I think that most people who are excited about Street Fighter 4 (or IV, if your prefer) fall primarily into three camps: Those who liked Street Fighter II, those who liked Street Fighter III and those who’ve heard from other people that this new one might be good. The first two camps mix often, but it should be noted that it’s a separation of time, not of preference. It comes down to the question of “how long has it been since you’ve played Street Fighter?” The third camp, the group of players who want to get into the mix, (a group that was practically non-existent for the release of III), are the people that the game wants to market to the most this time around. So, in examining Street Fighter IV, there are two questions you should try to approach: Is the game going to satisfy the people who’ve played the games all along, and are people who’ve never touched this going to “get it?” The answer to this is that even though it doesn’t exactly do a good job of enticing you keep playing it (positive reinforcement), it still somehow manages to reel in newcomers and satisfy the veterans.
I played SFII for a pretty good while back in the day, so as far as how the game “feels”, it certainly does a good job of triggering that bit of nostalgia that you have for the older games. Button combos remain the same (quarter-circle forward + punch = Hadouken), and the timing of how moves flow into each other seems to be the same (though I can’t exactly attest to this with complete certainty, as I’m not that much of a frame-counter). This is done extremely well despite the game moving into full 3D animations (but not a 3D plane). Some attacks, like fast punches and kicks look supernaturally fast, but I’d prefer that to having the actual moves be slowed down, and for the most part the moves look completely natural. It does a fantastic job in capturing that SFII feel.
The characters themselves are more or less just as you left them. They’re all pretty distinct (even Ken manages to play somewhat differently than Ryu), and you usually can’t rely on working the same strategy for every character. Additionally, the variety of characters means that you’ll eventually find a characters that suits you. I can’t play the charge characters to save my life, but I can do just fine with most other characters. There are a couple of characters you’re probably going to see a lot of online (like Sagat), but for now the games seems to be pretty balanced in that most any character has a good chance of beating anyone in the hands of the right player.
The new characters are a hit or miss, honestly. El Fuerte and Able seems to fit in pretty well, but C. Viper and Rufus really don’t look like they belong in a Street Fighter game. All of them use pretty new styles, so you’ll have to learn some new tricks if you want to be good with them. But they aren’t so different that you feel like you can’t approach them. While not all of them fit stylistically, they all break into the mold pretty well, gameplay-wise.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s a re-release of the old games. It does several new things that significantly change up some strategies. The biggest gameplay addition is the Focus Attack, which more or less a punch or kick you can charge for additional damage. While this may seem like a minor addition, there are some intricacies to how you can use it. For example, while charging, you can take one hit without flinching, and while that attack still does damage, if you can keep away from your opponent, the damage will eventually heal. This makes it a great counter against projectiles, whose chip damage is quickly healed when “blocked” by a Focus attack. If you can do it consistently, it’s a great alternative to blocking and taking the chip damage. You can also dash out of the Focus, and combo the that attack into a string of other moves.
The other big change is the two meter system. You have your Super Gauge, which charges when you hit your opponent, and your Revenge meter, which charges when you’re hit by attacks. This system creates a great back-and-forth between the players, because if you’re getting the upper hand on an opponent you’re going to have to worry about them pulling of their Ultra Attack, which can seriously change the outcome of a match. And the Super Gauge can be depleted by either a Super Attack (which drains the entire meter), or by EX moves, which are more powerful versions of your special moves that drain a fourth of the meter. Keeping an eye on these two meters is a big part of SFIV, whereas in SFII you just had to make sure your meter was full and theirs wasn’t.
One of the best things about the game, though, is that if you don’t want to, you don’t have to keep an eye on any of these things. you can play the game exactly like you would SFII, and still have a decent chance to win. Granted, people who do keep an eye on them will have an advantage, but playing the game like SFII is at least a good place to start, and then one could work on understanding these things one at a time.
However, from the point of someone who’s never picked up a fighting game, the task of doing these sorts of things can be very daunting. The game’s eye-catching paintbrush visual style is visually appealing enough that you like to see to see the game in action but not so much that it’ll hurt your eyes. But aside from that, most of the things that SFIV does to attract new players (and it doesn’t do that much) fall flat. The trial mode, in which it gives you a specific task to do, and then you try to accomplish it. The problem with this is that it never shows how the combo is supposed to look like or when to do it in regular play, which means if there’s a particularly difficult one (and there are plenty), If you complete it you won’t know how to do it again, and you’ll likely never even try to use that combo in regular play. There are also Survival and Time Attack modes to test your skill, but I doubt that once you’ve beaten those you’ll ever go back to them.
The arcade mode is still there, and there is a fair amount of character unlocking to do. The conditions range from basic (beat the game with Ryu to Unlock Sakura), to pretty dang difficult (Akuma and Gouken). While you’ll probably spend large portion of your early hours unlocking characters, this is a pretty small complaint in the overall scheme of things. Once you’ve unlocked them, they’re there forever.
But what’s really nice about the arcade mode is the integration of the online mode. While there’s a separate mode where you can just look for matches of various kinds, you can set it up so that the game is looking for matches while you play the arcade mode. This works like how the arcade machines worked back in the day. Once the game finds an online match for you, you’ll get the “NEW CHALLENGER!” screen and dive right into an online match. This is probably one of the best additions to the game, since it means that your waiting time between matches, something that is a bother in most online fighting games, is rectified by keeping you in fights in between. However, I would have liked for this online system have applied to versus as well, whenever you’re playing against a CPU.
There are also a smörgåsbord of unlockables to keep you playing the various modes. While most of these are icons and title for use in the online mode, there’s also art and posters and the like to unlock as well, so there’s definitely something to do for completists. But really, these are going to be things that you’re going to be getting along the way, not things that you’re going to be aiming for, since the game doesn’t tell you how to unlock them.
Street Fighter 4 does what all fighting games nowadays try to do. They try to modernize themselves for newer audiences while keeping the old flame of their past alive. SFIV doesn’t do it perfectly, but it definitely does it better than anyone else. Aside from a few key mishaps in trying to get new players into the game, it makes the right decisions at almost every turn. For now, Street Fighter IV is an example of modern fighting games done right.