Street Fighter V’s First Year: Dramatic Highs, Disappointing Lows

By on February 16, 2017 at 12:00 pm
Necalli

Is Street Fighter V the latest and greatest in the series we love–or a wreck of a game we just love to hate?

Today marks the first anniversary of Street Fighter V’s worldwide retail release. One year later, what has Street Fighter V accomplished, and where has it fallen short? Is the latest game in the Street Fighter series living up to its legacy?

For everything Street Fighter V does right, it seems to get something else wrong–and while deeply entrenched and widely played in the FGC, the enmity against Street Fighter V’s gameplay and design decisions seems to only be building the longer we play. Are we accepting Street Fighter V only out of obligation to esports competition? Can Street Fighter V be successful if its most dedicated fans turn on it? There’s no easy answer for this ongoing experiment of a game: both a wild success, and a tragic flop.

Not a game, an “ongoing service”

Street Fighter V launched with sixteen characters, Survival mode (but no Arcade mode), Fight Money and Zenny currency systems–but no Shop, and a smattering of Story Mode vignettes. Promised: six new DLC fighters in the first year, available without spending a dime more via Fight Money; a “cinematic” General Story mode to flesh out the single-player content, and a host of online improvements. The Shop soon arrived to sell us Titles and colors and new stages, while Zenny was abandoned almost immediately in favor of just using real money. We indeed got our DLC fighters, but Fight Money proved a extremely difficult means to unlock them. We got the General Story mode–to mixed reviews. Online stat-tracking, stability, and matchmaking are still a mess.

sfv_chun-li_cptAs the first Street Fighter title that’s a complete departure from arcade game design, SFV is still a rough mix of the always-online, microtransaction-driven model with the coin-munching classic concepts that birthed it. It almost works. But Fight Money’s frustrating scarcity makes it near-useless to utilize for significant in-game content–at least for the majority of players. Getting new characters and stages–at the rate that they become available–with Fight Money alone is completely impractical, even if technically possible. Fight Money’s lack of utility is compounded by the introduction of “Premium” content–what Zenny was supposed to pay for, anyway–that requires real money, no matter what. Now, fans are willing and eager to fork over real cash for content in a game they love, but the system reduces Fight Money to little more than a joke, evoking the cynicism of “freemium” game design: “Sure you don’t have to pay with anything with real money, but we’ll make you want to, OK?”

Story Mode has been more ridiculed than enjoyed, and while I very much enjoyed the strange hybrid of ’80s action movie and anime storytelling that was the General Story’s cinematics, the gameplay in both the Character Story and General Story modes is somewhere between boring and irritating. What else does SFV offer a single player? Survival Mode? Survival Mode is widely reviled and rightly so–it’s just terrible. The ability to play the CPU in Versus Mode has been added–without any compelling framework to do so. The lack of Arcade Mode is still an acute absence in SFV’s offline offerings. I wrote last year that I felt Street Fighter V shouldn’t have an Arcade Mode after all–it should instead give us something new that scratches that itch in a way appropriate to a game developed solely for consoles. I thought the new Street Fighter deserved something more innovative. I had hoped the General Story Mode would deliver on that idea; but at this point, SFV has still failed to offer anything equally worthwhile to a classic arcade ladder climb, even with all of the unique new assets developed for the General Story.

The idea that Street Fighter V is a “service” rather than a singular game platform is, in theory, perfectly suited for the current generation of fighting gamers. But the presence of broken and incomplete components in this game one year post-launch suggests that it’s more of an excuse to build the game as we play and pay for it. This is currently a working model for SFV, but only barely. How long will we wait? How long should we? Is there enough incentive to stick with SFV while Capcom patches it into the game it rightly deserves to be?

The spectacle of competition

Evo Championship SeriesStreet Fighter V was coasting out of its hype-building beta test and was a fresh new release while we were signing up for Evo 2016–and sign up we did, in droves: pushing SFV’s pools to a record-breaking 5000+ competitors. The end result was a massive tournament that culminated in the spectacular arena finals at Mandalay Bay, an experience that blew away anything I had attended related to fighting games before. Those finals elevated Street Fighter to a new height–a new ESPN-broadcasted place in the world of professional esports. But that was still only one event throughout the year–SFV competition is widespread and fierce, becoming the central game of many events and gathering high numbers worldwide throughout its first year, even breaking into events like Genesis that didn’t feature Street Fighter before. If this game is such a flop, how is this possible?

