sponsored bannersponsored banner
Killer Instinct Beginner's guide

Killer Instinct Beginner's guide

Sebastian Quintanilla
9 min

This material was created with the support of our Patrons. You can support us!

Become a Patron
Want to get into a beloved cult classic of the genre? start here!

Originally released in 1994, Killer Instinct brought new ideas into the Fighting games space at a time when nearly every game developer was experimenting with the genre, even Rare! Of course, as history played out, titles such as Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter dominated the public’s attention. But KI remained something of a fun anecdote among arcade goes that remember its silly characters and wonderful voice-over.

Then, in 2013, after many believed the franchise would stay in its cult classic classification, Microsoft decided to reboot the game.

The Basics of Killer Instinct

Like many other fighting games, the goal is to lower your opponent's health to 0. Unlike most other fighting games, health is round permanent, meaning that instead of resetting back to full, you have to fight out each round with the health you had at the end of the last one.

Movement efficiency and speed play a big role in KI. The different walk speed among the roster of characters is remarkably big, and some characters can be incredible at approaching from the air. Almost half of the characters have abilities that allow them to change their momentum in the air too. All characters can also dash backward and forwards, which also have invincible frames.

Blocking also exists in KI, and it is performed by holding the oppositive direction of the attack. To block high, you simply hold the opposite direction. To block low, you do it while also holding down. Worth noting that you cannot block while jumping or in the air.

Killer Instinct also features throws. These can be either forward or backward. You can also tech throws by pressing the throw buttons simultaneously as your opponents, effectively canceling the throw for both. Throws are generally very powerful since there are very few ways to protect against them appropriately. However, whiffing a throw results in a very long recovery.

Reversals & Knockdowns

In Killer Instinct, there are two types of knockdown states. These are often called Hard and Soft Knockdowns. The former will leave players in the ground for almost a full second; many combo enders rely on hard knockdowns to give the player who performs the combo time to reposition and potentially start to combo again. Soft gives the player being knockdown the opportunity to recover quickly by pressing an attack button the moment they hit the ground.

Worth noting that knockdowns are not one or the other. Most Hard Knodowns can be made soft by player input, while all Soft Knockdowns can become hard if players don’t press any attack button in time with the ground.

Reversals then are an option to avoid a knockdown situation since those can be pretty difficult to navigate, especially against heavy rushdown characters. Not all characters have great reversals, some none at all, and most will not be good enough to rely on them for the whole match. Reversals then can come in two flavors:

  • Blockstun Reversals: Where you input the attack or special as you are being pressured.
  • Wake-up Reversals: Where you input the attack or special while in a knockdown state.

Both of these reversal types benefit from a KI mechanic that will buffer the inputs. It will always guarantee the move to come out in the first frame that your character has regained control.

Killer Instincts Combos

Combos in KI rely on a two-way system. Meaning that both players have something to play for while a combo is being executed. On the part of the offensive player, they have to input the right moves to chain one into the other. At the same time, the defending player can break out of it with the right timing. Breaking out means that both players return to neutral. Of course, failing to break the combo will result in more damage.

The game makes a distinction with its moves, as most grounded specials and all jumping attacks are considered openers, meaning they start the combo system. Normals, for the most part, are not openers in of themselves, but if they can be canceled into a special, as long as that special is an opener, then they will work too.

KI’s combo system also has a built-in cash-in mechanic. As you build up a combo, part of your opponents' health will be depleted, and another will be turned white. If you drop the combo, or if you don’t use a combo ender, then that health will be given back to the other player. You have to cash in that damage.

Enders come from special moves; every single one has an ender version that can be activated any time during the combo. Also, each special ender has properties that result in a different bonus. Worth noting that all enders will finish off that last remaining white health.

  • Splat ender: Can slam opponents into walls.
  • Exchange ender: Switches sides.
  • Launcher ender: Sends opponents up in the air, and can allow for further juggles.
  • Battery ender: Provides you with more resources such as shadow meter.
  • Damage ender: Does extra damage.
  • Bounce ender: Bounces opponents off the ground.
  • Hard Knockdown ender: causes a hard knockdown.
  • Advantage ender: Keeps opponents on their feet, but with minus frames.

There are some other special cases, but those are most of the enders bonuses you will see.

The final piece of the combos puzzle is the KV meter and Ender Levels. KV meter is KI’s response to potential infinite juggles. Instead of increasing gravity or creating diminishing returns, the meter fills up with each attack, lighter attacks fill it up faster, and once full, it creates a blowout, neutralizing play. You are then encouraged to get the KV meter high, but not enough to cause it to blow out.

Ender level is the smaller green squares below the KV meter. These activate the more white health your opponent has. In turn, the more you activate, the bigger the bonus for using your ender will be.

More on Killer Instinct’s Attacks Properties

Going a bit deeper into how attacks interact with players, KI moves have a handful of effects. Some give Staggers, Armor, Wall Slpat, Recapture, or Flipout. Even a combination of these.


Stagger attacks have a much longer hitstun than others. They are generally strong moves and are used often as ways to start combos. Since they leave opponents in an extended hitstun state, your opponent can reverse the combo, but also, they need to watch out for you throwing them for.

Armored Attacks

Armored attacks can not be interrupted by a single light attack. However, they can still be countered by throws or heavy normals, and you will still take the damage from the attack, but the armored attack will play out. Not all characters have access to armored moves, but those that do generally make use of it a lot.

Wall Splat

Some attacks have a wall splat property, meaning that if you use them, they will either reset the space between the players to neutral if used in the middle of the stage or wall splat opponents if they hit the corner of the stage.

Wall splat means that you can continue to develop your combo off them as they bounce off the wall. But the true value in these moves is that they leave opponents in a state of hitstun while also giving you an opportunity to convert to a throw for unscaled damage. Since they can’t reverse the combo, they are forced to tech the throw unless you mix it up and instead choose to extend the combo.

Although normals and specials can have the wall splat property, it is more common to see it come out of enders.

Shadow Meter & Instinct Mode

As you fight, you will notice a bar at the bottom of the screen grow with each impact and blocked attack. This purple bar is your shadow meter and is divided into two sections. Shadow meter allows you to do 2 things, one is offensive, and the other is defensive. 

First, you can use your shadow meter to use shadow versions of your specials. They deal added damage and cause a screen freeze either at startup or a few frames into it. The defensive version allows you to counter while in blockstun, giving you a chance to land a hit back. Important to note that they have to be timed and have an 8-frame startup, meaning that the opponent can interrupt you or just read that you are going for one.

Instinct mode then is the final bar you will be keeping an eye on in any given match. It is right below your health bar in yellow. It increases with damage taken and combo breakers used. Generally speaking, you should be able to activate it more than once per set, and it lasts 15 seconds. Each character has a unique Instinct mode, so you will need to practice each to see how you can maximize their value in this comeback mechanic.

This material was created with the support of our Patrons. You can support us!

Become a Patron