I first saw Street Fighter IV about a year before it was released. Only a handful of characters were playable and if the room full of journos decided that a change was needed, we all had to leave the room while menus we weren’t allowed to see were tampered with. I was initially quite sceptical. The look of the game was a throwback to Street Fighter II, and I had incorrectly assumed that Capcom would be relying on nostalgia to shift copies of a competent beat ‘em up to lapsed fans of the SNES version who had picked up an Xbox to play Call of Duty with their mates.
Let’s be honest, this was likely the case. Bringing back classic fighters in their iconic gear in this bold, colourful new engine was always going to catch the eye of anyone who grew up with Street Fighter II. Seeing Dhalsim, Zangief and E. Honda knocking each other about was always going to attract a bigger crowd than seeing Rolento, Dudley and Hugo do the same (although they’ve all ended up in Street Fighter IV eventually!).
It also looked like a much simpler game than Street Fighter’s previous installments or its peers. A lot of special moves share the same input commands, gone was the parrying from Street Fighter III, no more custom combos from the Alpha series. Virtua Fighter was regarded as the hardcore fans fighting game, Tekken had a giant roster of characters and fast paced action, Soul Calibur had, well, some awful cameos and… loads of costumes, I guess? How would Street Fighter IV compete? What would it bring to the table?
These fears all seem quite stupid now. Street Fighter IV was released to near unanimous praise.
Fighting games are about fighting. Fighting other people. They’re at the very best when you’re locked in mortal combat (ahem) with another human player. Not only that, but all the practice modes in the world pale in comparison to actual battles with a live opponent. Sure, you know HOW to do that monstrous combo, but if you can’t pull it off when under real pressure, it is useless. You’ll also learn what moves other fighters and players can perform that cause you trouble, and adapt to them. Anyone who has played Street Fighter knows that this is where the game truly shines.
Thing is, no one was going to the arcades to play local multiplayer at this point. Hell, people were barely going to their mate’s house to play local multiplayer. When it was released, fighting games were practically a relic - games from a time where people used to play competitive video games in the same room as one another. First person shooters ruled the roost, online play was the buzzword and the mere thought of a top end AAA beat ‘em up was ridiculous.
If there was one thing that people were genuinely concerned about with Street Fighter IV, it was the online play. How would a game that relied on almost instantaneous reaction speed work once latency becomes an issue? The netcode that powers Street Fighter IV’s online might actually be witchcraft. If you’ve got full green bars, it is pretty much spot on. It is so easy to get online and starting fighting your friends and the rest of the world, so more people played it. More people got into it and as a consequence, more people fancied playing it against other human players in person, in tournaments, in public. Fast forward to present day, where fighting games are as popular as they have ever been, with EVO (the world’s leading tournament) attracting record numbers in attendance and watching on a livestream. The genre, no, the entire fighting game scene, is in rude health thanks to Street Fighter IV.
Every fighting game has its own systems. Some of them are vastly more complex than others. Street Fighter IV actually has quite a few, but they’re all quite straightforward and compliment each other perfectly. THAT is the genius.
So, to start with you’ve got SUPER and ULTRA combo attacks. Both of which can be activated when their respective meters have been filled and, should they connect, are for the most part extremely damaging moves or combinations that can turn the tide of a fight. The SUPER bar is in four sections, which fill as you attack your opponent. The ULTRA meter is just one single bar that fills as you take damage, as well as dish it out. This means that even if you’re absolutely belting someone, they will eventually be able to pull off an attack that could get them right back into the battle. Real experts will sit on them and use them as the final part of a combo, doing mega damage to whoever left themselves open for it.
EX Attacks are performed by pressing two punch or kick buttons when you perform a special move. The character flashes yellow, and the special move gains slightly different abilities. An EX attack might make a move hit twice, or pass through fireballs, or even give the fighter a short amount of invincibility. The trick here is to know not only what an EX version of a move will do, but also when to use them for maximum effect. To perform an EX attack, it will use one section of the SUPER combo meter, so do you use these effective and unique moves when you need them, or do you save for the big, hard hitting SUPER combo?
