Back in the early nineties, dark, dingy mall arcades were our battlegrounds. Our match-ups: Ryu vs. Ken, Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat, Sega vs. Nintendo. Quarters were slapped on arcade cabinets and champions nursed their Slurpees, hundred-hand-slapping their way to victory. Ryu, Ken, Chun-Li, Honda, Sagat, and the full list of stereotypical warriors were immortalized in those days. Some players went on to enjoy these characters in many sequels and off-shoots, but most fell out of the loop, leaving the fighting game genre the hardcore niche we know it as today.
With Street Fighter IV, developer Capcom hopes to ignite nostalgia, with a sequel that calls back to those glory days. Unlike Street Fighter III, which roped in hardcore players with a unique roster and advanced mechanics, SFIV has been billed as a return to the series’ roots. The entire vanilla SFII cast returns, including Super Street Fighter II extras Fei-Long, Cammy, and Akuma. Capcom’s focus on simpler combat intends to draw in a casual crowd, while new systems keep the hardcore crowd happy.
To the born-again Street Fighter fans Capcom hopes to rope in, Street Fighter IV accurately captures the feel of the old days. The core gameplay is identical; players execute three degrees of punches and kicks, retreat to block, and perform more complex motions for their characters signature special moves. The super moves introduced in later SFII versions and popularized by later series entries make an appearance in the form of flashy super and ultra combos.
The most significant departure from the old games is visual, with Capcom creating the first core Street Fighter game in a 3D engine. Polygons replace traditional hand-drawn artwork, and for the most part it works. Characters are just as expressive as their 2D counterparts and are bursting with a rainbow of primary and secondary colors.
Stylistically, it’s somewhat haphazard. The opening cutscene shows CG combatants fighting through inky splashes of color, seemingly escaping their hand-drawn shackles. The effect is used sparingly throughout the main game; just enough to make you think it was dialed back in favor of more traditional Street Fighter flashiness. Then there are the anime cutscenes, brief videos that bookend each fighter’s story. They’re ugly, amateurish, and completely out of place, amplifying the frustration of playing through the game several times to unlock the full roster of fighters.
Several new warriors round out the list of classic veterans, and they’re every bit as colorful and painfully stereotypical as you’d expect. The line-up offers a lot of variety, with someone to appeal to every type of fighter. Unfortunately, there’s a very clear tier structure separating the fighters, with some, like Sagat, overpowered in the hands of anyone who can throw a fireball. Ryu, Ken, and Akuma are favorites online, maintaining the status quo and discouraging the use of more unique warriors like the Lucha Libre wrestler El Fuerte. But with online updates and patches, there’s potential for Capcom to smooth it out.
What can’t be fixed are the advanced combat techniques built into the core of the game. Using all the tools at your disposal, Street Fighter IV is not the elegantly simple brawler that SFII was. Focus attacks alone would take a full paragraph to explain, and each character comes with a laundry list of frighteningly powerful combos that require inhuman timing to execute. You can get by without touching any of it, but its presence expresses a clear move by Capcom to please the hardcore tournament players, rather than create a game that more players can appreciate the depth of.
The juggling act of pleasing everyone comes at a price, but overall the gameplay is a joy. Fights, whether online or on a couch, are fluid, fast-paced, and methodical. Street Fighter IV captures the defining pleasures of the fighting genre, with two players not only competing in thumb dexterity, but the far more interesting battle of the minds. It is in that regard that the game is a return to form, as nostalgic fans can play Street Fighter IV and have technical, exciting fights, while ignoring some of the fancier systems in place.