Ultra Street Fighter IV’s Long Road To Becoming The World’s Greatest Fighting Game

A month or so ago there was a Capcom weekend on Steam, where some of the publisher’s finest cuts were free to play for a few days. Out of curiosity as to whether my old 360 arcade stick would work with it I downloaded Ultra Street Fighter IV [official site]. I have a long history with Street Fighter IV and thought I knew what to expect – but the World Warriors blew me away again, and that once-dusty stick is now part of the furniture. Here’s why.

The biggest reason I was surprised is because, in my head, Street Fighter IV has been a known quantity for years. It’s old. Way back in the day I wrote one of the first cover stories on it, when only Ryu and Ken were playable and director Yoshinoro Ono’s talk was all of following the sacred Street Fighter II. An unkind soul might observe that Ono was referring to the business model, and the real target was of course numbers.

Street Fighter II had been a worldwide arcade and home console smash, one of the most famous games in history. Street Fighter III was an extraordinary follow-up, to many people’s minds the greatest 2D beat-em-up ever, but it had nowhere near the popular appeal of its predecessor. Capcom toe-dipped with 3D visuals in the mediocre Street Fighter EX, but the early 2000s basically saw Street Fighter wither away – never quite able to recapture that moment in the sun.

Street Fighter IV seemed like a quixotic endeavour when first announced in late 2007. It’s easy to look back now and think its success was guaranteed, but Street Fighter has no divine right to exist and 2D beat-em-ups were a badly-fading genre. Since Street Fighter II’s heyday a small competitive scene survived, but there were no mainstream hits.

Even more fundamental is that Street Fighter IV is a 2D game design. Knowing that the game would nevertheless have to compete at the top end of the market, Capcom’s developers came up with a brilliant fudge – the characters and stages are 3D models, but the game is shown with a fixed side-on camera angle. During certain thumping special moves or ultra attacks, however, the camera moves dynamically to give the best possible shots of the pummelling.

The unkind might call this technique a shallow trick but, and this is the key to much of Capcom’s design process, it works. Street Fighter IV’s attack animations, for example, have many more frames dedicated to throwing the blow than to the limb’s withdrawal afterwards – so after striking an opponent, character arms and legs move back to their normal position far too quickly. But had you ever even noticed? It looks perfect as-is. The ‘withdrawal’ animations even exist: they were made and removed, rather than never included.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that this is all in the service of resurrecting an old game and being faithful to its design. I can’t think of any comparable project on such a scale. And SFIV’s designers had the guts to follow their principles to the most minute level. Consider the 3D models themselves, mostly humanoid in proportion but exaggerating every feature beyond hyper-real – and then accentuating powerful movement with careless-looking ink splashes. They’re at once the style’s punctuating flourish, and a celebration of the artifice that lifts it beyond ‘realistic’ 3D styles.

But as soon as something like that begins to intrude on sacred ground, SFIV pulls back. The hitboxes were originally 3D too but, after early feedback indicated testers felt something was off, were soon reverted to the more familiar precision of 2D. Beyond everything else, though, is the drive to make a game anyone can play.

This is not as self-evident a goal as it may seem, because Street Fighter III’s whole philosophy was to fix any ‘problems’ in II and create the pinnacle of complex 2D fight design. It succeeded, but at the cost of jettisoning more casual players who just wanted a knockabout with mates. By the time of Street Fighter III: Third Strike the design had been iterated as close to perfect as it would get, and is still played competitively for that reason, but the fighting club had become a closed shop.

Hitting a balance between mass appeal a la Street Fighter II and retaining the long-term depth for competitive play was Street Fighter IV’s toughest test. Opinions may differ but I think SFIV nails it, and one part of both games shows how Capcom’s designers solved the SFIII problem of over-specialisation.

The fulcrum of SFIII’s fighting system is the parry – when an attack is going to hit your character, there’s a six-frame window for you to press towards it and parry the move, taking no damage and leaving your opponent in their recovery frames. The idea is beautiful of course, a moment of calm to cut through the storm, and SFIII’s most famous moment (Daigo parrying Justin Wong at EVO) is an ode to the parry’s grace and precision. The problem is that most players just don’t have the reflexes or predictive knowledge to pull it off reliably, so it’s never used. SFIII’s absolutely core idea is useless to all but the best.

Street Fighter IV replaces the parry with the focus attack. By holding two buttons a character begins charging and can absorb a single attack – unleashing the buttons at any point to strike and counter, or reaching max charge after a few seconds for an unblockable attack that crumples. There is enormous depth to the focus attack’s specifics – it goes through three stages of charge, can be dash-cancelled, can use your super bar to cancel out of special moves, and so on – but the single most important characteristic is that it has a lot of leeway.

