Sunday, March 1, 2009

Street Fighter IV

Well, I've had Street Fighter IV for a little over a week now, and I thought I'd share my early impressions.

Popping in the disc, I was immediately captivated by the awe-inspiring opening sequence. I was at first a little stunned at the choice of song, but, after repeated listens, I now find the catchy "Indestructible" theme to be a perfect fit for the game.

Once past the title screen, I went straight into the versus mode for some local matches against a player I knew I was stronger than. What followed was one of the most frustrating gaming sessions of my life, as I found myself losing repeatedly while struggling to understand this game that felt so unexpectedly foreign. Based on all the previews I'd read, I'd expected it to feel a lot like Street Fighter II, but this new game just felt off to me. The game speed felt extremely slow, jumps felt floaty, and Ryu's standing roundhouse was getting beat by random jumping attacks. My first couple attempts at the single-player fared no better, and I think it took me over twenty continues before I was able to complete it on medium with Crimson Viper. (The ending credits sequence, by the way, may well be the greatest I've ever seen.)

After a few more hours of play and the replacement of my DualShock 3 with much better control options, things started to come together, and the game now does feel as Street Fighter should. I like it a lot and am already hoping that, down the line, the design will see "Champion" and "Turbo" editions that bring other classic characters into this new engine, though, even if that doesn't happen, what's already there should be able to sustain me for quite some time.

As for the brand new characters, Abel and El Fuerte look normal enough and maybe could have fit in back in the day with New Challengers-era additions like Dee Jay and T. Hawk. Crimson Viper looks like an SNK character and some of her moves are even evocative of Terry Bogard's, but I can't help liking her. As for Rufus, I don't really get it. Did the series really need a fast fat guy with an unknown exotic style? He's not without gameplay merit, but I can't stand the sight of him. For that matter, El Fuerte also has a really stupid personality that I suppose was meant to provide comic relief. Speaking of which, why is Dan in this game? I do think Dan can be funny, but I'd rather have a character that can compete than a joke character to laugh at. A character like Dan should only be added to the roster after all possible legitimate options have made it in first. Back to the new characters, I haven't had much time with Gouken yet, but he's unsurprisingly the coolest addition, probably because he's not really a new character in the strictest sense. Considering that his style is supposed to be the basis of Ryu and Ken's, however, I would have expected him to be a purer form of them, rather than the crazy version that he is. And Seth? I guess somebody at Capcom didn't think Gill was naked enough.

While the absence of such mechanisms as "custom combos" and "parrying" makes for a welcome return to the more accessible gameplay of SFII, SFIV is not without its share of controversial and esoteric systems. The "Revenge" meter is essentially the Samurai Shodown "Rage" meter or Capcom vs. SNK 2's K-Groove meter all over again. It rewards the player getting beat for no other reason than because they're getting beat. I don't really see the logic in such a system, but, to be fair, I suppose super combos, when introduced into the series with Super Street Fighter II Turbo, originally functioned as comeback maneuvers and were no less controversial. At least, just like the super meter in Super Turbo, the Revenge meter in SFIV does not carry over to the next round. Also, with SFIV's super meter, separate from the Revenge/Ultra meter, only able to store one super combo at a time, I imagine that regular super combos will see a lot less use compared to previous games, with the meter being more often spent on EX moves.

As for the Focus Attack, it seems like a toned down version of SFIII's parry, crossed with the Guard Break maneuver from Street Fighter EX, but, at high levels, the Garou: Mark of the Wolves-inspired braking system introduces its own crazy new tricks to the series. Set in my ways as I am, I often forget that the Focus Attack even exists, and, even when I remember, I don't really understand how to integrate it effectively into my play, while braking and dash canceling out of special moves seems not only unintuitive but far too difficult to perform for regular players such as myself. While the Ultra combos seem engineered to give lesser players a random chance, proficiency with the Focus Attack will definitely contribute to a wall between competitive and casual players.

But enough talk of mechanics that I'm not qualified to discuss anyway.

It's unacceptable that players should have to unlock a full third of the cast through playing the single-player. In a fighting game, the characters are the game itself, and players who've already paid good money shouldn't have to waste time with the inane single-player experience in order to earn an element that is so basic to the competitive game. Almost two decades after its debut, people still play Street Fighter II, so clearly these games don't need these sorts of schemes to artificially add longevity. Not only is it a huge hassle, but it presents bigger potential problems. What if, say, a friend, who didn't have money to buy the game, wanted me to bring my copy over to his place for play on his PS3? Well, I would gladly bring it over, probably expecting some good matches, only to find that, since his PS3 doesn't have my save data on its hard drive, we would have to play with only the default cast. Mind you, this isn't a situation that's likely to occur with me personally at this point in my social life, but it's a scenario that I've faced in the past, and, let me tell you, playing Marvel vs. Capcom 2 with just the default cast sucks. It really, really sucks.

On that note, I wish the game would let players save a couple different custom button configs or player profiles, in consideration of the likelihood that more than two people might actively play on the same console. It would help a lot, in case they prefer different control schemes, so that they don't have to manually reconfigure their controls every time their turn comes up. Again, this doesn't really affect me personally anymore, but it's such a long-standing issue, which a lot of first-person shooters address, but which no fighting game I can think of has, even though it's so simple and obvious.

