Home > Combos, Technical > What Does Tool-Assisted Mean?

What Does Tool-Assisted Mean?

March 23rd, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Every time i release a new video, a few people ask the same question. I suppose the first article i wrote defending the concept was too abstract for its own good. It’s worth another try.

I’ve been using the PS3 version of Street Fighter IV throughout the SF4 Biweekly TACV series, so i’ve had to utilize two ASCII PAD V Pro programmable controllers to simultaneously control both characters. Obtaining a good (Japanese) program pad has become nearly impossible, since we’re talking about out-of-production PSX controllers. ASCII and Hori both stopped manufacturing them once the PS2 came out, probably because analog controls would’ve been too difficult to simulate.

Personally i prefer program pads to sticks simply because pads are more convenient, even though my execution is better on a stick. Both work fine, so get ahold of whichever one you can find – or better yet, learn to use macro software if your computer is powerful enough to run the PC version of whatever game you want to play.

What you can do with a programmable controller:
  – save time by consistently executing prohibitively
      difficult input sequences
  – precision mashing
  – establish and reproduce accurate spacing
  – test every possible permutation of a given
      experimental sequence to prove with a high
      degree of certainty that it doesn’t work
  – pick 3P/3K colors in CvS2

What programmable controllers can’t do:
  – cut down combo video production time, since you’ll
      have to compensate by making your combos harder
  – random mashing
  – work with games/consoles that require analog sticks
  – eliminate all randomness, since multiple factors affect
      Magnetic Tempest patterns, CvS2 superfreeze, etc.
  – bypass charge time, chain lockout, or any other
      hard-coded execution barrier
  – alter or modify the game engine in any way
  – come up with ideas

Essentially the way they work is you assign a step-by-step input sequence to one button, then the controller plays back that entire sequence when you press that button. You choose which combination of inputs you’d like it to mimic, then set the precise number of frames each input should be held. The pad has a built-in LCD screen to help you create and edit scripts, so you don’t have to memorize whole sequences. However, you still have to write down every promising configuration before changing it because there’s no undo function.

It’s important to understand that the pad doesn’t tell you anything about the game. If you want to figure out the frame-by-frame command sequence to execute j.HP, c.MK xx fireball, you’ll have to test it through trial and error.

Can you tell me how many frames Ryu should wait between jumping and pressing HP to get the deepest possible jumping fierce? Or what’s the earliest Ryu can hit j.HP and still land in time to combo c.MK? That frame data simply doesn’t exist anywhere. In fact, you’d be surprised how much information is absent from published frame data.

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Many people seem to think that programmable controllers produce perfect results every single time. In practice, that’s simply not true. There’s an extremely long list of obstacles which get in the way of that ideal. Turbo speeds absolutely wreak havoc on precision combos. Every game has random factors which make life “interesting.” Converter issues add a whole new layer of problems, because we’re still talking about PS1 controllers here. In fact, the PS3 converters i’m using even dim the LCD screens to the point where it’s impossible to differentiate between 0′s and 1′s, or 3′s and 4′s, or 5′s and 6′s, or 8′s and 9′s.

It takes a lot of time to get anything done. Remember, we’re not talking about basic combos here. Program pads can reproduce practical combos with 100% accuracy because there’s so much leniency involved in those. When you add multiple one-frame links and pixel-perfect juggle spacing, things get delicate. The Akuma setup in my SF4 Rose TACV took two days to iron out and then it took 30 tries just to record it. And it doesn’t even feel close to optimized.

For better or worse, everyone’s expectations of me have gotten so high that i don’t have the luxury of making okay combos anymore. You know, it’s either great or it’s terrible. So anything you see in my videos has to be inventive or difficult, or preferably both. To those of you who aren’t sure whether you’re comfortable with watching tool-assisted videos: you never have to worry about me “swiping” a ton of views by making easy combos, because i always find a way to make them complicated – or i scrap them and restart from scratch.

Finally, emulators are the next logical step in tool-assistance because the ability to start macros from a fixed save state helps stabilize the majority of random factors. Of course a number of games such as SF4, CvS2, and MvC2 aren’t emulated yet, so this won’t apply to them for a long time. If you have a choice, it’s almost always better to go with emulators. Explaining the advantages of emulator tools over programmable controllers would take too long, but trust me when i say that it’s a significant difference.

Any questions?

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  1. jamheald
    March 23rd, 2010 at 23:41 | #1

    You’ve got to love 7′s.

  2. March 23rd, 2010 at 23:45 | #2

    Yeah half the time i’m trying to figure out what number i’m looking at, the easiest way is to count up until i get to 7. Haha so ghetto. But what can i do? That whole 3-4-5-6 interval is a murky mess. I hoped plugging the adapter’s USB cord into a powered Rock Band hub would help brighten up the LCD screen but no luck there either.

    Btw in case anyone’s trying to pick up a programmable controller, there’s an SRK thread dedicated to it. Generally you have to look on Japanese auction sites until one pops up, which is how i found mine, but it’s been a while since anyone i know has gotten one. Plus they’re usually used so it’s luck of the draw whether it’ll arrive in working condition.

