The decline of the Street Fighter series can be taken as a metaphor for the decline of the fighting game genre following its arcade-driven heyday from the late ’80s to the early ’90s. Street Fighter 1 and 2 were ground-breaking titles that encompassed everything that was great about the old-school 2D fighter: engrossing and addictive gameplay with hidden depth and fantastic to play with your friends.
Later titles, though, saw the famous Capcom quality slip: Street Fighter 3 was followed by games that, like many of the other fighting games of the day, offered numerous distractions, gimmicks and sub-titles. This diversification led to the fighting came concept becoming confused and diluted, with casual players put off and hardcore players disillusioned. Fear not, though: the latest Street Fighter game isn’t EX, Turbo or Alpha’s here – Street Fighter 4 simultaneously takes the series back to its roots and re-invents the genre for the better.
Street Fighter veterans will be pleased with the gameplay that Capcom has served up. Bouts are kinetic, energetic affairs that reflect the near-perfect balance of the characters and their tight, focused and well-conceived movesets, with the action rarely letting up and never becoming boring. There’s plenty of depth to the fighting, too – certainly more than in Sony’s premier beat-em-up, Tekken – thanks to the layers of complexity that slice through Street Fighter 4 like strata in rock.
Basic moves come in several flavours – light, medium and heavy punches and kicks, combinations of these, and holds, throws and complex sequences – and using these attacks builds up the focus bar and unleashes another wave of more complex and dangerous attacks. Holding down a button for a second or two can activate these moves, and will also absorb one attack from your enemy, which introduces another tactical element into Street Fighter 4 clashes – it’s an ideal way to turn defence into attack and turn a fight on its head in an instant.
There’s another level of special moves, too, with Super Combos unleashed when you’ve filled up a gauge that grows as you absorb damage. Again, it’s another move that can turn the tide of battle and adds another tactical element alongside the frantic fighting. These super-powerful combinations also unleash special cinematics that smash through the 2D plane, and they look fantastic – crammed with light effects and lashings of Street Fighter 4‘s gorgeous and unique art style.
It’s also worth noting that, at no point, do the layers of moves – from basic to super attacks – feel hugely daunting. You begin to use them because you’re ready and can cope with the additional level of complexity they provide, but they’re not essential when you first start playing. It’s not a gentle learning curve, but it’s not insurmountable, either – instead, it’s one that can be progressed logically and one that rewards the addictive process of learning, improving and adapting.
The fantastic gameplay – which offers suitably absorbing depth that will please even the hardened fighter – is complimented by an excellent roster of characters. All of the classic characters you remember from the original pair of classic titles are here: Ken, Rye, Blanka, Chun-Li, E. Honda, Balrog, Vega, Sangat and M. Bison strut their stuff in this new tournament, and other old characters – such as Dan, Sakura and Cammy – also appear.
Capcom has also introduced four new fighters for the fourth true incarnation of their game, with tough Frenchman Abel, businesswoman Crimson Viper, chunky Rufus and gastronaut lucha libre star El Fuerte joining the cast. These new characters – particluarly El Fuerte and Viper – fit in well with both the Street Fighter 4 philosophy and aesthetic, and quickly feel at home.
As well as having the fantastic nostalgia factor down to an eighties-styled T and playing brilliantly, Street Fighter 4 is also one of the finest-looking combat games we’ve ever seen. As usual, the action is kept on a 2D plane, but the characters and backdrops are fully 3D. The frenetic and action-packed fighting translates well to the graphics, which are imbued with a cartoon style and plenty of neat, attractive touches.
It truly is a gorgeous experience: characters are animated with stunning fluidity and a healthy sense of individuality as they contort and connect with each other, and it’s easy to see the ludicrous amount of effort that has gone into making the first next-gen version of Street Fighter look so good. Capcom has gone with the cartoonish, stylised design on purpose, and evidence of the characters being hand-drawn is purposely scattered all over their over-sized, muscular frames. It makes for a unique and incredibly absorbing look, and it even extends to little clouds of ink bursting out of characters when they take a hit.
This excruciating attention to detail extends to the backdrops. There’s decent variety in the number of locations where you fight – crowded backalleys, snow-covered train stations and grassy underpasses, for instance – and they’re packed with detail: spectators braying for blood and urging you onward and pieces of scenery that wobble, fall over and scatter when a heavy character hits the deck. The legion of lighting and particle effects look brilliant, too, from the flames that burst from your super meter and explode from your fist when you execute a move to the classic, bout-ending Haduken, fights practically bristle with action. Combine these effects with the striking characters, stunning style and mind-blowing animation and it’s clear that Street Fighter 4 is a visual experience that no previous fighting game has been able to match.
The rest of the game matches the fights themselves in offering plenty of depth and longevity even for eager and skilled players. There’s the standard arcade modes for each characters as well as those that allow you to choose who you fight and where you fight them. Playing the game will unlock further characters, costumes, taunts, art and movies, with hundreds of items to collect overall, and trial mode works as both a good tutorial and a way to get to grips with a character you haven’t played with much. There’s also challenge mode, which gives you more specific victory conditions, and online play – so there will always be a human opponent available, even if your friends aren’t there in person.
Alas, Street Fighter 4 isn’t perfect – but the issues that are there are practically microscopic – so much so that they barely matter at all. We had trouble completing some of the trial modes, even if we were hitting the move required – with Ken actually shouting the name of the move, even if the game wouldn’t register it – and the anime cutscenes that introduce and close arcade mode aren’t that good and don’t reveal much about the characters. They are skippable, though, and the mind-blowing introductory sequence more than makes up for some dodgy movies.
We also noticed that occasionally an AI-controlled character would prove problematic due to a reliance on one move – repeatedly using low kicks, for instance. It’s a tactic that we’d expect from an annoying younger cousin rather than a game of this quality but, thankfully, it’s a rare occurance. It’ll result in a prolonged bout or, at its worst, a lost round, but it’s soon lost in the shuffle.
The gameplay will appeal to both button-bashers and purists – there’s enough fun to be had immediately and enough depth to appeal for months of fighting without the annoying gimmicks that plagued previous games – and the roster of characters and their imbued style, thanks to the stunning graphics, effects and animation, will sate those looking for classic Street Fighter action, which this title delivers in spades. It’s a game that, as well as feeling fresh and new, is steeped in history. It’s definitely a Street Fighter game and exudes a sense of history that inhabits all of the best franchises.
As well as being one of the best-playing fighting games ever, it’s also one of the best-looking and, like all of the great, classic games, just feels right. It’s a shame that a couple of tiny, niggling issues prevent me from awarding Street Fighter 4 the coveted Den of Geek 5 star rating – but, be assured that this is as close to a perfect score that I’m able to give – a 4.9, as it were. This is an essential buy for fighting fans, and will go some way to convince those who haven’t been converted yet. Ken, Ryu, Blanka and the rest are waiting; you’re a Haduken away from Street Fighter heaven.