Game Philosophy: Combos

Quarter Circle Forward Punch, what do you get?!

“YOGA FIRE!”

I mean, you’re not wrong

Logo

Today’s topic:
Combos

Combos in games are usually a sequence of attacks where the character deals out some choreographed can of whoopass.

Why settle for a single punch when you can follow an uppercut with a bunch of hits in the air, basically beating the enemy to a pulp before they even hit the ground?

I myself have dabbled a bit in the Combo Video craze.

Now, there are several ways to put combos in your games. But I will focus on 3 methods in particular, and I will represent each of them with a particular video game.

Classic Combos

First I want to talk about the classic style that got popularized by Street Fighter II, which I will represent with Devil May Cry 5.

Some basics first. Most attacks have 3 phases to them.

Startup means the frames of the character BEFORE the attack actually happens, Attack Frame is the attack itself which actually damages the enemy and the Recovery is what happens AFTER the attack, which usually leaves the character open to a counter.

The idea of a combo was kinda invented during play-testing of Street Fighter II, when the programmers realized that you could “cancel” the Recovery Animation of an attack by performing a different attack immediately after, which gives the opponent no chance to fight back.

This means that most games that use this combo system focus on having single attacks that you simply use one after another.

To use Devil May Cry 5’s main character Nero as an example, though pressing undefinedundefinedundefinedundefined/undefinedundefinedundefinedundefined gives you a basic combo;

Red Queen Combo A

MOST special attacks of Nero are single attacks with special properties that can USUALLY cancel into each other.

Highroller and Streak being some examples.

To perform “Streak”, you Lock-On to the enemy (with /R1), then push the Left Control Stick TOWARDS the enemy (which I stylize as undefined) and THEN pressing /.

Streak

Basically,
+undefined+
or
R1+undefined+.

Streak isn’t just another combo to replace Combo A, it’s a singular move with a special property where Nero dashes forward before slashing the enemy. This makes it a good move to reach enemies in the distance.

To perform “Highroller” you Lock-On to the enemy (with /R1), then push the Left Control Stick AWAY from the enemy (which I stylize as undefined) and THEN pressing /.

Basically,
+undefined+
or
R1+undefined+

Highroller is an uppercut that launches the enemy into the air. It has two versions to it. One where you simple PRESS / and one where you HOLD / (which I stylize as undefined/undefined).

By simply PRESSING / Nero STAYS on the ground while the enemy is launched.
HOLDING / launches NERO in the air as well.

Highroller (Press)
Highroller (Hold)

When Nero is in the air (which I creatively stylize as (In Air)), he can perform OTHER moves like

Split
(In Air)+undefined+
or
(In Air)R1+undefined+

Split

Payline
(In Air)+undefined+
or
(In Air)R1+undefined+

Payline

Calibur
(In Air)+undefined,undefined+
or
(In Air)R1+undefined,undefined+

Calibur

Yet again, each with their own special properties.

Now, the way to perform Combos in Devil May Cry is based on you “Canceling” the recovery animation of one move to the other. You don’t NEED to perform the FULL Combo A. You can interrupt Combo A with Highroller so that you would immediately uppercut an enemy after hitting them thrice.

Basically,
,+undefined+
or
,R1+undefined+

But hold on, you’re in the air after doing the Hold version of Highroller, right? Why not add a Calibur AFTER that to hit the enemy away while the enemy AND Nero are in the air?

Basically,
,+undefined+undefined,+undefined,undefined+
or
,R1+undefined+undefined,R1+undefined,undefined+

Mind you, these are just the basics. Devil May Cry as a franchise has stuff like Jump Canceling and all that, which I don’t want to get into right now. I just want to give an example of how “Canceling” works as a mechanic in Combos.

Red Queen Combo C

I’ve honestly barely scratched the surface of Nero’s movelist here, like you’d notice that / is called “Red Queen Combo A”.

By adding pauses to your button presses (which in another stroke of creative genius I stylize as (Pause)) you can do a variation of the Red Queen Combo, like for example
“Red Queen Combo C” with
(Pause)
or
(Pause)

Heck I’m not even going into the Devil Breakers and all that. Let’s just say Devil May Cry 5 has a LOT of stuff to play with…

This game’s combo system has what’s called “Low Commitment” where pretty much most Recovery Animations can be canceled by another attack, basically giving you a plethora of combinations of attacks to do one after another.

