) is a good place to start.

There are plenty of people who manage to make these games work with a gamepad. Some of them are actually pretty good. Really, though, I’d recommend learning with a stick from the very beginning. These games were designed to be played with arcade sticks; it’s the right thing to do. At the advanced level, there are lots of technical nuances about these games that are much easier to understand if you know how to use a stick and how they work. An arcade stick is your sword, your gun, your instrument of your will; what you like and why you like it, eventually, can say volumes about who you are and why.

Fighting games are highly physical endeavors. In many cases, your success or failure depends on your ability to see something coming and perform a rather complicated move with utmost accuracy down to fractions of a second. For example, the difference between throwing a fireball while walking forward and performing a dragon punch is entirely based on when you press your punch button; in the former case, you want toward, down, down-toward, toward, punch, and in the latter case, you just want toward, down, down-toward, punch. It’s easy to get one when you wanted the other if you are not clean and intentional with all your inputs.

When you’re trying to perform complicated inputs with a standard gamepad, you’re relying solely on your fine motor skills. Your fingers alone are responsible for doing everything , and since a gamepad is a relatively small device, the difference between something like walk-forward-fireball and dragon punch is a matter of hitting some very small switches that are very close to each other in just the right time. With a proper joystick, you’re using your entire upper body, and your fingers simply have to hit the right button at the right time instead of worrying about highly nuanced movements. If I need to perform a motion faster or slower, I can rely on my arm’s larger muscles to help out instead of just trying to make my thumbs work at increasingly finer levels of detail. (Think about how hard it is to drive safely and legally in any Grand Theft Auto game: it’s mostly because you’re controlling a car with two thumbs on sticks instead of steering wheels.)

Chapter Zero: On Execution

Broadly speaking, the skills needed to play the modern fighting game competently fall into two major categories; you must know what to do and how to do it. Knowing what to do means building your understanding of fighting games; knowing how to do it means developing your physical ability to produce the motions necessary to perform the right moves at the right time.

The two skillsets are more interconnected than you might expect. You may lose a match because you didn’t hit the dragon punch you wanted, when you wanted it; maybe that was because you didn’t properly execute the dragon punch input in time (a failure to execute), or maybe it was because you saw the right time to hit the dragon punch too late (a failure in understanding).

Most of this guide is going to cover the basics in a fairly execution-agnostic way; I will assume that you are capable of performing a fireball motion (down, down-toward, toward) and dragon punch movements with reasonable consistency (say, 80% of the time). If you can’t yet do that, there’s no shortcut for this — just go ahead and hit training mode until you can. Try setting certain goals for yourself, like doing five dragon punches in a row on one side, and then five on the other side, and moving on to fireballs only once you’ve managed to successfully do three sets of five dragon punches on each side. Think of it like a warmup before hitting the gym.

Does this sound like too much work for you? Stop reading now, walk over to a mirror, look yourself in the eyes, and ask yourself, “, have I ever done anything truly hard ? Have I ever overcome a challenge? Do I deserve what I have, or has everything simply been given to me? In work, or in life — have I ever had a chance to fail? Do I want that chance? ” If the answer to that last question is “Yes”, then you may proceed to hit training mode. If the answer is “No”: Leave.

Many fighting game neophytes are intimidated by developing the execution skillset; it’s not as hard as it looks. Once people have surpassed the first execution hump, they’re often demoralized because they feel like since they know how to do the moves, they should win more — even though they don’t really know when they need to do the moves in order to win. This guide is for those people.

Chapter One : The Anatomy of a Fighting Game

Street Fighter II is intimidating. Understandably so: Any given character has somewhere between 18-24 different normal moves coming from six buttons (three punch buttons and three kick buttons that each perform different attacks depending on whether your character is standing, crouching, jumping up, or jumping forward/backward), a few throws, special moves, maybe even a super or two. If I am playing a game of Quake III Arena and I see someone, my options are typically different flavors of “shoot guy with while moving in a direction that best reduces my chance of getting shot back”. At any given moment in Street Fighter II, I could conceivably perform upwards of 35-40 different actions. As such, the most useful thing a novice can do is simplify the game. If you learn to think of Street Fighter II as a series of predictable situations with optimal solutions, you can forget the 34 dumb choices in any given situation and focus on executing the one or two good choices.

In rather broad strokes, Street Fighter II is a game about imposing your will on your opponent. Your goal is to make a series of intelligent situations that constrict your opponent’s options, forcing them to make ever-more-dangerous gambles until they do something you can punish them for. You want to put your opponent in these situations over and over until they lose, and then you put them in these situations again and again until they don’t want to play with you any more. Basically, Street Fighter II — and modern fighting games in general — are about making the game as tortuous and awful as possible for your opponent while they try to do the same to you. It’s a beautiful thing.

To begin: Characters in fighting games take damage when you hit them. A “hit” happens when one character presses a button that projects a box the game considers an attack (“hitbox”) into an area occupied by a box that belongs to another character (“hurtbox”). In Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix (hereafter referred to as HDR, because that’s a mouthful), you can actually turn on a view mode that shows hitboxes and hurtboxes.

Showing hitboxes in HD Remix's training mode. Red means hitbox, blue means hurtbox.

Showing hitboxes in HD Remix’s training mode. Red means hitbox, blue means hurtbox.

Press medium kick while Ryu is crouching, and you’ll see a red box surround his leg. You can see that when you use your normal moves, your character winds up a little bit in the start of the attack, then the hitbox shows up. If your box hits someone, they take damage and are sent into a “hitstun” state for a little while, during which they cannot move, attack, or block. If your opponent’s hitbox comes into contact with you either before your hitboxes show up (when your attack is starting up), after your hitbox disappears (the “recovery” phase of an attack), or manages to connect with your character’s hurtboxes while cleanly avoiding your hitbox (say, by performing a crouching kick that goes under your standing fierce punch and connects with your legs), then you’ll get hit instead. If your hitbox hits someone while they’re blocking, then they’ll be sent into a “blockstun” state, where they won’t be able to move or attack but take no damage (or very little damage, depending on the game and move properties).

