Review: Street Fighter IV

There used to be a running joke roughly 15 years ago about Capcom being unable to count. There are more revisions of Street Fighter II—the game that skyrocketed the video fighting genre into unstoppable popularity all throughout the 90s—than there are stars in the sky if you count all of the tweaks, reboots, prequels, side-games, spinoffs, crossover games and pseudo-sequels.

The sad irony is that when Capcom finally saw fit to count to III, very few people actually ended up caring. Most had moved on to other types of games as fighters grew more and more complex and feature-heavy. I was one of these people. While I respect Third Strike (and my gal Makoto) so hard it’s not even funny, I’m not ashamed to admit that that game alienated the heck out of me. When a game’s primary defensive mechanic requires consistent one-tenth-of-a-second reflexes in order to effectively implement, that’s when I start playing something else.

Clearly I wasn’t alone. A lot of people felt this way. Capcom, along with several other fighting game developers, noticed the shrinking market and either pulled out of it or took much longer to developer their titles. Cue fighting games becoming niche while Halo stepped in to propel the first-person shooter genre to mindshare dominance… and the fighting games that were developed past that point became even more convoluted.

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Enter Street Fighter IV after a 10-year hiatus; a game which throws out the majority of the trends that made fighting games daunting and conducive to player elitism roughly around the turn of the century. The series’s original 12 iconic characters return in full force, adhering to the art styles and personalities that made them so popular in the ’90s, but with aesthetics are bumped up to crazy levels. A rocking remix-heavy soundtrack is combined with high-definition 2.5D graphics that breathe new life into old designs, and animate wonderfully to boot. The result, at least on the surface, is an outright celebration of the franchise—and the best part? This time, everyone’s invited. I’ll be frank, I could hug every one of Capcom’s coders, artists and designers for this move—and once again, I’m not alone in this. The people are noticing. The people are coming back, because Street Fighter is back, and finally, it’s the Street Fighter they all remember.

A crowd of HGM editors sat down with this one night, in an event that was part party, part social experiment. Hailing from all walks of gaming life, we played and evaluated. Some had stopped playing SF long ago due to intimidation, and thus had initial misgivings. Eventually, though, they were having tons of fun, and their opinions turned around thanks to the game’s inviting nature. Others had never stopped loving SF, and aside from some Third Strike relearning pains, had a blast as well. One person had skipped over SF’s heyday entirely, but had tons of expertise in Smash Brothers. We taught him Ryu in five minutes (seriously, that’s all it takes) and let him loose. He lost many matches, but expressed his extreme desire to practice on previous renditions until the game’s release, and also praised the game’s accessibility. Coming from a high-level player of the world’s most accessible fighting game, that’s saying something. Finally, even the people who didn’t play fighting games were so impressed by the on-screen happenings that they felt they had to take a chance on things. This game is downright infectious, and it’s all because it taps the spirit of fun from the early days of arcades. Pretty soon, the room was erupting with loud, boisterous yells and screams as matches went on—because as anyone who plays it knows, Street Fighter is just as much a spectator sport as it is a game.

For all of the game’s familiarity, the fighting hasn’t been regressed to the archaism of the original World Warrior. Each character has two types of meters that will give them an edge in battle. One is the standard Super meter, which allows characters to use enhanced versions of their special moves, or save the whole thing up for a Super attack. The other is the Revenge meter, which when built up, allows players to unleash the Ultra Combo, capable of turning matches around in a few seconds, or at least giving the loser a second chance for a comeback. Getting hit will raise the Ultra meter, but so does taking advantage of the Focus Attack—and here’s where things get interesting for the player who wishes to advance beyond basic Street Fighter.

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The Focus Attack allows the player to deflect an incoming move, and then either retain their advancing momentum towards the opponent with a quick dash, or to launch a lightning-fast counterattack. Great players can combine both tactics, sometimes into unblockable combos, but there are checks and balances in place to make sure Focus Attacks can’t be abused. It’s far easier to execute than Third Strike’s parrying mechanic. An easy double-button press activates an animation that leaves you open if incorrectly timed, so it’s up to your personal skill to make it work effectively. The Focus Attack can also be charged for higher strength and potential, but with just as much risk involved.

Focus gets my resounding approval because it lowers the barrier of entry for advanced tactics while still allowing for the fast back-and-forth mind-games that are a hallmark of the series. Furthermore, it provides a great way to close in on your opponent without having to go for a much riskier jump. There’s reason to practice this game like crazy, and watching high-level matches for SF IV prove to be actually fun, because (at least for now) the Focus keeps the game from turning into a gigantic “stand around and poke” fest.

