Since Capcom had already confirmed that the fifth and final new playable character would not be revealed until the Final Round 17 tournament (March 14-16) in Atlanta, GA, I didn't anticipate there being anything else hype-worthy left to announce about the game before then. But this Edition Select mode is actually a really awesome and unexpected surprise that is maybe even more exciting than the identity of the fifth character (since the safe money is on her being just a Cammy clone).
Edition Select allows players to select from all the different editions of characters throughout the Street Fighter IV series. There have been four major editions of Street Fighter IV to date: Street Fighter IV (informally referred to in the community as "Vanilla"), Super Street Fighter IV (Super), Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition (AE), and Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012 (AE 2012). Ultra Street Fighter IV (Ultra) will be the fifth. Usually in the interest of game balance, Capcom has adjusted characters from edition to edition, with some getting stronger and others getting weaker to make things fairer for everyone.
Players who were around for the original SFIV will surely remember how ridiculously overpowered Sagat was in that version. Three editions later, Sagat is now merely upper-mid-tier in AE 2012, while Cammy is the new cheapest character in the game. Even as the rankings get shuffled, however, many competitive players will stick with the same character through every edition, experiencing all the highs and lows in the evolution of that character's design. When looking forward to a new version of the game, you of course hope that your main character will get some nice improvements ("buffs") to increase their competitive standing. If, on the other hand, Capcom sees fit to weaken ("nerf") your character, you may find yourself, upon losing a match in the new edition, wistfully thinking, "If only my character still had the tools they had two versions ago, I would have won."
That's not an uncommon sentiment; it comes up with pretty much every tournament fighting game that goes through multiple revisions. Even as players recognize that a balanced roster with no overly juiced characters is the objective ideal, still it's always a bummer when it's your character that gets nerfed. Typically, though, you just have to get over it and move on, because, however powerful a character used to be in a previous edition, that's irrelevant now, since the latest version of the game is going to be the tournament standard, and nobody is seriously going to go back to that old edition.
So the Edition Select mode is cool precisely because it makes all that knowledge of previous versions of characters suddenly relevant again, and it allows players to finally put to the test whether they really would have won, if only they had had their old tools.
Edition Select exhibition at SoCal Regionals 2014, presented by Level|Up
This sort of mode has actually been tried a few times in the past. Super Street Fighter II Turbo (Super Turbo (ST)), the fifth edition of Street Fighter II, included hidden versions of characters, which were based on how those characters played in the fourth edition, Super Street Fighter II (Super). As ST was by far the most radical revision in the SFII series, going back to the Super (also referred to simply as "Old") versions of characters often provided a very different experience. Most notably, "Old Sagat," with his ability to fire off projectiles at a much higher rate than basically any fighting game character since, was the preferred version of Sagat, and also one of the strongest characters in the game, period.
Ultra Street Fighter IV's Edition Select feature is probably more directly modeled after 2003's Hyper Street Fighter II, which was the sixth edition of Street Fighter II. Released nine years after ST—that's nine years after ST had been the tournament standard version of SFII—Hyper Street Fighter II allowed players to select from all versions of every character throughout the SFII series. It briefly reinvigorated the oldest contingent in the fighting game community, because, although ST had been the only version played competitively for about a decade, there were quite a number of respected veterans who had always maintained that Street Fighter II': Hyper Fighting (HF), the third edition, was the better game. By 2003, most competitors were too young to have ever even played HF before, so discussions of that edition had taken on a near-legendary character, involving fabled classic combos that could only be described but never observed. Street Fighter II': Champion Edition (CE), the second edition, was even more mythic, with old-timers relating war stories about the ungodly CE version of M. Bison or the unassailable fortress that was CE Guile (which, no matter what anyone might try to tell you, is the strongest version of Guile ever, the World Warrior version being truly more myth than substance). Finally, thanks to the release of Hyper Street Fighter II, all those stories became relevant again, and younger generations could experience for themselves the might of the old characters.
The Street Fighter IV series obviously hasn't had quite so extensive a history as Street Fighter II, nor have characters varied as widely from one edition to the next. The most notoriously broken characters in SFIV's history are Vanilla Sagat, who just dealt way too much damage, and AE Yun, whose divekick offense a majority of the cast simply had no way to cope with. So, Ultra Street Fighter IV's Edition Select mode will allow players to realize that oft-debated and formerly purely theoretical "dream match." Of equal interest, it may prompt a rediscovery of those old versions of characters that were maybe not recognized as strong in their own time, but only because their intricacies did not get fully explored and showcased before the community moved on to the next edition of the game. As much as Vanilla Sagat is remembered as the dominant force in that game, there are some who actually believe that, had the community continued competing on that edition a while longer, Vanilla Seth would have emerged as even stronger. And, while there may not be any long-lost mythic techniques in the series, there are plenty of old tricks and unique move properties that historians of the game can point to as having disappeared in later editions—minutiae that has largely been forgotten or was never common knowledge, and that would be neat to see brought back out of the vault.
