Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2021/ Killer Instinct

Killer Instinct

I have a lot of complicated feelings around the world of fighting video games, or the "FGC". I thought I was immune from sports, but I wasn't. Instead of turning to manly physical pasttimes like curling or tennis, I fell deep into the hole of semi-professional video games.

The FGC has consumed me for years now, and I have a lot of feelings about it. Today I want to bite off a small piece, by discussing the technical aspects of a video game called "Killer Instinct" -- in particular, the 2013 remake of Killer Instinct for the XBox and PC. There are a lot of other aspects to the FGC that are worth exploring (the sociological aspects, the relationship between the FGC and capitalism, the personalities, my sordid history with the hobby, etc) but I hope to maintain a narrower focus today.

Honestly, I have no business writing about any technical aspect of any video game. I only spectate these games -- I do not play them and I probably never will. Furthermore, I do not really understand these games, and can barely follow what happens on screen. Mostly, I see the visuals and hear the sounds of video game characters beating each other up, and I feel the excitement of the commentators as they gush over a player special-canceling a shadow counter into a standing light kick or whatever. I think I know what those terms mean but I cannot identify them on screen. At best, I can identify when somebody gets punished for whiffing a move on their opponent, and I feel the tension when games come down to two players fighting on slivers of health.

Nonetheless, as an outside observer I have some thoughts about Killer Instinct. I did not realize this at first, but I think it has become my favourite game to spectate. I have been reading about some of the things the game has done right over the years, and despite having approximately seven hundred better things to write about, I feel compelled to document them here.

The History

Although there was lots of prior art (Pit Fighter by Atari, the first Street Fighter), it seems that fighting games as a popular genre really got started with the release of Street Fighter II in 1991. Players could compete one-on-one with each other, choosing fighters with different moves and competing to see who could beat the tar out of the other. The game required lots of skill to play (which I decidedly lacked) and were entertaining to watch. I distinctly remember movie theatres holding events where they would project Street Fighter II matches on their movie screens.

The success of Street Fighter II spawned a lot of imitators. Popular in America was Mortal Kombat, released in 1992. Mortal Kombat emphasized blood and gore, including the infamous fatalities that had concerned parents everywhere clutching their pearls. In addition, the characters in Mortal Kombat were photorealistic, not cartoony.

Killer Instinct was Nintendo's attempt to rip off Mortal Kombat. Released in 1994, its arcade port was intended to cross-promote the graphic capabilities of the Nintendo 64 console. Like Mortal Kombat, the characters spurted blood when they were hit, and like Mortal Kombat characters had violent finishing moves. But the violence was toned down somewhat, and some of the finishing moves were ridiculous -- in particular, the female ninja Orchid finishing off her opponent by unzipping her top and exposing her breasts. In fact, the entire game was ridiculous. Instead of ninjas fighting special agents and criminals with the occasional Japanese thunder god thrown in, Killer Instinct had werewolves fighting robots fighting dinosaurs fighting space aliens fighting skeletons fighting ripoffs of Ryu and Balrog (Boxer) from the Street Fighter series. Like many fighting game titles of the mid-1990s, it did not make much sense, but it was popular enough to spawn a sequel.

I remember seeing Killer Instinct in arcades, although I never got into it very much. At the time I thought the graphics were pretty good, although to modern eyes they look decidedly like Claymation models (not to be confused with the Claymation models of the Clay Fighters series). For whatever reason, I imprinted on Mortal Kombat II and Samurai Shodown instead.

The fighting game genre declined in popularity hand-in-hand with coin-operated arcades; first-person shooters like Doom on PCs ascended in popularity. But by the early 2010s, they were making a comeback, and Microsoft remade Killer Instinct for its Xbox One console. This installment of the franchise is sometimes known as Killer Instinct 2013, and it is the one I focus on here.

