Looking Back At Street Fighter V's Inaugural Year

by Suriel Vazquez on Dec 24, 2016 at 07:00 AM

This year’s Capcom Cup was as good a Street Fighter V tournament as you could have hoped for. The qualifier tournaments throughout the year made sure the 32-person bracket featured the world’s best Street Fighter V talent, like Seon Woo “Infiltration” Lee, Daigo, and Justin Wong. The incredible talent pool then made sure none of these big names made it to the final rounds. Though the first half of the year had made it seem as they'd figured the game out before anyone else, both Lee and Wong were eliminated after losing two matches in a row, and Umehara was eliminated a few rounds later.

Instead, when the crowd realized the grand finals match would feature two American players – fighting game veteran Ricky Ortiz and rising star Du “NuckleDu” Dang – the crowd exploded into cacophonous cheers. This was one of the few times one of the mostly-Western crowd’s own would be taking home the gold at a tournament of this size. The final score was 3-1 for Dang, but that number glosses over how intense each round was, and how riveted the crowd was by what they were seeing. Sitting near the audience, the roars I heard were emphatic and joyful.

About 50 feet from the PlayStation Experience main stage (where the Capcom Cup takes place), players could test out a new build of the game featuring Akuma. But as players soon realized, it also included some of the long-awaited balance changes to the game, which would be dropping later that month. As people stopped tinkering with Akuma and started seeing what had changed about their current favorites, the line began to grow, eventually becoming one of the most packed at the event. I caught Umehara and fellow fighting game "god" Naoto Sako playing a few casual rounds and testing out changes, a crowed of eager fans watching them play. People, it seems, are still excited about Street Fighter V.

Street Fighter V is one of my favorite games of 2016. It continues the tradition of no two Street Fighter games playing alike, making each feel distinct and is worth revisiting from time to time. It’s more aggressive in its pacing than IV, but much slower than II, and doesn’t rely as much technical nuance as III. It changes things up by ensuring that no victory is guaranteed until the last hit lands or the timer runs out, and that characters feel different from one another. It’s a fresh, new take on fighting game iteration, and removed from the need to be the “return to form” Street Fighter IV had to be to re-ignite the fighting game genre, is full of small, new ideas that move the genre forward.

But you wouldn’t know it, looking at much of the discussion about the game within the larger gaming community. Street Fighter V had one of the most botched gaming launches of the year, and no one’s let Capcom forget it. Our own review mentions how much was missing from the game in terms of modes fans had come to expect from the genre. In the first few weeks of release, the online matchmaking (the thing people who didn’t care about fighting A.I. opponents had to clinging to) was spotty, it didn’t have much to do if you weren’t online, the survival mode felt like something out of a free-to-play game but which you couldn’t buy your way out of, and the initial 16-character roster felt like step backwards for many longtime fans, both because of the reduced character count and because it favored bringing back more obscure favorites (like R.Mika and Karin) over classic characters like Sagat and Akuma.

For all these reasons, people who didn’t want to test themselves online (or didn't have the time to learn the ins and outs of actual fighting), felt like this wasn’t “their” game. As much as many of them liked Street Fighter, this game was meant for someone else, someone who was willing to put in the time to benefit from all the gameplay changes by playing online for hours. It was a terrible first impression for a game that promised to be enough of a reset that lapsed fans could dive back into the series. It was a game for the competitive crowd. But, with the game having sold below expectations, the promise of the game bringing in new blood to keep the scene going is somewhat diminished. 

And, like with many games with poor launches, that first impression has stuck. Even here at Game Informer, the discussions around many of the articles we post about the game eventually come down to people opining on whether the game as a whole is worthwhile. We see a lot of people saying that any content added at this point has come too late for them to rethink their initial assessment, as well as people defending the game in equal measure.

