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Creating Exciting Matches: Why Street Fighter IV is Still the King
by Cary Chichester on 01/22/12 10:25:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

Once again Street Fighter IV-- or more specifically it’s latest iteration--is set to be the most popular event at the EVO championship series this year, as it has been every year since its inclusion in the tournament. Every game that was in the tournament three years ago when SFIV was added has since been removed, and none of the new games that have been added have managed to dethrone it. Aside from the legacy of the Street Fighter franchise, there clearly has to be something that the game is doing right for it to have such staying power. One of its greatest strengths is the ability to create exciting matches, even more so than the other games at the tournament. The way it handles wakeup games, meter usage, and comebacks, end up creating a dynamic that is very entertaining to watch.

Mind Games (Wakeup Game)

Guessing games are one of the main appeals of any competitive match; the uncertainty of what the other player is going to do and the process of trying to figure out their strategy is what makes them entertaining to watch. While this guessing process happens throughout the entirety of the match, one moment where it can have the greatest effect is during the “Wakeup Game”. Wakeup refers to the moment a character who was knocked down begins to stand up, and Wakeup Game refers to the mind games that center around wakeups. While wakeup situations are handled differently from game-to-game, where some games allow you to roll away from your opponent or get back up immediately after being knocked down, Street Fighter’s method could be the one that’s more engaging for the audience.

In Street Fighter, there are many attacks that will either cause a hard knockdown or a soft knockdown. A soft knockdown allows the player to immediately rise after they fall, but if they suffer a hard knockdown they must remain on the ground for about 1.5 seconds before they can rise again. This small delay is key, it lets the audience watch in anticipation as the fight stops momentarily and both player’s weigh their options on what to do as the fallen player gets back up. The majority of wakeup situations result in a rock-paper-scissors scenario where attacks beat grabs, grabs beat blocks, and blocks beat attacks. This exchange is easy for the audience to understand, and this understanding further increases the effects that the wakeup game has on audiences. Having a delay leaves them in anticipation for what will happen, and being able to understand what will happen allows them to use that 1 second to take a guess as to how each player will respond.

Here’s an example of how the wakeup game leads to an exciting match. Let’s say it’s the final round of a match and both players are at extremely low health. The tension at this point must already be high, as both players are in immediate danger of losing the match. Suddenly one of them is knocked down and has to wait before they can get back up. It’s during this 1 second that the audience gets on the edge of their seat; it’s a reprieve from the chaos that was just happening, but at the same time they know that within 1 second one of the players is about to win the match by properly reading and countering the other’s move. This exact scenario happened at a tournament that is viewable here and begins at the 7:45 mark. You can see that while the commentators are usually talking throughout the entire match, towards the end they start getting quiet when the character is knocked down, as the anticipation for how the match will end when they get back up renders the commentators speechless.

Adapting (Using the Meter)

Meters have existed in fighting games for a long time, but their usages often vary. The most common meter used is a super meter, one that builds as the player attacks and takes damage, and when full allows the player to unleash a super move. It’s amazing there are still games today that use a super meter as it was designed roughly 20 years ago, as simply a tool for unleashing super moves. Games like Street Fighter and King of Fighters use the meter slightly differently; instead of just giving it one use, they make it responsible for several, thus adding diversity to the playstyles that can be achieved with each character.

Looking at just Street Fighter, the meter can allow the player to perform up to three different actions, depending on how much of the meter’s four segments are filled up. Using an EX special move requires one segment to use, it allows the player to use a special move with enhanced properties such as greater damage and priority. Using a dash cancel requires two segments to use, it allows the player to cancel one of their special moves so that they can follow-up with a combo or escape punishment if the move was blocked. Finally using a super move requires all four segments, which lets the player sacrifice their entire meter to perform a high-damage move.

All of these uses can help the player, but the time to use each of them varies. When your meter is only good for super moves, you’ve got a tool that will only help in a handful of situations. Now however that your meter can do three things, each of which are good for different situations, your adaptability in a match is increased profoundly. When you can adapt your playstyle will change, and when your playstyle changes your opponent will adapt and change their style. You two lovebirds will continue this dance until one of you dies, and this is a dance that can only be achieved if your meter gives the options to perform the necessary steps.

A look at how Super Meters Used to Work 

A look at new super meters

Comebacks  (Ultra)

Who doesn’t love a good comeback, seriously tell me who because I’ve never met them! It’s like a three-act play that unfolds in a fraction of the time, the hero will fall in the second act but ultimately overcome the challenge in the third. Most other games only have super moves to take the place of a comeback-mechanic, but Street Fighter changed its gameplay by introducing the Ultra, a mechanic that is designed almost specifically for comebacks.

There are two aspects of the Ultra that make it a unique and powerful gameplay mechanic. The first is the fact that only way to use an Ultra is to take damage. Super moves can be used if you attack or take damage, but access to an Ultra only happens when your life depletes by half, after which point it will continue to grow stronger the closer you are to death. When you are near death you will have the most damaging move possible available to you, making the addage that “there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal” hold true.

