Killer Instinct: How to Play - The Basics - Prima Games

Killer Instinct: How to Play – The Basics

by Bryan Dawson

At first Killer Instinct appears to play like any typical 2D fighting game. The button layout and most of the attack notations are nearly identical to Street Fighter characters. In fact, if you’re coming from a Street Fighter background, you should pick up the basics with ease. However, when it comes to the combos system and the more intricate features of Killer Instinct, that’s when things become less like Street Fighter, and more like the Killer Instinct of old.

In this unofficial system breakdown, we take a closer look at the KI fighting engine so you’re ready to go when the game hits in a few short days. Don’t forget to pick up the Killer Instinct Ultra Fan Book with Free Living Guide access available at


The controls in Killer Instinct are essentially the same as Street Fighter controls. There are punches and kicks, with three strengths for each: light, medium, and heavy. There are different attack animations for standing and crouching, as well as for a forward or backward, or a neutral jump. These attacks are referred to as “Normals,” and every character has at least 24 Normals in their arsenal between standing, crouching, forward or backward jumping, and neutral jumping.

You can customize your controls as you wish, but the default controller layout is:

Light Punch (LP) = X
Medium Punch (MP) = Y
Heavy Punch (HP) = Right Bumper (RB)
Light Kick (LK) = A
Medium Kick (MK) = B
Heavy Kick (HK) = Right Trigger (RT)
All Three Punches (3P) = Left Bumper (LB)
All Three Kicks (3K) = Left Trigger (LT)


Killer Instinct is one single match, divided into two rounds. When one character’s health bar has been depleted, the match pauses for a moment while the character stands up and a second health bar appears. The first health bar is green, while the second is red. When a character’s red health bar is depleted, the match is over. Characters can move around during the brief pause after a health bar is depleted.

Combo Flow

In the original Killer Instinct, you had to follow a very specific combo flow to create lengthy combos. This has been changed in the new KI. Almost any button will perform some function during a combo. With the new, more open combo system, it’s now easier for novice players to learn the game. The typical combo flow is:

Opener > Auto-Double / Manual > Linker / Shadow Linker > Auto-Double / Manual > Ender

After an Opener you can go immediately into a Linker, Shadow Linker, Manual or Auto-Double. A Manual can replace an Auto-Double, and a Shadow Linker can replace Linker. There’s quite a bit of freedom in the combo system. There are a few character-specific exceptions, but these are the hard rules of the combo system:

– A combo must start with an Opener.
– To get maximum damage, a combo must conclude with an Ender.
– A Linker or Shadow Linker can only be performed after an Opener, Auto-Double, or Manual.
– An Auto-Double or Manual can only be performed after an Opener, Linker, or Shadow Linker.


An Opener is any special attack or Shadow attack that leaves an opponent on the ground. Some special attacks, such as Sabrewulf’s Eclipse, knock an opponent into the air. While it is possible to follow with an air juggle, this isn’t a traditional combo, and the number of possible hits is generally limited. Every character has at least two special attacks that serve as proper Openers.

An Opener can be followed by virtually anything to continue a combo. If you press any attack button, it will perform an Auto-Double. If you use another special attack, you’ll perform a Linker or Ender. If you use a Shadow Attack, you’ll perform a Shadow Linker. This is the ease of the combo system.

In addition, Openers cannot be broken. It is not possible to use a Combo Breaker during an Opener.


An Auto-Double is performed by pressing any button after an Opener, Linker, or Shadow Linker. It executes two basic attacks in rapid succession. The strength of the Auto-Double determines the speed of the two attacks. A light Auto-Double executes very quickly, making it hard to break, but it also inflicts very little damage. A heavy Auto-Double executes much slower, making it easier to break, but inflicts more damage compared to a light or medium Auto-Double.

Auto-Doubles are interchangeable with Manuals. Any time you would normally perform an Auto-Double in a combo, you can replace the Auto-Double with a Manual and vice versa. You cannot use consecutive Auto-Doubles, with the exception of Sabrewulf’s Rabid Bites ability.


