By Simon Parkin
Yoshinori Ono claims that he campaigned for years for his employer, Capcom, to bring back Street Fighter. Following the release of the Street Fighter III: Third Strike in 1999, many at the company believed that it had perfected the one-on-one fighting game. There was nowhere left to go. Others, including Ono’s boss Keija Inafune, simply argued that this was a style of game that had fallen from fashion. Nobody wanted to play fighting games any more. So why bother? Ono, who worked as a sound producer on Third Strike, disagreed with both points of view. Eventually, he managed to convince his bosses to provide him with a small budget to start work on a sequel; one that would return to the straightforward elegance of fan favourite Street Fighter II. Ono’s instincts were good. When Street Fighter IV debuted in Japanese arcades in 2008 it single-handedly revitalised the fighting game scene, drawing swathes of players back to the game while introducing a new generation to the joys and torments of competitive twitch pugilism.
No such tortuous intermission divides Street Fighter IV from its successor, which is rumoured to launch prior to next summer. Its development is being supported with the flush of money from Sony. Both companies, Capcom claims, share a desire to grow and nurture the professional competitive scene around the game, which currently lags far behind that of contemporary heavyweight e-sports such as League of Legends and DOTA2. Sony and Capcom are referring to the deal as a ‘strategic partnership’ rather than a timed exclusive, so it’s unlikely that the game will come to Microsoft’s hardware. This will disappoint many, but Capcom argues that the deal enables the studio to optimise the experience to the hardware (it promises 1080p resolution at 60 frames per second – an important benchmark for a quickfire competitive game such as this), and will allow for cross-play between PC and PlayStation players. The pair has also developed what it’s calling ‘Kagemusha’, a ‘proprietary roll-back based netcode’ which will, the companies say, deliver a lag-free online experience.
Serious claims. Nevertheless, Sony’s involvement in the game is perhaps less important than that of DIMPS, the little known Osaka-based studio run by Takashi Nishiyama, the ex-Capcom employee who originated Street Fighter in the late 1980s. Nishiyama and his staff, many of whom previously worked at Capcom and its 1990s-era fighting game rival SNK, is (along with Ono) directly responsible for the resurgence of Street Fighter in the late 2000s. Street Fighter IV’s technical innovations were theirs, not his; Ono may be a major advocate for the series, but he is only mediocre player of the game, as anyone who has played him can attest. Today the company hopes to replicate that success. And make no mistake: Street Fighter V has all the hallmarks of a DIMPS/Capcom classic.
Aesthetically, the differences are subtle but clear. Gone is Street Fighter IV’s high-contrast palette, replaced with washed-out tones, closer to the prevailing grit of contemporary action cinema. The pacing has been altered too. Its range has been expanded in both directions: many special moves feel quicker, while the moment-to-moment exchange of strikes and blocks feels chunkier. Capcom, ever the master of the hit-pause (when the entire game freezes for a micro-second at some important point of contact, a design first seen in Pac-Man whenever the titular hero swallows a ghost), uses the technique liberally in combos. These accentuate the impact of strikes and lend the game a weightier, more pleasing feel.
Much effort has apparently gone into making the game more accessible for newcomers (ever the design conundrum for Capcom, which serves the top tier players by allowing strings of attacks that allow for crowd-pleasing combos at the risk of alienating new players, who might be put off by the technical barrier to performing such moves). The developer claims that ‘streamlined commands lower the execution barrier and provide a beginner friendly experience’.
This is, perhaps, overstating things. The game still employs its familiar six-button configuration (with three kicks and three punches, at different strengths) and each character’s repertoire of moves requires the usual combination of stick waggles. Street Fighter III: Third Strike’s lauded but difficult-to-master parry system (which allowed any attack to be deflected, providing the receiving player’s timing was masterly) re-appears, albeit in a diminished form – and only for certain characters. Most notably, Ryu is able to parry attacks with a well-timed button press, even attacks with multiple strikes (although currently not while in the air).
There are more gauges to wrestle with than before. Your EX-gauge increases when your attacks land. When filled, you gain access to the most powerful special moves in the game, known as Critical Arts, which function much like Street Fighter IV’s Ultras (and require similar inputs). These temporarily pause the action, with a screen-filling animation such as a giant fireball, or uninterruptable whirlwind kick, that can cut the receiver’s health bar in half. The V-Gauge, by contrast, increases when you’re hit by attacks. Once filled you gain access to your V-Trigger (executed by simultaneously pressing hard kick and hard punch), which are generally less offensive-based actions that can help turn the tide of battle. For example, Chun-Li’s Renkiki V-Trigger increases the number of hits on her attacks. Ryu’s Denjin Renki, by contrast, places him in a glowing powered-up state during which he packs extra damage and guard break abilities.
In the current build of the game, a new ‘guard break’ gauge appears below each character’s health bar. This temporarily depletes every time you block and, if emptied, will leave your character momentarily unable to block any more attacks. It’s an old Street Fighter design that helps to prevent ‘turtling’, the term for excessive defensive play. Many top players, including world champion Daigo Umehara, lamented its absence from Street Fighter IV so its reintroduction is welcome. Hopefully it will remain in place, as development continues.
Focus Attacks are, sadly, gone, replaced with V-Skills, which are special actions unique to each character that can be used freely at any time with no meter usage. Press medium punch and medium kick and you’ll perform an action unique to the character (Ryu’s parry, for example, or M. Bison’s Psycho Reflect, which sends incoming projectiles back at the opponent.) Finally, to complete the trio of slightly confusing V-terms, pressing forward and all three punch or kick buttons will execute a V-reversal. This spends one stock of V-Gauge, but allows you to perform a counterattack. Skilled players will also be able to recover more quickly after being knocked down by an opponent by pressing two buttons or more at the same time.
There’s a lot going on then, and even after a full afternoon spent learning the ropes, there was much left to understand and master. But the greatest worry – that Street Fighter V would somehow represent a backwards step for the series, which has been so instrumental in revitalising interest in this type of game – has been settled. In their hands, the collaboration between DIMPs, Capcom and Sony is delightful, once again freshening one of the medium’s most enduring sports.
Whether or not the game succeeds in drawing new crowds to the competitive scene (and money with them) is a question for 2016. For now, Street Fighter V is gathering power for what looks to be an explosive release.