It’s fair to say that I’ve had a very rocky relationship with Street Fighter V. After giving it several chances (and after Capcom did more work to actually finish the damn game), I did end up enjoying it somewhat, but I still don’t love it. Perhaps that will change when I get around to upgrading to the Champion Edition, but I’m not holding my breath. It did make me wonder though: how has its predecessor – Street Fighter IV – aged in the twelve years since it launched? The first of several revisions, Super Street Fighter IV, was one of the games that forced me to upgrade my PS2 to a PS3 back in the day (the other being Yakuza 3) and I recall happily buying the other updates despite all the negative comments from the fanbase following Capcom’s “promise” (lol) that they wouldn’t replicate their Street Fighter II strategy…
2014’s Ultra Street Fighter IV finished the “series”, and I probably spent the most time with this final update than any of the previous versions. Well, I decided that – since I was between games – I would revisit Ultra SFIV to see how it holds up in the harsher light of 2020. That and the fact that I need to pick up the Champion Edition of SFV before flicking back over to it, but I haven’t found the enthusiasm to do so yet.
The first thing to make clear is that, while I still consider Street Fighter IV to be a great fighting game, it remains a pale imitation (in my opinion) of the greatness that came before. You see, in the late 90’s, Capcom probably raised the bar a little TOO high when they delivered the absolute masterpieces that were Third Strike and Alpha/Zero 3. Not only do these games play better than most other 2D fighters, they are also works of art. From the gorgeous sprite work, animation, and lovingly-crafted backgrounds, to the masterful soundtracks, these were the pinnacle of Capcom’s 2D fighting games along with Marvel Vs Capcom 2 and the Capcom Vs SNK duo.
By comparison, I’ve always viewed Street Fighter IV as an imposter of sorts; almost like a parody. That might sound like an overly-harsh assessment but it begins with the 2.5D graphical style that Capcom introduced here before making it a standard feature of their fighting games going forward. Now, I completely understand that it’s much cheaper and faster to use these sorts of character models, but it’s still a massive come-down from traditional, hand-drawn and animated characters. There’s very little charm, and I can’t say that I’ve ever caught myself admiring the work that went into bringing the characters to life in SFIV (again, harsh on the developers but it’s just the truth). Additionally, I just don’t enjoy the cartoon-like, exaggerated look of SFIV. Most of the characters looked like they’re pumped-up on steroids and impossibly ripped – even some of the girls have abs that you could grate cheese on (though I do kinda like Cammy being ripped AF…).
You could (reasonably, I might add) argue that the Street Fighter characters always looked like this in the 2D games, but I think that it just worked better in 2D. These 3D models with bulging muscles just don’t do it for me.
So I played the game again anyway, and it took me a while to get back into it, chiefly due to several key issues that I remember disliking the first time around. First of all, this game feels slow in a way that’s difficult to pinpoint. It moves smoothly and is certainly quick enough, but there’s a vague floatiness to the way that the characters move in the air. On the ground, they feel a bit heavier and less agile than their 2D predecessors. It’s in no way enough to spoil the game but it took me a certain amount of acclimatisation before I gelled with SFIV‘s “feel”.
Next, the Ultra Combo attacks. I didn’t like them the first time, and I still don’t like them now. Yes, they look cool, and I’m onboard with the idea of accessing them by taking damage and thus having a way to make a comeback, but the cinematic nature of Ultras spoils the flow. Some are just way over the top and take forever, removing you from the game while you sit and watch the screen like a spectator rather than a player. I know I keep banging on about the past like an old fart, but the super moves in the 2D games were flashy without disrupting the flow of battle or breaking a dimensional wall with spinning camera angles and all that shit. Possibly the worst knock-on effect is how other fighting games introduced similar super moves post-SFIV – Soul Calibur and Dead or Alive to name two examples. It’s all a bit gimmicky, a cheap way of “innovating” and an artificial method of moving the genre forward, but that’s just my take on it.
There’s a bit of suspicious CPU AI at work too. I’ve noticed – when playing Arcade mode on the default medium setting at least – that the third or fourth opponent tends to be a massive difficulty spike, reading your moves and blocking/countering everything. Then, subsequent opponents tend to put up less of a solid defense. I often think that I’m just imagining this (or that I’m simply trash at the game) but it keeps happening, regardless of who I’m using or who I’m facing off against. Additionally, there are several characters who seem to possess the ability to grab you as soon as you regain your footing, leaving you no chance to escape. Fuck that.
