[11 August 2011]
In a 2009 piece for The Brainy Gamer, Michael Abbott writes of ”The Joy of Iteration”. Specifically, Abbott talks about the ways in which the process of refining a concept over the course of a number of games can lead to an end product of enough quality to serve as an exemplar of its medium and/or genre. Likening the iterative development process to the rehearsal of a stage production, Abbott states:
...the genius of the iterative process is clearly at work in the game I’ve been playing for the last ten days, Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story. While it’s possible to see iteration as a way of cashing in on a successful game - adding a few features and pumping out an annual edition—the latest Mario & Luigi game suggests its predecessors have essentially been rehearsals for this culminating masterpiece.
The type of iteration Abbott speaks of is a slow, deliberate process, in which an entire development cycle—complete with brainstorming, implementation, and an in-depth post-mortem—heavily informs the development cycle of the next game. The things that went well remain part of the process; the things that went poorly are either refined or dropped altogether. There is much time and effort evaluating the previous iteration to make the best possible product out of the next.
Abbott’s discussion of iteration doesn’t quite tell the whole story, however. There is another kind of iteration, the kind of iteration that Capcom has been practicing since at least the Street Fighter II games of the mid-‘90s and even before then if you count the NES-era Mega Man games. This is the “if it ain’t broke” brand of iteration, the kind where the developer essentially changes nothing, content to ride on the mechanics that made a given franchise a success. Rather than re-evaluation, this brand of iteration represents a piling-on process, where the developer adds content and features over and over and over again until the franchise is so rich with options and characters and modes that it would quite literally confuse players if any more were added.
This model of iteration is actually far more prevalent now than it was in the 8 and 16-bit days thanks to the relative ease in deploying DLC. Developers are free to change and add to their creations to their heart’s content, as long as those add-ons remain profitable, of course. A triple-A release can hardly be considered as such if it doesn’t eventually give its players the option to make it bigger and better for a small fee. It is this model of “release in stores, augment via DLC” that seems to have led to the backlash that befell Super Street Fighter IV, the second iteration of Street Fighter IV‘s highly successful attempt to return to the mid-‘90s heyday of one-on-one fighting. Rather than release it as a downloadable add-on, Capcom released it as its own boxed game; perhaps they changed enough of the underlying engine and added enough to the roster that this makes sense to them, but to the consumer, it feels too much like a blatant cash grab. Despite the fact that it’s no different than the model they used in previous Street Fighter releases, their failure to adapt to current release models resulted in no small amount of backlash.
The release model for Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition catches up with the times, then, offering a lower-priced download for those who already bought Super Street Fighter IV and a moderately-priced boxed edition for those who didn’t. It’s a friendly model for players new and old, which allows those players (and would-be reviewers) an easier road to concentrating on what’s important: the content.
The biggest selling point here, of course, is the four new characters that this edition adds to an already large roster. Evil Ryu and Oni are the most interesting here, and the ones most justifiably referred to as new characters—despite essentially existing as clones of existing characters (Oni is a “somehow more evil” Akuma, while Evil Ryu is, uh, you know), an excellent job has been done here of providing both of them with unique and satisfying move sets. Both of them have more moves than the average Super Street Fighter IV character, and someone willing to put the time into mastering these movesets could almost certainly counter just about anything a fellow player could throw at them. Oni in particular is delectably evil, almost seeming too sinister and horror-inspired for the often silly Street Fighter universe, while Evil Ryu is a pleasing take on the too-sincere, too-vanilla character of Ryu, the prototypical Street Fighter character. Both add much to the game by their mere presence.
On the flipside, Yun and Yang from the Street Fighter III games are finally back to see how they stack up against the Street Fighter IV crowd. While not that interesting on a strictly character/story-based level, their speed and aerial styles lend themselves to skilled players adept with combos and counterattacks.
Indeed, the twins have become the focus of one of the prime complaints of online players. Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition purports to have tweaked the balance on the rest of the characters to make for more even fights when people who know what they’re doing start going at it, but it’s nearly impossible to introduce new characters and perfect the balance in the same go. Yun and Yang are emblematic of this impossibility in that they have not been subjected to the balance tweaks of the rest of the cast, and their speed and comparative power means that they get picked all the time online. While it’s easy to notice their prevalence in the online arena, however, only those with the skill to truly master these characters will benefit; pickup matches between semi-scrubs (such as myself) feel quite balanced and do a fine job of retaining the see-saw type nature of the best fighting game experiences.
To be sure, none of the changes here significantly upgrade or harm the game in a way that will affect the average player in anything more than a marginal way. Truly, it’s hard to see casual players of Super Street Fighter IV doing flips over the new content here, given that Super Street Fighter IV already had an impressively large roster and a pretty decent balancing of the characters.
The only casual players of Street Fighter that Capcom is reaching out to here are the ones who haven’t played any iteration of Street Fighter IV yet, for whom the Arcade Edition is certainly the best available choice, especially given that every single character begins the game unlocked; it is the perfect “jump in and start competing” fighting game experience. Still, those who had gotten used to the balancing of the previous iteration will find what feels like almost an entirely new game, whether for better or for worse. These are the players that the Arcade Edition was really made for, and it is they who will find the “joy” in this release. Anyone who has put in anything in between the zero hours of the rookies and the 100 hours of the masters will almost certainly fail to see the point.