Two years ago I would have struggled to get enough people together for some casual games of Third Strike, yet now the European fighter scene is once again thriving and it's all thanks to the spectacular Street Fighter IV. What an awesome year it's been. Now we're on the verge of the next instalment in the SFIV saga, and fans are hoping for more than a mere update.
The stats certainly look impressive, as Capcom has drip-fed the new character information in addition to a host of new features and online modes. But compared to SFIV, just how different is Super Street Fighter IV going to be to play? Well, we've had access to a near-complete build for the last few weeks, and based upon first impressions the biggest changes to SSFIV are its tighter balancing, increased speed and greater diversity.
With three Alpha additions, three Third Strike favourites, two new creations and the last two SFII classics, Capcom has gone above and beyond with the revamped SSFIV roster. Loading up the new select screen is a real dilemma: do you check out what changes have been made to your main character, or do you take one of the newbies out for a test run? We suggest you resist fireball-spamming and opt for the latter, as each of the new challengers provides a refreshing fighting experience.
Fighting out of the Alpha camp are Adon, Sagat's former pupil and a master of Jaguar style Muay Thai, Guy, a practitioner of Bushin Ryu ninjitsu, and Cody, an apathetic anti-hero with a rough brawler style. I'll also cover myself by saying that these guys don't originate from the Alpha series, but instead go back to Final Fight and the first Street Fighter.
Anyhow, Adon keeps all his Alpha moves like Jaguar Tooth and Jaguar Kick, and can rapidly move across the screen to keep his opponent under pressure. He also retains his three Super variations, which all start out the same but finish differently depending on which button you press.
In addition to having his classic Jaguar Revolver as an Ultra, Adon's second Ultra, the Jaguar Avalanche, works spectacularly as an anti-air and combos perfectly off a Rising Jaguar focus cancel. His mix-up game also improves with meter as his EX Jaguar Kick acts as a very swift overhead.
But whereas Adon is pure rushdown, in comparison Cody is a defensive fortress. Just like Adon he makes the transition to SSFIV with his Bad Stone, Criminal Upper and variable Ruffian Kick intact, but he also gains the Zonk Knuckle special. This works similarly to El Fuerte's Quesadilla Bomb, and requires a punch to be held down while it charges. Once released, Cody will quickly dodge and hook his opponent.
Cody's Last Dread Dust Ultra is also the ultimate anti-Ultra, as he interrupts his opponent by kicking dirt in their face before going to town with a wrench and lead pipe combo. If you want to chip the competition to death, you can pick up Cody's knife to increase his damage and range.
But out of all the Alpha new bloods, Guy has the most versatility. The red-clad ninja makes it into SSFIV with his full repertoire of Alpha 3 specials, including his vertical Hurricane Kick, his Bushin flip and his Hozanto shoulder barge. He can also play mix-up mind games with his Bushin Run, which can either hit low or hurtle into an overhead kick, which hits from almost a full screen away.
But perhaps his most interesting feature is his four-hit target combo, which in the corner can combo into his Bushin Hasoken Super for good damage. Guy players can also choose between a standard battering Ultra - which combos nicely in the corner with his Ninja Sickle command move - or opt for a more tactical command grab.
While Guy dabbles with target combos, it's in the Third Strike house where the mash-happy system is used most. Ibuki in particular, who seems to have 50 per cent of the moves in the game, has a total of nine targets combos in her command list - three of which can be done mid-air. Add this to her eight special moves - all of which return from SFIII and include her Kunai air projectile, Kazegiri dragon punch and Raida command grab - and you have a ninja who, just like her Third Strike incarnation, makes a 10-hit combo look like nothing. Fortunately she takes damage badly.
If jumping across the screen like a hyperactive maniac isn't your thing, SSFIV also offers up Dudley. This gentleman boxer is perhaps our favourite SFIII addition as his moveset is quickly understood and easy to implement, featuring the hard-hitting Machinegun and Short Swing Blow. Dudley also has a wealth of command moves and target combos that rival Ibuki in terms of diversity, and when combined with his defensive Cross Counter and Duck, he has an adaptive play-style that's effective at close-to-mid range.
