The King is dead. Long live the King.
Nine years after Street Fighter III: Third Strike took the one-on-one beat ’em up to the next level (and isolate all but the most dedicated fan), Capcom’s legendary fighting franchise is undergoing something of a renaissance. First, the original Super Street Fighter II Turbo was given a high-definition facelift and tweaked to become the definitive edition of the superlative fighter. And now the big one: Street Fighter IV.
Let’s get it out of the way: the rehabilitation is complete. Few people would deny that the third instalment has a high barrier to entry. Ninja technicians still pour over frame rates and move priority years after its third update (hence Third Strike) to the point that everyone else quite rightly felt a bit left out. Wary of killing off the golden goose before it has even had a chance to lay another egg, Capcom have gone back to basics and overhauled the entire game mechanic.
First impressions are that this is not so much a sequel as an update: Street Fighter 2: Reloaded. Or Ultimate Street Fighter 2. But look closer and there beats the heart of a brand new game. There’s plenty of advanced fighting techniques to keep the pros busy but crucially, SFIV is nuanced enough that anyone can pick up and play without first having had memorise the manual. If all you’re after is chucking Fireballs and Sonic Booms, there’s plenty here for you but seasoned pros will still the perquisite amount of depth they require by default.
The anticipation surrounding Street Fighter IV reached fever pitch in the weeks leading up to its release with legions of gamers speculating on characters, tactics and those all important arcade sticks. The highest possible compliment one can pay to Street Fighter IV is that the whole experience feels just like it did in 1992 when you and your mates were playing the original SF2 on the SNES, running home from school to get a few rounds in before dinner and frustrated that you couldn’t yet select the same character (it was always a race in my house to see who could get to Guile first).
The starting line-up is instantly familiar: all eight original World Warriors plus the four Shadaloo bosses sit alongside four new characters designed especially for the game with a further nine to be unlocked in the course of the game. The end result is that you immediately feel at home with the combatants, all old friends you lost touch with back there at the tail end of the 90s but now ready to pick up where they left off as all the best ones can.
The original arcade hardware was never the most powerful kit in the world and so while SFIV does look gorgeous, it isn’t as immediately overpowering as you might think. Indeed, there are moments when you would be forgiven that it was running on a Dreamcast (hardly the worst crime, like most of the best DC games, everything looks lush). Nonetheless, every last frame is packed with detail and there are wonderful touches – every fighter is always on the move and even their faces react to the action on-screen, eyes bulging at the thought of an unblocked Ultra combo. It’s how you always thought Street Fighter should look and sound, with dialogue snippets peppering the fight.
How it plays is where SFIV differentiates itself from its predecessors. Immediately, you’ll notice that it’s much slower, no ten stars of speed here. Eventually you’ll slip back into the groove and become convinced that Street Fighter has always moved like this but it can be quite jarring as you get into your first fight. Soon it becomes apparent that there is a now a real emphasis on reading your opponent and getting your tactics in shape to exploit any weakness that just charging in blind will reveal and that’s what opens the game up for the casual masses. It’s a far tenser affair, each player looking for a vital opening and trying to seize on the initiative. Can you fit in an Ultra at the end of that latest attack? Is it worth saving your Super Combo bar for the inevitable or should you use a block and power-up a regular Special Move?
The Ultra combo is one of the key additions to the game that can be The Great Equaliser between two opponents of differing skill sets. As the fight progresses, your Revenge meter slowly builds the more damage you take. When it starts flashing, this means that you’ve stored up enough to pull off an Ultra Combo, a devastating combination attack that can wipe out an otherwise healthy energy bar and put a fight on more equal footing. Naturally a lot of these attacks are able to be perfectly blocked but if deployed right, they suddenly prolong the longevity of a fight and give a weaker enemy a chance of survival. Of course, should it connect, the price you pay is that your Ultra then fills your opponent’s meter leaving them ready to attempt their own. It’s checks and balances – how much do you want to win?
The other new technique is the Focus Attack, which is a split-second haven from an attack that allows you to absorb one move and if you’re within striking distant, recover and crumple your opponent to the floor. Again, the idea behind the Focus Attack is to give any new players the necessary tools to take on more experienced players while giving the latter something to get their teeth into as they progress deeper into the game. It’s not just hyperbole, the Focus Attack is remarkably easy to get the hang of and useful in a pinch.
Elsewhere, the game builds on its Arcade Mode with a series of solo Time Trial, Survival and Challenge missions. While the first two are self-explanatory, Challenge mode sees you trying to perfect a series of your chosen character’s moves and combos. Some of these rely on split-second timing that can become frustrating. It’s a useful way of learning a character but a video reply of the required moves would assist no end. Your mileage will vary. As an added incentive, you can add new costume colours for the roster as you work through these missions although it is disappointing that you’ve got to sing for your supper so comprehensively.
And what about those controllers? Articles have already been written at great length about the various options available. Does the game work with the standard 360/PS control pads? Yes. Just about. Don’t expect minor miracles but the d-pads are perfectly functional and are no hindrance to unlocking the characters missing from the outset. A much better offering is the MadCatz Fightpad, a dedicated controller that does away with the analogue sticks littering both standard pads and has a lone d-pad modelled on the nigh-perfect Sega Saturn controller. There were a few teething problems with ours, it is a very loose d-pad and in the beginning it felt unwieldy but its advantages rapidly become apparent and you appreciate how useful it is to have access to all of your kicks and punches across one face, mapping other operations to the shoulder buttons.
MadCatz have also released two dedicated arcade sticks for the release of SFIV too – a standard edition Fightstick and a premium Tournament Edition. At present, there seem to be a few issues with the entry-level Fightstick and so we’d recommend finding the cheaper Hori EX2 as an excellent starter stick at least until the problems work themselves out. The Tournament Edition Fightstick is another thing entirely: a stick that uses the best Japanese parts and comes in its own special presentation case (and for £150, it should make you breakfast too). Reserved for only the most ardent fan or arcade wizard, the Tournament Edition Fightstick is a thing of real beauty which oozes quality from the second you open the box. Is it worth £150? Arguably, yes (critics will only go and cite Rock Band and Guitar Hero to demonstrate good value but pay them no mind). It’s an extremely satisfying piece of kit that deserves your attention and look at it this way, you’ll never need to make the outlay again.
SFIV represents everything you’ve ever wanted from a new Street Fighter. Comparisons between this and SF2 are to be expected given the game’s use of its rich heritage but that’s just to draw you in. This is Street Fighter IV, ready to make you fall in love with the genre all over again. Practice makes perfects, gentlemen. Hail to the King.
Street Fighter IV is available by pressing “Punch, Punch, Kick, Up, Left, Block, Punch” on your keypad now, or clicking here.