Version tested: Xbox 360
"So, what do you think of it then?"
I'm standing behind the Street Fighter IV cabinet at ATEI, the UK's only amusement arcade exhibition. Around the machine loiters a group of twentysomethings, all of whom invented or lied about the names of companies they work for in order to gain access to this supposedly industry-only exhibition. They lied because of this game and this game alone.
We're playing winner-stays-on. The kid on the right, Akuma, is on a seventeen-win streak. He's wearing a single, fingerless leather glove on his right hand, presumably to absorb the sweat that comes from being a champion. It is super-dramatic.
The young man I'm standing with turns to answer my question. He looks me in the eye and says: "Dude. This game is the second coming. The actual second coming."
Two minutes later, glove-boy loses to a New Challenger. The place erupts with cheers, fast dampened as we remember we're supposed to be here to assess whether or not to lay down the GBP 12,000 asking price for two of these machines, not to partake in an impromptu tournament.
Five months earlier, I'm sat in a Tokyo restaurant talking with staff members from Square Enix. One man is lamenting the fact that his best friend at the developer recently left to work at Capcom.
"He's gone to help out with Street Fighter IV, of course," he says, sadly. "I am so unbelievably jealous." Here is a man who builds JRPGs for a living, the very antithesis of the fast-paced competitive beat-'em-up.
Earlier that week, I'm holed up in an arcade in Shinjuku. It's packed with competitors trying out the game, everyone from young teenagers to middle-aged salarymen on a lunch break: a demographic spread that exemplifies Street Fighter IV's unusually broad appeal. They came for this game, and this game alone. That whole week, there is something in the Tokyo air, a whisper on the breeze: Street Fighter is back.
So before we even get to today, the week of the game's console release, Capcom has achieved the unthinkable. While it would be too generous to suggest that this game is reviving an ailing arcade industry, there's no doubt that the deep-rooted passions of a whole generation of players who played Street Fighter II at school have been rekindled. And alongside these returning prodigals, Street Fighter IV has managed to create a buzz amongst younger gamers, too.
It's no fluke. Every facet of this game has been meticulously planned, weighed and refined into a sort of Street Fighter concentrate, the bewitching essence of the series. There's the iconography: Ken's crimson Gi and Chun-Li's flowing white hair ribbons; the world map that flashes up between every bout, showing you which country you're heading off to for the next fight; and the remixed classic Street Fighter II melodies that soundtrack key battles. These visual and sonic touchstones reveal the game's aim - to modernise the series' most famous and best-loved entry.
The result is the very best re-imagining of classic videogaming yet seen, no less than the definitive Street Fighter, a game which makes the previous entries in the series seem like mere echoes. The character designs, popped into polygons for the first time since the mediocre EX spin-offs, at last feel at home in 3D. In the animation and the detailed and dynamic facial expressions, Capcom captures Chun-Li's fluid grace, Ken's ballsy American disposition, Ryu's hard-hitting but dour demeanour and Dan's hopeless fanboyism with a new clarity. These are the characters as they were always meant to be seen - at an unerring 60 frames per second, the camera tilting and shifting to provide dramatic angles, time slowing to fully capture every eye-popping combo and Ultra finishing move.
But while it may be a treat for the eyes, it is in the hands that Street Fighter IV reveals itself to be a bona-fide classic. It goes back to basics, in particular reducing the defensive game to an honest block and the new and straightforward Focus attacks that replace Street Fighter III's demanding parries (which, while good for marvelling at on YouTube, were a barrier to entry for most players).
Triggered by holding down the medium kick and punch buttons simultaneously, the Focus attack puts your character in a power-up state, during which it can absorb a single hit from an opponent without taking damage. Releasing the buttons triggers a reversal move that can then be linked into a chain of other attacks. The simplicity of execution means even beginners can introduce it into their games, with experts' emphasis placed on when and how it's used.
Special moves, as ever, are triggered by moving the joystick in a motion that apes the on-screen move. With generous input windows, even the trickiest of moves can now be mastered within a short space of time. Combined with the wide frame windows for combination attacks, it's now far easier to execute two- and three-hit attacks in quick succession.
In this way the game finds the best balance of accessibility and challenge yet seen in the series. You no longer worry about whether you'll be able to pull off the move you want to at the moment you intend, but rather when best to pull it off, a distinction that narrows the gap between beginner and expert play. Focus cancels, dizzying cross-ups and technicals are still there for the elite, but their mastery is required only for the masters. Everyone else is welcome once more.
