Fighting Games are F@$#ing Hard

Of all the genres fighting games are the one that I find the most impenetrable. And I don’t think I can put into words how irritating I find that. I’ll never claim to be great at games, but I usually have an idea of what I’m doing within a couple hours of playing something new. From there I can learn, adapt, and evolve. With fighting games though? It doesn’t seem to matter how much time I spend with the genre I never seem to learn.

“But Frosti”, you ask, “Why do you even care?”

Well I’ll tell you why I care.

Travel back in time with me to when I was a little Frostilyte. I was over at a friend’s house and there was four of us, so he busted out Super Smash Bros. This game blew my mind. It was a game with all of Nintendo’s most iconic characters (and Luigi). Best of all it was fun. Unfortunately I was seven at the time and it was a T rated game. As such, requests for the game got a fat no from my parental units. As a result, I seldom got a chance to play the game.

smash_64
Screenshot taken from World of Longplays

A year later the Gamecube launched with Smash Bros Melee and I wasn’t allowed to have that one either. I did get to play more of this than the original, but still not enough to understand what I was doing.

HOWEVER

Smash Bros Brawl launched in March of 2008. For those of you who can’t do the math that means I was fourteen. AH HA! Victory! I was now old enough to play T rated games. And play it I did. I played a ton of Brawl with friends. It and Mario Kart Wii were staples of our local multiplayer routine. I don’t know if any of us were particularly good at it though. Most matches devolved into spamming special moves while whipping overpowered items at one another. Despite our lack of aptitude, we still had a lot of fun playing Brawl.

Throughout all this time it never dawned on me that Smash, as a franchise, was part of some weird corner of the fighting game genre. The base game plays more like a brawler and is a giant celebration of Nintendo’s history. However, my perception of the franchise wouldn’t remain this way for long.

brawl
Screenshot taken from Scott The Woz

The year is now 2010. In one of my computer classes we convinced our teacher to let us use Friday as a networking day where we’d play Brawl on the projector. Everyone was in favour of this, but I noticed something interesting about how the matches were setup: there was no items and we always played the stage Final Destination. This setup directly mimics other 2D fighting games and is designed to put a much higher emphasis on your skill rather than relying on cheap gimmicks to win.

After being introduced to this new way of playing Smash I became quite invested in it. I really enjoyed how it forced you to think about a character’s strengths and weaknesses when choosing how you should approach combating them. My friend Tim and I would spar against one another as we both tried to improve at this new way of playing. After we got bored of that we’d face computers in doubles matches. We started playing the mid-range AI slowly increasing the difficulty until we could beat the hardest AI. I always felt like Tim was a lot better at this as I’d usually lose to any of the harder AI opponents when playing alone.

smash_u
This is one of the screenshots from the press kit.

This interest in playing Smash like a traditional fighting game translated to Smash 4. After over a hundred hours playing the game like a traditional fighter I was able to reliably beat the most difficult AI, so I started pitting myself against multiple AI opponents at a time. I never got good enough to beat three against one, but I could beat two AI opponents at once.

Unfortunately, due to the Wii U having poor online I was seldom able to test my new found ability against other humans. I did occasionally get to play other people, but it was hard to convince an entire room to play the silly party game like a fighting game.

So my solution to this was to begin playing a 2D fighting game, rather than stripping the majority of the options out of Smash to make it play like one. After doing a little searching around I settled on Skullgirls for two reasons. The first was it featured a robust tutorial, which is an anomaly within the genre. If you look at the character art I’m sure you can guess what the second reason was.

Now for the important question: did anything I learned from Smash 4 carry over to Skullgirls?

skull_girls_beatdown
Nope.

No. No it didn’t. Turns out all I’d really managed to do in Smash was learn the available move set of most of the characters and how the AI behaved. I was simply leveraging what I knew about the game to counter predictable behaviour that I recognized after a hundred hours of playtime.

Despite online being readily available, I have only ever played Skullgirls once against another human. The tutorials did a great job of introducing the game’s mechanics, but also highlighted a huge skill wall I’d have to overcome: combos. To this day I still struggle with basic combo strings of three to five inputs, so playing a game where most of the basic combos are anywhere from ten to twenty button presses was never going to happen. Bluntly put, I am abysmal at Skullgirls and eventually shelved it in defeat.

Sometime later I picked up Tekken 7. Skullgirls is a six button fighter, meaning you have six different buttons for using attacks. Tekken is a four button fighter. With less buttons to worry about I thought pulling off combos might be easier. I was wrong.

Tekken
Despite evidence to the contrary this is a bot match.

