Olympics Week – Street Fighter IV – First Impression

The 2008 Olympics may be long over, but the Michael Phelps PR tour continues. So we march on with our much belated Olympics Week at WE’LL FIX IT IN POST. In celebration of the Olympic games, I’ll be covering a series of games and films that have a link to your favorite events.

In today’s entry, we salute Judo, Tae Kwon Do and Boxing in our discussion of STREET FIGHTER 4.

(Image from 1up.)

During the San Diego Comic Convention, I tried out SF4 on one of the gorgeous arcade cabinets that Capcom brought from Japan and set up in the middle of a wrestling ring. Although the lines were far to long to handle on day one, LeKeith and I made sure to make a beeline for the Capcom booth at the beginning of day two. As we stood in line, we were greeted by the sad sight of a cabinet played to the point of extinction. But luckily there were a dozen other units still up and running.

When we reached the front of the line, we were faced with the crucial decision: what character to choose. Driven by curiosity, we opted to select two of SF4′s new challengers. I chose Crimson Viper, intrigued both by the character’s look and her moveset, which seemed to be one that favor speed and quick combos. She also appeared to have a few electricity-based attacks, which brought back fond memories of Blanka, my go-to character in the original STREET FIGHTER II (another decision that I made based entirely on appearance).

(Image from 1up.)

LeKeith opted to pick El Fuerte, the luchador of the Street Fighter world. Since he was based on the high-flying Mexican wrestlers (as opposed to the standard hyper-buff WWE wrestlers), El Fuerte exhibited a quick moveset that seemed to use aerial attacks (like a flying elbow), as well as fast grapples. LeKeith was happy that El Fuerte seemed to use legitimate wrestling moves, as opposed to the fantastic wrestling that often fills fighting games (VIRTUA FIGHTER 5′s El Blaze excluded, of course).

(Image from 1up.)

While not strictly a “retro” game, SF4 is an attempt by Capcom to bring back the SFII fans that have abandoned the series. Their approach is twofold. First, the majority of the roster in SF4 consists of characters from SFII. The original 8 World Warriors return, along with the 4 boss characters. Their movesets, for the most part, remain intact. Capcom is hoping that these familiar faces – given a sharp facelift for the high-def era – will entice a lapsed player to throw a quarter or two into a SF4 machine.

Secondly, they’ve pared down the mechanics of the game. Later entries in the Street Fighter series – such as the Alpha games and STREET FIGHTER III – added complex mechanics that appealed to aficionados of the fighting game genre, but alienated the casual player. (It also didn’t help that Capcom didn’t introduce SFIII until years after the original fighting game craze had crashed to the ground, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

SFIII, for example, added the concept of parrying. By tapping the joystick towards your opponent at the moment that their attack was about to reach your sprite, you could “block” the attack. As you can see from the video below, this mechanic created opportunities for high level players to stage incredible comebacks by blocking every attack thrown at them, even if they were part of a Super Combo.

But your average player didn’t have the time or patience to learn the precise timing of each move and the animation of the various sprites. Which meant that parrying became a barrier to entry, rather than an enhancement of the game. To counter this problem, Capcom has pared everything back to the basics. Parrying is gone. Air guarding (the ability to block moves while in mid-jump) is gone. Instead, we’re back to the traditional ground-based combat that originated in SFII. If you can remember your old moves from 1993, you should be able to hold your own in SF4.

That doesn’t mean that Capcom hasn’t tweaked the formula. Unlike previous games where the Super Meter could only be used to unleash Super Moves, SF4 allows advanced players to use portions of the Super Meter to “charge” up their regular special moves for increased damage. This introduces a risk/reward system that forces a player to choose between chipping away at an opponent or spending the entire Super Meter on an extremely powerful Super Attack. It adds some strategy to the game by making a player with even a partial Super Meter a deadly threat.

(Image from 1up.)

After my limited playtime, I walked away feeling like Crimson Viper was a reasonably balanced character. As with most speed-based characters, her increased mobility is exchanged for a lower level of strength. Her lightning uppercut and flaming kick do make up for the lack of strength, and both moves cut across the screen fairly quickly. That being said, both moves require proximity to your opponent and neither allows her to cancel out those projectile attacks, such as a Sonic Boom or Hadouken. That weakness, however, is nothing new to the series, as Chun Li, E. Honda and Blanka all suffered from that limitation (at least until Chun Li got her own fireball).

(Image from 1up.)

Although the four new characters (UK soccer hooligan Abel and obese American Rufus, in addition the aforementioned Crimson Viper and El Fuerte) were fun to finally see in action, the fans at San Diego were eager to find out whether any additional characters would be added. SF4 producer Yoshinori Ono had already stated that two fan favorites were set to return – the cammo-clad Cammy and everyone’s favorite Street Fighter villain, Akuma (a.k.a. Gouki in Japan). There were even rumors that Sheng Long, a character originally created as an April Fool’s joke in EGM, would appear in SF4. But until recently, there had been no official word out of Capcom.

Then the big news broke that Akuma was already in the game. Although fans had assumed that he wouldn’t appear until the home release, it turns out that Capcom added some last minute little spice to the arcade release of SF4.

(Image from Capcom.)

Akuma evidently plays the role of Capcom’s financial manager, as he randomly appears whenever a player is doing a little too well against the normal computer opponents (i.e. not spending enough money). Once his appearance is triggered, Akuma will, much like the schollyard bullies of old, drop the hurt on you and attempt to take your lunch money (or arcade tokens, as the case may be). As you can see from the footage below, Akuma retains most of his classic moveset and loves to spam fireballs. You may also notice that the human player using Abel is incredibly good at the game.

More recent news has revealed that Akuma is, in fact, a playable character, if your local arcade operator chooses to unlock that option.

But, since SF4 no longer features an air guard, I worry that Akuma’s mid-air fireballs may break the game. Having played the STREET FIGHTER ALPHA series extensively, as well as the MARVEL VERSUS CAPCOM series, I’ve grown accustomed to being to block mid-air. That habit was probably the cause for 90% of the damage I took during my time with SF4. The only saving grace is that most of the characters in SF4 can’t launch ranged attacks mid-jump. While they can certainly do a flying kick or punch, or even launch a Flash Kick or Shoryuken from the ground, you can generally rely on the fact that a jumping character isn’t going to be able to touch you unless you’re next to him.

Akuma’s mid-air fireballs, however, throw that entire premise out the window. Although the player in the above video doesn’t seem too bothered, the mid-air fireballs still kept him locked on the ground. Considering the fact that all of the new characters lack a ranged attack (i.e. Fireball, Sonic Boom, etc.), the inability to jump across the stage towards your opponent definitely limits your offensive capabilities. And that’s the kind of exploit that an expert level player could use to dominate a machine or online play.

(Image from 1up.)

I’m sure Capcom has already thought of these concerns and I’m now curious to see if Akuma’s mid-air fireballs have been balanced out. They may have extended the gap between the time that Akuma puts out his hand and when the fireballs fly out. Or they may have minimized the damage that the fireballs themselves cause, limiting their use to being combo starters. Whatever the solution, the appearance of Akuma is still cause for celebration in my book. Why get stuck with Ryu or Ken when you can join the side of pure evil?

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