MTM: On Cancels

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This is More than Mashing, a column on amazing demonstrations of skill in video games where I try to collect and showcase the best the net has to offer in skilled game playing and break it down so anyone can understand. I realized in my previous entry that there is some basic terminology that not necessarily everyone is up on, so I’m gonna go over cancels.

Cancel is a basic term that spans across nearly all games and it can mean different things depending on context. The foundation of game programming is based on something called the finite state machine. A finite state machine is essentially an entity that can exist in one of several states and shuffle between these states based on input. The example wikipedia gives is a turnstile, like used at an amusement park or a subway. A turnstile has 2 states, locked and unlocked, and there are 2 actions you can perform on a turnstile, insert a coin or push on it. If you push on it while it is locked, it will remain locked. If you insert a coin into it while it is locked it will become unlocked. If you insert a coin while it is unlocked, it will remain unlocked. If you push on it while it is unlocked, it will become locked again.

 

dfG1Myv1.pngIn video games, finite state machines are used to represent the state a game character is currently in and update their animation to match. Examples of states a game character might be in include standing, walking, running, jumping, landing, attacking, blocking, shooting, taking damage, picking up an item, using an item, or more depending on the game. There are naturally rules for transitioning between these states, such as it only being possible to enter a running state if you are on the ground and not in the air, or landing from a jump transitions you to the standing state. Some gameplay states however play a set animation and at the end of that animation transition to a neutral state. They have a commitment to that animation and will not transition to other states while that animation is playing. Trying to walk around while attacking will not interrupt the attacking animation. Trying to use an item while in midair will not interrupt the jumping animation. These states can only be selectively transitioned out of. A cancel refers specifically to when a normally uninterruptible state has a means of avoiding commitment to playing the rest of the animation. A very basic example is when you are attacking and an enemy hits you in the middle of the attack and you reel back. In most games, every state transitions into the taking damage state, enabling this to cancel a lot of actions that normally you are committed to. They are called cancels because instead of having to play out the entire animation, the parts after the transition are canceled. These various states and their transitions can be represented through flow charts. Here is an example of one.

Cancels have been in games since the NES at least and some classic examples include Castlevania, where you could use the taking damage animation so you can reach higher platforms by jumping up when an enemy passes by, getting hit, and being pushed up a bit higher, in Cheetahmen 2 you can cancel attacks into jumps which you can then cancel into attacks, and so on, in Castlevania 3 it is possible to cancel attacking animations in order to use a lot of thrown weapons without stopping using a lot of different methods, in Super Mario Bros, you can cancel the flagpole sliding animation by glitching into the base block of the flagpole either with a koopa shell or moving carefully, this skips the walking to the castle sequence at the end of the level so the level can be completed more quickly.

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Mario uses a shell to get inside the bottom block of the flagpole to cancel the walk to castle animation early. Credit to TASvideos and HappyLee

Cancels are sometimes a useful means of transferring variables from one state to another. A great example of this is in Super Smash Brothers Brawl with the DACUS. DACUS is short for Dash Attack Cancel Up Smash. Brawl added the ability to, during the startup of a dash attack, jump, completely canceling the dash attack’s animation. Before a jump in Smash Bros, there is a pre-jump animation, which can be canceled into up smash or up B. This was put in place so that if you hit up and A on the ground you won’t jump like you normally would when tapping up. The pre-jump frames cannot be canceled into anything else in brawl, so no jumping into downsmash. Incidentally, in Brawl, a lot of character’s dash attacks actually accelerate their speed across the screen temporarily, so you could jump to cancel that dashing animation when it is at its fastest, cancel the prejump animation into an upsmash, and then slide across the stage with the momentum from the dash attack depending on how fast the character went and how much friction they had. Some characters like Snake especially benefited massively from this. He could slide across the entire stage, and the charge animation for his up smash actually had him attack when he pulls out a mortar launcher, making it a good 1-2-punch type of setup by hitting opponents with the sliding up smash and then launching a mortar at them.

Another type of cancel that I’ve seen in Dark Souls and Smash Bros is what the Smash community calls IASA frames, or interruptible As Soon As frames. These are frames that typically happen at the end of an attack when it has recovered, during these frames you can perform any move, except for transitioning to a neutral non-committed state such as standing idle or walking around. These frames generally exist to help make transitions between one action and another more smooth, while looking nice if you decide not to do that.

Frequently cancels reset other variables. One such example is Devil May Cry 3 & 4 with jump canceling. In DMC3, Dante has the ability to jump off the heads of his enemies while he is in midair. This state can be transitioned to from nearly any other state, so he can jump into the air, attack an enemy, jump off their head while he is in the middle of hitting them and attack them again. The jump cancel is a bit tricky, but has the benefits of resetting your jump, double jump, air dash, and teleport, assuming you’re using trickster style, each of which can normally only be used once before touching the ground again. Experienced DMC3 players can use this cancel to literally fly through the air as long as the enemy survives. In DMC4, Nero can do a similar trick where he jumps in the air, uses the devil bringer to grab an enemy, slashes them, jumps off their head, and repeat to ascend into the skybox. In Mario 1, grabbing a mushroom or fire flower in midair makes the game treat you as if you are ready to jump, and lets you jump again in mid-air. In Gunz: The Duel, slashing after walljumping resets your ability to walljump. It can also reset your reload time in order to reload instantaneously. Metal Gear Solid 1 also has this and it is called the quick reload. By unequipping and reequipping a weapon you can instantly reload it rather than enduring the slow reload animation. Bizarrely, this is mentioned in the manual, which is typically unusual for these things.

