Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Street Fighter 5 a lesson in diminishing excitement

Street Fighter II seemingly came out of nowhere and conquered the world. It blew my young mind. It was just a quantum innovation in gaming. We'd never seen such amazing character design. It was like a cartoon you could play. It had these 80's hangover characters in karate gi's but amazingly they could throw fireballs. It's hard to recall with the hindsight of history. But really the Hadouken had the same impact then as the Matrix's bullet-time sequence did years later.

The flaw of that analogy, is that the Matrix is similarly dated, though it's effects hold up better than SFII's frame rate. I would guess, but am not old enough, that SFII had a similar impact on young minds as Star Wars did when it premiered in the 70s.

Then came SFII Turbo, SF Alpha ... more importantly Mortal Kombat came out with it's more adult graphic violence and SF franchise kind of faded at the same time the fighter genre was swarmed with imitators, many of the me too franchises surviving to this day.

I liked Mortal Kombat 2 and 3. But I never liked it as much as Street Fighter. Largely because the artwork sucked. And that is something that I feel Street Fighter has never been eclipsed in. Street Fighter II broke into western markets long before Japanese animation or comics did. The influence Akiman has had on multiple generations of artists since the release of SFII is probably unparalleled, and behind only Jim Henson (The Muppets and Sesame St) and Dr Suess for capturing kids imagination both universally and early in their psychological development.

The difference being that it will remain true for a long time for Suess and Henson, I'm not so sure that any 12 year old kid would be particularly blown away by seeing Street Fighter 4 or 5. Kids get into it sure, I wouldn't be surprised but it must be like discovering Zeppelin at 16, from following back the genealogy of music that kid is into on the market of the moment back to its roots.

The real hidden gem, is perhaps the most perfect video game ever made - Street Fighter III: Third Strike. The peak of the franchise, though not the most popular. I myself overlooked 'the next generation' for quite some time, until I was standing in an arcade and saw how Necro moved across the screen.

That was like seeing a video game with a studio ghibli amorphous blob on screen. It's graphics were just superb.

It then took a long time for SFIV to come out. Perhaps in part because within the gaming community SFIII had so much longevity, it didn't cry out for a sequel, when it had a loyal fanbase still playing it.

I don't know and I imagine there are articles you can read on what caused the delay. SFIV has a lot to merit it in terms of game design, it's just not special and in the end kind of boring.

I first played it after SFIV: Ultra had long been in release. Which meant I had a roster of about 32 players to select from, very few of them new. I'm going to say this - SFIV was basically a reboot of SFII, the original cast were all in the first release of the game, plus some new characters none of which were particularly inspired. By Ultra, you had Ryu, Evil Ryu, Akuma/Gouki and Oni unlocked as playable characters, an evil clone of Cammy and really the only new cast member whose design worked was Juri. You also had a littering of characters from Alpha and Third Strike, and I later learned that SFIV was set after SFII but before SFIII in the timeline, so none of it really made sense.

It was basically a 'lets see what this looks like in 3d' which made for a very boring game, conceptually speaking, propped up only by a love of SF itself. Returning to SFIV from SFII were the car and barrel smashing rounds for the arcade play while dropping things like the parry system from SFIII.

I maintain that spiritually it was a reboot, a software upgrade, of the SFII concept. And it brought us the least inspired end boss perhaps ever - Seth. His design was boring, a bald muscle bound man, with a Chinese Zodiac orb in his stomach being the only point of interest. To be fair, Gil wasn't that interesting either, except having a half red-half blue sprite that actually alternated was the threshold of technological limits when SFIII was released. Gil also made sense, being styled after a greek god, he was the messiah of a cult after all.

Seth just copied everyone else's moves, so combat wise he was a mash up, and really to me I see his precedent in Shang Tsung of the Mortal combat franchise and Gorro, Shang Tsung's champion. Game play wise he was Shang Tsung and appearance wise he was Gorro, almost what you'd expect if those two had a love child.

I realise I haven't gotten to SFV/5 yet, but that's because crucially SFIV was the misstep by Capcom. The let the fandom run the asylum. A problem of this era. SFV stands to be worse.

Firstly, fuck 3d. From the get go. A franchise built on the strength of it's artwork, the Street Fighter 5 characters look like claymation, or worse Clay Fighter-esque. The specials or V-trigger attacks are much like SFIV, using the 3d to change up camera angles and some sfx to create mini pieces of theatre in the fights. These look good presenting a reveal clip in a convention, but I found became annoyingly repetitive in actual gameplay.

Contrast these to the special attacks in 3rd Strike, the screen freezes and gives the player a mere moment to say 'Oh Shit' In fact, let's just compare them now:

Now I deliberately chose the R.Mika reveal just because hers is whimsical (the super art equivalent is right at the end of the trailer) and you can see, I need to actually use cinematography terms to describe what happens graphically when the skill is executed. Minus a parry system too, there's really only seconds of frustrated helplessness if the attack is landed, if you are playing the recieving party of the super art. In Third Strike, even if you weren't the instigator, you could get excited by the prospect of parrying the attack Daigo style.

