Soundtrack Saturdays: Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike – Jazzy NYC ’99

Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike is a serious contender for my favorite game of all time. I could spend hours waxing poetic about its incredible design. How fun it was despite the relatively small roster. How unappreciated it was in its time, simply because of its ridiculously steep learning curve. How its intricate and technical combat mechanics set new standards for the fighting genre. How its complex parrying and combo systems unapologetically demanded memorization down to individual animation frames. How the graphics were some of the finest 2D sprites in the 90s. How high-level play is insanely difficult but extremely entertaining, even almost two decades later. How it’s one of the few games that I’m still willing to play anywhere, anytime.

Yeah, I love 3rd Strike.

What many folks remember it for most, however, is the soundtrack. The playlist borrowed from and blended several genres, most notably jazz, rap, techno, and instrumentals. It was a risky departure from the simpler, traditional game music themes (which Street Fighter II helped establish), but the decision paid off in spades. Jazzy NYC ’99 is arguably the most famous track, for obvious reasons. Its catchy beat goes perfectly with the bustling, gritty city subway in which its stage is located. Even after all these years, any old school fighting game fan will recognize it instantly. That’s a testament to this game’s quality.

If you want more 3rd Strike, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

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Daily Prompt: Polymathic Playlist

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about music. Specifically, the kind of mix tape/playlist you’d make to introduce yourself to someone new. This one took a while to make, mainly because I was raised with a really eclectic music selection. I’ll just let the playlist do the talking. Happy listening! EDIT: For the sake of simplicity, I made a playlist on YouTube.

Happy Free Comic Book Day 2015!

Hey, folks. May 2nd was the annual Free Comic Book Day. Basically, you go to a participating shop and get a bag of free samplers (and buy anything else that looks interesting), all while enjoying whatever other promotions are going on. Fantastic Comics is only a short BART ride away, but I was kind of on the fence about attending. Then I found out Gail Simone was going to be there, which was an insta-YES condition. I I left early, assuming I’d be able to beat the line. Turns out everyone else had the same idea.

Yeah, I should’ve left earlier. It took an hour and fifteen minutes to get inside, but it went by fast. Everyone was in high spirits, particularly those who’d just seen Avengers: Age of Ultron. The kids ahead of me were debating who’d win in a fight between Goku and Superman (Seriously?! I remember high school lunch hours focused about that exact topic over a decade ago.), while some guys nearby were getting their Xenoblade Chronicles 3D on. The couple standing behind me even offered to share some pizza, but I declined. Between my DSLR, backpack, and Italian phrasebook (yes, I’m still working on that), I don’t think I could’ve juggled a freshly-baked slice.

I took the opportunity to take photos of the few – but quite awesome – cosplayers in attendance. I feel uncomfortable taking photos of people, though. I’m awkward enough around others as it is; How do you just walk up to someone as say, “Hey, you look awesome, may I take your picture?” without sounding like some kind of creepy stalker? Seriously, that’s the last thing I want; even when I’m doing beach photography, I wait until everyone is out of the frame. After taking these photos, I made sure to promise that I’d send copies to them just as a record of the event. Not sure if they believed me, but they were good sports. Check these out:

Things stayed upbeat and organized inside the store as well. The flow and layout was simple: the line was kept off to the side as much as possible, then directed to the shelves of comics towards the back. That way, customers could look at/consider purchasing interesting comics while waiting to reach the free stuff at the table in the corner. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety; I’m not a hardcore comic book fan by any means – I’m far more into literature and games – but the selection was impressive. I ended up buying a copy of Secret Six #1 and an exclusive Swords of Sorrow print by Kate Leth, then getting into another line that was reserved for meeting Gail Simone.

