Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Design Analysis: Street Fighter IV - The Fighter's Legacy

At the recent Game Developer's Conference 2009, Yoshinori Ono gave a talk about Street Fighter IV, and discussed the direction his team took in the development of Street Fighter IV.

The keyword in the development of Street Fighter IV was 'origin', and "the team wanted to return the series to where its phenomenally successful run began, Street Fighter II." One particularly interesting analogy he used was likening Street Fighter IV to a "class reunion" of sorts.

I find this term particularly apt, as beyond being a "class reunion" for the distinctive cast of the Street Fighter II, (and some returning characters from other entries in the series as well); Street Fighter IV also came across to me as a somewhat-meta "class reunion" of sorts between the iconic 2D Fighters since Street Fighter II.

Dissecting Street Fighter IV's gameplay system reveals some familiar gameplay elements, and to a long-time 2D-Fighter-fan that's been there since the heyday of the original Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, Street Fighter IV almost seems like a nostalgic snapshot that pays tribute to some of the ghosts of the past in the genre's (relatively) long and varied history.


1) EX Special Moves

Yes, Fire Hadoken is now EX-Hadoken

In Street Fighter IV, players can use one bar of the Combo Meter to enhance their regular special moves into a more powerful, EX version of the special moves, giving it properties like additional hits, armor-breaking properties, etc. This adds some new opportunity for mind games or simply allows players to build more powerful combos.

In memory of: Darkstalker / Vampire Hunter Series

ES Dae-mon Craaa-dle

For me, this was an INSTANT throwback to Capcom's Darkstalker / Vampire Hunter series, where players could use one bar of power to enhance a special move into an ES Special Move. But between the 2, Street Fighter IV's EX Special Moves only takes 1/4 of your combo meter as opposed to 1 entire bar in Darkstalkers, which players could be using to perform a often more powerful and unique EX Special Moves.

In addition to that, Armor-Breaking and Hyper-Armor properties give an additional layer of play to consider deciding when and what moves to EX.


2) Hyper Armor

Focus attacks (see below) and certain moves in Street Fighter IV allow players to absorb one-hit of an incoming attack in exchange for a chunk of their vitality that will regenerate over time. Getting hit before the vitality is fully regenerated will cause permanent damage to the player's vitality.

In memory of: Street Fighter III, Marvel-Vs. Series, Darkstalkers 3

When using the Hyper Armor properties of a Focus Attack, it seems to be a simplified replacement of Street Fighter III's insanely difficult parrying system, even down to the blue flash. Things have been slightly simplified in the sense that the Focus Attack's Hyper Armor blocks attacks from all directions, instead of Street Fighter III's different parries for high and low attacks, making it less exclusive to expert-players.
But the difference is that while in Street Fighter III multiple parries are possible, Street Fighter IV's Focus Attacks can only take one hit. And will also cost you a little bit of your vitality too, temporarily at least.

The First time when there was something worse than a Red Life Bar

First seen in X-men Vs. Street Fighter, where the inactive fighter regenerates health over time when tagged out, this feature was later incorporated in Darkstalkers 3's system as well. This features causes players to consider balancing attack and defence in accordance to the situation.
Unlike the other two series, where every move causes a permanent damage and a recoverable damage, in Street Fighter IV, only the Hyper Armor moves gives rise to this effect. Overall, it adds a bit more strategy of balancing attack and defence, but it's probably intentionally kept this way as compared to a game like X-men Vs. Street Fighter, where knowing when to tag out was a core part of the gameplay.

3) Focus Attacks

At Least the Ink Effect made it into the Game somehow
By pressing the Medium Punch and Kick buttons simultaneously, players can perform a chargeable and potentially unblockable Focus Attack that can cause the opponent to stumble. Also has hyper-armor properties and can be cancelled into a front or back dash.