I kind of wish the game had more modes and options in general. I had heard the game would include an actual training mode to teach players. That's something that all fighting games badly need, but there is no such thing in SFIV. Instead, the Training mode is just the usual practice arena for testing combos and checking numbers, while the Challenge mode is a mission mode that, while a nice diversion, doesn't teach new players anything. I would also have liked a more traditional survival mode, instead of survival challenges. I wouldn't have expected a tag-team mode, but a King of Fighters-style team battle mode should have been easy to implement. It's hardly a necessity, but it would add just a little variety for less serious players, and it was included in the home ports of SSFII for SNES, Alpha 3, and CvS2. Maybe such a mode was unrealistic due to the game's longish load times, which I don't understand, since, even though the game is gorgeous, it really shouldn't be pushing the PS3 more than Soulcalibur IV, which was capable of tag-team fighting with minimal loading. And how about an instant replay feature with a controllable camera a la every sports game of the last ten years? I don't know how feasible the controllable camera part would be with a game like Street Fighter, but instant replay is something I always ask for with every fighting game, and I'll take it even if it's 2-D.

These are admittedly trivial complaints that don't affect the core experience in any way, but they're things that would subtly enhance an experience that hasn't changed in almost twenty years. Like configurable controls or difficulty levels, options that many players may never use but take for granted as standard across many genres, they're little things that fighting games could easily add and then never look back.

In terms of smaller things I really appreciate, the option to switch between English and Japanese voices at the character-specific level is very nice. An English track is something brand new to Street Fighter, and, like in The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact, it really doesn't sound right after being accustomed to the Japanese voices for all these years. The fully-animated character opening and ending sequences, while not that great in and of themselves, show that Capcom put real effort into production, which, honestly, wasn't always the case back when they were pumping out fighting games, even if the games themselves usually turned out well. The in-game move list has been a standard feature in fighting games for years, but it was missing in most of Capcom's past English releases. SFIV's move list, modeled after the guides that usually come with the arcade boards, is probably the most attractive in-game move list ever.

Beyond the game itself, there's also the official line of Capcom-approved Mad Catz peripherals to discuss. I picked up both the Tournament Edition Fightstick and the Fightpad. The Fightstick was designed by MarkMan, a San Diego-based Tekken player whose passion for joysticks has been well-known for years across Internet forums. Word is, it's the best joystick ever released to the retail market, and, while I'm no joystick connoisseur, I can definitely feel the difference in the much-hyped Sanwa buttons, which respond effortlessly to the slightest brush and never get stuck. On the downside, the eight-button setup for a six-button game uses the six inner buttons as the defaults. My problem is that I find the two innermost buttons to be uncomfortably close to the joystick, and I would rather use the outer six buttons, but that would require me to reconfigure my buttons when I use the joystick, and then to change them back any time I or someone else wants to use the Fightpad instead. Again, the option to save multiple configurations would have been much appreciated.

The Fightpad, meanwhile, is clearly modeled after Sega's acclaimed six-button Genesis and Saturn controllers. It features six face buttons and a floating D-pad, which accommodates a tilting motion that is far less painful on the thumb than the sliding motions required by the DualShock 3. I actually used to think the PS1 D-pad was very reliable for fighting games, and the best player I've personally played against used, of all things, the digital pre-DualShock PS1 pad, but, ever since the advent of the squishy analog buttons on the DualShock 2, I've found that D-pad unusable for fighting games. The Mad Catz Fightpad, however, is very nice, and my only complaint is that, in order to make it wireless on the PS3, they had to make it battery-operated, and the battery slot protrudes uncomfortably out the middle of the back, preventing me from wrapping my hands, which aren't even large, more naturally all the way around. Also, while these peripherals have the official SFIV license from Capcom, they are not licensed by Sony, which is always a little disconcerting.

In summary, so far, I like the game better than Alpha 3, 3rd Strike, or CvS2. It does feel like a modernized version of SFII, which is what I've been asking for. I'm a little uneasy about the Ultra Combos, I don't get the Focus Attacks at all, and I'll always hate two-button throws, but I like EX moves and being able to dash. The controls are also a lot more forgiving than SFII, so, in a lot of ways, I suppose I prefer it even to SFII, and, until an upgraded edition hopefully comes out, this will probably be my fighting game of choice.


Czardoz said...

Perhaps your first mistake was assuming you were stronger than this player you engaged in your first matches. A little humility could have saved you a heap of frustration.

I always thought Street Fighter games were a lot like chess. There are two layers of play: the technical layer and the psychological layer. We talk glibly of super combos in SF or a Sicilian Defense in chess, but as long as the skill difference between two combatants isn't truly vast, the psychological layer can play a bigger role than the technical skills of each player. I believe this isn't given the credit it deserves.