Combo Breakers

One notable mechanic of the Killer Instinct series is called the "combo breaker." If you are familiar with fighting games you might be familiar with the mechanic (and can hear the announcer shouting "C-C-C-C-Combo Breaker!" right now). You might have also seen memes:

as combo-breaker to a bunch of white presidents

If you are unfamiliar with the mechanic then it will take a bit of time to explain, so bear with me. Fighting games involve players attacking each other with different kinds of moves to drain the life bars of their opponents. Those moves can be punches, kicks, projectiles, or whatever other weird attacks the game designers dream up. Street Fighter II popularized the idea of a combo: When you successfully attack your opponent with certain moves, that opponent reacts to the hit on screen and is unable to block or launch a counterattack. (This is called "hitstun".) Sometimes, there is enough hitstun on a move that the attacker can launch another move, extending the attack. This is called a combo, and players delight in finding combos that are as long and as damaging as possible. Often combos take great timing to execute properly, thus demonstrating the attacker's dexterity and skill.

Apparently, it is lots of fun to hit your opponent with long combos. It is less fun for the opponent, since the opponent remains in blockstun throughout the sequence and cannot do anything to stop the attack. In some games, "touch of death" (TOD) combos are possible, where getting hit allows the attacker to unleash a combo which drains the opponent's entire life bar in one sequence.

Personally, I do not find games with long combos that much fun to watch. It often feels as if the game is decided in the first couple of seconds of play. Furthermore, players optimize their combos to be as damaging as possible, and then use those optimized combos as frequently as possible. That means a lot of gameplay looks boring, because you see the same highly-damaging combos on-screen again and again.

The combo breaker system changes a lot of these dynamics. Like other fighting games, Killer Instinct has combos, and at certain points players have to make decisions about how to continue their combos. The game defines particular points in these combo sequences when defenders can attempt to "break" the combos, ending them and limiting the damage.

Say an attacker has the choice of choosing a "light", "medium", or "heavy" linking attack to continue a combo. If the defender guesses the type of linking attack made by the attacker and combo-breaks it, then the attack ends. If the defender guesses incorrectly, then the defender goes into a "lockout" state where they are unable to defend further, and must eat whatever damage the attacker dishes out.

This mechanism may not seem like much, but it has lots of implications. For one thing it makes the game much more interesting to watch. A player that memorizes long, optimized combos is easily predicted by the opponent and thus gets their combos broken easily. Thus, the attackers have to mix up the kinds of attacks they use in extending combos, which makes the action on screen more varied and entertaining. Furthermore, when defenders get hit they don't sit around waiting for long optimized combos to end; they are deciding whether to break the attacker's combos, and at what point. Both players are continually making decisions as they play, which makes gameplay much more interesting (and stressful).

The end result is that we see a lot of varied combos in the game, and much of the time both players get to play the game. This is not perfect, however. There are situations (particularly when a player is stuck at the end of a playing field, called "the corner" in FGC terminology) when they cannot move backwards or forwards, and the attacker can vary attacks in ways that the defender gets attacked again and again, and has to block attacks that are sometimes unfair (such as getting hit from overhead and from low at the same time, which is impossible to block). Beating players up in the corner is an accepted aspect of 2D fighting games, but I do not always like it.

The combo breaker mechanic improves defensive options for players a great deal, but the rabbit hole goes even deeper.

Counter Breakers and Mindgames

Let's say that an attacker chooses to extend a combo using a "heavy" attack. Let's say that the defender predicts this, and correctly decides to combo break this attack. The attacker has another option, which is to predict that the defender will attempt a combo break and input a "counter breaker" input. If the counter breaker is correct, then the defender is again locked out and has to eat damage. If it is wrong, then the attacker is left vulnerable and the defender can attack.

Counter breakers introduce all kinds of deep mindgames into Killer Instinct gameplay, in the form of "I know that you know that I know that..." thinking. Now the defender has to make decisions about whether to combo break their opponents, but also have to make sure those combo break attempts are not too predictable. Otherwise the attacker will issue combo breakers, and the defenders will have to eat more damage. These layered mind games make Killer Instinct even more fun to watch, and commentators go bananas when counter breaker attempts succeed.


