“The weak lose and the strong win! Which of these fighters will prove the old axiom today?”
This question was posed in one of the many passionate lines spouted by the announcer in the original 2008 release of Street Fighter IV. A lot has changed since the surprising revival of this much-loved fighting series that had dominated the arcades in 90s, a revival that caught many by surprise, including internally at Capcom, but almost 8 years after its release there are still many who vow to answer this question.
In many ways, Street Fighter‘s fourth numbered instalment was to be considered a ‘return to form’ for the series. Street Fighter II had been a huge global hit on the arcade scene and on home consoles with ports to almost every system under the sun, making its way into the hands of both a widespread casual audience who adopted it as one of the greatest multiplayer titles of the 16-bit era, as well as hardcore, professional players who took the game’s seemingly basic gameplay (at least, to the untrained eye) and squeezed it for every ounce of complexity it contained. With a number of different versions bringing with them gameplay changes and even extra fighters, it was clear that Capcom clearly knew how to make the most of the wild popularity of what would become one of their biggest franchises.
However, come 1997 and the introduction of Street Fighter III, billed as the ‘New Generation’ of Street Fighter and with aspirations of breaking down a seemingly tired status quo with the introduction of radical, fast-paced new gameplay, fresh mechanics with a greater requirement for skill and precision in their execution, as well as an entirely original cast of characters, bar series staples Ryu and Ken, the initial reaction was more one of surprise than excitement. Whilst more established players and circles within the fighting game community quickly adopted the young title with its gorgeous sprite-work and fluid animations (the game had visual direction that is arguably unparalleled in an arcade fighter to this day), SFIII‘s more contemporary stylings were less effective in wooing the casual crowd in the same way Street Fighter II had, both at home and in the arcades. Alternatively the Street Fighter Alpha series offered a more anime-orientated aesthetic, a cast featuring a number of the original World Warriors as well as some brand new fighters with inspired designs (with some being sourced from other Capcom titles such as Final Fight) and most importantly, a focus on story; set as a prequel to Street Fighter II, avid players would finally discover the origins of many of their favourite fighters and their connections to each other, something that will no doubt be of interest to players preparing themselves for Street Fighter V and its newly unveiled story mode, which will feature a number of characters first introduced via the Alpha series.
Despite these numerous directions taken by the series and the various fans each sub-series garnered, Capcom had yet to replicate the glory days of Street Fighter II, especially when it came to reaching a western audience. The internal consensus within the company was that another numbered entry in the franchise would never be made, but it was thanks to a successful pitch from current series producer Yoshinori Ono that Street Fighter would finally see a revival. A previous pitch by the designer of Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, David Sirlin, featured 2.5D gameplay and a mixture of new characters along with the original cast of World Warriors. Whilst this pitch would never make it past the proposal stage, various ideas and concepts suggested would work their way into IV, as well as other Capcom fighters such as Tatsunoko vs Capcom: Cross Generation of Heroes.
With the dawn of the seventh generation of consoles quickly taking the gaming world by storm, the opportunity to create a definitive 2.5D Street Fighter title was easily within reach; video game graphics had improved to an unforeseen level and the characters fans of the series had grown to love could now be illustrated more faithfully and sophisticatedly with 3D models, especially when compared to Capcom’s previous attempt at a 2.5D Street Fighter, the Street Fighter EX series, which was developed in collaboration with Arika (who today are most well-known for the likes of Endless Ocean and many recent Dr. Mario titles). This brand new Street Fighter set itself apart from its predecessors with the well executed use of a combination of 3D models and backgrounds with 2D hitboxes to retain the ‘pixel perfect’ precision the series had become known for, as well as a curious art direction that rendered the fighters in a style intended to accent their animation with a hand-drawn, calligraphy-like fluidity. A fierce marketing campaign aimed at western audiences was launched, featuring the likes of an UDON-produced comic book series, animated prequel movie Street Fighter IV: The Ties That Bind, pre-order and collectors edition bonuses such as additional costumes and statuettes of select fighters and a whole host of accessories such as fightsticks and controllers produced to tie in the new release. Through this marketing push, as well as the significant inclusion of all 12 of the original cast of Street Fighter II, was successful in appealing to the more casual audience Capcom had lost in the Street Fighter III years. The game was met at release with widespread critical acclaim and only a month after the game’s home console launch, it had sold over 3 million copies. Street Fighter had finally been reborn.
Whilst the return of the entirety of Street Fighter II‘s cast, along with Fei Long and Cammy from its Super upgrade and a few fan favourites from the Alpha series to sweeten the pot, were a big hit, the game’s four brand new fighters quickly became a fierce talking point amongst fans of the series. Street Fighter IV‘s new fighters included French sambo fighter without a past Abel, gadget-decked super spy Crimson Viper, fast talking (and fighting… and eating…) kung-fu artist Rufus and luchador-meets-chef El Fuerte, as well move-stealing boss character Seth and finally, playable for the first time, Ryu and Ken’s master Gouken, who was said to have been killed by Akuma prior to the plot of Street Fighter Alpha (admittedly, IV‘s excuse for bringing Gouken back from the dead – that he was ‘sleeping’ – isn’t one of the series story strong points). This well-calculated balance between original concepts that did their best to stay faithful to what made the original SFII cast so likeable, as well as the beloved combatants of the 90s that had taken the world by storm, was clearly a winner. Although the new fighters introduced arguably lacked the certain flair that made the classic World Warriors so memorable and appealing, they have firmly taken their place as favourites amongst many, be it for their character designs and personalities, or their fighting ability from a professional standpoint.
