As the joke goes, with success comes superfluous adjectives and Capcom is never one to disappoint in this regard. A year later the developers have cranked out an update, Super Street Fighter IV, and naturally, skepticism fills the air as it appears as though the new dog has learned an old, money-hungry trick. That's the superficial response at least, because when you take a deeper look at what the new package offers, you'll find a well-oiled fighting machine that's more than worth the budget fee -- and I'm not just talking about Hakan.
Super Street Fighter IV introduces ten new characters to the series, now totaling an impressive 35 fighters. Eight of these new faces are actually quite familiar and span the entire franchise, representing Super Street Fighter II Turbo (T.Hawk and Dee Jay), Street Fighter Alpha (Adon, Cody and Guy) and Street Fighter 3 (Dudley, Ibuki and Makoto), while newcomers Juri and Hakan are fresh additions to the cast that blend in well with the previous Street Fighter IV debuts.
Of all the adds, Hakan has grabbed the most headlines for his style of Turkish wrestling in which he slathers his body in oil and proceeds to squirt his opponents through his bulging thighs (and yes, this game is rated "T for Teen"). Juri, on the other hand, is a jack-of-all-trades martial artist who can store and release projectiles in multiple directions, string together massive combos in an all-out offensive and play keep-away with her slippery counters.
After a week of nonstop play the changes feel almost universally for the better.
The remaining 25 characters have been boosted too, with practically every character from last year's model significantly altered, stemming primarily from the addition of a second selectable Ultra (the tide-turning revenge moves). These second Ultras open up entirely new worlds of play for the cast, from helping some with bad match-ups, as in the case of Rufus ("Big Bang Typhoon" is great against projectile users), to simply giving characters reliable comeback potential where there may not have been any before (Dan springs to mind). The bottom line is that now, with the exception of perhaps Fei-Long (whose original Ultra was not fixed to juggle properly and whose second is a counter-attack), no character is without some form of reliable Ultra, which goes a long way in tightening the character balance. This isn't to say SSFIV is an immaculately crafted example of balanced perfection (Cody is too safe, Gouken still sucks, etc.), but the roster feels much more evenly matched than ever before.
Beyond the new Ultra moves is a mountain of tweaks and fixes that will take months to seriously appreciate, but after a week of nonstop play the changes feel almost universally for the better. While some characters such as Sagat and Gen most definitely got beat down with nerfs, nearly every other character has seen some sort of enhancement. Some of these changes may seem minor, such as characters gaining or losing valuable hit points, but a lot of it goes deep under the hood to the point of completely changing the way a character plays. As is the case with Guile, whose notoriously difficult to link attacks have been tweaked to where now he doesn't require the technical abilities of a brain surgeon to be consistent with. Considering the immense wealth of edits made to the entire cast, chances are your favorite character is better than you remember.
Personally speaking, the combination of new characters and mechanical edits alone are enough to convince me that the $40 asking price is well worth it, but for a lot of players without the benefit of a local community, the online play is the biggest question mark. Matchmaking in Super Street Fighter IV has been streamlined for a much better experience, opting for just a single mode of 1-on-1 matches for ranked play (as opposed to splitting the base between ranked and championship mode in Street Fighter IV), with the 8-player lobbies of endless battle and team mode providing the social experience with spectating and chat options.
From what I've experienced in over a 100 online matches, the net code is either on par with the original SFIV or better, though this seems to have more to do with the actual matchmaking than anything else. When searching for matches, SSFIV will automatically ignore anything less than what it deems a perfect connection. So while there may be games available, the game won't match you with a poorly connected player unless you opt for it using the server list. That's not to say you still won't run into the occasionally frustrating slow-motion match from hell, but it's infrequent.
One of the best new features of SSFIV's online play (aside from the whole "more than two people can be in a lobby" business) is the replay feature, which is now available to everyone (as opposed to the championship mode elite like before). Your last 30 online matches are automatically recorded to your battle log, which can then be saved and played live for up to eight players in a replay lobby a la Halo 3. The emphasis is on online matches because that's all the battle log saves. Those of us who primarily play offline with friends (the slightest hint of lag gives me a bad rash) are left to fend without, laptops and recording equipment at the ready. It's a disappointing oversight and one that I hope to see addressed at some point with an update.
Street Fighter IV is a game I've lived with for nearly two years now, dating all the way back to the arcade version's first arrival in San Francisco. If there's anyone sensitive to even the slightest errors on Capcom's part, I'd be the first one to start a support group for them (we'll meet at the 3rd Strike machine), but I struggle to find something of genuine significance to criticize. The lack of offline replay saving functionality is disappointing, as are the absence of animated prologues during the single-player arcade mode (the endings, however, are animated, so what gives?), but that's grasping at straws. Super Street Fighter IV takes an already impressive experience that has held up to the stress of constant worldwide competitive play and improves upon it in just about every way imaginable.
We won't know until weeks, or even months down the line just how the delicate character balance has shaken out, the initial results show all around signs of improvement. The only way it could possibly be any better is if the disc magically transformed into Scarlett Johansson and tucked me into bed with a KFC Double-Down every night. Then again, no game is perfect.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of Super Street Fighter IV provided by Capcom.
Jared Rea is a freelance writer, community specialist and Street Fighter. He lives in the California Bay Area with his fluffy dog Queen Momo XI and believes in blue skies in video games.