A Manual is essentially a harder variation of an Auto-Double. Instead of performing two basic attacks, a Manual is literally using a Normal in the middle of a combo. The timing to properly execute a Manual is very strict. You can perform a Manual after an Opener, Linker, or Shadow Linker, which is also when you can perform an Auto-Double.

There’s a relatively large amount of time during and immediately following an Opener, Linker, and Shadow Linker in which you can press any button and perform an Auto-Double. This is referred to as a “buffer,” and because of this buffer, you must use extremely precise timing to connect a Manual. For example, if you want to use a Light Punch Manual after an Opener, if you press LP too early, you’ll get a LP Auto-Double. If you press LP too late, you won’t be able to continue the combo. The timing has to be perfect.

Any Normal can be used as a Manual as long as you have enough frame advantage to connect the attack. You can see how much frame advantage you have after an attack connects by turning on Attack Data in the Practice mode. This also tells you how many frames it takes to execute an attack, also known as the execution speed. The frame advantage has to be greater than the execution speed for the Manual to connect. For example, if Sabrewulf’s HP Ragged Edge gives him 15 frame advantage on hit, you can follow with any Normal that executes in less than 15 frames.

There are multiple advantages to using Manuals instead of Auto-Doubles. You can only Combo Break a Manual during the time the attack hits the opponent. This is a much smaller time frame than an Auto-Double. In many cases the opponent will have less than half the time to break a Manual compared to an Auto-Double.

You can also link Manuals together as long as you have enough frame advantage after each Manual to link another Manual. A Manual inflicts more damage than a single attack from an Auto-Double, which means that linking two or more Manuals together will result in more damage than an Auto-Double.

In addition, using Manuals in a combo instead of Auto-Doubles allows you to extend the combo for a longer time. You can get more attacks and more damage using Manuals, all while making it more difficult for an opponent to use a Combo Breaker. Of course this comes at a cost since Manuals are considerably harder to connect compared to Auto-Doubles.


A Linker is any special move performed in the middle of a combo with a light or medium attack. A Linker can be performed after an Opener, Auto-Double, or Manual. If you use a light Linker, it results in one hit. A medium Linker is two hits, and a heavy Linker is three hits. In order to execute a heavy Linker, simply hold down the attack button when using a light or medium Linker. For example, to use Sabrewulf’s heavy Ragged Edge Linker, simply perform the light or medium Ragged Edge, but hold LP or MP instead of tapping the button. If you tap LP you’ll get the light Linker, if you hold LP you’ll get the heavy Linker.

Be careful using heavy Linkers because a skilled opponent will see the third hit and be able to react with a Combo Breaker. Of course, this leaves room to use a Counter Breaker, but we’ll have more on that later in the article.


An Ender is a heavy special move that is performed at any time during a combo. If at any point in time during a combo you execute a heavy special move, the combo will come to an end. It is extremely important to use an Ender in all combos. If you do not use an Ender in a combo, you lose a considerable amount of damage. This is due to the Potential Damage system, which is discussed later in this article.

Enders have different properties depending on the special move used. For example, Jago’s Wind Kick Ender causes a wall splat, allowing you to extend the combo further. The Endokuken Ender gives Jago a considerable amount of Shadow Meter (referred to as a battery Ender). The Laser Blade Ender knocks the opponent into the air, allowing for a juggle follow-up. Jago’s Tiger Fury Ender inflicts the maximum amount of damage.

An Ender cannot be broken unless it is used immediately following an Opener.

Combo Breakers

A Combo Breaker is the primary way to stop an opponent’s combo. As long as your character’s feet are on the ground, you can break any part of a combo except the Opener and Ender. The only exception to this is if an opponent uses a short combo that consists of Opener > Ender. In this specific case, you can use a Combo Breaker on the Ender.

To perform a Combo Breaker, press the punch and kick strength that corresponds to the attack the opponent is using. For example, if Jago performs a MK Wind Kick Linker, you can break by pressing MK and MP at the same time. Likewise, if Jago performs a Light Punch Auto-Double, you can break by pressing LP and LK.