It was totally worth the wait. She – and her husband – were incredibly nice and gracious. A lot of folks could’ve just autographed stuff and called it a day, but they actually spoke with fans  – someone in front of me took the time to show off all of his superhero-related tattoos – the entire time. I wonder how many of these signings/conventions/etc. they attend every year. I promised myself that I wouldn’t geek out too much, but I ended up babbling a little bit anyway. I’m awkward enough when it comes to regular conversation; what was I going to one of the most famous comic book writers in existence? I settled on a handshake, and thanking her for awesome writing, and how inspirational she is. I even managed to get a photo:

After that, I’m pretty sure I’d been standing there too long. I’m just one random guy, after all. There were plenty of other fans waiting. I collected everything she autographed, gave both Gail and her husband a final thank you, and left. I felt relieved to be out of there – crowded places are not my thing – but sad that I couldn’t stay longer. I nursed my regrets by going next door to Half Price Books and stocking up on a few things. I also walked to University Press Books by the campus (yesterday was also Independent Bookstore Day) and spent an hour looking over old texts. By the time I got home, my Free Comic Book Day haul included:

Autographed by Gail Simone:

Comic Book Samplers:

  • Attack On Titan by Kodansha Comics
  • Street Fighter: Super Combo Special by UDON
  • Mega Man & Sonic the Hedgehog: Worlds Unite Prelude by Archie Action
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender/Plants vs Zombies/Bandette by Dark Horse Comics
  • Secret Wars #0 by Marvel
  • Pokemon X/Y by Perfect Square
  • Teen Titans Go/Scooby Doo & Super Friends Team-Up by DC
  • Cleopatra In Space by Scholastic
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by IDW
  • Ten Year Celebration by Boom Studios
  • Simpsons Free-For-All by Bongo Comics.

Note: Photos of the above can be seen here.

Books:

Man, I’ve got a lot to read…

 

San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival 2015

Hey, folks. If you’re into Japanese culture, festivals, or botany, chances are you’ve heard of the Hanami, more commonly known in the West as the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Most associate it with the events in Washington DC or Macon, but San Francisco’s tradition has been going strong for almost five decades. I happened to be in the Bay Area this year – my travel months usually fall between April and May – so I decided to go for the first time. The festival lasted two weekends in a row, but that wasn’t enough time to do everything; I settled for going each Saturday and seeing what I could. The results were mixed, but it was an awesome experience overall.

WEEKEND 1

I hadn’t been to Japantown in a couple of years, so I’d forgotten how much of a walk it took to get up there. It’s certainly BART-able; I’m in decent shape, so the 1.5 mile trek (most of it uphill) was a nice warmup. The official website even recommends that you take the bus, but I wanted to save money and get some exercise in. However, it’s understandable why everyone just takes public transit; if you’re going to Japantown from the Financial District on foot, you have to go through the city’s dreaded Tenderloin. You’ll never see such a sudden and drastic change in atmosphere. Just a few blocks from the flashy lights and trendy stores of Union Square, there are boarded-up windows, seedy bars, crime, prostitution, and more homeless than you’ll see anywhere else in the city. Most depictions of San Francisco conveniently overlook this area. Pretty sure those red double-decker tour buses never drive on Turk Street, lest those high-paying visitors see something horrifying and tell their friends. I love wandering the city in my spare time, but I typically make a beeline onto Geary and call it a day. However, the Tenderloin is redeemed by its incredible art; it’s so easy to stumble across a gorgeous mural and varied architecture.

Japantown was another story entirely. I was used to seeing the place on weekday afternoons; a peaceful, quiet district that happened to house every geeky anime and video game thing I could want. But this time, the square surrounding the Peace Pagoda was crammed full of people. I don’t like crowds; they feel suffocating and draining to me. There were hundreds of people sitting in rows of chairs, or standing at the nearby railings, all eagerly anticipating the drum performance by the iconic Taiko Dojo. I couldn’t find a good place to see the show, so I decided to wander. What struck me wasn’t just the amount of people, but how many of them were cosplayers. I’ve never been to Comic Con or any major geek convention, let alone seen these dedicated and creative fans in person. For example, I immediately bumped into this familiar fellow:

That’s aside from Junior from RWBY, No-Face from Spirited Away, Mega Man, a mini Gundam, Ryuko Matoi from Kill la Kill, a couple Harry Potters, and at least three Soras (one even had a metal keyblade!)  from Kingdom Hearts. Not to mention all the people in their gothic and sweet lolita outfits; I think that fashion style rocks, and I wish I were confident/pretty enough to pull off the look. Or any cosplaying for that matter; I actually considered going as Vincent Volaju, but the weather was too warm for a trench coat. I also didn’t to come off as one of those creepy guys that stalks and takes pictures of these coplayers at conventions, so I kept my photography to objects and performances. It was probably to my detriment, though; I was surrounded by literally thousands of other geeks, but I didn’t actually talk with anyone. I thought I’d gotten a handle on this whole introversion thing. Sigh. There’s always next year…