  3. jbernoski
    March 24th, 2010 at 05:49 | #3

    @Maj
    Speaking of ghetto, couldn’t you just shine a light at it or put an additional light source in the controller?

  4. StreakSRM
    March 24th, 2010 at 08:00 | #4

    So you’re saying if I leave my programmable pad in front of the game for a few days it’ll make an awesome combo for me? Cheap.

  5. Rufus
    March 24th, 2010 at 08:29 | #5

    Honestly, at this point, building a programmable controller from a stamp-style microcontroller and a common ground pad is pretty easy. Seems like it would be much easier – and plausibly cheaper – than tracking down out of production stuff from Japan. Software and the programming interface is more of an issue – though, if your pad has you entering stuff manually right now, having synchronized pads and taking a minute to compile and download stuff from a computer might be a step up.

    Does the programmable controller plug into anything other than the usual controller port?

    I’m guessing you don’t have the tools to test this, but I was wondering how well the programmable controller maintains synchronization with the game. For how long, for example, can it reliably alternate between walking forward for a frame and then backward for a frame?

    “Can you tell me how many frames Ryu should wait between jumping and pressing HP to get the deepest possible jumping fierce?…”

    You can get that sort of information using trial and error methods with a programmable pad though it’s probably a PITA. In case you’re not being entirely rhetorical, publishing the jump information for HDR is on my todo list – if you actually want it, I can put numbers up on my site. As I’m sure you’re aware, hitstun for jumping attacks in street fighter is a little involved, so particular answers maximum linking time require a bit more context.

  6. March 24th, 2010 at 09:22 | #6

    thanks for the article. I get a lot of these questions and it’s nice to have a place to send them rather then try to answer in a u2b comment box

  7. March 24th, 2010 at 12:43 | #7

    jbernoski: It does help to have a strong light overhead, and you can make it out a little better if you tilt it a certain way, but it’s still not enough to be sure. It’s okay though, i’ve gotten pretty good at keeping track of the important numbers mentally so i don’t have to spend as much time writing them down before making a big change.

    StreakSRM: I know, it’s bullshit bro. Maybe if i program enough combos, the ppad will gradually become sentient. Then hopefully we can become friends even though i’ve dropped it a couple of times, but i mean, that was practically inevitable right? I would be sad if it tried to kill me like movies have taught me to expect.

    Rufus: It just has a PS1 cable so it plugs into a PS2 as well. Anything other than that requires a converter. It also has a slot for memory packs to expand the maximum number of inputs that can be stored from 200-something to 1000-something, but i haven’t even had to use one yet – though i’ve come close. The Ryu jumping frames question was rhetorical. I’ve gotten used to figuring out that kind of stuff on the fly, but the point is there are quite a few menial chores between a combo idea in your head and an actual working prototype script. Then it takes a lot of minor tweaking and revising before you feel like it’s optimized. The way people say “it’s like reading a script with perfect timing on everything” makes it clear they don’t bother thinking about what it takes to draft that script.

    error1: No problem sir, i wrote it for that same reason.

  8. March 24th, 2010 at 17:11 | #8

    One question that I was going to ask in your Q&A thread but there were too many queries as it was. With two programmable pads, how do you synch them? E.g. the Gouken vs Rose combo in the Gouken TACV. It would seem frustrating to have so much precision with one player, but still have to struggle to press the button on the second pad at just the right time.

    Good to see the PStick/Pad thread will get some more views, might help a few of the threads from starting.

  9. March 24th, 2010 at 21:30 | #9

    I’ll be honest with you, nothing makes me feel dumber than that question. You’d think by now i’d have a system for pressing both sets of buttons at once, but nope.

    I tried using a ruler but that didn’t work. Also tried putting both controllers on a table, extending my thumb and pinky fingers, and lowering my hand evenly, but somehow that didn’t work either. I even got really bored one day and tried dropping two quarters simultaneously on both buttons, but one of them missed and now there’s a faint dent mark by one of the buttons.

    So far the best method has been resting both controllers on my legs and simply timing the button combinations with my index and ring fingers (cuz it takes two buttons to activate script playback). You hold the button that says “1″ next to it then press one of the four face buttons. Left hand is hold with ring finger and press with index finger; right hand is hold with index finger and press with ring finger.

    Believe it or not, listening to music with a solid rhythm helps. But yeah, i end up having to retest everything at least five times before i give up and make an adjustment. It’s gets frustrating from time to time, but the end result is worth it.

  10. March 24th, 2010 at 22:12 | #10

    ghetto, no wonder that Rose Akuma combo took so long. Anyone who has a good computer would be better off buying a copy for computer then hunting down a programmable controller

  11. March 24th, 2010 at 22:31 | #11

    In fairness, that combo is the SF4 posterchild for “too many moving pieces.” It was going to take a long time one way or the other, but having to repeat everything twenty times certainly didn’t help. Then again, i’m not convinced that anything short of perfect emulation would’ve brought that number down much. That particular combo was just that messy.

