So you want to learn how to play fighting games…

By on July 23, 2013 at 6:37 pm

Old-timers know to expect it by now. You get home from Evo, unpack your stuff, do your laundry, and sit on the couch to breathe for a second. Just a second. And then —


This kind of post pops up everywhere people talk about fighting games. Which is great! We should all be proud that our competitive events don’t just highlight the best players — they motivate people to try and be the best players as well. But all that time spent giving newbies tips is time we could be spending in the lab, so I thought I’d just write an easy guide that we can all link to and get back to beating each other up.

Which game should I start with first?

The easy answer is: The game you want to play the most. If you watched Super Smash Bros. Melee and that was what got you all fired up to start playing fighting games, then play Smash! You don’t need to take intro classes to learn how to play fighting games. The first step is just to start playing, and the easiest way to start (and stick to) playing fighting games is just to pick up whichever one interests you the most and take it from there.

Some games emphasize cultivating your fundamental fighting game skills that then make it easier to transfer over to other fighting games, but as a newbie, you shouldn’t worry about that. Just pick the game you want to learn, and go from there. You’re never going to stick around in fighting games if you feel compelled to play a game you don’t actually enjoy.

That said, I’ve seen a few people who are interested in just making it into fighting games in general and don’t actually have a specific game in mind that they’d like to play. If that sounds like you, I’d recommend starting out by picking up Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition 2012; you can buy it right now on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, or PC for about $20 or so these days.


How do I know if I have the latest version of Street Fighter IV?

Street Fighter IV has had a whole bunch of updates since it was released in 2008, so this might get confusing to some people. There are currently four versions of Street Fighter IV, starting with the original Street Fighter IV (a.k.a. “Vanilla SF4”), then Super Street Fighter IV (released as a separate game entirely, a.k.a. “Super”), then Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition (paid DLC upgrade from Super, a.k.a. “AE”), then Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition ver. 2012 (free balance update from Arcade Edition, a.k.a. “AE 2012”). AE 2012 is the newest version of the game; Capcom announced an update called Ultra Street Fighter IV (a.k.a. “Ultra”) at Evo 2013, which will be available as a paid downloadable update to AE 2012 when it comes out in early 2014.

If you bought Street Fighter IV when it first came out, you’re not playing the newest version of the game, which means you’ll have a hard time finding other people to play against.

If you bought Super Street Fighter IV, you’ll have to pay for the AE update, then you can get the ver. 2012 update for free.

If you own Arcade Edition, just download the free ver. 2012 update.

If you own AE 2012, congrats! You’re playing the latest version.

And don’t worry about the recently-announced Ultra Street Fighter IV — as long as you have AE 2012, you can upgrade to Ultra when it comes out, so don’t let that stop you from starting your fighting journey right the heck now.

Why should I start with the Street Fighter IV series?

Personally, I think there are all kinds of long-winded game design explanations for why I think the Street Fighter IV series is a good way to introduce new people to fighting games, but I’ll save those for another time. Here are the shorter, more-relevant-to-newbies reasons:

It’s everywhere. Street Fighter has long been the center of the fighting game world, meaning that it’s not hard to find people who are playing the game online, tutorial videos and articles, local competitive scenes, or any of that. When you’re just starting out, it’s easier to learn how to play a game and plug yourself into a community when the games you like to play are very active and have no shortage of dedicated players.

It’s familiar. Many people haven’t really touched a fighting game since the Street Fighter II days, and the SFIV series is the modern-day heir to that legacy. You’re more likely to be familiar with the basic characters, the rules, and the controls than any other fighting game out there right now, which should make it easier for you to get started and learn how to play the game.

It’s (relatively) simple. Compared to most other fighting games out there, the SFIV series has the least amount of complicated systems and techniques to intimidate a new player, and the tutorial process is pretty good about introducing them. If you’re going to try and learn a game like Persona 4 Arena or Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, you’ll need to do a lot more homework in the very beginning compared to someone starting out in those games with more experience playing other games.