When you’re just starting out with a new character (or a new game), one of your first steps is to understand each move’s advantages and tradeoffs in order to find out which moves are good in different situations. If a move has a really short startup animation, that means you can use it to stop slower attacks before they start and put your opponent under pressure; conversely, if a move has a slow startup animation, you’ll have to be more careful about how or when you use it. If a move stuns your enemy for a long time when you hit them with it, you can use it to start combos and do heavy damage to your opponent (if it hits) or use it to keep your opponent blocking and make it hard for them to start attacking you; if a move doesn’t stun your enemy for so long, your opponent might have the opportunity to hit you after blocking it, meaning you should only use that move when you’re absolutely sure it’ll hit. Moves with hitboxes that cover the area above your character’s head are good for hitting enemies that jump at you; moves that extend far across the screen are good for keeping your enemy at range. And so on.

Note that every move in the game has an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on the situation it’s used in. That doesn’t mean all moves are equally good; there are some moves that are pretty useless or highly situational, and part of learning a fighting game is figuring out which ones are which.

Individual moves are the atomic unit of composition for a fighting game, but eventually, your understanding of fighting games will grow to include effective combinations of moves that can work together to mask each others’ weaknesses and synergize with each others’ strengths in ways that encourage certain styles of play. These effective combinations of moves are called “playable characters”; in the next chapter, we’re going to dissect the Adam of fighting games.

Chapter Two : Ryu vs. Ryu (everything you need to know about fighting games)

Ryu is the character that the entire genre of fighting games was designed around. Every fighting game , from King of Fighters to Guilty Gear to Marvel vs. Capcom to Tekken, can trace its design history back right to Ryu. So let’s break Ryu down — and in doing so, break down pretty much every fighting game ever.

As it happens, pretty much everything you need to know about modern fighting games is right here in this exchange:

That’s pretty dense, though, so we’re going to break it down into individual chunks. Let’s start with Phase 1: Player 1 throws a fireball, Player 2 jumps over it, Player 1 hits Player 2 with a dragon punch.

Phase 1: Crouching Fireball, Hidden Dragon Punch

Player 1 (Orange) throws a fireball at Player 2 (Blue).

Player 1 (Orange) throws a fireball at Player 2 (Blue).

Ryu’s fireball and dragon punch are two very interesting attacks (so interesting, in fact, that they basically gave birth to the fighting game genre); we’ll begin by looking the fireball up close. As an attack, the fireball has a fairly high amount of startup time before it turns into a hurtbox. Once it is out, Ryu has to wait for a little bit before he can move freely, and then he can move and attack at will. Depending on which punch button the Ryu player uses to perform the fireball, the fireball’s hitbox could be only halfway across the screen or almost all the way across by the time he recovers. Once Ryu recovers from throwing the fireball, he basically has the ground-half of the screen covered; the opponent can either get hit by it (leaving him in a short amount of stun and taking a bit of damage), block it (leaving him in marginally less stun and taking a small amount of damage), respond with a fireball of his own to cancel it out (resulting in no stun or damage for anyone), or jump over it, avoiding the fireball entirely. Essentially, throwing a fireball means putting yourself at risk in the immediate moment (by performing an attack with a long startup period) in order to gain an advantage once it’s out and covering a whole bunch of screen space.

So Player 1 threw a fireball at Player 2. How is Player 2 supposed to find the best option available to him? Well, we’ll start by looking for the ideal outcome: Player 2 wants to avoid taking damage or being stunned, because both of those outcomes would make it harder for Player 2 to defeat Player 1. That means that Player 2 can either respond with a fireball to cancel out Player 1’s fireball, or jump over it to avoid it completely.

Now, at the beginning of Phase 1, Player 2 is standing about 1/2 to 2/3rds of a screen-length away from Player 1. At this range, it would probably take Player 2 too much time to a) realize that Player 1 is throwing a fireball, b) decide to throw a fireball, and c) successfully execute the fireball motion in order to cancel the first fireball out. If Player 2 tried to do this, he’d probably end up getting hit by the first fireball before his own fireball had arrived on screen, or maybe he’d successfully cancel it, but would still be a little bit behind Player 1, because Player 2 started his fireball after Player 1, meaning Player 2 will recover after Player 1 — which leaves Player 1 with time to follow the fireball up with something else, like walking up to Player 2 and hitting him, or throwing another fireball. So Player 2 decides to jump at Player 1 and hit him with a jumping Roundhouse kick.

Unfortunately, this is where the Second Interesting Move In Fighting Games comes in: The Dragon Punch. The dragon punch is basically the anti-fireball; where the fireball sacrifices the present for the future, the DP borrows against the future in favor of RIGHT FUCKING NOW. Upon completing the DP motion, Player 1 is invincible for the beginning of the move; within a few frames, he absolutely owns the space occupied around his fist. Once that fist connects with his opponent, it sends the poor victim into a “knockdown” state, where he can’t do anything until Ryu stands up. Of course, the DP has plenty of recovery time; as soon as Ryu is on his way down, he is open to whatever world of pain his waiting opponent has prepared, if the opponent managed to block or dodge the dragon punch.

Check out the hitboxes on that bad boy dragon punch.

Check out the hitboxes on that bad boy dragon punch.

The dragon punch is the great momentum-breaker; its near-instant activation time and ultimate priority mean that, basically, if you know that your opponent is going to do something, you can beat it with the dragon punch. Your opponent can keep you pummeled under a barrage of fireballs and well-timed moves designed to keep you blocking, but one properly-timed dragon punch will reverse the momentum entirely and put you back in the game. However, if you miss a dragon punch, you might well lose the game. High risk, high reward.

So, to recap Phase 1: Player 1 throws a fireball. Player 2 reacts by trying to jump over the fireball and gets hit with the dragon punch, sending Player 2 down to the ground, where he’ll have to wait for a second or two for Ryu to stand back up before he can do anything.

Dat dragon punch.

Dat dragon punch.

That puts us into Phase 2, which starts with Player 1 jumping over Player 2’s knocked-down body, hitting Player 2 with a jumping roundhouse when Player 2 stands up. Player 2 blocks that jumping attack, performs a dragon punch of his own, and gets swept for his trouble. What just happened?

Phase 2: Frame advantage and baiting the DP

Phase 1 ends with Player 2 recovering from the knockdown that the dragon punch caused. During this time, Player 2 can’t take any damage (he has no available hitboxes), but he can’t do anything, either. Remember that every attack has a certain amount of startup, and only a select few are invincible during that startup (like the dragon punch); Player 1 can use the knockdown period to manuever himself into an advantageous position (which he does by jumping over Player 2’s knocked-down body) and starting his attack while Player 2 is still getting up. Basically, after Player 2 gets knocked down, he stands up right into a big old hitbox that gives him the following options: get hit , block, or try to dragon punch Player 1. Getting hit is very rarely the best option, but why does Player 2 decide to block instead of going for the dragon punch (called a “wakeup DP” in this case, since Ryu is “waking up” from knockdown). The answer has to do with the reason Player 1 jumped over Player 2 before landing the roundhouse kick. It’s called a “crossup” . But before we talk about crossups, we’ll have to talk more about blocking.