I won’t go TOO deep into the concept of “Commitment” in video game combat mechanics and how it affects the game’s design, just know that that’s what “Low Commitment” means.

Dial Combos

Next up are the type of combos that pretty much terrified the casual gamer from entering the arcades, which I guess is fitting then that I will represent it with Ninja Gaiden II.

Dial Combos are based on strings of button presses that each add another variation to the combo depending on what you pressed in the sequence.

As a result, most of these games have at least two different attack buttons.

I myself first got into contact with this combo system through Mortal Kombat, but I’m uncertain whether that game invented it. I know that Tekken makes use of this system as well. But I pick Ninja Gaiden II because shut up, it’s one of my most favourite games.

Now, you have two Melee Attack buttons.
Quick Attack with / and Strong Attack with /.

Pressing / gives you “Piercing Dragon’s Fang”.

Piercing Dragon’s Fang
Undefeatable Demon

Pressing / gives you “Undefeatable Demon”.

“Canceling” in the Ninja Gaiden franchise is a lot more limited compared to the Devil May Cry franchise. If Devil May Cry is considered “Low Commitment” then Ninja Gaiden is “Medium Commitment”. The general rule is that MOST of the / attacks can be canceled, and MOST of the / attacks CAN’T be canceled (but there are MANY exceptions). And even then, most of the / attacks CAN’T be canceled by regular / attacks because that in fact leads to ANOTHER button string of combos.

In fact there are SO many combos in Ninja Gaiden II that I’m pretty sure at least SOMEONE out there died of a heart attack just by LOOKING at the combo list.

And to think, this is still nothing compared to Tekken.

As a result, doing combos in Ninja Gaiden II takes a lot more studying to perform. The difference between / and / isn’t as apparent from a glance until you actually study what each of those moves do.

Though the first …/… will always be the same two slashes, continuing with …/… ends with Ryu launching the enemy into the air while continuing with …/… makes Ryu do a slash that has more chance of cutting off an enemy’s limb.

Also, Ninja Gaiden has no Lock-On feature. Instead of varying up combos through pauses in the button presses (though some weapons DO use that), you mainly vary up your combos by either pressing a different Melee Attack button OR pushing the Control Stick TOWARDS the enemy while you dial the combo (which I stylize with undefined/undefined or undefined/undefined).

Wrath of Izanagi

As an example, here’s
“Wrath of Izanagi”
which you perform with
undefined
or
undefined

The final slash has a good chance of decapitating the enemy.

To add more variety, though, remember how Devil May Cry has the (In Air) status?

Well, Ninja Gaiden doesn’t just stop there! It has (In Air), (On Landing), (While Running), (While Wallrunning Horizontally), (While Wallrunning Vertically), (While Swimming), (While Running on Water), etc.!

And some of those moves that originally were SINGLE attacks in the previous Ninja Gaiden game, Ninja Gaiden II turned THEM into combos as well!

Like for example
“Divine Flying Swallow”
which is performed with
(In Air)undefined
or
(In Air)undefined

Divine Flying Swallow

And of course, I can’t NOT reference the “Izuna Drop”.

While it’s command may look a bit daunting to casual gamers;

or

You ACTUALLY don’t need to remember THAT much.

See, there are many ways to end up in the titular drop, but basically the REAL command for the Izuna Drop is simple;
(In Air)
or
(In Air)

Izuna Drop

Then what’s the point of the …/… in front of it, then?

Well, see, / is one of MANY ways you can get Ryu AND the enemy into the air. There are many alternatives from simple combos like
undefined/undefined
and
undefined/undefined
and
(While Running)undefined/(While Running)undefined

You can even simply press / to jump up while an enemy is already in the air.

And if you want to be REALLY crazy;
(On Landing)
or
(On Landing)

You basically use the statuses you gain from one combo to another, like for example if you interrupt your Divine Flying Swallow, you fall down to the ground and get an (On Landing) Status, which means you can follow it up with an (On Landing)/(On Landing) that can lead to ANOTHER combo, etc.

