Street Fighter IV wasn't my game of 2009. 2009 was my year of Street Fighter IV.
It devoured time, of course, as the 350 hours tallied in the player's record screen attest. But more than that, Capcom's inspired, distinguished reinvention of its most popular fighting franchise demanded devotion, yoiking me from whichever other game was vying for my attention like a jealous, insatiable lover.
Because of this game I'd often find myself playing in Goodge Street's Casino or Trocadero whenever passing through London, trying out in public arcades those virtual lessons learned in private. Because of this game I spent four months pursuing an interview with Daigo Umehara, the elusive Street Fighter world champion. Because of this game I spent countless hours watching YouTube videos of tournament matches, trying to pick up on the rhythms and techniques of the masters. But most of all, because of this game, I gained a new lens through which I view all videogames, where the medium has come from, and where it's headed. Its significance to me is immeasurable.
If 2008 was defined by grand narratives, 60-hour epics played out across Fallout 3's radioactive Washington or Fable II's leafy Albion, then this year was about a single, recurring 99-second vignette: two characters sparring for dominance. It may be a short story with only two possible outcomes (three if you count the occasional Double KO), but it's one told in a hundred thousand different ways, each with its own nuance and pace. From a relatively small palette of moves, players can express themselves in myriad different ways. It's this combination of tight breadth and unfathomable depth that continues to make Street Fighter IV such an irresistible proposition, 10 months down the line.
Because, yes, for all the grand accolades laid at Uncharted 2's hiking boots, few of us are still playing that game on a nightly basis. By contrast, last month, long after the game had any professional relevance to us, I found myself sitting in the South London flat of Capcom's European PR manager, drinking cups of hurriedly-brewed tea and KO'ing till dusk. While we played we discussed characters, tactics and examined our individual strengthes and weaknesses in the game. This sort of thing rarely happens to people who write about videogames for a living, as becoming attached to a game after the potential to make money from the relationship has passed is an occupational hazard. But Street Fighter IV transcends mere product: it is a way of life.
In part the game's success in my world can be attributed to combination of circumstance and convenience. As we grow older and responsibilities make ever-greater demands of us (and, after all, who else does Street Fighter IV primarily appeal to than the 25 to 35-year-old males driven into its arms by memories of the forebears it so carefully tributes) so the appeal of concentrated entertainment rises. This is a game that can be enjoyed in a 15-minute leisure window, delivering maybe 10 highly charged, satisfying and diverse matches in the time it would have taken me to plod through an RPG's loading screens. While today's gaming culture conflates value with expanse, my life's circumstances ensure the most rewarding and valuable games are those that can be savoured in chunks in between changing a baby's nappy, or hoovering the lounge. Brevity is often a virtue.
But to claim Street Fighter IV's appeal is primarily one of convenience is to sell the game desperately short. It is a masterful remaining of one of gaming's great formative genres, popping the furious spectacle of sprite-based fighting games into 3D in such an effortless and easy way that it makes you wonder why no-one else has managed it in so many years of trying. And while Capcom may have overstated the game's accessibility to newcomers, there's no denying that, by simplifying move lists, lengthening the windows of opportunity for combos and making inputs far more forgiving in their timing, the barrier to entry is lower than just about anywhere elsewhere in the genre.
This simplification of the game's vocabulary is significant, because it allows a broader range of players to learn the language. While it doesn't take long to commit quarter-circle motions and charges to muscle memory, mastering when to use your limited palette of verbs takes months of practice, while turning that vocabulary to poetry takes years. In the game's training mode, where you are free to string together acrobatics against an unflinching dummy, you're composing, forming sentences in your spare room. But play against another human and you enter a rap battle, each player drawing moves and counterattacks from their stockpile of punch lines, tussling with one another for lyrical dominance based on timing and reactions.
What makes the game so utterly rewarding is in the tangibility of improvement. Spend a month playing for an hour a day and the results of your practice become plain to see. Learning which attacks are safe at which distances becomes second nature, while the barriers between eye and hand melt away as you learn to preempt enemy attacks with appropriate clocks and counters without thought.
Many videogames are simply there to act as quicksand distractions, rewarding player investment with a litany of virtual, meaningless trinkets: a new ability for your character here, a badge for your conquests there. Even Modern Warfare 2, an FPS with an expansive, celebrated competitive online component, relies heavily on MMO-style unlocks to keep players investing. These canny rewards may give the illusion of progression, but they muddy the purity of the competitive experience, as some players find themselves more powerful than others, those who have spent the most time with the game favoured over newcomers. Street Fighter IV, by contrast, rewards player investment by levelling its player up, not its character. Play as Ryu and everyone will have the same set of abilities as everyone else: nothing sways the fight one way or the other save for player ability.
Sit down with me to a game of Street Fighter IV and I'll be able to tell a great deal about you, tells that go beyond mere proficiency into the realm of personality and disposition. From your character choice to your first move when we drop into the arena, I'm already working you out, pushing your buttons to get a rise or a fall. Play any game long enough and the topsoil elements, the characters, visuals, and particle effects fade away. The characters on screen become pure ciphers for their player's intent, marionette flesh to the mind games that happen the other side of the screen.
Videogames are so often celebrated for letting us play out our fantasies on-screen, making approximations of impossible or prohibitively expensive experiences available to anyone. There is no fantasy in Street Fighter IV (unless, perhaps you long to role-play throwing fireballs from your palm). There's just technique, and mastery and a rabbit hole that leads from here to forever.
Check out the Editor's blog to find out more about our Games of 2009.