Back in the times of the first Street and Virtua Fighters the beat ‘em up genre was immensely popular, but the last one-and-a-half decades showed a constant decline of the expiring star of videogames. Even though plenty of new game genres forced their way onto the market and into the homes of players, fighting games are partly responsible for their fall. In the end, they simply became too complicated and time-consuming for beginners.
Understandably, in order to create an appeal to veteran gamers, developers followed an old formula that, even today, is still intact: improving upon the game engine (graphics & animations), fixing up what’s broken (balancing), and adding new content (moves & stages). Especially due to the latter point, a steady drifting off into the corner of hardcore gaming was inevitable. When in Virtua Fighter I poster boy Akira already had 20, and in VF2 22 different attacks at his disposal, the number increased rapidly from Virtua Fighter 3 on (35 attacks) ending exponentially in VF4 (42), and VF5 with already 54 different attacks – an impressive increase of 145 per cent in attacks! Bravo, bravo, Akira! (Excluded from these numbers are throws, jump and down attacks, reversals, and attacks from stances.) Even though Virtua Fighter is best known as the hardcore line-up among 3D beat ‘em ups, more beginner-friendly franchises like Dead or Alive or Soulcalibur were, on their respective level, no exclusion from that steeper difficulty curve.
What must have felt like an evolution to veteran gamers, could only prove frustrating for newbies. “[Virtua Fighter 5] feels like obsessing over and learning thousands of Magic: the Gathering cards in 10th grade,” concludes resourceful gamer Josh Korr after he attempted to get into the fighter. [from Why Virtua Fighter is like Magic: the Gathering]
Incapable of hacking through the dense jungle of new gameplay bits, beginners simply had to miss the boat in later beat ‘em up installments. Only careful guidance through in-game tutorials could become a solid cure against the ever increasing complexity of fighters. Still today, Japan develops most fighting games for their yet healthy arcade market. In huge arcade halls with dozens of machines the information flow is high; where groups of players can come together, teach each other, and build up a community – while, on the side, feeding the hungry jaws of the arcades, to the publisher’s great delight. Once this arcade environment is lost, and the game ported plainly to home consoles, the frustrating disaster in front of the console screen is pre-programmed right from the start – with no one at your side to teach you. At best the game itself tutors you through the move list up and down – what a joy! Deeper gameplay mechanics, combos, and how all this plays out in actual matches remains an untaught secret. “After 10 to 15 minutes” that Josh Korr spent in the training mode of Virtua Fighter 5 he went to an actual match and “immediately forgot 99 percent of the moves because [of] only practic(ing) each move once” when the game led him stoically through his character’s move list – move by move by move.
Now, there hasn’t been a true Street Fighter sequel for a whole decade. To Capcom, reason enough to resurrect the franchise with a new old concept: a balance act between accessibility for newbies and enough depth for oldies – like in a clash of the easy-to-pick-up Super Street Fighter II with the hardcore SF III 3rd Strike as illustrated in the teaser image of our article.
The decisive difference in accessibility of SFIV to other fighters then lies in its challenging tutorials of its new Trial Mode that goes beyond the plain teaching of move lists. For every of the 25 playable characters there are six challenges, each with a different difficulty, from easy to hard. “It begins with normal moves, then it goes on to specials, supers, ultras, two-in-one combos, chains into specials, links into specials and then finally, how to put it all together,” explains Seth Killian, Capcom senior community manager, in his SF terminology staccato. Also part of this new training experience are special techniques – such as focus-canceling – especially tailored for each of the 25 character in SFIV. Most advanced players will probably start to actually fail around level four with most of the characters,” he explains. In order to still keep the challenges do-able, anything Street Fighter expert Killian couldn’t perform in less than ten attempts was cut.
But “anyone who completes trial mode will be a legitimate threat in competition,” Killian promises. “At the very least, you'll be able to squash your friends.” With plenty of tutorials in form of trials under the hood Capcom’s home version of their successful arcade beat ‘em up could eventually become exciting in the long run for the common gamer too. If it even teaches you to make the most of your opportunities in a match, then even beginners can hardly wish for more guidance.
Street Fighter IV might succeed in doing just the right splits between accessibility and depth for beginners and veteran gamers alike, and could, therewith, help the fighting games genre achieve fame and fortune again. Stay tuned until February 17 (Feb. 20 in Europe) when the game hits the retails.