By N. T. / February 15, 2013
Street Fighter 4 is a fighting game made for the purpose of tickling the nostalgia glands of casual players looking to relive the warm childhood memories of mashing the buttons on Street Fighter 2 arcade cabinets. It manages to do that, because most people are too ignorant, not to mention downright blind, to recognize a travesty in the making when they see one. But to those of us who still have functioning senses, and some understanding of how 2D fighting games work, it's clear that SF4 is a "bizarro" take on the SF2 series. It's everything that the SF2 games were NOT — slow, defensive, tactically degenerate and just ugly enough to make your eyes bleed.
For the grandiose job of handling a new installment in a brand with so much historical significance, Capcom decided to use the aid of the development team Dimps, notably known for… churning out one forgettable Dragon Ball Z game after another. Yeah, I know, they also developed the two Rumble Fish games — which I hear were pretty decent — but still, Capcom, the return of fucking STREET FIGHTER after years of hiatus deserves the best talent that money can buy!
The decision to go with 3D graphics for the 2D fighting games, was probably to cater to your average Western airhead, who sees 2D graphics as a clear sign of an inferior product, even though the game in question belongs to a 2D genre anyway! I'm sure as hell it wasn't to cater to Japanese tastes, because even years later, all the other companies who make 2D fighting games are still more or less faithful to the traditional 2D sprites, and many of them bust their asses to push them towards better standards, fit for modern times.
So Dimps tried to recreate the iconic cartoony art style of Street Fighter 2 in 3D graphics. Three years later, someone at Capcom would finally find the way to make it work — evident first in Tatsunoko vs. Capcom and then in MvC3 — but in our case, the end result was simply atrocious!
The graphics are technically competent but the art style is completely repelling. Are these ugly brown stripes on their skin supposed to provide a sense of depth? Because all I see is ugly brown stripes. It's like they made sure to smear shit all over themselves before going to the tournament — Capcom war paint. Other than that, the deformed body proportions lack any charm, and the female characters are the worst, with big, masculine palms and feet. Oh, Chun-Li, you look so sexy with those man-hands!
It may look like I am putting the blame on the rough, experimental transition to 3D graphics, but I really think that pure incompetence plays the bigger role here, because it's noticeable even in the 2D artwork! Compare, for example, Blanka's profile picture from Super Street Fighter 2, to his SF4 one. The first looks like a deadly beast-man, the latter like his retarded cousin.
The stages are bland and as ugly as the characters. At least this aspect would see some improvements in the later iterations.
SF2's music is full of catchy, memorable tunes composed by the talented Yoko Shimomura — who later proved her worth once again with the wonderful soundtrack of Seiken Densetsu. SF4's music is a far cry from that, and completely humdrum. During specific battles through the arcade mode, you get to hear remixes of music from the past, which only emphasizes the fact the all the new music we got is sleep-inducing beats.
But I could tolerate all the shitty aesthetics if the mechanics were wonderful and elevating SF2's greatness to new heights. Too bad it's not the case at all! I'll start by making a statement that not many would disagree with: The Street Fighter 2 titles (whichever specific version you may pick, based on your preference) were more fun to play than Street Fighter 4. The question is why?
To answer that we'll have to take a closer look at Street Fighter 2 and what makes it so fun to play, besides its aesthetics. Compared to today's 2D fighting games, SF2 is pretty basic — it has fewer rules. But the few rules it does have are done so well, that they almost make up for everything it lacks. While it's not really fair to compare SF2 to newer games, I do it only to compliment its greatness — that it's STILL very good even by modern standards — and because the game I'm reviewing here, that tries to copy it, IS a modern one.