In order to avoid damage, you can block attacks by holding backwards on the joystick. Some attacks must be blocked low (hold down-back) or high (hold back). In general, most crouching kick attacks must be blocked low, most jumping attacks (both kicks and punches) must be blocked high, and most other moves can be blocked high or low. Note that in fighting games, your inputs are dependent on your opponent’s position : “hold back to block” means “hold the joystick in the direction away from your opponent”, so if you’re standing on the left side of the screen and your opponent is on the right, you’ll hold left to block, and perform a dragon punch by rolling the stick from right, to down, to diagonal down-right, and vice versa if your opponent is on the right stand and you on the left.

When Player 1 jumps over Player 2, he makes life harder for Player 2 in two significant ways. First, he makes his jumping Roundhouse Kick harder to block, because Player 2 has to block in the opposite direction (since Player 1 is now on Player 2’s right side, not his left). Second, he makes it harder for Player 2 to execute the “wakeup DP”; the proper DP input is toward, down, down-toward, but when “toward” changes from “left” to “right” halfway through the input, it makes it much harder to properly perform. (Some games are more forgiving than others in this regard; Street Fighter IV is one of them.) Even if Player 2 successfully executed the wakeup DP, depending on Player 1’s timing, there is a good chance that it would miss completely, because Player 2 would still be facing the original direction while Player 1 would be in the middle of jumping over him, leaving Player 2 very vulnerable. For Player 1, the crossup jumping Roundhouse Kick is a very solid decision, because it’s hard for Player 2 to punish.

Note that not all jumping attacks have this “crossup” property, though usually most characters will have one or two moves that make for good crossups. If Player 1 had jumped over Player 2 with a move that didn’t have a hitbox which let him cross up, Player 2 simply wouldn’t have to block that jumping attack and would be free to move once he was done standing up from knockdown. And sometimes, you might attack with a crossup move that makes cont act when you’re on one side, but the momentum from the jump carries you to the other, so they have to block your jump attack one way and your followup ground attack the other. Sneaky!

Crossup jumping roundhouse.

Crossup jumping roundhouse.

So Player 2 wisely decides that blocking is the Smart Thing To Do, and successfully blocks Player 1’s crossup jumping Roundhouse Kick. Blocking the kick means Player 2 won’t take any damage, which is a good thing, but he’s not out of the fire quite yet; Player 2 is stuck in blockstun for a little while, with Player 1 standing right next to him. While Player 2 is recovering from blockstun, Player 1 can force him to block additional moves that could inflict minor damage (“chip damage”, which is incurred by blocking special moves like fireballs and dragon punches) and extend his blockstun paralysis, or require a specific blocking input (a low kick that Player 2 must block by holding down-back, or an “overhead” punch which must be blocked by holding back — Ryu’s forward + medium punch, for example), or walk right next to Player 2 and perform a throw (forward or backward and Fierce Punch or Roundhouse Kick) which is very fast, if somewhat short-ranged, and cannot be blocked).

Put yourself in Player 2’s shoes here, for a second: You just jumped over a fireball, got knocked down by a dragon punch, and was forced to block a jump kick that left you unable to do anything. Player 1 is standing in front of you, but because you’re still reeling from blocking that jump kick, you’re at a disadvantage because you have to recover from blocking that kick, and Player 1 doesn’t have to. This means that your next turn to attack comes after you’ve recovered from blocking that kick, and you still have to wait for that attack’s startup phase before your attack’s hitboxes come out. If Player 1’s jumping roundhouse forces you to block for, say, 15 frames of animation, and you want to perform a crouching medium punch with six frames of startup immediately after you’re done blocking, you’ll need to wait a whole 21 frames (about 1/3rd of a second) for your hitbox to arrive. That might not seem like a whole lot, but in Street Fighter , it’s the difference between your crouching punch succeeding, or getting stuffed by pretty much any attack Player 1 has. This is called “frame advantage” and “frame disadvantage”; basically, Player 1’s moves have put him in a situation where he has the “frame advantage” because he can start his moves before Player 2 can start his.

As I mentioned earlier in this section, Ryu has probably about 35 moves or so. In Player 2’s situation, however, pretty much all of his moves are really, really bad ideas, because they’ll get stuffed by just about anything Player 1 does due to Player 1’s frame advantage. Right now, Player 2 can either a) continue to block and hope he makes it out with relatively minor damage, b) get hit , which is not really ideal, or c) try to perform a move. Of the moves that Player 2 has at his disposal, only one is fast enough to have a chance at beating anything Player 1 does. You guessed it — the dragon punch .

Now, let me point out something here: As Player 2 is making his decision here, he’s essentially trying to make an educated guess at what Player 1 is doing. After all, Player 1 landed right next to Player 2 after the blocked jump roundhouse; neither player really is far enough to try and react to what the other player does (though eventually, given enough practice, they might be able to). Player 1’s frame advantage mean that he could decide to walk up and throw, or continue to attack, or even jump again, and Player 2 will really just have to guess at how to respond accordingly.

So Player 2 is fed up with blocking and getting hit and generally being beaten up, and decides to go for a dragon punch. After all, that dragon punch will beat pretty much any button Player 1 decides to press: If P1 walks up for a throw, he’ll get hit; if he tries to make P2 block a low roundhouse, he’ll get hit; if he jumps, he’ll get hit; etc. Player 2’s Ryu majestically soars through the air…and misses the attack that P1 never threw. Oops.

Baiting the dragon punch.

Baiting the dragon punch.

Folks, that’s what we call a “baited” dragon punch. See, Player 1 correctly read the situation from Player 2’s perspective: P2 was tired of being on the defending end, and he knew that he had one option to reverse the momentum, which was the dragon punch. From Player 1’s perspective, he could either choose to attack (and risk getting hit by the DP, which would have knocked P1 down and shifted the momentum in favor of P2), or sit there and do nothing, which would either reset the momentum back to even (if P2 decides to block) or give P1 another opening (if P2 decides to do a dragon punch). Basically, P1 took a conservative tack by not taking the risk of getting DP, and his read of P2 turned out to be correct. Once P2 lands from the DP, P1 sweeps him, knocking him down again and bringing us into Phase 3.

