Inconsistency is Beautiful: In Defense of Fighting Game JankSeptember 7th, 2023
This is a repost of an article from my cohost, posted on august 23rd, 2023. People seemed to like it a lot though, so I'm reposting it on my blog.
Gonna babble for a bit and hope this is coherent:
I was weirdly saddened today reading Strive's patch notes. A removal of the character weight system. A younger version of me would be SO RELIEVED by this. "Oh god I don't have to memorize a million different combos"! Yet now, an older me, is oddly sad?
Now, I'm not gonna hate on or argue about Strive, or any other game. Plenty of games I like have equal character weights and consistent hurt boxes. I'd rather game designers do what they want to do, rather than pander to me.
(Granted, I do wish more people were pandering to me, but that's a me problem.)
... Instead I want to be more positive about the stuff. So much of this conversation gets caught up in arguments about gatekeeping and "git gud" "Baby Game" BS but not a lot of people really go into why they might like some of these arcane systems.
A nice and polite twitter follower, immediately after I tweeted my disappointment, asked...
Why would you want combos to fail randomly per character performed on
... which like lol, when you put it like that, it sounds super silly. But it's that framing -- a framing I've seen many times. I remember being on a forum... very appropriately, it was David Sirlin's forum
(thank god you can't name search on cohost)(edit: uh oh). Being the Sirlin forums, you expect a... certain type of person and player. Very big anti-execution crowd and I was like the only real execution defender (at least who was a semi respected member of the community and not a random SRK troll). I remember one exchange talking about GG combos and the comment "Well what's fun about just doing the same rote thing over and over again?"
"Well you're not? Like I'm adjusting my combos as we go, depending on how high they are and stuff"
"I don't believe you."
Now, this is mid 2000s. I don't think anyone now would deny that's a thing that players do... but I think it still highlights a way a lot of people still feel. Combos as this discrete thing, these bits of work you get through to get to the Real Game (that forum LOVED talking about the "Real Game"). You learn your combos, so you get to play brain chess.
But instead the whole thing is very fluid, especially in a system rich game like the older Guilty Gears. You never stop learning, and that combo you learn isn't a discrete unit. It's a lot of different smaller parts and that perfect hit you need to do your idealized BnB is actually kinda hard to land. You need to learn how to put these things together in different ways. Combos are less raw memorization, and more a matter of a little memorization, but a lot of developed intuition.
This is no surprise to anyone whose played a lot of really nutty fighting games. But the important thing is more the mentality of "Combos are a thing that you need to have, and you fucked up if you weren't optimal" vs looking then as an extra and not taking them for granted.
"... Wait, can I convert to this route off this hit?"
Often in games with open ended combo, you'll get a hit and you won't actually know what you can get off it. I recognized the situation 3 hits in.. what's the gravity scaling like? What's their character weight? This route doesn't work on her hitboxes usually, but I think it might because of the weird height I hit at??
From there you gotta bet on yourself. Take the easy knockdown? Try to extend to a damaging route? What are the stakes of the match? How much life do you have? Is it worth maybe eating shit just to find out? Those sorts of situational, high speed valuation processes, for some people like me, are extremely fun and with games like +R or Rev2, I'm still, after thousands of hours, guessing and developing my intuition. Every matchup has new things to teach me not only in neutral, but on what to do when I even hit someone.
I don't like character weight because I like dropping my BnBs, or because I want to make the game harder for new players, but because they always keep me on my toes and give me great moments where I am rewarded for my intuition. I like it because I can do cooler combos.
... What if input buffers made games harder?
I was playing one day with Lofo, a really incredible +R Dizzy player and a former (lol, recovered?) Sirlin forum poster who ended up a huge execution lover. One day we're talking about Rev2 vs +R and hit me with something that has been in my head for like 2 years. Something to the extent of...
"Yeah, I don't like Rev2's input buffer. I feel like it makes the game harder, because everything is more consistent... I... don't think I like input buffers?"
Which to me at the moment felt like an insane position. Like there was a lot of simplifications made to fighting games I didn't like, but that one seemed like a clear win. That just makes games better, right?
But Lofo kept talking, about things that are borderline impossible in +R that would be consistent in Xrd and how one of the things that keeps +R reasonable is that everyone drops stuff all the time. Not just in combos, but in pressure. There is always wiggle room... and then talking about mashing to tech.
