Ultra Street Fighter IV exudes an air of finality. The character and stage select screens are completely filled, no more conspicuous holes left for us to imagine what could have been. Long requested features have finally made their way in, from an extensive online training mode to a simply being able to check your button configuration on the character select screen.
As someone who’s been following the evolution of the Street Fighter IV series from the beginning, booting up the game for the first time was like seeing the culmination of the games’ history manifest itself. What Street Fighter IV was initially and how the game has progressed since is apparent in every single addition Ultra has made, from the character choices to the system mechanics to even the smaller new options.
Five new challengers top the list of notable additions, four as carry-overs from Street Fighter X Tekken and one (mostly) brand new character to bring the total roster up to whopping forty-four characters. Adding content from Street Fighter X Tekken, while feeling a little cheap on Capcom’s part, ends up being a substantially good use of resources. Hugo, Poison, Elena, and Rolento are all fantastic additions to the roster, and while I haven’t spent equal amounts of time on all of them, they all seem to have made a graceful transition to the Street Fighter IV engine.
Of all the new fighters, I spent the most time with Decapre. While Decapre may be a clone of Cammy in appearance, in terms of moves and play style she’s far from a simple reskin. Decapre focuses mainly on tricky teleports and air moves, meant to confuse the player by making them unsure which way they should be blocking.
Decapre works best with a strong offensive game, but unlike other characters with a similar focus, she has a twist: her special move inputs are based on charging. Charge moves force the player to work with a more planned, careful approach rather than spontaneous decisions, which makes for an enjoyable and unique playstyle. Decapre is actually my favorite addition, period. Not only does she introduce an interesting twist to an established playstyle, but every attack she does feels extremely satisfying to see on impact.
Beyond the new characters, Ultra shakes up the core gameplay by adding in new system mechanics. Living up to its namesake, Ultra allows you to have access to both of a character’s ultra combos at the same time at the cost of an overall damage reduction on the moves. Giving the player both tools allows for a lot more utility and damage opportunities, but unfortunately it only makes sense for a handful of characters rather than the entire cast.
More universally viable are the additions of a Red Focus Attack and delayed wake-up. Normal Focus attacks allowed a player to absorb an oncoming attack or cancel moves prematurely, either for combos or to avoid being punished for their strike. Red Focus works a lot like the normal version, but absorbs many more hits than usual. Strategic use of this ability makes swinging things in your favor with a smart counter easier and more deadly than before. This improved focus attack does have its downsides, including a cost of two bars of super meter and sharing the same weakness to throws and armor-breaking moves that the original did.
Delayed wake-up directly counters a playstyle that was essentially the dominant strategy in the previous iterations of Street Fighter IV. Previously, if you were knocked down by an opponent certain characters could take advantage of the situation by putting you into a gauntlet of assaults as you stood up, often with a very low chance of blocking or escaping. The ability to delay your fighter standing up ruins these set-ups, making a knock-down no longer the nightmare scenario it used to be.
Ultra also boasts a complete rebalancing of the entire cast of fighters. And well… they tried. Capcom brought numerous builds of the game to as many events as possible throughout the world, tweaking the game every time based on feedback from both the community and their own internal testers. The heavy involvement from the community really makes the overall product feel special.
However, all the warm, fuzzy feelings in the world won’t stop me from whining about balance changes.
Previously strong characters like Cammy and Fei Long seem to have only gotten stronger, while weaker characters like Honda and Deejay received paltry buffs along with a share of baffling nerfs. I could write an entire thesis paper about all of the specifics, but I’ll spare everyone and just say I’m not happy with the way some of the characters turned out.
Still, despite my personal gripes, I have a feeling that things will turn out all right. I don’t understand why the Capgods giveth or taketh away, but there are probably good reasons for it. Fighting game balance is hard to predict, as its defined more by the community than internal developer balancing. What seems strong or bad now may be completely different in a few years.
Of course if things do go south, Ultra appears to have a built in contingency plan: in versus mode you have the ability to select all previous versions of every character from every previous incarnation of Street Fighter IV. For the most part this is just for fun, as the mode locked to the offline versus mode, but the effort is appreciated. You’re essentially getting an archive of the entire Street Fighter IV saga’s history, and comparing all the changes is a fascinating way to lose an afternoon. And so, the terror of Vanilla Sagat lives on, but only offline.
Going online brings its own host of additions. The netcode still ranges from bad to serviceable, but there’s more ways to play than ever. Now you can train with a friend online outside of competitive versus matches whenever you want or team up with a group of friends in an enhanced team battle mode. Online training is great, but in the four years since the original team battle mode was added in Super, I still can’t find a game to actually try the mode out!
The most exciting new online feature might be the addition of YouTube sharing for match videos. Every match you play, online or off, saves to an archive where you can pick and choose which matches to upload to your YouTube account. With this feature it’s easier than ever to create an alternate, revisionist history where you win every match convincingly and without error.
Ultra Street Fighter IV is fantastic send-off for the series, a love-letter written for the community that has been keeping the game alive since its release in 2008. Like every fighting game, though, it’s just another step in an endless pursuit of perfection. The character balance worries me a little, especially since the previous version did a really good job, but how things turn out in the long-run is impossible to tell. While I personally hope Capcom gives a rebalance patch one more go, if this has to be it, then I’m content.
Food for Thought:
1. Ultra’s character select theme is a straight up improvement compared to Super’s, but both still pale in comparison to the original version of the game. I was hoping they would be able to squeeze Street Fighter IV’s original theme song, “Indestructible” in somehow, but alas, it was not meant to be.
2. While Ultra Street Fighter IV has now technically released, it still feels under construction. The combo trials are still the same as they’ve been since Super Street Fighter IV, with an Ultra update promised to come in the future. I have to wonder if Capcom will also utilize that gap in time for some last minute balance adjustments, especially with EVO on the horizon.
3. It’s kind of depressing to think Street Fighter X Tekken might have done more good as a resource to shift content into Street Fighter IV than as an actual game.