At some point fighting games stopped being just fighting games. Instead of just mastering a fighter’s moveset and internalizing the speed and rhythm of a game, players realized there was a deeper, almost imperceptible level to fighting games that, when mastered, would give them a huge advantage over their opponents. They learned how to cancel moves and read frame data, effectively peering through the game and into the code that created it. They developed techniques that then inspired developers making new fighting games, creating a feedback loop that split the player base into two camps: the mass of intermittent players who might pick up a fighting game for fun and only know what the game explicitly tells you, and the small group of dedicated combatants who use their arcane knowledge of the game’s inner workings to dominate those other fools.
I’m one of those fools, if you can’t tell.
I’ve been playing fighting games about as long as they’ve existed. Other than getting the high score on a Yie Ar Kung-Fu machine at a Mr. Gatti’s pizza at some point during the Reagan years, I’ve never been particularly good at them. I’m the kind of player who learns all the moves and combos for my favorite character, and then get destroyed by my friends whose only strategy is mashing buttons as quickly as possible. I can handle the computer on lower difficulties, but I’m hopeless against real competition unless they’re also trying to figure the game out. And as bad as I am against the button mashers, I’m catastrophically worse when I go up against somebody who knows that secret language of fighting games. If you can count frames and are looking for some perfect rounds, you better hope I wind up on the other side of your online match.
I assumed it would be the same with Mortal Kombat 11. I’d go through my typical routine with a new fighting game: I’d rush through the tutorial just to get the basics down, and then play through the story mode until I hit a wall about three-fourths of the way through. I’d bash my head against that wall over and over for a few days, and then either turn the difficulty down (if that’s even an option) or give up entirely. And I would only go online when I felt the need to just get absolutely embarrassed by a stranger.
Mortal Kombat 11 cares, though. It cares about all players, and not just the world-class fighting game masters who waltz through these games like Neo. Its tutorial is the first I’ve seen that teaches not just the rules of the game but those unspoken techniques that separate the serious players from the tourists. It pulls the curtain back on that hidden lore and helps everybody start to understand it.
The tutorial starts like any fighting game lesson, showing you the basic controls and moves before building up to specials and combos. It doesn’t stop with the moveset, though. It goes on to teach offensive and defensive strategy, helping you think about the importance of spacing and timing. It breaks down move canceling and why it’s a useful technique. And then it explains frame data in detail, showing how the frames of each move is split into three periods, explaining how a move’s start-up time and recovery can be used to one’s advantage (or disadvantage), and even thoroughly walking players through concepts like safe (or unsafe) on block. The player actually performs all of these techniques throughout, so they can start to develop the feel for how and when to perform them.
I’ve been hearing about these kinds of techniques for years, but I’ve never had the time to study them. There was no easy way to do that effectively—I’d have to pull up a website that broke all this info down, or a video on YouTube, and go back and forth between my phone and the game while trying to figure out how to do it. That’s neither fun nor practical. Not understanding these techniques puts a hard cap on how good a player can be at a fighting game, and so that difficulty in learning about them was a de facto barrier to entry for the vast majority of players.
Mortal Kombat 11 goes out of its way to break that barrier down. It reduces the imperceptible into easy-to-follow, step-by-step chunks that anybody can learn. Of course simply knowing how to count frame data doesn’t mean most players will be able to do it that effectively with any regularity. Also, it’s entirely possible that new meta techniques will be discovered by the fighting game community as they continue to look for advantages, once again leaving most players out of the loop. And perhaps NetherRealm intentionally baked new meta tactics into Mortal Kombat 11, knowing that the most dedicated players would quickly find them and pass them around clandestinely like they once did these other techniques.
For now, though, Mortal Kombat 11 blows up so much of the mystery around fighting games. I’ve been playing Mortal Kombat games for almost 30 years, but this is the first time I’ve really played one the way fighting games are meant to be played these days. And it’s only possible because of this tutorial.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.