It's 1994 all over again. Michael Schumaker's driving really fast, a charming US president is wowing the political world, and Capcom's releasing a Super update to a Street Fighter game. I half expect Oasis to reform and Romario to come out of retirement to guide Brazil to victory in the World Cup.
So, when it comes to updates of Street Fighter games, Capcom's got form. Super Street Fighter IV's existence should surprise no-one. Nor should its brilliance; Super is IV expanded. Because Capcom has decided Super's worthy of release on a disc rather than as downloadable content, for so many fans IV is now obsolete. But stay your tears, loyal street fighter. Super is worth the loss.
If you're new to this street fighting lark, if when you hear the word Hadouken you think only of a trendy new wave band, then head over to our Street Fighter IV review to find out why the 2.5D one-on-one fighter's ruddy brilliant. Don't worry, we'll wait.
But, if you know your Dragon Punches from your Spinning Piledrivers, then read on. Super feels instantly familiar because its mechanics are exactly the same as the game it updates. Super's EX special moves, spectacular Ultra Combos and strategic Focus Attacks work just as they did in IV. Super is an expansion. It is not a sequel.
Why bother to buy it then? Because it's got ten new characters, a second Ultra Combo for everyone, new arenas, rebalanced gameplay, two bonus stages, a brilliant new online suite, a revolutionary Replay Channel and new trials. That list may not be long enough to convince the uninitiated or the casual Street Fighter fan to get their wallets out, but enthusiasts didn't need a list in the first place.
As an enthusiast, your first half hour spent with the game feels like unwrapping presents as a child on Christmas morning. Whether you're checking out the new Ultras, trying out the new characters or heading straight online, the sense of excitement is huge. I jumped straight into training mode with my favourite character of yesteryear: spiky-haired American Guile, to get a handle on his rebalancing. His new Ultra Combo, the Sonic Hurricane, lifted straight out of the virtual pages of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, is infinitely more useful than the Flash Explosion. Better still, the charge time on his Sonic Boom projectile has been reduced, making him more than a match for any foe in a projectile face off. The great one is back to his old self.
Guile is not the only character to enjoy similar buffs. Capcom has made many of the weaker fighters viable. Conversely, however, it has made some of the overly powerful characters ever so slightly less so. I wouldn't go as far as to say Capcom's nerfed anyone. Sagat, for example, still does huge amounts of damage despite doing slightly less damage than before. Some have said Ryu's been hit hard, but he still seems top tier to me, and his medium and hard punch Dragon Punch hit twice now.
The tiering has enjoyed a concertina effect, with the so-called weaker characters moving up the tier list and the established powerful characters remaining pretty much where they were. There is much enjoyment to be had from discovering what new toys Capcom has gifted your favourite character, and the developer deserves praise for improving the balance of what was already considered one of the best-balanced fighting games ever. As it was in IV, anyone can win with anyone if they're good enough.
Once concerns over the the rebalancing of your favourite character have been quelled, enthusiasts will no doubt check out the ten new characters who raise Super's roster to a gargantuan 35 (all, thankfully, unlocked from the start). The addition of Jamaican music lover Dee Jay and native American Indian T. Hawk mean all the fighters who made their debut in Super Street Fighter II are now playable in Super IV. The appearance of Ninja girl Ibuki, young tomboy Karate master Makoto and English pugilist Dudley will please Street Fighter III fans. And Guy, Cody and Adon join Sakura, Dan, Rose and Gen in the Alpha camp. They all play similarly to their previous incarnations, so Super II, III and Alpha vets will have no trouble picking up where they left off. Guy has an El Fuerte-like run, Cody can throw stones, Dudley has his rose attack from III, Ibuki has hardly any health, Makoto can KO you in the blink of an eye, and Adon... well.. Adon's just demented. But by virtue of Street Fighter IV's mechanics, some tried and trusted strategies are redundant. There's no parry system, for example, so Ibuki, Makoto and Dudley players will need to readjust.