The online play isn’t awful. Fighting games are far more heavily affected by lag from online multiplayer, since at high levels they rely on your ability to immediately see what’s happening onscreen and react with precise, complicated physical motions. Due to both design and engineering constrictions, some games are harder to play online than others; AE 2012 is actually reasonably playable, and that’s really important for newbies because when you’re just starting out you’ll need to play lots and lots of matches against other people.

That said, if you have a game you really want to learn that’s not Street Fighter, go play that instead! Each person starts their journey into fighting games in a different way.

Do I need an arcade stick?


If the prospect of dropping $80+ on a decent arcade stick is what’s stopping you from playing a fighting game, then no, you don’t. Just play with whatever you have handy — gamepad, keyboard, whatever.

Eventually, you may decide you want to migrate over to an arcade stick; I personally prefer them because I prefer to make large movements with my arms on an arcade stick and big arcade buttons than small movements with my fingers and a gamepad. But the most important thing is to just start playing. You will suck, early on, but part of not being really bad at fighting games is learning how to master your controller of choice — whatever it is.

Also: Don’t buy a cheap stick. They break more often, they’re simply not as fun to use, and they’ll probably just end up being a waste of money. If you’re interested in buying a stick, I recommend checking out this thread by Darksakul on the Shoryuken forums.

I’m bad at fighting games. Should I still try to learn how to play them?

I have something important to tell you, so brace yourself:


Odds are the vast majority of games you play have been impeccably designed to ease you into gradually feeling like a master. You probably feel like a super-soldier whenever you crack open a new Call of Duty, or a badass demonslayer in Devil May Cry, or whatever. This is because people who make games want you to play them, so they give you levels that look harder than they are, introduce subtle mechanics like auto-aim to make you feel like a crack shot, and so on. They know that most people don’t like playing games that make them feel like they suck, because no one likes to spend an hour or two of their free time every day feeling like they suck.

No one…except people who play fighting games. We love this feeling, because when we play a game that accurately acknowledges the fact that we suck, we get to have the feeling of gradually getting better at it.

In other words: For many video games, you learn how to play the game better so that you can progress to the end. For fighting games, developing the skill is an end in itself. We play the game to get better at it. This means that you have to treat fighting games as though you were learning a new hobby or skill, not as though you are just relaxing by watching a movie or something. You have to practice. You have to do things that you might not immediately find fun, like drilling the same moves over and over until you get them down. You have to stay motivated — even when you lose a whole lot.

And yes, you have to lose. No one ever got good at fighting games without losing over and over and over.

So if you watch those Evo Moment videos or the streams and think, “I want to learn how to do that, too,” well, you can — but it’ll be work. Eventually, that work becomes fun — I love spending time in training mode figuring stuff out, or getting totally beaten up by people who are way better than I am — and it all feels even better when I’m able to take all the new stuff I learned from those experiences to beat other people — but at first, you might not think it’s fun. (My advice: Play through it until it gets fun.)

Everyone starts out bad at fighting games. All that matters is that you want to learn how to be good at fighting games.

Don’t I need to learn how to count frames and stuff like that?

Nope. Don’t even worry about that. Just know that some moves take longer to recover from than others, for now, and you’ll learn about frames when you’re good and ready to learn about ’em. And you really don’t want to be that guy that has all the frame data memorized but can’t do a dragon punch to save his life.


So, how do I learn how to play a new fighting game?

Learning how to quickly experiment with, understand, and master a new fighting game is a skill in itself — a skill that you’ll hopefully be able to practice many, many times during your fighting game career.

Step 1: Learn the moves and the rules

I’m going to go out on a limb here and recommend that you should stay away from single-player story modes and playing other people online until you’ve got a good hang of the basics. These days, most modern fighting games have a series of tutorial and challenge modes that walk you through the basic gameplay systems (blocking, basic combos, movement, and so on) and character-specific moves and combos. Start with those. Just learn the basics, play at least a few different characters’ challenges, and get comfortable with the game.