Surprisingly, Tekken introduced a new problem I didn’t think possible in a game with less available buttons. Where each character in Skullgirls has thirty to forty moves, Tekken characters tend to have closer to a hundred. Remembering that much, plus having to learn which moves actually work together required more time and effort than most of my college exams did. No hyperbole. I spent more time trying to learn basic combos in Tekken than I did studying for most of my college exams.

And to no one’s surprise I still couldn’t execute combos worth a damn. I did play Tekken against other humans instead of foregoing it entirely. While I successfully poked holes in my opponent’s defences, I couldn’t capitalize on it. Meanwhile, following every mistake I’d make, my opponent would land an incredibly long combo that would drain more than half of my health. Similar to Skullgirls, my ineptitude at inputting long combo strings stood as a gate to me enjoying Tekken in any capacity.

Any reasonable person would have given up by now. I clearly enjoyed the idea of fighting games, but my inability to do combo attacks was going to prevent me from ever enjoying the genre. Or so I thought until I was introduced to a game called Fantasy Strike.

The ethos behind Fantasy Strike’s design is one of accessibility. Its tagline is “a strategic fighting game for everyone” and much of the game’s design reflects that statement. Every move can be done with a single button press and combos only require two to four inputs. Each character has about a dozen moves to learn. There is also a fully featured tutorial and short videos highlighting the strengths, weaknesses, and basics of each of the fighters. The barriers present with traditional fighting games simply do not exist in Fantasy Strike.

simple_combo
A three hit combo that involves three button presses.

Over the past two months I’ve been playing Fantasy Strike and slowly learning more about fighting games in the process. I still lose the overwhelming majority of my matches, but am enjoying having the opportunity to engage with those aspects of the genre that I couldn’t previously. Each match is like a guessing game of trying to figure out what your opponent wants to do and when you guess correctly it is immensely satisfying. With more practice I may finally get to a point where I have a stronger understanding of fighting games. For now though I’m going to go play some more Fantasy Strike.

33 thoughts on “Fighting Games are F@$#ing Hard

  1. I feel ya. Back when I was a kid, Fighting games were fun. Tekken 3, Street Fighter, Soul Calibur; it was all just button mashing goodness. But then I was introduced to the “competitive” side. The “how you’re supposed to play” side.
    Now I can’t enjoy those games anymore because when you don’t play to practice for online matches against these wildly superior gamers, there’s not much left to enjoy. Playing through Arcade mode doesn’t slowly unlock characters anymore. It’s just there for tradition’s sake. And if the game has a story mode it’s usually too shallow to enjoy past the first couple hours.
    In short, fighting games have become a professional sport that of you don’t want to commit to it, you get nothing out of it from a hobby gamer standpoint.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. While I used to enjoy fighting games in that same way let me pose a question: would you ever get upset at any other game because button mashing isn’t a valid strategy? Outside of some action games (DMC, Bayonetta) on the easier difficulties there aren’t games where you can randomly press buttons and consistently do what you want to do (win). When people sit down to play a game they think about what they want to do and then press the buttons to achieve said action. The same principle applies in fighting games, but that is somewhat obfuscated because hitting buttons randomly makes it look like you’re doing something rather than a whole lot of nothing.

      I do still agree with the sentiment that the genre has largely become (or maybe it was always) cutoff from those who aren’t already tremendously invested in it. I think a big part of that stems from how difficult it can be to do basic maneuvers. You want to jump in Mario? Press a button. Want to sling a web in Spiderman? Press a button. You want to do a basic combo in Tekken? Press these 8 buttons, in this order, within a few seconds of each other.

      I do not presently posses the knowledge to write a whole post on it, but I think the genre could still appeal to a more casual demographic. The two biggest problems, in my opinion, are that the games don’t clearly communicate why you fail and that execution is prohibitively difficult. Randomly hitting buttons looks like it should do something when, in fact, it does almost nothing and no one is going to spend hundreds of hours trying to get better at something they can’t even comprehend at a basic level.

      I haven’t written it yet, but I do intend to review Fantasy Strike before the month is up and I think that game is well worth looking into for anyone who has even a passing interest in fighting games, or wants to understand the genre at a basic level. It removes the execution barrier (as indicated in my post), but also goes to great lengths to clearly communicate why something does or doesn’t work. This can help to move past simply smashing buttons by helping to get you to a point where you mentally choose your attacks much in the same way you’d choose to fling a projectile at a ranged enemy in Spiderman before he has a chance to shoot you.