It also didn’t help that Capcom’s handling of the game in various aspects made Capcom look like a rookie publisher. All of the teased Season one DLC characters leaked months ahead of their release, ruining any surprises Capcom may have planned around them. The PC version of the game was highly moddable at release and had a burgeoning community of people turning characters from other games into cosmetic skins, but later attempts to clamp down on mods lead to Capcom installing what was essentially a rootkit on players’ computers. It also took Capcom months to figure out how to let people directly buy DLC for the game directly with money, eventually opting to abandon their proprietary “Zenny” currency in favor of using real money. All these sent a strong signal to anyone who was on the fence about the game: forget it.

But over the course of the year, Capcom’s made steps to bring the game up to par. They’ve released seven new characters for the game (which dedicated players can earn for free), a few new stages for the game (including night and daytime versions of older stages), added a mode where players could fight against CPU opponents at their leisure, and addressed the issue of rage-quitters multiple times. There are still quality-of-life features missing (could I get the settings and modifiers I plug into training mode to stick between sessions? Please?), but Capcom's been ardent about improving the game with regular updates.

They’ve also made a big push on the competitive front, offering an enormous $230,000 prize (in part funded by in-game DLC revenue) to the first-place winner of Capcom Cup and iterating on its qualifier system over the course of the year. And although the current state of the game favors a a couple of recurring top-tier characters like Nash, R. Mika, and Chun-Li, Street Fighter V has proven itself to be an eminently watchable game. Every time I think I’ve seen everything, someone pulls off some clever trick that makes me think “I’ve never seen anyone do that before!” And system changes like chip damage no longer being lethal makes for intense matches without resorting to "comeback mechanics" like Street Fighter IV's Ultra moves and Marvel Vs. Capcom 3's' X-Factor. I've spent over 200 hours playing Street Fighter V, but I've spent several more hours watching it.

I have little doubt that Street Fighter V will do fine in the coming years. Its household name has made sure it's selling well enough to merit continued updates, and the gameplay itself is good enough to keep people playing. The question is: Can it do better than "fine?" With Season 2 underway and the game's page on Steamcharts (a site that tracks concurrent players for games on Steam) showing a resurgence of interest in the game, where does Capcom go from here? Their current plan seems to go further in the direction of offering players something new instead of playing it safe and possibly bring back some of the fans who don’t think the game is for them anymore. All of the characters planned for next year as part of Season 2 will be new to the Street Fighter universe, instead of old favorites from previous games. Perhaps these plans were set in stone before the launch of the game, but I would hazard a guess that bringing back older characters would do more for fans than introducing new characters which could further evince that the game is moving away from what older fans liked about the games.

Perhaps the best thing, if Capcom is still interested in courting non-competitive fans, would be to create more story-oriented content. The game's biggest surge in player numbers (on PC and according to Steamcharts, anyway) post-launch was when the full story mode "A Shadow Falls" was added. But is that enough? Would fans who want to see that story stick around and pay for costumes and stages? Would adding a traditional Arcade Mode act as the bridge that would turn fledgling fans into dedicated players? I would lean towards "no," but it's hard to say.

Capcom is with Street Fighter V for the long haul – executive producer Yoshinori Ono wants to support it for the next five years. And although the game had an undeniably rough start, it has the potential to go that distance. Diving back in after a couple months’ absence, it still feels as good as I remember it. Returning to a Guile combo that took me longer than I’d care to admit the first time around, the muscle memory comes back to me instantly, and it’s not long before I have it down again. Going through Akuma's trial combos, I have a rough time with Trial #7, but I love the feel of the game enough that I don't mind spending half an hour perfecting a combo. With the recently-released balance update, there’s a slew of new combos and options to learn, and I’m excited to keep plugging away at this game to find and learn as many of them as I can.

Playing online, I get thoroughly whooped (I’m woefully out of practice), but I manage to win against someone who seems to have played like they, too, are shaking off the rust. Someone who isn't great at the game (the match was sloppy enough that I'm convinced we're both terrible), but that someone else is in the same boat as me – a lapsed player who sees potential in this game, almost a year later – gives me hope for Street Fighter V's future.