Full disclosure: this hands-on preview appears with dinky PS3 and 360 icons next to it, but we haven't played those versions. In fact, Capcom refuses to confirm whether or not they even exist, despite admitting that it would be "pretty surprising" if Street Fighter IV failed to make the transition from arcade to home console. Still, it's worth pointing this out so that the PRs don't wake me up with a phone call at 2am PST to complain. I need my beauty sleep. As you'll know if you've ever seen my face.
Street Fighter IV ought to be a relic, but it seriously isn't. It's not a complicated mess of ideas dragged together from the disparate SF games, either. It's a very beautiful, accessible distillation of the best characters' best moments, brought together with some intuitive new systems. All your old friends are back - Ryu, Ken, E. Honda, Dhalsim, Zangief, Chun-Li, Guile and Blanka - and will be joined by new recruits Abel and Crimson Viper, and contests are still decided as best-of-three rounds with a time limit on individual bouts and a big old health bar running across the top of the screen. There are still six attack buttons - light, medium and hard of both punch and kick. Being KO'ed without landing a blow is still depressing, and people still refuse to ever play you again once they beat you. Even at GDC. Tossers.
Looking around the screen, you also notice a Super meter along the bottom. This builds up when you connect with an attack, or whenever you perform a special, even if it doesn't connect. The amount of specials a character has will vary, and the fighters draw their moves and characteristics from the likes of the Alpha and Third Strike games as well as raw SF II. Making sure it's instantly familiar seems to have been a very deliberate choice, and it works: picking Ken initially (I'm a sucker for blondes), I proceeded to land a flying hard-kick, punch and dragon-punch three-hitter repeatedly on a hapless US journo's C.Viper, before rocking out with a double quarter-circle-forward and punch Super attack finale. KO.
Another obvious element of the screen furniture is the Revenge meter - a little C-shape at the end of your health bar - which fills up in segments as you take damage from enemies. This obviously isn't great news, but the benefit of it is that it enables you to perform Ultra attacks rather than just Supers; Ultras are far more punishing and spectacular, and activate by pressing two attack buttons instead of one at the end of the Super joystick sequence. Ken's Ultra is a fireball and spinning flaming dragon-punch attack that made me laugh so hard that I then lost the bout, which is pretty impressive considering how decisive an Ultra's meant to be. Super and Revenge meters both reset at the start of each bout, so there's no pointing saving things up.
Less obvious but perhaps more important are the new Focus Attacks, also available to every character. To perform one of these, you use the medium punch and kick buttons together. Tapping them performs a sort of slap, while charging it up offers two additional levels of power, the third of which is actually unblockable. While you build up to the level-three version of this attack, you're fragile, but you can absorb one attack (although it will hurt). Unleash it and connect, though, and you will floor your opponent and get the chance to whack them again while they're going down. Be quick.
Anyway, we got bored of Ken, so we switched to Chun-Li, who is also a lot of fun (just don't mention her paunch). Spinning bird kick is still down for two seconds then up and kick, and her projectile is back for two seconds then forward and punch. Chunners can also still jump up to the side of the screen and spring off it again to come down from a greater height, and do her lightning kick.
We also saw the new characters, Abel and C.Viper, up close. The latter speaks into a mobile phone in her introductory attract sequence while posing a bit, and has absurd breasts with a black tie running suggestively between them. She can pound the floor on her side of the screen to injure her opponent from distance, and has some impressively fiery kicks, which are perhaps why we've seen so many fire engines in San Francisco this week. Abel, meanwhile, is a burly Frenchie oui oui, who is hard but also quite nimble. We were rubbish with him, but our PR minder successfully demonstrated that he is useful and distinctive by demolishing our one-note Ken combinations in a few swift showpiece attacks.
There are a lot of other familiar elements making a comforting return, too. Birds still spin around your head when you're dizzied, Japanese shouting fills the air, and then there are other eye-catchers like Guile's airstrip level - now with GIs standing around reacting to the action, and a military transport plane being towed across the background.
Those backgrounds in general are rich with detail, and nice and colourful, although we only saw a few. And since we're on the graphics, the mixture of faintly outlined 3D characters with slightly dumpy environments and NPCs is a winner. Thighs and muscles may be a bit disproportionate, but they're consistently disproportionate in the sort of way that looks correct overall, and backed up by terrific collision detection and flashy effects and camera spins for specials and particularly Supers and Ultras. Throws look great, and there are some nice animation flourishes, like Chun-Li spinning her legs around like a helicopter in the split-second before she springs back to her feet once downed. A smooth 60 frames-per-second, too. We can't imagine anybody looking at the game in person and not finding it a bit dazzling.
At the end of our hour in Capcom's company, fighting round the world, we were told that the current code is only around 50-60 percent complete, and that a lot has yet to be revealed. We've already had hints of super-cancels (no idea either, if we're honest - apparently you cancel a special with a Super), but that's the least of it: our minders hinted at some properly interesting stuff lurking below the surface. We haven't seen our old friends the bosses yet, either, and our PR friend was adamant that "a lot" is still being tweaked, despite the game's very promising state. Look out for more on SF IV in the next few weeks, hopefully. (I.e. Capcom: can we come round to your house again and play?)
Street Fighter IV has currently only been confirmed for the arcades, but if it isn't coming out on PS3 and 360 we will eat so many hats that we'll be sick.