The new characters taken from the Alpha and III games have more complex fighting systems than those taken from Super II. Take, for example, Makoto. Her Super, Tanden-Renki, only appears to turn Makoto red, and her Dragon Punch move, the Fukiage, appears at first glance useless. But Tanden-Renki significantly increases her damage output, and the EX Fukiage sets up her opponent for a juggle. She can cancel her dash punch (Hayate) into her Super, which again does no damage, but if you're quick enough, you can link in another attack. She can combo from her grab and choke command grab (Karakusa) into her first Ultra, the devastating Seichusen-Godanzuki, if you're fast. In the right hands Makoto can do an insane amount of damage very quickly. The same can be said of many of the new characters; they're hard to master, but the rewards are spectacular. Dudley's an exception, though. An ape could win with Dudley.
Not all of the ten new characters have been lifted from past Street Fighter games. Two are brand new. Juri, the first Korean to feature in a Street Fighter game, is all about the kicks. She's a quarter circle based character who has blistering speed, does decent damage, and has some interesting moves, like a counter, called Kasatushi (quarter circle back and punch) that quickly shifts her body to one of three positions dependant on the button used. Really, though, the counter is just a mix up in her incredible offensive rush down style. Her Senpusha (quarter circle back and kick) is a great multi-hit whirlwind kick style move. Shikusen (quarter circle back and kick in mid-air) is a brilliantly useful move that bounces her opponent off the wall and sets them up for easy extra hits. The EX version almost guarantees connecting with her second Ultra, Kaisen Dankairaku; her evil purple eye glows, she caresses her victim's face with her hand, then she breaks their spine with a kick. Snap.
Juri plays a bit like Sakura. Her health bar is almost non-existent, so playing defensively is a recipe for disaster. The timing on her basic combos, like jumping hard kick, crouching medium kick, Senpusha, is forgiving. Cancelling her Senpusha into her Super is equally easy. And she has almost Ryu-like juggling potential with her EX Shikusen. It's easy to see why Juri is producer Yoshinori Ono's favourite character.
Also making his Street Fighter debut is Hakan, a Turkish oil wrestler with red skin and silly hair. He looks like the love child of Hellboy and Wario, but plays like the love child of Zangief and Blanka. Like Zangief, he's all about the grapples. He's slow, has a low jump, but takes and dishes out loads of damage. His Spinning Piledriver motion command throw, the Oil Rocket, is brilliant. The same command with a kick does a delayable grapple called the Oil Dive. Best of all his specials is his Oil Slide; Hakan slides along the floor, hitting low, then, if you press a punch just before the point of impact, follows it up with a Body Press.
Oil is more than just an aesthetic touch. It's central to Hakan's mechanics. A Dragon Punch and kick input triggers the Oil Shower, which sees Hakan lift two bottles above his head, presumably kept within his greasy trousers, and pour oil all over his body. This changes the properties of his moves; he's faster, does more damage, and the range of his throws is extended. So, every free second you get, you need to do the Oil Shower, just to make Hakan viable.
The Street Fighter series has always had bizarre characters. Blanka's a green beast who can electrify himself. 12, from III, is a shapeshifting soldier. And, Dhalsim, anyone? But still, Hakan perhaps goes further into barmy territory than any character in Street Fighter history because of his Ultras. The Oil Coaster sees Hakan roll his victim around his body is a disgusting whirlwind of oil before slamming them into a wall. His second Ultra, the Oil Combination Hold, is an anti-air that sees Hakan lie on his back, turn around so he's on top, wriggle, then... shoot his opponent out of the hold, sending them tearing head first into the invisible arena wall. You go through two emotions when on the receiving end of the Oil Combination Hold. The first is disgust, because it looks, well, disgusting. The second is humiliation. The expression on your character's face as he or she heads towards the inevitable face slam is often hilarious. Ken's is the best. Be sure to check it out.
Street Fighter IV's cartooney, cel-shaded 2.5D look was as expressive as it was beautiful. Capcom has, with each of the ten new characters, again done a wonderful job of bringing old 2D sprites into the modern era. It's the little details that live long in the memory. Little things like Guy making his entrance by fly kicking through barrels, jailbird Cody nonchalantly walking off the stage when he wins a round, and English pugilist Dudley's humiliating rose attack. Capcom's larger than life character design continues to catch the eye.
