It’s not always easy to be a fighting game fan, especially one that was there at the beginning of Street Fighter II’s early 90’s domination of all video game culture. Continued tweaks and updates to the formula when fans were demanding a true sequel all but killed the genre dead by the time the decade drew to a close, and when Capcom finally unleashed the true third iteration, an underappreciated trilogy of games each more beautiful and misunderstood than the last, they were met with a collective shrug from most casual gamers and mainstream media outlets.
The final update, 1999’s Street Fighter III: Third Strike has been somewhat re-appraised as a forgotten masterpiece recently though, funnily enough due to the genre’s resurgent popularity thanks to 2009’s relatively dull Street Fighter IV. SFIV did everything that SFIII refused to, where III featured an almost brand new roster of brilliantly off the wall designs, IV played it safe, bringing back all 12 classic Street Fighter II: Champion Edition characters alongside new fighters so insultingly boring their names may as well have been “Mexican Wrestler” and “Fat Guy”. Where III featured beautifully hand drawn, feature film quality animated graphics, IV dragged the main numbered series kicking and screaming into 3D with questionably, at times embarrassingly cartoonish results. And as far as gameplay went, III’s easy to learn, difficult to master parry system was replaced in IV with a “focus attack” so finicky, gimmicky and inconsequential that most intermediate players could get by online just fine without ever even bothering to learn how to use it (raises hand).
I’m not here to completely bury Street Fighter IV though, I’ve developed a begrudging resect for it over the years and logged over 200 hours into the game’s various permutations from Xbox 360, PS3 and 3DS all the way to my minty fresh PS4. And why did I buy a PS4? Because that’s the only console where you can play the brand new Street Fighter V. Just as Sega’s batshit insane Bayonetta 2 would’ve never been made without Nintendo’s charitable intervention and that game’s storied developers, the former Capcom employees at the awesome Platinum Games have turned into Activision’s helper monkeys on (however awesome cartoon adaptations to pay the bills, a 2016 Street Fighter exists in a Call of Duty dominated world thanks solely to the good financial graces of the house that Crash Bandicoot built.
Because of Sony footing the beleaguered Capcom’s bill, perhaps due to being above the worldwide console leader’s fiduciary safety net this time out, or maybe even in spite of it, Street Fighter V takes some refreshingly odd chances the company never would’ve dreamed of doing before, attempting to reach a happy medium between the staid, lowest common denominator baiting blandness of SFIV and the gonzo Japanese weirdness and intimidating gameplay depth of SFIII, thankfully leaning a lot more towards the latter than the former, at least so far…
“Suplex City, bitch.”
“So far” is an operative phrase here, because as many reviewers, bloggers, YouTubers, podcasters and regular folks just like you and me have bemoaned over the past week since the game’s official release, Street Fighter V is currently a beautiful skeleton with not much meat on its bones. What’s here so far though looks, feels and sounds utterly spectacular, and bodes well for both Sony’s investment and players eager to watch the game grow and evolve throughout this still young console generation.
Gameplay has always been king in the realm of the World Warrior and SFV gloriously follows suit, adopting a refreshingly weighty and satisfying combo system that feels almost like a carbon copy of the fan favorite SFIII. Most of that is thanks to the new V skill system, which replaces IV’s revenge meter and offers highly variable options that make mechanics differ from character to character, offering timed reversals in the form of everything from SFIII style parries, the alpha/zero counters from that series of games, dashes, attacks, mobility options and even a stone cold stunner from wacky returning SF Alpha era wrestler Rainbow Mika.
The V gauge serves the higher master of a traditional 3 level super meter, and the combo potential of canceling and hit confirming out of and into both meter burning and standard V skills, normals and specials of various strength and EX moves and Critical Arts (the new name for SFIV’s screen filling, cinematic and devastating ultra-combos) is incredibly gratifying and near endless.
Here come the new, NEW challengers.
On the roster front, SFV gives us a solid 16 to start with, with 6 more coming as monthly releases in the future. The cool thing about this, which Capcom isn’t getting enough credit for in the press, in my opinion, is that these additional characters can either be bought like traditional DLC with actual money through the PSN store or earned with in game currency from completing various modes and winning matches online. If you’re willing to grind it out you could potentially have all the added content here for free as opposed to dropping $30 on another admittedly overpriced season pass. That’s smart thinking on Capcom’s part and will go a long way towards avoiding another potentially devastating PR disaster like the one that buried underrated last gen “gem” (no pun intended) Street Fighter X Tekken.
The current crop of characters is nothing to sneeze at though, including 8 returning fighters from SFIV (Ryu, Ken, Zangief, Chun Li, Vega, Bison, Cammy and Dhalsim), 4 new/old characters from the Alpha series (Nash, Karin, Birdie and R. Mika) and 4 brand new contenders (Rashid, Laura, FANG and Necalli). Old fighters have adopted new looks and maneuvers to differ them sometimes unrecognizably from their past iterations (Charlie Nash’s Frankenstein look belies a full adoption of fireball motion execution for specials in lieu of charges) and the new characters are winningly unique and comfortingly strange, from the wind powered Dragon Ball Z/ Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure mashup Rashid and poisonous Shadaloo creeper FANG to beautiful Brazillian Blanka/Sean splice Laura and glowing god warrior Necalli.
Graphically the game stands up well to its current high fidelity fighting contemporaries in Killer Instinct and Mortal Kombat X, and the music is an all-time high for the series, featuring an infectiously catchy main theme that sounds like a lost instrumental from an old Metallica or Megadeth record, perfectly fitting stage accompaniment, and thoughtful remixes of classic themes for individual characters. Sound design is up to the usual standard as well, the iconic fighters’ grunts and yells sounding great in either English or Japanese.
Swig a’ beer for the workin’ man.”
And now for the elephant in the room, the game modes, or lack thereof. True, the missing arcade mode and vs. CPU options do sting a bit but the currently present story modes (more like short prologues for each character, featuring attractively sketchy and personality rich manga art from legendary Capcom staffer Bengus) and the addictive Survival modes fill the gap nicely, and Capcom has confirmed that a more traditional arcade mode is on the way, in addition to individual challenges, the item shop, and the first DLC character Alex that are scheduled to drop in March.
Online modes are a little spare at the moment as well, lobbies (now called “battle lounges”) only allow two players right now but that’s also something that Capcom eventually plans to remedy. Aside from launch day server woes the network battles have proven relatively stable and dependable, ranked and casual matches can be requested through the survival, story or training modes and come at a fast enough clip to keep players entertained and interested. A new GGPO rollback style of netcode is being employed here and even battles against foes with seemingly bad connections felt a lot smoother than in the PS4 port of Ultra Street Fighter IV. The community appears to be on its best behavior so far as well, as I’ve yet to experience a single rage quit or salty, nasty message during or after a victory.
Is Street Fighter V for everybody? Of course not, it wouldn’t feel as special if it was. Casual fighters looking for a one on one diversion might be better suited to picking up the aforementioned Ultra Street Fighter IV from PSN, which includes all characters, stages, modes, and even most of the costumes from that long lived last gen institution, or the upcoming Mortal Kombat XL, an even more relevant and modern current gen all-in-one package. But for the fighting faithful, Street Fighter V is a revelation, well worth the price of admission in its current state even if that price includes a PS4 itself, and anything Capcom adds to the game in the future will just be icing on the cake.