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His1Nightmare uses the jump cancel to seamlessly fly and teleport around Credo as well as the royal guard cancel to keep his momentum going between airdashes

One of the classic cancels in fighting games is the 2in1 cancel, or the special cancel. In fighting games when you hit an opponent with an attack, both you and your opponent are briefly frozen in what is called hitfreeze. A lot of games use hit freeze from Wind Waker to No More Heroes to Dark Souls. It helps convey a sense of power behind an attack that although a viewer may not actively perceive it, they will definitely feel it. In fighting games, if you hit with a normal attack during this hitfreeze you can input a special attack to have it immediately come out instead of waiting for the normal attack to finish. This enables normal moves to be chained into special moves, essentially 2 moves for the price of 1. The drawback of course is that special moves frequently have long recovery times, so if done carelessly you can be punished harder than if you just stick with the normal attack should your opponent block the first attack. Later fighting games took this further with normals that chained together in sequence, called a magic series. These could be pressed in order to chain together a bunch of attacks on the opponent for more damage than if they blocked it.

Sometimes games are defined by having their characters not transition states in some instances when they normally would. A common example of this is super armor in fighting games. Generally the hitstun animation has a higher priority than all other animations, and if you take damage you transition into this state no matter what, however some characters have the ability to resist hitstun with super armor during their attacks. In Marvel Versus Capcom The Hulk is well-known for this, being able to shrug off hits if he is in the middle of an attack. In Dark Souls, Poise works like this, preventing you from entering stun until your hidden poise meter is expended. Another move that has super armor in dark souls is the back step, which has invincibility frames at the start, and super armor while it is recovering. A key functionality of super armor in most games is that although you can be hit without interrupting your animation, you will still take damage. In most fighting games, there is also a counter that will knock you out of super armor if you take 2 hits (like focus attacks in Street Fighter IV) or damage over a certain threshold (like super armor in Smash Bros on Yoshi’s second jump and other moves.)

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Here Balrog uses super armor on his EX dashing punch and dashing uppercut to power through Ken’s fireball

In a lot of first person shooters, you sometimes have a commitment to an animation on your gun, such as reloading or firing. In Counter Strike, when you fire a sniper bullet on a bolt action gun, you need to pull the bolt back afterwards. This is canceled by switching to another weapon then back again so they can ignore this time penalty. In Halo 2 you could BXR, a button combination that involved pressing B to melee attack your opponent, X to reload your weapon, and R to fire off a single shot. Melee attacks canceled into reloading, which could be freely canceled by firing your weapon. This was much faster than waiting for the melee attack to recover. This allowed you to attack quickly and without much vulnerable down time. In Metroid Prime, firing a normal beam blast after a missile cancels the cool off period after the missile, enabling you to fire missiles much faster than normal.

Many games intentionally let you cancel most melee attacks into defensive options like blocking or dodging. Among these are God of War’s block, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance’s parries, God Hand’s dodges, and Devil May Cry’s royal guard. These can be useful for escaping danger if you’re in the middle of an animation where you are otherwise committed and cannot move away from the threat, but also sometimes they can be used to chain together moves that do not normally connect. In DMC4, million stabs generally ends with one hard stab that sends the opponent flying, however by using royal guard immediately before the final attack, you can actually chain million stabs into itself multiple times before landing the final blow. Royal Guard’s animation is really short, preventing the enemy from escaping hitstun during that time. In Metal Gear Rising they gave you the option of parrying at any time, but parries themselves cannot be canceled into most other animations. However by parrying, then using the forward offensive defense (Raiden’s slashing dodge), and entering blade mode quickly, you can escape from the long cooldown on parries and immediately go back into attacking. A lot of other attack’s recoveries can also be canceled by entering blade mode, which is highly useful on Revengeance difficulty.

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Here you can see His1Nightmare using the million stabs and using the royal guard to cancel each one and start up another one, where normally he is forced to end the move.

Sometimes cancels create odd mechanics, such as silent running in Metal Gear Solid. In Metal Gear Solid, tapping the R1 button would equip a weapon on you. This was accompanied by a short weapon change animation. By tapping R1 repeatedly, you could trigger this animation over and over again, even while running at full speed. This happened to prevent the parts of the running animation that triggered footstep sounds from playing, leading to Snake running completely silently.

Overall, Cancels are a fundamental part of the way games are designed as a whole. Understanding what states transition into what other states helps a player better understand what their options are and sometimes enables them to do completely new things.

Sorry for not including videos with this update. I think I’ll go over the concepts here again when I get to a video that features them.

If you would like to contribute any videos showing off creative uses for canceling, be sure to link them below!

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