I apologize for the additional rancour and vitriol in this piece, but even after giving it time, this game is still bugging me.

While I play a fairly decent variety of video games, from casual games to shooters, RTS to racing, I will admit that there are a number of genres that I have little to no experience with.† One of those genres is that of the traditional fighting game.

Admittedly, Iíve played a fair number of beat-íem-ups over the years – I have fond memories of playing the classic TMNT game in the arcade, as well as various Battletoads games on the SNES.† In fact, one of my favorite games of all time, Oni, generally falls into this genre.† However, thereís a distinct difference between these types of games, and the traditional, tournament-style one-on-one battles of the fighting game.† Of the few experience Iíve had with the latter, theyíve primarily degenerated into button-mashing competitions between equally unskilled players, or the occasional days at an arcade watching people far more skilled than I perform impressive combos and on-screen acrobatics.

So it is, perhaps, a bit unusual that I recently found myself in possession of the PC version of Street Fighter IV.† I suppose it had to do with simply getting just a tad bored with my usual fare (shooters, more shooters, with a small handful of RTS and racing games thrown in), and feeling some sort of gaming wanderlust.† In the past few weeks, Iíve been casting about for something different – trying my hand at Evil Genius, an unusual dungeon-keeping game, and playing around a bit with a demo of Bookworm Adventures (otherwise known as the most bizarre game of Boggle youíll ever play).† Finally, I latched onto a competently-done flash reproduction of the original Street Fighter II, obsessively hammering away for a couple of days.† Of course, I got beaten handily most of the time, but I kept on for a bit, my frustration tempered by the recollection that original fighting games were notoriously hard, and that I was actually doing reasonably well against a calculatingly evil AI (otherwise known as a blatantly cheating AI, but what can you do?)† While I finally got frustrated enough to leave it alone for a while, the experience peaked my curiosity about the current incarnation, which promised ďincreased accessibilityĒ and variable difficulty.† Figuring that this might mean I could have a half-decent time with the newer version, I decided to pick it up and see if it lived up to its considerably high review scores and user acclaim.

Four hours, two agonizingly pained wrists, and one thoroughly abused controller later, I can safely say this:† Donít believe the hype.† Maybe if youíre a gaming god, SFIV is a cakewalk for you.† For anyone else, though, be aware that the frustration levels will run high, especially if you want to do something as audacious as actually play through an entire game.

Initially, though, things looked pretty promising.† I started up the game, gawped at the gorgeous opening cinematic, then fired up the training room and beat up on some sparring partners with some visually impressive combos.† So far, so good.† Next up, I decided to try my hand at the arcade mode, and maybe unlock a new character to play around with.

At this point, of course, youíre easily reminded of one of the classic shortcomings of game accessibility – unlockable options, which can only be obtained through the completion of various game mores.† As Iíve discussed this particular aggravation at length before, I wonít go into it again, except to reflect on the sad realization that there are many elements of this game, a game that I paid for in full, that I will probably never have access to.

In any case, I strove onward, choosing to play through as Crimson Viper, a character I had had reasonable success with in the training room.† Once I went into the main mode, there were a number of configurable options, including the vaunted difficulty modes.† These, initially, seemed to be a good sign – while many games have an Easy difficulty level, and some even have a Very Easy mode, this game had even an easier mode beyond that.† Being a rank novice, I chose that mode, and with my trusty Logitech Dual Shock in hand, set about to take on my first opponent, Rufus.

And lost.

Now, keep in mind that even in the original Street Fighter II, which has the single difficulty setting of Painfully Annoying, I can usually get through the first few matches before I stumble.† In SFIV, with a difficulty level thatís supposed to be the easiest of the easy, I handily got my ass handed to me by the very first opponent, despite my best efforts.† Say what you will about my skills, but…† this seems to me to be a critical flaw in the game development process.† As I noted elsewhere, for a game to be accessible, easy needs to mean easy – and on SFIVís most basic, kindergarten-level easy mode, I should reasonably expect to be able to hand the game controller to my mom, have her press various things at random, and still emerge victorious.

One of the gameís critical flaws, in my mind, is that it is almost impossible to pull off any sort of special move while using a controllerís analog stick, or even the d-pad, for control.† Even so, most of the combos are stick-rotation followed by a button press, so they should be easy, right?† Unfortunately, whatever move-recognition the game engine employs has such strict tolerances that even a split-second delay of any element, or the slightest over-rotation of the stick, mean that your chances of completing a combo have about chance odds of success even in training, and far less than that in an actual battle.† As a result, my initial battle left me repeatedly attempting, and failing, my entire roster of special moves, while the ďsuper-easyĒ AI mopped the floor with me.† In fact, I only triumphed on my third attempt through, simply by virtue of cornering my opponent, and then eschewing any cool and fun special moves in favor of simply kicking him in the head repeatedly until he fell over.† Not exactly the epitome of an exciting fighting-game experience.

