Ultra Street Fighter IV wasn't supposed to happen. No one at Capcom ever thought that Street Fighter IV would still be as popular as it is today, nearly five years after its triumphant return on Xbox 360, and some two years after its last major update.
"I think we're pleasantly surprised. Arcade Edition was supposed to be the last update, but the competitive community is still going strong," says Capcom product manager Matt Dahlgren. "When we have the highest number of tournament entrants out of any other brand on a consistent basis and people asking us for content, we need to answer the call."
So what happened? Streaming and eSports, mostly, both of which have been particularly good to the fighting game community. And it certainly helps that Street Fighter IV is a strong game in general. But there's also the fact that it was one of the first major fighting games on the scene this generation, making it the default game for a large swath of the fighting game community. Other fighters like Persona 4 Arena and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 have dedicated fanbases of their own, but in the end, Street Fighter IV is home.
With that, Capcom is making sure that the community has a large hand in the development of Ultra Street Fighter IV, which introduces five new characters, new mechanics, and two new modes for good measure. For really the first time, Capcom is going to these loyal fighters and asking: "What do you really want out of Street Fighter IV? How can we make your character as balanced as possible?" Which begs the question: What the heck took so long?
"Capcom has just been closed with our development in the past, and we think it's an area we need to work on," Dahlgren admits. "And really, this update exists purely because of the competitive community. Since it's primarily for them, we really wanted to listen to what they wanted."
"Exactly," adds Peter Rosas, known as "Combofiend" in the fighting game community, "and the fans are the ones who have been playing for so long that they know what the strengths and weaknesses of their characters are."
Capcom's ultimate goal is to balance the roster to the point that every character is usable in some way -- long the impossible dream in the fighting game community. At various events and location tests, they've been soliciting feedback, listening to suggestions, and doing their best to implement them in a reasonable way. It's natural to think of these changes as buffs and debuffs, but it's more a case of giving characters the tools they need to succeed, Rosas says.
He points to El Fuerte -- a luchadore grappler who has long been regarded as something of a gimmmick character among the fighting game community: "El Fuerte tends to rely on these crazy leaps and body splashes. But we tuned him so that he can succeed now just using his normal attacks, and El Fuerte players tell us that this is the best he's ever played."
Rosas continues through the rest of the roster: Ken has been given a speed boost, because those who favor him feel that he should be quicker and flashier than the stolid Ryu. Cody's rock attacks come out faster now, and his EX Uppercut makes him invincible, making it easier to swing through an attack and start a combo. There are also system-wide changes, like the removal of unblockable attacks, which have earned the ire of fighting game enthusiasts for the way individual frame quirks can allow top players to set up combos that are very difficult to avoid.
On top of all these mechanical changes, Capcom is also adding in Street Fighter x Tekken refugees Rolento, Poison, Elena, and Hugo, who ought to do their part in mixing up the roster balance (there's also an as-yet-unannounced fifth character, speculated to be Retsu from the original game). Elena and Rolento's exotic styles -- kicking and rolling respectively -- make for a nice change of pace from the rest of the roster. Hugo and Poison are a little more iffy, as their moves and animation still have that stiff sort of Street Fighter x Tekken quality to them, but Rosas admits that all of them are a work in progress.
The fact that almost all of them are from Street Fighter x Tekken ought to raise a few eyebrows, as it feels a little like Capcom is recycling assets from a game that has proven to be rather unpopular. But the characters nevertheless have their fans, and most are receiving tune-ups in preparation for their inclusion in Ultra Street Fighter IV. According to Rosas, Poison will be getting a damage buff, and Hugo's speed will be getting kicked up a notch. Regardless, it's always nice to have a few more characters on the roster, particularly old favorites like Rolento.
In all probability, Ultra Street Fighter IV will mark the last hurrah for this generation of the series. If that's the case, then it's been a heck of a run. Street Fighter IV isn't the only game responsible for putting fighting games back on the map, relatively speaking, but it's certainly the best-known of the current crop of fighters. When we looking back on this era of fighting games in 15 years, Street Fighter IV will almost certainly be the first game that gets mentioned.
Interestingly, Capcom has opted to keep the expansion on the current generation of consoles rather than trying to gain a foothold on the PS4 and Xbox One.
"Our strengths right now are on the last-generation of consoles," Dahlgren says. "We wanted to make sure we really got this one right. I know people really wanted some sort of next-gen upgrade, but it really wasn't in the cards this time around."
He predicts that Ultra Street Fighter IV will extend the game's life by about two years, which may actually be conservative when you consider that a decade-old title like Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike is still played to this day. In all probability, Street Fighter IV will keep rolling along until a true sequel comes around, despite being limited to current-generation consoles and the PC. With all the balance changes that Ultra Street Fighter IV brings to the table, not to mention the five new characters and the ability to train online with friends in Practice Mode, fighting game enthusiasts will certainly have plenty to keep them busy over the next couple years.
In the meantime, Dahlgren calls Street Fighter one of Capcom's "flagship franchises," which is faintly amazing when you think about how hard Yoshinori Ono had to fight to get Street Fighter IV made in the first place. For Ono and the fans who stuck with the series through tough times, Ultra Street Fighter IV is validation that the series has a place in the next-generation of gaming and beyond, even if it's stuck on current-generation systems for now.
So enjoy this expansion, fighting game fans. Relish it. You've earned it.