Well, it’s finally here. After a ten year hiatus, a bona fide new Street Fighter has come out. I’m a Street Fighter fan. I went against the grain and chose Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix for 2008’s Game of the Year over the likes of Fallout 3 and Metal Gear Solid 4. And I must say that I am slightly (just a bit, mind you) disappointed in Street Fighter 4. While it’s a quality game on the whole, it has several flaws that, while attempting to refine the gameplay, inadvertently waters everything down. Sprinkle in other issues with controls and online play and you get a game that, while very good, comes just short of being great.
Street Fighter 4 carries on the standard, traditional 2d fighting that it helped pioneer all the way back in 1991. It features all the control staples of the series, from the “quarter-circle” motions to the super meter to the long-standing 2d gameplay. This is 100% Street Fighter. The actual additions to the game are small in number, giving it more elements than Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo, but not so many that it has a steep learning curve. It takes the basic elements of SF2, adds in SF3’s EX Attacks (that is, stronger versions of regular moves which draw from your super meter), and sprinkles in some more…unique elements of its own. The biggest feature is the “Ultra Combo.” While the word “combo” implies that the move is multiple hits, “Ultras” (as I will now call them) are really just the same thing as supers, but with a separate meter that increases as damage is taken, and little faux-cutscenes. There are also “Focus Attacks” that allow the user to persevere through an attack en route to laying on a seriously powerful, combo-friendly hit. Last but not least is the “Focus Cancel,” which allows you to forego recovering from a special attack, or cut out of a special that hits numerous times, in order to lay on more attacks.
So, there are the additions, but where are the problems? Well, the most-basic problem lies in the controls. SF2 HD Remix trimmed the fat off the original’s inputs very successfully. It got rid of the motions that were so unwieldy, that they haven’t even appeared in an SNK game. Well, those are ALL back now. Want to do a flying kick with Fei Long? You’re probably going to jump into an uppercut more than a few times. Guile’s super? Incredibly difficult, even on a stick. And even the new features seem to go out of their way to frustrate. Ultra moves, with the exception of Akuma, use the same motion as supers, but call for three buttons to be pressed (either all three punch buttons, or all three kicks). In this way, there are two highly frustrating ways to mess up; you do the motion improperly and burn your meter with a pointless EX attack, or you miss the three button presses and you potentially waste a super move. Then there’s the Focus Cancels, which actually upstage Guilty Gear in terms of being tough to do. In Guilty Gear, to cancel out of an attack, you hit any three attack buttons and it cuts out. In Street Fighter 4, you have to do a focus attack (medium punch and medium kick) and hit forward twice, to dash in on the enemy. So not only do you have to shift your hand away from your attack buttons, you also have to awkwardly dash in and instantly pull off whatever attack you’re about to do. For a game that’s supposed to be partly designed with the amateur fighting gamer in mind, they definitely steepened the learning curve in this game.
The problems don’t end there, either. On top of leaving the refined controls of SF2 HD Remix behind, they also abandoned the superior online play. While Street Fighter 4 doesn’t have terrible online play (on the contrary, it is actually pretty good), HD Remix had, bar none, the best online play in a fighting game, ever. And for some reason, they didn’t use it. While HD Remix hid lag like Tim Russert held his political biases, the second a stall presents itself, SF4 goes all Keith Olbermann on you, upping the input delay so that you can’t even react. Even with a great connection, don’t bank on doing supers when you want to. Personally, I’ve noted that online play is consistently better with games made in America (or, at least, games that had online included through localization, a la King of Fighters Neowave). Far be it from me to imply that Japanese designers don’t care about American gamers to the point where they wouldn’t make a subtle tweak to the game’s code to instantly make it have superior online play. As I said, though, it’s got pretty good online play, on par with…well…every other high-profile, Japanese-made fighting game in recent years (like Soul Calibur 4, for example).
That’s a lot of bad stuff, right? Well, Street Fighter 4 is still really good. Like I said, it’s still Street Fighter. It’s well-crafted, has a sizable moveset for each character, and they really went through a lot of effort to increase the diversity between characters. The new fighters are all well-crafted and seriously distinguish themselves from the veterans of the series with their unique styles. There’s also a whole lot of side-stuff to play with, like Time Trials and a “Challenge Mode,” which shows you the ropes for some of the game’s crazier combos. You have to unlock nine of the characters. Check out my Naruto: Clash of Ninja Revolution review for what I think about unlocking characters in fighting games. Except imagine it being even angrier, because this is %*#@ing Street Fighter. This isn’t some license game. No excuse.
If you know anything about Street Fighter 4, you know that it looks great. It goes out of its way to be a glitzy counterpoint to many of the recent unchanged compilations that have dominated the fighting game genre. Everything from the menus to the beautiful Ultra Combos pleases the eyes and show off the high production values of the title. The game also does two great things rarely seen in fighting games; Japanese and English voice options and subtitles for the pregame smack talk. The voice options come with a unique twist…that you can PICK THEM FOR EACH INDIVIDUAL CHARACTER! Great stuff.
All that said, the score I gave SF4 is really self-explanatory. It comes just short of being great. With all the progress SF2 HD Remix made, SF4 took a very ironic step backwards from the enhanced port of a game from 1994. While SF4 isn’t really as good as HD Remix, it’s still worth buying if you’re looking for a good fighting game. There’s enough to the game to keep you coming back and the online play is good enough to hold you. While HD Remix is definitely the better game on the whole, SF4 is still worthy of your time.