The focus attack’s time to charge lets slower players set up for an attack, and let go of a fantastic-feeling counter-attack if their opponent weighs in. It lets average players introduce fast, reliable counter-attacks into a game of footsies, and find openings where there might have been stalemates. For experts it simply has tremendous utility, both as an instantaneous set-up against predictable opponents and a last-ditch escape when a whiffed move could mean the end of a round. Street Fighter IV’s focus attack is a core part of the fighting system, used by every character, and any player can execute and get some sort of benefit from it.

This much many of us knew years ago. What caught me off-guard about Ultra Street Fighter IV is how much effort Capcom has put into keeping it current – and finally giving the PC the Street Fighter it deserves. It was Street Fighter II that began Capcom’s excesses in terms of ‘Turbo’, ‘Super,’ ‘Hyper’ editions and so on.

It’s easy to see this as a cynical business model because, let’s be honest, it is. But it also happens to suit this kind of videogame perfectly. My love of Street Fighter IV meant I stayed glued at the time Super Street Fighter IV was coming out a year or so later, and that was where myself and chums had left it.

The original SFIV’s roster was basically all of the characters from SFII plus four flagship new characters, and a couple of hidden extras. Super added ten more, including of course the four ‘new arrivals’ from Super Street Fighter II (Dee Jay, T. Hawk etc), and shortly afterwards an Arcade Edition added four more still. I missed the latter and by the time of Ultra (which added five more of its own) the roster had swelled to 44 characters.

That’s the first thing that hit me with Ultra: the vast character select screen. A fighting game is all about the characters and their styles, and over seven years Street Fighter IV’s roster had risen from 19 to 44. It’s not that this process happened overnight, but from my perspective as a player it may as well have. Returning to a game you thought you were done with, and finding it’s a genuinely a new proposition is not a common experience.

As I got sucked back in, what I’d expected to be Capcom’s usual bare-bones PC job turned out to be possibly the most cutomisable and fully-featured the company has yet produced. Ultra Street Fighter IV PC is a labour of love. It looks incredible by default but there’s an enormous amount of graphical options, and yet the system requirements are so low that at max my old rig is still doing 250 frames a second. It can automatically upload favourite replays to youtube, let you watch those of others in-game, and then there’s a bonanza of mod skins that let you play as everyone from the Incredible Hulk to a frankly incredible Solid Snake (whose outfit and look switches between different eras of MGS when you change skins.)

My idle hour revisiting an old favourite became a whole weekend of re-mastering the basics and plotting a new tilt at world domination. Come Monday, with the bonanza of training modes tantalisingly incomplete and some scores to settle online, it was an instant addition to my library. And online is the best thing about USFIV – there are four modes plus an online practice mode and, though I only really use ‘ranked match,’ there are always people to play against. This matters because I’ve been there for other great games like BlazBlue and even the original SFIV, noticing how it’s occasionally taking longer to get a game, until the day comes when it’s just searching and searching.

That will one day happen to Ultra Street Fighter IV. But not soon. Because there really isn’t anything like it – an audacious bid to revive a past champion that, you might say against the odds, went to the top. The initial design was brilliant but, thanks to re-awakening a long-dormant audience appetite, that became a foundation for more characters, more modes, more costumes and stages and icons, more additions and more editions. What began as in some sense an homage soon became its own work-in-progress.

Words like ‘definitive’ are thrown around willy-nilly but there’s no doubt that Ultra Street Fighter IV is where this grand project ends – with Street Fighter V due next year, this is the final encore. Which makes you look at what Ultra Street Fighter IV represents. It’s the product of years of work from Capcom’s finest minds, the definitive version of the best fighting game ever made, and one of the best games in recent times full stop. It’s a design and an art style that won’t fade or be bettered for a very long time. It’s a game anyone can have fun playing with and a system that’s worth mastering. And more than anything else, USFIV makes the old feel blazingly new again.

26 Comments

  1. HilariousCow says:

    I had been playing it since release, but after plateauing with Makoto, and realizing just how much of my time it was taking up (some pretty dodgey match making on the PC version also contributed), I had to put away the joystick (I own 2, and have a third “hitbox” stickless stick which I made out of a dead xbox 360 carcass). It was sad, but about time. It taught me so much about design. This game is essentially just about different hit boxes taking up screen space for different amounts of time… rapid fire temporary territorial control. That’s it. Nothing complex. And yet it kept giving for the better part of a decade.

