Thursday, February 26, 2009

A New Challenger Approaches!

Throughout the past couple of posts, I've been going on and on about the immersive potential of structurally fractured narratives, yet I haven't directly discussed any serialized media. As much as I love me some irony, this is an oversight which cannot stand. The next few posts are going to be about comics, television (including manga and anime respectively), and maybe some web series' as well. Lots of exciting things happening in these regions, and they need to be talked about.

Before we venture to these new and exciting regions, I'd like to offer my thoughts on Street Fighter IV, as it provides us with a topical opportunity to discuss the most serialized genre of video games: The 2D fighter. I haven't talked much about the potential pitfalls of narrative fractures and I can't think of a better example to prove my point. Let's begin with a personal history.

I became a serious gamer a bit later than most of my millenial contemporaries, (about 9 or 10 as opposed to 5 or 6) on account of good parenting. You see, I still hadn't figured out the whole "how to read" thing, and Mom and Dad didn't see how sitting in front of a television screen for hours on end would help matters. They already had to limit my time with the Gameboy Grandma gave me when I was 7. Ironically, I really began to blossom as a reader around the same time they caved and got me a Super Nintendo for Christmas. Whether there's a correlation is a matter for another post. Seriously. Remind me.

Anyway, my delay came with one grave cost: I missed the early-to-mid 90's fighting game boom, and I started too late to develop the insane hand eye coordination necessary to be competitive in the genre. Somehow I've managed to live on. This was part of my parent's plan of course. The media was rife with the horrors of Mortal Kombat; GTA of its day, though I never found it that appealing to begin with. My reading skills were still too feeble to appreciate the edginess of spelling 'Combat' with a 'K'.

I was always firmly in the Street Fighter II camp, allured by its anime-aesthetic, and the most iconic videogame attack of all time. I'd always beg for a turn at friends' houses, only to be laid to waste in a matter of seconds. By the time I had a SNES of my own, the entire 2-d fighting game scene was dwindling with the emergence of consoles with 3D capabilities, and Street Fighter II had lost most of it's mainstream appeal since Capcom saturated the market with a host of different editions of the game. They tried to revive interest in the series by introducing a new roster of characters in Street Fighter 3, but this pissed off players who had spent years training with the original characters, the vast majority of which were inexplicably cut. Capcom attempted to make amends by returning some of the cut characters with two more editions of SFIII. It didn't really work. The Street Fighter Alpha series found a small but dedicated following, though most mainstream fighter's got their fix with Capcom's cross over games, which really are incredible.

The age of street fighter seemed to have ended. Then this emerged.

I recognized it for what it is, but I still can't remember the last time I had been more excited about a sequel. Oh wait, yeah I can. Anyway, as much as I hoped the game would have the trailer's painted look I was afraid they would try to take the series to 3D again like they did with SF EX (which isn't even worth linking). Fortunately, Capcom decided to stick with 2D gameplay, while giving the characters and backgrounds detailed 3D characters models. The result is pretty, but it also looks a lot like SF2 updated with modern animation and HD graphics, which is funny because that already happened.

So how does it play? The phrase "returning the series to its roots" was thrown around a lot during the previews, and it's consistent with my experiences, right down to the old school throw-your-controller-against-the-wall difficulty. The CPU routinely kicks my ass on "Easy." Granted, I was trained in the weakest style of arcade kung fu, and just recently graduated to a style which is only slightly less embarassing. Still, there may be hope for me yet in the form of Focus Attacks; one of the two new mechanics Capcom introduced to the gameplay. Simply explained, Focus Attacks are easy to use all-purpose counter attacks. The other feature, known as the Revenge Gauge, seems to be a more technical version of the Special Attack Gauge (which is also still present), but I have yet to make heads or tails of it.

"But what of the story!?" you ask? I give you a flat stare and reply dryly, "What indeed."

Like every other game in the series, (hell pretty much every game in the genre), Street Fighter IV is centered around an international fighting tournament. Chronologically, I believe it occurs after SFII and before SFIII but I'm not sure. When I combed wikipedia for answers, I got a headache. The former's story has been told so many times, I don't know which one to go on. Normally I'd go with what's in the game, but to my knowledge, the only story telling that occurs in game are the quips your character makes to defeated opponents. Yet I know there is all this stuff about some evil organization with, and fighters harnessing dark energy floating somewhere in the periphery. Maybe it was in the game's manual somewhere? SFIV is slightly better. Each run through arcade mode begins and ends with these really nicely drawn anime scenes, but out of context, they make no damn sense. The scene that begins Abel's 'campaign' is a perfect example. This guy is brand new to the game, and not only does he have a huge amount of history, he's found a way to forget all of it! Are we supposed to have some idea who he is? How does he know Chun Li?

Even if there weren't so many different versions of the over-arching story, Street Fighter IV would still have to make sense of the fighting game's fundamental fracture: The Character Select Screen. Like all fractures, there's a lot of potential there, and Capcom even realizes some of it. Each character has a different reason for entering in the tournament, and a specific rival to take out. But for some reason, every character ends up in the same final boute against a semi-nude genetic monstrosity with a ying yang orb for an abdomen in a secret lab. Um. What? Is this still part of the tournament? Are the judges there with the evil scientists? I mean, SFII had the same nonsensically bottle-necked final fight, but at least M. Bison looked human. By the way, why is nobody surprised to find him back from the dead?

Look, I know it's a video game where people throw fire balls with their bare hands, and Yoga teaches you how to stretch your arms like Mr. Fantastic, but that doesn't mean you can't be coherent. I can suspend disbelief and ignore logic only so much, and Street Fighter IV crosses that line left and right. But if you're looking for a hardcore fighting game, you won't walk away disappointed.

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