What Fighting Game Players Know

Is someone’s “cheap” tactics destroying you? Do you know “that one guy” who always beats you? More importantly, do you want to get even?

Well, Super Smash Bros. 4 is on the way. Ultra Street Fighter IV is on the way. Yatagarasu, which none of your friends has ever heard of but you’re all going to love, is on the way. No matter what game you play, there are some things you should know which will make you good at all of them. Here are a few.


#1) Twelve ways of measuring an attack.

How “good” is an attack? The answer, of course, is “it depends”. Any particular attack has one or two good properties and a lot of mediocre ones, and knowing them is half the battle. They come in three broad categories: time, space, and effect.

Three phases of time comprise an attack: start-up, active, and recovery. Each lasts for a short duration measured in frames, the smallest unit of time in a videogame. (Got a first-person shooter that runs at 60 fps — Frames Per Second? There you go.) Generally, “fast” attacks have brief start-up while “safe” attacks have brief recovery. Only the active phase actually harms the opponent.

For performance reasons, games wrap swords, fists, and bodies with simple invisible shapes like rectangles or spheres, and test to see if those intersect instead. These are called hitboxes and hurtboxes, which hit other things or get hurt by other things. Their size and positioning, which don’t necessarily match the animation, determine how much “priority” the attack has when intersecting other attacks. Sometimes the most boring-looking move has the most amazing hitboxes. Seek these out.


A successful attack deals hitstun, knockback, and damage, otherwise known as how long, how far, how bad. Hitstun is how long the victim flinches from the attack unable to do anything, and is measured in frames. High hitstun makes combos possible. Knockback is how far the victim backpedals. Damage is usually the goal, but in Smash damage just multiplies hitstun and knockback.

A blocked attack mimics the effects of a successful one, though games differ more here. Blockstun is a shorter hitstun, and creates a difference in recovery between missing and thunking: the attack is only unsafe if it completely misses. The hard-hitting weapons of Soul Calibur cause massive blockstun, for example. Some games have guard damage, where one’s ability to block can be worn out. In Smash, Marth’s charge-able neutral-B, as well the item Mr. Saturn, is designed for causing guard damage. And in many games knockback occurs when blocking, like a referee separating two boxers who have tangled into one another.

Finally, some attacks have special either-or properties. If you’re hit out of the attack, are you in the air or still on the ground? If combos are longer on the ground it’s important to know. Is the attack “cancel-able” into another attack, such as Ryu’s crouching forward kick? Can the attack trip others? Can it hit a rolling opponent? And so on.

#2) Pair your tools with situations.

The next part is knowing which situations an attack is appropriate for. For your character, where is the most dangerous place for your opponent to be? Where is the most advantageous? Will you move or will you move your opponent? What overall plan of attack does the sum total of your moves suggest?

Moves with fast startup and high hitstun or blockstun allow a simple plan: attack. Constantly attack, constantly pressuring your opponent, constantly testing defenses. Fox and Sheik, and Fei Long and Sakura, rely on having lots of these moves despite half these people having a projectile.


You can poke people using safe moves with long range, decent damage, and no hurtbox on the business end, instigating a game of I-can-touch-you-but-you-can’t-touch-me. This is Marth’s, Link’s, Dhalsim’s, and Chun Li’s main game plan. Marth profits from his long sword and his Sword Dance series. Link uses all manner of short-range projectiles to soften them up for his sword’s killing blow. Dhalsim’s stretchy limbs speak for themselves, and Chun Li’s pokes made her the queen of Street Fighter 3. Good poking forces people to jump or teleport.

An “area-effect” hitbox with a small hurtbox makes a good all-around defensive attack when you have no idea where your opponent is going. Unlike pokes which are for more controlled circumstances, these interrupt your opponent’s momentum so you can take control of the situation. But they typically perform poorly if blocked, or can’t be comboed out of for some reason, because they’re designed to be anti-pressure. Dragon Punch moves like Ryu’s Shoryuken and Mario’s up-B, as well as reversals such as Marth’s Parry or Gouken’s Counter, fall into this category.

Smash has an interesting mechanic where high knockback kills, but only after cumulative damage multiplies knockback. So favor high-damage attacks against a fresh opponent, and save the high-knockback attacks for a killing blow. Of course, your best pokes, jabs, and reversals will have neither high damage or high knockback. Or if they do, it may be a defining trait of the character, a hint of how to play them optimally.

Great projectiles certainly tend to be character-defining, because all of the character’s other attacks will lack some critical property which victims can exploit when they finally get close. Zelda’s explosions easily kill at a distance, but her poor frame data and so-so mobility lose to pressure. Conversely, Pit has nimble arrows, fast blades, and glowing wings, but lacks high knockback attacks to finish the job. Even his attempts to drag someone off the level with him and fly back are sabotaged: he’s the only character in the game who cannot re-use his up-B if hit out of it. It’s an either-or property specifically designed to weaken Pit’s endgame.

Princess Peach & Pit

#3) In the end, it’s statistical rock-paper-scissors.

The final kind of knowledge is, as always, yourself. Trying to match attack properties to situations in the heat of battle makes you aware of bad habits, like mashing buttons until your character misses big, or subconsciously pressing the joystick toward what you want to hit instead of using it to select the right attack. A great example of both is the slow but hard-hitting Ike: on the ground and with the joystick at neutral, he performs a silly little punch, not even using his sword. Why would you ever want that rinky-dink little move? Because it’s his only fast and safe attack, so if it misses he doesn’t die. And because it combos into a swift kick, and then into a big damn sword with bad recovery, which you’ll know by the third button press whether or not you should press that button a third time. Break the habit of mashing ’til the end and you’ll improve in any game with string combos: Tekken, Dead or Alive, etc.

Or, if you play platformers try choosing a fighter who’s range and timing on his attacks matches your platformer’s. The way that eyes and hears perceive a videogame differs significantly from how the body perceives them. Muscle memory and timing cross genres and even activities: the Street Fighter community has long known musicians make good players because of timing. So if your new survival horror game has a defensive jump-away move and a button config, try mapping jump-away to your fighting game’s block button. You’ll immediately have better reactions in the new game because you’re re-using your finely honed oh-crap reflex.

Finally, know that your eyes and ears may actively mislead you. We all play the characters we like, but sometimes our history with that character prevents us from seeing them clearly. Perhaps you play Link, and in the same way as in his native games: bum-rushing his enemies with a sword, while his many items exist primarily to unlock access to areas. But when you play him the same way in Smash he performs poorly. Is it because the frame data and range on his sword is poor? If so, are his bomb, boomerang, and arrow more than a simple homage to his series? Try viewing characters as a game designer would, based on how they actually play. Zangief moves and plays like he looks, but who would guess inside little tomboyish Makoto is a ruthless combo monster?

Makoto & Fei Long

So that’s a framework on how to get even with “that one guy”. Cheap tactics are repetitive tactics, and repetitive tactics lose in rock-paper-scissors. But if you don’t fully know a game you can’t choose scissors, so you’ll lose to the same character all the time. And if you don’t fully know yourself you can’t adapt, so you’ll lose to the same player all the time. Learn both and you’ll still only win about half the time. Which means you’re even. And that’s perfect, because the best fights are always between equals.

Ron Newcomb Sig 2

1 comment

  1. Ailingforale November 8, 2013 6:17 am  Reply

    Well played Ron… well played. After reading this I do feel like that crazy chick in my college fencing class that would literally swing her sword in a circle and yell while running at you in Smash Bros. now. I’m not a button masher, but I think I fight like one. I’ll have to remedy that for our next fight!

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