Nostalgia, like much of Capcom’s recent output – Mega Man 9, Street Fighter II HD Remix, the Bionic Commando remake and reboot – drives this latest release as part of a plan to win back the audience who walked out on Street Fighter 3. With an unfriendly parrying system and unfamiliar cast that game proved too difficult for most players to pick up. The marketing, and most of the reviews, of Street Fighter 4 suggests it’s here to fix that, with Guile, Blanka, Dhalsim, Zangief and all the characters you remember from Street Fighter 2, along with classic fighting gameplay even “casual players” can enjoy.
Cammy, Vega, Zangief and all your favorites return – including some all-new fighters and stand-outs from the Street Fighter Alpha series – and the whole package is as polished. However, the whole “casual-friendly” idea is a gross misconception. This game is as hardcore as it gets. Street Fighter 4 is just as, if not more difficult to master than the third game. Kick, punch, jump, block, duck, quarter circle forward to throw a fireball … a glorious throwback, right? In reality, a complicated, bloodthirsty beast lurks underneath, waiting to shatter your patience and if you’re easily susceptible to rage, your controller too.
With 25 characters, each with their own different moves, complications are inevitable but everyone has the same set of basic abilities. One of the major additions to Street Fighter 4 is a “Revenge” meter that fills up with each hit you take. Once full (or even half-full) you get the chance to perform an Ultra Combo that does massive damage. Simple to execute, and flashy as hell, it can completely turn a match around. I suppose this is how the game gets mistaken as “casual-friendly”, like it’s the equivalent to Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s Smash Ball, a kind of instant win move. Yet it still needs careful timing to pull off and in my experience every character’s Ultra Combo can be blocked, or avoided by jumping over your opponent.
Blocking, and playing defensively in general, is an entire other discipline to master in Street Fighter 4. Advancing and retreating from your enemy becomes an entire – often frustrating – mini-game in itself thanks to the game’s large levels. Learning each characters’ method of controlling terrain (fireballs, a kick with long reach) is absolutely necessary.
The other major addition is the Focus Attack. By holding down the medium punch and medium kick buttons your character charges up. If you hold the buttons too long, or if your opponent hits you, you deflect the attack and unleash a crippling retaliation that leaves your adversary open to even more attacks. This is basically a variation of Street Fighter 3’s parry system. It requires you to learn how to read your enemy’s moves, a difficult prospect for even the staunchest of street fighters.
Along with the fiery Revenge meter there is also a blue-hued EX meter that fills up with each successful hit you dole out. Segmented in four “slots” the EX meter allows you to perform stronger versions of your kicks, punches and special moves by hitting two of the same attack button – so, two kick buttons for that ultra-strong kick. Fill your EX meter all the way and you can do a Super Combo, a not-as-lethal move as the Ultra Combos (this is beginning to sound like a fast food menu isn’t it?), but still a valuable weapon in your arsenal. Combine these with the Focus Attack – which you can also cancel by double-tapping forward or backward – and the tactical possibilities are dizzying.
Toss in throwing, which is also done with two buttons, and you’ve got an extremely versatile game that only the most dexterous players should bother with. The only casual-friendly thing about the game is unlocking characters in Arcade mode. Unlocking new material is always a nice reward, unfortunately, in order to get everybody you have to beat the final boss Seth every single time – and he might be the most broken boss you’ll ever come across. Seth is such a cheating bastard I found myself seething at the game for his unfair shenanigans.
Teleport, throw, stretchy punch, teleport again, throw again, teleport some more … I was on the verge of chucking my controller across the room in bouts of blind fury dozens of times. Several friends of mine did break their controllers, and they can’t be the only ones. Switching the game’s difficulty to Easiest and hard-kicking your way to the end is the only way to prevent a trip to the Seth Survivors Support Group. No fuss, just piping hot unlocked characters. Unless you bother to unlock him as a playable character you’ll never have to see Seth’s stupid blue, bald head or his Yin-Yang-stomach-ball again.
Who was the brain mechanic behind that design decision?
