Here Comes... A New Challenger!
Greasy joystick knob, butcher-shop screen, sticky, clacky buttons. I first played Street Fighter II in a neighborhood restaurant, at the age of 8, while waiting for a fresh, hand-tossed pepperoni pizza. I stepped up, selected the sole female character and was disappointed almost instantly. Other characters could throw fireballs. Chun-Li? She could only kick really fast.
Some undetermined time later, I pop into a lonely import gaming store – a store that's surely destined to fail – and find an update to the fighter. I die quickly, finding that the difficulty and speed are too much for my casual focus. Forward yet again. I'm older, in a convenience store, and find another iteration of the game. This time I play as the boss. Older still, I find a glitched Red Belt version that lets me throw homing fireballs that are impossible to evade, all while infinite-jumping into the upper regions of the screen. I'm at the end of my latest Nintendo Power issue, and the month's contest features shots of the 4 new characters included in Super Street Fighter II. I trace the figures endlessly while my cousin enacts Ryu's fireball charge during the game's new opening scene.
In the space of about 1/10 of a mile, in the span of but a few years, I played countless versions of Street Fighter. Was there ever any doubt that I would purchase Udon's 'roided-up Super Street Fighter II: HD Remix?
Aside from being a very Capcom-esque jumble of acronyms, HDR is an interesting exercise in revitalization. There's no disputing the visual pop of the game's newly drawn sprites and settings (even if some of the background elements don't quite gel together), but the project's slavish devotion to replication has prevented HDR from being a real graphical bounty. Biggest gripe? Background characters still have their three-frame range of motion. 10 years later and the crowd still looks like they're dancing a nifty jig.
Environments aside, the beefed-up fighter sprites are marvelous. The care that went into creating strong, consistent character modelsheets is readily apparent, and my first instinct was to play around with every available fighter, just to see their fashionable new look. Surprise! Udon tweaked Balrog's (or Boxer, as the scenekids call him) face a bit to make him look more like Mike Tyson. For a laugh, you can turn on “Classic” sprite mode, and see the 1993 sprites blown up to HD size. The difference between HD Sagat (who looks like he could fit in with the Punch Out! folks) and classic Sagat (a pretty decent interpretation of a lean Muay Thai fighter) is worth the price of admission.
You can also die a little bit as you see how radically different our concept of muscular fighters is now. Video game fitness training has obviously progressed in these last few years.
There's a funny pitfall about revisiting franchises: for the aged, there is a certain sense of expectations that, when not met, take one out of the experience. While playing HDR, I stopped to wonder where my score counter was. Halfway through the game, I was clamoring for my car-punching minigame. When I finished a round, I was disappointed when the background didn't launch into hyperspeed at the press of a button. Those aren't really strikes against the game itself, as much as they are problems of nostalgia and random bits of Street Fighter forming a gestalt experience on my part.
Now here's the hard thing about HDR: it's a 10 year old game. I don't mean that in a derogatory way. I'm not wishing that the team added in regenerative health and quick-time events, or added a turn-based kart racing minigame. What I am saying is that authoritative, encyclopedic knowledge has been amassed by the Street Fighter community. Entire tomes have been written on such arcane topics as “wakeup”, “tiers” and “hitframes.” As a casual fighting gamer, I'm so far behind that I might as well be 8 years old. The online multiplayer component, buttery-smooth as it may be, is every bit as brutal and potentially demoralizing as its arcade cousin. I'm consoled by the fact that I don't have to do the turn of shame away from the machine after getting my ass handed to me. I can instead take my headset off and quit to the main menu.
Still, the act of learning is appealing in its own right. At its core, HDR is a game about options -- about employing a library of moves in a way that locks an opponent into a set of controllable situations. It's about understanding and managing space, and learning from excruciating defeat. It's also surprisingly balanced. A great deal of care went into slightly changing the play mechanics to ensure that characters were given good options to control their playfield. Damage was cut back, attacks were given a bit more range, all in an effort to create a more enjoyable, sustainable experience. And oh, it is an experience. At its best, HDR recreates the excitement I felt when stepping into my favorite arcade. As waves of 90s-fighter nostalgia showered over me, these 10+ year old characters felt somehow fresh.
Is this a full-scale revitalization? I doubt it. While there's a respectable amount of online activity at the moment, I can't see HDR being a multiplayer staple. Most likely, the uber-tough framecounters will slowly, but surely, consolidate their massive knowledge and employ it against the online masses. Most likely, I'll play on and off until it becomes apparent that the only people left are the folks jockeying for the top 10 spots.
Such is the way of 2D fighters. Even HD Remixed ones.