Street Fighter V is out, and if you're interested in picking it up, you've got a couple of options available to you. You could pick it up, play it for a couple of weeks, then drop it because fighters are too haaaard, everyone online is too stroooong for you, and go back to playing games where you don't have to think so much. Or, you can keep at it, win some, lose some, and ultimately get good at fighting games. If that sounds more your speed, keep reading.
Plenty of people have written guides on how to pick up fighting games (give Adam Rorke's piece last week a look, if you haven't already) and this one will double down on the fundamentals of playing fighting games. It will be thick reading for some, as I'll be condensing years of fighting games theory into one big nugget of data. But stick with it, it'll all help improve your game.
Much of what you learn in SFV will carry over to other fighting games, with a little interpretation. While I'll mostly be talking about the upcoming Capcom title, keep in mind that a lot of what I'm going to say can be applied to almost every other fighting game ever. It might be daunting, but learning how to play fighting games is something of a life skill, and can even be applied to whatever other games you play. I invite you to try out some of the tricks and basics I'll be talking about with whatever game you wish, even your favourite platformers or action games.
One more thing I have to say; please, stick with it. As boring and basic and most likely patronising as this all seems, it's also arguably the most important. Just as Daniel-san got frustrated at having to wax Mr. Miyagi's car all the time, he wouldn't have beaten the Cobra Kai dojo without it.
Where To Start
It's a good thing to pick a character you like the look of, and have an interest in learning. But more often than not there are better characters for a complete rookie to choose. Knowing the basics of how each of the cast members work in game is important for the greener fighting games player, and will inform your decision of which characters to pay the most attention to with regard to your fighting games education.
Like most elements of a fighting game, there is a lot of carry-over between characters; sometimes a character's special moves might be alike to another's, sometimes it's specific normal attacks that work the same way, and other times, there are broader bases for comparison. Characters in fighting games often fall into one or more of these categories:
- Rushdown: fighters that will get close and fool an opponent's defences to dish out combo damage - Keepaway: fighters that will use single attacks or projectiles to keep an opponent at a distance - Grappler: close-range fighters that rely on size and power to deal damage in big, single chunks
Each character archetype has certain sets of tools generally associated with it. For instance, a rushdown character's strength is often in its aerial game; strong forward-jumping attacks that let a player maintain pressure after a successful knockdown. A zoner's most important tool would be long-reaching normal attacks, or a good projectile. A grappler might have a selection of moves with 'super-armor', allowing it to shrug off a enemy attack or two and keep on the offensive.
So which of these will you be starting with? The one you like? The one you hate? No, you start with this guy:
Ryu: the blandest, most boring character of the lot. More specifically with SFV than ever before, Ryu is designed as the playable roster's centrepoint. He's not too fast, he's not too slow, he's not too simple, he's not too technical; he's juuuuuuust right. If you're heading into SFV with very little fighting games experience, Ryu is an essential choice for learning the genre, and will help you more effectively learn other characters later. Once you're done with him, a whole other character's skill set can be learned with ease by using Ryu as a point of comparison; 'her fireball moves slower than Ryu's', 'his normals do this differently to Ryu', and so on. Soon you'll be able to apply this sort of logic to any character in the game.
Having done that, it's time to hit up training mode.
Walk backwards. Walk forward. Crouch. Jump. Push some attack buttons. Get a feel for how Ryu fills a space, from where Ryu can be a threat, from where Ryu can be threatened. Try to imagine something that looks like this in your mind:
Something like a fist and feet bouquet, isn't it? Aside from looking like something out of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, it's important to have something like this burned into your mind's eye; this is the range at which from Ryu can threaten an opponent on the ground, the range from at which Ryu can harass an opponent that jumps toward him. This mental image will help you a lot while you learn exactly how far away you can be while still able to land hits on an opponent, and how close you can get before you need to worry about being hit yourself; this concept is called zoning, spacing, footsies, and all sorts of other names, and is applicable to everyone in the game, particularly keepaway players.
While special moves like projectiles or anti-air attacks are all important parts of a character's arsenal, the more reliable single-button punches and kicks, the normal attacks or normals, are the meat and potatoes of any fighting game character. More often than not, matches are decided by the timing and spacing of a good normal rather than being able to spit out fireballs fast enough, and more often again by good zoning in between those normals.
Suppose for a moment that Ryu's opponent was jumping towards him.
The laws of gravity dictate that Ken will fall within our zone of attack; any of those punches and kicks in between Ryu and Ken will intercept Ken, dealing him damage and knocking him back away.