In FGC terminology a "balanced" fighting game is one where most characters can compete and win against the rest of the cast. An "unbalanced" fighting game is where certain characters have distinct advantages over their opponents so they will be able to win in most situations. These advantages can consist of overpowered moves or particular combos that opponents can do nothing about. (The most notorious of these are "infinites", where characters can extend combos indefinitely by looping a sequence of inputs again and again.)

Unbalanced fighting games are common. When video games are in development players often complain about imbalances, crying to the game developers for "nerfs" (weakening characters) or "buffs" (strengthening them). The discussion can grow tiring, especially since many of the cries for nerfs and buffs are disguised attempts to make the character one plays more powerful than the opponents.

In many fighting games, there are often 4-6 characters that are considered "top-tier", in the sense they are better than everybody else. The tournaments for these fighting games often feature the same 4-6 characters fighting the same matchups again and again, because top fighting game players want to win tournaments, and using top-tier characters give them an advantage. While the game is under development, the developers will sometimes release "balance patches" intended to balance the cast of characters out. All too often, the player base then decides a different set of 4-6 characters are top tier, and then the top players switch to those characters until the next balance patch.

As a spectator, watching the same 4-6 characters play every top 8 gets boring after a while, especially when players have optimized their combos. Killer Instinct is different. Although there are top-tiers in the game, there are also a wide variety of characters that are viable and progress deep into tournaments. So-called "struggle characters" like the animated skeleton Spinal and sand-mummy Kan-Ra make top-8 placements, while supposed top-tier characters are not played that much. Furthermore, tiers constantly shift as new techniques are discovered for the characters. Killer Instinct tournaments can be fun to watch precisely because you do not see the same matchups over and over again.

I don't know how the Killer Instinct developers managed to balance the game so well, especially given that the characters archetypes are so varied. Certainly I feel they put a lot of careful thought into game balance, but I suspect that the combo breaker mechanic has a role to play here as well.

What makes a character unbalanced? Sometimes a particular move overpowers any move an opponent can make. In their QA testing, developers can find such moves pretty easily, and make sure they are nerfed before release.

Sometimes a sequence of moves is the culprit. Often these game-breaking sequences are discovered by players, not developers. In many fighting games defending players have no options when these game-breaking sequences are unleashed. In Killer Instinct, most (but I think not all) such sequences are breakable, so even characters with very powerful combo sequences can be countered. This makes it much harder for the top tiers to overwhelm everybody else, which means more characters can compete in the game even at high levels of gameplay. Thus we see character specialists for some very unusual characters rise in the ranks and place well in tournaments. That is good for the game and for the scene as a whole.

Sound Design

It may surprise you, but some people who are blind play fighting games. How is this possible? These players use sound cues from the game to help them determine what is going on.

Killer Instinct is well known for its excellent sound design. Firstly, the game is in stereo, and the sounds the characters make are panned to their positions on the screen. Secondly, each move the characters make (and each strength of the move) is distinct, so it is possible to distinguish them via sound cues. It appears that learning the sound queues (particularly the subtler distinctions) takes a lot of practice, but it is at least possible.

A blind player who goes by the tag "SightlessKombat" gained some fame after achieving the highest player rank ("Killer") in online play. SightlessKombat actually helped shape accessibility features in the game: after pointing out omissions in the sound design, the Killer Instinct developers released patches to add audio cues for accessibility.

You can learn more about accessibility considerations in this article by audio director Zach Queries, and read an interview with SightlessKombat. SightlessKombat also posted an overview on playing blindfolded on his Youtube channel.

It is pretty great that good sound design means blind people are able to enjoy video games. But Killer Instinct is also an example of universal design, in the sense that the detailed audio cues help sighted gamers play the game too. Most top-level players play the game with headphones precisely because adds additional information to the visuals on screen.


In addition to sound cues, Killer Instinct is also known for its exciting soundtrack, much of which was put together by renowned video game composer Mick Gordon. In addition to being great music, the soundtrack in Killer Instinct is dynamic -- it changes according to the action on the screen.

The 1994 and 1996 versions of Killer Instinct also had good soundtracks, and many of Gordon's compositions contains throwbacks (and samples!) from these earlier soundtracks.