Mashing to tech feels like a vestigial part of Xrd. It doesn't bother me much (I come from X2), but if you're trying to tech and there's a gap, you're gonna get it. +R, much less so. It's almost an analog skill check between you and your opponent. Your ability to mash, vs their timing during the hardest parts of their combo. Defender can piano, so there is a bit of an advantage
Then that got me thinking about ST. "It's fucked up that you need to do a 1f reversal to beat tick throws in that game."
... But you don't. You need to have better timing than your opponent to beat tick throws. Can they time to 1f input? If you're playing someone great, probably, but when you watch mid level play, most DPed tick throw attempts aren't usually reversals. That analog sense of timing is part of the game's skill expression.
This goes into why people didn't care about exact frame data back in the day or players playing "by feel". A move being +1 really didn't matter unless both of you have sick timing. We HAD the frame data. We had Yoga Book Hyper for ST. It did help. But it's influence was different because the play conditions are were different.
In modern games, a +1 situation is often pretty rigidly defined. We have buffers. Our responses will come out on he fastest frame. If my opponent is slow and my suboptimal option keeps winning, people will call that fake... because it is. The expectation is that verse most players, even low ranked players, people will get their moves out as soon as possible. Meanwhile in older games, you can't take that as a certainty even with the best players. They'll hit a lot of frame perfect inputs, but not all of them. Finding where your opponent is being sloppy helps a ton. No one is clean all the time even in modern games, but it's so SO much harder in old games.
I even think a lot about setplay characters. In older games 'perfect knockdown into oki that grants an auto timed safe jump' is actually super hard (or really lucky happenstance). Heck, this is also where GG's variable wake up timing stuff also comes in. You could do it, but it would be so hard that it can never be the expectation. Now safe jumps are so easy once labbbed that if you whiff a normal before doing your oki people will just assume it's a safe jump even if it isn't. You get stronger setplay because frame perfect repeatability, while not at all trivial, is extremely practical.
Buffers help turn is into robots and, depending on your taste, that can be a good or bad thing.
ALRIGHT THE TAKE AWAY
One thing that I've also thought a lot about is... new players seem to have an easier time getting into +R than Rev2? Part of this might also be the lobby system and speed to matches, but part of it is, in Rev2, even a mid level player can be pretty scarily consistent, but +R... Welcome to the scramble zone, lol. And like granted you can run into cryptids with 10,000+ hours of play time who will Burst Safe Sidewinder Loop you into the negaverse, but even THEY fuck up or get wilded out by weird interactions. And I say this maybe liking Rev2 more than +R.
In a weird way, making games easier, also makes them harder, because you make them more consistent for everyone... and when everything is more consistent, the game is more rigid and unyielding. You're not making an old experience accessible to new people, you're making something new, with it's own pros and cons.
Again, this isn't a judgment zone. I'm okay with Strive. I'm actively loving SF6. But a rigid games forces players to play it how it was intended. This can help new players learn a lot faster. Hell, such design has lead to games that have even taught me lots of stuff! I don't hate these games.
... But I miss that looseness. I miss how you can have a combo so hard that only like 2 people can do it reliably and just this really hazy, unclear idea of what's even possible. Infinite weird, crufty interactions between interactions. Feeling like I wasn't just playing my opponent, but exploring a rich, emergent design space.
Fighting games as a genre increasingly feel like they're (metaphorically) moving from "analog" to "digital".. and like most of those changes, there are usually more advantages and disadvantages, but, even with the new advantages... there are always gonna be people who miss how the old analog models used to feel.
E.V.O – The Theory of EvolutionMay 3rd, 2018
E.V.O: Search for Eden (Known in Japan as 46 Okunen Monogatari: Harukanaru Eden e) was a strange game. A lot of us have very fond memories of it, but it’s also kinda… bad. Just… shallow and really grindy. But by god was there some weird, quirky goodness to it. The game was charming in a way that made it easy (or… easier) to overcome its faults. I’d jokingly call it “One of my favorite games that isn’t actually any good”. But all the elements of Search for Eden came together to be greater than the sum of its parts. The Evolution (even though there wasn’t really any REAL decisions), the weird quirky writing, the strange alternative history aliens and bird men or whatever… the weird way it’d be sincerely sad or dark. It was one of those things where just… as an experience, it was really compelling. Even if grinding for EVO points was kinda boring…
For the last few years I’d been vaguely aware of 46 Okunen Monogatari: THE Shinka Ron, a PC98 game that was the predecessor to E.V.O: Search For Eden. But it was in Japanese and was a turned based RPG (which I have a hard time stomaching now) and was on a tricky to emulate platform. But as time went on, more and more weird screenshots would come out from it and I’d wonder “What is the deal with this game???”
