Street Fighter II’s combo system was an accident. Capcom never meant for players to be able to cancel an attack’s animation with an early input of another move. It was spotted during bug testing, left in place, and went on to define a genre. Development team sizes are much bigger nowadays and QA processes are more thorough, but you still have to wonder how much of what players have found in the Street Fighter IV series was part of Capcom’s original plan.
SFIV has always been a little bit broken. The first game had infinite combos and character balance problems. Super SFIV and its Arcade Edition expansion had what were colloquially – although technically incorrectly – called unblockables, where a specific sequence of moves would end with a jumping attack that randomly hit you in front or from behind. And the competitive scene has been dominated by ‘vortex’ characters, who can knock an opponent down, use one of half-a-dozen different ways to dole out heavy damage thereafter, and then put them back in the exact same situation. So with Ultra SFIV – seemingly the final iteration of the game that brought a forgotten genre back to the fore – Capcom had quite the job on its hands. The result is a game that, as well as boasting 44 characters in its roster and the expected raft of little tweaks, contains brand-new systems that fundamentally alter the way the game is played.
Some are simpler than others. Delayed Standing, performed by pressing any two attack buttons as you’re knocked down, makes you stand up 11 frames later than normal. It kills unblockables stone dead, and nullifies vortex play too – at least for the time being. In Japan, where Ultra SFIV launched in arcades in April, strategies are already being formed to counter it. A successful Delayed Standing input displays a message onscreen for a full second before the knocked-down player returns to their feet, so players are learning to look for that and delaying their next assault accordingly. For the time being, however, the solution works. The result is a game that’s slightly slower paced, perhaps, but for the right reasons: a single knockdown is no longer enough to turn a round in a player’s absolute favour. Japan’s response to that has been mixed, and your own will likely depend on your character of choice. Akuma, Cammy, Seth and Ibuki players simply have to work a little harder now. Either way, it’s a simple solution to two complex problems that Capcom has fixed with just two buttons.
That’s appropriate given that the Focus Attack, performed with a simultaneous press of both medium attacks, was SFIV’s most transformative addition to the genre template. It’s a move of tremendous power and versatility, used both defensively (to absorb a hit) and when on the attack (cancelling it with a dash to extend combos, or charging it up to crumple an opponent to the floor), but it has its drawbacks. That it can only absorb a single hit makes it no help when escaping the relentless pressure of a rushdown or vortex character, for instance. And when on the attack, the difficulty of executing the move in the middle of a lengthy combo makes for a steep learning curve for the beginner players that Capcom so craves.
The solution is the Red Focus Attack, which is performed with three buttons instead of two and costs Super meter to use. Used defensively, it will absorb every hit that comes your way until its animation ends. Used in combos, it will instantly crumple an opponent when the buttons are released, irrespective of how long it’s been charged for. The former offers an escape route from entire combos, while the latter opens up a host of possibilities, essentially giving every character in the game a way to combo into an Ultra. It particularly benefits grapplers: the likes of Zangief and Hakan used to have to rely on very specific setups to land Ultra combos, but now a single punch can be the gateway to half a lifebar’s worth of damage. And for Ryu and Rufus, who already have plenty of ways of setting up an Ultra, Red Focus adds another layer of versatility to the most rewarding combo system this genre has ever produced.
If Red Focus sounds powerful, it’s because it is, but it’s been smartly balanced. When used in the open, it costs one of your four chunks of Super meter. Any absorbed hits make a greyish dent in your health bar that slowly refills unless you take a hit, in which case you forfeit the grey segment. Meanwhile, a mid-combo Red Focus Cancel costs three-quarters of the Super bar, a hefty chunk of what was already considered the most important resource in the game. A failed Red Focus Cancel can be every bit as disheartening, and fatal, as a blocked Super or Ultra.
Red Focus is a logical fit for the final iteration of SFIV. It’s an effective bit of kitchen-sink design, as if Capcom is a primary school teacher unlocking the toy box on the last day of term. Ultra Combo Double reinforces that feeling, letting players take both Ultras at the cost of damage output. It’s a boon for grapplers, who once had to choose between a ground-based Ultra and an anti-air one, but others benefit as well. Ken can take both his powerful Shinryuken and the anti-fireball Guren Senpukyaku, for instance. It’s a welcome addition to Arcade mode, too, where the inability to select the best Ultra for each match-up has always felt punitive, but it’s hard to recommend a mode where opponents can read your inputs, teaching you nothing and breeding bad habits. Online is, as ever, the place to be.
There are changes here, too. A new Team Battle mode replicates the tournament scene’s popular three-versus-three, winner-stays-on format. Online Training enables two warriors to experiment without tiresome dips into the pause menu to tweak AI dummy settings. And replays can now be uploaded in HD, meaning we’ll never again darken our YouTube channel with shaky phone recordings of our finest moments. Yet matches themselves are confusing at the time of writing, full of old hands learning new systems, while a leaderboard reset has thrown A-rank killers in with the beginners.
Players are also learning five new characters, four of which have, like the game’s half-dozen new stages, been brought across from Street Fighter X Tekken. It’s a smart, if cynical, way of making the most of the asset library from a game whose player count quickly fell off a cliff. The most striking is Hugo, a German wrestler of such vast form that he obscures the health bars at the top of the screen and whose Arcade mode cinematic explains that he is fighting the world’s greatest warriors because of something to do with potatoes. He’s more mobile than the average grappler, with a running lariat, an anti-air grab with tremendous priority and limbs of such length that he can hit you from two-thirds of a screen away if you stick out an attack at the wrong time.
His Final Fight accomplice, Poison, has a flexible toolset for those prepared to look past one of Capcom’s more cringeworthy and lascivious character designs. Her generous special move list includes riffs on Ryu’s fireball and dragon punch, Fei Long’s Rekkaken, and Adon’s Jaguar Kick, the last of which can be used to start combos. Meanwhile, Elena, who debuted in Street Fighter III: Third Strike, is unwieldy at first thanks to her floaty jump and a curious normal moveset, where even punch buttons perform kicks. But that’s capoeira for you, and with legs as long as hers, we’d use them a lot too. She’s devastating in the corner, where she has several ways to combo into one of her Ultras. Rolento
is mercifully far less powerful than he was in Street Fighter X Tekken, although an Ultra setup off a single EX attack is not to be sniffed at. And the jury is still very much out on the fifth character, Decapre, a reskinned Cammy whose moves are performed with charge motions instead of quarter circles and only suffers in comparison to her powerful doppelganger.
Getting to grips with these new characters is harder than it should be, given there are no combo trials, which gave invaluable insight into a fighter’s tools and setups in the series’ previous games. Capcom says they’re on the way, but they’re a frustrating omission. In the meantime, at least there’s the Internet. Forums and video sites are already teeming with the discoveries of one of the most scientific communities in videogames.
And therein lies quite the caveat. Capcom has seemingly fixed Super SFIV’s problems, but those problems were first discovered by the very same community that may also eventually break Ultra SFIV. Only time will tell what cracks lie beneath the surface. In the meantime, however, it’s impossible not to admire the elegance with which Capcom has tackled some complex systemic challenges, and the effect its solutions have had on the way the game feels. Ultra SFIV is a slower, more deliberate game, one in which success isn’t solely about putting your opponent into a succession of 50/50 decisions. There is also a renewed focus on the fighting game fundamentals: space control and the psychology of competition. It feels, in other words, an awful lot like classic Street Fighter, and praise doesn’t come much higher than that.