There are Trial and Challenge modes that attempt to train you, and they’re sort of useful for learning some basic combos, but they’re nowhere near as enlightening as facing off against real-life players in offline and online Versus mode. It’s too bad online mode has some glaring flaws, like being able to see which character you and your opponent selects. This often results in waiting to see who selects who so the other play can counter that character. Sometimes the select timer will count all the way down until anyone picks a character, and that can be really annoying. Of course, this situation is inevitable when you’re playing face-to-face with friends, but it would have been less annoying had they changed it for online. (Un)Luckily, most online players select Ken, Sagat or Akuma anyway.
The other caveat is the matchmaking system. There is no spectator mode so only two players can join a match at a time and communication is limited to little interchangeable emoticons before and after every match. Online mode isn’t exactly the smoky, dim-lit arcade experience recreated. Voice is always an option if you have a microphone, though you’re at the mercy of random players talking about your mother or your private proclivities. Hopefully a better lobby system will be patched in along with the “Tournament” mode Capcom promised as future downloadable content.
Though that’s doubtful.
Speaking of which, Capcom has gone the nickel-and-dime route charging players for characters’ alternate costumes. Since this kind of content has always been standard in fighting games this kind of practice is indefensible, especially since the costumes are already on the game disc. You’re just paying $5 a pop for unlock codes. Ideally you’re not paying at all. They’re keeping game data – that cost you $60 to begin with – hostage from you! How is that not criminal?
Thankfully, there is plenty to ogle at already. Street Fighter 4’s presentation is gorgeous. Initiating a Focus Attack casts sumi-e brush strokes into the air, making for luxurious eye candy with each successful hit. The 3D character models, once a target for derision, look fantastic in motion. Really! I miss 2D sprites too, but screenshots do not do this game justice. The calligraphic ink spots and smudges, vibrant levels, and vivid colors make up for the fact that none of it is hand-drawn. Street Fighter finally entered 3D (in a good game) and I’m starting to have trouble imagining it in any other aesthetic.
Well, that’s not true. There are anime introduction and ending scenes for each character in Arcade mode, produced by the venerable Studio 4C, who did Memories with Akira author Katsuhiro Otomo and The Dark Knight tie-in Batman: Gotham Knight. They look good though sadly, these interludes are throwaway diversions at best, cloying embarrassments at worst. Considering the amount of manga, animation and comic literature characters like Ryu and Chun-Li inspire it would have been nice to see some actual effort put into their stories for the actual video game they come from. As such, their personalities shine brightest in their pre- and post-match routines. Guile’s Johnny Bravo comb salute makes a welcome return and Balrog’s “MY BIKE FIGHT MONEEEEY!!” scream never gets old.
Despite a few exceptions the English voice acting is pretty bad. The actors for Sakura and Guile seem to get what their characters are about, while Akuma sounds less like a demonic Master of the Fist and more like Goldar from Power Rangers. This isn’t game-breaking stuff at all, I actually prefer to hear the goofy English dubbing. For those who can’t stand it though, one of the cooler things about Street Fighter 4 is the option to select the language you want each character to speak. So if you want Ryu to speak in his native tongue and Cammy to keep her British accent, go for it. The music isn’t that good, consisting of bland electronica and a main theme that you constantly hear in the menu screen. It’s so bad yet so catchy you’ll catch yourself humming it in public, or even singing it in the shower. Once in a while a familiar theme like Ryu’s Theme or Sakura’s Theme will play, making me long for an option to select which music plays on certain levels.
Capcom, please include a patch-that-will-never-come for that as well.
Considering the hefty price tag, unfortunate costume situation and patch-demanding, I can’t recommend Street Fighter 4 to anyone but the most hardcore of the hardcore. Street Fighter is back, and I welcome it with outstretched, bandaged arms, but I advise anyone interested to give it a test run before plunging back into the wacky, dangerous, highly flammable world of tournament street fighting. There’s going to be people out there who know the system far better than you ever will. Like chess, no two battles play the same and no two players will play the same way. Most of the time they will destroy you with Tiger Uppercuts and Raging Demon Infernos, and it’s a lot of fun… so long as your temper is in check.