The streaky streams of watery effect don't do much for me. They seem to have evolved out of the 'inky' effect in SFIV which at least was an acknowledgement that they had moved from 2D drawings to 3D sculptures.

I don't like 3D, I don't even particularly like 3D animation, many a 3D animated Movie I've seen the concept art for, video games too and marvelled at how much has been lost translating the 2D design to 3D rig. That's certainly the case with Streetfighter 5 and is probably the major plughole that drains my excitement.

But that's not all. Even though SFIV featured the entire roster of SFII fighters, Capcom once again drew on that same stable of characters for the initial release. Ken now wears a compression singlet, Cammy no longer paints camo on her legs, Chun Li and Ryu haven't changed, M Bison has gone grey and has tails on his coat, Vega is wearing a shirt... who cares, these characters may be beloved and there may be an extant fan base that wants characters they 'know how to play' but it isn't exciting.

The new characters are also not exciting, with the possible exception of the Maori character. Unforch he seems to have been inspired by Dragonball Z, and I can't see past that.

More unfortunate is FANG the endboss revealed this week. He is more interesting than Seth, and a departure from the Sagat-M.Bison-Gil-Seth hulking tank like endbosses of the series so far. But FANG appears to have been inspired by the Peacock character from Kung Fu Panda 2. Same archetype, insidious, lythe, gaunt, slightly mad, a little aristocratic and very very avian.

The rest of the diminishing excitement, is not intrinsic design flaws, or thought processes, but the product of our times, particularly when dealing with nerds.

SFII comes out, and you have this amazing new feature of having 8 characters to choose from. Ken, Ryu, Chun Li, Guile, Blanka, Zangeif, Dhalsim & E Honda. Which was crazy, its predecessor and most games up til that point gave you an option of 2. Ken in fact was just the 2P carbon copy of Ryu in the original Street Fighter. On your own you pretty much had to be Ryu.

Then the amazing thing was, that after you fought your way tournament style through the roster you had to fight Balrog, Vega, Sagat and the end boss M. Bison. 4! 4 fully formed, concieved and designed boss characters. It was unheard of and nobody imitated it really, no major players. MK just had two and the top boss morphed into all the other players on the roster.

The real innovation though was expanding the player roster to 8, not the 4 unplayable bosses. Street fighter had 2 fighters for each country culminating in the end boss Sagat. So there were effectively more unplayable characters in its predecessor. I suspect the decision to have four executive bosses to fight was a transition.

And sure enough by SFIII you had one boss Gil, and later they added Urien as a sub-boss. And I suspect since Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo, the mentality has been if we develop a character we may as well let people play them.

But what will never be captured again is the surprise and mystery of these unknown boss-characters that came with SF2. Even Gil the first time I saw somebody good enough to actually reach him in third strike was still surprising, because SF3 wasn't released in a convention driven era.

The current era now has teaser trailers for teaser trailers for movies. Drip fed to nerdfans who just cannot possibly go without in order to increase their pleasure on release.

I suspect this happened with SFIV but to be honest, I actually paid less attention to IV because of the 3d thing. V I can't ignore though. And it seems they've doubled down on the oversharing by adding the net-release beta versions this time round.

So not only do we have a convention tour where new characters from the roster got revealed or announced each time, but the game gets released for testing by the actual fanbase, and people hacked it and got even more info. Such that FANG who was revealed earlier this week, had had his voice files ripped out and listened to weeks prior to his actual announcement.

Why do nerds do this to themselves? I feel by experiencing the frustrating excitement of 'that looks cool' today, we diminish the actual pleasure we derive from discovering it at a time where we can play it for what it is.

I suspect this is even true of beta testing. With the exception of whether you are playing the betas to gain a competitive advantage in future tournaments. If so, do your beta testing as tournaments at conventions, rather than world wide releases downloaded onto a bunch of nerds computers.

I already know which characters are going to be DLC for a game that hasn't actually been released yet. I know everything there is to know except the experience of actually playing it. And those doing the beta testing, don't even have that to look forward to. Just a continuation of an experience they've had trickled out to them and restricted. Surely making it the most boring way to learn the game.

Street Fighter III is a near perfect game because it was risky. They had one of the best known franchises in the world, they had been eclipsed by then by the Mortal Kombat franchise and Capcom
some how looked inwards and said 'it's the next generation' they went in with a roster of unknown players (they later appended Ryu and Ken onto the roster, but they weren't initially intended to be in it) Designed the shit out of them so they looked and played unique. Kept it 2D, backed their artists and animators and launched it.

What happened to that Capcom? Now SFV looks like a me-too product, a 'sequel' that breaks as little new ground as Fallout 4 does over Fallout 3. The new aspects aren't very inspired. They ask the fans what they want and try to give it to them, the trouble being that fans rarely say 'I want to be surprised' what they say is 'I want Ryu and Ken, and R Mika, and Zangeif and ooh ooh...' And this is what we've got. And they can't let it just drop and see the reaction, they have to tease it out and test it and focus group it and have it trialled by fandom.

I hate this new era of game design. I'd share my suggestions as to what I'd do to make an awesome SF game but it would be hypocritical as a fan to say Capcom should listen to me, when I'm asking them to stop listening to fans.

No comments: