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SF Tool-Assisted Combo Rationale

By Maj

Even after all these years of Sai-Rec and kysg masterpieces, it's still virtually impossible to put out a tool-assisted combo video without incurring the inevitable "legitimacy" debate from within the fighting game community. If the final product is spectacular enough, most people will grudgingly curb their criticism, but not before sneaking in the obligatory snide remark. Is there a reasonable reason for this paranoid behavior?

No one in their right mind makes tool-assisted videos to impress people with their gaming skills. It doesn't fool anyone and it doesn't make sense. Furthermore, nobody becomes a gaming celebrity overnight after discovering an enchanted programmable controller in a haunted pawn shop. There are no shortcuts to producing the next instant classic, because the standard for combo video excellence is simply set too high. There's always someone out there raising the bar and holding it consistently high until the next generation takes over. Everyone knows who they are and everyone cites their work as a benchmark. In other words, there's no reason to worry about someone fast-tracking their way to the top by abusing forbidden emulator alchemy. They will have to pay their dues, one way or another.

What Does "Tool-Assisted" Mean?

Ask on any mainstream gaming forum and watch myths and misconceptions far outnumber the facts. Some people believe that programmable controllers can shorten lengthy super move commands or eliminate the need to charge for Sonic Booms. If that were the case, how would the program pad tell the game what it wants to do? Does it have a "Sonic Boom" button?

To clarify, programmable controllers simply allow players to assign a customized command sequence to one button. Each individual input is specified one at a time, along with the number of frames that it will be held. How does one find the proper timings? Trial and error. Lots and lots of trial and error. Neither the console nor the game recognize the programmable controller as anything out of the ordinary. It's like telling a robot exactly when to push each button on a regular controller. Hopefully it's a patient robot with nothing to do for the rest of the day (or month).

Even with programmable controllers in hand, all kinds of things are liable to go wrong. It's easy to overlook how truly complex tool-assisted combos have become. Over 90% of the finalized program pad sequences found in my SF? Guile Exhibition and SF? Ryu Exhibition projects fail to work more than 95% of the time. One-frame links slip, superfreeze durations vary, opponents get dizzy too soon, crossups miss, etc. Without as many random factors in play, it wouldn't impress the right people.

Emulator tools streamline the process considerably by providing users with access to a fixed starting point in the form of save states. From there, luck can be manipulated far more reliably. Beyond that, emulators provide complete control over gameplay speed. Players can choose between using macro scripts to mimic program pad functionality, or slowing games down to a crawl in order to record inputs on a frame by frame basis, which can later be restored to default playback speed for capturing. However, if a game is designed to skip frames at turbo speed settings - as most Capcom fighting games are - reducing emulation frame rate will not bring those frames back. For more information on the methodology of emulator tool usage, look no further than the tool-assisted speedrun community.

Tool-Assisted vs Unauthentic

Some people seem to think that tool-assistance allows for input sequences that are fundamentally impossible, and that's generally not true. For example, a programmable pad makes it possible to complete an F, B, F+P sequence in three frames. A lot of people claim that it's physically impossible to manually execute those commands without crossing through the neutral joystick position. In reality, the game software simply checks joystick location at discrete sample intervals - usually once every 60th of a second. Knowing this, it's clearly possible to avoid registering any neutral inputs while moving between opposite directions, as long as your hand moves fast enough to avoid getting sampled in the middle. Obviously it's a difficult and impractical technique, but its legitimacy is undeniable.

Now of course there are a handful of easy ways to break the rules, but there's no good reason or incentive to cross that line. For instance, it's possible to alter the game itself using emulator cheat codes and console cheat peripherals such as Game Genie and GameShark. However, anyone who abuses these methods faces severe backlash from their general audience, and even more so from fellow combo video authors. Anyone who attempts to do it secretly is eventually exposed and suffers irreparable harm to their reputation and credibility.

Finally, certain emulators permit opposite directions to be held simultaneously. In some games, this can lead to exploits such as walking forward while charging back. Obviously this can't be done on a standard controller or arcade cabinet without dismantling it and meddling with wires. Nobody bothers exploring this territory because the consequences are almost the same as cheating. Even if it was performed manually by pressing internal switches on a standard controller, it's not worth the effort because the fighting game community will ignore it.

The bottom line is, only authentic combos matter - those performed within the established confines of an unaltered game engine. Otherwise, we may as well be playing MUGEN. Everyone knows which lines can't be crossed without alienating the community. In fact, tool-assisted combo video makers have to be even more careful than people who don't use tools, because their reputation is on the line every single time they release a new video. Why would anyone waste weeks working on a project that everyone's going to hate? It's not even slightly tempting.

