Street Fighter IV (Xbox 360)
Updating a fighting game series, especially a well-regarded one, is always a delicate proposition. Ideally, the game you're starting with is already a well-balanced rock-paper-scissors battle, where every character, move and tactic can be countered by someone skilled and/or quick enough. Adding new content onto this framework, as sequels must to stay fresh, could potentially topple the entire house of cards, making the original game unrecognizable to fans and inaccessible to newcomers.
This is arguably what's happened to the Street Fighter series over the past 15 years. After achieving popularity with the seminal Street Fighter II and perfecting the balance and roster with the still-popular Super Street Fighter II Turbo (SSF2T), a chain of reinventions erased most, if not all, of that familiar fighting system that the developers had worked so hard to achieve. Sure, there were a few memorable gameplay additions amongst the cavalcade of new characters, moves and mechanics introduced in the Street Fighter Alpha, Street Fighter Ex, Capcom Vs. and Street Fighter III series, but all these new layers introduced unnecessary complexity and overly technical emphasis to the near-perfect balance of the original SSF2T.
So we come to Street Fighter IV, a game that adds to the heritage of the series by taking away most of these distracting layers and coming close to recapturing the nostalgic ideal of the old SSF2T.
Part of this comes from basic familiarity. A full 15 of Street Fighter IV's 25 selectable characters come directly from SSF2T, most with nothing more than cosmetic changes. While expert-level players might notice some small differences, most will simply see the same familiar moves playing out with the same familiar animation patterns and executed with the same familiar controller motions as in SSF2T (though you'll probably want to invest in some sort of arcade stick to pull off those moves -- the d-pad on the standard Xbox 360 controller is uniquely awful for pulling off most of the circular controller motions for special moves).
Familiarity isn't a bad thing -- it's like slipping on a worn but comfortable pair of sneakers after spending years trying, and failing, to get used to tough patent leather. But it does beg the question: Why bother? Specifically, why did Capcom have to make a new game if all the best bits were already inherent in SSF2T, a game that was recently ported to modern systems in a highly successful, downloadable HD Remix?
Well, the obvious answer lies in the small -- but not insignificant -- parts that have been added to the formula, most notably the five new characters. Four of these are playable from the outset, and surprisingly none of them feel like simple retreads of the well-known existing Street Fighter archetypes. Sure, there are familiar elements -- Abel brings to mind Zangief's grapple-heavy style; El Fuerte's speed and jump-heavy tactics mimic Vega's; Rufus captures the over-the-top, self-aware, bombastic style of Dan -- but each new character has just enough tweaks and fresh abilities to create their own unique style. It's hard to know how these characters will fit into the established hierarchy of professional Street Fighter play, but players should have plenty of fun integrating the new strategies and tactics into their game plans.
And then there's Seth, the fifth new character and the final boss of the game's main single-player mode. In stark contrast to the striking visual designs of the other newcomers (see: C. Viper's flowing hair or Rufus' perpetually jiggling oversized belly), Seth is a blue, muscle-bound, genital-free Adonis who resembles nothing as much as a cheap knockoff of Dr. Manhattan from "Watchmen." "Cheap" also aptly describes Seth's move set, which synthesizes the best abilities of every other character into a single, unstoppable force that threatens to topple the game's careful balance. Seth has the reach of Dhalsim, the powerful throws of Zangief, the quick projectiles and Dragon Punch of Ryu, and a teleportation move that allows him to change his position at any time. If the rest of Street Fighter IV is a carefully arranged game of rock-paper-scissors, Seth is the nuclear bomb that makes whatever other character you throw at it largely moot. I'm predicting a lot of "No Seth" house rules being set up in homes around the country relatively soon.
More than any of the characters, though, Street Fighter IV's most important addition to the series is the Focus Attack. This system lets players absorb the energy from a single attack, add it to their life bar, and automatically respond with a crippling blow in the process. At first the move seems too powerful -- a nearly impossible-to-stop tactic that can swing the balance of a match from one extreme to another in a single move. Eventually, though, players will learn how to break through with throws, multi-hitting attacks and armor-breaking moves that can go through the previously unshakeable Focus. Before long, the Focus Attack is just another part of the arsenal, to be pulled out and traded back and forth almost automatically.
Blanka's not the only character with electricity...
While the gameplay is still strictly two-dimensional, Street Fighter IV's addition of a third graphical dimension is also noteworthy. These aren't the blocky bastardizations of the Ex series, but rather smooth, sinewy 3-D characters that gel into masses of bulging, rippling muscles and striking, flowing black outlines. The artists here have managed to capture the distinctive, manga-influenced style of the existing series and add a thickness and heft that makes it hard to go back to the old, flatter games. There are a few strange stylistic choices (chief among them, Chun Li's overly mannish limbs), but they're outweighed by the highly expressive facial expressions that draw you into each character. The most memorable moment of any match is when the camera pans around your character preparing an Ultra combo. Seeing your opponent's absolutely distraught face as you unleash an Ultra combo is a moment you'll never forget.
And it's moments like those that stick with you more than anything else about Street Fighter IV. They come as that final low roundhouse caps off an unbelievable comeback with just a sliver of life left; as a blocked Dragon Punch gets turned around with a combination attack; as a Focus Attack turns a devastating blow into a boon. They're the kinds of moments you probably last remember having on an old Street Fighter II cabinet, made new by new tactics, new technology and a new appreciation for a fighting system stripped down to its nostalgic ideal.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.