A decade of false starts and broken dreams came to a screeching halt last summer when Capcom unleashed the long-awaited Street Fighter IV into Japanese arcades, heralding in a twenty year celebration and grand return of the World Warriors on a global scale. But the realities of the arcade market are grim, and with the anticipated home release for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Capcom understands what’s at stake here and has succeeded. Street Fighter IV isn’t simply a reunion of familiar faces; its a spiritual revival for one of gaming’s most iconic and beloved franchises, once again charged with carrying the fate of an entire genre on its lofty shoulders and into the future.
It’s been a good twelve years since the last official entry in the Street Fighter series, and for those who have followed the exploits of Ryu and Company over the years, its been a bumpy ride. Apart from the countless spin-offs and crossover spectaculars, the franchise (and fighting games in general) have become mired in an increasingly complex and complicated system of button-presses and exacting combination memorization. As the experience narrowed to those willing to learn and adapt to an increasingly complex and varied system of combos and reversals, many felt the cold shoulder of the series passing them by.
With Street Fighter IV much of this has been radically altered and redesigned from the ground-up with designs on reintroducing the joys of fighting, minus the excess clutter and confusion. The general gameplay is a modest throwback to the coin-op glory days of Street Fighter II, from the standard 6-button layout to the striking just the right balance of easy and complex gameplay that helped introduce the world to the fighting game, making this game familiar and a joy to behold for novices and pros alike.
Playing the game is one thing, but understanding the deeper mechanics is quite another. Street Fighter IV has a subtle flow that encourages a more aggressive touch thanks to separate “Super” and “Ultra” Combo meters. Your basic Super gauge gradually builds during the battle and can be used for powered-up special moves (EX Specials) that use a quarter of the meter for various effects, or complete the gauge to execute the more devastating Super Combos. The Ultra meter (Revenge gauge) however only builds as you take damage and is exclusively used to unleash devastating Ultra Combos that can easily turn the tide of battle.
Another addition is the “Focus Attack System,” which acts as an unblockable charge attack when both MP+MK buttons are held. What keep things interesting is that it can be used defensively or offensively, and you’ll be able to absorb a single oncoming hit without activation penalty (though you’ll still take initial damage). A well-timed Focus Attack will typically cancel a more-powerful attack and bring an opponent to their knees, providing a much-deserved opening to follow up on. This system isn’t a requirement of play unlike the “Parrying” system of Street Fighter III, instead allowing you to further read the actions of your rival and creates an alternative to chaining combos.
While having these options may sound overly complex, none are necessary to play and even newcomers will find themselves pulling off all sorts of flashy moves in no time. Professional players will of course find much to lover and master here, blending the very best of both worlds without compromising either.
Mode features include the standard Arcade, Versus, Training, and a Challenge mode that includes sub-modes like Time Attack, Survival, and a helpful Trial mode that requires you to complete numerous combo attacks, in something like an in-depth tutorial where advancing means learning the technique laid before you. For newcomers this might be a great way to improve their skills and help develop a better familiarity with the game’s various control schemes.
Of course one of the most appealing features of any fighting game is with online play, and SFIV’s Online Matchmaking mode is incredibly good and packed with features. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time battling opponents around the world and was really impressed with how fluid and seamless the experience was. Find and sort through other players via the lobby, or if you prefer the game features a unique opt-in system that will allow other players to join/interrupt your arcade mode playtime with challenges throughout. Of course this can be turned off prior to starting a single-player game, but it’s certainly the closest I’ve ever seen an online game come to really giving the illusion of real arcade-style play at home.
Also available are Ranked matches that’ll keep track of your stats and Battle Point (BP) earnings or simply play basic Player game for even more streamlined competition. Whatever your preference the entire process was one of the best online forays I’ve had for a fighting game, and both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 handle nearly-identical and Capcom will be updating the experience in the near-future for better optimization. As of now I was blown away by how good everything worked and will definitely be playing this one for a long, long time.
While some have been worried that the series trademark hand-drawn sprites wouldn’t make the transition to 3D polygons, technology has certainly caught up to the artistic flair Capcom is famous for and apart from the gameplay, this is where Street Fighter IV really delivers. Every character has been faithfully represented in full and glorious 3D, mixing realistic modeling with the comedic flair fans expect from the World Warriors. Faces reflect damage, muscles ripple, and it’s somewhat ironic the only jiggle occurs in the supremely big new character, Rufus. Super moves are accompanied with the appropriate razzle dazzle, filling the screen with seizure-inducing floods of color and sparkle; while brilliant inky splotches help remind us where the franchise began. The effects are mind-boggling to say the least, easily rivaling the best in the series and pushing the possibilities of cell-shaded polygons further than ever before. The game is just so much fun to look at and experience, the combination of 3D graphics mixed with 2D gameplay has never looked better and I truly mean that.
While the game’s soundtrack isn’t quite the match for the gorgeous visuals, there’s more than enough variety and unique matching to the various locales to suit the more hardcore Street Fighter. I wish some of the tunes were more iconic, but thankfully Capcom has thrown in plenty of allusions to each of the returning cast’s original themes and these were more than welcome. Likewise, the wacky announcer is back and narrates each match with all the incredulous gusto you’d expect and really helps give the game a real tournament feel. The character voices, recorded in both English and Japanese, can be swapped accordingly and tailored to each player’s preference – a first for the series and much appreciated, as the stock English tracks are hilariously bad. Why ridiculous phrases sound so much better in Japanese is beyond me, but they do.
Greatness aside, there’s still a few issues that I should bring up. First off, the average gamer may have a daunting task ahead of them if they’re planning to unlock all of the game’s 20+ World Warriors, as this requires them to finish the game and defeat the final boss – Seth. And more than once, which is probably asking too much as the blue-skinned baddie is among the most difficult and unfair characters ever seen in a Street Fighter game (and yes, he’s more difficult than SFIII’s similarly awkward Gill). I can imagine that most characters will remain unlocked, and this is tragic as many of the most popular characters will remain unlocked and forever out of reach.
Having solid control is a must and if you decide to play with either the standard Xbox 360 controller or DualShock 3 you’ll soon discover this just isn’t optimal. More complex combinations and intricate moves simply cannot be executed properly without a specialized fightpad or arcade stick, so it’s a requirement pick one to fully enjoy the game. Another minus are the awkward anime scenes that bookend the arcade mode, and while the effort is certainly appreciated…they’re just awful, bring nothing to the experience and look out of place. Why Capcom didn’t just use the excellent in-game engine to manufacture similar plotlines is a mystery, but thankfully they can be skipped and you’ll miss nothing.
That Capcom was able to bring the very best of the franchise back to earth while still maintaining the appeal and accessibility is really quite astonishing, as they’ve managed to keep things refreshingly approachable, yet filled with the same level of depth and user-defined experience that fans have come to expect from the world’s premier and most popular fighting game. But that’s exactly what makes Street Fighter IV so special and worth the wait, obliterating all challengers and reclaiming the throne it helped establish so long ago. The legend has returned to the people, mission intact and ready to rumble for a new generation of gamers in one of the best revivals I’ve ever seen. Here’s to the next twenty years and for all the memories yet to come!