Games of 2009: Street Fighter IV

Champion Edition.

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.

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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.

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