What’s the point of combos in fighting games?

Many beginners get into fighting games and see these COMBOS and feel like, “bullshit, it’s not fair that they can deal a billion damage. I hit them twice as much and they win off one hit.” While that can be frustrating, combos add a lot to the game that you can’t get any other way.

The deal with combos is they make certain hits under certain circumstances more damaging than just any random hit. Games with longer combos allow players to find different combo routes that lead to different types of advantages, like more damage, better screen positioning, knockdown, meter gain, easier confirms, and safety on block.

This makes the game not just about landing hits, but about landing the right hits with the right followup, and being on the ball to either followup or not depending on the circumstance. Combos aren’t just, “land a hit, then do this button sequence every time,” they actually have a lot of different tradeoffs, and they allow characters to get different types of advantages on hit, and convert into big damage off different types of moves. It also means that characters have different levels of risk and reward and different dangerous ranges. It means they can spend meter differently for different types of advantages, and make that decision when they land the hit. Essentially, combos, especially long combos, give you the chance to customize in the moment what sort of bonus you get off a hit.

Imagine it like this, when you land a hit, a menu appears and you get to choose what bonuses you get off the hit, then it instantly skips to the end. Functionally, this isn’t much different than how combos work right now, except players need to practice and explore the character to find all the bonuses possible off a given hit. This means that over time, people will find new ways to use the character, so as the life cycle of the game continues everyone is still learning new things and the way the game is played changes. If it were just a preset menu, then the game would stay the same and everyone would have the same options, instead of practicing some combos instead of others, giving them a unique playstyle.

Games with shorter combos usually only have a few combos that a character can do, meaning that you have less choice in which hits lead into combos, or what type of bonus you get off the combo. In these games, combos are more rote, you don’t get as much choice in how much risk or reward you want to take on, or where it will lead onscreen, or what type of advantage you get afterwards. You get one combo, take it or leave it.

Instead of thinking of combos like your opponent gets to hit you a bunch and you can’t do anything about it, think of them like they’re all one hit. The initial hit is the point where you screwed up, and all the rest is just a part of that hit. Pay attention to the types of hits that lead into combos, remember the situations where your opponent uses them, and guard against those. Another big mistake is not guarding after the combo ends. Most combos grant knockdown or some type of advantage at the end, so after landing a bunch of damage, the attacker gets a chance to do it all over again. Beginners get bamboozled by the combo, and aren’t ready to defend themselves afterwards. Also you should be ready and defending yourself in case the combo drops. Even the best players don’t finish combos all the time. Once you recognize these things, you’ll be able to protect yourself from combos better, and you’ll be more engaged while a combo is going on, so combos won’t seem as long or tedious, because you still have things to consider during them.

5 thoughts on “What’s the point of combos in fighting games?

  1. Yujiri November 11, 2019 / 11:48 pm

    Nice post. Those are some pretty good points.

    My beef with combos is the waiting time. I won’t complain about being hit multiple times if it makes the game deeper, but what bothers me so much is having nothing to do for too long. DBFZ was the worst example, wherein it seemed like I might as well put down my controller because I could have 10 seconds to wait. A design space I think is underexplored, at least in games I’ve played, is condos that allow the defender to break it somehow, but at a risk.


    • Johan November 12, 2019 / 2:20 am

      You mean like burst? It’s not quite a risk or unique to specific combos, but it is using a resource to break combos.


      • Yujiri November 12, 2019 / 2:27 am

        I don’t know what burst is. I’d ask you what game it’s from but I probably wouldn’t know it – I actually don’t have much experience with fighting games 🙂 they’re a genre I’ve thoroughly enjoyed on occasion, but I’ve always been held back from getting seriously into them by things like waiting, and more so bad tutorials.


        • Chris Wagar November 12, 2019 / 2:49 am

          There’s 3 common ways to get out of combos that I’ve seen, bursts, combo breakers, and DI.

          Bursts are in Guilty Gear and Blazblue, and sorta skullgirls. They let you turn invincible in the middle of a combo, then hit back with an attack that covers your body and knocks your opponent off you, but deals no damage. Bursts are about 18 frames, which means you can barely react to them, and if timed well, can interrupt your attacks cleanly. However opponents can also space their attacks to bait your burst and start a new combo. In Guilty Gear, bursts can also be thrown, so some combos naturally catch bursts mid-combo. Bursts are tied to a meter in GG and BB, so they’re a limited resource, you need to decide to use them or not, and using them poorly means you can’t use them later when you need to. (there’s also a burst in Tatsunoko versus capcom, but it’s tied to meter, so whoever is winning is then also immune to combos)

          Combo breakers are in Killer Instinct, you guess if the opponent’s next move is going to be light, medium, or heavy, and press the buttons at the same time you get hit, and this lets you break out. In order to make this possible, KI had to basically invent a whole new combo system from other fighters that lets anything combo into anything. The trouble with this system is it can be a bit of a blind guess, because there isn’t very strong logic for telling what strength of button the opponent will use next, and it’s not totally reactable. If you fail a break, the opponent gets more combo points to use and can hit you with heavy attacks unafraid of getting broken.

          DI in Smash bros and Soul Calibur lets you control which direction you fly when juggled. In Soul Calibur, most combo routes are tailored to avoid DI being a factor. In Smash, DI makes combos more like combo trees of possible combos based on the opponent’s DI, sometimes reactable, sometimes not. It also means that mid-combo mixups are feasible, by varying the strength or angle of your next attack.

          I think DI is the most elegant of these, but it couldn’t work for normal fighting games, it only works in smash because smash gives you a lot more hitstun and frame advantage than other games, and because of the platforming physics of smash.

          Basically, if you wanna escape combos at any time, play guilty gear, blazblue, killer instinct, dead or alive, tatsunoko versus capcom, or smash Melee/PM.


          • Johan November 13, 2019 / 2:07 pm

            Persona 4 Arena also has bursts like GG/BB, though half the characters (shadows) can’t use it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s