I spent most of the time exploring some old haunts at the indoor Japantown Center.  If you’re a local and don’t like buying your anime/gaming memorabilia online, chances are you’ll find your products here here. Japantown Collectibles has a decent selection of models (though Ying’s Hobbies in Chinatown has a vastly superior Gundam selection), as well as several Play Arts Kai and other statues. Japan Video & Media is essentially a one-stop shop for anime DVDs, as well as decent variety of plushies, posters, and other memorabilia. That also apparently includes body pillows (?!) printed with famous characters; I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned having a childhood crush on Sailor Mars, but nowhere near the point of cuddling up to a picture of her! There’s also the Kinokuniya Bookstore, which has an absolutely massive selection of Japanese texts, both translated or otherwise. The lower floor is dedicated to manga and gaming; while the average Barnes & Noble stocks a shelf or two of manga at most, this was practically an entire store’s worth of comics! Their art book selection is impressive as well. I was sorely tempted to pick up UDON’s Street Fighter and Bayonetta works, but I kept my temptation in check. These places are a wonderland for collectors and hardcore fans…but they don’t come cheap. Anime products released stateside – DVDs in particular – suffer from serious price gouging. After making a mental wishlist, I left the stores without regret.

Instead, I focused on the artist’s alley. It wasn’t huge; there were a dozen booths spread out near the shopping center’s main staircase. These folks know their clientele; everyone was selling some kind of print, pin, or bead sprite depicting characters from popular series. Stuff from Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, Metal Gear Solid, Sailor Moon, Persona 4, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy…the characters go on and on and on. I looked at each table three times before settling on a signed print of this Okami work by Wenqing Yan, famously known as yuumei on DeviantArt. I’ve been a fan of her work for years, but I never thought I’d ever see her in person. On the way out, I stopped by Katachi and bought a nice, sturdy machete. I’d been meaning to replace my old one for months, so I didn’t want to pass on the opportunity. The 25” blade was too large to fit in my backpack – the hilt was stick out of the back – but thankfully no one on BART noticed.

I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the booths outdoors. There were plenty of other local artists (The Bamboo Whisperer is still my favorite!) but I focused on the food. There was a small – but quite successful – vendor selling freshly cooked Japanese cuisine. It was a selection of edamame, takoyaki, and karaage. I’m not a foodie by any means, but their karaage was easily the most delicious thing I’ve had this year. I’m actually tempted to look up some recipes. The most popular food seller, however, was the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck. Seriously, that’s a real thing. They were selling a small assortment of boxed desserts, including donuts, mini cakes and, macarons, as well as bottled lemonade and t-shirts. The line for this smorgasbord of sugary adorableness stretched down – and through – most of the street. There were at least a couple hundred people in front of me; after 20 minutes and only a few feet, I gave up. I managed to score a free box of Pocky from another truck, so it wasn’t a total loss.

After enjoying a performance by the Nihon Buyo Kiyonomoto and picking up some commemorative stamps for my grandmother, I made the mistake of leaving early. I did not want to walk back to BART at night. Also, I somehow missed the post that showed the full schedule of events; I didn’t know that I was missing out on kendama and ikebana demonstrations, the cosplay chess tournament, and tea ceremonies. After realizing my mistake later on, I was determined to return and see more.

WEEKEND 2

Armed with a schedule and a map, I returned to Japantown on the 18th. I stopped long enough to watch another Taiko Drum performance, but kept walking. I skipped all the stores I’d visited previously – though I did pick up two boxes of Harajuku Mochi Chocolates at Nippon-Ya – and made a beeline for the Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibit at Issei Memorial Hall. There were at least a couple dozen entries from the Marin Bonsai Club, the Yamato Bonsai Kai, and a few other groups. I did at least five laps around that room, taking as many shots of those amazing plants as I could. Growing a bonsai requires patience and dedication, so I was stunned by the 60-year old Chinese Elm on display. The exhibit deserved far more attention; I’m glad to be one of the relative few to enjoy it.

