Release Date: February 17, 2009 (U.S.) / February 12, 2009 (JP) / February 20, 2009 (EU)
It's disturbing to realize this, but there are people playing video games today who weren't around, or who weren't old enough to remember, when Street Fighter II changed the landscape. It spawned an entire gaming subculture, kept arcades in business for the better part of a decade, put Capcom on the map as a major developer, touched off a wave of fighting-game mania that hasn't quite died down yet, cured cancer, taught orphans to laugh, reversed global warming, destroyed the massive asteroid hurtling toward our fragile planet, and invented the wheel.
It's possible that I'm exaggerating.
If you were interested in video games in the early '90s, you probably spent a lot of time at an arcade cabinet or at your SNES playing match after match after match of SF2. SF2 and its follow-up, SF2 Hyper Fighting, were licenses to print money for arcade operators, more so because they ran on the inexpensive CPS-1 hardware, and gotta-have games on the SNES and Genesis.
The only company that really managed to break Capcom's hammerlock on the fighting-game market, despite dozens of competitors, was Capcom itself. After Capcom had released Hyper Fighting, the game's fan base was growing by leaps and bounds and beginning to reach into the mainstream. Capcom promptly released Super Street Fighter II, which ruined the game's reputation among fans (by adding a couple of useless new characters while applying a bunch of serious, unnecessary nerfs to old ones) and arcade owners (by shifting the series to the new, expensive CPS-2 hardware).
Super Street Fighter II Turbo reclaimed some of SF2's popularity and is still played in arcades and tournaments to this day. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the series never really recovered. For years, SSF2T's only home version was on the ill-fated 3DO. The next game, Street Fighter Alpha, was unbalanced and felt half-finished, and while a couple of its follow-ups are decent, the series had gotten the legs kicked out from under it. Street Fighter III tried to reboot the series, but it debuted on expensive arcade hardware, couldn't be ported to the popular home consoles at the time, and wasn't actually very good until Third Strike came out. Even then, you have to be pretty hardcore to actually defend Third Strike, with its parries and bizarre cast of characters.
Some of the SF characters have shown up in various crossover games since, and Ryu is one of Capcom's figurehead characters, but for a while, it looked like the series was dead. Sure, it had and has a die-hard fan base, and SNK was keeping 2-D fighting alive by the skin of its frequently bankrupt teeth, but the core Street Fighter series had been locked up and forgotten.
As a result, Street Fighter IV feels like a reset switch has been hit somewhere. No playable character shows up who's from anything later than Street Fighter Alpha 2, the stages and roster are pure nostalgia bait, and even the story line — such as it is, for the Street Fighter plot is notoriously inconsistent and paper-thin — has taken a big step back.
SFIV actually takes place before SFIII, with Bison and his crime syndicate Shadoloo as continuing concerns and half of the roster looking to take him out. There's still a little of the SFIII lunacy going on in the few new characters' designs — the new boss Seth looks like the cyborg version of SFIII's Urien, and Rufus is just goofy as hell — but all in all, SFIV feels like it was made to make you remember how much you used to love SF2.
I played a lot of SF2, so I don't feel like I have much of a choice here. SFIV has that same feel to it, and the same well-optimized, almost lag-free XBLA net code that characterizes HD Remix — though it's far more impressive given SFIV's extremely detailed 3-D graphics. Nothing you can do during a match is likely to cause lag, ranging from an Ultra Finisher to picking a stage loaded with detailed background animations. You probably want to keep your roommate from running BitTorrent while you play online, but that's hardly the game's fault. With that said, we do recommend playing on Ethernet cables rather than using the wireless adapter, as the latter seems to cause your signal strength to fluctuate during bouts.
If you're wondering what exactly you do in SFIV online play, well, imagine an arcade with no tokens, and nobody you have to look at, and actually nobody you have to talk to, provided you mute your headsets. Once you host a match, you can freely select any unlocked character or background, and then invite a friend or wait for someone random to come and fight you. You can do Player matches, which are just for fun, or Ranked matches, where the outcomes go on your fighting game permanent record. Both types of online match add tons of longevity to the game, as all fighting games are better against human opponents than the CPU. It remains to be seen how deeply the hardcore fighting fan community gets into Ranked mode, but if nothing else, it's a pleasant concession for that type of player.
Despite SFIV's retro aesthetic, there are a couple of play mechanics that have snuck in from other games. As you attack and get attacked, you fill up a super meter. You can burn a quarter of the meter to deliver an EX attack, a powered-up version of one of your special moves, or use up the whole thing at once to deliver a super combo. Taking serious punishment fills up your Revenge gauge; once it's half full or more, you can hit your opponent with a high-powered Ultra Combo. The latter are the lengthy, heavily animated desperation moves you've probably seen videos of online.
You can also charge up a Focus Attack by holding the medium punch and kick buttons. The advantage to a Focus Attack is that even if you only charge it for a split second, it gets "hyper armor," allowing you to take an incoming attack on the chin and actually regenerate a small amount of health. If you can charge it for longer, the Focus Attack will drop your opponent to the ground, stunning him for a second and leaving him open for a follow-up attack. It requires some forethought to use properly, but it adds a degree of strategy to the fight that really opens up some characters' options.
A lot of fighting games make the mistake of neglecting sound design, but SFIV is not one of them. It comes packed with pretty much everything you could want: full English and Japanese audio for all characters, satisfying beef-smacking sound effects for punches and blows, and a theme song that inexplicably hearkens back to soulful early '90s R&B. You get English and Japanese versions of it that are interesting, though. Virtually all of the stage themes are new arrangements of familiar old themes, since so few characters in the game are truly new, but the new themes aren't conspicuously different in style or tone. The background music doesn't become grating as you put more hours into the game, though the decision to use the main theme song as the menu music for online play is a bit questionable.
My main complaint about the title is a platform issue. I'm playing the 360 version, and it's as if this control pad was designed from the ground up to be nearly worthless for this kind of game. There are a handful of other games that have highlighted the 360 controller's awful d-pad, but most of them are using it as a quick-select menu or something. When you're actually trying to input something like a dragon punch motion or any of the EX attacks, it's worse than useless. There is no point in buying SFIV unless you're going to drop the extra money for a better controller.
You could also probably argue that the game's heavy focus on unlockable characters is a downside. About half of the roster is initially unavailable when you start a new game. You can set the difficulty to Easiest and rifle through a quick series of one-round bouts against the computer to unlock most of the fighters, though. The final boss is still a chore to fight and re-fight dozens of times just to get the advertised characters in the game, but it's not a huge deal.
If you want to buy a good arcade stick or one of the SFIV-compatible control pads coming out for the game, then Street Fighter IV is a lot of fun. You'll be able to pick up your old characters from 1991 almost immediately, figure out their new tricks, and beat the crap out of your friends for hours on end.
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