I've been playing as Balrog in Street Fighter 5 for a month now - pretty much ever since he was released as a downloadable character - and despite my best efforts, I just can't get on with him at all.
I loved playing as the boxing brute in previous Street Fighter games, particularly Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo and Street Fighter 4. In both of those games he was as fun to play as he was well-rounded. Throughout Capcom's famous fighting game series, Balrog hasn't always been top tier, but he's always been there or thereabouts.
But in Street Fighter 5, Balrog is much changed, and for me not in particularly fun or useful way.
Balrog is a high damage character in Street Fighter 5. That's his trademark from previous games, and it makes sense that he should pack a punch in this game, too. But when it comes to defense, Street Fighter 5's Balrog is sorely lacking.
There are few reasons for this. One is that unlike some other characters, he doesn't have an "invincible" move on "wakeup". What this means is that after he's knocked down, he can't perform a move that is guaranteed to defeat attacks from his opponent.
He does have one move, the EX version of which does feature "armour" (that it, is absorbs an attack as it begins), but this armour absorption is not active when the move first begins. This means a well-timed attack from his opponent will defeat it. It's also incredibly unsafe because if the opponent blocks it, it leaves Balrog open to a high-damage punish.
What this means is Balrog struggles against characters that favour a rush-down strategy, and in Street Fighter 5, getting up close and personal is the name of the game. As Balrog, you're forced to play a blocking guessing game against your opponent. Do I block high or low? Am I being attacked from the front or from behind? Because Balrog doesn't have a useful escape option, he can be frustrating to play. R. Mika, the rush-down mix-up wrestler I've reported on before, is Balrog's worst nightmare.
There are more problems. Balrog is the only character in Street Fighter 5 without a cross-up attack. This means he can't safely jump in on opponents he's knocked down with an attack timed to hit behind them as they rise.
Now, it's important to note that Balrog has never had a cross-up, but Street Fighter 5 did much to change the way established characters work. Take Ken, for example. He's completely different to previous versions of the character and plays nothing like his long time sparring partner, Ryu. It would have been an interesting twist on Capcom's part to give Balrog a cross-up for the first time.
Couple this with Balrog's truly terrible throw range (you have to be really close to your opponent to land a throw), and boxer doesn't have much in the way of a close-up pressure game.
There are many more perhaps less significant problems with Balrog that combine to make me want Capcom to tweak the character. He's all well and good when he's on the front foot, smashing his opponent's face in with punch after punch after punch. But when plan A doesn't work out for Balrog, he doesn't have much of a plan B to fall back on. In short, he's not particularly well-rounded, unlike so many Street Fighter 5 characters, such as Ryu, Chun-Li, Nash, Ken and Necalli.
I've kept an eye on the reaction of tournament players who used Balrog in previous versions of the game, and the early days reception doesn't look good.
Eduardo "PR Balrog" Perez, perhaps the most high-profile Balrog player in the world, kicked off a Balrog backlash of sorts when he tweeted an image showing the ineffectiveness of boxer's anti-air fierce punch against Ryu's jumping kick.
So the AA is fine on Balrogs st.mp BUT they really need to fix this. It looks terrible. (I got hit too) pic.twitter.com/Jrgg5pjgAh— PR Balrog (@PRBalrog) August 2, 2016
The image is more funny than anything else (I find Balrog's anti-air pretty useful), but it sparked an interesting debate about the character that has rumbled throughout the fighting game community.
Javits Arias, another high-profile Balrog player, recently announced his decision to drop Balrog. In a video interview with Floko.tv, he explained the decision in some detail (if you're into Street Fighter it's well worth a watch).
I dropped Balrog already. Besides good damage (only in VT), he's not well rounded enough to be competitive in high level. Too many problems.— Javits Arias (@jav1ts) August 2, 2016
Javits shares many of the concerns of his fellow Balrog players, saying Balrog needs a buff or two if he's to be taken seriously at tournaments. He also points out there there seems to be a disconnect between Street Fighter 5's launch characters and the DLC characters.
So far, Street Fighter 5 DLC has seen the release of five characters: Alex, Balrog, Guile, Ibuki and Juri (Urien is up next). Most of the stronger characters in Street Fighter 5 are well-rounded. That is, they have tools that cover a lot of situations. And they're all pretty much launch characters.
The DLC characters certainly have tools at their disposal, but they're situational. There's also a feeling that the DLC characters have too few moves that can be used to pressure opponents after they're knocked down, either by forcing them to block as they rise, or by pinning them down.
"It seems like they changed their design philosophy with the newer characters," Javits says in the video. "It's almost like the game was designed in two different stages. They created the game with the original characters in mind and they were given certain tools.
"And then later down the line they said, oh no wait a minute, some of those tools were pretty crazy, from this point forward we're not going to give anyone those tools any more.
"Since Balrog is part of that group, he seems to follow that trend."
Now, Balrog has only been out for a month, so it's hard to make a definitive statement about his long-term capability. Fighting game experts often take years before they believe they have mastered a character, and I'm sure it will be the same for Street Fighter 5, which has only been out for half a year.
And there's a lot to love about Balrog's design. He looks fantastic, his punches feel wonderfully satisfying when you land them (they even make the screen shake!), he's fast and, as I mentioned, he does a huge amount of damage. Some reckon if he had the tools many say he lacks, he'd be far and away the best character in the game, and who'd want that?
But in the short-term at least, it looks like fighting game's most famous boxer faces an uphill struggle. Meanwhile, I think I'll go back to Birdie.