    Truth be told, i prefer sticking to console and not having to worry about customizing PC settings or variable framerates. That’s why i ended up going with PS1 versions of SFEX1/2 for my Evo Ryu vid, because dealing with imperfectly emulated versions was looking like too much of a headache. But it’s not like i have a choice with SF4. My computer’s simply not fast enough and it’s not worth it to buy a whole new PC for one game.

  12. Dammit
    April 17th, 2010 at 17:55 | #12

    “ASCII and Hori both stopped manufacturing them once the PS2 came out, probably because analog controls would’ve been too difficult to simulate.”

    But all the important games don’t use analog controls.

    I suspect the reason production died out is that… the fighting game scene more or less died out, at least until SF4. It must be real expensive to manufacture these things, and the market is going to be a pretty small subset of gamers at large.

  13. April 17th, 2010 at 23:48 | #13

    That could be part of the reason, but then again Tekken never stopped being popular and neither did Soul Calibur, Mortal Kombat, Virtual Fighter, etc. in various parts of the world.

    This is all speculation of course, because we’ll probably never get to ask these companies why they discontinued ppads. But personally i think the main issue is that most mainstream games started using analog controls. I mean if you plug that ASCII controller into a PS2 while trying to play God of War, the game won’t even let you get past the main menu.

    I suppose they could put a couple of analog sticks on this thing, just to bring it up to date. But they’d never be able to incorporate analog functionality into the programmable interface. So it would be like trying to play Geometry Wars on an expensive Rock Band drum kit. Technically possible i guess, but it certainly wouldn’t be an easy sell because it’ll seem like a complete waste.

  14. Doctor Cusses
    May 29th, 2010 at 17:33 | #14

    @Maj
    Actually, analog wouldn’t be that hard to implement. Despite the name, all analog controls I’m familiar with are really not literally analog – they’d be more accurately described as an array of digital controls. Typically, the pot’ll output a value between -127,-127 and +127,+127 – for a total of 256 possible combinations along each axis (-127 being hard left, +127 being hard right, 0 being center). Maybe the N64 used something more like -63/+63, it wasn’t exactly a very wide-ranging analog stick from my limited memories of fiddling with it. But anyway, it’ll be a set of coordinates that’s a power of two. Bottom line, in the end, it’s a potentiometer outputting a discreet digital value, not something like a theremin.

    I haven’t had hands-on experience with a programmable pad since the old Mega Controller for the NES (thing was the shit, even had its own minigame), so I can’t speak for exactly how easily it’d shoehorn into whatever the V Pro uses as its interface – but, designing from the ground up, it’d be entirely feasible to simply take the input from the analog sticks, and allow a user to go back and manually increment/decrement the pot values using the “program buttons”, like one of those shitty little four-button keychain remotes.

    Really, it’s an issue of price – these things aren’t cheap to design or manufacture (plus having to tack on the Microsoft fee), and the market of people who really want to pay $100 for a controller can’t be all that large – especially as games have evolved beyond simple platformers and into more freeform sort of affairs. Rest assured that it CAN be done – it’s just a matter of “how can we expect to make money off of this”.

    Final nitpick – nullDC is capable of emulating MVC2 and CVS2 with minor graphic glitches. I’m not aware of anyone in the fighting games scene actually having a sitdown with either, so whether the internal mechanics are 100% or not is still up for debate. And, of course, if a rig can’t run SF4, there’s no way it’d be able to emulate Naomi at anywhere close to 100% speed. Still, something to keep an eye on, definitely!

    Anyway, all that said, your combo videos are excellent, and I find the commentary behind them even more interesting. Keep up the good work!

  15. May 30th, 2010 at 05:24 | #15

    Thanks for the insight. I’ve seen a couple of tool-assisted speedruns for emulated N64 games, so i’m sure they have the analog stick issue figured out. Though it’s a lot easier to implement the interface on a computer than it would be on a small LCD screen on a program pad.

    It doesn’t really matter for us though. We don’t actually need analog-capable programmable controllers for any fighting games, so the issue is whether it’s viable for any manufacturer to put them on the market right now. If we’re talking $150 to $200 then i honestly can’t say that it is. It would probably be detrimental to online competition too, though probably not much more so than simple rapid fire controllers.

    I mean it is what it is though. There are a very small handful of people who don’t have program pads who i really think deserve them. If i was ever to visit Japan, the first thing i’d do is scour every gaming store within a 25 mile radius to see if i can find any of these controllers. But somehow i doubt i’d find any (and i have no plans to travel to Japan anyway). I’ve asked some friends to check there for me, but nobody’s had any luck so far.

    As for nullDC, i think i have seen a couple of CvS2 combovids made using that emulator over the years, but they were really basic so i couldn’t tell if they were accurately emulated. I’m down to try it out if someone ever tells me that they have graphical and audio emulation down to 100% but until then i’m happy using my favorite console ever.

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