So yeah, long strings like THESE are possible:
(In Air)undefined,(On Landing),(In Air)
or
(In Air)undefined,(On Landing)(In Air)

This is not to say there AREN’T single attacks in Ninja Gaiden II at all, in fact they’re pretty much their own little combat system in the game.

Obliteration Technique

First there’s the “Obliteration Technique”, introduced in Ninja Gaiden II, which is an instant kill move you perform on an enemy that has lost a limb
(stylized as (Enemy Injured))
and by pressing /.

Basically,
(Enemy Injured)
or
(Enemy Injured)

The animation of the Obliteration Technique changes based on which limb the enemy has lost.

A lot of the time an Obliteration Technique has priority over other combos, which means you can cancel a combo to perform an Obliteration Technique when you find out that the enemy has lost a limb in the meantime.

Or you simply use a combo that has a very short Recovery Animation like
“Ikaruga”
undefined
or
undefined
and then just use an Obliteration Technique immediately after it.

Basically,
undefined,(Enemy Injured)
or
undefined,(Enemy Injured)

Ikaruga to Obliteration Technique

Second, there’s the “Ultimate Technique”, introduced in Ninja Gaiden on the original Xbox, but fixed up to be more useful in it’s DLC (which it’s remake Ninja Gaiden Black took over most of it’s features). This mechanic is so simple yet amazing in it’s Risk/Reward design.

For some additional context, after beating an enemy, they always leave behind “Essence” in one of three (or four if you play Survival Mode) colours. Yellow, Blue and Red (and Green in Survival).

Yellow Essence is the currency you use to buy things in the game. Blue Essence heals your health. Red Essence gives you Ki which you use to perform Ninja Magic (called Ninpo in this game). (And just to complete this whole thing, Green Essence gives you a score multiplier in Survival Mode.)

To perform an Ultimate Technique, you hold down undefined/undefined until Ryu pulses with energy. It goes in a sequence of the Weapon glowing it’s signature colour to Ryu glowing Blue and then Ryu glowing Red.

Letting GO of / will have Ryu unleash a powerful attack unique to his chosen weapon that leaves him invincible as he uses it. The power of the attack is of course based on how long Ryu charged the Ultimate Technique. Letting go when he’s glowing Blue is different than letting go when he’s glowing Red.

Okay, so it’s a charge attack. Big deal. But what’s REALLY awesome about this technique is that you can SKIP to the Blue or Red glow by SACRIFICING the Essence around you.

Yellow Essence simply skips you to the next glow in the sequence.
So if you simply had your weapon glow it’s signature colour, it skips to Ryu glowing Blue. If Ryu glowed Blue, then it instead skips to Ryu glowing Red.
Blue and Red (and Green) Essence instead ALWAYS skips to Ryu glowing Red.

But note that whatever you sacrifice, you do NOT gain it’s bonuses (except Yellow Essence where you still gain a small percentage of it’s currency). And in a game where enemies basically waste no time trying to kill you? Every second counts, and you will have to make split-second decisions of whether you want the Blue and Red (and Green) Essence to heal you or give you Ki (or give you the score multiplier) OR to speed up your charging of the Ultimate Technique! You better think fast, because if you sacrificed the Blue Essence and THEN got hit by an enemy (thus canceling your Ultimate Technique altogether), then you wasted precious health for NOTHING!

That’s what I mean with Risk/Reward.

Ninja Gaiden II does still have some form of advanced canceling. You just kinda have to figure out which moves can and CAN’T cancel into one another, which necessitates studying the combo list.

You can also press / to throw a Shuriken for example to cancel a lot of moves, but I think I’ve already made my point. Compared to Devil May Cry where a combo means performing many singular attacks one after another with the different properties of each move with a lot of freedom, Ninja Gaiden’s combos are based on learning what status the character ends up in after one of the pre-written combos. Which means you need to study the combo list to figure out how to make your own combos.

Arkham Style

Lastly there’s the infamous combo system that got pretty popular since it’s debut game, which is why I’ll call it what it is; The Arkham Style.

