It's been a while since a fighting game has made my thumb ache like this. After years of using a fight stick, the Xbox One's D-pad was a bit of a shock to my left opposable, those repeated quarter circles necessary for special moves biting into its soft flesh again and again. It says a lot about Killer Instinct that I'm planning to push through the pain later, just to get my Orchid up to a competitive online standard.
At a very basic level, this reboot, the first Killer Instinct game for - count them - seventeen years, is quite similar to Street Fighter. You have two characters sparring along a 2D plane, each utilising six attack buttons to perform a mix of basic and special attacks. Though the offering of just six characters at launch is disappointing, each one is well-balanced and their fighting styles varied: they roughly subscribe to the classic fighting game archetypes of rush-down, aerial, grappler, zoner, and Ryu-a-like balance character Jago. These six characters and six attack buttons have three attack strengths at their disposal; light, medium and heavy. So far, so familiar.
As with other fighting games, players can move back and forth, gingerly kick each other in the face and chip damage that way, but the real game only starts when two attacks are strung together and a combo - Killer Instinct's trademark feature - is initiated. Combos can be extended for an indecent number of hits, but luckily you don't just have to sit there and take it. Once an opponent begins a combo, you can try and shake them out of it with a combo breaker, where you input the two attack buttons corresponding to the strength of the attack currently being performed on you. Guess the wrong command and you'll suffer a lockout, and be unable to act for another 3 seconds - during which time you'll probably take a further beating. Counter breakers, which you can perform if you catch your opponent out while trying to attempt a combo breaker, will lock them out for even longer.
Special attacks are divided into different categories, namely openers, linkers and enders, and these must be deployed in the correct order to maximise the damage of your combos. A basic KI combo follows the opener, auto, linker, auto, ender format. The timing of most moves is forgiving, but if you've gotten a better grasp of the controls, you can try replacing auto doubles with manuals. These require far more precise timing, but will make you all but immune to your opponent's breakers.
What all this means is that anyone can play, mash buttons and even win, but with a little extra care and attention Killer Instinct's mechanics go much deeper. It takes some practice and an understanding of the systems to capitalise on features like potential damage, Ultras, and extending combos through Instinct mode activation. Played at a higher level, KI is a constant back and forth, as opponents try to second-guess each other. You need to mix things up, as to play predictably is practically inviting your foe to just walk in and break your combo. With players of a certain skill, KI is a joy to watch as well as to play, which will probably make it a bit of a hit come next year's Evo tournament.
Ultras - flashy moves that automatically end the match and cause the stage to change around you - are usually performed with a quarter circle input accompanied by all three punches or kicks pressed together. However, the move can only be triggered once your opponent is in the 'Danger' low health state, and even then must be preceded with an opener.