      Sidebar: intentionally used Spiderman as I know you played that over the summer. My assumption is you didn’t just press random face buttons the whole time hahaha.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I wish you luck with Fantasy Strike and the learning process.

    I haven’t ever played much of any fighting games and when I have I descend into button mashing and keeping my fingers crossed. They are just in a genre that I did get into. When you see people who actually know what they are doing and can do combos etc it is amazing. The amount of learning it must take to get to that level though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. 🙂

      You gotta think though it’s weird how as gamers who aren’t acquainted with the genre our first instinct is just to button mash and hope it works when in, literally any other genre, we’d not try that. In other games it is abundantly clear that button mashing isn’t going to work because your character just…stops functioning properly and it looks weird. Meanwhile in a fighting game mashing buttons makes it look like you’re actually doing all sorts of crazy attacks, while in reality you’re just performing a very exotic dance.

      I’m starting to get my head around it, but it is still mind boggling to watch. Those people who know what they’re doing, like really know what they’re doing, nothing they do is random. Every strike has a purpose. That makes it even more amazing to watch.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know we would never dare button bash in another genre but fighting games it’s the automatic reflex to do that when you don’t know what you are doing. I think it’s because you can sometimes get lucky and do a combo completely accidentally so you say it is working whereas mostly you are just flailing around.

        It is fantastic when you watch people who know what they are doing and the precision and the planning of each move is incredible.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this read. As I read through your post I could connect with you on so many levels. I personally never got into Smash and I personally see it in it’s own FGC than fighting games I grew up on: Mortal Kombat, Tekken. When you said Skullgurls I wanted to recommend Tekken but you already got your hands on it. I enjoy fighting games but they are hard for my hand eye coordination for the exact reason of combos. Remembering what they are and to time them just right. Have you thought about switching up a controller for a fight stick? Or even a hitbox? I think that changes a lot of how fighting games play as well. I got to Evo and Combo Breaker FGC competitions. Smash usually brings a big crowd but as you even said I find it all to be button smashing and spamming…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you 🙂

      Funny you mention that, but a friend recommended Tekken after finding out I’d tried Skullgirls. Interesting that you both had the same thought.

      Haha. It’s good to know it’s not just me who struggles with even the most basic of combos or remembering them in the heat of the moment.

      I have thought about it, but the price is…off-putting. It seems like it’d be really cool to have, but without getting heavily invested into a specific genre it’s hard to justify a $200 USD custom controller for it. Though I will admit the fun I’ve had playing Fantasy Strike thus far has been the most compelling argument in favour of actually dropping the money on some form of arcade stick.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There’s honestly no need to get an expensive stick to play Fantasy Strike though thankfully! It is the only FG that plays just as well even on a keyboard or a standard gamepad.

        I personally use a specialised fighting game pad for other FGs these days as well as FS, but in FS it isn’t really necessary at all.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for the input Remy!

          I was really surprised with how well Fantasy Strike plays on pad. Even having jump mapped to a button was a refreshing (and welcome) change. Though I think that is more of a comfort thing as I’m used to pressing buttons to jump haha.

          Though if I ever did transition into trying other fighting games out would your recommendation be to get a specialized controller at that point?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. You’re welcome! 😀

            For what controller, it really depends on the game. I covered a bit about my history with different controllers many years ago when I reviewed HDR:
            https://agoners.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/super-street-fighter-ii-turbo-hd-remix-review/
            So I’ve gone from game pad (especially the Sega Saturn pad which was my favourite pad ever for a very long time), to various types of joystick, and now, for SFV I’ve gone back to a game pad (a Hori Fighting Commander to be precise) solely for SFV, as double-tap dashing is so extremely important in SFV, and I find that really really hard to do perfectly on a joystick. However if I was to play competitive SF2 or certain other FGs, I would always switch back to a joystick for them.

            So, there’s no short answer really. It’s difficult and it depends! On both the game and yourself. But like I say, thankfully for FS, you don’t need to worry about that!

            Liked by 1 person

  4. As someone who has climbed the proverbial FGC mountain, I see that you’re on the right track. The biggest thing you have going for you is that you recognize that there is room for improvement. Whatever challenge is in front of you, there’s ALWAYS solution for it. It might require you to practice your muscle memory for 10 hours straight. It might require you to analyze every movement of your opponent in 10 straight matches before you pick up on their patterns. But there is always an answer. You just have to find it and refine your abilities so that you can “do the thing” when the time is right.

    Smash might be a bit extreme in different its nuances are, but if you can get your footing down in one “more traditional” fighting game, you’ll find that a lot of the skills are transferrable. Not trying to plug my own work here, but I did write a guide that breaks down fighting game concepts that work in almost every game. If you’re interested, I can send you the link. If not, that’s totally okay.

