February 25, 2009 Back in 2005, an obscure developer by the name of Harmonix released a game called Guitar Hero for the PlayStation 2. In the four years since, we've been bombarded with copycats from rival developers, and sequels that remain remarkably similar to their predecessors. If we turn the clock back to 1991, we can find a similar situation kicking off with the release of a game called Street Fighter II, whose copycats and sequels became the royal family of arcades and home conversions for years to come, before vanishing into obscurity (along with the arcade itself) in the face of the first-person shooter craze. Now, ten years after the last "original" Street Fighter, we have the fourth game that even Capcom didn't think would happen, until they saw the sales figures for the Xbox Live Arcade release of Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting. But is there anything on offer here other than nostalgia for those of us who grew up playing six-button fighting games at the arcade? Read on to find out.
The best looking Street Fighter yet
Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix was released as a downloadable game on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 last year, with every single piece of artwork from the 1994 release redrawn in 1080p by Udon Comics. It looked amazing in screenshots, but once you saw it in motion you realized the massive limitations of slapping high quality, hand drawn artwork on top of a game based around pixels and hit boxes - the movement between frames that looked fine in the days when 334 x 224 resolution was the norm became shockingly apparent.
Street Fighter IV has sidestepped the issue by moving to 3D rendering. Street Fighter made the jump to 3D once before in the forgettable EX series, so we can forgive any of you who were dubious as to how this might turn out - but we're happy to report that this time, it's been executed to perfection. And it looks even better at 60 frames per second than it does in the screenshots.
It's rendered in a cartoonish, cel-shaded style, taking cues from games like Okami and resulting in something that looks like a painting come to life. The characters are animated fluidly and beautifully, the effects like fireballs and electrocution look better than ever, and the subtle finishing touches like trails and splashes of ink are the icing on the cake.
When you execute (and land) an Ultra move, you're treated to a jawdropping cinematic experience with slowdowns, zooms and pans while your character pummels half the life out of your enemy with an intricate combo. It looks incredible, and it just wouldn't be possible using 2D animation.
The only flaw with the presentation is the truly horrible Anime intro and ending for each character. I'm completely at a loss as to why they weren't rendered with the beautiful game engine, but even then, they're horribly scripted and leave you with more questions than answers. Once you've seen a few, you'll be reaching for the Start button to skip each further scene you encounter one.
Don't forget your roots
While it's rendered in 3D, Street Fighter IV takes place strictly on a 2D plane. It looks like a Street Fighter. It plays like a Street Fighter. And all the classic characters are back...unless you consider T-Hawk or Deejay from Super Street Fighter II to be classic characters.
It's incredibly deep
There's 28 characters from several different fighting styles, each with their own normal, special, EX, Super and Ultra attacks which you'll have to learn. Then you'll have to figure out whether each of those attacks beats or gets beaten by every attack from the 27 other characters. Then there's the new Focus attack which can absorb one hit from an enemy, or be charged up to unleash an unblockable attack which leaves your opponent wide open for further punishment. And that's before you even think about the combos. Oh, and you can use a "Dash Cancel" out of a Focus attack while you're part way through a special move to create new combos.
Rest assured, Street Fighter IV is something that you could play intensively for years and not consider yourself a master.
Solid online multiplayer
Considering the horrible experience that even moderate lag can create in the multiplayer modes of modern first-person shooters, you might expect a subpar online experience from a 2D fighter where mere milliseconds can mean the difference between life and death - but I've played over 20 matches online, and they all played amazingly well. I've had people with a high latency challenge on my host, and wipe the floor with me - so it's talent, not latency, that is the deciding factor at the end of the day.
By default, players can challenge you over the Internet while you play Arcade mode. It's a nice touch that is reminiscent of the days I spent Street Fighter II at the arcade, but if you're not into it, it's easily disabled.
When looking for a match, you can filter potential matches based on your latency, skill level or language preference, and I've never had to wait more than two minutes for someone to join when I start up a game - which is refreshing for a PlayStation 3 title.
There is a free update to the game planned called the Championship Pack, which adds two new ranking systems, a new tournament system that will make it easier for beginner and intermediate players to find suitable opponents, and the ability to record, upload and download battles, giving you the chance to watch the top tier players at work or show off your own skills.
What didn't work
Grinding to unlock all characters
I love Akuma/Gouki. He's in the game, which I bought, and I want to play as him. I do not want to have to look up a guide on how to unlock him as a playable character, and find out that I have to beat the game with eight different characters, then beat the game again with no losses, a certain number of Perfects, and a certain number of Ultra finishes to fight him, and then beat him without using a continue before I could play as him.
Inaccessible to beginners
While Ben Kuchera at Ars Technica says "This is a game for the casual fan and the hardcore fighting game junkie", and countless other reviewers echo his sentiment, I'm not sure if we're playing the same game.
I grew up playing various iterations of Street Fighter - from World Warrior, through Alpha/Zero and the VS games, to 3rd Strike. I've played on everything from Super Nintendo pads to computer keyboards. The textbook quarter-circle-forward motion is as natural to me as walking and talking. Regardless, I still got completely smashed by the (ridiculous) final boss of Street Fighter IV, Seth, on the "Easiest" difficulty - numerous times in a row. (I can beat him without breaking a sweat now, but that's after 20 hours with the game.)
If you're a complete beginner to the series, or fighting games in general, and don't have a friend to play with who is equally inexperienced (or willing to go easy on you), you might be surprised by a learning curve that's comparable to a brick wall.
Don't believe me? Stephen Totilo from MTV Multiplayer said he couldn't review the game: "There's too much going on, and I can't keep up, even though I badly want to."
David Sirlin, a former competitive Street Fighter player and the game designer who balanced Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, had this to say: "Even more though, I hear how 'casual friendly' it is. This is deeply mysterious and I'm not sure why this so often claimed." (Full Text)
So while certain things were indeed tweaked to make them easier on beginners, there's still techniques that only the most hardcore players will ever hope to pull off, which makes the game less about strategy (ie. when to attack) and more about lengthy practise sessions learning superhuman feats of hand-eye coordination (ie. how to attack). And there's still a ridiculously cheap last boss that'll make beginners and casuals want to go back to games they can actually feel in control of.
Worldwide shortage of suitable arcade sticks
This isn't a fault with the game itself, but it's worth mentioning. This game is incredibly difficult to play with the Sixaxis. While there is two official Street Fighter IV joysticks available from Mad Catz, they're completely sold out everywhere. Demand for arcade sticks is so high that prices on Hori sticks have doubled, if you can find one in stock. There is one option you won't have trouble purchasing though - check out our in-depth review of the X-Arcade Dual Joystick.
It's official: Street Fighter is back, in what is arguably one of the best installments ever. It's not as accessible as Capcom (and many reviewers) would like you to believe, but it's a much needed revival of a long stagnant genre that is tickling the nostalgia glands of many, and planting the seed in a new breed of hardcore gamers.
Rent or buy? Tough question to answer, as most players who Street Fighter IV is a "must buy" for probably already own it. If you look back on time you spent playing fighting games in dingy arcades and consider them "the good old days", don't hesitate to buy. If not, I'd recommend renting a copy, and grabbing a friend or two along with something alcoholic for a test drive before getting your hopes up about this being the game for you. If you can't get in to this, but want a fighting game that's a little more accessible, I suggest giving Soul Calibur IV a try.