The first time I booted up Ultra Street Fighter IV I was met with the same familiar loading screen, the same familiar intro movie, and then the same familiar title scene: Super Street Fighter IV, a man shouted at me. Arcade Edition, he continued.
I stared at the screen with a furrowed brow and the same 45-degree head tilt a dog gives you when it needs steak or will die. I started worrying that I had entered a code wrong, or downloaded the wrong thing off of PSN before I noticed the small, silver emblem to the right of my screen, which stamped, almost in a whisper, Ultra.
Subtlety isn’t exactly Street Fighter’s thing: there’s a green dude who can electrocute people with his body, fireballs that emanate from fists, and one impeccable flattop. But while Ultra Street Fighter IV isn’t exactly hidden, it sometimes feels like it: emblem aside, the key thing to clue me in that I was playing the new version was the addition of the game’s five new characters on the character select screen, their tiny faces disappearing into a crowd of 44 tiny boxes.
I’m not demanding a new game, which is good, because Capcom isn’t giving one. Ultra Street Fighter IV is, ultimately, a handful of new characters, a plethora of balance changes, and a trio of new mechanics that, depending on where you are in the Street Fighter scene, will be totally unnoticeable or completely ruinous to your local arcade’s or online group’s meta.
They are: the Ultra Combo Double, which I swear I just saw a Jack in the Box commercial for and which enables you to enter a fight with not one but two ultra-combo options in exchange for lower damage; the Red Focus Attack, which costs two bars of meter and, as opposed to the normal focus attack, can absorb multiple attacks before dishing out a crumple; and the Delayed Wakeup, which is activated by pressing two buttons before a hard knockdown and makes your character stand up 11 frames later than normal.
While we’re talking about frames, they’re the stuff that the balance changes (and nightmares) are made of: over at Capcom Unity, ComboFiend posted the final character change list and it’s chock-full of gems like these:
Far Standing HK start-up reduced by 1 frame (14F → 13F); active frames increased by (2F → 3F); recovery reduced by 1 frame (19F → 18F)
Turn Punch Lv4 disadvantage after block reduced by 3 frames (-12F → -9F); disadvantage after hit reduced by 3 frames (-8F → -5F).
If you totally understood those two changes and the idea of the delayed wakeup, maybe even went, “Awesome! Delayed wakeups are totally going to alter the domination of vortex characters,” you’ve probably already bought Ultra Street Fighter IV or are planning on getting it.
If you didn’t understand those changes, it’s hard to make a case for Ultra Street Fighter IV that isn’t steeped in a reference to the ever-turning wheels of capitalism, because when it comes down to it, Ultra Street Fighter IV isn’t so much expansion as it is inevitability. Like every tournament-level game and every Street Fighter before it, SFIV is and will always be subject to balance changes and discussions. Ultra is effectively the fourth edition of Street Fighter IV, after Super, Arcade Edition, and Arcade Edition 2012, and because each one is iterative, they effectively obliterate each previous version’s usefulness. And that’s okay; that’s what Ultra Street Fighter IV is designed to be, the definitive edition of SFIV, the last big update, a massive list of minor changes in tow. If you’re not playing it, you’re not playing the latest version of Street Fighter IV.
Ultra is an addition designed for people who already knew that they were going to buy it; in fact, that purchase was essentially inevitable from the day it was announced. This isn’t a bad thing; this isn’t the game’s sin (and it’s certainly not the player’s). In an ideal world, Capcom would push this update out for every single person who enjoys SFIV in some way, and while the red focus can be seen as some evidence of that—an interview at Silicon Era points at it as a tool made more for beginners—the problem is that Street Fighter IV, its predecessors, and even its competitors, are designed for an incredibly fighting-game-literate crowd that at this point is still intensely self-selecting.
This of course isn’t unique to Street Fighter, to fighting games, or even to games in general. Hardcore fans tend to be self-selecting. The problem that Street Fighter IV faces, and that Ultra Street Fighter IV digs in deeper on, is that the game seems to have no idea on how to help new fans lift themselves up by their gi-straps and join a company of players whose eyes don’t glaze over when they read patch notes.
