Mashing: Rote Memory vs System Mastery

Many players of fighting games and beat em up games start out by mashing. When you have 2-6 attack buttons, it can be hard to tell the difference between moves, so you might as well press buttons and hope something good comes out. A better player will understand when to use each move, but a worse one will see a large movelist, say “nah, pass” and just mash it out.

Some games are designed to actually facilitate and reward this type of mashing, games with strings (a sequence of unique moves activated by pressing buttons in a specific order). By mashing the buttons, you’ll accidentally end up doing all sorts of moves, and since neither you nor your opponent has any idea what you’re about to do, that makes you unpredictable, and ironically more effective in a genre that is advanced rock paper scissors.

It’s easy for intermediate level players to shut down this sort of play by simply blocking and waiting for an unsafe move to punish, or by throwing out “knowledge check” moves that require a specific counter (you can also call this spamming). However among beginners, it can allow them to develop a surprising level of basic competency at the game. They might be throwing moves out randomly at first, but sometimes they see something cool happen, and remember the feeling in their hands when they got that, allowing them to iterate and repeat it. Also helpful is these games list the strings in the move list, so beginners can learn a string as easily as checking.

For many beginners, these strings are literally what combos are. They’ll call them “combos”, not knowing there’s a larger combo system in the game. In a way, this is really helpful for beginners, compared to other games, because strings don’t involve tight timing, and are listed right there.

The Difficulties of Street Fighter

When moving to Street Fighter or another 2d fighter, beginners can look at the move list, but end up mashing blindly attempting to make combos. Unfortunately they’ll have a harder time than MK or Tekken, because cancels will be tighter, buttons won’t chain from strong to weak, nor will they chain on whiff. Street Fighter is harder to learn at a low level than Mortal Kombat or Tekken without outside help because it has less moves and more of a systemic relationship between moves, as opposed to a massive number of arbitrary strings. This can make most 2d fighters paradoxically easier to learn on purpose, but harder to learn on accident.

If you’re trying to learn Tekken on purpose, you need to parse out which strings are useful from a list of potentially 200, then you need to learn how to defend against the rest of the cast and punish them. If you’re trying to learn a 2d fighter on purpose, you just need to remember that closeup moves are plus, sweeps and some specials are unsafe, and memorize a considerably shorter movelist.

This is probably why a large number of casual players prefer Tekken or Mortal Kombat over games like Street Fighter; it’s easier to get to the level of feeling like you’re competent at the game through mashing and checking the in-game resources. And I’ve found that these players are shockingly competent until running into a player that can consistently knowledge check them (anti-air, block punish, spam fireball/sweep/throw).

Helpfully, Mortal Kombat also has the same normal moves on every character, so basic functions like anti-air or sweep are learned once and never forgotten, and I find casual MK players will anti-air me more consistently than casual players do in other games.

Smash Bros

On the opposite end for fighting games, we have Smash Bros, which has no strings, no cancels, and all command moves. Smash Bros, rather than rewarding mashing and giving players a way to learn through mashing, is a game that completely shuts down mashing. Mashing is ineffective in Smash Bros in much the same way it would be ineffective in Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, or another action platformer. Many of the things that make mashing effective in other fighting games are not present. Characters do not rotate to face each other automatically, most moves travel in different directions and would miss if not aimed correctly, moves don’t cancel or chain into each other, and moves are designed to be widely different in their function, making it easier to determine the use case for each.

Smash Bros avoids having players mash by making the game about moving to the player and trying to land a hit. And you’ll learn fast not to mash because if you press the button too early, or in the wrong direction, you’ll miss. In this way, smash bros helps players figure out what they’re doing right and wrong a lot more quickly by giving them clear feedback about which moves simply do and do not work. In another fighter, you might have 20 or more moves that all hit in front of you and it’s not obvious which is better than which when they’re all doing the job of hitting the other person.

Stylish action games

Similarly, many stylish action games feature strings in addition to command moves. The big divide here is between Devil May Cry and the rest of the genre, mainly Platinum Games. Devil May Cry has a few strings, usually just attack, attack, attack, and attack, delay, attack for each weapon, but most of the move list is command attacks, which involve holding a direction and attacking.

Bayonetta’s Training room is a very helpful way to learn strings… Which isn’t available in the main game.

By comparison, most of the Bayonetta movelist is strings, which end on a big wicked weave attack. Additionally, you can cancel most attacks in Bayonetta into dodge at any point, so as long as you keep mashing the buttons and dodging at the correct times, you’re guaranteed to win. Metal gear rising similarly lets attacks cancel into parry, so tapping forward and attack creates an option select between parrying and attacking, which can win most fights. However I think Bayonetta would have benefitted most with the training room’s move list overlay being displayed in normal gameplay, making learning the move list much simpler by simply giving people visual feedback and instruction as they play instead of forcing them to consult a training room or in-menu move list. This reduces iteration time, as well as busywork.

Despite this apparent ease of play in Platinum Games titles compared to DMC, Devil May Cry 4 and 5 outsold even the high estimates for any Platinum game, except Nier Automata, which features a shorter command list than any of the previous games on top of a bunch of other attractive qualities that have captured people’s imaginations.

The Witcher in the Room

Infuriatingly, all of these are insignificant next to The Witcher, a series that has sold over 50 million copies. All of the Witcher games have the most inconsistent and janky combat I’ve ever seen. Their attacks do not follow strings or command moves, instead using a distance-based system that is quite possibly semi-randomized (and an enemy blocking system that is completely randomized in Witcher 2). This makes it practically impossible to get the attacks you intend to, which is why skilled players tend to roll behind enemies, where they cannot counter attacks, and the inconsistent attack animations don’t matter as much.

Since attacks follow no discernible pattern, mashing is the only play in Witcher, and y’know, the sales numbers show that pretty much everyone loves it. So I guess that’s cool. To be respectful to Witcher, the bulk of those sales come from the 3rd game, which cleaned up the combat system a lot in terms of just feeling of solidity, and predictability, but still has inconsistent attacks with animations that can miss a large target at point blank.


If your game has many similar-ish options, sometimes it pays to make mashing rewarding, but more frequently it pays to make those options more distinct and clear in their function, and create depth through nuance instead of move variety. It always pays to consider how players may misinput things and what sort of feedback can help guide them in the correct direction.

Not every game needs to follow the same template here, and certainly all of these design strategies are valid ways of creating move lists (except Witcher’s). But some of them place a massive information burden on players up-front when they try to actually engage with the game. It can be fun to let beginners mash around and have a bunch of different things happen, but when those players try to actually get better, and realize how much work that actually involves, it can be a stopping point for many people. Of course, trying to actually learn how to use all of Dante’s different moves in DMC is equally a stopping point for many people, so good luck.

2 thoughts on “Mashing: Rote Memory vs System Mastery

  1. C.J.Geringer May 17, 2023 / 4:08 am

    Really cool analysis.

    Is there nay chance we will Get posts on any of these games:

    Garouden Brakblow: Fist or Twist
    Def Jam: Fight for NY
    Bushido Blade

    They are all really interesting game sthat have a cult following but no modern equivalent, and I would love to hear your thoughts on them.


    • Celia Wagar May 17, 2023 / 9:05 am

      I’ve only played Bushido Blade, and I didn’t like it very much, so odds are probably pretty low, sorry.


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