Muscle memory. Brushing teeth, or hair, driving a car, riding a bike; instinct through repetition. There are some things you will just never, ever forget how to do. And chances are that if you’re male and either approaching or shortly past thirty, you can throw a fireball. And if you can’t, with respect, I’m going to have to ask you to leave, sir.
Street Fighter II’s moveset is not only deeply burned into the thirtyish gamer’s memory but also his lexicon. A recent Skate2 session proved it when someone asked how to do a pop shove-it. ‘Fireball’. Immediately, out comes the quarter circle forward, out comes the shove-it. When the pad is passed to a girlfriend who asks how to ollie? Spinning Bird Kick. She looks confused. SPINNING BARD KEEK! Nothing. With respect, we’re going to have to ask you to leave, madam.
Because everyone knows the moves. Because never in videogaming history has a movement been so accurately represented by its input: Ryu almost crouching; his hands spread wide, held tightly against his hip; then that perfect thrust forwards, unleashing all that focused energy in a ball of blue flame. Down, down-towards, towards, punch. Hadoken.
Because everyone loved Street Fighter II and everyone can tell you a story about it. I remember the first time, in a smoky basement Bath arcade; I remember the nine hour session on the Super Famicom import played out on a 14” black and white screen; I remember lost afternoons pumping 50p pieces into the local machine just to get fireball-sweep-trapped by that Ryu player that seemingly lived there. Chances are as you’re reading you’re also remembering, and if you aren’t….well, you know. With respect, etc.
However I am somewhat unique in that I have similar memories of SFIII: Third Strike. I’m aware that most people’s love for Street Fighter fizzled out some time ago. The series bloated over the years, fattened up on characters and supers, cancels and tiers, karas and parries. I still don’t know what buffering is. The arcade scene died out, console developers and players alike saw 3D as the way forward and 2D as old hat, and that was that.
It was. But Street Fighter is back. And it’s no longer the preserve of the hardcore, of that elitist club with its own baffling language. It’s yours again and you will love it as much as it loves you.
I’ve changed, it says. I’ve gone back to basics. I’m sorry I scared you off. Every character has three or four special moves, one Super, and one Ultra. Of the original cast all eight characters and the four bosses return, joined by four brand new characters, with arcade mode playthroughs unlocking old favourites such as Cammy, Fei Long, Sakura, and Akuma.
So the initial feeling is one of familiarity. The memories come rushing back, the love comes rushing back, and you might as well be 15 again. Decade-old rivalries are reignited as pads are passed around the room, winner stays on, a gentleman’s agreement that both players jump backwards at the start of the match, the game paused so people can sort out their buttons.
The super bar shouldn’t need much explanation – it builds up as you land attacks, and when full a double fireball or sonic boom motion and one attack button will unleash your super move. It’s broken up into three chunks each of which can be used to perform an EX move – a special move with two attacks pressed instead of one, the resulting move having twice as many hits and in most cases knocking down. So you have a choice – do you hold on and try and charge up the full super or use a quick EX to knock your opponent down and swing momentum back your way? Always the latter myself, but only because Ken’s EX Shoryuken looks and feels so wonderful.
The Ultra bar is possibly the most significant and certainly the prettiest aspect of the game. A circular meter to the side of your super bar which fills up not as you land attacks but as you take damage; trickier to pull off by requiring three punches or kicks to be pressed after the super move input, the reward is huge, not just in terms of damage but in terms of pure, jaw-on-the-floor spectacle. The screen immediately darkens and zooms in tight on the player before unleashing a flurry of attacks, dealing huge damage. It also looks absolutely fantastic, from the look of unadulterated panic that flashes over the recipient’s eyes, to the little kiss that Ryu blows before unleashing his fireball, to the background pyrotechnics that reward an Ultra finisher.
Because you’ll likely only get a chance to use it when a fight is going badly, it’s a way of turning a match around in a split second, but even then you need to be careful when you use it; dealing that much damage on your opponent will surely fill his Ultra bar as well, meaning you can expect one straight back. Do you hold onto it until his energy is low enough for the Ultra to knock him out? You’re losing already, you might not make it. But if you use it now, and give him a full Ultra bar, you may still lose anyway. It’s a wonderful, delicate balance.
The Ultra bar can also be charged with Focus Attacks, SFIV’s equivalent of Third Strike’s parry. A simultaneous press of medium kick and punch launches it, deflecting an attack. Keeping the buttons held down makes your character charge up a move, and the longer you hold it down, the more damage it does and the longer it stuns your opponent. It can then be cancelled by dashing – a quick double tap of towards or back – giving you time to move in and launch a big combo while your opponent is still stunned. Cancelling a move is far from a new invention for the series, having been present since Street Fighter II, but never has it been this complex and it is clearly here that the deepest strategy lies, especially as pulling off what’s already been shortened to FADC – Focus Attack Dash Cancel – depletes two chunks of your super meter. Cause and effect, risk and reward; on such foundations has Street Fighter’s legacy been built, and the balance between them is arguably more fine-tuned than ever before.
Of course there are problems. Load times between fights top twenty seconds making HDD installation a necessity rather than a luxury. Final boss Seth is as cheap as you’d expect, and while the long-term appeal surely lies in the off and online versus modes you’re forced to clear arcade mode with unfamiliar characters to unlock old favourites like Cammy, and then with all the unlockable characters to unlock Akuma, and then clear it with Akuma with at least one perfect and two ultra finishes and then beat Gouken to unlock him. You’ll be there a while. Questions are raised about SFIV’s mainstream appeal in this regard – one friend, a beastly Akuma player, has had to go without despite several late nights working through arcade mode. One wonders if someone coming back to the series after a decade away will have the patience. One’s inner cynic wonders when to expect the paid-for DLC code that unlocks all characters. Offline pickings are slim, a basic challenge mode running you through a character’s moveset, a free training mode, and that’s your lot.
But much of the above will not hit so hard next week when my own copy arrives, the Hori stick is dusted off and I can take my time with it. When the online servers are full of matches with decent connections rather than the no-bar wasteland it is at the moment. When characters are unlocked over time with no sense of urgency because the review’s due at the weekend. When decade-old rivalries are revived in beery smoke-filled lounges, when new rivalries are born online, when people are actually talking about Street Fighter again, now and for months or years to come, when the night down the pub or the night home alone in a COD4 party reverts to days gone by when people actually went round to each other’s houses to play games. Nostalgia, they say, isn’t as good as it used to be. Street Fighter IV drips with nostalgia, but it might just be better than ever. No longer the preserve of the hardcore, it’s yours again. Treasure it.