Playing Street Fighter IV on Xbox 360, we're trying to recall the last time we were so hyped about the release of a fighter. Enthusiasm grew during the build-up to Soul Calibur IV, as did our anticipation for Virtua Fighter 5 a year prior, but it's an age since a fighter has been so prevalent in actual office banter. With the console release of Street Fighter IV weeks away, the trash talk about who's going to rush down who has started to turn nasty. How we've missed it.
Street Fighter IV is in some ways a step back to the basics of Street Fighter II - i.e. no air blocking and a single Super. But it also takes many aspects that made the latter games so exceptional in their own right, including the return of EX Specials. If anything, it has the potential to be the superlative Street Fighter experience, whether you're a Third Strike diehard or long-since Alpha 3 deserter. We're also impressed by how Capcom has taken its iconic Street Fighter roster and revamped it into the third dimension. All the characters retain the personality and edge that made them a hit in the early 90s, but are done in such a way that you forget Street Fighter EX ever happened. Street Fighter IV is for everyone - it just needs to finally Dragon Punch into everyone's living room.
Visually, the near-complete Xbox 360 port we've played is seamless from the arcade original, and on a worthy setup impresses in equal measure with its unique cel-shaded styling as Hadokens and Flash Kicks are all executed with flair and fluidity. It's hard to see how Capcom could have done this better. As for controls, Capcom and Dimps have wisely kept the classic six-button setup rather than opt for Tatsunoko vs. Capcom's four-button approach. The 360 pad isn't the most intuitive interface for a 2D fighter, but with decent sticks already available this isn't a huge issue, and if you're not partial to sticks you can always look into a Street Fighter IV FightPad from Mad Catz, set to coincide with the release of the game. The closer this is to the Saturn Pad the better.
Handling wise, Street Fighter IV will be immediately familiar to anyone who's ever pulled off a Shoryuken. Virtually all the Special moves are executed as you'd expect, with the staple charge and half-circle motions and everything in-between, and each character has access to a single, stock Super, and EX Specials, all accessed via the four-tiered Super gauge. Capcom also has a stab at a Rage gauge, here in the guise of the new Revenge gauge. Taking damage fills this meter and when it's over half full it can be used to execute an Ultra. These uber-Specials are usually accessed with the character's standard Super motion, but with three button presses rather than one. As both combatants often have a stocked Ultra as even bouts climax, things remain gritty and intense right to the finish - exactly as they should be in a good mind-games fighter.
Anyone who's been following the build-up will also know that the console version retains all the playable characters from the arcade version: all eight original World Warriors, all four Street Fighter II bosses and the new bloods; Abel, Crimson Viper, El Fuerte and Rufus. Our build also gave us access to fan-favourite Akuma (unlockable in the arcade), Ryu and Ken's master Gouken, school-girl Sakura and boss Seth - the metallic CEO of Shadaloo's weapons division, apparently.
Akuma, master of the Dark Hadou, has always been about pure Shotokan rush down. In Street Fighter IV he plays similarly to his Third Strike self, complete with his rolling jump attack and juggle-heavy Specials. He can now change the trajectory of his air fireballs depending on which punch is pressed and unlike Third Strike, he now has the ability to EX some of his Specials. He can still teleport out of danger in the normal manner but perhaps his most interesting change is the dual Raging Demons.
A full Super gauge allows the mix-up master to use his signature death move the usual way, but should you fill the Revenge gauge enough, he now has access to a more deadly Demon. By pressing back instead of forward during the classic Shun Goku Satsu combination, Akuma teleports more swiftly and across nearly the entire screen. Should he catch his opponent off-guard, he drags them to hell for nearly double the standard Demon's hits. The problem is that the Raging Demon, even with effective Kara Cancelling, has always been a nightmare to connect against a pro, so initially it seems odd that Capcom's given players two versions of Akuma's trickiest Super - but with the Demon now executable in a fraction of a second and with a pair of options, players may have to consider that evasive jump or counter Super more carefully.
When we first picked Gouken, we were concerned he'd just be another Ryu clone (we're aware of the irony) in an already overcrowded character style. Fortunately this isn't the case. As the polar opposite and brother of Akuma, following a non-lethal form of Ansatsuken, Gouken's fighting style looks like true mastery of a martial art compared to his students'. Whereas Ryu and Ken's fireballs look like an effort in chi manipulation, Gouken's come out in an effortless one-handed motion. Depending upon the button pressed, he can throw them straight ahead or vertically upwards - catching out a jumping opponent - while his EX version throws out forward and horizontal fireballs simultaneously, which is harder to evade.