New faces weren’t the only thing that the brand new instalment brought with it; a whole host of gameplay changes, both major and minor, helped to craft a title with a degree of complexity that has contributed to its popularity as a tournament game, as well as offering a more forgiving experience for first-time players or those seeking casual enjoyment from a fighting game. The all-new ‘Ultra Combo’ serves as the game’s comeback tool, a gague filled by taking damage that allows players to perform a powerful, often cinematic special move that can quickly change the balance of a seemingly one-sided battle. Whilst unpopular with some who feel it unfairly advantages less skilled players and too radically affects the turnout of battles, it’s safe to say that the introduction of said feature certainly helped to create a more flashy fighting experience that made for some truly exciting moments, both for players and spectators of the game. As well as this, the new ‘Focus Attack’ ability, which serves as a counter of sorts that allows you to take a hit from your opponent whilst opening up the opportunity to return fire with a combo or charged attack. Whilst series producer Ono has commented on how this feature was intended to shift the emphasis of fights away from combos, more advance techniques such as cancelling have allowed it to take pride of place in the most heated of battles. The unique visual flair of the move which continues the calligraphic style seen in promotional artwork has stood out as a particularly notable feature of IV‘s design, to the extent that it was even used as Ryu’s down special attack in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS.
One of the more significant changes brought about thanks to the new generation of consoles was a hugely upgraded system for online play. Whilst traditionally Street Fighter had always been a game of the arcades, the shrinking arcade scene, especially when compared to Japan, meant that western players were in need of other options to experience the thrills that come from the series’ main event, the multiplayer. The ability to play online against opponents all across the world, not to mention increase your rank and place on leaderboards that transcended the mere, unplug-resetting ones of the arcade 90s. New technology had helped to take the very concept of a multiplayer fighting game to a whole new dimension.
A number of other, arguably less important changes that have gone on to influence not only the Street Fighter series, but other fighting games made by Capcom, made their debut in Street Fighter IV. Alternate costumes in the form of DLC that allow you to add some unique variation to your favourite character’s appearance became available starting from IV, with one of the first costume packs even being packaged as a pre-order bonus with the game. With no effect on gameplay and purely aesthetic, these costumes are hardly essential to the Street Fighter experience, yet their introduction symbolises a development not only in Capcom’s design philosophy when approaching fighting games (or perhaps games in general), but the capabilities that 3D has brought to the franchise; the nightmarish task of re-drawing thousands of individual sprites to incorporate different attire would simply have been impossible in 2D fighters before (especially when considering the unreal level of detail in the sprite work seen in the likes of Street Fighter III and its various iterations), but with the easier implementation of model changes this could finally become a reality, for better or for worse, depending on how much you want to spend to truly complete the SFIV package.
After three additional expansions to the base game, 2010’s Super Street Fighter IV, 2012’s Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition and finally Ultra Street Fighter IV in 2014, Street Fighter IV had become a much more complete package. With the final roster size standing at 44, including 10 brand new characters across all instalments, players were left spoilt for choice in terms of choosing which fighter to master. As well as significant character introductions, including a number of popular characters returning from the likes of Street Fighter III and the Alpha series, various gameplay tweaks were made with each update, further balancing and improving the game in a way that had never before been seen in a Street Fighter title; the introduction of free updates and fixes to popular games via the internet, a concept new to the seventh generation of consoles, allowed Capcom to work towards building a seamless and complete Street Fighter experience that previously would have required long waits between new versions, not to mention the replacement of arcade hardware. Street Fighter had truly changed with the times, and in many ways for the better.
However, there is one thing that is undoubtedly the most significant change brought about with Street Fighter IV and its various iterations; the game marked the beginning of a new ‘golden age’ for fighting games. Once again, the tournament scene was thriving with players from all walks of life, playing on every level – be it at local meet-ups to on the world stage at EVO, Street Fighter IV gave the fighting game community a much needed lease of life that brought it back into the spotlight, attracting new players to the scene and giving the players who had stuck with the series even through its toughest periods a much deserved chance to show off their skills and rise to the top. The introduction of Street Fighter IV to the lineup at EVO 2009 significantly increased the event’s attendance; more than 1000 players would compete in the tournament where the legendary Daigo Umehara would be crowned champion. The above compilation, released to mark the upcoming release of Street Fighter V and IV‘s final appearance at EVO in 2015 (assembled by xWilliamzel), showcases just a few of the most notable community moments throughout the title’s life, be it bizarre pop-offs or awe-inspiring comebacks, that stand testament to the power wielded by Street Fighter IV as a fantastic spectator game.
Almost a decade after its release, Street Fighter IV‘s impact on the fighting game community, or even fighting games themselves, still shines through. Amongst the most dedicated of players, blood, sweat and tears have been shed, and plenty of salt has been spilled. The highs and lows that have made up the game’s lifespan will firmly stand as some of the greatest moments the fighting game scene has ever seen. The game has given birth to some truly amazing players who will no doubt continue to impress with their skills far into the future. Perhaps few will truly understand how influential Street Fighter IV is as a title, one often regarded as one of the greatest titles of the seventh generation of gaming, and in some cases, one of the greatest fighting games ever made.
I can safely say that even weeks before the highly anticipated release of Street Fighter V, nothing can quite top the thrill that comes from repeating the SFIV ‘classic’ that has stood firm amongst me and my friends for almost 8 years now; Fei Long vs Cammy. The destination? Oceania, Volcanic Rim, naturally. Truly a battle of the ages.