Gordon left after Season 2 of Killer Instinct development. The compositions for the Season 3 characters are not bad, but the first two season soundtracks sound better to me.

Here are some examples: Boxer TJ Combo's theme, which sounds good in game even though it has lyrics, and stone golem Aganos's theme. There are lots of others, too.

Rollback Netcode

If there is one thing many fighting game players appreciate about Killer Instinct, it is the "netcode" -- the networking stack that allows the game to be played over the Internet.

Back in the good old days people would play fighting games against each other in the arcade, standing side-by-side at an arcade cabinet. But now there are no more arcades, and we are in a global pandemic. People play fighting games against each other over the Internet. In fighting games reaction times are ridiculously fine-tuned. People measure the duration of turns in "frames", where each frame is 1/60 of a second. A delay of a few frames can mess up the timings that fighting game players depend upon to execute combos or predict attacks.

It is extremely important to keep the game in sync when two players are playing a fighting game. Unfortunately, it takes time to send packets over the internet, so there will be a natural latency when players who are geographically distant fight each other. Many games deal with this by using a fixed delay for each player, so that button presses have time to traverse the Internet and get to the opponent's game console. This is known as "delay-based netcode", and apparently it makes fighting games unpleasant to play, especially as latency increases.

Another alternative is "rollback netcode", which is similar to predictive pipelining in CPUs. Each copy of the game tracks player inputs as they come in, but they also predict actions by the players before they come in. If one of those actions is incorrect, the game "rolls back" the game state and inputs the correct move. This requires greater attention to synchronizing game state and to making games run deterministically, but (provided there is not too much latency, and the games are not making too many incorrect predictions) the game runs much more smoothly for players. Often gamers do not realize how much better rollback netcode is until they experience it firsthand (as beta testers for a game called Guilty Gear Strive discovered recently).

Killer Instinct has had rollback netcode for years, and as such has been playable over the Internet for years, while more modern games like Dragonball Fighters Z continued to use delay-based netcode, much to the chagrin of fighting game players used to rollback netcode. Fortunately, more fighting games are being developed with good netcode, but it has been a long time coming.

Cultural Sensitivity

In addition to werewolves, robots, dinosaurs, space aliens, skeletons, and ripoffs of Ryu and Balrog from Street Fighter, the original Killer Instinct (like many fighting games of its time) also had an Indian character named Chief Thunder -- a barechested, tomahawk-wielding stereotype. Although 2013 was not quite as woke as 2021 (Chief Wahoo and the Washington Redskins were still going strong), Microsoft (or maybe the developers at Double Helix/Iron Galaxy) were culturally sensitive enough to see that bringing back Thunder was a problem. Instead of deleting him from the franchise reboot, they consulted members of the Nez Perce tribe to redesign Thunder in a more culturally-sensitive way. A few years later they collaborated again to improve Thunder's costume and make it more historically accurate. When they released Eagle, a second Nez Perce character, that character spoke the Nez Perce language, NimipuutĂ­mt. Lots of fighting games have one indigenous character; Killer Instinct has two. (Mind you, they are brothers, but it is still progress.)

Honestly I am still not sure how I feel about Thunder in the game. I imagine that many indigenous people still do not feel great about the character, especially in his default costume. Nonetheless, I feel that Thunder and Eagle are handled better than Nightwolf in Mortal Kombat, who remains a generic Indian from a fictional "Makota" tribe.

Another thing I appreciate about Killer Instinct is Riptor the dinosaur. Usually "weird" characters like robots and monsters in fighting games are male, but Riptor is unambiguously female even though she does not have big boobs. I guess her (optional!) cheerleader costume objectifies her a little, but I also love that cheerleader outfit.

The Future of Killer Instinct

Killer Instinct development ended in 2018. Since then a core community of players have kept the franchise alive. Last August, the fighting game tournament Evo (which was then the biggest fighting game tournament in the world) decided to run its tournament online, and it picked four games with good rollback netcode to showcase. Killer Instinct was one of those selections, but then Evo had a #MeToo movement and Evo was cancelled.