Phase 3: The close-range high-low-throw mixup

Poor Player 2 just can’t catch a break. His perfectly-timed counter DP ended up getting baited and punished, and he gets knocked down again . This time, Player 2 blocks a few light jabs from Player 1 before getting thrown, knocking him down yet again and setting the stage for further pain. What happened?

At the beginning of Phase 3 (after Player 2 gets swept), he’s basically in the same position as he was after getting DPed at the end of Phase 1, except this time he doesn’t have to block the crossup jumping roundhouse (though, depending on timing, Player 1 probably could have made him block that if he had wanted to). Once again, Player 1 has the momentum, because he can start setting up his attacks while Player 1 is still standing up from the knockdown.

Step into Player 2’s shoes for a second, now, and feel what it’s like to be well and truly broken . You dodged a fireball and got hit; you tried to counter a whole bunch of attacks that never came and got hit. Player 1 is pretty effortlessly making you look like an amateur. You want nothing more than to be out of this situation, but Player 1 seems to be reading your mind re: potential get-out-of-jail-free dragon punch opportunities, so you’ve resolved to just hold back and block until the danger is over. After all, he can’t keep you in blockstun forever ; block enough attacks, and Player 1 will eventually be pushed out far enough that the momentum will reset and you can take another stab at winning this game.

Which is why Player 1 throws you. Because he knows you’re broken. He knows you can’t muster the will to try another counter dragon punch. So he walks up, makes you block a jab or two, and then takes a step forward and throws you, dealing a solid amount of damage and knocking you down.

Using the jab to set up a throw, or "tick throwing".

Using the jab to set up a throw, or “tick throwing”.

The throw (typically forward or backward + fierce punch or roundhouse kick, though some characters have additional throws as well) exists to stop people from thinking of blocking as an invincible wall behind which they can hide from attacks. As it turns out, blocking attacks gets pretty easy pretty quickly; you just crouch-block everything except for jumping attacks and “overhead” attacks (standing attacks which force you to block high), both of which you should be able to react to if all you’re thinking about is blocking. By adding throws into the mix, the attacker gets to crack a determined blocker by making him block one jab, then throwing him; or making him block two jabs, then throwing him; or three, or zero. A determined blocker can escape a throw (called “teching a throw”) for low or zero damage, depending on the game, but in order to do so they basically need to go for a throw at the same time or slightly later than the attacker’s throw, which is tricky. So Player 1 forced Player 2 to block a fast, light attack, then threw him. This is called a “tick throw”.

When Ryu knocks you down and stands right next to you, he has a whole bunch of options: He can make you block low, he can make you block high, or he can throw you. As the defender, your job is to either dragon punch (at just the right t ime), or defend the incoming throws and attacks until you see an opening to counter with an attack or throw of your own, or escape to safety. This is known as a “high/low/throw mixup”; the defender is basically put into a situation where he probably won’t have time to react to seeing what the attacker does and defend accordingly, so he has to guess whether the attacker is going for a high attack (block high), low attack (block low), or throw. Even worse, the attacker is forcing the defender to make these decisions at an extremely fast rate; if Player 1 forces Player 2 to block three jabs, he could have easily at any point made one of those a low short kick, or a throw attempt, or ended the string with a high attack. Obviously, as the defender, you want to avoid these situations as much as possible. In this case, Player 2 got thrown, which resulted in moderate damage and yet another knockdown.

All of that started from one fireball — one humble fireball, coasting across the screen, enabled Player 1 to keep Player 2 constantly on the losing side of the decision-making process. By now, you can see how that happened. But why’d he throw the fireball in the first place?

Phase 0: Fireballs, footsies, and jockeying for momentum

Earlier in this article, I described the art of playing fighting games as, more or less, “making the game as miserable an experience as possible for your opponent”. You can see how Player 1 did that; he threw a fireball that got Player 2 to jump, and that one ill-timed jump sent Player 2 into a cascade of unfair decision after unfair decision. The right fireball at the right time gave Player 1 command of the match — in other words, momentum .

But how do you get that momentum? Certainly not by throwing fireballs willy-nilly; if Player 2 had predicted the fireball and jumped in earlier, he could have easily landed a damaging combo into a knockdown and sent the momentum in his favor instead. The art of jockeying for position is where much of the beauty and skill of fighting games comes into play; recently, people have been calling it “the neutral game”. We can broadly define the neutral game as “the process of turning an equal situation into an advantageous one”.

Understanding the neutral game is important for a budding fighting game player because, frankly, this is where you lose the game; it doesn’t matter how good your combos are or how clever your high-low-throw mixups are if you can’t get that first knockdown you need to set them up. And when you start playing Street Fighter , it’s easy to focus on spiffy special moves and combos without thinking too much about how to create openings to land them.


Half-screen range right at the start of a match.

Half-screen range right at the start of a match. If both players take a few steps forward, they’ll be within sweeping range.

Let’s travel back to the beginning of the Ryu-Ryu match we watched earlier and break down each character’s options. From the very start of the match, both players start at a range referred to as “half-screen”, where neither player can hit each other with anything except for a fireball or hurricane kick, and neither option is particularly good. When you’re at half-screen, with no frame advantage, it’s pretty easy to see a fireball starting up and punish it with a jump-forward roundhouse and combo from there, and the hurricane kick is a bad move to just spontaneously throw out because it doesn’t hit crouching characters, so it’s easy to duck it and punish with a crouching fierce punch or dragon punch.

If either Ryu takes a step forward from half-screen, they’ll be within range to sweep each other, which would give them the knockdown they need to start their crossup / tick throw shenanigans in close or pressure with fireballs (more on this later). What’s more, even if the other player blocks that sweep (crouching roundhouse kick), the attacking player can cancel the recovery from the sweep into a fireball, forcing the defending player to block that as well (and, depending on the strength of fireball used, get a slight advantage in terms of momentum). If they’re walking closer still , they’d be within ideal range for fast, weak attacks (jabs and short kicks) to set up throws, but it’s typically rather unlikely for both Ryu players to just close the distance like that without one sweeping the other first.

If either Ryu instead decides to take a step or two back from half-screen (for the purpose of this article, we’ll call this “two-thirds”), they’ll be in prime fireball-throwing range for one major reason: At this range, you’re too far to react to seeing your opponent start throwing a fireball by jumping over, since by the time you’re jumping over that fireball, the fireball-thrower has already recovered in time to dragon punch you out of the air (which, as we’ve seen, leads you to a world of pain). In order to punish a fireball with a jump attack at this range, you’d have to start your jump around the same time they start throwing the fireball, if not earlier — which means you’re anticipating a fireball, not reacting to it, and if that fireball doesn’t come, you’re probably just going to eat a dragon punch instead.