Still, I gamely fought on, kicking opponent after opponent in the head repeatedly until I got to the final boss, Seth.† While the other characters did seem to get the message a bit about ďweíre set on super-easy mode, letís at least give our opponent a fighting chance to repeatedly kick us in the head,Ē Seth apparently didnít get the memo at all.† The result, sadly, is an incomprehensibly comprehensive thrashing, using just about every cheap move in the book, and each of my many re-attempts lasted for perhaps 30 seconds before the inevitable K.O. flashed onto the screen.

I was just about ready to throw in the towel then, but I decided to instead give up on the controller idea, despite the reviewerís claims that such was a necessity, and just go for some straight-up keyboard play – maybe itís a bit more awkward, but it had served me faithfully in SFII.† And, in fact, the keyboard play was a bit better, in that special moves actually seemed to want to happen when you made them.† Of course, the recognition was less than stellar even then, but it was better.† This meant that I had some special moves available, but once again, it pretty much came down to lightning-punching people over and over again until they fell down, as any other course of action seemed to let them walk all over me.† However, even the mighty Seth fell to the master technique of repeatedly spamming a special move repeatedly in a boring, if effective fashion, and I was finally able to add an additional fighter to my list.

Of course, it should be known that the only apparent way to beat Seth, the evil bastard of bosses, is this one chain of attacks by this one character – try anything else, with anyone else, and youíre going to be rather unpleasantly surprised.

Also, another annoyance is the lack of a save feature for any of these types of games – if youíre sick of wailing away futilely at the final boss and decide to quit and do something else, youíll have to do all the previous fights over again when you start back up.

Additionally, each time Seth cleans your clock, you canít just jump immediately back into battle and try again.† You have to watch Sethís victory animation all over again, wait for the continue screen to pop up, select continue, select your character from the selection screen once again, and wait again as the locale ďVSĒ screen goes through its own somewhat slow animation.† Then, after that, thereís Sethís (mercifully skippable) intro animation, and finally, at long last, you can take another stab at him, and fail miserably once again, in preparation for even more sitting through the same boring screens.† As an experiment, try this as a drinking game: drink as much beer as you can for the duration of all the various non-gameplay screens between bouts with Seth – I can pretty much guarantee that youíll be under the table after only a handful of go-rounds with him.
So, amazingly, Street Fighter IV manages to cover a good number of of the various ďdeadly sinsĒ of frustrating and inaccessible game design: difficult-to-achieve unlockable content, complete lack of reasonable save points, difficulty levels skewed to the point of being considered a programming error that almost breaks the game, an aggravating boss thatís nearly impossible to defeat regardless of level, and a cumbersome delay each time you want to re-attempt a failed level.† Thatís really quite an impressive achievement for a game with a combined 93 Metacritic score.† Yes, the game is very pretty-looking and has some cool features, but it boggles my mind how a game thatís this broken can garner so much critical acclaim.† Add to that the various console-port annoyances, and that years-old Street Fighter II, or even a replay of Oni, is looking better all the time.

In the gameís defense, it is very visually appealing to look at – and while I would prefer more variety in background scenes, all of them are quite decently-rendered and very colorful.† The battle effects and animations are quite well-done as well, and I canít complain about the sound.† But all the flash graphics in the world canít substitute for a solid and consistent gameplay experience, and what SFIV delivers is anything but.† If the controls were fixed to allow moves to be performed reliably, and the difficulty levels balanced in an actually sensible way, this game would have a lot of promise, but as it is now, my enjoyment is heavily tempered by serious feelings of aggravation over the gameís myriad issues with playability.† Sadly, there are few PC games in this genre, so if you are looking to satisfy your desire for a fighting game to stand apart from the glut of FPS/TPS/RTS out there, your choices are SFIV, or… well, aside from emulators, thatís pretty much all I can think of in recent gaming history.

So, in summation, if youíve been playing fighting games all your life and donít mind a controller-breaking challenge now and again, SFIV should be right up your alley.† However, if youíre the kind of person who reads this blog and is after a fun accessible game, you might want to keep looking.† Or, if youíre desperate, set up some versus fights and give yourself a healthy handicap for some decent, if unlock-irrelevant, face-punching action, but be prepared to accept the fact that for anyone with anything less than a truly superb skillset (and perhaps an expensive, arcade-style controller to boot), a good portion of the gameís contents will be regrettably out of your reach.† And for a game youíre paying good money for, it ought to be inexcusable.† Iíve already paid my money, but you might want to consider voting with your wallet and choosing a game, almost any other game, thatís a bit more forgiving in terms of letting you actually play it.