Counter Breakers (Bluffs)

During a combo, the defensive player can use a Combo Breaker to stop the combo. To counter this, the offensive player can use a Counter Breaker (also known as a Bluff), by pressing Medium Punch and Medium Kick. The offensive player can use a Counter Breaker at any point during a combo.

When MP and MK are pressed, the combo stops and the character performs a counter-like animation. If the opponent uses a Combo Breaker during this animation, a Counter Breaker occurs and the offensive player resets the combo, allowing them to start with another Opener while the opponent is incapacitated (locked out).

For example, if you anticipate the opponent will use a Combo Breaker, input a Counter Breaker just before this happens to stop the Combo Breaker and reset your combo. However, if you attempt a Counter Breaker and the opponent does nothing, you are vulnerable to an attack for a short time.

Lock Outs

If the defensive player inputs a Combo Breaker at the wrong time, or simply inputs the wrong Combo Breaker (medium instead of heavy, for example), they are locked out for three or four seconds and cannot use another Combo Breaker during that time. This is visually indicated by an X and exclamation point appearing over the head of the locked out character. If the lock out is due to the Combo Breaker being mistimed, the X is yellow. If it’s due to an incorrect input, the X is red.

A lock out is three seconds when the defensive player misses a Combo Breaker, and four seconds when the offensive player successfully lands a Counter Breaker. Use this time to achieve maximum damage while the opponent is unable to use a Combo Breaker.

KV Meter, Potential Damage, Resets and Combo Ender Levels

During a combo, two meters appear in the middle of the screen on the corresponding player’s side (left for player one, right for player two). This is the KV (“Knockdown Value)” meter, which governs the maximum length of your combo. As you continue your combo, the KV meter fills and turns red. You must use an Ender before the KV meter is full or else your combo will forcibly come to an end and you’ll lose a considerable amount of damage.

The damage lost is called Potential Damage. It’s the white, flashing portion of the opponent’s health bar during a combo. When you use an Ender, the Potential Damage is removed from the opponent’s health bar. If you do not use an Ender, the Potential Damage slowly refills and your combo inflicts significantly less damage.

While the opponent has Potential Damage on their health bar, you can perform a reset to maximize your damage even more. A reset is intentionally dropping your combo, then using a mix-up to immediately start another combo. As long as the opponent still has Potential Damage in their health bar, the combo Ender level (see below) remains intact, and any Ender used during the new combo will still remove all of the Potential Damage. For example, you may intentionally stop a combo with Thunder, then use the Ankle Slicer to catch the opponent off guard and start a new combo. This is a reset.

Below the KV meter are four squares that turn green as your combo progresses. These squares represent the combo Ender level. The higher the Ender level, the more hits you’ll get out of the Ender, and the more damage it will inflict. In some cases a higher Ender level results in a higher launch after a juggle state Ender, or more time to use a follow-up attack after a wall bounce Ender.

Shadow Meter, Shadow Attacks, and Shadow Linkers

The meter at the bottom of the screen is called the Shadow meter. It governs all Shadow-based techniques, including: Shadow attacks, Shadow Linkers, and Shadow Counters. The meter consists of two stocks, and is filled by attacking an opponent. If the opponent gets hit, the meter fills at a moderate pace. If the opponent blocks your attacks, the meter fills quickly. Some Enders also add a considerable amount of Shadow meter.

Shadow attacks are performed by executing any special move with two attack buttons instead of one. For example, a Shadow Wind Kick is executed with any two kick buttons. If a Shadow attack is performed during a combo, it is considered a Shadow Linker, and does not add to the KV meter. This allows you to extend combos even when the KV meter is full.

All Shadow moves consist of five hits. The speed and pacing of the hits varies depending on the Shadow attack, but they are all five hits.

Shadow Breakers

Shadow Linkers can be broken using a special technique referred to as a Shadow Breaker. Performing a Shadow Breaker is a little more intricate compared to a normal Combo Breaker. To execute a Shadow Breaker, you must press MP and MK during three of the five hits in a Shadow Linker. There’s an audible confirmation if you properly time all three button presses. The announcer yells, “one” with the first successfully timed attempt, “two” with the second, then “Combo Breaker” with the third.

