"I joined Capcom 17 years ago with just one ambition: to be involved with Street Fighter in whatever way I possibly could." Yoshinori Ono has the incredulous smirk of a boy given the keys to his very own sweet shop. "My love of the game was my entire reason for taking the job.
"Eventually I managed to work my way onto the team making the Alpha games, then I helped out with Street Fighter III. But to think that I would have the entire franchise resting on my shoulders... I never dreamt something like that might happen. Sometimes it's a burden and sometimes it's a joy. But either way, it's always a constant surprise to me."
Ono stands at the helm of the most treasured fighting game series, producer of the defining entry to the genre this generation, Street Fighter IV. The game's success defied not only Ono's expectations, but also Capcom's, who almost didn't green-light the project when he first pitched his vision for it in 2007. The company certainly had no plans for a sequel at that point.
Now, a year after Street Fighter IV breathed new life into the world of fighting games, rekindling the passions of many 20 and 30-something players and introducing an a new generation to its iconic characters, I sit with Ono in a darkened London club. It's here a few writers and a slew of top British players - including European Champion Ryan Hart - have gathered to try out what he describes as the "definitive" version of his game.
It's a rare sight: a private preview event where everyone in attendance is here for the game alone, as oppose to the paid bar, the opportunity to network or the scavenger promise of freebie merchandise. I overhear one young attendee ask a passing waitress bearing a silver tray of snacks how much a slice of pizza costs. Twitch competition is hungry work. He grins ear to ear when she hands him two of the complimentary canapés, her detached professionalism only just masking a quizzical skew of the head. Another player sits down next to him, asking: "Er, how much did that cost?" "Two pounds," the first player replies, deadpan.
The event starts at 10:30 in the morning, a queue of players clutching bespoke fighting sticks winding their way around the block long before the doors open. By the time the venue closes, most of those in attendance (including the European and British Championship-title holders) will have been glued to one of the 20 or so game set-ups for close to 11 hours.
Here Ono is a god and these are his followers. There are few other games that inspire this kind of unflinching devotion today. As he shifts in his seat with a barely-contained enthusiasm that doesn't wane throughout the long day, I ask him where he could possibly go next.
"To be honest, I don't think I've really got anywhere. Seeing all these people playing here is great but I don't feel like we've arrived yet." What's the vision he's after then, I wonder? "In all honesty, while Street Fighter IV has been a huge success," he explains, "the fighting game still has not reached the heights of popularity it enjoyed in the late eighties or early nineties. Until I see all gamers playing fighting games again, I'm not going to stop pushing on."
Ono's quest for mainstream, widespread adoption of the game and the genre it spearheads may have something to do with his own abilities at Street Fighter, which are unexpectedly average. Midway through the interview he invites me to spar with him, and, while I'm an intermediate player at best, I win every match.
There's not a hint of embarrassment to Ono in loss. He belly laughs every time I perform a reversal, slapping his leg with each KO. When, after taking the final round from him I pull out a camera to capture the moment for posterity, he leans into shot, pretending to strangle his own neck in shame, smiling eyes assuring the joke. I wonder if his own approach to the game, which seems to favour fun over technical mastery, has in any way coloured Super Street Fighter IV.
"You know, Street Fighter IV is not tailored for the hardcore players. Before we even started work on the first game we knew that we simply wouldn't surpass the success of Street Fighter III: Third Strike in that regard, because it's a game explicitly made for hardcore fighting game fans.
"We wanted to broaden the audience and we wanted people to casually think: 'Oh! That's the sequel to Street Fighter II - let's play that'. So yes, I think something of that has informed the design template for the game.
"This is the same reason Street Fighter IV hasn't performed as well as, say, the recent Tekken or Virtua Fighters in arcades. Our intention was never to sweep the arcade scene in Japan, which is split into super hardcore fighting game players and super casual fruit machine players. There's nothing in between. Street Fighter IV has been about reclaiming that middle audience, not just appealing to the pros."
Ono's assessment certainly correlates with that of Daigo Umehara, whom I interviewed last year. Despite being the top Street Fighter IV player in the world, he maintains a generally cool attitude towards the game, complaining that he thinks it favours defensive play.
"Yes, that is kind of true, but it didn't turn out like that by accident," Ono concurs. "We wanted to make a point. In my opinion, Street Fighter III: Third Strike became too much of an instinctive game. There's very little room to think.
