A History of Killer Instinct

The Xbox One version of Killer Instinct has both a unique history and a unique future. The game saw an unexpected developer change after the first 8 characters were built, as Double Helix Games were bought by a third party, and current Season 2 developers Iron Galaxy are releasing a new character every month until May 2015, as well as adjusting the game's balance with each patch. However, this comes with the drawback that older versions of the game are lost to the annals of hazy memories and Youtube footage. New players who come into Killer Instinct may not know much about the game used to play, or how the game's balance has shifted over time.

On this page, I will be chronicling the evolution of the Xbox One version of Killer Instinct, indicating how the characters and game systems changed over time. The goal is to give historical context to both new and old players alike, as well as archive the game's legacy in an easy to digest format. As with all games, there are varying opinions on which changes are favorable; when describing each aspect, I will do my best to be as objective as possible, but any perceived bias will be my own.

Season 1 (see all Season 1 patch notes)

Killer Instinct launched on November 22, 2013 alongside the Xbox One console itself. The initial game contained only six characters (Jago, Sabrewulf, Glacius, Thunder, Sadira, Orchid), with promises of two more DLC characters forthcoming. These two characters found their way into the game in approximately two month intervals. Spinal, the first DLC character, was released on January 31, 2014, while Fulgore came out on April 9. Along with the Fulgore patch came some important game improvements, such as Arcade Mode and an online Lobby Mode, which had been absent since launch. The game remained stable after the addition of Fulgore, not counting a patch or two to fix some game-breaking glitches, until Season 2 began.

Killer Instinct Season 1 was an excellent and unique game that brought a lot of enthusiasm to KI's unique fighting engine, and enjoyed almost a full year of prominence before Season 2 started. While Season 1 had some important differences in both gameplay systems and character balance compared to Season 2, to an untrained eye the fighting looks nearly identical. The game consisted of the same recipe of openers, auto-doubles, linkers, and combo breakers that Season 2 implements, and the characters and stages haven't changed much, graphically, since launch. The main difference between the two seasons comes in character balance and pace of play.

Season 1's pace of play was fairly different from Season 2 for a few main reasons.

  • Meter gained faster: Even though Killer Instinct gives meter in spades, Season 1 awarded about 1.25x as much meter as Season 2. Shadow enders were readily available, and you were rarely caught on the defense without a shadow counter stocked.
  • Damage was less: Hits not in a combo got a damage boost in Season 2, which meant anti-airs and footsies in Season 1 did less damage. Jumping and risks in the neutral game were punished less severely, and combos that were dropped or broken also did less damage before the break.
  • Shadow enders did not scale with ender level: Shadow enders did a set amount of damage to end a combo, regardless of your ender level. Near the end of Season 1, the strategy employed by most characters after landing an opener was to keep the combo very short, typically with only one chance to break, followed by a shadow ender for 35%+ damage. The de-emphasis on long combos over Season 1's lifespan downplayed the two-way combo breaking interaction that's unique to KI.
  • There were no air combo breakers: If the offensive player was in the air, the defense could not combo break. Characters such as Sadira benefited the most from this, although every character gained unbreakable damage in certain situations.
  • Many characters had safe counter breakers: Especially in ground-to-air scenarios, or during certain instincts (such as Orchid and Sadira), characters could attempt a counter breaker knowing that their whiff animations could not be punished, due to long range or being covered by previously summoned projectiles. As an extra bonus, the combo would often continue after the counter breaker, allowing for long strings of unbreakable damage. The defender could simply not attempt to combo break these setups.
  • Combo breakers gave a hard knockdown: Because of this, whenever a combo break occurred, the game took a 3 or 4 second pause before gameplay resumed, and the defender who broke usually had time to set up incredibly ambiguous offense. In fact, some of the offense after a combo break was so difficult to avoid, some characters used combo breaking as a main means of starting offense.
  • Manuals had fewer restrictions, with no added hitstop: In Season 1, manuals were considerably less restricted. Most characters could link medium manuals after light linkers and heavy manuals after medium linkers, while characters such as Jago could even connect a heavy manual after a light linker. Additionally, manuals provided no additional hitstop, which improved the game's flow but made breaking these manuals an extra challenge. Coupled with the dominance of short combos into shadow enders, these manuals rendered combo breaking largely to guessing.

Each character was also slightly different to their Season 2 counterparts.