    A few months after dropping it cold, I needed something else. I had tried Yomi (a card game simulating fighting games) which was okay, but a bit too plainly rock-paper-scissory. After that Netrunner filled the hole. I already have like, 6 netrunner expansions. People I play keep saying “I can’t imagine what it’s like to come to netrunner so late in the lifespan”, and I just think, yeah, same thing with StreetFighter IV…

    But it seems to me that games like Netrunner or SFIV are in many ways a bit timeless. Great, well honed competitive designs with elegance and depth which keep surprising you. Getting hooked is easy: these games are convincingly masterful. Finding people to play who aren’t just going to play politely or trounce you into the ground? That’s tougher. But so long as you can find people who will go easy on you, or at least people willing to start up and learn along side you, you can absolutely get as much enjoyment as someone who watched it grow.

    I still occasionally play drunk in Loading Bar’s basement. Easy pickings.

  2. Auru says:

    I expect some “blah blah to many versions” comments.. which at the very cynical end of things might hold some water, in reality.. Street Fighter IV has undergone some amazing changes over the years since it dropped in ’09.. Capcom isn’t exactly rolling in money and Street Fighter IV could have been supported better, but at the end of all that.. once the dust has settled, the version we end with is so brilliantly balanced that almost any character is a viable pick.. from the bottom of the skill pool right to the very top where the variety is very impressive.

    I have put hundreds of hours into this game and sometimes when I roll into a very good player, it still feels like i’m scratching the surface :)

    I really hope they can carry on where this game leaves off with SFV, the game of cat and mouse for positioning in a 2D fighter is really something that never gets old (for me anyway!) it’s just awesome :)

    • pepperfez says:

      Every day I become more OK with the multiple-editions model. I’d like it even better if the costumes were only sold in comprehensive packs, too. If we must have piecemeal game sales, I want to have as few transactions and as few options as possible.

      • Emeraude says:

        Honestly, not sure if you’re being ironic, I tend to prefer the game as product over the game as service model for that very reason, most of the time.

        Not having to deal with a rolling release model that may just throw the baby with the bath water through iterations, or quite simply change the game totally (some games with online are barely recognizable from their original version when you play the latest – and that original version – or the state in between that you preferred – is basically dead).

        With multiple editions model, you have fixed snapchots of the game at a point in time, and the people who prefer it can just pick it. Without having to debate about all the a la carte choices you’d have to do make with a rolling release that kept all options.

        • pepperfez says:

          I’m absolutely sincere, and I agree with you on the desirability of snapshots of each version. Among other things, it made possible USF4’s edition select mode, which is allows for some brilliantly weird matches (or justthe deadliest ice cream, which is OK too).

    • MisterFurious says:

      Those updates could’ve been free of charge if Capcom had any integrity and, yes, characters cost money to create but no game needs 44 characters anyway. If all they were doing was tweaking and balancing the game, they could’ve easily done free patches and not bothered will all the extra characters, most of which are stupid and all play the same.

      I held out for years, waiting until they were done before buying the game because I am not OK with buying the same game four or five times. They said they were finished with Arcade Edition, so I bought it and then, guess what? Ultra comes out later making my game outdated and almost worthless. I’d rather piss glass than give Capcom any more money. They said they weren’t going to do with ‘SF IV’ what they did with ‘SF II’ yet that’s exactly what they ended up doing.

  3. Steven Hutton says:

    I kind of think that Street Fighter 4 is something of an embarrassment on a design level. It’s riddled with one frame links which you need to learn to play at all well.

    It has dumb input non-sense like kara-throws which haven’t been fixed or removed in almost EIGHT YEARS.

    It’s riddled with “option selects” which kill decision making in favor of elaborate exploits of engine glitches.

    It’s one of the most painfully defensive SF games ever (huge health bars, huge stages, invincible backdashes, crouch techs option select for throw, weak as hell throws which tech for no damage).

    It has a really awful, sloppily implemented comeback mechanic in “Ultra” moves. Which reward players for doing badly with hugely increased damage. Contrast to SFV’s comeback mechanic of just having moves do good damage.

    Oh and the netcode sucks.

    • Azza says:

      One frame links are not needed to play the game well.

      Why are kara throws nonsense? They haven’t been removed or fixed because there not a bug. They make sense in that they have a purpose. To extend a moves range.

      While the game is option select heavy, it is often the case that you still have to choose the right option select to counter your opponent. Focus dashing will also prevent option selects from triggering.

      Funny there is plenty of powerful offense based characters that are extremely powerful, Viper, Cammy ,El Fuerte, Yun, Seth, Ibuki, Akuma, Evil Ryu, Dudley and Abel.