Capcom Pro Tour LogoThe simple answer is that it’s still, basically, a well-designed fighter. It still uses characters and mechanics we’re familiar with, while introducing new ones that are engaging. And while we gripe and complain about extra frames of latency and whether or not a wakeup Shoryuken should have invincibility without meter, we are still intellectually and emotionally invested in the game of Street Fighter, and this is Street Fighter, at least in some fashion. The pros are playing it, so it’s hard not to get caught up with Infiltration, Tokido, NuckleDu, Xian, LI Joe, MOV, Ricki Ortiz, and a score of other talented fighters–both new and long-established–as they push this game to its limits. The excitement and drama that SFV has provided in the competitive sphere as these competitors clash is possibly the greatest gift SFV has actually granted the fans.

It’s worth noting that Street Fighter V’s design lends itself really well to spectating–it’s built to provide fast and furious matches (more on that, below). So when I was glued to Twitch watching Capcom Cup 2016, while one part of my brain was hype-transfixed to the matches, another started to wonder: do I like this game because it’s Street Fighter V, or because I like Street Fighter? The difference casts some doubt as to what the motivation to play SFV really is.

An ongoing question throughout Street Fighter V’s first year has been how much the game has been adopted based on its own merit, and how much it coasts on goodwill from Street Fighter’s prior iterations. SF’s competitive scene was already on the rise through the Street Fighter IV series; Street Fighter V basically arrived with its esports seat already warm. It didn’t have to earn it, only hold it.

sfv-balrog-4gamer-02-crop

Is Street Fighter V… fun?

For every one person that said they were glad to see USFIV’s Ultra Combo comebacks and option selects left behind, another two soon appeared to issue a complaint about R. Mika set play, or EX Devil’s Reverse, or Season Two mixups from Laura. Of course, SFV is the main focus of SF discussion right now, so this is no surprise–but it’s reaching a level loud enough that it’s drowning out any positive commentary on the game. It’s becoming a legitimate question of whether we actually want to play SFV, or simply do because we’re supposed to.

SFV Chun-Li Instant Air LegsExtensive criticism has been directed at gameplay and balancing decisions that appear to favor only high-aggression play, if you want to win. Defense has been rendered much more difficult in SFV, and it’s a regular complaint that SFV’s input latancy favors action over reaction–hindering decision-making and making it feel “brain-dead.” These are broad, sweeping complaints–and as they’re regularly set loose into the echo chamber of FGC social media, it’s difficult to objectively gauge their depth. But professional players and commentators are among those issuing these criticisms; it has become apparent that Street Fighter V has core design philosophies that are not necessarily favored by a lot of the player population.

Street Fighter V may just not be the kind of Street Fighter game we actually want to play. The question here remains: is this due to deliberate design decisions, or is it because that–even after a year in the wild and an entire Capcom Pro Tour season–Capcom still hasn’t figured out how to make SFV’s gameplay work quite right? Even considering the character balancing issues that arise, even despite the apparent disconnect between Capcom and its consumer base, is that possible? I doubt it. I think it unlikely we’ll see sweeping changes that will make SFV play more like we expect it to–it’s us who need to adapt to what SFV simply is. The most successful players on the competitive circuit have seemingly done just that–even while still voicing concern about the game’s direction.

Speaking from my personal experience, there are many aspects of Street Fighter V’s gameplay I do enjoy–but I also find myself frustrated by many of the same complaints above, when faced with them. Is it fun? Sometimes, sometimes not. Enough–maybe–to stick around.