Fortunately the fine folks at https://46okumen.com/ made a beautiful translation. Localized as E.V.O: The Theory of Evolution, the game is an expert translation that contains all the joy and weirdness of the SNES game. In fact, it’s… even more Search for Eden than Search for Eden. This is a strange game, taking the alternative history and weird tangents of Search for Eden to another level. it seems improbable to say, but I feel like we got the much more… normal game of the two.
The RPG nature works to this game’s favor. The writing and weird scenarios was a strength of Search for Eden. The RPG combat is… basic. Basic to both be a flaw and s strength. It’s pretty brain dead but, with text speed set to 0, grinding and fighting become… brisk. There aren’t really any boss fights either. There are no random encounters either. Enemies wander the world map and often disappear from areas after awhile. There isn’t a lot of friction to exploration and backtracking. All experience gained can be spent immediately on either Attack, Endurance, Vitality or wisdom.
The incredible part of the design is… it’s hard to do this wrong? In almost every game there seems to be ‘the suckers strategy’. “Oh never put points into wisdom!” or whatever. But everything is good, it’s just a matter of priority. Would the foes coming up be better with more strength or more health? Even wisdom which might be the least useful influences the power of your healing abilities which can be incredibly good. So while the game pushes you to be an all arounder, it allows you to influence yourself by which way you move on the evolution chart. When a stat is raised to its limit, you evolve and the limit goes up. So maybe you want to level up all your attributes, but you always max out attack, pushing you toward more damaging evolutions. Or more defensive or whatever. And they all seem viable. There are certainly better evolutions but the game is never so demanding that it matters. Instead it’s fine to mess around. Infact if you evolve off the chart (see the evolution chart picture) you can get odd “bad” endings.
The story is surreal. The translated manual includes timelines talking about Interplanetary wars with the Devil, the death of “The Fifth Planet”, Martian coups by Anti Devil Factions… all this while The Earth is still developing oxygen. Oh, also The Devil is hot and does the anime noble lady laugh. Seriously. The second sun, Nemesis, messes with evolution, Lunarians found and sink Atlantas. You can skip mammals and evolve into POWERFUL LIZARD MEN until becoming a gnome. It’s a weird, brisk experience that only gets tedious when you aren’t sure what the game wants from you… which almost always involves ‘talking to an NPC’. “But I wanna push this boulder” yeah okay you gotta talk to the NPC that will give you the idea.
It’s a wild game that goes farther and deeper than anything in Search for Eden, overlapping with sci-fi and fantasy elements as if they were just… normal. It’s funny when it needs to be funny, sad when it needs to be sad, creative in ways you won’t expect and… oddly affecting, emotionally, even when you barely have spent time with the characters in the game. Is it a shallow gameplay experience? Yes. But I hate jRPGs and I loved the hell out of this game so if you’re tempted… try it. I feel like you’ll know pretty quicky if it’s a game you’d like. For me though, this is the exactly the type of charming, obscure game I live to find, even if it’s a genre I don’t really care for. Just be sure to set Text Speed to 0.
King’s Field: The Ancient City
This probably the most fondly enjoyed and remembered of the old King’s Field games… and in a lot of ways it is probably the best one, but there was something lost in transition from the ps1 to ps2. The PS1 King’s Field had a strong, weird aesthetic. Even if that aesthetic was driven by their sheer ugliness and weirdness, they had them. Shadow Tower had a great aesthetic, period. KF:TAC has no aesthetic. It’s amazing to compare the visual look of this game to Demon’s Souls to see what a little bit of ‘aesthetic’ can make. The game, if not for the consistency of the look, would be almost ‘asset store’ levels of generic. I would say monster design was never From’s strength in the early days, but Shadow Tower as loaded to the brim with the type of unique and interesting enemies that’d you’d see in later From games. Instead KFTAC are is loaded with ‘elemental xenomorphs’, probably a low point in their design for these types of games. Something about that and starting in an area filled with lava seemed like a ‘lets try and be cool for once’ thing that totally fell flat for me. Some enemies are kinda cool, some areas look all right, but nothing in the game ‘wows’. Only one point in the game was I ever like ‘THIS LOOKS SCARY I DON’T WANT TO GO THIS WAY’. The game was a consistent, flat tone most of the way through and make it abundantly clear to me how important those ‘wow’ moments are.
