It's been just under 12 years since the last proper Street Fighter sequel. That game was 1997's Street Fighter III: New Generation. Now, that long wait is over. Now, Street Fighter IV is upon us.
To look back at Street Fighter III and ask what's new seems pointless, not only because it came out so long ago, but because there have been so many iterations of the series since: 2nd Impact: Giant Attack, 3rd Strike: Fight for the Future, Marvel vs. Capcom, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Capcom vs. SNK, Capcom vs. SNK 2... For those oblivious to the passionate tournament scene it's all a bit... confusing. Indeed, comparisons with a single Street Fighter game are equally pointless. Instead, Street Fighter IV is best compared with all of them.
That's because it feels more like a Street Fighter: Greatest Hits game than Street Fighter IV perhaps should. Yes, it is based on the superb Super Street Fighter II Turbo engine, but elements from the EX, Alpha and III series are felt strongly. Bar the intriguing Revenge Gauge and the innovative Focus Attack, Street Fighter IV is a markedly conservative effort.
Which is the point, if you're Capcom. Its goal with Street Fighter IV is not to rewrite the fighting game rulebook, or to appeal to the fighting game hardcore exclusively, but to somehow bring back to the fold a decent swath of those millions of people who played Street Fighter II when it was the biggest game on the planet. Street Fighter II down your local arcade. Street Fighter II on the SNES or Mega Drive. Even Super Street Fighter II, and, at a stretch, Super Street Fighter II Turbo.
If you played any of those games about the time they came out Street Fighter IV will feel like a "next-gen" drenched trip down memory lane. For the first hour or two of play IV feels remarkably similar to II. All eight original World Warriors make an appearance: Fireball and dragon punch stalwarts Ryu and Ken, giant Russian wrestler Zangief, Ghandi-esque Indian Dhalsim, queen of the thigh Chun-Li, electrocuting half animal Blanka, sumo wrestler E. Honda and the sonic booming American Guile. Add to the mix the four original Street Fighter II bosses, Balrog, Vega, Sagat and M. Bison, and you've got a virtual Street Fighter reunion.
A quarter circle forward and punch for a fireball, forward down forward for a dragon punch, charge down then up and kick for Guile's flash kick or Chun-Li's spinning bird kick, 360 degrees and a punch for Zangief's spinning pile driver, mash the punches for Blanka's electrocution or Honda's hundred hand slap - all the iconic moves and motions remain. If you could do them back in the day, then the knowledge will come flooding back and your thumbs will magically begin to bust them out. This is a special feeling indeed. A bit like riding a bike after a 12 year break.
If you've kept up with the series, however, pumped hour after hour into Street Fighter game after Street Fighter game down the years, mastered parries, cancelling, cross ups and reversals, then your first hour or two with IV won't feel familiar, it'll feel... weird. It's about the slowest version of Street Fighter since II. So slow is the speed of that game that, if you've played the recently released download only Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, it will at first feel like you're asking oil rigs to Hadouken, not muscle-bound martial artists. The wonderfully expressive character models, animated in 3D, are sluggish, and this has a massive bearing on the kind of 2D fighter IV is.
This is a deliberate move on Capcom's part, one intended to make the game less about insane quick reactions and more about anticipation and strategy, an admirable philosophy. The upshot is that IV has a grounded feel, almost like boxing. Rounds last much longer than fans will be used to. Jumping in is usually ineffective, since your opponent has plenty of time to react with an anti-air move. Instead, it's best to focus on well-timed ground attacks, think more thoroughly about analysing your opponent's game and utilise the brilliant new Focus Attack.
The Focus Attack is what gives IV its strategic depth. It's what will cement the game's future as a tournament title. Triggered by pressing middle kick and middle punch at the same time, the Focus Attack is intended to be a single strike that absorbs an attack and stuns your opponent, perhaps setting them up for a multi-hit combo or a devastating, health bar clearing Ultra. There are three levels to the Focus: simply tapping the buttons will result in a weak Focus Attack, holding them for about a second then releasing when you see your character flash will result in a medium powered Focus Attack, and holding the buttons for about two-and-a-half seconds will result in an unblockable Focus Attack.
On the face of it the Focus Attack seems useless. It appears too slow and predictable to be an effective tool. But dig a little deeper, perhaps spend half-an-hour messing about with it in the practice mode, and you'll find it an indispensable and fun technique. Doing the Focus Attack as your opponent gets up, timed so the unblockable hit lands just at the right time, is incredibly satisfying. The Focus Attack can be used to "cancel" certain moves, too. Perform a dragon punch with Ryu, for example, which knocks your opponent into the air, then cancel the recovery part of the special move animation with the Focus Attack, then cancel the Focus with a dash (double tap forward) - this gives you just enough time to perform his multi-fireball Ultra so it hits your falling opponent. This is advanced play only the dedicated will be able to pull off, but for fighting game fans it's heaven. It makes Street Fighter IV feel new despite so much of it feeling familiar.
The Focus Attack is intertwined with the new Revenge Gauge. This gauge supplements the EX/Super meter by only filling when you take damage or when you absorb a hit with the Focus Attack. Once it's filled above halfway your spectacular Ultra move becomes available. The motion for this might be two fireballs and all three punches or a charge down back, down forward then down back and up forward and all three kicks. Either way, your Ultra is usually the most damaging move at your character's disposal, and because it only becomes available when you've had your ass kicked, last minute comebacks are a possibility in every round.