If all of what I described interests you and you feel like practicing up, a Training Mode is certainly here, ready to accommodate your needs. In addition, the game contains a Challenge mode that will allow you to get acquainted with a character’s most useful attack strings and combos, giving curious and dedicated players a quick skills boost to take online. Speaking of online, some really fun additions are the ability to turn your SF IV session into a virtual arcade setting (allowing people to ask to join in at any time for an unexpected challenge), and the ability to seek out opponents by skill level criteria. That all said, a very curious omission would certainly be the lack of a tournament creation mode. Even standard single-elimination format is nowhere to be found, at least in my review build, and considering even the old Super Nintendo renditions had one, its absence here is inexplicable.

Even outside of game mechanics and tactics, there’s just enough here to make things new and fresh. The most obvious, of course, are the four debut characters, who seem out-of-place at first, but whose merits shine through once actually test-driven. Crimson Viper and El Fuerte, my two favorite newcomers, are a sexy pyro-gadget-wielding secret agent and a super-fast Rey Mysterio Jr.-esque flying lucha libre wrestler, respectively. The third character, Abel, is a large, intimidating man with the power to quickly combo into several grapple moves, and the final newcomer, Rufus, is a wobbling ball of flesh that’s deceptively fast. Counting as an unofficial fifth is the final boss, Seth, who will surely Dominate you 101 times over with choice moves from the entire cast rolled into one, much like Virtua Fighter’s Dural.

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Rounding out the original twelve and the newcomers are a smattering of cast members picked from throughout the series’s history (mostly from Alpha—praise the deities for the high-resolution return of Sakura Kasugano), and even quite a bit of storyline fanservice. Yes, Street Fighter still has a story. You can’t get rid of it, though Lord knows why you’d want to—it’s delightfully cheesy. Longtime SF followers will surely enjoy the anime cutscenes that chronicle the all-new missions of old favorites as they crop up in Arcade mode. They’ll also definitely raise their eyes at the playable debut of Gouken, Ryu and Ken’s master. In addition, several character winquotes canonize events in the Udon Street Fighter comics, and there are even a couple of nods to Sakura Ganbaru!, of all things. Who knew?

If there’s one gripe I can find with this title—and believe me, it’s exactly one—it’s the issue of the game’s unlockable content. This is a fundamental problem not exclusive to this game, and it centers on the fact that the audience for Street Fighter is much older than it used to be. Sure, there are new gamers, young and old, being welcomed to the fold each and every day, but this game was meant to get back a lot of the older players that the genre had left behind.

As older players, our time is more limited than it used to be, so when you lock half of the game’s playable cast behind the Arcade mode, it tends to chafe. Furthermore, when you create a challenge mode that unlocks incentives which are average at best (icons, player titles, and the ever-riveting concept art!), you’re bordering on insulting. Namco, the notorious king of pointless unlock criteria, has gotten better by this by tying its current games’ mission modes to a bevy of visual character customization content, and making its characters brain-dead easy to unlock—many in a matter of seconds. Even Sega’s Virtua Fighter gets it right: all characters are unlocked at start, but with novel game modes that help you grow as a player and are unique and fun to boot. Compared to these companies’ efforts, Capcom looks to be behind the curve… though to be fair, they’re nowhere near approaching Nintendo’s Smash Brothers ludicrousness.

It’s true that sometimes players will find themselves between opponents, and there should be material on the disc that allows them to amuse themselves during that time. However, this is the wrong way to go about it. Don’t force us to play your game the way you want us to in order to get access to your content, and more to the point, don’t hide boring content behind hard challenge missions. Unlock your essential content from the get-go, and then build on that with creative modes and incentives. The locked character issue is mildly more problematic on the Xbox 360, which won’t let you get Achievements if you download a save file to quickly get the characters unlocked. Even so, I expect full-saves to crop up soon for both versions, and be thoroughly abused once they do.

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Closing Comments:

You’ll notice that my biggest complaint about this game is the mishandling of single-player content in what is ostensibly a multiplayer experience. That should be all the proof you need. Street Fighter is back with a vengeance, and it wants you back. If this were 15 years ago, I wouldn’t have to write 2,000 words explaining why Street Fighter is awesome, but since we’re here, stop reading this review and, for God’s sake, go out and buy this thing. Buy it now. I need more competition.

Versions Reviewed: Xbox 360, PS3