So why do people like this game? Well, the consistent, flat tone is pretty good! The game looks generic, but the details are there. Care for the world is there. The map for the world is -great-. This is definitely a game where I did not need a map to get around most of the time and when I did, the maps provided were… awfully flavourful and cool. You had what you needed to get around as you needed and basic navigation is simple. The “Central Tower” made for a great way to unify the map and the ways you slowly make your way down the tower made it feel less… contrived than Shadow Tower? Like all good Fromsoftware worlds, it felt like a place, not a level of a video game. Then you have all your interesting details. Zombie like enemies that release dark bugs as you kill them that scurry around the floor to hide… Heavily implied cannibalism… all sorts of warnings for traps with corpses and stuff. The type of stuff you’d expect out of a Fromsoftware game.
Combat is much better too. Enemies almost always flinch from attacks in KFTAC and your hitbox on your swings is huge. Larger weapons seem to have more range. Generally in this game, if you feel like you’re going to hit something, usually you do and then you get a good bit of feedback that you did. The old ‘circle and attack from behind’ strategy is not as braindead as it once was and not for any one reason. Enemies are designed with behaviors that let them move around quickly, or attack around them. So sometimes you’re trying to find an in so you can do the old ‘circle and stab’ strategy, other times you’re moving in and out and actively dodging attacks (something that works far more reliably in this game than previous games) and other times you’re scrambling around. Probably part of the reason you’re walk speed and turn speed are a little weak compared to other games. Combat in KFTAC seemed the first step in Fromsoftware figuring out a combat system with actual game feel and it helps the game A LOT.
The game has some annoying bits. It has the KFTAC teleportation system, but now you can only teleport on certain spots and they’re often decoupled from save points or even warp ports and it’s like…. I GUESS this could be interesting but usually it’s just annoying? You have a blacksmith that repairs equipment for free but with a REAL TIME wait like come on wtf, game. Also upgrades! Lets wait 2 minutes and use a rare rock to raise an attack stat by -1-. This game might have the most irritating ‘start’ of a King’s Field game, and no i don’t mean MINOR-SPOILERS which no, I did not MINOR-SPOILERS. The mine cave and the poison and the limited healing that early in the game. It’s not hard, it’s just… not fun. Also I never got to play around with sword magic because it all required you to get to ‘level 3 experience’ with a weapon which… doesn’t seem like something that’d happen in regular gameplay? Seems like a bummer to me.
So would I recommend this game? It ranks somewhat over King’s Field 3 for me, but it’s probably one of the most accessible, tolerable King’s Field games. It’s a King’s Field game I could recommend to people who aren’t crazypeople. It’s a game that pulls back from the excess and high fantasy of King’s Field 3 and creates something more intimate like King’s Field 2, just without the same charm. And, let me be real, as much as I love King’s Field 2, KFTAC is going to be a more enjoyable game to far more people.
Shadow Tower: Abyss
The fact this game was never released in the US despite the localization almost being complete has to be one of the biggest crimes ever committed by SCOA. Man, the American side of Sony was such a pack of assholes during the PS2 era. When I started doing these playthroughs, the Shadow Tower games were the games I was least excited about. Now they’re my favorites. THIS GAME IS AWESOME and bless whoever made this horridly translated fan patch with weapons like “high swords” and “low swords”. It’s so awkward at times it kinda rolls around into being cool and adding something to the game.
I feel like there is a very visible story told by From’s first person RPGs about their development. KF2 tried to give KF1 a more tangible world. KF3, after the success of KF2 aimed for grandeur and lost some of it’s intangible ‘special’ quality. Shadow Tower was practically a ‘study’ game to do the opposite of King’s Field 3 — do a lot with a little. King’s Field: The Ancient City executed on all of these lessons but became aesthetically lost in this new PS2 era… Shadow Tower: Abyss is the game that both is From discovering how to execute an aesthetic on higher fidelity systems as well as being the game where they finally refine their combat past ‘acceptable’ to actively fun.