I am reminded of a friend of mine I used to play chess with. I would probably win 90% of the time, and my friend always thought I was just a better player. But I wasn't a better technical player. Maybe I wasn't worse, but I wasn't better, either. So why didn't we split the games? Because I knew how to play him. He was concerned about playing to the best of his technical ability, whereas all I cared about was taking advantage of his tendencies. The results spoke for themselves.

Henry said...

I'm not a fool. My superiority to this opponent in every aspect was not an assumption but a certainty. But that was based on previous games, where my knowledge of characters and systems was far greater. My frustration was not because I was losing, but because my losses resulted from the game being inconsistent with my understanding of series basics (like using Ryu's roundhouse to stop jump-ins). Were I to play that same player in 3rd Strike, I would win 100%.

These points you make are things that I have had to explain to you in the past, though it seems you only acknowledge them when convenient.

At lower levels of play, it's very possible that the comparatively inferior player will win. A common reason is that the stronger player isn't taking his opponent seriously, not because he's overconfident, but because winning such a matchup is never really the point. While winning is always a nice bonus, it's not truly "playing to win" when neither player is even using their money character.

In such a case, the less ambitious player is actually the one more concerned with a result that has little real meaning. Even if such a player comes away with the victory, in taking the game only at its most shallow level, he's missing out on most of the fun. After all, what pleasure can one derive from an experience that one doesn't even understand? You might as well be mashing buttons. While you're at it, why don't you just close your eyes as well?

And knowing your opponent goes both ways. I may have lost those early matches, but were I to play that same player regularly, I could guarantee that a pattern of domination would emerge in my favor, due to my greater independent understanding of the game.

Czardoz said...

Fair enough. I would only take issue with one of your arguments, "what pleasure can one derive from an experience that one doesn't even understand?" Let's not exaggerate. There is some level of understanding involved, or else a player would never win at all. Just like there is some functionality in a game as long as it doesn't crash immediately.

To use another example, just because I don't know how to play any instruments, does that mean I only understand music at the most shallow level, and am missing most of the fun?

To go back to the chess example, if my opponent had started to beat me more and more, I probably would have found some incentive to learn the game better, and meet the challenge. Never happened, though. And even if it had, I don't know for sure that I would have enjoyed chess itself more. I would have enjoyed the match-up more as it took on a more complex character, but that has more to do with the relationship than the medium.

Czardoz said...

The more I think about it, the nearest comparison I can make to SFIV is the SSX games. SSX Tricky is one of the few games I've pretty much played to death, though rarely in a competitive, multi-player setting. Being a combination racing/stunts game, the raison d'etre is not necessarily to win, but to enjoy the experience. Like you say about SFIV, a player would certainly get more out of SSX if he were to explore as much of the tricking and other gameplay nuances as possible. On the other hand, if you just wanted to win the races, you wouldn't necessarily need to know a lot about the tricking aspects of the game.

What SSX Tricky provided that SF doesn't is a bona fide training mode. I never found anything in SF very intuitive beyond hitting a guy when he wasn't blocking, and blocking when he was about to hit you. A thoughtful training system might have taught me to take some pleasure in combos and whatnot. In SSX, the training segments showed me that, while not strictly intuitive, the diverse array of tricks were the juicy, satisfying meat of the game, while the racing was more like the dish and utensils that gave it all structure.

Without that little assist, I doubt I would have gotten as deep into SSX as I did.

Henry said...

Your music example is more analogous to my own position. I'm not good at Street Fighter, but I understand it much better than I can play it. By contrast, the shallow player I describe is more like a dilettantes who, if you played a new record for them, might find it a pleasant listen and maybe even hum along with a track or two, but then wouldn't express any interest in finding out even who the artist is, and any attempt you made to engage them in meaningful discussion about music would only end in disappointment, as you would quickly find them with nothing to contribute.

When I talk about "understanding" Street Fighter, I don't mean memorizing a database of combos and then executing them. As a first lesson, I should point out that "super combos" are not actually combos at all. Well, they're "auto-combos," but, functionally, they're just single moves like any other moves. Real combos involve manually stringing one or more additional attacks off the opening provided by a first successful hit. They're actually a very advanced element of play that, for the most part, only matters at the highest levels, after one has already mastered the basics. With my meager skills, I personally do not even try to use combos in serious matches, other than the jump kick into sweep combo that everybody does.

The thing is that most players don't even get the fundamentals of Street Fighter--why, for example, jumping in is usually a bad idea, what to do to punish an opponent jumping in on _you_, how to press the advantage against a downed opponent getting up, how to defend yourself when _you_ are the one getting up off the floor, how to read and react to all the meters on both players' sides, etc.

If an opponent is dominating you with superior knowledge of a game, that should open your eyes to the fact that there is more to the game itself, and that should inspire a deeper appreciation and exploration of the mechanics, maybe even transforming the competition into collaborative research. Even if all it does is motivate you to work on beating that specific opponent, hopefully you'll come away learning more than you expected when you began your myopic pursuit.

As I said in my initial post, a true training mode is something that all fighting games badly need, and I specifically had in mind an SSX Tricky-type tutorial mode with videos. Alas, I think this is something that many Japanese developers just don't get.

Czardoz said...

And when the Japanese do institute a training mode, it's usually a Daravon-esque travesty.