What Street Fighter V has done right

In considering why Street Fighter V drew me in and still holds my interest, I realize that–despite having little to offer a “casual” fighting gamer in terms of gameplay–the stuff that first caught my attention as a teenager is still here in spades–namely: the characters, the style, the lore. Street Fighter V feels perfectly suited as a modern progression from Street Fighters past in terms of the fighters, their moves, the music and visuals (at least, when the visuals aren’t borked by clipping glitches or bizarre breast-physics bugs, and only one of those has been corrected…). It’s soaked in what feels like Street Fighter to me. I think Capcom has done a spectacular job on SFV’s sound, character and level design, even while some anomalies (read: Ken’s face) are met with mixed popularity. But it’s hard to ignore SFV in these terms, because its world is still so compelling to this kind of Street Fighter fandom.

sfv hot ryuThe new characters are fresh, and the redesigns of the classics work for me. Dhalsim’s wizened, bearded yogi look seems to fit even better than his classic style, and Ken’s under-armor outfit helps define his personality and set him even further apart from a mere palette swap. Some updates are a tad iffier–I’m not as won over by Juri’s new look, or Ibuki’s, and lion’s mane Akuma is fairly divisive–and it seems sometimes arbitrary which fighters got an updated look and which got an updated take on their classic form as their default costume. “Hot Ryu” certainly caught a lot of attention; why wasn’t he the default? Every character has been given costume options–some much more than others, however.

And thus the uneven nature of SFV’s design rears its ugly head. We get a mixed bag of costumes favoring some characters heavily over others. We get a long-awaited classic fighter such as Akuma–but with an unusual new look, and his classic appearance locked behind a paywall. We get pretty new stages–but only the original stages have the fun KO-triggered side areas, or breakable objects. It reminds us how unfinished the new content can feel. But then I notice little touches–like the unique end music riff for the Temple of Ascension stage, or Birdie’s sneezing V-Reversal, or Rashid’s awesome taunt–and I’m reminded of that classic Capcom creativity and sense of humor. If only it could be more consistent!

As much as their minutia are debated, the new mechanics in Street Fighter V are interesting. The V-System, white life, poison/gold life–they do set the stage for some exciting gameplay, at least in theory. The variety of V-Skill/V-Trigger abilities seems to range from very powerful/creative to weak/boring, but overall there’s some intriguing possibilities there. Kolin’s upcoming freezing mechanic is another example of how SFV is pushing the Street Fighter design envelope, at least a little bit.

That’s a curious thing about SFV: on the surface, at least to me, even the gameplay looks and feels very right. It’s as you dig deeper into the mechanics that it becomes apparent that this game doesn’t play quite how we want it to, and we start to wonder if something is wrong. But still, the gameplay and mechanics do always manage to draw me in as a viewer, somehow proving more fun to watch than play, every time.

sfv ken nash uppercut dp shoryuken

Fighting for the future

After a year of ups and downs, it’s still very clear Street Fighter V isn’t going anywhere. Capcom has thrown heavy support behind it, not to mention considerable investment as the game for their esports presence. This may change when Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite appears, but for now, SFV is the game Capcom wants us to care about.

They’ve got a tricky year ahead. It’s Season 2 for Street Fighter V; we’ve been promised (desperately needed) improvements to online play, and another four fighters after Kolin–all new to Street Fighter, we’re told. On one hand, brand new characters is the sort of freshness that can really set SFV apart in the series; on the other hand, another year before the possible return of a fan-favorite fighter does no favors for a fanbase already getting irritated with your game. No Sagat, no E. Honda or Blanka–not to mention the host of other fighters from SFIII, IV, or Alpha that many players would rather see reintroduced, instead of new faces. The return of Akuma was a big positive for Street Fighter V, and each returning fighter in Season 1 was another step closer to making the roster feel “complete” to longtime fans. Unless the new characters really impress, Capcom may continue to alienate their audience.

The choice for fighting game players is now whether or not to accept Street Fighter V as it is, wait for patches and updates that will “fix” it, or just play something else. The last option looms larger with the growing general dissatisfaction with SFV; we tend to forget that there’s no reason we can’t fire up Ultra Street Fighter IV, Street Fighter X Tekken, or one of the various editions of SFIII (or even older titles) on a port, or FightCade. We can still make our Street Fighter scene whatever we want it to be, regardless of what the Capcom Pro Tour game of choice happens to be this year. As for Street Fighter V: such an uneven product as it is, the judgment of whether or not it’s a good game or a bad game falls into the eye of the beholder.

Shoryuken.com Editor-in-Chief and performing member of Kita no Taiko. Street Fighterin' since there was only a "II" in the name.