Two-thirds screen range. Easy to punish jump-ins, and fireballs are relatively safe.

Two-thirds screen range. Easy to punish jump-ins, and fireballs are relatively safe.

However, at two-thirds screen range, you are roughly around the area where you can respond to a fireball with a fireball of your own on reaction. You will recover after your opponent does, since you started your fireball later, giving your opponent a slight advantage, but that won’t be a big enough advantage to punish your fireball; they might just be able to take a few steps forward (into half-screen range). You can also instead choose to jump straight up over the fireball, which is usually the smarter choice because you don’t risk getting dragon punched (you’re still too far away), and you don’t have to block anything, meaning you take no chip damage or blockstun, so you recover slightly faster from dealing with that fireball.

Further back from here is the full-screen range. From here, neither Ryu can do anything except throw fireballs, and neither player is likely to get hit by a fireball from full-screen. From here, you can safely jump over an opponent’s fireball, because even if you jump forward, their anti-air dragon punch won’t hit because you’re still too far away.

In a Ryu vs. Ryu mirror match, he doesn’t have many good options at a neutral 2/3rds or full-screen. He wants you to be at 2/3rds when he has an advantage, because that puts you in situations where you’re likely to either block a lot of fireballs or jump forward and eat a dragon punch (as we saw in the painful breakdown above), but in order to put you there, he’s going to have to knock you down first.

So both Ryus start at half-screen, and both of them need to knock you down — probably with a sweep. You might think that the best thing to do at the start of the round, then, is “walk forward a step or two, then sweep”. However, remember that you’re both playing Ryu, and you both want the same thing — so it gets a little complicated. If your opponent knows that you’re going to walk forward and sweep, they could sweep first, which you’d probably walk right into since you decided to close the gap. Or they could walk backwards to stay out of range of your sweep, and if they see you whiff the sweep, they could sweep your sweep (since your Ryu’s foot would be in range of their sweep). Or maybe they stay out of sweep range while you’re hunting for a sweep and make you block a fireball. And so on, and so on.

Full-screen range. Not much to do here in a Ryu/Ryu match besides throw fireballs.

Full-screen range. Not much to do here in a Ryu/Ryu match besides throw fireballs or close the distance.

This kind of game dynamic — dancing in and out of range while fishing for hits to turn into an advantage — is called “footsies”. If you can react to everything, you can be a god at footsies, but if you can’t, you’ll find that you have to rely on your ability to read your opponent in order to give you the extra time you need to play footsies well. After all, some people will be more aggressive, some less aggressive, some better at reacting and some less good at it. It’s like playing poker at a very, very high speed (since every second you’re making new decisions in regards to attacking/not attacking, staying at range, etc.).

If that wasn’t enough to twist your brain into knots, consider how hard it is to detect bluffs in high-speed poker; that is, players will often be doing things to trick you into overextending yourself. Watch any high-level Street Fighter matches and you’ll see them walk back and forth rapidly — they’re quickly dancing in and out of range to bait the other player into, say, starting a fireball because they think it’s safe (when really, it’s not), or pressing standing light kick at a range where it’s unsafe to throw a fireball in the hopes that you’ll react, think they’re throwing a fireball, and jump in for a punish (which will then get dragon punched). Basically, once you’ve learned what you’re supposed to be doing (knocking your opponent down) you have to think about how to make it look like you’re going for a sweep so that your opponent will try to sweep you , and so on. Mind games.

Once you get the knockdown, you can go for a crossup jump roundhouse into some up-close shenanigans, or you can throw a jab fireball that is timed to hit them right when they stand up and immediately follow it with a fierce fireball — which starts a classic fireball-dragon punch trap that SF veteran David Sirlin describes in chapter 1 of Playing To Win  way better than I can, so go read it.

Congratulations: That’s everything you need to know about Street Fighter . Well, not really, but it’s enough to get started. Go find a friend and play Ryu vs. Ryu for a few hours (or the rest of your life) and then come back and read some more.

Chapter Three: Fleshing Out the Design Skeleton

Everything you’ve read about so far has been the essence of the modern 2D fighting game; the core upon which everything else is built upon. By itself, it is perfect — even better than Chess, perhaps, since Chess requires one player to move first. But it’s not quite so easy to sell Ryu vs. Ryu: The Game, so instead we have not-Ryu characters and not- Super Turbo games to flesh out that core skeleton.

Ken, of course, is a tweaked Ryu; in Super Turbo , he has a mashable throw (the knee bash throw with medium kick) that leads to interesting mixup opportunities after, and a dragon punch that has more invincibility frames, less recovery, and more horizontal range, plus a few different kicks that give him more varied poking options. However, his fireball doesn’t travel as quickly or recover as quickly as Ryu’s, making it harder for him to pressure opponents at far range or hold up against sustained fireball pressure from characters with faster fireballs, like Ryu or O. Sagat (in Super Turbo , you can select variations of each character designed to retain certain properties on their moves in exchange for sacrificing the ability to use super moves and tech throws). Also, Ken’s hurricane kick doesn’t knock down on hit, meaning you don’t get an easy mixup after comboing into it. The sum of these combinations typically make Ken a better character for less-patient players looking to easily punish jump-ins and use knockdowns as opportunities to land throws. If you play your few hours of Ryu vs. Ryu and find your best success with close-in pressure games, give Ken a shot.

On paper, Guile might appear to be very similar to Ryu; he has one move that’s good for beating jump-ins (flash kick) and a projectile (sonic boom) that’s good for pressure. Guile recovers ridiculously quickly from throwing his sonic boom, but it travels rather slowly, and in order to perform the sonic boom, the Guile player needs to “charge” back for a moment, then press forward and punch. So Guile can’t win a fireball war with Ryu or Sagat, and he can’t quite freely move around the screen because a good Guile player needs to always be charging down-back to keep a sonic boom or flash kick at the ready. Much of the time, this means that Guile needs to use his low-recovery sonic boom to close the distance; if Guile can walk behind his sonic boom, he’s basically covered by a shield. If Ryu blocks that sonic boom, Guile is in range to throw; if Ryu throws a fireball of his own, the two projectiles will cancel out, but Guile can hit Ryu out of his late fireball recovery with his spinning backfist (toward + fierce punch). In short, Guile’s character design is a combination of his moves’ properties (low-speed, low-recovery projectile) and the actual physical inputs, which restrict the player’s freedom of movement (the charging mechanic).