      The game toned down damage from SF2 and 3 meaning you stay alive longer. Whether you like this or not is personal preference.

      Feels like a post from 09 shoryuken forums when people complain about Ultra’s. Much less complaining since Super when they where toned down. Love them or hate them, the implementation was not sloppy, it functions exactly as they intended and its a well understood mechanic at this point. In principal the idea of getting rewarded from taking damage is wrong, but the player based moved on from this point and it did not significantly detract from the game. SF3 had some stuff that was considered dumb too like whiffing normal to build meter.

      I do agree that SFV come back mechanic is better from what I’ve seen so far though.

      Netcode works fine for me on PC (since the steam update) and Xbox 360.

      • Bremze says:

        No one is debating that SF4 is this way due to concious decisions over the different revisions, but things like mandatory tight links for bnbs, crouch tech, FADC, low damage etc. turn off a large part of the player base, new and old. I’m not even saying that the game is bad, it’s just good in ways that I don’t appeal to me as much past the well balanced roster(except Dee Jay). Bring on SFV.

        • Jokerme says:

          I find it hard to believe doing anything differently would make SFIV any more successful than it already is. SF games were always hardcore games at their cores.

    • Wedge says:

      And yet, when played by people at a truly high level, it’s a highly offensive, read heavy, thing of goddamn beauty. The matches at the recent CEO tournament were some incredible stuff. I am however, really excited for the ideas they’re pushing in SFV. I enjoy playing IV casually, but gave up on playing it seriously (though I am still involved in the regional competitive scene) years ago due to the advanced execution requirements needed to win at that level.

  4. Lionmaruu says:

    I agree. Street fighterIV is the best fighting game around since its launch, nothing else compares. I can have fun with several other games, but when it comes to love, to infinite replayability it will be street fighter 2 and now, street fighter IV replaced it, for the first time since sf2 release I could find a game to come back to.

  5. Arglebargle says:

    Nice article. But after Bushido Blade, my taste for button-thwacking special move fighting games just lost its flavor. Fun for the occasional return, but ultimately cloying pretty dang fast.

    • Emeraude says:

      I love that game. Should rev it up this week end.

      First person mode was pretty good too if you’re trained into swordsmanship of any kind.

    • Snids says:

      I’m exactly the same!
      I wish I had someone to play it with.
      Although I have been enjoying Last Blade 2 under emulation.

  6. eggy toast says:

    I think the art style looks really horrible. Really, really bad.

    • BlueTemplar says:

      Reminds me of this :
      “A Pixel Artist Renounces Pixel Art” :
      link to dinofarmgames.com
      (featuring a comparison between SF3 and SF4)

      • pepperfez says:

        Yeah, comparing the art of basically any pixel-based Capcom game with SF4 is really depressing. The quality and detail of Third Strike or Darkstalkers will probably never be matched in 3D and rarely are in 2D (by Skullgirls and GG:Xrd and not much else).

  7. Jokerme says:

    Beautiful article. For me USF4 is the best fighting game ever existed without a doubt and one of the best games ever made.

  8. Gailim says:

    you forgot the Alpha/Zero series that came between 2 and 3

    and the EX series was not made by capcom

  9. Wedge says:

    Shame you got back into it so late, as SFIV is definitely well on it’s way out with SFV looking really sharp and betas starting this fall. Should be a fun last hurrah as the headliner for EVO this year though.

  10. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    I hate to be that guy, but seriously:

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    • Jekhar says:

      You’re right, but also wrong. In the versus fighting game scene, their games are in fact referred to as “beat’em ups”, or “bemus”. The genre you’re referring to is called “brawler” or “belt scroller”. At least that’s what i picked up.

      • pepperfez says:

        Is this a joke, or is there some Bemu Community, separate from the Fighting Game Community, that I’m not aware of?

        • Jekhar says:

          No joke, but i’m not part of that community, i just happen to be part of a general retro club where fighting games are also played. In my experience, games like Street Fighter are called bemus or (versus) fighting games. And to avoid confusion, the genre we formerly knew as beat’em ups is called brawler. At least that’s how it’s handled in our neck of the woods.

  11. grechzoo says:

    Great article Rich, SFIV is one of my very favourite games, and one of the best designed games ever in my opinion. (It blows me away the amount of characters that capcom have managed to seemingly balance very well.)

    The pro scene highlights the quality of the game, the character variation winning the biggest tournaments is a true testament to how honed and expert all of the developers working on this game are.

    Also if Rich (or any other UK based RPS readers) want some friendly relaxed games, add me on steam: idrisguitar.