While maintaining the same survival-horror systems of the original, visually, Shadow Tower: Abyss is far different beast. Trading the bleak aesthetic of a proto-Demon’s Souls for a weird, alien… almost naturalistic/tribal feel? The game has weird but awesome sound design — a weird blend of naturalistic and technological sounds put together in offputting ways. A lot of enemies can be really easy to id due to very distinctive and weird sounds. The worst thing I can say about the aesthetic of Abyss is that it feels distinctly ‘early 2000s’. It’s the only one of the From first person RPGs that has a style that feels like that. But it is still awesome, and weird and constantly had me going “What the fuck is THIS place?!”. The monsters were strange and worrying — maybe not as strange as some of Shadow Tower’s weirdest, but Abyss is pretty weird. Another fun thing is the sheer anachronism of the game. The game takes place long after the original Shadow Tower, as you and a bunch of researchers go down it to explore and find the spear that grants wishes turned the last protagonist into a king. Somehow you all end up at the bottom and unlike the first game, have to work your way back up to escape. And you have GUNS. Guns with very limited ammo. By the midpoint of the game I am finding myself walking around in ancient magical armor with a gasmask on my head and when I see an enemy in the distance, I trade my double handed axe for a sniper rifle. It’s bizarre to open a treasure chest and see a revolver laying there as an object of reverence to whoever found it and put it there. You feel like Lord Humungus from Mad Max. An ancient demon wants to fight you, so you decide now is the time to spend some of your precious shotgun ammo, killing him in a way that, to him, would seem no different from being blasted by a magician. All the old Fromsoft games have this sense of nebulous time, but this one embraces it. You find an ancient tribal warrior who was killing bugs for probably thousands of years along with other researchers or my fav demon lady from the first game.
Combat is great. It is extremely rare for an attack to not make an enemy flinch and when they don’t it’s a big deal. When you hit things hard, they don’t flinch, they REEL. Limbs fly off. Chopping and shooting off limbs becomes part of the strategy. “Hey if I chop off this guy’s weapon arm, his attacks are easier to deal with”. It also just feels GREAT. In the middle of a battle with an ancient knight, things were going against me and my equipment was breaking so I pulled out my shotgun and shot him, blowing off both his arms in a Monty Python-esque fashion. I blew up another giant demon with a PANZERFAUST. The intense resource management makes these moments fun and satisfying in a way that never gets old. Also unlike KFTAC you move and turn FAST and can use the analog, moving around like a traditional console FPS. Enemies are more deadily to compensate, leading the most varied and fun combat I’ve experienced in this group of games.
It’s hard for me to even think of things to say… It’s… Shadow Tower by weird and great? It’s hard to even think of how to sell this weird gem. This is the type of game where if it sounds VAGUELY interesting I’d say ‘just play it’.
But I guess I can at least talk about its problems and disappointments. Healing and repairing is a bit more of a pain early on. Topping off equipment is wasteful — everything has a base repair cost no matter how damaged it is (unless it’s broke, then it’s even more). You have encumbrance in the game for your whole inventory. You can store items at shop crystals to elevate this but I felt it did nothing but make the game less enjoyable. I never felt like I was making interesting decisions on what weapons to take with me and on the rare chance I wanted to use an odd weapon for a specific situation, it seems like it would have been better if I had it in my inventory rather than have it unused in a box somewhere. The shops/healing places are more boring — just glowing crystals connected to menus, lacking the weird personality of their Shadow Tower predecessors. No weird naga-witch selling you swords. There are also way more cunes which is… fine, I guess? But it felt weird to max out my cunes at one point. I guess it was necessary with the need to buy ammo, but there was a charm to a currency where there was only 100 in the whole world back in Shadow Tower. The game gets a little monotonous with it’s gimmick levels. By the late game I was praying for an area where I just kicked the shit out of a lot of tough stuff but it never quite came. In fact, the end part of the game is the biggest letdown. It reminds me of playing through Demon’s Souls and finishing my playthrough on Stormking before killing True Allant. It just felt like there was no release. Just ‘hey the game is over’. At least in DeS you can save the last Boletaria stage as ‘the end’ but Abyss has nothing like that. The ending felt disappointed both gameplay wise and thematically. If I were to guess, there probably was going to be more to the boss and maybe more to the last area. The last thing you fight is basically an armored copy of Rurufon and her AI and it’s… not much.