In memory of: Street Fighter EX series

3D Street Fighter has come a Long Way

Perhaps one of the most blatant references, Street Fighter IV took what was a rather rarely used move in Street Fighter EX, the Guard Break, and totally ran with it to the moon. In Ono's talk, he mentioned that "The command is simple, but there needed to be a reason for hardcore players to use it. Ono said the team went about looking to incorporate it as an "easy to learn, difficult to master" gameplay element."
And they sure did stack-up the hardcore factor in the Focus Attack, making it chargeable, hyper-armor and cancel-able all at the same time.
4) Ultra Combos
Brings back Memories
A new gauge was added to Street Fighter IV that builds up as the player takes damage. Once filled sufficiently, players can perform powerful Ultra Combos to turn the tide of the match and come back into the match with a decent fighting chance.

In memory of: The King of Fighters '95, '96

I wonder why they took away the Ripping Clothes for Yuri
A little history lesson behind this. In the good old days, Capcom and SNK had very different views about how a character would build up his / her gauge towards a finisher. Whereas Capcom believed in rewarding offensive play, where each move hit or special move performed increased the gauge; SNK chose to take the reverse approach, gearing towards damage-centric increment, in light of the chance for a last-minute comeback by the losing player.
Initially, SNK coupled this with a charge move that allowed players to increase their gauges by charging, in The King of Fighters (KOF) '94 - '96, before becoming ambivalent about which approach to go for in KOF'97, where they offered players 2 styles of play. Eventually, offense- heavy play became the preferred choice, and SNK only retained the last-minute-match-reversing moves in the form of Desperate Attacks, which could only be performed when the player had less than 1/4 vitality and a full gauge.
Taking a page out of SNK's old design philosophy, Street Fighter IV introduces Ultra Combos to give losing players a chance for a comeback. Probably in an attempt to make the game more accessible and potentially lessening the chances of utterly one-sided matches. I personally like how the Ultra Combos are balanced in the way that while more powerful than the regular Super Combos, but cannot be Super (Ultra?) Cancelled and are much harder to combo into.
5) EX Focus

Probably the most advanced-mechanic in Street Fighter IV, players can interrupt and cancel special moves with a Focus Attack or EX Focus, which then allows it to be cancelled into a front or back dash, as with a regular Focus Attack, which can then be cancelled into any regular or special moves.
Needless to say, this gives players the potential to string together some really impressive combos. Fortunately, it uses up 2 segments of the combo gauge, limiting its use and preventing it from being abuseable.

In memory of: Guilty Gear series, Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves

Perhaps the most obtuse of references, the mechanic of cancelling a interrupting a special move mid-way through its animation has been used in the likes of Guilty Gear's Roman Cancel or Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves Break system, both of which involve hitting 2 or more buttons simultaneously.

Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves - Extremely Underrated
While in Fatal Fury: MotW, no gauge was necessary to perform a break, it was limited to only specific moves being interruptible. Street Fighter IV's EX Focus is a bit more akin to Guilty Gear's Roman Cancel, but is more advanced as it requires a dash after a EX Focus before cancelling into another special move, and doesn't allow players to cancel one special move into another special move immediately like the Roman Cancel.
Either way, mid-move cancellations are always a deep and rewarding system, and Street Fighter IV's system allows players to improvise on their combos while not limiting it to dial-a-combo type of fix sets, given they are prepared to invest the time in mastering the timing of the EX Focus.

Street Fighter IV is an excellent example of evolutionary game design that even though borrows gameplay elements from its genre counterparts, it still manages to marry them together into a cohesive, elegant and balanced system that is "easy to learn, difficult to master."

Ono spoke about his "theory of fighters not as games, but as tools for competition," where like chess, "a grandfather can play against his grandchildren for fun, while the game is deep enough to justify high-level champion-versus-champion play in an entirely different context. Proper fighting tools such as this cast a wide net, offering something appealing to all audiences."

I'm personally not sure if the gameplay references in Street Fighter IV are actually an intentional tip of the hat to its forefathers or not. But for me, aside from the deep and rewarding gameplay mechanics, part of the appeal of Street Fighter IV is the warm sense of nostalgia of seeing and identifying some of the shadows of past fighters that have managed to leave a legacy in today's update.

Pictures Courtesy of:

Street Fighter IV Walkthrough and Guide:

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