His Hurricane Kick would also have you believe that Ryu and Ken are far from mastering their art. Instead of acting as a horizontal combo-finisher, Gouken's Tatsumaki Senpuu Kyaku appears to have more use as an effective anti-air. It arcs straight upwards and can juggle with multiple hits, but does seem to lack the range and priority of the classic Dragon Punch.
So if Gouken already has an anti-air, does that mean he's without a Shoryuken? Nope. Effectively he has two versions for his Super and Ultra. The Super version comes out fast with multiple hits and makes for an effective combo finisher, or an appropriate punishment against a predictable jump. His Ultra version, on the other hand, is pure Third Strike Ryu Super Art II - make that first hit connect and it's an immensely satisfying Shin Shoryuken for the win. Savour every agonising slow-motion hit.
Our time with Sakura was brief, but she's reminiscent of her Alpha guise - complete with a dashing in, multiple-hit Dragon Punch and arcing Hurricane Kick. The EX version of the latter launches her opponent into the air and can be Focus-cancelled out of in order to connect her Ultra, should your fingers be up to the task.
Seth on the other hand is a mixed bag of cheap tricks. He rips off other fighters' moves, including Dhalsim's arm extension, Bison's teleport and Guile's Sonic Boom. He also has his own tricks including a multiple-hitting machine-gun kick and the ability to draw his opponent closer to him. But his most annoying trait is his cheap Ultra. Pull this off against an opponent with their guard down and they'll be sucked into Seth's singularity and fired out against the invisible wall for considerable damage - and, if this wins the round, a quite comical pressed glass expression. Still, at least Seth isn't quite Gill chip-tastic cheap.
If the online play of Street Fighter IV turns out to be as lag-free as the bouts in Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, then fighter fans have good reason to be excited. We haven't got access to that yet, but aside from online play, perhaps the other most-anticipated aspect of Street Fighter IV from the perspective of the fighter hardcore is the chance to get to grips with the new Focus system in the obligatory practice mode, which we have done. It's Street Fighter IV's most crucial aspect in terms of longevity and tournament play - effectively replacing the parrying system from Third Strike.
For a Street Fighter novice the Focus attack is a strike performed by pressing both mediums, and has three levels of charge: reflex, stagger and unblockable. During the Focus charge the player can absorb a single hit from most attacks - still taking the damage but not being stunned out of the Focus attack. Health lost while Focusing will return gradually if follow-up hits are avoided, but will still fill the Revenge gauge as normal.
For a 2D fighter aficionado, however, Focus is exponentially more versatile. It can be used to cancel out of certain Specials at the expense of half your Super gauge, and on top of this the Focus itself can be cancelled with a dash. Losing half your Super sounds bad, but when you consider that Ultras are accessed via a separate gauge, the possibilities open up. Use a Special that launches your opponent into the air, immediately cancel into a Focus and then a forward-dash to avoid any follow-up frames, and then connect your Ultra before they hit the ground - perhaps even cancelling into the Ultra from another attack. The timing and accuracy is precise and will take time to master, but it's worth remembering that those who bothered to learn Street Fighter III's parrying system reaped the benefits despite the apathy it initially attracted.
The beauty of it, of course, is that you don't need to know every intricacy of Street Fighter IV to have fun. Master the basics and you'll be a formidable player in your own right, and should it succeed in holding the average console owner to this, Street Fighter IV will be a crucial step in the future of the 2D fighter on the home market. Many excellent fighters with 2D mechanics, including BlazBlue, Battle Fantasia and the hotly anticipated King of Fighters XII, are keeping the scene alive, but have limited appeal among the wider gaming audience. For a fundamentally 2D fighter, Street Fighter has the same level of prestige as Soul Calibur and Tekken - and the capability of going toe to toe with these 3D fighter juggernauts.
There are many who would complain that Street Fighter is becoming more stagnant, with too many Shotokan clones and little variation in play mechanics, but to us the Street Fighter series represents a continuing refinement of the 2D fighter, with Street Fighter IV perhaps the most accessibly deep Street Fighter ever on this evidence. Complaints of only four new characters and an increasingly samey roster will probably be made, but if you don't want to play as Ryu, then don't! If you're any good, then you should be able to take down a Dragon Punch-spamming scrub with ease anyway. So bear that in mind, because Street Fighter IV in your house is just around the corner, and we've already practiced our trash talk.
Street Fighter IV is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 20th February 2009.