And so on, and so on, for Balrog and Dee Jay and Blanka and the rest of the cast. Pretty much every character is designed as a different answer to the question: “What do I do when Ryu throws a fireball at me?” Some characters have excellent options for dealing with fireballs, but aren’t so dangerous once they get in. Other characters have relatively bad options, but if they do get in, you’re in trouble.

And it doesn’t stop there. Each subsequent Street Fighter game sets up the Ryu fireball threat differently: The Alpha series makes you work harder to find openings, since you have more defensive options (very low chip damage, weaker throws, alpha counters, reversal custom/variable combo activations, etc.), but give you more tools to put together higher-damage combos (easy-to-combo super moves, custom combos, and so on). Street Fighter III pretty much got rid of the fireball-DP dynamic altogether by introducing the Parry system, which basically makes fireballs close to worthless — and so Street Fighter IV took part of that and made it weaker with Focus Attacks to make fireballs worthwhile but not game-defining. King of Fighters introduced the short hop, dodge, and roll systems to give players more options for getting around fireballs (each of which, of course, have their own respective weaknesses as well). Heck, we can even think of the Vs. series ( Marvel vs. Capcom and such) as asking the question, “Well, what if Ryu throws a fireball at me in a two-on-two or three-on-three tag match?”

In case you were wondering: This is most likely why in practically every 2D fighting game ever , (okay, an exaggeration — but a LOT of fighting games) the “main character” for the game — the one that the first player starts out highlighting at the character select screen — possesses a similar fireball/DP moveset. That way you can start learning the game by playing Ryu, see what moves and systems the game gives you to deal with the fireball/DP problem, and begin to build an understanding of that particular game’s design and mechanics based on what you know about Super Turbo.

Chapter Four : Intro to Combos

The neat thing about Super Turbo is that you can get a pretty decent game without knowing much in the way of combos besides simple stuff like crossup jump roundhouse, crouching medium kick, fireball. With most newer fighting games, though, combos are critical; having a decent bread-and-butter combo means you can win a round by forcing your opponent to make two or three mistakes instead of eight or nine.

At the most basic level, a combo is a string of hits that cannot be blocked if the first hit connects: The hitstun caused by the first hit gives you enough time to hit with a second hit, which gives you enough time to hit with a third, and so on. However, the way combos connect one hit to another varies. Ryu’s crossup jumping roundhouse, crouching medium kick, fireball combo works because you start with a jumping attack, which you recover from when you land on the ground, meaning you have enough time to start the crouch medium kick. Now, when you hit with Ryu’s crouching medium kick, you don’t have to wait for the animation to finish before doing something else; one of its properties is that you can cancel the recovery phase of the move into another move by performing the command for that other move before the kick animation is finished. In general, most of the canceling you’re going to be doing will be from a normal move to a special move or a super move , so you can press crouching medium kick, then immediately perform a fireball, dragon punch, or hurricane kick to combo. Of these three, the fireball is the easiest to consistently combo, although it doesn’t do as much damage as the other two or knock your opponent down.

By putting together a string of moves that combo into each other, you can turn your opponent’s mistakes into opportunities to take away 30-40% of their health meter, or more. You also get the chance to re-evaluate your arsenal of moves; if you have really good moves that are unsafe when blocked but can cancel into something else that is safe, then just make sure to use them together.

Naturally, different games and different characters emphasize combos to different degrees; if you are adamantly opposed to learning combos longer than 3-4 moves, you can still do okay in Super Turbo but maybe Marvel vs. Capcom isn’t quite your thing. Some people love practicing combos, some hate them, some learn to like them in time. I’m not the biggest fan of spending hours practicing combos, but it does feel nice to finally master something that’s been giving me trouble, and every now and then I take a step back and marvel at how I’ve been able to teach myself to perform successions of complicated movements. It’s kind of like programming a robot.

Like I said while discussing execution in the beginning of this article: There is no substitute for hard work. The easiest thing to do is look up your game and character online (see the appendix at the end for further recommended reading) , find a list of combos, and practice them until you can do them. In doing so, you’ll learn a lot about your physical habits, build your understanding of the game, and learn more than just how to do the combos you set out to do. You’ll learn how different moves connect in different ways, and how to look for new opportunities to land moves in the neutral game. You’ll learn combos that work very well for specific situations and matchups, which will teach you more about how to play your character. All of it is great — and really, it’s an integral part of the beauty of fighting games — but it is also work. If you want to get good — or even just literate — at this kind of thing, you’ll have to spend some time practicing.

I have a confession to make: I am Bad At Combos. I’ve never been a terrific execution-player, and I usually pick teams which make the execution part easier for me. If left to my own device, I’d rather play “smarter” instead of practicing harder. In other words, I’m lazy. But lately, I’ve been making more of an effort to step up my execution game, and it has opened up new avenues for enjoying the games than were previously available to me.

One thing that helps: When I sit down to practice a new combo, I typically start by running through the beginning of the combo and going straight to the end. It usually won’t work the first time (or the fifteenth) so I’ll start “chunking” the combo — memorizing it two or three moves at a time, getting those down, and then moving on to the next two or three. Once I’ve got a good feel for what it’s supposed to look like, and what my hands are supposed to be doing (and when), I try to identify the “pain points” in the combo — in other words, the parts where I am more likely to fail. Once I’ve IDed those pain points, I’ll continue “chunking” the combo, with an emphasis on practicing those pain points until they become near-effortless.

Ryu in Capcom vs. SNK 2 has a somewhat complicated “bread and butter” combo into super fireball; he needs to hit a crouching light kick, then a crouching jab, then a crouching medium kick, which he then cancels into the super fireball (down, down-toward, toward, down, down-toward, toward, then punch). When I sat down to practice this combo, I found that my pain point was the last bit — crouching medium kick into super fireball — so I practiced that, figured out what my hands had to do to consistently get that, then work that back into the original combo.

Once I start getting the hang of the combo, I’ll start practicing it in little mental drills — maybe I’ll practice it on one side until I can do it five times in a row without messing up, then try the other side. Eventually, I’ll turn the training dummy on to CPU-controlled mode, and just play an endless match where I practice hitting the combo in less-controlled situations. Eventually, it’s good to go against real human opponents.