Afterwards, I headed upstairs just in time to catch the Iaido demonstration by the Nishi Kaigen Iaido Dojo. I’ve played enough video games to recognize the martial art on sight, but it’s so much cooler in person. An average person might be able to awkwardly swing a sword, but these practitioners were unbelievably smooth and precise. It was going well until one of the performers tore his foot on a staple in the stage’s carpet. I was standing off to the side, so I got a glimpse of the bloody injury before the man was carted off by the EMTs. In order to save face, the remaining iaidoka had the audience push the chairs back, then continued the show in front of the stage. They were followed by the Azama Honryu Seifu Ishisenkai USA and Kinuko Mototake Dance Academy, a troupe that specializes in traditional dances from Okinawa. Their performances were slow and relaxing – an older fellow sitting next to me kept falling asleep – but quite elegant. I’ll have a few more videos for them up soon. On the way out, I stopped by the Washi Ningyo table at the back. There were several detailed paper dolls (including a miniature taru mikoshi!) on display. The owner invited me to an upcoming workshop, but I haven’t decided to go yet.

On the way out of the building, I stumbled across a shodo (aka Japanese calligraphy) demonstration. I’ve never studied it, so it was fascinating to watch this group of elderly folk make beautiful art from just ink and paper. The placement of the characters, the shading, the coordination involved…it was so good. And to think, this is initially taught as a mandatory elementary school subject. Do we even teach cursive to American grade-schoolers anymore?! Once the show was over, the calligraphers gave out personalized trinkets to the kids. I sheepishly asked for my name on a fan, which is now proudly displayed on my desk. Coincidentally, I came across another shodo desk when I went back through Osaka Way. Not only did they give me a second personalized fan, but a mini wall scroll with “Knowledge” painted on it. I also stopped by Forest Books; it doesn’t have Kinokuniya’s huge selection, but focuses more on Asian culture, history, and politics. Definitely worth visiting if you’re looking for more obscure texts.

With the day winding down, I had one more objective: the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck. This was my last chance to pick up some desserts for my relatives, and I didn’t want to come back empty-handed. The line wasn’t so bad this time; about 20 minutes later, I walked away with a box of donuts, five macarons, and a cute little tote bag. Yes, I truly earned the swagging rights. I also stumbled across the real mikoshi on my way out; unlike the doll version, this one was decked up out intricate patterns and golden trimmings. A few kimono-clad women were offering people some free sake, but they ran out by the time I walked over. I don’t drink – sparkling cider is the strongest beverage I’ve tried – but it would’ve been an interesting experience. On my way out of the Peace Plaza, I stopped to watch the UC Berkeley Yosakoi Group perform their dances. Such a strong, awesome show was the perfect way to finish my day.

As I walked back down Geary and onto BART, I thought about what I’d seen over the last two Saturdays. The Cherry Blossom Festival is an interesting blend of both old and new; the younger folks enjoying their modern forms of art, while still appreciating the traditions of their predecessors. With all the manga, anime, and games permeating Japanese pop culture, it’s so easy to overlook how they were influenced and inspired by the creativity of the older generations. Not everyone cares about the humanities, but judging by the turnout, they’re won’t be forgotten any time soon. Hopefully next year’s festivities will be even better!

Oh, and one last thing. In a bit of irony, I didn’t see any cherry blossoms at the festival. Due to the stormy weather we had a couple of weeks back, all of the usually gorgeous trees were completely bare. There were more cherry blossoms in my front yard, for crying out loud! There’s always next year…

Soundtrack Saturdays: Street Fighter III: 2nd Impact – Nile (Gill’s Theme)

Much like its predecessors, Street Fighter III went through multiple iterations over the years. New characters were added and rebalanced, and gameplay mechanics were tweaked to be more complex and technically challenging. It’s understandable why it the game ended up with three versions; at the time, the folks at Capcom believed this was going to be the final Street Fighter game. If you’re going to send off one of the greatest and most influential gaming franchises in existence, you want to go out on a high note. They pulled it off, too; 15 years later, Third Strike is still regarded as arguably the best 2D fighting game ever crafted.

