With Street Fighter V on its way, July's EVO 2015 being the biggest fighting game tournament in history and the Capcom Cup promising a half-million-dollar prize to the victor, it is fair to say that the fighting game scene of 2015 is bigger and better than it has ever been. Hell, even the latest Mortal Kombat was pretty damn good, a feat previously thought impossible. There's no denying that Street Fighter II was a cultural touchstone that transcended video games, but Street Fighter IV might just be more important.
EVO started in the early 00s, and created stars of incredible players like the legendary Daigo Umehara, but it was still attracting a relatively niche crowd until Street Fighter IV's release – into arcades in 2008 and onto home systems the next year. Prior to the fourth "main" game's arrival, the big titles at EVO were Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and Marvel vs Capcom 2, both of which were nearly ten years old. Both incredible, timeless fighting games, but the scene needed an injection of new, fresh blood.
And outside of the competition scene, casual gamers just didn't really care about beat 'em ups any more. Call of Duty and Halo had come along and convinced everyone that their way was the best way to spend your time when playing multiplayer video games, and same-room, same-couch equivalents seemed like relics. No surprises, when the "best" beat 'em up to be released in the years ahead of SFIV was the dreadful Soul Calibur IV – part of a once-great series that had turned into an unbalanced, unfocused mess full of out-of-place character cameos.
There's something really deliberate about the line-up to the vanilla version of Street Fighter IV. Obviously, Ryu and Ken make their returns alongside Street Fighter II veterans Chun-Li, E. Honda, Dhalsim, Guile and others, all of which look exactly how they appeared in Street Fighter II – something definitely designed to hammer all of the nostalgia buttons in the brain arcade of those old enough to remember 1991. Lapsed players, those old lads who remember the good times they had beating their mates up on the SNES version, would find these characters instantly recognisable, with their special moves triggering some long-dormant muscle memory. Maybe even those Mega Drive-owning savages, who had to press "START" to switch between punches and kicks. The trick was to get some of these players to stick around.
Perhaps because of this, Street Fighter IV is a simpler game than 3rd Strike. There's no parry, one of the key parts of SFIII, which had you pushing towards your opponent as their attack landed to block it without taking the chip damage. It is a really difficult technique to master and one that created the greatest moment in competitive fighting game history (see the video below). It was replaced by the "Focus Attack", activated by pushing both medium-power strike buttons at the same time. This move absorbs a hit of damage to deliver a huge blow that crumples your opponent to the ground, leaving them vulnerable to a follow-up.
Another thing designed to give newcomers a fighting chance was the "Ultra" move, activated by performing a specific button combo when you have a full meter – a meter that charges most when you're under attack. It is a simple mechanic that gifts the player on the receiving end of a total kicking an opportunity to unleash one great big, super-damaging attack in the hope of turning the tables. Both of these new features, although sounding simple, have ways of using them that add to the game's almost insurmountable depth. Playing Street Fighter IV is like learning a martial art – and each character a different discipline. You can get good, but you can never truly master it. This was a refinement, not a simplification.
Street Fighter IV made a huge impression upon release, gaining across-the-board critical acclaim (and in the case of Edge magazine, it's one of just a few games granted a 10/10 score, albeit retroactively). The knock-on effect of Street Fighter IV being brilliant can be seen in almost every area. Of course, EVO is bigger than ever, with thousands of players entering from all over the world, most of them in Ultra Street Fighter IV, the latest version of the game; but local scenes are also in rude health, with even Capcom getting involved in regional tournaments to help build the fighting game community. Like survival horror games post-Resident Evil 4, every other fighter out there was given a pretty hard boot up the arse by Street Fighter IV.
Fighting game players' tolerance of a sub-par title in their field is now at an all-time low. You simply can't release something that relies on anything other than solid, balanced gameplay to get by anymore, and most developers are well are of this. For instance, Mortal Kombat X still has its show-stealing fatality moves, but they're no longer the reason to buy it – it has become a deep, rewarding and balanced fighting game in its own right. Everyone was forced to step their game up by Street Fighter IV, and that effect was felt in both casual and hardcore audiences, because there's now a market more accepting of complex, interesting beat 'em ups. Guilty Gear Xrd, (the new) Killer Instinct and MKX are all the best of their respective series.
Fightsticks are a huge part of the Street Fighter scene and when news broke that Mad Catz would be handling the official fightsticks for the release of IV, people got worried. I mean, seriously, Mad Catz? At the time, they were best known as that company who made those pads you didn't want to get stuck with when you went over you your mate's house to play GoldenEye 007 on the N64, or that memory card that deleted your fully finished Resident Evil 2 save. Their reputation wasn't great. It came as quite a surprise when the three products they released – the Mega Drive-like Fightpad and the two tiers of stick – were really impressive bits of kit. In fact, their "Tournament Edition" stick, the high-end one with easily changeable Sanwa parts, is basically the go-to stick for most fighting gamers even to this day, with multiple models being made available for each title. People are building or modding their own sticks, it is easier to get parts than ever before and, again, a part of the fighting game community has been bolstered by the appearance of Street Fighter IV.
'Street Fighter V', M. Bison reveal trailer
2015 is set to be the biggest year for fighting games to date. Sony have essentially bought their way into being a big player in fighting games by having exclusive console rights to Street Fighter V. Ultra Street Fighter IV has just been released on the PS4, earning another lease of life as players new and old pick it up (although it's best to wait until the bugs are fixed). Sony have thrown a load of money into the fighting game scene, including that monstrous half-million-dollar prize for the winner of the Capcom Cup – which has had the added effect of bringing loads of pro players out of the woodwork, all wanting a piece of that not-insubstantial cash pie. And of course, on the horizon (with a release date of early 2016) is Street Fighter V itself, a game that, from the few clips we've seen, looks to be a return to the more complex gameplay featured in series favourite, 3rd Strike.
That kind of gameplay would've fallen on deaf ears and idle thumbs back in 2009, when the hardcore fighting game community wasn't big enough to make it worthwhile and the casual beat 'em up fan basically didn't exist. But thanks to Street Fighter IV, they're there now, ready and waiting.
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