And I can’t vent my frustrations about Street Fighter IV‘s turn-offs without mentioning the utter bastard that is Seth, the game’s final boss. This guy is a cheap mother who can just do one. He does have some predictable AI that can be exploited, but I also find him absolutely zero fun to fight. Round one is fairly easy to surpass, but Seth kicks it up a few gears for the second round. He teleports about like crazy and possesses outrageous priority over your attacks, so much so that he can interrupt your Ultra combos with special moves and throws. What is that all about?
But the thing I find the most offensive of all is Seth’s boring-ass design. Honestly, this dude looks like Geegus from World Heroes! He’s just a blue-skinned dude with no personality whatsoever (save for being a generic evil bloke with generic world-domination plans) and his special moves are all borrowed from other SF characters (there is a plot reason for that but it’s still no excuse). An over-powered, cheap, rule-bending boss is always a negative in ANY fighting game, but I tend to be a bit more lenient if their visual design or personality are fun to have on-screen. But Seth? Annoying to deal with, and uninteresting to behold. The Seth battle at the end of Arcade is one of those pre-scripted destinations that causes me to sigh whenever I reach it.
All of these gripes aside, I have enjoyed playing Street Fighter IV again. Certainly more so than SFV. The biggest plus is that I find the game infinitely more accessible than its sequel. Ironically, I seem to remember SFV being touted as a more accessible game but I find the opposite to be true. All the V-Trigger stuff in SFV feels a lot more in-depth to me and I find that a decent amount of time needs to be spent in the training modes to get half-way competent with characters and learn combos – combos which change under V-Trigger conditions. I also find it difficult to take some time away from the game and return without re-learning everything all over again…
Street Fighter IV on the other hand is much more straightforward. The powered-up EX versions of special moves are a lot more intuitive, for example, and so is the Focus mechanic. I’ve never really understood why Focus was viewed as overly-complex, and off-putting. It’s a constantly-accessible, simple-to-trigger risk vs reward technique that can turn the tide of battle (just like the mighty Parry), but also easily be played through if your opponent is spamming it.
Overall, Street Fighter IV is the better pick-up-and-play game. It doesn’t feel anything like the classics, but you can still jump right in with a cursory look at a character’s moveset and a quick refresher of the controls.
And while it’s true that I don’t particularly care for IV‘s character models, I have always enjoyed the artistic direction of the game as a whole. The painterly-effects used for the official character concept art and in-game animation are a nice touch that go some way towards softening the arrival of 3D. Most of the stages are fun to look at (I particularly enjoy the Underpass, Skate Park, and Skyscraper Under Construction), and some are genuinely attractive (Morning Mist Bay for example). Revisiting this game has also made me realise how good the soundtrack was – something I definitely didn’t appreciate at the time. There are some fantastic, original tracks in there (Volcanic Rim and Cosmic Elevator being my top two picks) and most characters have sweet remixes of their classic themes. I’ve found myself listening to the OST from Ultra on Youtube quite frequently lately – always an endorsement for a videogame soundtrack!
Most of all though, I think I enjoy playing Ultra Street Fighter IV moreso than Street Fighter V because it’s just much more straightforward and to the point. Let’s not kid ourselves: the SFIV series certainly brought its own share of distracting bullshit to the table with its host of updates and DLC, but that was as far as it went. V has always struck me as a minefield of in-game currencies, superfluous modes/menus, season passes and so on. As much as I’ve come to be able to get something out of V, the whole thing does feel like a hassle at times. Furthermore, it just doesn’t have the charm or the personality of previous Street Fighter games. It’s difficult for me to explain but I feel as if V doesn’t even have an identity. As I’ve detailed further up the page, there’s plenty that I don’t like about SFIV, but it does at least have its own vibe going on.
Additionally, Street Fighter V took some of the worst aspects of IV – overly-cinematic super moves and exaggerated characters – and ran with them. For me personally, there exists an invisible tipping point between IV and V. Street Fighter IV will never captivate me in the way that Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Alpha 3, or Third Strike do, but it stands on the right side of that tipping point and remains an enjoyable fighting game for it.
(Disclaimer! I know this reads like a Street Fighter V-bashing post but rest assured that I will be giving it more time soon. I don’t hate the game, and it isn’t a poor product at all, but I’m likely never going to be able to consider it as one of my go-to fighting games. Heck, one of the main reasons I put aside some reservations and got involved in the first place was once again being able to play as the Queen Of Thicc a.k.a. Rainbow Mika!)