However, many gamers tend to forget the previous versions – New Generation and 2nd Impact – even existed. The latter not only introduced more strategic options to the series, but had an excellent jazz, techno, rap, and drum and base soundtrack. The “Nile” theme encompasses what makes the final showdown with Gill so awesome: a calculating, tense feeling hiding beneath a serene and beautiful surface.

If you want more 2nd Impact, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf Review

You wanna go where everybody knows your name…

Moving to this town might have been a mistake. When you first arrive, it barely resembles civilization. There are only a handful of residents, a few run-down shacks selling their wares, and sparse vegetation. No pavement or lighting. The river has more garbage than fish. An old dock is rotting away on the beach. The desperation is palpable; the villagers nominate you as their new mayor almost the second your feet touch the ground. That’s a bad sign. Your predecessor must have been a horrendous leader. It’s such a shame. All the potential this town had to offer, and this is the best they could do? Your new neighbors deserve better, and you’re the only one who can make it happen.

You have to take care of yourself first, though. You don’t have a place to stay, but a generous fellow named Tom Nook offers to build a house and gives you an unlimited time to repay him. It seems fine, until you get the bill. There’s a lot of zeros involved. Thankfully, New Leaf provides several ways to make money. Much like any Animal Crossing game, it starts off small and humble, usually with seashell collecting or fruit harvesting. Take whatever you’ve scrounged up over to the nearest shop and sell it for pocket change. Meet the neighbors, do a few odd jobs. Furnish your little home one piece of furniture at a time. Get some spare clothes. Put the rest in the bank account, and watch the numbers add up. Rinse and repeat, hour after hour, day after day. It’s just like real life, except with talking animals. Eventually, you get enough cash to pay off the house, but Nook will coax you into renovating it further. Then the whole process repeats itself multiple times, culminating with you running out of floor space for your massive hoard of items. The transition from flea-ridden tent to a six-room mansion takes many hours and over 7.5 million dollars, but it is worth the effort.

While every Animal Crossing game is structured in the same way, New Leaf adds several new aspects to keep things interesting. Aside from the Happy Home Academy grading and the hidden Feng Shui decorating systems, Nook now runs a home exterior customization service. Various doors, fences, pavement, and entire architectural makeovers are available. The bland, generic houses can be tricked out with fairy tale-style spires, humongous modern windows, or even Japanese Zen Buddhist temple rooftops. The upgraded furniture list now boasts over 1,200 collectibles spanning multiple sets and motifs. If you’re a completionist, prepare to be in for a long haul; items appear randomly in the store, so getting full sets requires some patience. The process is mitigated by the new Happy Home Showcase. By utilizing the 3DS’s Streetpass system, you can view other players’ houses and order nearly everything inside. Though it’s only limited to five shipments per day, it’s immensely useful in finding obscure items and sets. However, there’s no in-game list that shows what you already own. If you’re not careful, you could waste thousands on extra furniture. Even something as simple a checkmark on an object’s description would’ve saved a lot of hassle. Once you’ve loaded up on stuff, you should indulge in the newly-implemented refurbishing service. With some expensive gemstones and patience, your furniture can be redone in more stylish colors. As nearly everything in your home can be altered, crafting your dream home is easier than ever.

That goes for the clothing options as well. There are hundreds of shirts, dresses, skirts, shorts, pants, hats, eyewear, and shoes to collect. You can be a ninja, pirate, doctor, mummy, ballerina, witch, wrestler, schoolgirl, steampunk noble…the possibilities go on and on. That’s just with the clothes you can find in the stores; thanks to the game’s impressive pattern-making menu, it’s possible to make and share complex designs. It’s a feature that debuted in Animal Crossing: City Folk, but the touch screen makes it much easier to handle. Since your work is converted into QR codes, uploading and giving out designs online is a simple process. Just a quick Google search results in intricate, stylish designs and countless cosplay outfits. It’s amazing how much can be done with such a simple editing tool. This is one of the few Nintendo games to utilize the 3DS’s camera and Internet functionality so well. The ability to wear any clothes and hairstyle regardless of gender is a neat addition as well; my avatar rocks the Street Fighter Chun-Li look.

