VIDEO: The trailer for Street Fighter IV
The biggest problem with fighting games, as a genre, is the ludicrous level of ability you need even to take part. If there's a gaming subculture more hostile to the efforts of neophytes and dilettantes, I don't want to know about it. Far from the crowd-pleasing, eye-popping brawlers of yesteryear, today's head-to-head fighters are about deep strategy, arcane control schemes, and reaction times no slower than 1/60 of a second. It may be the greatest achievement of Street Fighter IV, then, that it does not chew up and spit out the initiate — instead, it gently gums you.
|Street Fighter IV | For Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 | Rated T for Teen | Developed and Published by Capcom|
That is, if you've played a Street Fighter game within the last 20 years, you'll find a handhold right away. The roster is stocked with franchise veterans, in particular from the monumental Street Fighter II. Most characters' move sets are based on established formulations: perform a quarter-circle on the joystick to throw Ryu's Hadouken fireball, charge back for two seconds and then press forward to hurl Guile's Sonic Boom, and so on. It's hard not to feel that Capcom is trying to lure lapsed players back into the fold.
For the most part, it works. The game is a joy to look at, with expressive, brightly colored avatars ranging from the massive Zangief to the petite Sakura and even the green, furry beast called Blanka. Combat is resolutely two-dimensional, confining opponents to a single plane. The characters are responsive and quick-moving, with none of the bizarre floatiness that's always seemed to afflict 3-D fighters. Street Fighter doesn't dally with frivolities like environmental hazards or ring-outs. The focus is right where it should be: on the match-ups in the ring. And don't think the fighting mechanics are too rudimentary. There are numerous advanced techniques that you can just forget about ever mastering — though they rarely seem to spring up.
This fourth installment is true to the series's arcade roots in a way that previous home versions never could be, and that's due to on-line play. Just as in the arcade, your single-player game can be interrupted at any time by a new challenger, only now he or she can be anywhere in the world. In fact, so many people are queued up in this virtual arcade that it's impossible to progress through even one round of single-player unless you turn the request function off. Who wants to play against the computer, anyway?
The talent level in network play varies widely — a welcome development. For every savant who can destroy you in about five seconds with a series of 12-hit combos, there's another player out there who's also struggling to throw a fireball, so you both stand at opposite ends of the screen, punching nothing.
Here's the elephant in the room: playing on a standard gamepad is not just difficult, it's physically painful. Executing most moves was tricky on the PlayStation 3's relatively forgiving directional pad; I feel for the poor bastards trying to manipulate the rigid plastic disc that Microsoft calls a control pad. Many serious players, and several professional reviewers, play on a dedicated peripheral that has the same joystick and three-on-three-button layout you'd find in the arcade. I don't doubt this is the ideal way to play. But the game ships without it, and Capcom's recommended stick, the Mad Catz FightStick, retails for more than the software does.
Consider this fair warning. If you're not willing to pony up for the hardware, Street Fighter IV will make your thumbs bleed (as it did mine). Then again, it's hard to think of a higher compliment than that.