Other new additions are just as successful as the new characters. The new arenas are easily the best in the game. Skyscraper Under Construction (Street Fighter's arenas have always had amazing titles), is one of many nods to Final Fight in the game. Atop the beams of a half-built skyscraper the fighters knock lumps out of each other with a huge statue of Mayor Mike Haggar looming large in the background. It's obviously Metro City. There's even an Easter Egg to be found, a potential hint towards who may yet make a playable appearance if Capcom decides releasing new characters as DLC is a good idea.
Solar Eclipse just about edges Skyscraper Under Construction as the greatest arena of them all. It's hard to keep your eye on the fight, so exotic is the safari oasis background. Zebras, hippos, giraffe and flocks of birds gently go about their business, even daring to edge towards the foreground. Day turns to night as the moon eclipses the sun. And the uplifting dance track that accompanies the carnage is a real foot tapper.
And now, the hugely important matter of online. Street Fighter IV's online game wasn't bad, but it wasn't great. While we'll have to wait till the game's release to properly test the game's netcode, feature wise Super impresses.
Player Points are awarded for winning online matches, and taken away for losing. Battle Points work the same, but are tied to specific characters. The idea is to encourage players to experiment online with characters they're perhaps unfamiliar with, free from the risk of ruining your Battle Point rank for your main. Your Player Point rank, then, is supposed to reflect your overall skill.
Supplementing the basic online ranked mode are two new modes. Team battle allows for two versus two, three versus three and four versus four fights. Will the mode spawn Street Fighter squads? For me, competitive fighting gameplay has always been about the players, not teams. It'll be interesting to see how popular Team battle proves to be.
More interesting is the Endless Battle mode, designed to simulate the old school arcade experience. This set-up allows up to eight players to hang about in a queue using winner stays on rules. What's great about this mode is that the waiting players can watch the action and chat to each other. Endless Battle, really, should have been in IV (it was in Super Street Fighter II HD Remix), but at least Capcom's got it right second time around.
The new Replay Channel is fantastic. At its most basic it lets you save your matches to your hard disc. But more exciting is the ability to watch matches involving other players, other players who are better than you. Finally we have a way to learn new techniques, combos and strategies without having to head to YouTube. You can even turn the input data on, play back in slo-mo and turn on the damage numbers. If you see a replay that knocks your socks off, you can save it, invite a party in to watch it with you, and have it blow all their socks off, too. Super's Replay Channel raises the bar other fighting games will now have to at least attempt to reach. Brilliant.
Bad points? Some of the few criticisms I had of IV have carried over to Super. There is still no way to see how a trial should be done. The story animations are still awful. Just... awful. And you can tell that some of the new Ultras haven't enjoyed as much development effort as others. Some are just plain boring, like Ken's Guren Senpukyaku.
This frustrates all the more because most of the new Ultras are quite stupendous. Ryu's Metsu Shoryuken is a three hit Dragon Punch that may be the most spectacular in the game. Dhalsim's Yoga Shangri-La sees the flexible Indian rain down head butts from above. And Zangief's Siberian Blizzard is guaranteed to make your opponent wince.
Some have said that the rebalanced gameplay and new online modes should have been made available through a patch and the new characters sold as downloadable content for Street Fighter IV. The fact that Capcom's releasing Super a tenner cheaper than a full price game is an admission that the critics have a point.
At the end of the day, though, Super is a tremendous update to a tremendous game. It addresses many of IV's weaknesses, subtly tweaks old features so that they work better, and introduces some characters that exceed the high quality bar set in February last year. It is a game tailor made for hardcore Street Fighter fans; if Street Fighter IV didn't float your boat, Super won't either. But if you're a hardcore Street Fighter fan, Super is an essential purchase. It is the best fighting game available on this generation of games consoles, and further reinforces Capcom's dominance of the fighting game genre.