The game isn’t just about you, though. While it’s easy to forget that you’re mayor, paying attention to the town is important. Your patronage upgrades the shop’s inventory, eventually unlocking a stylish boutique with rare furniture and clothes. Even if it’s just to access the pattern-maker, there’s something heartwarming about visiting Sable every day and getting past her shyness. You’ll eventually get the tools needed to plant trees, catch bugs, and go fishing, all of which become the cornerstone for your financial success. The whole landscape can be converted into a huge, profitable fruit orchard. Many of the collectibles can be donated to the local museum, which results in a massive aquarium, insect garden, archeological exhibit, and art gallery. Getting that last part is particularly tricky; the art have real-life counterparts, so you need to able to tell which ones being sold are fakes. It’s a clever nod to art and cultural fans, and it’s nice having works like The Great Wave off Kanagawa and the Winged Victory of Samothrace on display at home. If you’re not obsessed with collecting, you can spend more time developing the town with sidewalks, benches, fountains, and a slew of other public works projects. If you’re creative and hardworking enough, you can turn your town into anything from Hogwarts to Silent Hill.

Getting that far, however, requires more than just cash and imagination; it requires time. New Leaf’s in-game clock runs on real time, which means things change depending on what hours, days, and months you play. Depending on the time of year, the trees will change colors and different species of wild animals will appear. Most real-world holidays are celebrated, too; even if you play sporadically, you might stumble across a special event. If you play long enough during the day, you’ll notice how the game’s lighting, background music, and weather gradually change with each passing hour. If you’re up too late at night, you’ll find all the stores closed and the townsfolk already asleep. Speaking of whom, your neighbors enjoy some one-on-one interaction; be it chores, giving items, or sending letters, they appreciate the attention and will warm to you accordingly. There are over 300 different characters, but only a handful can live in town at a time. They have a small range of personality traits; some are upbeat and peppy, while others are cranky or lazy. It’s charming at first, but it won’t take long to see the extent of their quirks. Compared to Tomodachi Lifea technically inferior game in every other wayNew Leaf’s character interactions are boring and shallow. Aside from acquiring specific public works project requests and rare items, there’s no reason to interact with them. If you ignore them or alter the clock’s settings long enough, they’ll eventually leave town. Unless you’re obsessed with keeping inhabitants, losing one isn’t going to matter much.

Instead, you’ll probably spend more time with real people. You can invite other players into your town (or visit theirs) via WiFi or local wireless. It’s mainly used for item trading or auctioning off certain townsfolk, but the process is tedious. There’s no way to transfer objects or money directly from the menus. You have to dump everything out on the ground and hope the other person doesn’t steal. It’d be much easier to have a trading system in Pokemon X/Y’s style; there could be a preview image and a price attached to it, as well as a way to back out of the transaction. Also, the game only lets you communicate via the touch screen keyboard. You’re limited to short phrases at a time, which gets annoying when you’re trying to hold a conversation. The lack of microphone functionality is a huge oversight, especially considering that the last Animal Crossing featured it. After the business is handled, you can ride out to the game’s tropical island and play mini-games. Stuff like balloon popping and item collecting is fun the first couple of times, but there’s a lot of room for development. During your inevitable solo sessions, you’ll likely spend most of the time on the island’s shores, catching the rare – and valuable – insects that spawn there year-round. Doing so makes money a non-issue, allowing you to quickly amass a nearly endless fortune.

It won’t last, though. If you don’t have enough friends or interest in designing your own stuff, you’ll eventually burn out. With no ultimate objective aside from earning money and collecting items, the experience feels increasingly hollow over time. It’s easy to forget to log in for days, then weeks, then months. By the time you remember and come back, you’ll find the town covered in weeds and inhabited by complete strangers. You might catch a fish or dig up a fossil, only to realize that you’ve already found everything and have more cash than you’ll ever need. You’ll fondly remember when the game seemed fresh and new, when you felt the rush of finding some rare furniture, or the satisfaction of creating something unique. With the sheer amount of items and customization options, those moments can be plentiful and rewarding. It’s a reality brimming with potential, if slightly flawed and inherently limited. In the end, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is only as great as the effort you put into it. It truly is a simulation of life.