In a tight squeeze Dudley can combo effortlessly off his Jet Upper dragon punch into either his Rocket Upper Super or his Corkscrew Cross Ultra - with no focus or Super cancel required. But if you're looking for pure rushdown thrills then look no further than tomboy Makoto and her chosen style of Rindoukan karate. I was never a massive fan of Makoto in Third Strike, mostly due to her risky play-style, but for SSFIV Capcom has subtly toned her down while maintaining her strong offence.
Makoto keeps all five of her Third Strike specials, including her Fukiage anti-air, Tsurugi kick and Oroshi karate chop, but now her attacks combo together in different ways. That said, her most impressive new trick allows her to Super-cancel out of a dash punch into her Tanden Renki - which ups her damage output and turns her skin red - but the kicker is that she still has enough time to combo into her first Ultra. Do this with a full Ultra meter and it will do nearly a third of full damage. Not bad, but it'll take some serious skill to set up.
But if you're a Street Fighter diehard who's after something completely untried, your only option is try one of two genuinely new additions. Juri was the first SSFIV exclusive that Capcom announced and as an evil Korean Taekwondo master she has a fittingly offensive play-style.
Her specials include the Senpusha wheel kick and the Shikusen triple air kick - whose follow-up hits are amusingly titled 2nd Impact and 3rd Strike. She also has the Fuhajin kick, which requires a fireball motion, plus if you keep the kick button held down she can store up to three projectiles that can be used mid-combo.
Ultra-wise, Juri has the Feng Shui Engine and the Kaisen Dankairaku. The former allows all her normal attacks to chain upwards in target combo style for a limited time, effectively giving her a custom combo, but the latter will likely prove more popular as it does good damage and combos flawlessly off her EX Shikusen. The timing isn't even that tight.
If you're more into Zangief and Rufus rather than Chun-Li and Cammy, then forget Juri as Turkish oil wrestler Hakan is your man. I actually had to check this out on Wikipedia as I genuinely thought it had been made up, but it turns out oil wrestling is actually Turkey's national sport. Go figure. This being Capcom, the entire concept has been taken to the extreme, and Hakan's moves are outlandish even by Street Fighter standards. As well as a goofy 360 command grab and a belly slide sweep - appropriately called the Oil Rocket and Oil Dive - Hakan's most useful special is his Oil Shower.
By dosing himself in olive oil Hakan's slide-and-grab reach will temporarily increase while he stays lubed up, and many of his moves focus on giving him the space to do this. The red giant also has the very useful ability of being able to slide towards his opponent while charging a focus attack, a skill possessed by no other character. But his craziest contributions to SSFIV are his Ultras, the first of which is his own greased-up take on the Final Atomic Buster and does a similar level of damage.
The second however, called the Oil Combination Hold, is the most effective anti-air in the game. If you jump on Hakan as he lies on his back then he's going to straddle you, oil you up and send you hurtling towards the arena wall for moderate damage. Only in Super Street Fighter IV.
So there you have it, a basic roundup of the eight most interesting fighters in SSFIV, which hopefully imparts a few bits and pieces that you didn't already know.
There's also Dee Jay and T. Hawk, who play more or less as expected, and as for the changes that have been made to the existing cast, there isn't room to go into that in any detail, but the tweaks are numerous. Examples include Ryu's Dragon Punch, which now hits twice at medium or above if you hit it deep, and Sagat's Tiger Uppercut which, along with him in general, has lost a lot of priority and damage. That said, he has a new Angry Charge move that allows him to power up the next hit at the cost of one Super stock.
Those who played SFIV to death are also going to find their tech and link timing needs readjusting, as the tempo for SSFIV has been turned up. The new dual-Ultra system ups the variety on offer by a considerable degree, and a lot of the returning characters are now more competitive thanks to their extra firepower.
Dhalsim, Balrog and E. Honda have command throws, Fei Long and Cammy have reversals, and Rufus supplements his insanely combo-able Space Opera Symphony with the new Big Bang Typhoon, which has little combo-ability but will catch you out if you so much as sneeze.
So on the whole SSFIV is shaping up to be every bit as impressive as its predecessor, offering fans more diversity and a tighter fighting experience. It will also be interesting to see if Capcom can improve the netcode to offer an online experience that is more on the level of BlazBlue, which still stands as the fighter benchmark.
Whatever the outcome, Capcom has already set the foundation for its greatest follow-up yet, and come 30th April it will be time to ditch the old main and hit the training mode with one of SSFIV's brilliant new characters. The only question is, who will you choose?
Super Street Fighter IV is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 30th April.