Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)

I've been playing a lot of Ultra Super Street Fighter IV recently. I've never been a huge fighting game guy. I mean, I like fighting games. I'm a big Mortal Kombat fan and others have captivated me from time to time--Soul Caliber, Darkstalkers, Dead or Alive. More often than not, however, the latest incarnation of these games add or change the gameplay greatly. Whether it's that third step to the left or right, some interaction with the background or something else, there's usually some new and exciting element that's been added that changes the face of the fighting experience as we know it.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and debate which fighting game lineup is the greatest of all time and why. That's a discussion for another time. What I'm going to say is this. What has it been like, over twenty years? And people still come back and play Street Fighter. People have perfected Street Fighter. You can read strategy tips online designed for real tournament players that's hard to even follow because the language is embedded in this talk that you'd only understand if you spent your life going to these tournaments? Seriously, someone should write a glossary or something.

I'd like to think that part of the reason Street Fighter has withstood the test of time is because even in its latest incarnation Street Fighter still feels like the same game that broke arcades back in the early 90s. I mean, Doom hadn't hit big yet. Our idea of a two-player games was taking turns on Super Mario Bros. 3. Suddenly, there was this game. This game where people lined up at the arcade to fight each other. And that was the point of the game. I mean, yes, there was a sub-plot and a big boss you tried to beat like every other game, but the multiplayer experience was forged here I believe.

You could play Street Fighter for hours with your friend with no specific objective; just to fight and have fun. And the thing is, it's still the same game you played then and it's still great. The core characters are the same, the moves are the same, it feels the same. And sure there's a lot of new things to learn, but if you wanted to hop onto a game of Street Fighter IV right now you could jump in with any of the original characters and their basic moves are still the same. Ryu, Blanka, Guile, Chun-Li...they're all there and they all still feel the same way they did back in the day.

I feel like the latest incarnation of Street Fighter is almost a love letter to Street Fighter fans everywhere in that it capitalizes on the aspects of Street Fighter that made it great to begin with. It feels like you're playing a kind of perfected version of SF II. And yeah, there are a bunch of new characters to try out. A bunch actually, although a lot of them have appeared in other Street Fighter games, Street Fighter Alpha, Street Fighter III...even Final Fight, but I'll get to that.

I remember a certain point as a kid where I sort of realized that if you weren't fighting with Ken and Ryu then, well, what was the point? As years went by, die-hard SF II players challenged this notion and found effective strategies for all of the originals. Still, it always felt to me like Ken and Ryu overshadowed the others fighters. SF IV doesn't feel that way. I feel like going into a match, any fighter has an equally valid chance of winning. Every character has a different style; a style you have to learn but no one style is better than any other. Honda's sumo and Dhalsim's mystic yoga (er, nonsense) seems as fearsome as I think it was meant to be in the original.

So yeah. It's a great game but it's the same game. Like a perfected version of the same game.

And yet? One of the things that often draws me into Street Fighter isn't the game itself, but the characters and the world they live in. Capcom has produced encyclopedias of world warriors. That's how many wrestlers and martial artists have been featured in Street Fighter games. It's reached the point where Street Fighter sort of is it's own half anime/half comic book world onto itself, with plot lines and unrevealed mysteries that people theorize about and everything. It's like Marvel and DC comics; they've got their own characters that exist in their own continuity.

I'm enthusiastic about the idea that the Final Fight universe has kind of landed in the Street Fighter world. This seems to make sense, intuitively, but what I love most is that it gives you a chance to find out what's happened to Cody and Guy since their vigilante brawl against the Mad Gear gang. And, fitting to the dark tone of Final Fight, Cody's subsequent imprisonment has left him seeming even more disillusioned and violent then before. I've heard rumors that the game Final Fight was originally meant to be called Street Fighter, prompted these characters' inclusion into the Street Fighter universe. Still, my point here is, there's lots of characters entering the world warrior tournament and they all have different reasons for doing so. Some are heroes looking to do the right thing, some are criminals and some are just looking for personal glory. There's enough anime drama here to hold anyone's interest.

The Street Fighter world is a strange, sometimes quirky, amalgam of 80's martial arts flicks, shady criminal undergrounds and Japanese pop culture. If you grew up loving the Karate Kid, the Best of the Best and anime then you no doubt already sense the strange and sometimes goofy appeal of the Street Fighter universe. But Ryu has become an icon--not just in video games but in science fiction and fantasy--in a way that has a kind of universal appeal. You have known and loved these characters and you're still interested in seeing who comes out on top.

Just be ready when you hear "FIGHT!"