    Fighting games are my favourite genre because of how rewarding they can be. Very few games give you that level of control over a character and test your abilities against 1 other foe quite like fighting games do. Wherever your FGC journey takes you, I hope you have fun along the way!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are times though that I wish the solution was a little more obvious. You’re absolutely right though: there is always a solution it’s just a matter of finding it.

      Absolutely. I’d be glad to read them, and if you’re willing to send them my way I don’t even have to go digging for them myself. 🙂

      It feels like the journey has been long so far, but it really hasn’t. I’ve been playing platformers since forever and rarely have difficulty while playing them. It’s hard to remember that when I was younger and first playing them I was completely terrible at them and I had to learn the skill set of that genre too. It’s just that with fighting games there is a lot more to learn aside from jumping and moving.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Being able to identify solutions more quickly comes with a deeper understanding of the game’s mechanics, your character’s abilities, your own physical skill, and your ability to read your opponent. When you identify a tactic that’s working on you, that’s when you key in on that one tactic, research how others deal with it in YouTube videos, run the training dummy to perform it on yourself over and over, and figure out what works.

        Sometimes, it’s as easy as “use your anti-air when they jump at me”. But really savvy players understand how to make really hard to solve problems. They can put you in 50/50 scenarios and it’s up to you to “guess”. Or, if you’ve been taking tons of mental notes, make the right read based on how your opponent reacted during similar situations. That’s when the mind games get really crazy and satisfying.

        There are so many potential solutions to the endless number of challenges you may face. The big thing is to focus on one problem at a time and develop the knowledge and skill you need to counter it. As you “solve” each thing, you’ll get better. But the fun in fighters is that the number of problems and solutions is basically limitless depending on the circumstances, which is what makes the genre so amazing and yet wildly impenetrable for many.

        Some links:

        https://thirdpersonblog.wordpress.com/category/universal-fighting-game-guide/ all the posts I wrote using the tag, though later posts get more game-specific. Some of the most popular or most useful for entry-level players include:

        https://thirdpersonblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/14/universal-fighting-game-guide-countering-your-opponents-tactics/

        https://thirdpersonblog.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/universal-fighting-game-guide-throws-101/

        https://thirdpersonblog.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/universal-fighting-game-guide-how-to-read-frame-data/

        https://thirdpersonblog.wordpress.com/2011/08/18/universal-fighting-game-guide-understanding-combo-systems-part-1-the-elements/

        Fighting games are a wildly different animal from most types of games. The fundamental difference is that your primary competition is a human opponent with dozens – if not 100+ – moves at their disposal. Every fight is different and no one will ever truly master a fighting game. It took me about 2 years and hundreds of hours of playing Street Fighter IV online before I got to a winning percentage of about 50%. After 2,000 + hours and reaching the top of the character leaderboards with multiple characters, I still got demolished by pro player Smug. I’ve now been playing fighting games seriously for a decade, across multiple games, played in multiple tournaments, and even won one. But there are thousands of players that are still better than me. During Pocket Rumble’s brief run on the Switch, I was top 10 in the world on the leaderboards. Then I faced off against #1 and I got stomped out. Even the #1 player in any fighting game is bound to get bodied by someone. But at that point, you’re not even thinking as much about your opponents, and more focused on reaching your maximum potential.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Learning how to play is easy! You just have to believe in the heart of the cards! Wait, wrong competitive game…

    We’re talking fighting games? You’re shit outta luck, bro. Or, as players of a different kind of game would say: Git gud, scrub (not that I’m in a position to comfortably be able to say this…)

    Hope this helps 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I know that feeling, although Mortal Kombat is still one of my favourite game series, I’ve lost my touch and enthusiasm towards the fighting game genre. I am completely out of my depth with the online modes, there are players who can pull of combos quicker than I can blink, plus the best way to play them is with an arcade stick, that’ll set you back a pretty penny, though.

    The best advice I was told is to use the practice modes often, and if there’s a character you struggle with, learn to play as them. 😁

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Playing the characters you suck against is surprisingly solid advice. I’ve done as much and have learned ways to crack through their seemingly perfect defences. It’s not something that is immediately obvious, but if you can’t figure out how to beat them, maybe someone else can. Plus you can spot flaws you never knew about before. In fact, after playing two of the characters I was having a hard time against in Fantasy Strike I ended up continuing to play both because I found I really enjoyed their play-styles. So there are other benefits aside from simply figuring out how to beat a particular character. 🙂

      Like

  7. Fantastic article and an amazing articulation of why Fantasy Strike is just SO good and so important to the genre too. Everyone who would likes or would like to try fighting games should play it IMO!

