Though competitive players are but a subset of the grander video game fanbase, if you ever look into the world of competitive fighting games people will throw out terms such as “neutral,” “advantage,” and “disadvantage,” all of which appear to be (and are) key terms to understanding fighting games on a deeper, fundamental level. Often their meanings can come across as obtuse and rather abstract, and what exacerbates this confusion is that people make the mistake of trying to explain neutral before explaining advantage/disadvantage. This is why I’ve written this article. Advantage/disadvantage are much easier ideas to understand compared to neutral, and once you get those two down, the concept of “neutral” follows along more naturally.
Advantage, Disadvantage, and Neutral
So, imagine you’re in a fight. Would you rather be punching someone in the face, or getting punched? Most likely you’d prefer the former, a position where you’re at an advantage.
However, this idea extends more to than who’s getting hit. Would you rather be backed into a corner, or backing someone into a corner? Would you rather be standing with your back towards the edge of a cliff, or forcing someone towards the edge?
All of these positions involve someone who has fewer options available to them. The guy with his back to the cliff or the wall can’t go backwards, of course, so he has to fight his way out or somehow get around. However, this also makes him relatively more predictable. In contrast, the person forcing the opponent towards the edge can attack if he chooses to, or walk back. He has the luxury of more choices.
One person is in an advantageous position, the other is in a disadvantageous position. “Neutral,” then, is when neither person feels like they have an advantage or disadvantage. Neither one is getting hit, neither has their backs to a wall or has to worry about a 500-ft drop. Both fighters are fully in control of themselves, and their goal is to get the other one into a disadvantageous position.
You’ll often find characters who are considered to be great at neutral, and these are generally characters that have more or better weapons at their disposal when trying to gain an advantage. In this respect, you might see people throw out another common but also confusing fighting game term: footsies.
The idea of footsies derives from what kids would do at a lunch table. One kid tries to kick another kid’s legs. If a kid misses, then the other kid is free to kick that extended leg. Fighting games are kind of similar. If one character tries to punch another, but he misses, his arm is now extended forward, and his opponent can “punch his punch” back. Or, if he anticipates a punch is coming, he can hit more quickly, preventing the attack from happening in the first place (see also Bruce Lee’s original concept of Jeet Kune Do, the “Way of the Intercepting Fist“). When combined with the threat of a cliff or a wall, two opponents will try to trick the other into overextending or doing something predictable, and retaliating accordingly.
Neutral and Psychological Damage
You’ll also often see people say a character in a game is “bad at neutral,” and sometimes they’re right, but take the statement with a grain of salt because a lot of people don’t understand what neutral really is. They think it’s just about who can more reliably get the first hit in, and then whose attacks can lead to more combos, but neutral is just as much about potential damage as it is about actual damage.
Let’s go back to the example with two people fighting. They’re both in “neutral,” standing at the center of their fighting area. However, both want the opponent to be at the edge of the cliff, because as great as it can be to throw 20 punches at someone, it’s even better to throw one punch that knocks them off the edge of a cliff. The potential for greater advantage, and the fear of getting hit, become tools just as important as who actually successfully connects.
Neutral is often touted as the most important aspect of a fighting game, because it’s where the game begins, where the mind games originate from, and is the most basic area where it’s necessary to understand yourself, your opponent, and the tools each of you have at your disposal. I hope in reading this that you have a stronger understanding of how you can use it in your own game.
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