The important thing to remember is that there is a lot of work involved in looking at a combo notation — something like “c. lk, c. lp, c. mk xx qcfx2 + fp”, which is the Ryu CVS2 combo I just described — and downloading it into your brain so you can produce the actual motions. Combo notations are the order of outcomes you need to feed the machine in order to produce the combo, but they won’t tell you things like “delay this attack a little bit so your opponent isn’t juggled too high, because otherwise you won’t be able to hit him with this attack later in the combo.” Those details are best left to your own trial and error, and help from others (be it in person or by watching a video). So don’t get demoralized if you can’t get it to work — instead, ask for help.

Chapter Five: Eleven Tips For Not Sucking At Street Fighter

This primer has been devoted to breaking Street Fighter down to its fundamental game design elements in order to make it easier to figure out what the heck you’re supposed to be doing and when the heck you’re supposed to be doing it — basically, giving you the tools to understand how the game works. However, giving you the tools without a few concrete pointers on how to use them isn’t really the nicest thing in the world, so here we go: Eleven practical tips that will make you less bad at fighting games.

1: Don’t jump forward. It may not seem like it to the fighting game novice, but jumping forward is an incredibly aggressive act. After all, you’re basically throwing away your ability to block for a chance to get in on your opponent, even though a) they’ll have plenty of time to react to it and b) pretty much everyone in any fighting game has a move that’s designed to beat your jump-in, knock you down, and welcome you to a world of hurt. When you’re in the neutral game, jumping forward should be treated as basically free damage and a knockdown, and if you can’t consistently punish people for jumping in at you, your first priority should be getting better at seeing jumps coming and punishing them with a solid anti-air normal or special.

Of course, there are good times to jump forward — punishing a fireball at an ideal range, or crossing up after a knockdown — but when you’re still putting together your Street Fighter ABCs together, telling yourself to Never Jump Forward is a really good way to force you to rely on your footsies and anti-air skills to get the knockdown instead of jumping. If you must jump, jump straight up.

2: Play a character you like. This might seem rather obvious, but playing characters you actually enjoy playing makes it a lot easier to want to learn how to play a game at a high level. It’s easier to spend time in training mode practicing combos and finding setups for a character you like than one you don’t. (Note that this tip does not mean “ignore tier lists”; I’ll cover that topic next.)

When you’re figuring out which characters you like, though, you should probably do a little digging to figure out why you like them — not because there’s any wrong reason to like a character, but because you might find that you like the aesthetics of Character A but don’t like the way they actually play as much as Character B. And if you like playing Character B in Game X, you might like playing Character C in Game Y, because they’re really similar.

Personally, I tend to enjoy playing characters that succeed by controlling space well from further out and using that control to gain the momentum (which, on the other hand, usually means they’re not that great when they’re being pressured). In Capcom vs. SNK 2 , I mostly play with Athena, Rolento, and Vega (A-Groove); in Guilty Gear XX , I used Chipp Zanuff (and Eddie, on occasion); in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 , I usually use teams built around Zero. Since I know this about myself, I’ll often watch videos of other people playing a new fighting game before I play it myself to see if I can get a clue as to who I’d like to start playing the game with first.

3: Learn the top tier. I’m all for playing the characters you want to play with, but if you want to understand a particular game at a reasonably competent level, you really should check a tier list to see who the community thinks is the best and worst, and why. This isn’t to say tier lists are objective statements of fact (there are several games where the highest-tier characters never won major tournaments), because they’re not. What they’re good for is telling you what kind of assets you’ll need to understand, and deal with, to be a competent player at this game.

Street Fighter III: Third Strike and Marvel vs. Capcom 2 are probably the best examples for this tip because both games have an incredibly rigid top tier (Chun-Li, Yun, and Ken for 3S, and Storm, Sentinel, Magneto, and Cable for MVC2). Fact is, these sets of characters have abilities that define the rest of the game. Storm can switch between running away off-screen to waste time and build meter to rushing you down and mixing you up with a blink of an eye, Cable can kill any assist that you don’t have protected in a split second; Sentinel is a great assist and a fantastic damage-dealer, and Magneto is so fast you’ll be hit by a mixup before you even realize you should be blocking. This is the game you’re playing, and if you insist on running a team like Hayato/Jin/Amingo, you’re probably losing the game at the character select screen.

That doesn’t mean you can’t beat them with lower-tiered characters, just that you should seriously practice with these characters first to really know what you’re dealing with. Maybe you’ll find out that the “weaker” characters you like to use have some of the same abilities as the top tier ones, maybe you’ll find out that you actually like playing with the top tier characters more; whatever it is, you can’t say you really know the game unless you know who is good, and why.

Tier lists aren’t the be-all, end-all for a fighting game, mind you. They shift over time as people develop new techniques, get more comfortable hitting hard-to-execute moves and setups, and learn specific matchups in more detail. In general, though, they’re a handy reference for figuring out which characters offer the best domination potential per hour of practice.

4: Act with intention. In other words, you should always have a reason for doing something. High-level fighting game players press a lot of buttons. They’re almost always stepping back and forth, jumping in place, whiffing light attacks, and all kinds of other feints. (Some of us even like to exaggerate fake-hitting a button in order to get our opponent to react to it, which is fun.) These players pretty much always have a reason for doing everything they do, though.

When you press a button, know exactly what you’re doing (the intended move) and why (the intended outcome). If it works, you know what you should keep doing and when to keep doing it; if it doesn’t work, you can more easily diagnose what went wrong. Did you go for a sweep to hit someone out of a jump? Maybe that didn’t work — try a crouching fierce punch, instead. Lots of getting better at a fighting game is trial and error, but if you don’t know what you’re trying and if/why it’s failing, you won’t have any idea how to improve. It’s okay to be wrong about these things — you’ve simply found another thing that won’t work — but unless you have a specific intended outcome every time you press a button, you’ll never be right .

5: Learn how to play safe. Believe it or not, the hardest thing to do — especially under the stress of competition nerves — is play conservatively. There is no honor in blindly rushing down your opponent, especially if you lose because of it. Learn how to take a small lead early on and turn that into a larger lead by being patient, not taking unnecessary risks, and punishing your opponent each time they get more and more careless with their attacks. In Street Fighter, cooler heads prevail (and also look like an awesome Zen Jedi Master while doing it).

Sometimes this means you’ll be blocking a lot. Sometimes this means you’ll be keeping your opponent away while waiting for the time limit to run down. That’s okay! You’re the smarter player, using every resource available to win. No one cares when a football team takes a knee to run the clock down — that’s a tool that the game designers gave them to win, and it’s not your fault that your opponent didn’t play with that in mind. And if you find yourself routinely winning by not-fun methods, then you’re probably just playing a bad game.