While the orthodox Arcade mode provides the core of the experience - putting your character on a global tour during which they fight six general opponents, then an arch-rival and, finally, the game's boss Seth - Street Fighter IV succeeds in integrating the online and offline experience elegantly. The option to allow other players around the world to challenge you while you're playing through the arcade mode is both ingenious and exquisitely implemented.
It mimics the arcade experience exactly, breaking into the flow of your progression, taking you out to play against a human competitor, allowing you to play rematches against them and finally, when you're all done, reinserting you into the single-player game where you left off. Our only criticism of the set-up is the inability to switch the option off mid-game (it has to be turned off on the start screen). It's taken us more than an hour to progress through a single arcade run on occasion, simply because of the sheer number of new challenger interruptions.
Online, there are two ways to play: Player matches and Ranked matches. The former's just for fun and practice, while the latter employs a Battle Point system that rewards wins with BP points and punishes losses by subtracting them. The game succeeds in choosing opponents of a similar skill level, something that will only improve as the global community settles into a natural hierarchy. Accessing both Player and Ranked matches can be a hit-and-miss affair - we've found searching for Custom matches yields better results than a blind search. But once in battle, the netcode, even against Japanese players on the other side of the world, is flawless. In well over 200 online matches, only one has suffered any sort of lag.
The final chunk of the game rests in the sprawling Challenge Mode, which offers a multitude of Time Attack, Survival, and Trial challenges to work through. Time Attack and Survival modes offer multiple stages to tackle across two difficulty levels, one of which has its own specific leaderboard. The Trial challenges teach you moves and combos of scaling difficulty for each of the game's 25 characters, a useful feature for expanding your competence. These features, which go far beyond the usual beat-'em-up arcade conversion's, offer challenges of varied colour and nuance and reveal Capcom's keen understanding of the need to provide the player with multiple and ongoing challenges, deep into the game.
Key to this are the 'titles' and 'icons' rewarded for certain achievements throughout the game. You can assign your profile one unlocked title - a graphically illustrated phrase such as Fledging Fighter, King of the Hill or Retiree that describes your character - and one pictorial icon. These customisations can be used to intimidate (or mislead) opponents online but, with 432 titles and 260 icons to be collected, all unlocked by meeting various criteria in both online and offline modes, you gotta catch ‘em all.
In addition, medals are awarded for online play: one earned every time you perfect an opponent, or beat one using chip damage, or finish with an ultra combo, for example. These medals have no greater purpose than to act as a kind of dog-tag collectible, reminding you of past victories. Capcom has fully understood the need to reward players for spending time in their game, and the sheer volume of collectibles is dizzying.
Street Fighter IV's niggles are few, and overwhelmed by its many triumphs. There is some disappointment with the four new characters, none of whom seem to quite fit the classic Street Fighter aesthetic (Crimson Viper in particular looks like she's just stepped out of an SNK game). Seth, the game's Dr Manhattan-esque final boss, is a particularly cheap and sorry bastard whose near-unblockable (but weak) Ultra move will no doubt cause many tantrums above the easiest difficulty. We found being forced back to the character select screen after a continue an unnecessary irritation, adding an often superfluous load. And finally, the lack of any spectator slots online, something that may be addressed in a future patch to allow for friends to play winner-stays-on, is a slight oversight.
But after over a month of playing Street Fighter IV almost daily, what has become quite clear is that it manages to appeal to a huge range of abilities and tastes without ever compromising its fidelity. Moreover, what is unusual - astounding, even - is Capcom's care in delivering a conversion that goes far beyond what is normally expected of a console beat-'em-up.
Indeed, the bulk of the package, from the extensive Challenge mode through to the option to select Japanese or English voice acting on a per-character basis, ensures that the console release feels like the definitive version of Street Fighter IV. Even discounting the gigantic online superstructure that will make the game a packed competitive arena for years to come, there's enough content offline to inspire weeks and months of play - the kind of investment long-form RPG epics demand, not five-minute gameplay sucker-punches born in the arcade.
The question for Capcom - the looming problem for a company whose game exemplifies its genre more than any other - is only this: where next? There will no doubt be tweaked versions and updates released into arcades and via patches over the next two years, but these will be edits, not rewrites. And while there will no doubt be a small but vociferous core of Third Strike veterans who cry foul over the series' apparent simplification, they will be vastly outnumbered by those players who get to fall in love again with the Street Fighter of their youth: one that's easy to pick up and play, yet near-impossible to master. As a result this is, in almost every way that matters, the perfect Street Fighter.
Or, as my friend at ATEI would put it: dude, this is actually the second coming.
10 / 10