The three best options there are Ryu's crouching fierce (Down + Heavy Punch), standing forward (Mid Kick by itself) and standing roundhouse (Heavy Kick by itself), each with its own advantages and disadvantages. The crouching fierce is much slower to use than the other two, but will deal a fair chunk of damage. The standing roundhouse will deal a lot of damage as well, but will also push the opponent away the farthest. Both of those options are standard responses to a jump in.
If you're feeling brave and aggressive, however, you can try the standing forward. It's the fastest of the three, and while it might deal the least damage it has other advantages. Unlike the two Heavy options, the standing forward won't knock Ken too far backward. So if we check our mental image of Ryu's options again:
When Ken lands on the ground again he'll be in range to hit again:
We've turned Ken's forward pressure aside, and responded with our own pressure, putting Ken on his back foot. But Ryu's crouching forward (Down + Mid Kick) isn't his only option here:
Instead of the crouching forward, Ryu could use an jumping attack. Unlike the crouching forward, which has to be blocked low, most jumping attacks are overhead attacks, which cannot be blocked low. After taking the standing forward, Ken now has to decide whether he thinks Ryu will attack him from the air or from down low when he lands. This concept is called the mix-up, important to everyone but especially the rushdown player.
Another situation where an opponent is forced to guess is the cross-up; this involves a jumping attack landing close to on top of an opponent, making an opponent guess between blocking the attack as if coming from the front, or blocking the attack as if it's crossed over them and is coming from behind.
Now that we have Ken on the defensive, let's try something else. With Ken on the back foot, he'll be more prepared to meet an attack, he's more likely than usual to try blocking any sign of aggression on reflex. And what sort of attack do we know that beats any kind of block?
While it's not typically Ryu's go-to option, the Throw is an important mix-up tool, obviously favoured by grapplers. And like grapplers, Ryu has something of a super-armor move in SFV; his V-Skill, Mind's Eye, allows him to parry any attack aside, allowing him to maintain offensive pressure.
As you can see, Ryu is a very well rounded Street Fighter; borrowing tools and techniques from all the major fighting game archetypes, a player can learn a lot about fighting game theory with this wandering dude. And best of all, everything I've just shared with you can be carried over to other characters.
On top of the subtle differences between Ryu and Ken, you should notice a big difference between these two and Guile at the end, who's slated to be a DLC character coming later this year. Most notably many of Guile's attacks lean further forward than Ryu's and Ken's. This is indicative of someone who wants to keep their opponent at a further distance away; Guile, therefore would play more solidly as a keepaway character than as any sort of hybrid. This is reinforced by his choice of special moves; Guile's Sonic Boom, while designed to be thrown less frequently than Ryu and Ken's Hadokens, vary much more in the throwing speed, making for better zoning tools.
The point is, know what your character can do, know what your opponent can do, and pick the response to your opponent's actions that best fits your playing style. The only way to know for sure what's best for you is to experiment yourself; there's a reason a lot of fighting game players call training mode 'the lab'.
Of course, fighting games are not all about managing space. There's a whole other dimension you have to wrangle.
While spacing is absolutely critical for a good defence, it's hard to go on the offensive without a good grasp of how time affects fighting games. This is represented by frame data.
Every attack in a fighting game can be broken down into three major sections, divided up by their animation frames:
- Start-up frames: the time it takes for your character to wind up an attack. - Active frames: the time during which the attack is capable of hurting an opponent. - Recovery frames: the time it takes after an attack's active frames for your character to return to neutral state, ready to start another attack.
These three values determine how effective an attack is; lighter attacks tend to do less damage, but have less start-up and recovery frames, allowing you to throw them out more regularly, while heavier attacks might have more active frames at the cost of a longer recovery time. Being able to recognise an opponent's quicker and slower attacks will make it easier to act against their attacks.
Frame data, then, is a table of data for each and every attack a character can use, showing its start-up time, active time and recovery time. Players who take fighting games seriously will study this data, comparing it to other characters' attacks to determine which attacks are the best to remember in a fight.
In addition to their frame counts, every attack also has two other important numbers to consider; hit-stun and block-stun. These values represent the length of time for which an opponent is sent reeling after an attack, whether they were hit by the attack or managed to block it in time. An attack with lots of hit-stun would leave an opponent stunned for longer after the attack lands, giving you more time to land another hit. If the opponent blocks the attack, however, only the attack's block-stun is applied, which is generally less than hit-stun.
Specific hit-stun and block-stun numbers aren't typically included in frame data, however. Instead, you'll often find them already translated to a more useful value; frame advantage. Frame advantage is a calculation of the attack's recovery frames against the opponent's stun frames, whether it's on hit or on block. The end result tells you how many frames before or after your opponent your character will return to neutral state, ready to start another attack.