It got imitated a lot after it showed up in Batman Arkham Asylum, because it’s a combo system that a lot of people can easily pick up and play.

I have my own opinions on this combat system, but let’s go through the system itself before I start rambling about it.

Of course I’ll just use Batman Arkham Asylum as it’s representative.

So remember how in Ninja Gaiden II the Obliteration Technique’s animation changes based on which limb the enemy lost?

Well, Arkham Style means the animation changes based on the distance to the enemy, Batman’s orientation BASED on the enemy, the amount of hits on his combo meter… basically by the end of everything you have performed 4 different punches based on the same button press of / 4 different times.

If nothing else this really makes you FEEL like Batman.. a creator’s pet of DC.

Now, this is not to say that there’s nothing complicated about the combat system at all. Throughout the game you keep getting more and more abilities. But MAINLY you’re going to be in a loop of these two abilities;

Strike

Strike, which you perform by pressing /.

Batman will automatically move to the enemy you point the Control Stick at.

Counter, which you perform by pressing / when an enemy is about to attack you.
For the hell of it, I’ll stylize it as
(Counter)/(Counter).

Batman will block/dodge the enemy’s attack and counter with an attack of his own.

Counter

To mix things up, though, there are moves like Throw and Instant Takedown.

Throw

To perform Throw, you need to have 8 hits (5 hits if you got the upgrades) to the Combo Meter.
Then you press +/+ at the same time.

Batman will throw the enemy into an obstacle or another enemy.

To perform Instant Takedown, you need to have 8 hits (5 hits if you got the upgrades) to the Combo Meter.
Then you press +/+ at the same time.

Similar to Ninja Gaiden II’s Obliteration Technique, Batman performs an instant kill (oh, I’m sorry, “knockout”) attack where his animation changes based on… which Robin he currently has, I don’t know.

Instant Takedown

Now don’t you worry, it doesn’t ALL have to be Batman’s fists doing the talking. He can also use his gadgets. Like for example using the Bat Claw by either pressing +/L2+R2 at the same time with the Batarang selected as the gadget or tapping /R2 twice.

Batman will pull the enemy towards him, stunning them so he can then follow up with another attack.

Batclaw

Time to rant

Now, if you haven’t noticed my very subtle sarcasm…

I’m not really the biggest fan of this combat system.

Yes, like Devil May Cry you have a lot of freedom to go from one move to the other. Yes, the animations change based on circumstances like Ninja Gaiden. And it’s not like there’s NO skill needed at all to master this combat system, I DO kind of enjoy watching people do Combat Challenges in the game while taking no damage and succeeding with one unending string of combos.

But the fact is that I never felt like it was ME doing those combos. I felt like it’s BATMAN doing those combos while I’m just a spectator that yells out “BEHIND YOU, BATMAN!” by pressing /.

Now that might sound a bit silly.

Screw you, physics!

In the end, it’s not ME dashing through the air with Calibur.
Nero‘s doing it.

I’m just pressing
(In Air)+undefined,undefined+
or
(In Air)R1+undefined,undefined+

It’s not ME launching the enemy into the air and piledriving them to the ground with Izuna Drop.
Ryu‘s doing it.

I’m just pressing

or

It’s amazing that I don’t break my own neck doing this!

But the difference lies in how much effort the CHARACTER is doing COMPARED to the effort the PLAYER is doing.

To break physics with Nero’s Calibur, the player needs to learn how to perform moves like Streak and Highroller to understand the command system and the different properties of each move like how Highroller can send both Nero and the enemy in the air, then they need to learn how the status of being in the air allows you to perform more moves. There’s kind of a logical progression from learning a move like Streak all the way to learning to perform Calibur which is pretty much the aerial version of the same move.

To use one of Ryu’s most powerful attacks of Ninja Gaiden II, the Izuna Drop, you need to learn the dial system and how each string of / and / gives you different statuses. There’s some memorization going on, but by the end of it you feel like you’ve earned the knowledge and skill to perform an uppercut that leads to a bunch of slashes in the air before you piledrive the enemy into the ground and turn them into an almost very literal vegetable.