*Originally posted here.

Ultra Street Fighter IV Review

Don’t stop believin’…

It was inevitable. After a long, successful run, Capcom wanted to return to Street Fighter IV one last time. It’s understandable why they did it; with the gaming industry transitioning to a new console generation, appealing to the established audience was vital. Not everyone has switched over to the PS4 and Xbox One, and adding content to a popular game would’ve been more practical than adapting it to new hardware. Of course, they’d have it as a lower-priced DLC as a nice gesture to the fans. The trick was finding the balance between content and pricing; how much – or little – of an update could justify buying Street Fighter IV again? What could they possibly change to make such an aged game fresh and new? Capcom attempted to accomplish all of it with Ultra, but with mixed results.

Ultra Street Fighter IV Elena Arcade Ending

The most prominent changes come as five additional characters: Elena, Rolento, Hugo, Poison, and Decapre. If you’ve played Street Fighter X Tekken, four of those names should sound familiar. While it’s easy to accuse Capcom of taking the lazy way out (and it is admittedly disappointing), at least they took the time to rebalance the fighters to better fit with Street Fighter IV’s combat mechanics and slower pacing. If they were ported directly over, they would have annihilated everyone else. Elena has short range and decent speed, but her fancy high/low footwork keeps opponents guessing. Rolento is much faster and more aggressive thanks to his baton twirls and rolling evasions. Hugo’s raw power and throwing combos are offset by his ridiculously huge size and questionable hit boxes. Poison is all about punishment, in terms of personality, projectiles, and close-range set-ups. Decapre is the only true newcomer, though she has the unfortunate burden of looking like a Cammy clone. Despite her unoriginal appearance, her charge-based play style and mix-ups make her devastating in the right hands. This is all on top of the returning roster from Arcade Edition. With a total of 44 characters, you’ll be sure to find someone that fits your playing style.

The new challengers aren’t the only things being reused. There are six stages added in this update, and all of them are taken directly from Street Fighter X Tekken. Rather than giving seasoned players a new background, Capcom decided to return to Pit Stop 109, Blast Furnace, Half Pipe, Mad Gear Hideout, Cosmic Elevator, and the Jurassic Era Research Facility. They’re much more interesting than some of the older Street Fighter IV backgrounds; the Pit Stop’s intricate truck designs and lighting effects make it one of the best locations in the game. As enjoyable as it is seeing the Final Fight crew and other Capcom mainstays doing cameos in the backgrounds, it would’ve been better to have at least one unique stage. The Half Pipe features new music exclusive to Ultra, though it’s only the rap track heard in one of the game’s trailers. By no means is it the best song – they’ve still yet to top the Volcanic Rim theme – but at least it’s something different.

Rolento VS Hugo

The basic mechanics haven’t changed much, either. There’s the normal setup of light, medium, and heavy punches and kick combos. Every Hadoken, Sonic Boom, and the rest of the special moves are present and accounted for. All of the returning fighters have had their animation frames, hit boxes, health, or attack power tweaked yet again, though only the those interested in high-level competitive play will likely care. However, everyone will be affected by a handful of major additional features. As its name implies, the new Ultra Combo Double system allows the fighters to use both of their Ultra attacks instead of just one. It comes at the price of a fraction of the attacks’ original strength, but that’s a decent tradeoff for several characters. For example, Elena can balance between the offensive capabilities of her Brave Dance and the practicality of her Healing support. Or Gen, whose four Ultras makes him nigh unstoppable if played well. On the defensive side, the new Delayed Wakeup mechanic allows you to prevent your knocked-down character from standing up too quickly. Since many tactics involve timing combos to maintain offensive pressure, being able to stay down a little longer gives you a little more breathing room by keeping the opponent guessing.

