The last time I spent any real time with a Street Fighter game was an alarmingly long time ago — maybe seven years? — back when Street Fighter IV first hit Japanese arcades. Having been a fan of the series back in the '90s, I couldn't help but be curious about this unexpected renewal of the franchise.
What I found disappointed me, to be honest. It looked good and played well, but it felt terribly safe. Gone was the manic sense of invention that characterized Street Fighter Alpha and its sequels; absent the technical prowess that elevated the Street Fighter III games to top-tier status. Street Fighter IV deliberately hearkened back to Street Fighter II in much the same way that Mega Man 9 was meant to call back to Mega Man 2. The difference, however, was that where Mega Man 9 felt like a back-to-basics attempt to cull away all sorts of superfluous ideas that bogged down the purity of a great action concept, Street Fighter IV initially felt too simple — an abandonment of the series' evolution over the years. My time with the game was enjoyable, but I didn't feel the need to keep playing; aside from the handful of new characters, I felt I'd seen it all before.
It seemed fitting that I would take the sequel (Street Fighter V) for a spin on a return trip to Tokyo the better part of a decade later... but besides the familiarity of the setting, that's about all my first glimpses of the two games had in common. Quite unlike its predecessor, Street Fighter V makes some pretty radical changes to many fundamental features of the series. I realize it's entirely possible that this, too, is part of an evolutionary process that I've missed out on in the course of my absence from ultra street fighting, but the impression I get is that SFV represents an attempt to refine and in some ways redefine Street Fighter in ways that SFIV and its expansions never considered.
For starters, Capcom representatives claim SFV will never have expansions. The idea of incremental, stand-alone updates to the games has been a part of Street Fighter's DNA for decades, ever since Capcom released Street Fighter II Turbo: A minor refinement of Street Fighter II that shipped as a separate product. This tradition carried forward all the way to Street Fighter IV, but the company wisely recognizes that in an era of patches and updates, standalone updates no longer make much sense. SFV will update through a constant system of global updates, allowing Capcom to patch in things as minor as small animation tweaks or as major as new characters. And while the major changes will be available to players through in-game purchases, Capcom promises they can also be unlocked for free within the game itself.
The one possible downside to this new approach to updates? It means an end to Street Fighter's "archaeological record" tradition. Once the game is patched, the older version is gone forever; in time, the original release of SFV will no longer exist. That's fairly standard for online games in this day and age, but the Street Fighter games have a tradition of preserving snapshots of the game at very times. While its iterative sequels and rereleases have generally brought improvements, there are some who prefer vanilla versions of the game, or favor something like Street Fighter II Turbo to Super Street Fighter II. There's no peeling back the game to an earlier version this time, though.
More immediately, though, SFV brings some pretty massive changes to its cast of returning fighters. I've seen a lot of "what the hell?" comments about Chun-Li's over-the-top breast jiggle animations, but those amount to a superficial bit of poor taste. Far more dramatic are the changes that affect Chun-Li's trademark skills. Her fireball is now a quarter-circle motion rather than half-circle; even more radically, her rapid kick attack is also a quarter-circle motion instead of a rapid series of taps on any kick button. This makes for a major change in the feel of her combat style, despite the fact that her move set remains largely the same as ever. The lightning kick was a quick, easy, and effective move that could easily be queued up while leaping in to close the gap between her opponent — something that can still be done, but now with precision rather than wild button-mashing.
The newest additions to the roster feel similarly familiar-yet-alien: Rashid, a middle-eastern man wearing Google Glass, and Karin, a schoolgirl rival of Sakura. Rashid, a wind-themed character, commands skills unlike any other Street Fighter character; he has a special kick skill that creates a small tornado that flies forward and up, almost exactly like the Air Shooter projectile in Mega Man 2. Karin, on the other hand, seems as difficult to wrap my head around as she did in Street Fighter Alpha 3; where Sakura's move set more or less boils down to a shotokan variant, Karin's skills seem to be almost diametrically opposite those of her rival's.
Where Street Fighter V truly shakes things up, however, is in the addition of V-skills and V-triggers, character-specific special moves. V-skills essentially serve as a universal command for all fighters (medium punch + medium kick) that results in a different action depending on the character. Some of the V-skill choices come as a surprise; for example, Ryu's V-skill is a parry similar to the advance reaction introduced Street Fighter III: Third Strike. But where all Third Strike characters had the ability to parry, that power belongs exclusively to Ryu now, making him a more technical fighter. Meanwhile, V-triggers work much as Super Arts in the Alpha games, though the command to activate them is both universal and far simpler. These abilities seem potentially disruptive due to their power and ease of use; Rashid creates a whirlwind barrier that slowly advances on his opponent, while Ryu's fireballs gain a multi-hit and piercing effect, and all of Chun-Li's attacks gain a multi-hit property. These abilities shift the balance of the fight in a non-trivial way, and it would seem to threaten to turn every fight into a race to build up the V-meter as quickly as possible. I suppose the mitigating factor here is that building the V-meter quickly involves taking a lot of damage.
In short, my brief time with an early version of Street Fighter V has yielded almost precisely the opposite experience of my brief time several years ago with an early version of its predecessor. Where SFIV deliberately stripped things down to the basics, SFV pushes to create greater differentiation between the individual fighters while also integrating a greater sense of consistency. I do miss my button-mashy lightning kicks, and I'm not entirely sure what to make of new character Necalli... but on the whole, Capcom appears to have struck the ever-difficult balance between making a fighting game sequel at once new, refined, and accessible.