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An obscure Japanese indie is the best way to learn fighting games

Don’t focus on what to do, learn how to think

An anime characters raises their fist to the viewer in Koihime Enbu Ryorairai
Koihime Enbu Ryorairai
Unknown Games, M2/Degica

I’m not sure what to do when friends ask for my help to get good at fighting games. Should I teach them to roll an arcade stick and pull a hadoken? Do I show them how to wavedash in Tekken? Do they want to learn an infinite combo with Iron Man in Marvel vs. Capcom?

Each individual game has its own mountain of skills and mechanics, and precious little carries over from one to the next.

Lately, when I get this request, I don’t pull out any of the major games, not even Street Fighter. The major franchises have grown too big and heavy over the years for this situation. The game I give beginners is an obscure Japanese indie called Koihime Enbu Ryorairai. You know, the one that retells Romance of the Three Kingdoms with anime girls.

Why this game?

A fighting game beginner needs to get acquainted with the essential skills they can take to any other game they decide to play. Koihime isn’t made in the modern mold with 30 characters, 50-hit combos and a million unique systems. (I do love baroque games like Blazblue Cross Tag Battle, though,) It’s a simple game, reminiscent of the earliest Samurai Shodown titles. In Koihime, as in its inspiration, two players pace back and forth trying to poke each other with sticks.

Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2 - hitboxes
Hitboxes in action in Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2.
Arc System Works

After all, that’s what every fighting game is, once you look under the hood. It’s not just about trying to hit each other — it’s about hitting each other in the right place.

With the help of a mod (courtesy of Altimor), we can see the “hitboxes” that lie underneath every animation in Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2. These exist in every fighting game. The blue and green boxes represent the characters’ bodies, and the red boxes represent the attack area. When red strikes green — and note that in this screenshot, the boxes just barely miss, although the 3D models touch — that’s a hit.

But nobody’s really interested in taking up Box Fighter as a hobby. The cool characters and beautiful animations of fighting games dress up, but also hide, the battling geometry at the core. You don’t need to see boxes in your head while you’re playing, but it helps.

No matter the game, players are always maneuvering to get into the best position to stick out an attack and smack the opponent. Old hands call this the “neutral” (because neither fighter has a clear advantage) or “poking” stage of the game. What a beginner needs to know isn’t how to execute a long combo, but how to land the first hit consistently.

The reason Koihime is so good at teaching beginners these concepts is that it’s almost all poking, with simple moves and rules that allow players to get to that part of the game as soon as possible.

Koihime Enbu Ryorairai - Bacho attacking Chohi
Bacho’s straight-line attacks are extremely easy to understand.
Unknown Games, M2/Degica

Speaking of poking, many of the characters in this game — particularly those I steer my friends toward in my teaching sessions — wield spears. The spear’s straight-line attacks serve as a perfect visual metaphor for the “poke” game, and the range of a pointy stick or a sword is obvious simply from looking at the character.

With four basic attack buttons (light, medium, heavy and throw) and simple special moves, there’s just enough meat for motivated students to chew on. Crucially, there aren’t so many rules that they’ll get distracted from the important points. It’s less about learning what to think and more about learning how to think.

I start by telling my friends to simply walk back and forth and press some buttons. Everything starts to fall into place once they get a feel for their character’s movement and pokes.

Then I tell them to try to hit each other.

Koihime Enbu Ryorairai - Kakoton slicing toward Cho’un
Kakoton’s signature giant slice. “Blade trails,” common in weapons fighting games, are not just a special effect but an elegant way of displaying to players exactly where the weapon strikes.
Unknown Games, M2/Degica

New players gradually learn to keep their opponents at the edge of their blade, even without much instruction. The players can clearly see they’re left wide open after missing a heavy swing. They’re able to find the fun of the game without needing to beat a tutorial or study a lengthy guide.

Soon, they’re trying to trick each other: baiting, feinting, dodging and counterpunching each other’s strikes. Playing with another human player is crucial; a computer can’t provide the same fallibility.

Koihime Enbu Ryorairai - GIF of Cho’un unleashing medium combo after countering Kakoton
A major counter (“Hougeki” in game parlance) hit, followed up by a medium-size combo. These lengthy, floaty combos are only possible after a big counter.
Unknown Games, M2/Degica

The game lets you know when you mess up. The screen shakes and blurs, a gong sounds, and the opponent buckles over, slumping slowly to the ground when you counterattack an opponent with one of the heavier, slower moves.

The hapless opponent probably attacked when they should have had their guard up. At the advanced level, this means the player severely misjudged their opponent and made a bad guess. On the beginner level, they were probably mashing buttons without thinking at all. At this stage, it’s crucial to stay mindful of everything you do instead of just flailing.

I have heard no clearer “you messed up!” in a fighting game than that roaring gong. The gong enforces a play style: careful positioning, deliberate offense and keeping one’s guard when the pressure is on. This style will serve them well in just about every other fighting game they ever play.

My Koihime students don’t just learn to play a fighting game; they learn to play it smart. The game is simple enough that they can focus on what’s important. At the end of the match, they understand why they won or lost. There’s none of the “what just happened?” feeling of losing that’s common in fighting games that may be more mainstream but are also more complex. The feeling of being hopelessly in over one’s head is what makes so many beginners drop off after their first few games.

The simplicity and clarity of Koihime Enbu Ryorairai make it a perfect teaching tool for the genre, as well as an accessible and engaging competitive game in its own right. Players expect more and more raw content from every new product they buy — look at Smash Bros., Tekken, The King of Fighters — but in practice, a massive roster of complex characters can overwhelm even advanced players. Koihime Enbu Ryorairai is all about learning the fundamentals and then applying them.

Koihime Enbu Ryorairai is a smaller game produced by a smaller team, with no real hope of competing sales-wise against AAA titles, but that focused experience is the whole point. From Nidhogg to Lethal League, the “simple fighting game” may well be the domain of indie developers. It’s a shame; modern, big-budget fighting games often try to grab audience by using popular characters, but teaching the basics of the art form may be more important in the long-term to keeping the genre alive and vibrant.

The next level of puzzles.

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