The most damning evidence of this is the continued neglect of Street Fighter IV’s challenge mode, which, until recently, was my go-to method for attempting to learn the ins-and-outs of a character. Numbered challenges start you out first with performing basic special moves like hadoukens and shoryukens (aka fireballs and spinning uppercuts) and then move into more complicated combos that involve things like cancelling (performing a move before the previous move finishes so as to cancel the rest of the move) and linking, which are essentially perfectly timed button presses (performed within specific frames).
The problem is that this mode hasn’t been updated in quite some time, and not only does it not include the two most recent roster updates, it doesn’t include the sort of info I linked earlier: the frame updates, the hitbox updates. Every time you start it up: “Trial Mode is not compatible with Ultra Street Fighter IV. The game will temporarily switch to Super Street Fighter IV Original.” And when specific combos rely on specific frames and input timings—not that you would know that from the information present within the game—getting sent back to a version with different timings is both maddening and counterproductive.
Street Fighter beginners, if I may deign to allude to Plato’s allegory of the cave, are the imprisoned, the chained. I myself was one of them until I started looking up things like frame data and “bread-and-butter combos.” Now I have been blinded by the sun, can never return to the shadow-puppetry of lazy SFIV play, the continual jump-kicks and constant shoryukens. I was once in the dark, but now I have seen the objects which cast the shadows; where I used to play Ken, I now main Balrog.
This is either great, or pitiable, depending on your (or Socrates’) views. If the first step to getting better is acknowledging that I am terrible, I’m already well on my way to greatness. The issue is that it wasn’t the game that helped me to get there, it was the player base: the already enlightened prisoner, returning to the cave to set others free. Ultra even seems to acknowledge this with a couple of newer, more minor features: the ability to upload matches directly to your connected YouTube account and the ability to engage in an online training mode where the lifebars are infinite and you can practice, in theory, with anyone around the world.
Both of these are a step in the right direction for Ultra, but as it stands, they and it rely much too heavily on both the new player and the professional player to form some sort of mutually beneficial relationship, where knowledge is exchanged for video views. It’s kind of ridiculous that in order to practice effectively in a game, the first place you need to go isn’t anywhere in the game, but somewhere on the internet, your forums or guide-hutch of choice. (There’s an Ultra Street Fighter IV Bible published by BradyGames, but, I mean, come on.) There you’ll be able to find complete frame data and analysis of individual characters, information on their effective combos (which, as it turns out, weren’t even necessarily included in the challenge mode to begin with).
Ultra is the latest entry in a series that is much too comfortable with leaving players in the dark, seeking out the information for themselves from the tables and collected works of those that have walked a difficult path before them. The same can be said for something like the Dark Souls series, whose fan-made wikis detail things like tomes of vague lore and compile mechanical information of the game. But these guides read like end-of-book indexes, extras, while Street Fighter’s are something more like author’s notes. Once again, deigning: if Street Fighter is The Waste Land, combo bibles are Eliot’s annotations, left mysteriously absent. (Plinking is Latin.) If these are the resources necessary to make the most of an experience, why leave them to the user-editors who create occasionally contradictory and unreliable pages akin to Cliff’s Notes,even if there’s an official version?
The good news is just as though Eliot can be read without knowledge of his allusions, Street Fighter can also be played on a surface level, even if to a potentially lesser degree. When I talked about the inevitability of Ultra Street Fighter IV, there’s certainly a subset of players who will be able to resist the call of five more characters, some new backgrounds which nobody really looks at, and some features that might not change up their living room game. For everybody else, the issue of self-betterment is compounded: every single online resource that the game practically demands you look at to figure out how to best play it are going to be slowly updated, line by line, to represent the seemingly minuscule changes that Ultra brought with it, rendering the old versions further obsolete. I’ve read interviews and articles stating that updated character trials and challenges are forthcoming, but at this point, all I can do is hold my breath, pull up a combo table on my phone, and stare harder into the LED sun beyond my joystick.