Your movement in SF2 is limited to the safer walking and the riskier jumping, yet the walking speed is so fast that in some cases it almost feels like running. And on top of that, for every movement option you are missing, you have an extra normal attack at your disposal, as the game features 6 different attack buttons. Most of the exchanges are of single blows, but every hit does a ton of damage so you really feel it. You usually can't use your limited mobility to confuse the opponent into blocking the wrong way and penetrating his defense, but the throws are fast and powerful, so they do their job of being a valid mixup option. You cannot fill the whole screen with crap if you want to zone, and you are usually limited to putting a single projectile on the screen. But it combined perfectly with the limited movement and the noticeable damage projectiles do on both hit and block, so that single projectile turned into a huge threat that dictated the pace of the match and became the very symbol of 2D fighting game high-level dynamics.
SF4 has changed these important basic rules just to justify the new gimmicks in the system. The result does not improve the game, only damages it. There's a new type of big, flashy move called "Ultra Combo" that you gain access to by getting beaten up. The more life you lose, the stronger the move will be if it hits. The purpose of it is that a bad player will always feel like he has a chance of winning, because even when he is getting beaten up by a better player, all he needs is to land this one big move to even the odds. I'm guessing that in order to make the Ultra Combos really matter, they reduced the damage of everything else in the game. And I really mean "everything else": Poke damage, projectile damage, chip damage, throw damage… By doing that, each single moment became less important for the overall outcome of the match. SF4 also copies dashes from SF3, and to try to compliment them, the designers slowed down the walk speed. The dashes did not make the pace of the matches faster, but the slower walk speed, combined with the overall low damage did make the matches feel like a drag, and removed possible options from the spacing game. Even the jumping feels sluggish, almost like fighting underwater.
Capcom also decided to add EX moves from SF3. In theory that's a good idea. In practice, they fucked it up. EX moves should have made the game more complicated, giving you more options at the cost of meter. What ended up happening, is that some EX moves were so good that they become totally mindless, removing the need for smart decision making. For example, some EX moves enable you to just sit and chill at half screen distance, and punish fireballs on reaction with no need for prediction. So as soon as you get 1/4 super gauge, the fireball character cannot throw fireballs anymore, and has to take it up close. Some Ultra Combos also work in the exact same manner. The beauty of Street Fighter lies in the existence of the fireball, and it really hurts me to see ready-made tools that prevent a Street Fighter match from being played like one. When you combine the slow walk speed, the puny damage of pokes and projectiles and the reactionary tools that prevent you from acting, it's easy to see why the mid-screen game in SF4 contains a lot of dead time when the 2 characters are just walking back and forth while doing nothing.
Another "brand new" feature is the focus attack, actually copied from the Street Fighter EX series with minor tweaks. You hold the 2 medium buttons, and go into a stance that has super armor that can absorb one hit (which is dealt in recoverable damage) without stopping the attack's animation. When you release the buttons, the character performs the attack. The longer you hold the buttons, the stronger the attack will be, causing a big amount of stun at "level 2", and at the final level becomes unblockable. I think they added this universal tool as a failsafe mechanism to avoid matchup-dependent situations where there will be no character-based solution. It indeed does that, but it also takes things away from the match. You can cancel it into dashes, and canceling it into the invincible back dashes in particular makes it incredibly safe to just enter the super armored state, see if it absorbs something slow enough, and either release the buttons if it did or back dash away to safety if it didn't. What it does in SF4 is adding more risk to using the slower normals that are fit for the 1/4 screen distance spacing game, but not to jabs and shorts, which are already too good in this game, and I'll explain later why.
FADC is a fancy Roman Cancel type mechanic, because Guilty Gear is a cool game and SF4 wants to be cool too. Using half a super gauge, you can input a focus attack during another move and cancel the move into a focus, and then you can quickly dash out of the focus to be able to continue attacking. It ended up serving only one mindless purpose: Comboing a special move (usually a Shoryuken) into an Ultra Combo, and at the same time making it safe if it gets blocked.
After we have covered all the new features, we can start digging inside the little details. The throws are worse than in SF2. They are slower to come out, have a somewhat big tech window that leaves you with no damage done and can be dealt with by using a defensive option select straight from SF3. Combined with the slow walk speed, it's really hard to use throws as a tool at the poke-range game. In SF2, you could use a quick opening to get in, do your thing, and get out. Like a ninja. But here the situations are more rigid, which takes a toll on the spacing aspect. It's harder to get into close range, and harder to get out of it.