Finally, there’s the Focus Attack. This chargeable, hard hitting move will, if fully charged, ‘crumple’ your opponent, leaving them vulnerable for pretty much whatever punishment you can pull off. When charging up a Focus Attack, you can take a hit, but multiple hits will knock you out of it, as well as a simple throw, so you have to make sure you’ve put thought into attempting to land one. Loads of strategies have been formed around the Focus Attack and the ability to double tap the stick and ‘dash cancel’ out of the end of the Focus Attack’s animation, allowing for an quick follow up from a successful hit. A common one is to hit with a Focus Attack, follow up with a few hits of a combo and then cancel out of those into a Super or Ultra combo. Street Fightin’ 101.
Street Fighter IV was location tested in the arcades of Tokyo. What this basically entails is dumping a single machine running the game out in some arcade, having the elite Street Fighter players come out to give it a go and then reporting back on what does/doesn’t work or what is too weak or too powerful. Capcom realise that the community around their Street Fighter series likely knows more about what makes these games great than they do, so this is the best way to gain feedback from the best of the best.
It isn’t just focused for tournament play, either. Street Fighter IV is quite a straightforward game. All the tools you require are handed to you immediately so even an absolute beginner can enjoy a few fights. This simplicity, a transparency between systems and characters also means that should you come up against another player who is besting you, it is fairly easy to see what exactly it is that they’re doing that is causing you problems. It is then, of course, up to you to fix that hole in your game.
For instance, it might be frustrating when some scrub sits at the edge of the screen and throws countless fireballs at you, but the reality is that they’re actually just doing a really, really predictable ‘zoning’ strategy. They’re trying to keep you at range and prevent you from doing any meaningful damage to them. It is one of the oldest, cheesiest tactics in the book. Thing is, there’s so many ways to solving this problem, if you’re the one troubled by it, I’d say you’re the bad player, not the one firing endless hadokens. In fact, I LOVE it when I’m matched up against some scrub Ken player. It’s practically free Battle Points!
One of my favourite, personal stories from Street Fighter IV really shows off how well balanced the game is. For a while, I played as Vega. I played a very aggressive Vega, using throws and pressure from his strikes that have ridiculous range to keep players in the corner. I was having some decent success, until I came up against a mate of mine who played as Balrog. Balrog hits HARD and FAST. All of his attacks need to be charged up, but they had figured out punish me with big hits whenever I rushed in to hit them. A problem.
I soon found out that by using Vega’s considerable speed, I could bait Balrog into using one of his big rushing punches and avoid them, leaving him open for counterattack. It soon became a battle of two counter fighters, waiting for each other to make the first mistake and then making them pay. Soon enough, the fights became competitive again and both of us got better as a result.
The fact that I beat Balrog (the bull) using Vega (the matador) by baiting him to attack, leaping over him then putting him to the sword is just a coincidence, right? Or is it another piece of Capcom genius?
What makes this balance all the more impressive is that the roster of characters is so varied. There’s no Eddy Gordo/Christie Montenegro or Kuma/Panda pallette swap rubbish here. Every character has their own set of moves, their own unique Super and Ultra combos and their own styles of which they can be played. No character is better than any other. Only the player themselves can decide who is better.
Another side effect of Street Fighter IV being so good is that it has forced everyone else to up their game. Fighting games are fashionable again, and the hardcore ‘EVO’ crowd won’t accept cheap, mediocre games like recent Soul Calibur efforts. Mortal Kombat, King of the Fighters and even Killer Instinct have all released strong installments in the years following Street Fighter IV’s release. Mad Catz, once known for releasing crappy third-party control pads, was given the task of building the official fightstick and pads for this new Street Fighter. Again, fans of the series assumed the worst. Mad Catz was all too aware of this hardcore audience and released high-end products that are now considered market leading, and have gone on to release peripherals for many other fighting games since.
Street Fighter IV is a masterpiece. Not only does it represent the very best aspects of an entire genre, but it forced the entire genre to step up to match it, as well as having a huge effect on an entire community of gamers based around it. Much like Street Fighter II, many years before, it is one of the most influential games of all-time. Brilliantly, Street Fighter shares a lot of similarities with actual martial arts; if you dedicate time, energy and discipline to them, you’ll get better, but can take a lifetime to truly master.
We will be playing Street Fighter IV for many years to come. ‘Perfect’ indeed.