Tool-Assisted vs Manual

Many people contend that manually executed videos are universally more valuable than tool-assisted ones; or worse, that tool-assisted videos require no skill. That's sheer nonsense. There are absolutely amazing tool-assisted videos just as there are amazing manually executed ones. There are inexplicably terrible tool-assisted videos just as there are terrible manually executed ones. It all comes down to effort, talent, style, and perseverance - none of which are exclusive to either approach.

Yes it's fun to learn combos and yes it's fulfilling to pull off a difficult combo, but there's a cutoff point somewhere. Once you get into multiple one-frame territory, the tediousness and frustration far outweigh those rare instances of gratification. At that level, i happen to find way more satisfaction in witnessing an idea develop or seeing a project completed, than from executing each individual combo along the road. Not everyone feels the same way and i respect that. Some of my friends still gain a sense of accomplishment from mastering an extremely challenging combo, but i never linger on any one combo once i've got it recorded anyway.

As long as everyone stays honest about their methods, the fighting game community is free to judge each video based on the appropriate criteria. Ideally, every tool-assisted video should contain a brief notice labeling it as such, and if necessary, providing details.

Concealing tool usage is not only dishonest, but also counterproductive in that it gives naysayers more ammunition to use against tool-assisted video production. Regardless of popular opinion, combo authors should always be striving for content so good that there's no need to lie about how it was acquired. If you need to tell people that you executed everything manually in order to impress them, that's a sign that your footage is weak and you need to start over.

That said, the distinction is somewhat hazier than it seems. All combo videos are "tool-assisted" in a sense. Here's a hint: it's called video recording. When was the last time you saw a combo video live and uncut? By definition every combo in a manually executed video had to be performed without interruptions from beginning to end, but how many tens or hundreds of rerecording attempts did each one require? A five-minute combo video does not represent five minutes of gameplay, but rather orders of magnitude more.

Furthermore, everyone who tests combos using an emulator likes to create save states after selecting characters, landing on the desired stage, and building enough meter. Repeatedly reloading these states saves a heap of time. Should anyone who might be considering making a combo video abstain from this practice? Is that a reasonable demand? On the other hand, most of us spend way more time testing combos than recording the final draft. Is it okay to use tool-assistance to discover and develop a combo as long as the published final version is executed manually starting from the title screen?

Intent and Objective

Combo exhibitions serve a completely different purpose than the strategies or even the combos found in an expert-level match. But nobody who makes combo videos is trying to prove that they're the best player. Combo videos only exist to reveal fascinating hidden aspects of game engines, inventing elaborate special scenarios which normally wouldn't arise during matches.

If you're looking for the best Guile player or the best Ryu player, you're in the wrong place. You'll find those guys competing at major tournaments like Evolution and Super Battle Opera - not locked in Training Mode studying an obscure game nobody plays anymore, digging for minutiae to build the next absurdly impractical combo.

There's no need to go around accusing people of cheating without proof. There's no reason to reiterate the same tired points about exhibition combos being useless in match play. There's no excuse for insulting hardworking content producers. In the long run, it hurts you more than it hurts them. That's why the irrational hate against tool-assisted combo videos needs to stop.

Personal Perspective

For the record, i never wanted praise for execution, even back when i was doing everything on standard Dreamcast pads. In fact i don't like compliments period, but if i had to choose, i'd rather receive them for imagination or choreography or research instead of controller proficiency. People tell me that they're amazed by my early CvS2 videos, but to me there's nothing special about repeating the same exact motions hundreds of times until i got lucky once. Does that even qualify as skill? It's not like i used any of that stuff in matches back when i was getting 2nd place in random SoCal tournaments; not even during casual matches.

In case you haven't noticed, programmable controllers and emulator tools haven't reduced the amount of time it takes me to create one combo. All they've done is raise the complexity level dramatically. In other words, i'm not doing the old stuff faster. I'm doing new stuff that i would have considered too impractical to even attempt manually. Seriously, some of that tool-assisted Guile material is so absurd that if i thought i had enough luck to pull it off manually, i'd sell everything i own and use the money to buy lotto tickets instead. So to those of you people out there who keep commenting about how you wish these videos had been performed manually without tool-assistance, what you're really wishing for is to see each of them take ten years to make instead of one. And i don't know who's got ten years to spend on five minutes of combos, but you can definitely count me out.

Also, it's surprising that one of the most common reactions to seeing an impressive combo video is internet folk saying they wouldn't want to go up against the guy who recorded it. Why? It's fun playing against combo and glitch people. We might not be the most dominating competition you can find, but we try wacky/unusual things on a whim and we don't mind losing to see what happens (in casual play, of course). After all, we all share the same reason for being here: we like playing fighting games.