Despite the simplicity of this system, it's ground breaking for the Street Fighter series. Once you realise you can hit opponents with Ultras following a "Focus Attack Dash Cancel", once your brain readjusts to the fact that you can fill up the Revenge Gauge by absorbing projectiles from projectile-happy opponents, Street Fighter IV stops feeling weird, stops feeling slow, and becomes one of the greatest fighting games ever made.
Experimentation becomes a thrill. Experimenting with the four brand new characters, French Fei Long/Zangief hybrid Abel, American fatso Rufus, Mexican Lucha libre El Fuerte and secret agent Crimson Viper is as fun as it was with Ryu and Ken in the early 90s. Experimenting with all the secret characters, Fei Long, Cammy, Rose, Dan, Sakura, Gen, Rose, Akuma, boss Seth and Street Fighter débutante Gouken (Ryu and Ken's master and Akuma's brother) is just as fun. Simply messing about, marvelling at the Ultras, the throws, listening to the opponent specific lines of dialogue, it's just great for Street Fighter fans.
A special mention has to go out to the art style. Screen shots do not do the beauty of this game justice. Capcom's gone for a bright, brash cel-shaded look that sticks two fingers up at "next-gen" efforts at photorealism. It works brilliantly. The characters are more expressive than any seen in a fighter. Just before you catch your opponent with an Ultra, you see their eyes and mouths widen in horror as time slows and you charge up your hit. Punches almost force eyeballs to pop out of their sockets. Kicks to the stomach bend spines. Knock downs rock the eye-catching backgrounds. The violence here isn't bone-crunching gruesome, like Tekken, it's cartoon gorgeous.
Online play is, as expected, robust, the netcode performing on a similar level to that found in Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. On the whole it works in a basic, functional way, but Capcom has innovated by allowing other online players to interrupt your Arcade mode play and challenge you to ranked and player matches. Not only does it make playing the Arcade mode (and unlocking all the hidden characters) more interesting, but it gives the game a real arcade feel.
Playing online ranked matches earns you battle points, which feed in to the leaderboards, as expected. Adding to the experience is the ability to set titles and icons to your player status - what opponents see next to your name online. These are unlocked as you play, and will prove a popular incentive for the show-offs among you. Expect Street Fighter IV to be more popular online than any fighting game in recent memory.
The mark of a brilliant fighter, as all fighting game fans know, is a balanced roster. Having one or two characters that are by a country mile better than the rest is what you want to avoid. Capcom has done an admirable job in this respect with Street Fighter IV. No single character seems overpowered. Ryu will be popular, due to his ability to hit juggled opponents with his Ultra. Sagat is his usual powerful self. Newcomer Abel is fun and, with his invulnerable roll and command throw, is a dangerous threat. The characters will be ordered into tiers, of course, but what appears to be the case is that every character has, in the right hands, a chance against every other. You can't ask for any more really.
Why isn't Street Fighter IV a perfect 10? The four brand new characters are a mixed bag. Abel is fun, and Rufus, despite his jelly-like belly, is fast and potent. But El Fuerte is pointless, just rubbish, and Crimson Viper looks ridiculous - an SNK character lost in a Capcom game. Seth, a creation from one of Bison's Shadoloo labs, is not only cheap to fight against but a lazy effort on Capcom's part. He looks like a rip-off of Dr. Manhattan from The Watchmen comic book, and has moves nicked from Ryu, Guile, Zangief and Dhalsim. Capcom's had over 10 years to think of a new Street Fighter boss. One with such a silly name, and moves from existing characters, can't be considered anything but a disappointment.
Also disappointing is the game's failure to offer some kind of tutorial for people in need of a refresher, or seeking to improve their game with expert advice. Why not have videos with voice over explaining how it all works? Or videos showing how to nail some advanced techniques, like cancelling, combo timing and strategy? Trials, found In the Challenge mode, set you a series of character specific combos, which are a useful way of learning some advanced techniques, but the game simply asks you to do them and that's it. There's no effort to explain how they're done or what timing is required. You can't preview them either, a feature fighting games have provided for years now.
This disappointment fuels the feeling that Street Fighter IV's single-player experience is bare bones, at least in comparison with other leading modern fighting games. There's the standard Arcade, Challenge and Training modes and that's pretty much it. Bar some gallery stuff, there's nothing to unlock, no character creation mode, no accessories to dress your favourite fighter in. The animated shorts that play before and at the end of a character's journey through the Arcade mode are bitterly disappointing. They're poor quality and embarrassingly bad on the dialogue front. Think Power Rangers spliced with Pokemon and you're approaching the cringe-worthiness of proceedings. If you hoped for snippets on a par with the excellent Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie, hope for something else. Overall, the result is a game that, unless you're planning on playing local matches with friends or online, feels boring.
But that's the case for all fighting games really. Character creation, dressing characters up like Barbie dolls or pointless efforts at story have never been the genre's point. It's all about the multiplayer and the thrill of victory against real-life opponents. That's how it's been since day one, since you put your first 20p into the arcade version of Street Fighter II and challenged that joker who thought he was the dude.
Street Fighter IV effortlessly captures the Street Fighter spirit, of that there is no doubt. It's instantly familiar but with enough innovation to interest fighting game fanatics willing to dig a little deeper. Yes it's a conservative effort, a safe bet if you will, but it's still the best 2D fighting game since Marvel vs. Capcom 2. There's a magic to playing it - whether that's down to the game rekindling memories of a childhood spent drilling shoryukens, or the excitement of mastering the Focus Attack and eking out the nuances of this Greatest Hits Street Fighter engine, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that Street Fighter is back, and that long wait is finally over.