I have a tight circle of friends who know how to play Street Fighter. I mean know. We take it in turns to play host to tournaments (money may or may not exchange hands) that last long into the night and sometimes, long into the morning. The victor - he who wins ten matches in a row - walks away with more than just the knowledge that he is the best. He walks away with the respect of his peers. This, in all things competitive, is the holy grail. Well, that, and the humiliating PERFECT!
So, when Super Street Fighter IV arrived at the office, it was time to sound the call. But there would be no tournament. There would be no competitiveness. Only excited grown men huddled around a television, exploring the joys of ten new characters, new Ultras, and the intricacies of a slightly rebalanced fighting system.
This, in a nutshell, is why Super Street Fighter IV is so anticipated among fans. Ten new characters to master. Loads of new combos to learn. A raft of new strategies to perfect. And spectacular new Ultras to explore. The beautiful new fighting stages, new online game modes, and new animated movies are, in truth, a bonus - secondary to the primary pleasure the core gameplay provides.
We began our first tentative steps with SSFIV not trying out the new characters, but exploring old favourites. I headed straight to Guile - I'd heard he'd been ever so slightly tweaked to make him more powerful, and as an old school fan of the spiky-haired US army general, I needed to know. It's true: he's now even better. His pressure mix up game - so good in past Street Fighters - is reborn. His crouching medium punch is now easier to link from, enabling some great poke, Sonic Boom, tick throw mix ups. Unfortunately, his Overhead Kick doesn't hit high - as it did in Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD, but he still has a dirty towards medium punch that does the job almost as well.
Guile's biggest weakness, however, was his Ultra - the Flash Kick Explosion looks the business, but it's about as useful as a paper boat in the middle of the ocean. Because it's extremely difficult to combo into, Guile's Ultra goes largely untouched. No more. Welcome, Guile fans, to the Sonic Hurricane.
The Sonic Hurricane (charge back, forward, back, forward and all three punches), is lifted straight out of Guile's Marvel vs. Capcom incarnation, and spits out a vortex Sonic Boom that stays close to Guile for a few seconds, damaging anyone silly enough to jump into it. Finally, he has an Ultra worth the complex command input, and it can be more easily comboed into from the Double Flash.
Capcom's work with Guile is typical. Across the roster the Japanese company has resisted the temptation to nerf powerful characters (Sagat and Ryu), and instead tried to make established lower to mid tier characters more viable. The goal is to enable a concertina effect, where as many characters as possible are crunched together in the middle of the tiers. Hopefully, you get a roster so wonderfully balanced that every character can win against any other character, if he or she is in the right hands.
Hundreds of hours of hands-on time would be needed to eke out all of the tweaks Capcom's implemented, but we have noticed a few juicy morsels. Ryu's medium Dragon Punch, for example, now juggles. His hard Dragon Punch now hits twice. But it's the new Ultras that got us all excited. We spent hours going through all the characters, selecting the second Ultra before the beginning of each fight, and allowing each other the time and space to enjoy them. Some of the new Ultras are truly spectacular. Ryus's Metsu Shoryuken is a devastating three hit Dragon Punch akin to Gouken's meaty Ultra. But get this, as he performs it, the stage bleeds to white and the background music fades out, leaving only Ryu's imposing fist smacking his opponent's shaking chin. It's superb.
Elsewhere, Zangief's Siberian Blizzard is perhaps the most bone crunching of the new Ultras. It's a tricky air throw that asks you to perform two 360 motions and press all three kicks. It sees him spin insanely fast, break his opponent's limbs, then land in a reverse pile driver stance. Ouch. We won't spoil the rest. Seeing them for yourself free from spoilers is a joy I wouldn't deny you. For us, unravelling the beauty of each one was like opening presents on Christmas day.
So, what of the ten new characters? Well, we've already gone over Juri, T-Hawk, and Dee Jay in our last hands-on preview. Here, we'll concentrate on the final seven characters, which take Super Street Fighter IV's playable character roster up to 35 (all unlocked from the start). Three have been re-imagined from the Street Fighter Alpha series: Guy, Cody, and Adon; and three have been taken from the Street Fighter III series: Makoto, Ibuki, and Dudley. And, finally, there's a completely new character - Hakan, an oil wrestler from Turkey.
The III and Alpha characters work as they did - many of their established combos work here, although Street Fighter IV's slower speed does change things quite considerably, and the lack of a parry system will make redundant many mastered strategies. Jailbait Cody once again can pick up a knife and link quickfire stab attacks. Makoto is an interesting one - a complex fusion of her Hayate special move and crouching light kicks. Budding ninja girl Ibuki can, once again, chuck throwing knifes in mid air. Her tiny health bar, however, forces her on the offensive. English pugilist Dudley feels particularly powerful, and his crouching roundhouse launcher is undoubtedly one of the most devastating moves in the game (although he appears to have lost his rose attack). Guy is almost as useful - his target combos are devastating, and his Ultra is gorgeous. Adon, well, I don't really know anything about Adon. Like, at all.
As for Hakan, well, it's hard to know what to make of him. He's definitely the most bizarre character in the game, and one of the strangest in the illustrious series' history. Some have already dismissed him as a "joke" character, similar to Dan. But, like Dan, Hakan is actually quite useful, and an interesting proposition. He looks like the love child of Hellboy and Wario. He's got red skin, and, yes, that is his hair. He plays like a cross between Zangief and Blanka, with 360 motion command throws, and attacks that slide under projectiles. But what makes Hakan completely unique is the use of oil.
At any point, a Dragon Punch motion and a kick will trigger the Oil Shower, which sees Hakan pour oil all over his body. This changes the properties of many of his moves, granting him longer reach, increased stamina and damage, and higher priority. He's a close quarters character, and has trouble against those with fast projectiles and good keep away. But he has quite a few counters in this regard, and a great anti air Ultra, namely, the Oil Combination Hold, a move destined to go down in Street Fighter history as the most mental.
Down, down, down and all three kicks. That's all it takes. Hakan lies on his back and, if an opponent is silly enough to jump on him, they slip off his oily body onto his belly. Hakan then turns them around, spins a bit, then... er... shakes. You get a close up of both characters' faces - Hakan with a cheeky grin, his opponent desperately struggling. Then, the unfortunate victim is... shot out of Hakan's combination hold, sent tearing towards the stage wall. We see their face as it's happening - an expression of complete humiliation. Then bang.
It's mental. Proper mental. It looks like Hakan shoots his opponent out of his arse. Actually, it looks worse than that. It sounds disgusting, too. The oil makes a horrible noise as characters slide along Hakan's body. His damage and high stamina will make Hakan useful for expert players, but, really, nobody wants to see the Oil Combination Hold. Ever.
There's so much more to the game, of course, including new online modes (team battle, winner stays on, and replay support) as well as 24 brand new challenge trials for each character. The animes have been redone, but in truth they're still crap. What else? Have I mentioned Guile's Sonic Hurricane? I have. Oh.
Some believe SSFIV should be a downloadable expansion, rather than a retail release. Some believe, even at 30 quid, it's not worth the money. Really, though, at 30 quid (you'll get it cheaper online) it's great value, and an essential purchase for all Street Fighter IV fans. It's still Street Fighter - if Hadoukens and Sonic Booms make less sense than hieroglyphics, Super won't make them suddenly click. But for everyone else... well, Guile's got a Sonic Hurricane.
Super Street Fighter IV is due out on the PS3 and Xbox 360 on April 30.