6: Do what works. When something is working for you — maybe it’s tick-throwing a lot, maybe it’s using lots of high-priority moves, whatever — keep doing it. The onus is on your opponent to stop it (even if that opponent is also your best friend). If it’s a casual match, go ahead and try and help your friend find ways around it, if that’s what it takes! But don’t stop doing what works, even if you have to do it 18 times in a row before someone figures it out; you don’t do yourself or any of your practice buddies any favors by holding back like that. Also, don’t get salty (read: frustrated) and call people “cheap”, because it makes you sound like a newbie.

7: Throw a lot. Throws are a great way to get in your head and remind your opponent that holding back is not a magical shield that will protect them from all harm. Learning how and when to throw is a vital skill in pretty much every fighting game that has throws, and I can think of very few situations where a player lost because he was throwing too much (unless he was throwing instead of landing big high-damage combos, perhaps). If people call you cheap for throwing, throw them out of your house — anyone who plays a fighting game should have gotten out of that mindset at least 15 years ago.

8: When you’re trying to figure out what went wrong, look at the big picture. Let’s say your buddy catches you in a setup that you simply cannot get out of — there’s like, three ambiguous crossups, four throw opportunities, and 15% of guaranteed damage. Ouch! So you ask yourself, “How do I deal with this?”

Well, when you’re trying to figure out how to deal with it, you could try practicing how to block those crossups and tech those throws — and really, that’s not a bad idea — but the easiest answer is always “Well, don’t end up there in the first place.”

As such, the first question you should ask yourself is “How did I end up in that situation?” Maybe your buddy’s setup starts with a risky jump-in; if that’s the case, you’re never going to let him get away with that jump-in again, and you won’t have to worry about blocking three ambiguous crossups, teching four throws, and taking 15% in guaranteed damage. (Man, that’s a pretty nasty hypothetical setup.)

9: Spend more time in training mode. Obviously, it’s great to get as much head-to-head practice as you can — after all, unless you’re one of a rare few who get their rocks off by building ever more challenging combos and generally breaking games, that’s probably why you’re playing fighting games in the first place. But you won’t get the most out of your head-to-head sessions if your execution isn’t on point, or you’re rusty with your characters, or you just haven’t picked up the game in a while.

Some people are really devoted to training mode and use the advanced combo recording functions to practice dealing with specific setups; if you’re up for that, that’s great, but even just playing for a few minutes every day will help keep your game looking good. And that, in turn, will help you get the most out of your precious few head-to-head play sessions.

10: Play online…sometimes. Between GGPO (PCs), Xbox Live, and PSN, we’ve got many different ways to find some real human competition without leaving home — something which competitive Street Fighter players in the past never had, meaning it was hard to get good at the game if you didn’t live near an arcade. Unfortunately, fighting games are pretty much universally affected by lag to such a degree that you won’t be able to recreate competition conditions while playing online, since we’re dealing with games that can often come down to individual frames and adding usually about 70ms of lag on top of that.

Here’s the deal: Playing online is a great way to build your matchup experience, especially if you don’t live in an area where you have easy access to other people who play every other character in the game. However, you have to keep in mind that it’s really easy to develop bad habits by playing online too much . Players can take more risks, jump in more, and use more unsafe moves, because it’s harder to punish mistakes when you’re dealing with lag — and you may find that if you play online a lot, you’ll find setups that work online but not in local multiplayer.

So, play online. Play a whole lot! But if you can, get some solid in-person sessions in too, preferably with people who are good enough to bring you back down to zero-lag-land. Maybe you’ll find that playing online will give you the match experience you need to be a better player, or maybe you’ll find that it’s too hard for your hands to constantly switch between “online mode” and “local mode”. (Better yet, play Super Turbo on GGPO, as it feels a lot like playing in-person, and really, it’s kind of hard to find people who play ST and live nearby.)

11: You are only as good as the people you play with. Even the most dedicated training mode warrior won’t get better without people to push him/her to improve. In order to get better, you need people who are capable of beating your ass in different ways — which means that as you get better, you’ll need to find new people to play with, and find ways to make your current practice buddies even better. And, really, that’s what fighting games are all about: Making new friends, and beating the virtual shit out of each other. So get to it.

Appendix: Recommended Reading

This is not the greatest article ever written about Street Fighter. (This is only a tribute.) Here are a few handy resources to further develop your SF game.

David Sirlin’s Playing to Win is a free ebook that was a huge inspiration for me, and it’s practically required reading for anyone who ever tries to compete in pretty much anything.  The rest of the site is worth reading, too.

Seth Killian’s Domination 101 series of forum posts are similarly useful in-depth guides to putting together a competition-friendly mindset, and it’s more fighting-game specific (if a little bit dated, as they’re like ten years old by now).

Once you’ve put in some time with this guide and your copy of ST/HDR, Majestros’s Footsies Handbook is a great place to continue your education.

For the budding fighting game technicians who are reading this, James Chen’s Capcom vs. SNK 2 systems guide is probably the longest dissection of a fighting game I’ve ever read. If you’ve played CvS2 — which is, in my opinion, one of the greatest 2D fighting games ever to grace this planet — it’s worth leafing through the guide to see how everything works in a nuts-and-bolts level.

In general, is worth checking in on; the front page is always full of new match videos and tutorials, and the forums are a good place to go learn about specific games and characters. Whenever I’m about to pick up a new character, my first stop is that character’s SRK forum.

Definitely don’t forget to check in on Twitch.TV streams; watching high-level players go at it can teach you a lot about what the game is supposed to look like when you play it, which is handy for trying to figure out what you should look like when you play it, too. So far, I haven’t seen too many consistently good instructional resources on Twitch, though. It’s mostly good for watching tournament streams.

If you’re a Redditor, game-specific subreddits (like ) can be a good way to stay on top of buzz and new techniques without having to sort through dozens of SRK forums.

In general, you’re trying to learn a new game or character, you’ll want to do three things pretty much whenever you can: First, practice combos, setups, and neutral game in training mode; second, watch character-specific match videos and combo videos on YouTube to see what other people do with that game/character; third, get some quality head-to-head time with your training partners. Make sure you’re doing all three of these, and if you aren’t seeing the results you’d like to see, figure out which one you’re not doing and do more of that. It’ll help.

patrick miller is a world warrior