  • Jago: Jago was a beast in Season 1. Because of his freestyle manual options, combo breaking Jago was incredibly difficult. Shadow Wind Kick also went about 95% of the entire screen, and coupled with the fast meter gain, it meant that your opponent took a huge risk throwing any projectile or committing to any long-range option that didn't recover immediately. Jago's instinct was different in Season 1; he did not possess any double Endokukens or health gain from landing fireballs. Instead, if instinct was active, Jago slowly gained health as long as he was hitting his opponent or otherwise walking forward, up to a maximum of 29%. This often led to Jago activating instinct on a KOed opponent after round 1 and comboing his body for as long as possible to maximize his health gain.
  • Sabrewulf: Another strong Season 1 character. He kept many of his offensive tools going into Season 2, but additionally had the best backdash in the game, making him much stronger on defense. Crouching LPs barely pushed the opponent back, allowing for some very pesky delayed frame traps and tick throw setups. Perhaps most importantly, shadow Eclipse had 0 frames of startup after the freeze. Coupled with his ability to dash through opponents, Sabrewulf could create setups that needed to be pre-emptively blocked (that is, you could not notice which side Sabrewulf ended up on during the shadow Eclipse freeze and change your block). Sabrewulf's instinct was also different; feral cancels were a Season 2 invention, meaning Sabrewulf only had increased hit and chip damage to work with.
  • Glacius: Glacius saw less severe changes between Season 1 and 2. In Season 1, his air kick normals had much faster startup, allowing him to keep characters at bay more easily, as well as set up some very tricky instant overhead setups. His Liquidize special move was added in Season 2, and his Hails did not bounce, which meant Glacius had less offensive and defensive ammo from full screen. The system changes impacted Glacius, however. He was one of the characters that got a very strong setup after a combo breaker (a combination of a well-timed Hail and Shatter), benefited from long-range safe counter breaker attempts on his ranged doubles, and saw frequent use of one-chance-break combos into shadow enders. Despite losing these tools, the added damage from footsies pokes in Season 2, especially stray jumping normals, benefits Glacius greatly. Glacius also suffered from very polarizing matchups in Season 1 (beating Thunder badly, but losing badly to Spinal and Fulgore), which some Season 2 system changes tried to address.
  • Thunder: Thunder was actually pretty similar in Season 1 to his Season 2 version, with the only main change being the lack of his Call of Sky special move, and a few changes to the hitboxes of his special moves.
  • Sadira: Sadira had only a few changes between the seasons, but they drastically affected her playstyle. Firstly, she was a much more effective runaway character, as she would land with only trip guard frames during any Widow's Bite in the air, no matter what air actions she had taken previously. Coupled with her elusive double jump and Web Cling special moves, it was very difficult to pin Sadira down. In Season 1, Sadira also did not have a true reversal (Shadow Web Cling was a Season 2 addition) and had quite a few safe counter breaker setups using her instinct mode. Most importantly, however, was that during instinct mode, she could jump cancel her Demon Blade special move repeatedly and, under the right circumstances, the game treated each attack as an unbreakable opener. Sadira would repeat this until the KV was near max, perform one fast manual or auto-double to give one chance to break, and then finish with an ender for huge damage. Season 2 would see some system changes to try to eliminate such long one-chance-break combos.
  • Orchid: Orchid was a much more "fair" character in Season 1. While she was still unsafe during her overhead and low Ichi Ni San sequences, and her instinct was still very difficult to block (coupled with some safe counter breaker setups as well), her footsies game was worse. She lacked a true cancelable low threat (crouching MP was made a low attack during Season 2) and some of her main footsies tools, like standing MP and HP, had smaller hitboxes with less range. The Grenade special move was new to Season 2 as well, and her air throw did not recapture, leaving Orchid with lots of pressure tools on paper, but fewer ways to attempt to safely crack a smart opponent's defense.
  • Spinal: Spinal is designed to be a character who is weak when he doesn't have skulls, but very strong when he does, and in Season 1 Spinal was weaker both with and without skulls. The only way he could generate skulls in Season 1 was to finish a combo with the Searing Skull ender, or activate instinct, forcing Spinal to play large sections of the match without skulls, and to earn much of his damage using his non-skull moveset. With skulls, he retained his strong teleport mixup game, but Season 1 Spinal could not cancel normal attacks into run at the cost of a skull, forcing him to play the teleport mixup game more often and leaving his skull pressure susceptible to shadow counters.
  • Fulgore: The most changed character between Season 1 and Season 2, Fulgore's meter used to work entirely differently. He had no blue "spinner" bar above his meter, but instead had a Reactor Charge special move that forced Fulgore to manually charge his meter in 1, 2, or 3 pip intervals (typically after knockdowns or if he chose to stop zoning for a brief moment). This means if Fulgore could gain no breathing room, he simply never generated any meter until he could activate instinct, unlike every other character in the game who could generate meter for shadow counters with patient blocking. In instinct, Fulgore's meter started generating automatically at an astonishing rate, fast enough to earn two complete bars over its duration. Devastation Beam could only be activated during instinct, as well, but did more raw damage than Season 2. Fulgore's Energy Bolt fireballs also were more traditional, with LP, MP, and HP throwing 1, 2, and 3 hit fireballs respectively; there were no opportunities to throw fireballs at different speeds or cancel fireballs into each other. Season 1 Fulgore was a much more polarizing character, either able to set up effective zoning and Reactor Charge special moves, or being thoroughly locked down without any bar until instinct each round, but the astonishing meter gain during instinct allowed Fulgore to take control of the match and the threat of a strong Devastation Beam complemented his well-known teleport rushdown.

Most players agreed that the best characters in Season 1, in no particular order, were Jago, Sabrewulf, and Sadira.

So what happened in Season 2?

History of Season 2