If you mistime any one of the attempts, you will be locked out. In addition, the opponent can easily use a Counter Breaker once they hear the announcer yelling, “One, two.” However, because all Shadow Linkers are five hits, you can keep the offensive player guessing by attempting to break on non-consecutive hits. For example, attempt to break on the first, third and fifth hits. The offensive player won’t know when to attempt a Counter Breaker.

Shadow Counters

A Shadow Counter is similar to a parry. It is performed by pressing MP and MK when you have at least half of your Shadow meter (one stock). It uses one stock of meter whether the counter is successful or not. When you press MP and MK, the character performs a parry-like animation. If an opponent’s attack makes contact with your character during this animation, a Shadow Counter is executed and your character automatically performs a Shadow attack that serves as a combo Opener.

The best time to use a Shadow Counter is when blocking a Shadow attack. You must be careful when using a Shadow Counter because there’s a short delay between the Shadow Counter and the execution of the Shadow attack. If the opponent is still attacking, their next attack can interrupt the automated Shadow attack. This is why it’s best to use Shadow Counters when you know an opponent has stopped attacking.

For example, all Shadow attacks are five hits. If you block the first four, execute a Shadow Counter to catch the fifth hit. In this situation you know the opponent can’t attack immediately after the last hit of the Shadow move, so it’s safe to use the Shadow Counter without interruption (although the opponent can still Instinct Cancel to stop the last hit from executing). This also works well against multi-hit special moves such as Sabrewulf’s Ragged Edge, which is always two hits. Block the first hit, then Shadow Counter the second.

Instinct Meter, Instinct Mode, and Instinct Cancels

The Instinct meter is located just below your character’s health bar. It fills when you take damage or land a successful Combo Breaker. When the Instinct meter is full, you can press HP and HK to enter Instinct Mode. Each character has unique Instinct Mode traits. For example, during Instinct Mode, Sabrewulf’s damage increases and all of his attacks inflict a small amount of damage when blocked (chip damage).

If you activate Instinct Mode in the middle of an attack or combo, it is referred to as an Instinct Cancel. During a combo it resets your KV meter and essentially allows you to start a combo over, while maintaining the same Ender level and Potential Damage. If used in the middle of a standalone attack, it simply cancels the attack immediately.

You can use an Instinct Cancel to prevent an opponent from punishing an unsafe attack. For example, Sabrewulf’s Shadow Eclipse is normally unsafe if blocked. However, if you use an Instinct Cancel before the final hit, you can continue attacking without fear of being punished. It’s also very useful if you anticipate an opponent is about to use a Shadow Counter.

Ultra Combos

When a character has 15 percent health or less on their second health bar, their health bar begins to flash and the announcer says, “Danger.” Once this happens, it is possible for the opposing player to perform an Ultra Combo. An Ultra Combo is a specific special move executed with all three attack buttons used during a combo (at any point after an Opener). For example, Sabrewulf’s Ultra Combo is performed by executing a Ragged Edge with all three punch buttons.

An Ultra Combo automatically ends the match. As soon as the Ultra Combo is initiated, the defending player has lost. However, it is possible for the offensive player to use an Instinct Cancel in the middle of an Ultra, then start a new combo and perform a second Ultra. As long as both characters are on the ground when the Instinct Cancel occurs, you can extend the combo considerably.

At any point in time during an Ultra Combo, press MP and MK to perform an Ultra Ender and end the combo immediately.


Throws are executed by pressing LP and LK. A throw cannot be blocked, but it can be interrupted if you’re not careful. Some characters can combo after a throw, while others simply use throws to break through an opponent’s guard. Throws execute quickly and take priority over many slower attacks. To escape a throw, press LP and LK the moment a throw attempt is made.

Bryan Dawson

Bryan Dawson has an extensive background in the gaming industry, having worked as a journalist for various publications for nearly 20 years and participating in a multitude of competitive fighting game events. He has authored over a dozen strategy guides for Prima Games, worked as a consultant on numerous gaming-related TV and web shows and was the Operations Manager for the fighting game division of the IGN Pro League.