Keep… pressing… X/Square…

By comparison in Batman Arkham Asylum, you basically keep mindlessly pressing / like a zombie to endlessly ping pong from one enemy to another (because as I mentioned, Batman moves to the enemy himself, so you don’t even need to judge distance for yourself) until you see an enemy get the “COUNTER ME” sign on their head, in which case you press /… and then continue mindlessly pressing /.

Maybe every now and then there’s an enemy that needs to be stunned with the cape or Batclaw, but you default back to pressing /. Oh hey, you’ve got 8 (or 5) hits on the Combo Meter! Use the Instant Takedown. Okay, back to pressing /.

“Go Batman! Go Batman! I’m with you in spirit!
See? I’m contributing!”

ON SCREEN Batman is doing some of the most complex choreographed fighting in game history. He punches one enemy, then rolls to another enemy to do an axe kick, then does an elbow strike at the same enemy’s face! He jumps over an enemy’s head and does a bunch of punches and kicks to break the enemy’s back. Thinking they see an opportunity, another opponent tries to kick Batman, but that’s when he grapples the opponent’s kick and then punches the defenseless enemy in the face! As Batman turns the defenseless enemy into mush with his rapid punches, he notices another enemy approaching from the back! He throws batarangs into the enemy’s face before doing a jumping kick to the poor blinded bastard as a prelude to some punching and kicking until they get knocked down by a kick to the FACE, then he throws ANOTHER enemy into an electric door before dodging the punches of 3 enemies at the same time as he does a double punch AND a kick to hit ALL 3 of them!

What is the player doing during all this?

, , , (Counter), , , , +, (Counter)
or (if you prefer a sea of s over a sea of s)
, , , (Counter), ,R2R2, , +, (Counter)

Now you might argue that this still looks pretty complicated once you note it all down like this.

I’d like to point out that this is not ONE attack against ONE enemy in ONE part of the fight. This is likely the WHOLE fight represented in button strings right there! Batman likely won the entire battle already!

AW YEAH! DON’T I FEEL LIKE BATMAN RIGHT NOW!

“Should I be worried?” “Don’t show him your fear…”

Uhm… some positivity?

*Sigh*… okay, I’m done.

In all fairness, I DO see why people like this combo system, believe it or not.

I may not like it myself because I like feeling like there’s a balance to the player’s input and the character’s action. I hope if nothing else that that’s been made pretty clear with this ramble.

But obviously, not everyone is like me.

A lot of people simply want escapism in their games. They don’t want to put the effort in their games and simply want to experience the story of the badass Dark Knight surviving his way through Arkham Asylum. With THIS in mind, the combat system is perfect for them. This is not meant to be some back-handed compliment, it IS cool to see Batman bounce around enemy to enemy and beating up the whole room in one beautiful string of actions.

And I DID mention that it’s not without it’s merit. I pointed out several things about it that are pretty good about it.

If nothing else, this is a combo system that LOOKS cool. This LOOKS like how Batman SHOULD fight. Heck if there’s ANYTHING to appreciate about Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s the fact that Batman actually FOUGHT similar to the Arkham games in his fight choreography, which looks pretty cool.

Point is, this combo system is definitely the most marketable. You may not feel like it’s really YOU doing all of this, nor is the mechanic that deep, but it’s a combo system that is really cool to SEE in action.

I’ve got friends who love the Batman Arkham games, and that’s great. I don’t want to take their love of the game away from them, because there has to be SOMETHING about the game that makes people like it.

A gameplay mechanic isn’t copied and imitated without reason.

Conclusion

So yeah, these are just three of many different ways you can do Combo Systems in a game.

Combos tend to give players some form of self-expression in their combat. If not that, there’s still some tactics to them. All these attack combinations add possibilities for the player to explore in the game, and it’s up to them to test the limits of what’s possible after learning the toolset.

It’s why games like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden have lots of Combo Videos that show off the possibilities.

I’d like to credit Sigma Games, MrRetroKid91 and BubblegumFrame1 whose gameplay footage I used to turn into gifs to demonstrate the combos in this post.

I’d also would like to credit donguri990 and Miduki for being awesome players of Devil May Cry 5 and Ninja Gaiden II.

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

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