Physical execution is very, very important. Learning to accurately and consistently perform the game’s moves is the first step to figuring out a new fighting game. If you can’t reliably do any of the moves in the game, it’s kind of like playing Chess without a full set of pieces — you just don’t get access to the game’s full set of options.

This doesn’t mean you need to be able to perform every single advanced combo with 100% reliability before you start playing against other people, but you do need to be able to consistently perform your character’s moves and a few basic combos. Otherwise, when you play other people, you’ll feel like you’re struggling against the controller and the game, not the other person, and that’s no fun for anyone involved.

Once you have your basic moves and simple combos down pat, go ahead and play through story mode or a Vs. CPU mode to get used to performing those moves against a moving, attacking opponent. Or, even better: go into Training Mode and set the training dummy to a CPU opponent. That way, you can just play against a single opponent nonstop for as long as you want, without having to break for another round, a new matchup,  load times, or whatever. I still do this when I’m learning new characters as a way to quickly grind out repetitive combo practice or try new setups and patterns.

Step 2: Pick a starting character or team

Once you’ve spent some time learning the basics and experimenting with a few different characters, choose a character and stick with them for a certain period of time — a day, a week, a month, whatever.

I have personally found it easier to learn a new fighting game by sticking to a single character (or team, if it’s a team-based game like UMvC3) for a long time; that way, you only have one set of moves and combos to learn, one set of matchups to practice, and so on. If you focus on a single character, you can develop your understanding of the game more deeply and more quickly, and then learn how to play new characters much more easily.

I have no problem sticking to one character for a very, very long time, though, so how long you decide to stick with a new character is up to you. Just know this: At your current level, there’s no point in blaming the character you’re playing for your losses. It’s not your character’s fault, it’s yours — so don’t be fooled into thinking that you need to change characters to win. Eventually, you may in fact hit a skill peak where you simply can’t win without changing to a new character, or maybe you might find that another character better serves your preferred playstyle after all — and that’s fine! But if you’re getting mad about losing, most of the time it just means you need to practice more and learn how to play your character against other characters, not change completely.

Step 3: Play other people

Once you’re relatively comfortable with a game and a character, you’re ready to start playing some other people! Hopefully, you’ve chosen a game with decent online play, so you can just jump right into grinding some matches out — but there’s nothing like the real, live, in-person experience to really get you hooked on fighting games (and hooked into your local fighting game community), so look around to find nearby people to play with as well. The Shoryuken matchmaking forums are good for this.

I personally recommend against immediately jumping into ranked multiplayer modes, because they don’t let you stick around and play a long set with someone, and when you’re learning a new fighting game early on, it’s best to play as long a set as possible with the same person so you can really get some good practice in against the same few character matchups. Also, that way you don’t have to spend nearly as much time in matchmaking screens waiting to connect to other people. Who knows — maybe you’ll find a training partner you can hit up for regular practice sessions and push each other to improve!

Step 4: Repeat

Learning a new game is a nonstop cycle: First you learn new techniques, then you practice them, then you try them out against other people, which gives you information for new techniques. It’s like the Circle of Life, except it’s the Circle of Virtual Ass-Beatings.

Eventually, you’ll want to supplement your fighting game information diet with more than just your own training mode efforts. Of course, you can find plenty of people to talk about game-specific strategy and techniques in the Shoryuken forums. There’s also an ever-growing body of game-specific knowledge on the Shoryuken Wiki as well. And if you need to get away from SRK for a bit, I like hanging around some of the subreddits for fighting games: r/Fighters for general fighting game stuff, as well as game-specific sections like r/SF4, r/MVC3, and so on.

There are a lot of other good reads out there on learning how to play fighting games, too. Seth Killian’s Domination 101 and David Sirlin’s Playing to Win are both good places to start; Majestro’s classic Footsies Handbook is good once you have the basics down. I’d humbly suggest checking out my Educated Gentleperson’s Fighting Game Primer, as well — it’s designed for people who have started to get comfortable with executing the moves but don’t quite see some of the less-obvious skills involved with playing fighting games competently.

So: Stop reading and get started! Maybe I’ll see you at Evo next year.

(image courtesy of Karaface)