Gabe House: 'Street Fighter' returns for a new generation

Gabe House

Capcom knows how to straddle a fine line.

With the release of "Street Fighter IV" for home consoles, Capcom obviously wanted to appease the diehard fans who had been with series for nigh-on 20 years, while also bringing new sheep into the flock.

And somehow they managed to pull it off.

"SFIV" — which has been out in Japanese arcades for more than a year — deftly blends old-school nostalgia and an updated appearance to produce a "Street Fighter" installment with graphical panache and an easy pick-up-and-play quality.

While the fighting still takes place on a 2D plane, the fighters are represented by 3D models. The combatants — like the rest of the game — look amazing. Capcom opted for a highly stylized "brush-stroke" presentation. Signature moves feature sweeping camera movements around the fighters as they dole out their particular brands of punishment while looking like paintings come to life.

This cinematic flair puts an exclamation point on "Street Fighter IV's" "Ultra" and "Super" combos, new additions to the move repertoires. The Ultra combo meter builds as you take damage, allowing for a powerful last-ditch attempt to swing the tide of battle. The Super meter, on the other hand, fills as you attack the opponent. The final addition is the "Focus" attack, which allows you to drop an opponent to the ground with one fell swoop. Throw them all together and pros will be stringing together massive combos for insane amounts of damage.

And if that all sounds somewhat complicated, well ... it is.

With the "Street Fighter II" roster returning — all 12 of them — novices will be able to pick up on the old stalwarts like Ryu and Ken immediately. Four new fighters have joined the fray to bring the total to 25 selectable fighters, but the learning curve involved with peeling away the many layers of this game are daunting.

Capcom has tried to guide players with the inclusion of a "trial" mode that essentially walks players through the many special moves and potential combos of each fighter. Although a good idea in concept, the trials quickly become mind-numbingly frustrating in practice. The instructions are often vague and the timing of button presses required to complete them is incredibly exacting. The trial mode is a disappointment, particularly for new players wishing to get the most bang for their buck out of "SFIV."

There are other challenges, though, such as survival and time trial. Both revolve around beating a succession of opponents with various gameplay mechanics altered for specific challenges.

These are entertaining, but also become very demanding in the latter stages.

Of course, the traditional arcade mode makes a return as well. Pick a fighter, tromp through a handful of stages -- which aren't character-specific, unfortunately -- and fight the ultimate baddie at the end. This go-around it's Seth, the leader of an evil corporation named S.I.N., probably not the wisest name if you wish to fly under the radar of various global police forces.

Seth is big and blue, and he inexplicably has a giant yin-yang ball rotating in his abdomen.

Anime cut-scenes for each character attempt to flesh out some sort of storyline, but as usual, the plot in any "Street Fighter" installment is largely non-existent and extraordinarily cluttered.

The real draw is beating the snot out of people, which is where online play comes in. While nothing will ever compare to stepping up to the arcade cabinet and challenging a stranger, "SFIV" comes close in capturing that essence. You can search for opponents based on the game's skill level — known as battle points — or various other criteria.

Unfortunately, Capcom did not include some sort of player lobby where a group of friends could hang out online and take turns fighting. The current set-up is extremely cumbersome for more than two people. Still, though, beating someone down on the interwebs is extremely rewarding.

Despite a few short-comings — most notably the steep learning curve and an awkward online setup — "Street Fighter IV" excels in every other area, though. It's classic old-school fighting meets next-generation aesthetics. The age-old adage of "easy to learn, but difficult to master" easily applies to the game, but that's what will keep players coming back for more.

So whether you've been playing since the days of "Street Fighter II" in your local pizzeria or you're picking up the controller for the first time, "Street Fighter IV" will appease the world warrior within you. Check it out and get your hadoken on.

Gabe House is an entertainment columnist and sports writer for the Macomb Journal.