Suppose for instance Ryu's standing jab (shown above) has a frame advantage of +7 on hit. That means that Ryu returns to neutral state seven frames sooner than the opponent can; or to look at it another way, that the opponent will be stunned for seven frames after Ryu returns to neutral state. This means that any of Ryu's attacks will automatically hit his opponent provided they have fewer than seven start-up frames, and of course that he's within reach and his timing is frame-perfect. Connecting one hit after the other like this is referred to as a link, but we'll get to that.
If on the other hand Ryu's standing jab was blocked by the opponent, the opponent would suffer less block-stun than he would hit-stun. The frame advantage on block for Ryu's standing jab might only be +2, meaning he would only have two frames extra to launch a new attack. That said, it still lets Ryu return to neutral state before his opponent can threaten him with an attack of his own. This is what's referred to as a safe attack; one that doesn't open Ryu up to a counterattack after being blocked.
Let's suppose that Ryu's attack has a frame advantage of -4. This puts Ryu at a frame disadvantage; his opponent will be able to attack him four frames before he can run through his attack's recovery animation. This is called an unsafe attack; this means that if the opponent has an attack with a start-up of less than four frames, it will land on Ryu without giving him the chance to block, which is referred to as a punish.
Because of the differences between hit-stun and block-stun, some moves can be safe on hit, but also punishable on block. This is why knowing a character's frame data is important; it can help you decide what moves to use in which situations, and which moves of an opponent leave them vulnerable to counterattack.
Making Big Combos
Now you know how frames work, we can start talking about putting together big, flashy combos like you see on Twitch.
There are three main ways to link together attacks into combos:
- Links, as I described above - Chains, which allow you to connect certain predetermined normal attacks together without the necessary timing for a link. - Cancels, which allow you to cancel the recovery animation of a move into the startup of the next attack.
Each sort of combo has its own advantages and disadvantages. Chains are easier to perform than cancels, which are easier to perform than links, but with the greater difficulty of each comes a greater damage or combo-ability payoff.
As covered earlier, links occur when an attack has enough frame advantage to cover the start-up of a second attack, allowing the second attack to land without giving the opponent a chance to defend. This type of combo is trickier to perform, as it requires strict timing. Try and perform the second attack too early and it's lost in the first attack's recovery; try and perform the second attack too late, and the opponent will likely block it, and potentially punish you. The upside of this is the freeform nature of links, allowing attacks of any kind to connect together assuming the numbers are right.
Chains, on the other hand, are predetermined by the game; only certain attacks will chain together into combos. The upside of this is that chained attacks are all but guaranteed to combo, where links rely on strict timing. A SFV example of a chain combo is Ryu's Jodan Sanrengeki (Mid Punch, Heavy Punch, Heavy Kick), but which attacks are able to chain into which others changes depending on character.
Cancels occur when an attack is cancelled into a more powerful form of attack, such as when a normal is cancelled into a special move, or when a special move is cancelled into a super move (Critical Art in SFV). In a cancel, all recovery frames of the previous move are abandoned, letting the attacker get straight to the next attack. A good example of the benefits of a cancel is with Ryu's crouching forward (Down + Mid Kick). Instead of waiting out the low, far-reaching kick's recovery time, a player can quickly cancel the recovery frames by throwing a Hadoken after it. This not only deals more damage than just the kick, but also pushes the opponent even further away, making this two-hit combo an important spacing tool for Ryu.
Links, chains and cancels are all important tools to maximise a combo's potential for damage by themselves, but together they can make for even longer, more damaging combos.
Knowing the difference between a mix-up and a cross-up, understanding frame data, and knowing your character of choice's reach for zoning are all important aspects for kicking ass at fighting games, but they each mean nothing without practice. Play the game regularly, even if it's just getting into training mode to practice combos or other set plays. Play against people online, even if you have to deal with Australian internet at its worst.
Better yet, turn up to local events and play people in your community. Australia is lucky in that it has an organised fighting games scene, with a calendar jam-packed with regular events and yearly majors across most capital cities.
Sydney: OzHadou runs regular casual and ranking events, as well as the annual OzHadou Nationals (OHN) in October.
Melbourne: CouchWarriors runs monthly ranking events, fortnightly casual meetups, and the annual Battle Arena Melbourne (BAM) event in May. (Disclosure: I am the Secretary of Couch Warriors!)
Adelaide: The SAFGC runs the annual Southern Cross Championships (SXC) out of Adelaide every November, along with regular scheduled meetups.
Turn up, play some games, make new friends to play from home, and you may well be on your way to fighting game greatness.