I loved Hyper Street Fighter II, I loved the hidden "Hyper Street Fighter Alpha" mode in Street Fighter Alpha Anthology, and I'm really stoked to see this same concept included in Ultra Street Fighter IV. Counting all the different editions of characters separately, Ultra Street Fighter IV will have 182 playable characters, and exponentially more matchups than any other version of SFIV. In practice, not every version of every character will be that interesting or distinct, of course, but there will still be a ton of matchups to play around with.
Two questions remain. First, how will the game handle the new "delayed wakeup" mechanic when playing with characters that predate it? This defensive mechanic has been devised to frustrate the "vortex" offense that currently makes Akuma and Cammy so powerful in AE 2012. With the "vortex" no longer a factor, it is predicted that the Ultra versions of Akuma and Cammy will be significantly less deadly. Since the "delayed wakeup" mechanic is brand new to Ultra, it stands to reason that only Ultra-edition characters should be able to utilize it. But should that extend to Ultra characters being able to perform it against characters from previous editions? On the one hand, it would give the Ultra characters a unique advantage (which I predict they'll need in order to keep pace with the Vanilla characters, who have the unique advantage of dealing more damage across the board). On the other hand, it would negate a unique strength of old versions of Akuma or Cammy, as well as, to some extent, the whole "dream match" concept of pitting the strongest characters from each edition against one another. The "vortex" is precisely what makes Akuma and Cammy the strongest in AE 2012, so if they can't even apply it against the strongest Ultra character, then that's no true strength-versus-strength "dream match" at all.
The more pressing question, though, is how the tournament scene will deal with Edition Select. Will competitors be free to play their preferred version of any character, or will Edition Select be banned in tournaments, locking players into using only the Ultra versions of characters? Right now, it's looking like Edition Select will be a non-regulation "just for fun" casual mode, whereas tournament standard will be Ultra characters only. There's a couple of obvious good reasons for this. First, adopting Edition Select as standard would completely undermine the impressive amount of public testing and collecting of player feedback that Capcom has been conducting these past several months to try to tune the Ultra cast to be the most balanced of any SFIV edition to date. After all, what would even be the point of all these ongoing tweaks toward fairness, if every player is just going to end up picking the cheapest version of their character?
Furthermore, at the competitive level, a fighting game is arguably only as playable (or, at least, as tolerable) as its most broken character. Sure, it's possible that Ultra Street Fighter IV could turn out more balanced with Edition Select than without. AE 2012 has been regarded as a fairly balanced fighting game, with ten different characters getting play in the top 8 at Evo 2013, but recent tournament results have definitely evidenced a trend toward Cammy steadily eclipsing her top-tier rivals, Akuma and Fei Long, while characters such as Chun Li and E. Honda have fallen off dramatically. For Chun Li and E. Honda loyalists, Edition Select could even the odds against the current crop of Cammy players by allowing them to go back to older, very strong versions of their characters. That's the promise of Edition Select, anyway. But it's likelier that AE Yun will just end up stomping any versions of those characters and also AE 2012 Cammy to boot, so Edition Select would end up hurting them more than it would help. That was essentially the fate that befell Hyper Street Fighter II. Hyper Street Fighter II at first breathed new life into SFII, but, after only one appearance at Evo, during which CE Bison was found to completely destroy the game balance, it was dropped by the community and Super Street Fighter II Turbo brought back as the tournament standard.
Edition Select mode probably won't have any character as ridiculous as CE Bison, but it will include a number of characters that are known to have been overpowered (Vanilla Sagat, Vanilla Akuma, AE Yun). Maybe they'll turn out to be balanced against one another, and the mode will end up with a top tier as inclusive as that of any other fighting game (even most of the best fighting games don't have more than 3-4 characters sharing the top). But, starting out, since the Ultra characters are the ones that Capcom is actually making a deliberate effort to balance against one another, going "Ultra characters only" for tournaments may be the more sensible route. I would, however, like to see at least some Edition Select exhibitions or invitationals at major tournaments, so that we can see how some of those "dream matches" really play out with the strongest characters in the hands of the best players in the history of the game.