The community has been running frequent online tournaments, so there is lots of content to watch. New players and new characters gain prominence. Recently Twich held a "Twitch Rivals" invitational tournament that attracted 43 000 viewers, which was pretty good for an FGC event. The community continues to support the game, and the #PlayKI tag remains popular. There is some frustration among newer players that it is difficult to find training partners at their level, but the community has set up Discord servers to help with matchmaking.

Killer Instinct was released in 2013, as an XBox One exclusive. That is ancient by modern video game standards. Now Microsoft is releasing a new console called XBox Series X. Fortunately, the XBox Series X supports XBox One games, so people will still be able to play Killer Instinct, but the graphics will look dated.

I feel that releasing Killer Instinct as an XBox exclusive was good for Microsoft and bad for the community as a whole. The game is now available for Windows PCs and on Steam, but it is decidedly not available for Playstation, which is the platform most other fighting games use for their tournaments. As with everything else, Microsoft produces the second most popular console, so this exclusivity cuts off a big fraction of the gaming population.

I feel that Killer Instinct is a great game. The graphics still look pretty good to me. Most fighting games lose their playership as soon as the next shiny things comes along, but Killer Instinct is still kicking two years after development ended, with many strong players continuing to support the game. I honestly feel that the game has the potential to be one of the few that the community continues to support long after the developers have long interest.

Super Smash Bros Melee is the canonical example of such a game -- it was released in 2001 and is still played even though the GameCube has been out of production for years. People who were not alive in 2001 are playing the game now. Nintendo has released several newer generations of the game, and people still play Melee. There are (much smaller) communities of support for titles like Marvel vs Capcom 3 and Street Fighter III: Third Strike. Could Killer Instinct maintain or even grow its player base?

I think the basic components are there. The game is great and has a high skill ceiling. Its netcode is great. It can still be played on PCs and on new XBox consoles. Furthermore, one of the most prominent fighting game tournaments in North America (Combo Breaker in Chicago) is named after the game, and its founder maintains a deep affinity for the game. So it is conceivable that the game maintains a player base, if the community continues to show support. But that is a big if.

There have been many calls for Microsoft to produce a sequel to Killer Instinct. As of this writing that does not seem imminent. Some part of me wonders whether a sequel would be a good idea, given that the existing game is so great. Certainly an update could improve the graphics and some accessibility features, but could it come up with better game mechanics than the current game? Whatever changes the game designers make will be unpopular with some of the fanbase, and there is a good chance that it will get worse. Certainly the soundtrack would be different -- Mick Gordon left the franchise, and he left big shoes to fill. Furthermore, some of the beloved guest characters (General RAAM from Gears of War, Arbiter from Halo) would probably not return, unless Killer Instinct goes the Tekken route of bringing back its guest characters with every installment of the game.

Maybe a new installment of Killer Instinct could be great if the new developers showed the same kind of care and love the 2013 team showed for the franchise, and if they found ways to innovate on the core ideas of the game the way Iron Galaxy innovated in seasons two and three of development. But for that to happen Microsoft would have to take the franchise seriously, and it is not clear they will do that. Fighting games have had a revival in the last decade, but they are still nowhere as popular as other video game genres. Killer Instinct had nowhere near the support that Capcom put into Street Fighter V or Netherealm Studios and Warner Bros put into Mortal Kombat 11. So I would be wary.

On the other hand, every new installment of a game franchise is a risk, and unless fresh new players pick up the game and become world-class players in tournament, the game will peter out. A new installment with new mechanics and matchups to learn could revive the player base.

Regardless, I feel that Killer Instinct is a shining example of a successful fighting game. I kind of hope that I will get bored of fighting games and never spectate them again, but if I have to be addicted to an e-sport, Killer Instinct is not a bad drug.


If you want to learn how to play Killer Instinct, pretty much everybody says the best resource is .

There is a two-hour documentary about Killer Instinct called FIGHT ON, which is currently free to watch on Youtube.