I also didn’t feel like I had a sense of the tower in Abyss as I did in Shadow Tower. The maps themselves are WAY better but Shadow Tower felt interconnected. Abyss has a hubworld that you travel up and down by way of elevator which is…. really lame? The hub area looks cool, it never changes in a way that made me feel like I was making any progress. It didn’t change in Shadow Tower either but at least in that, I was literally moving down it. Abyss is a game in dire need of a good final act, something all the King’s Field games and Shadow Tower managed to do better. Not GREAT, but much better. But none of these flaws really deeply effect the joy of the game while you’re in the middle of an area, playing it. But keep in mind, when it’s time to end the game, the game wraps up fast.
A good point is that New Game+, which Shadow Tower also had, seems to be improved. Unlike Shadow Tower which was more “go back to the top so you can finish killing and finding everything”, starts the game over, sans some of the stuff you already found, but giving you more potions and ammo and new weapons. I don’t know if it ever gets harder like a Souls NG+, but I guess I’ll see, as I’m curious if the game is different in other ways the second time through (and I feel like such a beast by the end of the game that a second pass through the game doesn’t seem very time consuming). Either way I highly recommend checking out this game. The translation works fine if you can run burnt or HDLoader games on your PS2 and it emulates pretty well (Some texture flickers with hardware acceleration but I found it to usually be tolerable). I know there will never be a Shadow Tower 3 by name, but I aware the soulslike (even if they claim they’re done) that captures a similarly weird, alien look.
In closing, my tierlist, worst the best:
KF3 -> KFTAC -> Shadow Tower =/-> KF2 -> Shadow Tower Abyss
Reaction Speeds in GamingAugust 25th, 2012
The topic of reaction speeds comes up a lot in my pet-genre of fighting games, especially when talking about casual players. Commonly they will exclaim “I just don’t have the reaction speed to play these games!” which I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of how one’s reactions work. There is a biological component to reaction speed that is hard or perhaps, impossible to improve, but that is not what most people lack. This is much like the concept of APM in RTSs. People commonly exclaim they don’t have the finger speed to play despite easily being able to type over 100 characters a minute. The bottleneck is rarely biological. The bottleneck is in your head.
The mental component, unlike the biological aspects of your reactions and reflexes, is readily and almost easily improvable. It represents the ‘skill’ component of reactions. The biological component of your reaction speed might represent your upper limit (which, by the way, is not perfectly represented by online reaction checkers), the vast majority of your sluggish reaction times in activities come from complex mental processes.
What I’m about to say isn’t strict science, but more so, a personal theory, coming from years of both gaming and watching other people improve at games. It might not perfectly represent the actual mental/physical model of what’s going on, but I think it’s a useful tool for understanding it in a way that will help you improve.
The stack is the mental “post processing” that occurs once stimulus is received. Just like the post processing on many televisions, actions taking in one’s mental stack delay the time it takes to respond to something you see on screen. In the above (and silly) example, the new player is spending so much time trying to parse what’s going on, what he can do and how he’s supposed to do the thing that he wants to do that he not only fails to respond to the stimulus (a fireball), his thought process is totally out of sync with what’s going on in the game. He is getting hit and thrown before he totally can remember where the kick button is. This might sound ridiculous, but for anyone who can remember what it was like even as an experienced player to switch from Pad to Stick, the amount of extra processing that goes on in your head to remember what button you’re supposed to hit is ridiculous and frustrating.
A player in sensory overload can commonly think their reflexes and reaction speed are terrible simply due to the fact that they are not experienced enough to know what’s going on. Or how can they be expected to make a good decision after being knocked down when not only can they not parse the seemingly infinite pool of possible actions and responses, but is probably too mentally backlogged to be able to generate a meaningful decision until after the knockdown situation has passed? The problem seems overwhelming, but all the player has to do is clean up their “Stack”.
