I wrote this primer a while back for a friend of mine who wanted to learn what these “fighting game” things were all about. I figured I’d post it here because it might prove helpful to you, too. Be warned, though - it’s kinda long.
A Long Winded, But Important, Analogy
If you reduce them down to their very basics, all fighting games are really just an absurdly complicated game of Rock, Scissors, Paper. Each option available to your character “beats” one or more of your opponent’s options, but at the same time “loses” to some others. It is also possible for two moves to “draw”, similar to both players throwing Rock.
To further explain this analogy, imagine a game of RSP where the different throws you make gain you a different number of points. For example, you get 10 points for winning if you threw Rock, 5 points for winning if you threw Paper, and only 1 point if you won by throwing Scissors. Furthermore, imagine that we create an AI opponent for people to play against, which always throws a random one of these three.
This AI would not do very well. When the game is weighted like this, random selection stops working as a viable strategy. In this particular case, any standard player would quickly discover that all they have to do to beat the computer is to throw Rock every time. In a game in which the computer threw Rock three times, Paper three times, and Scissors three times, the score at the end would be player 30, computer 15. A crushing defeat, two-to-one. Having trained against this fine computer AI, and confident in his 1337 sk177s, our standard player now goes to a tournament, to play against the professionals.
He applies his strategy of throwing Rock every time. He loses the first game horribly, because his opponent has a better strategy - knowing that Rock is a very popular solution, his opponent throws Paper every time. This is a much better general play - it denies the opponent any way to make big points by throwing Rock, while risking very little. In fact, this method also beats the computer reliably, and even more spectacularly (15-3, a margin of five-to-one). An opponent who throws only rocks, or who uses any typical mix of all three throws, will be soundly defeated by this strategy. Moreover, repeatedly throwing Scissors in an attempt to beat the constant flood of Paper means you’ve fallen for a sneaky trap! Once his opponent sees our hero change over to Scissors, he allows him to win a couple of hands to bait him into throwing more…and then the surprise change up to Rock smashes apart the Scissors, ending the match with a bang. Throwing Scissors repeatedly is the worst possible play, because each time you do it you risk 10 points while only threatening to gain 1. By throwing lots of Paper, our tournament pro cleverly baited the poor scrub into making the worst possible mistake.
If, at the beginning of that paragraph, the first thought that went through your head was, “This is stupid. All he has to do is throw Scissors every time.”, don’t feel bad. I promise you’ll get used to it.
So what would a match between pros look like? They would begin by probing at each other with Paper. After a while, they would start mixing in random Scissors to try and score a quick point. As long as they only throw one, and it occurs at sufficiently random intervals, this is a very safe ploy - it is highly unlikely that the other would throw out a random Rock at exactly the right moment, because the odds of it being caught by the much more frequent throw of Paper is too great. They have a critical balance to strike - the more aggressive they are with their Scissors, the more points they can score, but the greater their odds of being caught by a devastating Rock.
These pros are very good at reading each other, and can react very quickly. They watch each other’s hands to try and get an idea of what they are throwing next. They try to bait each other by being deceptive - distorting their hands in such a way that it looks like they’re throwing Rock when they’re actually throwing Scissors. They use various strategies to try and goad the opponent into overextending, like throwing Scissors twice in a row to make the other think they’ve fallen for the trap, and then Paper to catch them when they try to counter with Rock. Etc.
This is what high-level fighting game play is like, except it’s even more complicated, and depends heavily on your ability to actually do the moves and perform the counters. It’s also why, 16 years after it’s release, people are STILL holding cash-prize tournaments for Street Fighter 2.
"Poking" is a generic term for what the pro players were doing in the example above when they started darting random Scissors at each other. This is a generic term that means using a relatively safe move to probe at the enemy, trying to feel them out and maybe score a couple of points (in the form of damage). In fighting games, it also helps to control the distance between you and your opponent, which is important for making sure that your moves act at their maximum potential.
The heart of all fighting games is the mixup. The attacking player typically has three options: attack high, attack low, and throw. Typically, a high attack beats a low guard or throw-counter, a low attack beats a high guard or throw-counter, and a throw beats both types of guard. This set up means that the advantage, in almost all cases, goes to the attacking player. However, not all of the options available to the attacking character do the same amount of damage. Typically, throws do the least, while high and low attacks lead into various combos that do damage based upon how complicated and difficult the combo was. This leads into the weighted game of RSP described above - not all of the options are equally valuable, and not all of them are equally safe. Depending on exactly how this balance is struck, the way that the attacking player will want to prioritize his attacks changes.
At all times, the attacking player is trying to goad the defending player into making a mistake. For example, he throws him twice in a row, and then walks at him a third time. This is actually a clever attempt to bait a throw-counter. When the opponent tries to counter the third throw that he is sure is coming, the attacking player leads into a big combo instead.
The definition of a “combo” is a series of attacks that cannot be evaded or guarded once the first one has successfully connected.
When a character is hit by an attack, they are knocked back and left reeling from the blow for a period of time. This is referred to as “hit-stun”. While they are in the reeling animation, they are unable to do anything else - this is important.
Block-stun is similar to hit-stun, but it usually does not last as long, and occurs whenever a blow is successfully defended.
Linking is the basic mechanic that makes combos work. The definition of a “link” is connecting with a blow while your opponent is still in hit-stun from a previous blow. Because they are unable to react while in hit-stun, they cannot avoid this secondary attack.
To “cancel” a move is to interrupt it part way through it’s animation, typically returning you back to neutral and allowing you to immediately input another move. This prevents you from having to wait for one move to finish before beginning your next one, and therefore makes it much easier to link attacks together as described above.
Juggling is a generic term for hitting an enemy with a series of attacks that bounce them through the air.
These are the bounding boxes that determine what parts of the character cause damage while a move is active, and what parts of the character are vulnerable to being struck while a move is active.
"Whiffing" is doing a move that misses the opponent entirely, and only hits air. This is frequently a mistake, but there are many reasons to do this deliberately, which vary be game.
As previously mentioned, not all moves are equally safe. Some recover quickly, while others recover very slowly. “Punishing” a move is the process of blocking a move, and then counter-attacking while it is still in the process of recovering. Since the opponent is still stuck in the recovery animation of the move that was blocked, they cannot evade the counter.
Hit confirming is the process of using a series of attacks that execute slowly enough for you to react to whether or not the enemy was hit by them. If the enemy was hit by the attacks, then you continue the combo with a move that is typically not safe when blocked (could be punished). However, if the enemy blocked your attack successfully, you abort the combo attempt before you get to the point where they can attack you back.
The “start-up time” of a move is the amount of time it takes before the move becomes able to damage something. If you can imagine a character throwing a punch, it is the part from when he raises his fist to just before it is fully extended.
The “hit time” of a move is the amount of time that it remains capable of dealing damage. That is, how long the punch remains at full extension.
The “recovery time” of a move is the amount of time (in milliseconds) that it takes for the move to end after it has finished hitting. If this is greater than the amount of time the opponent is left reeling from the blow, they will get a chance to punish the attack (even if it successfully connects!). If this is substantially less, there is the potential to link another attack after it.
One “frame” is equivalent to 1/60th of a second. Because this is roughly the rate at which most televisions output images, it is the smallest chunk of time that can be independently measured by people playing the game. As a result, most times you’ll run into online are given as a number of frames (takes 3 frames to start up, hits for 4 frames, and recovers in 2).