The second unique factor of the Ultra is that it has its own meter that is only used for Ultras. This is unlike the game’s other meter which has three functions, however the benefit to having its own meter is that Ultras are consequently used more often. King of Fighters XIII has a slightly similar move called a Neo Max, however the meter associated with it is also responsible for canceling moves, something that is necessary for long combos. As a result, many players choose to not use the Neo Max so that they don’t sacrifice the entire meter, and instead use it as a means to cancel special moves. A comeback mechanic that seldom gets used doesn’t help make the fight more exciting. In Street Fighter’s case, even if the player uses the entirety of their other meter and still needs a miracle, they will still have the Ultra burning in their back pocket should they feel gutsy enough to go for the Hail Mary.

The Perfect Match

This game’s mechanics are responsible for one particularly exhilarating match, one that could be called the “Perfect Match” simply because many have argued for over a year that the only way for such tense and entertaining match to take place is for the entire thing to have been staged (it was definitely not). What happens in this match is simply what was intended to happen, the gameplay elements described above worked together to create a match that is incredibly entertaining to watch. The match is viewable here and is only one minute long, it takes place between 4:10 and 5:10 (there's a little screaming at the end so mind your speakers). Below is a breakdown of that match which shows how wakeup games, meter usage, and the Ultras played their part in making the match memorable.

Breakdown of The Perfect Match 

At this rate, it looks like Street Fighter IV will retain its popularity at tournaments for several more years. Newer fighting games may have borrowed some elements from this series, but they’ll be unable to dethrone this game unless they understand the importance of that each of these gameplay elements holds. I seldom watch tournaments of the games I play, but then again they don’t always create the tense situations found in Street Fighter matches. Somehow I know that even in the near future when time constraints force me to stop playing this game, it’ll be a long time before I stop watching them.

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Luis Guimaraes
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I'm not much skilled playing SF (I prefer playing Ultimate Ninja Storm where mind always beats fingers), but definitely enjoy watching EVO to see all the nice strategies and counter moves going on. But SF is interesting not only on top levels, that's one more appeal of the game.

Cary Chichester
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I kind of like the fact that fingerwork is somewhat important. At first I definitely wanted fighting games to be largely a mental challenge instead of a physical one, but the execution required to do a lot of things leads to interesting gameplay. For example, there's no way I or many other players could pull of an anti-air move on reaction to an opponent's jump, unless of course we were expecting them to jump and so were prepared to pull off the move. So if the move has an execution barrier then the only way to pull it off at the right moment is the be prepared to do so, but without that execution barrier it means you're able to pull off any move at any time, so you wouldn't have the restriction that I believe makes the game more interesting.

I do think that Ultimate Ninja Storm is pretty fun, but I don't know if I can get attached to games that still require you to hold a button to charge. Dragon Ball games did that for a long while, but with Burst Limit they let your Ki fill up on it's own over time. This took away those awkward moments when both players just stop fighting and start charging their energy. I was also never sold on the four items you can bring into battle.

Luis Guimaraes
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I totally agree that the charging system has awful design flaws, that wouldn't even need too big changes to better balances. The tools system is neither all good or all bad, in practice they're just actions that use different resources (like Super and Ultra bars in SF) with limited, non-rechargeable feeding stats. But their presence in the games don't hold much weight as they could add to the match depth, since it's not really too important for you pain attention to what you adversary have in his inventory in the same sense you have to watch for an enemy with Super and Ultra combos ready.

One complaint I have against old-school fighting games is that they're not designed for spectacle too, as stronger moves don't show their physical weight on screen, and the system is biased toward blocking and weak moves, while dodging and strong, eye-pleasing moves hold a certain level of prohibition. I'd enjoy better a physics system to throw or push you away even if you successfully blocked a strong move, with a higher damage on you defense stamina, so dodging and super moving could become more present, with more pleasing onscreen action going on. But then SF is SF after all, less dominated by weak built-in combos as the KOF or Marvel series anyway.

Achilles de Flandres
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the great thing about watching Street Fighter for spectators is that it's very simple to follow. 2 guys, 1 arena. Like watching boxing. I would argue that watching a high-level StarCraft 2 match is even more exciting, but to the average person the game itself is a mystery. All the different units, buildings, and abilities are hard to understand unless you've actually played the game for a while. Street Fighter does away with all that and it just pits 2 players against each other. Also, more people have played Street Fighter, or at least aware of what it is, than they are with other fighting games

Will Ooi
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Great article!

Having rated myself at a time as being a slightly above average SF player, the turning point arrived when I once took an absolute pummeling at the arcades by a Viper user while playing as (another) one of those typical Ryu/Ken guys. This then resulted in me training up my skills with Blanka and Zangief in the console version to gain some sort of unorthodox edge, and it went well for a time. I managed to muster up a decent record in online matches and had some real nail-biting encounters with a few higher ranking people... getting to grips with using the correct moves at their most opportune moments. But then came the Focus Dash Cancel techniques.

Those damned Focus Dash Cancels. Could never get the hang of them.

So away went my enthusiasm in ever becoming a top Blanka. Ever since, though, I've come to accept my existence as merely an average SF player who can 'give it a good go' at times, but I really am in awe of those pros and the sheer spectacle of the top draw matches. Cheers for the write up.

Greg Wondra
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Street Fighter 4 and MvC 2 most certainly, certainly rock

Taharka Piye
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Hello Cary. Do you have an email address that I can contact you at? I'd like to communicate with you in a private manner.