Aztez – A Game of Conquest and Brutality

Beat ‘Em Up Sheet Music

When I was trying to establish what exactly made the attacks and combos in beat 'em ups feel so specific and distinct from each other, I decided to scrutinize the animations from some of these games frame by frame. The first thing I did was grab a hi-def capture card from the office so I could plug my 360 in and start recording. I started by evaluating the bread and butter standing combos and understanding what's happening on a frame by frame basis, and my findings were very insightful. I'll save the nitty gritty details for another post, but what I ended up doing was making a printable template that I like to call "beat 'em up sheet music". It's a very simple idea, but it lets you avoid the staggering tedium of drawing out countless hundreds of tick marks on little timelines so that you can get back to the investigation. I'll go into how I specifically used it, but first know you can click this image to download a JPEG of the sheet music so you can print it out and use it yourself.

My process was to record the first hit in the combo, wait for the character to return to idle, then record the first two hits, wait for the characters to return to idle, and so on and so forth until I had a very accurate timeline of what every attack looks like in terms of length. As I did this for more and more attacks I started noticing patterns in the things I was continually identifying so I created a key.

  • A = Attack: This is the first thing that occurs in the animation timeline; it's the part of the animation where the character goes from the state they were in previously all the way out to fully extended in attack motion. What was hugely insightful about this is that the range on this in particular is so varied across different games that it's no wonder they all look and feel differently.
  • ASH = Attack Stance Held: Modern 3d characters will hold themselves in place for a certain amount of frames once fully extended. Not only does this serve an animation purpose (no one throws a punch and then instantly pulls their hand back in once extended, physics simply doesn't allow this) but it also represents a window in which possible branches of attacks can occur. You can confirm this for yourself in any game that shows you your input but also indicates the window in which a branch can occur (Bayonetta does this). They will most likely directly correlate.
  • WE = Weapon Effect: This marks the beginning and end of the weapon effect (specifically, effect number 3 of the 10 attack sub-effects). This was also surprising in its variety in VERY subtle ways. I'll give you a hint; sometimes making this effect begin and end slightly AFTER the character's begins and ends their weapon swing INSTEAD of perfectly matching it can make all the difference in the world. ;)
  • RF/LF = Right Foot/Left Foot: This is simply used to mark the leading foot on the character for this attack. Any well animated character who moves forward while attacking is going to be stepping forward as they swing and it's important to pay attention to what the feet are doing before you confuse yourself trying to create attack animations that transition well. Sometimes this can change right in the middle of an attack or even multiple times throughout an attack so keep your eyes peeled.
  • CP = Cancel Point For Run Input: Most modern beat 'em ups have very elaborate attack animations where the character steps forward, swings their weapon, holds their stance, steps back, and then takes their sweet time going back to their idle position (provided you haven't cancelled the animation with the next attack). Savvy beat 'em ups that want you to feel like you're in control of your character will let you cancel the attack animation with simple movement. Try it. Grab any beat 'em up and perform a basic standing attack without pushing any other button. Now do it while giving the character movement input. Chances are they'll cancel the attack animation way earlier than it ends naturally and just start running.
  • BW = Branch Window: Only games that employ a gap timed mash flow are going to have this, but there will be a tiny and exclusive window where you can push the attack button to get a completely different combo than you would if you pushed the attack button right after the attack comes out. It's actually incredibly difficult to measure this, but far more often than not the ASH length is going to give you a pretty good idea of when the branch window is.
  • RTS = Return To Standing: This is the part of the animation where the character goes from full attack extension to their a standing animation. A specialty transition reserved for games with whose characters have complex transitions based on the weapon they are holding.
  • WSH = Weapon Stance Held: Another specialty case. You only see this in games when the character has stylish weapon poses they will temporarily hold before returning to their normal idle animation. Nonetheless, it can be insightful measuring this if you wish to do the same. It should be noted that the player will never even see this if you intend to let them cancel their attack animation with movement input.
  • RTI = Return To Idle: This is what most characters in most modern beat 'em ups do once they're done holding their attack stance (ASH). Another part of the animation the player will rarely see because they'll most likely be cancelling it with movement but is important nonetheless.

The only other elements here that might need explanation are where it says "Mechanic" and "Motion Form" to the left of the timeline. This is just for clarification so you know which attack is documented on that specific timeline. For the motion form, I use an arrow to indicate the basic "swoop" of the animation, which helps me remember the attack I'm documenting without having the game on in front of me. Please use these and give them to anyone who might find them useful. If you're a godly attack designer and you can fully see a complete attack in your brain sauce, you should be able to use this form to tell your animators and effect people EXACTLY what they need to produce.

  • Excellent analysis! I did some similar work when looking at some 2d fighting game mechanics (mostly Street Fighter) but I didn’t break it down to this degree. It would have been really useful, so I think I’ll follow your example next time.

  • Evilagram

    Ultimately I think the only sheet music that’s really acceptable is the actual animation with color coded hitboxes. I wish that someone with programming experience would make some concerted effort to document more of the hitboxes in various games in a project similar in style to the hitbox framedata project done for Smash Bros Melee.

    • Evilagram

      Or this complex hitbox viewer made for Third Strike, which is the loveliest resource in the world.

    • That is definitely the ideal situation but obviously, when you don’t have access to the data you have to take measurements yourself. It’s not something I’ve done in a long time but it’s a good exercise to perform when you’re doing early dissections.

      And that link is great. I wish all games would provide that kind of information, but I understand producing it takes time and money. Sigh.