Cleaning Up Your Stack
The first part of improving is realizing you WILL get better if you try. Especially your reflexes. Games always seem to get slower as you learn them. You can help speed up the process though by really thinking about what you’re doing. My advice to all new players is to, as soon as possible, have a plan. A bad plan can be changed, modified and adjusted. Making such adjustments without a plan is often messy and unreliable. One of my favorite bits of advice is telling people to use less buttons when they play. This isn’t always applicable, but is especially relevant to Street Fighter. Lets take Ryu…
Medium Kick (all versions)
cr.LK (close up poke)
Cr.HP (easy anti air)
Hadoken (range attack)
Shoryuken (anti air)
We’re cutting a move set of 30+ moves down to 6. More so, you can have a gameplan with only like 3 of these moves. The player can use MK for basically anything. It’s a good jump in, cr.MK is Ryu’s best poke and standing MK is okay. All the player needs then is a Hadoken and some Anti Air. This GREATLY reduces the stack. When standing in front of an opponent, one doesn’t have to think about all of Ryu’s moves — if they’re somewhat close, cr.MK. If they’re far, Hadoken. Lets represent these stack processes…
One important thing to remember: Problem solving can ALWAYS be eliminated. Problem solving in match generally means you’re losing. That’s stuff that you’ll be doing outside the match. You might also experiment in a match to figure out something against a more experienced opponent. Regardless, you want to avoid it when possible. You’ll also probably never get good enough that you’ve eliminated all problem solving from your stack, but in theory you could (thus becoming the best player ever). As you learn and become familiar with situations, these should naturally vanish, even if that situation is “doing a move”. Eventually there is no overhead for inputting a move. Your muscle memory will have that covered for you. Eventually you won’t have to run all the calculations on which move to anti air someone with, you’ll just skip to the important part — getting him out of the air.
“But wait!” you exclaim! Eliminating DECISIONS? By what sorcery do you just ANTI AIR automatically? In fact, anti airing every time someone is in the air seems like it’d be kinda dumb and would fail all the time! You only want to AA someone when the AA attempt will succeed and with that, aren’t there tons of other observations that weren’t included? Wouldn’t they read like…
“The opponent jumped.” “Is he going to be able to reach me?” “Is he attacking?” “Have I noticed in time to do a Shoryuken?” “Normal?” “Do I just block?”
Well yes, but we can not only explain that, but greatly simplify what and you need to observe!
Simplifying the World
One of the big pieces of speeding up your reaction time is deciding what is worth observing and looking for. If an opponent is right next to you, you do not generally need to look for them to jump (unless they’re a dirty, dirty dive kick character or have a brutal crossup). If they’re totally across the screen, putting priority on the fact they’re jumping isn’t important either. If you’re at midscreen, you generally shouldn’t be setting up your stack to respond to overheads. If you’re knocked down, you can go slowly break down what your opponents options ACTUALLY are with experience, and once the basic high/low/throw/meatie okizeme situation is internalized, you can put all your observation can be put toward tiny details to help you make the right decision. If an opponent doing something in a situation wouldn’t make any sense, or if responding to it wouldn’t give you any benefits, then there is little reason to be looking for it and by looking for less things, we can respond and act faster.
I also want to introduce the concept of Autopilot. Autopilot is the subconscious script your gameplay follows once you get good but aren’t terribly playing attention. You can learn to play the game quite competently without really “thinking”. The advantage here though isn’t that you don’t have to think — it’s that you can use your autopilot to free up mental resources to make more decisions. Combos are something that are often able to be done on autopilot after a while. The great thing there is you can use your mental energy during the combo to either plan on what you want to do after the combo, or look for things going on in the combo that might be concerning. In games like Guilty Gear, realizing that your opponent is a bit out of position in an air combo and finishing the combo differently to compensate can be a big deal. It’s also something that can only be reasonably done when the combo is running on auto pilot. If you’re looking to anti air your opponent because they seem to be in a “jumpy mood” it is super beneficial to be able to play decently while waiting for the jump. If you just stand there and wait for the jump, they will likely never jump (and might even gain an advantage). Having a functioning Autopilot allows you to decide what things you want to put your focus on. Your auto piloted actions will never be as good as they would be if they had your full attention, but by choosing where you full attention goes, you can pull off things that seem, to inexperienced players, super human.
This is also why having a plan is SUPER IMPORTANT. Even if your plan is to do cr.MKs -> Hadoken, just doing that all reflexively gives you the breathing room to think about what you’re doing in more detail. It gives you the focus necessary to decide what should be in your Stack. By managing whats in your stack and using your focus carefully, you can, with average or even bad natural reaction speed, do things that seem stupidly robo-fast.
It’s not about being able to perceive and react to everything, it’s about being able to simplify the problem and removing the clutter from your brain that slows down your actions. It’s experience that holds you back more so than your inherent abilities.