The sound of clicking buttons and wild expletives ring through apartments and bedrooms across the nation. Money is dropped on controllers whose relative worth is judged by their weight and size. Suddenly people give a damn which company made the buttons in their controllers, whereas such topics wouldn’t render a passing thought in weeks bygone. Everyone has a tier list, formulated with all the experience that ten whole hours can afford, eagerly posted to the internet. Infinites are found, companies are blamed, and apologists wring their hands in worry.
Street Fighter is back, and times are good.
The current iteration – calling it the fourth seems inaccurate, given how damn many there are – carries intact all of the fun gameplay and brutal annoyances with which I am so familiar. I could write about how awesome it is to unleash a combo requiring timing that can only be quantifiably measured by quantum physicists, or the sublime joys of trashing someone’s colloquially-referenced A-game with Dan, taunting all the while. I could, but I won’t.
Instead I’ll write about the single element of the game that provides me with the most enjoyment – the unfettered rage it can inspire. Nothing makes me feel more warm inside than to watch or hear someone fly off the handle at a video game. Everyone has their particular reasons for shouting incoherently at the giant K.O. Some people just hate certain characters, others “Can’t Believe How Bullshit That Throw Was” or exclaim, “Oh My God That Ultra Should Have Connected.” Basically these all boil down to I did not win and I wanted to win very much. I guess I’m no different, because nothing angers me more than not being able do the move I want, when I want.
Say a player wiffs a super, giving me a golden opportunity to just beat them down with an ultra. The time comes, and I mash out the input. Instead of a game-winning ultra, which would undoubtedly win me women, money, and ageless adulation, I throw out a far less impressive EX command grab (that doesn’t even connect). What happens next is more a function of my own stubbornness – I try again. This leads to wiffing another special and eating a fantastically long combo, again and again, until I die without even being able to do the ultra I wanted to do in the first place. I don’t mind losing, but losing without knowing why — and never being able to try the thing you wanted to do — is just frustrating.
Street Fighter IV, like all fighters, provides players very little in the way of visual feedback. The game’s mechanics are very complex – you cannot be thrown while in hitstun, you can’t attack when recovering from a move, you can’t be swept shortly after landing from a jump – but there is nothing to visually represent these mechanics to the player (aside from character animation, which can be visually deceptive). In my example, if I miss the input for a move, I have no idea why. Did I press the buttons too early? Did I miss one of the directional inputs? I have no information about what just happened, and my only recourse is to try again.
This showed up with a Google image search for “Street Fighter missed move.” Heh.
Of course, one can turn on input display in training mode. The rationale is that one should hone their skills to perfection in training mode, committing the timing of combos to muscle memory. Well, I’m not going to play SF4 in the goddamn Olympics. I just want to do a cool-looking move now and again. If I mess up the input (which I certainly should do given that I don’t spend hours practicing it), I should also know why so that I can adjust on the fly.
Aside from issuing a fighting game expert with every copy of the game who will sit patiently and tell you why you missed certain inputs, how can a fighting game developer even address this problem? Some already have, in one form or another. Super Smash Brothers (to which certain enthusiasts will balk, having been mentioned in the same space as Street Fighter) neatly dodged this issue by avoiding complex input altogether. Each move is mapped to one button, and if a particular move didn’t come out the reasons are rather obvious. However, removing complex input removes a vital piece of the Street Fighter experience. Making a fighter with that sort of control in mind would, well, make it just like Smash.
Instead, I think a good solution is a hybrid of ideas that come from Mortal Kombat and Konami music games, of all things. Mortal Kombat Deception had a series of indicators under the player’s life bar that would light up when the player was in a particular state. One color would show if they were stunned, another if they were being juggled, ect. These indicators were small and hard to really notice in the middle of a match, but the idea is still a good one. Perhaps part of the character could be shaded gray or white to indicate that the player is in hitstun or immune to projectiles. The goal here is to give the player visual feedback about the mechanics of the game.
Behold: a really good idea from a Mortal Kombat game.
Likewise, in regards to inputs for commands, Konami’s music games have a leg up on western games like Rock Band or Guitar Hero. The western games, perhaps for simplicity’s sake, employ a binary grading system. Either you hit a note or you don’t. Konami’s games have a graduated system where each note will give you a judgment depending on the accuracy of the timing. The graduated system allows players to adjust on the fly if they start to get slightly off tempo, whereas Rock Band / Guitar Hero will tell the player they are doing fine until they start missing notes.
Similar ideas can be employed in fighters. Perhaps the character could flash a color when the player attempts a special move with the color indicating the relative timing of the input. The character could flash blue if the player is too early with the input or red if the player is too late. The indications would have to be subtle enough to not distract new players that don’t care about timing, but noticeable enough for players that look for them. The idea is not perfect – in Street Fighter as it is now, the game would be riddled with false positives and such a system would still not tell the player if they mess up directional input.
Regardless, the principles that work so well in other genres have been oddly lacking in fighters for ages. The genre seems mechanically rooted in its tradition and proud to be so. There’s something to be said for hard-earned skill, sharpened through hours of practice and fundamental knowledge about the game. Even so, why deprive the player of tools that would make that process faster and easier?