The dragon punch specials now have a new additional motion to make them easier to do. Basically mash the diagonal of down+forward on the joystick and press a punch button and the move will come out. This new motion produces 2 negative effects: It removes the need to stand up to perform a DP, which enables you to autoblock all ground attacks while you do it, and since you can mash it, it removes the need to time it well. The act of performing the motion for a Shoryuken (an invincible defensive move) is basically risk-free while you are under attack. In SF2 the LP versions of the Shoryukens were actually pretty safe on block, but with the long blockstun and the big pushback, using a Shoryuken means you throw it out at a range it can whiff, trying to catch a limb. In SF4, when you attack at close range, your character is always in danger of getting hit by a reversal, because of the lack of blockstun and of pushback. You can't easily push your opponent to a range where you just need to send your poke at an unexpected timing, or use ones with hitboxes which are harder to catch. Your only solution is to simply stop attacking and wait for it to come out, which makes the game slower and more defensive.
The game revolves around links, which in my opinion are among the worst things in the genre. They add nothing to a game other than to test how good the player is at pressing a button in an extremely tight window of time, and I don't find it interesting at all. Let me explain: In this action genre, the technical aspect of when to press a button usually relates directly to your decision-making. If something requires specific timing, it's to force you to predict exactly when the opponent will do something in order to counter it. A good example is catching a limb with a well timed Shoryuken — pulling off something like this gives me great satisfaction [ > ].
But during combos, the technical aspect isn't related to any decision-making, so to me a fighting game does not become more enjoyable when the combos themselves are harder to perform. Since there's no actual interaction with the opponent during that specific time — other than in games with combo-breaking Bursts — decision-making in combos relates only to what combo to go for, not to the act of actually doing it.
Back to the issue with links: If you already shit on the concept of SF2's value of single hits by wanting to make an attack connectable to another attack, at least make it a chain like many other games do. A chain also gives the developer the freedom to choose (depending on size of the cancelable window of frames) if you have to commit to the next attack, or if you can confirm it on reaction. With links, it's almost always confirmable by their very nature of being slower, since the whole animation needs to finish. So links are like chains, only harder and tactically dumber, since they don't require commitment. While SF2 had some characters that benefit from links, the game was mostly based on well-placed single pokes and 2-in-1s (a single normal canceled into a special), but SF4 is one of the most link-based games in the genre. It makes the tactical aspect degenerate as well because tiny jabs and shorts, which usually gave you no reward in SF2 — or at least a reward that was balanced out by the huge damage everything else also did — now become among your most useful attacks. The fastest, the safest, and the most rewarding, since they can be hit-confirmed into full combos that grant knockdowns and safe jump setups. Sure, these combos are scaled in damage, but it's still your best option, and SF4 matches always get to the part where the characters get close to each other and start fighting with jabs and shorts.
At high levels of play, SF4 players have developed the needed execution to always connect their links and maximize the damage when they score a hit, tight setups that counter the throw-escape option selects so that throws would be able to actually land for a change, option selects that beat the invincible back dashes and safe-jump setups that allow you to finally press the advantage after a knockdown. When the system is so flawed that you need to "fight against it" to force some common sense into it, it creates a situation where the "advanced techniques" in SF4 are actually simple things you could do from day one in the SF2 games. So at the highest levels, requiring great execution, SF4 got to a point where some parts of it improved to be a bit similar to SF2, but not all of them.
Is this the best you can give us? A game released in 2008 that's a tad dumber, more tedious, and uglier take on a game released over 20 years ago? No thanks. While old-school 2D fighting games have become a rare breed, and beggars can't be choosers, I'd rather stay with the same old shit than to move on to new shit that's inferior in every way imaginable. At least until a more capable developer hears my plea and makes a modern SF2-style game that's worth a damn.