    I love your point about why does anyone ever expect “button mashing” to work in any video game. The only explanation I’ve ever seen for that is that it’s like someone who doesn’t know how to fight in real life, instinctually “flails” about with the idea that ‘at least doing SOMETHING is better than nothing’ kind of approach. But I don’t think that’s completely valid for video games. I think it’s really part of the legacy of fighting games hiding moves & special moves behind opaque (especially back in the arcade days without easy access to move lists) commands. And so in many cases, people could only execute those commands by wild spinning of the joystick and yep, button mashing too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. 🙂
      Hoping to have a full review of Fantasy Strike up at some point this month, so that there is more than two paragraphs explaining why people should give it a look hahaha.

      Another aspect that folds into what you’ve already mentioned is that it isn’t always clear that doing something is usually worse than doing nothing. If you spend a whole match blocking and lose it isn’t apparent that you did a better job than when you randomly hit buttons. Defending doesn’t look like the right decision, but doing so while you wait for an opening and striking when you find it is to fighting games what jumping over a bottomless pit is to platforming games. In the latter scenario there is no ambiguity about what you did and why you fail when you fail. You jump in the pit and you die. If you jump over the pit you don’t die. Ergo you jump over pits, not into them.

      Meanwhile in fighting games there are a variety of different scenarios that could be considered small victories even if they don’t seem like them. Blocking a bunch of your opponent’s mix-up, counter attacking with a high priority move when your opponent chooses a slow powerful move, or closing the distance between you and a zoning character can all help you win, but don’t always translate into a win. Even if you make a lot of the right decisions you can still lose a match and I think that’s confusing for newer players (myself included) because it obfuscates what works, what doesn’t, and where we need to improve.

      There is an entire discussion that could be had on how to improve how fighters communicate with players, but I don’t necessarily know if I’m smart enough to have it. XD

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Yeah, fighting games are hard, but hace you tried a casual playthrough of Super Mario Sunshine?

    In seriousness, I can relate though. I grew up playing Street Fighter, Tekken, Dead or Alive and Soul Calibur.

    Online matches ruined fighting games for me though. Before I would play with friends and laugh a lot, but leaderboards and such made me competitive and angry and I didn’t want to be that way.

    Also, if your own skill level is that much higher than your friends’, they loses some of their appeal.

    I quit them after a while. Now I focus on single or co-op games you can share with others. They’re much more relaxing.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Fighting games are definitely challenging to grasp, especially when each of them has their own unique mechanics. I grew up in the arcades of the late 80s and 90s and loved fighting games growing up — especially Street Fighter 2, Samurai Shodown, and Mortal Kombat 2. Whenever it came time to get one of my two or three yearly video games, I usually defaulted to a fighting game since I could play it over and over again and gave my friends and I something to do together whenever they’d visit.

    Once I moved away from home, though, I didn’t have anyone to play fighting games with and eventually drifted away from the genre. Even with online matchmaking, I just didn’t enjoy playing against random strangers. Another thing that got in the way was that I just wasn’t motivated to spend all of my time learning ONE game over playing other things that came out instead. That’s still where I’m at today. I like fighting games a lot but rarely play them extensively because I know I’ll just get destroyed online when I just want the casual experience I had growing up. Some have really solid tutorials and loads of solo content, like the 2013 Killer Instinct reboot or Under Night In-Birth, but I’ve mostly become a spectator watching the good people play during EVO tournaments and whatnot.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s an interesting additional point that I only briefly mention – the social aspect. Having that social element to a game where you can play with friends can honestly make a world of difference when it comes to how long you end up playing something. Seems like you really enjoyed the community aspect (even though the community was just your local friend group) when playing fighting games just as much as you enjoyed playing them.

      If you found the right community (reddit, discord, etc), or a local group of people do you think you could get back into the games even at a more casual level like you used to?

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Gotcha, thank you for replying too 😀

          That’s totally fair then. I was wondering if there was something specific to fighters that turned you off, but if you’re not interested in competitive gaming that’s a totally different (& common and normal!) thing 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

          1. As I get older I find my anxiety gets in the way of playing games against other people. I’m 38 now and just prefer using games as a form of escapism and narrative entertainment. I think it’s the same reason I don’t play as many racing or platformer games. I’m more into visual novels, JRPGs, horror games, etc.

            Liked by 1 person

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