The biggest change, however, is the Red Focus Attack mechanic. If you’re familiar with Street Fighter IV, you’ve probably heard of Focus Attacks. By pressing certain buttons, you can have a character charge up an attack animation, endure a single incoming hit, and counter accordingly. Depending on the inputs and the amount of energy you have in your attack meter, it even lets you cancel special moves and link them into longer combos. It encourages players to learn better spacing, timing, and keep the pressure on the opposition. Red Focus Attacks, on the other hand, take the functionality to the logical extreme. Characters still charge up, but they can soak up as many attacks as their life bars can sustain. Yeah, that includes Ultras. Even Sagat’s mighty Tiger Cannon and Decapre’s Psycho Stream can’t get through it. The tradeoff for this temporary invulnerability is two sections of your meter. This has the potential to change your entire strategy; do you use a bit of meter to launch more hard-hitting combos, or do you save up and spend double the amount for Red Focus’s defensive and countering properties? It’s reminiscent of Street Fighter III’s parrying mechanic, albeit nowhere near as technically demanding. Thanks to this new feature, Street Fighter IV’s fundamental strategies are now more varied and balanced between offensive and defensive aspects.

Decapre VS Cammy

If only the rest of the game were changed that much. All the new characters get their own Arcade Mode stories, but they’re an afterthought at best. None of the newcomers have entries in the Trial Mode, which is unfortunate for anyone trying to learn the finer points of the fighters’ movesets. Considering Capcom’s penchant for DLC, they’ll probably be added in a later update. At least the Training Mode can now simulate online matches by giving you control over the amount of input lag; even the best tactics fail when a fighter doesn’t respond quickly enough. There’s also the version select option, which lets you choose amongst the IV, Super, Arcade Edition, Arcade Edition 2012, and Ultra iterations of every character. Anyone who’s played the games knows the original Sagat’s raw power, or how Arcade Edition Yun was utterly broken. The feature isn’t new; it’s a throwback to Hyper Street Fighter II, but with on a much bigger scale. Unfortunately, this awesome option is only available in the offline Versus Mode. There’s no way to take these blasts from the past online, where such matchups would be far more interesting on a competitive level.

Speaking of which, the online multiplayer isn’t quite perfected yet. It gives you the usual choice between Ranked, Endless lobbies, and Tournaments, as well as an Online Training Mode. There’s even a new Team Battle mode, which is set up as a 3-versus-3 elimination match-up a la The King of Fighters. It’s structured well and surprisingly fun… At least, it would be if you actually find someone else to play it. Maybe it’s a lack of interest or not enough early Ultra adopters, but opponents outside of the Ranked and Endless Modes are unbelievably rare. Even in those modes, securing a matchup can be dodgy. When using the Quick Match search, you’ll be paired up immediately if you’re lucky. If not, you’ll be left staring at the screen until the search fails several seconds later. The Custom Match search is a little more promising – it lets you choose from a list of potential contenders – but you’ll occasionally be disconnected before the fights even start. That’s aside from the random sign-outs from PSN, which is another level of annoyance. It can become a huge waste of time. Your best bet is to make your own Custom Match or Endless lobby; your opponents come to you, no tedious searching required. The fights themselves are decent in terms of lag and pacing, but the display of your opponents’ connection data is often inaccurate. Some of the smoothest matchups can come from someone with a single bar. Hopefully it’ll be improved in the next update. Considering that the multiplayer also supports direct replay uploads to YouTube – something the previous games sorely lacked – it makes up for some of the minor flaws.

Poison VS Cody

That can be said for Ultra Street Fighter IV as a whole. It’s not a bad game. Far from it. The sheer amount of characters and playing styles is amazing, and all the balance tweaks give veteran players another shot at mastering the returning fighters. The new gameplay mechanics add tons of variety to the tried and true tactics of the original version. The Delayed Wakeup and Red Focus Attacks manage to add deeper layers of defensive strategies to the otherwise offensive-heavy gameplay. A few of the minor improvements, such as the lag simulator in Training Mode and the YouTube uploading capability, have been long overdue. That being said, the game leaves plenty to be desired. The lack of more character content and new stages is disappointing. Capcom took what it needed from Street Fighter X Tekken, but little else. The online multiplayer needs some serious work, especially in terms of finding player matchups and connection consistency. These are a lot of small issues that limit what is otherwise the best version of an already excellent fighting game. Street Fighter IV deserved a better send-off, but Ultra does the job well enough.

*Originally posted here.