"By contrast, in Street Fighter IV if you are under pressure or don't know what you're doing you can step back and give yourself time to work out what to do next. There's breathing space to make strategy, even when under pressure. That said, I believe we have made Super Street Fighter IV a more offensive game, but without discarding that original aim."
I ask whether Ono has been surprised by the demand for an arcade version of Super Street Fighter IV, especially from Western markets, where the arcade community is sparser than in Japan.
"I'm very aware of the voices calling for an arcade version of the game. Obviously the western arcade market in comparison to that in Asia is extremely small, so despite the volume of calls for an arcade version, they tend to be coming from a small niche.
"Am I disappointed that an arcade version appears financially unfeasible? Of course. I would love to be far more forceful in delivering m arcade machines to the Western market. But that's just not the landscape we're living in any more."
Here again, Ono seems causally dismissive of anything that is designed to explicitly appeal to hardcore fighting game fans, such as those who are eager for the arcade version. I ask him how the changes introduced to Super Street Fighter IV are working to appeal to an even broader audience.
"I'm so eager to invite new people into the game," he tells me. "I guess that's the reason the new characters we've picked all play quite differently from those seen before. We could easily have picked another Ryu-style character, but that's not going to help in attracting new players and in my opinion we've got more than enough 'shotos' already. We were eager to put new styles in the game, to broaden the flavour."
Work started on Super Street Fighter IV just 11 months ago, after the Championship Mode update was introduced to the vanilla game. A team of 110 staff worked on the core game (many more if you include the character intro and outro movies), 35 per cent of them in-house at Capcom and 65 per cent outsourced.
The main priority for Ono and his team was to perform a general overview and overhaul of the game, making play smoother and slicker. Next, the focus fell onto the Online modes and, when the team was satisfied with the setup there, they finally moved onto rebalancing all of the characters, tweaking the offensive and defensive stats for individuals based on data from the past year of Street Fighter IV play around the world and from the requests they heard from fans.
When it comes to Street Fighter it seems as though everyone has their own ideas about what features should be introduced and what should be discarded. I ask Ono how he decides who to listen to in all the conflicting noise. "Obviously I am not almighty," he says, with a chuckle.
"There is no way to reconcile all of the various requests the community makes of us. But what my team and I can do is to listen to what's behind the things being asked for. Often, when you look at what people are really wanting for the game, you find the requests are fundamentally similar. I try to identify these similar requests, link them together and provide a solution.
"Players are ostensibly selfish with their requests, asking for us to, essentially, make their chosen character amazing. I think we have generally handled these requests with the rebalancing of the game: the spread of character strength and weakness is perhaps the most even in the series history. But beyond this, often what players are really asking for is a sense of community, the knowledge that they are being heard.
"So a lot of what we've done with Super is to create mechanisms for building community, particularly in the online area. With this in mind we created the replay channel where you can share and upload videos of your fights, and you can invite your friends and watch and practice stuff together. All of these modes have been introduced to encourage people to gather and play together."
Much is made about Street Fighter tiers, the ranking ladder between each character based on how likely it is that a particular character will best another in the hands of two similarly-matched expert players. With this in mind, I ask Ono how much the team concentrates on balancing the characters to try and get an even spread between the tierings?
"I think that one of the most important things about Street Fighter is that each of the characters is distinct and they all have particular opponents that they have advantages against and disadvantages against," he says. "If we had, say, 40 characters who all played the same then there'd absolutely no point in having that many options. Everyone would just always just pick the random button.
"I think it's really important that each character is different in relation to others. So while we want to make the game consistent across different characters - and we certainly spent a lot of time examining characters that were too strong or not strong enough - that has to be balanced with also making the game interesting and varied. It's a difficult balance to strike, but I'm confident we've done our best here."
The day ticks by to a soundtrack of stick clicks and KO announcements. Player after player I speak to expresses enthusiasm for the update, applauding the quicker pace, the favouring of more offensive play, the easing of Ultra damage to encourage players to take more risks and the spread of new characters and the way in which they change the flavour of the whole experience. The overwhelming sense then, is that Ono's best is good enough.
Super Street Fighter IV is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 30th April and reviewed elsewhere on Eurogamer.