March 13

Street Fighter X Tekken

In what could be described as one of Capcom’s most ambitious, experimental and controversial fighting games yet, March 2012 saw the release of Dimps developed Street Fighter X Tekken. When first announced in late 2010, fans of both series immediately became excited, then scared, then hesitant, then intrigued all in one chain of thought. Two of the biggest fighting game franchises of all time crossing over together with iconic character designs from both camps was cause for celebration indeed, but just how would Street Fighter’s 2D gameplay fuse with Tekken’s 3D mechanics?

The answer in my opinion is this: not well. But before going ahead and justifying while I feel this way, I feel it’s time for somewhat of a disclaimer. Fighting Games are by their very nature incredibly deep, almost organic examples of game design. It is often incredibly hard to break them down because of the plethora of characters on offer, the multitude of systems and subsystems found within and because it’s almost impossible to predict how a fighting games overall playstyle and balance will pan out after successful strategies and tactics evolve over time. Thus fighting games are often some of the hardest games to design and balance and it’s why I find analysing them to be incredibly interesting, if incredibly difficult to do at the same time.
 
SFxT offers an absolute myriad of different gameplay mechanics and modes… so many in fact that even a diehard follower of the game’s progress would struggle to list all of the fundamental systems and modes featured in the game. Now this in itself is a very interesting design choice on behalf of the developers. Fighting games are generally lauded for their deep, rewarding gameplay, but this usually comes at the expense of a high learning curve and harsh barrier of entry that prevents many from getting to grips with the genre at all. In a gaming world where simplified systems are increasingly becoming the norm, this is a very bold and somewhat risky approach to take. The whole accessibility versus depth of gameplay argument merits it’s own discussion entirely, so it’s not one that I will cover here, and instead will look at the title purely from the perspective of an experienced fighting games player.
 
Core gameplay in the title takes place on a 2D plane, using 3D graphics, an approach that worked wonders with the Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs Capcom series, leading to a resurgence in the Fighting Games genre. However, the title also has a 2 on 2 tag team system akin to the one used in Tekken Tag Tournament, where a team is compromised of 2 characters, but a player can lose a round if either of their characters is reduced to zero health. Thus the game features an interesting meta-game of lifebar and character management where players must continually juggle their available resources so that they do not end up losing a round despite having a character with 100% health waiting in the wings. But more on that a bit later.
 
First, let’s look at how Dimps have fused the 2D gameplay from Street Fighter games with the 3D gameplay from the Tekken series. Street Fighter games have generally speaking, always been about space control and positioning on screen. The legendary Fireball / Dragon trap of the early 90’s stems from challenging your opponents horizontal space with a fireball and then using a Dragon Punch to protect your own vertical space should the opponent try to attack you from this angle. Tekken on the other hand can loosely be described as a “battle of time,” in that characters normally have sequences of moves and combinations that will tie up the opponent for a duration of time. However, when the sequence comes to an end, the aggressor is usually then left open to some sort of retaliation from the opponent, making the game almost feel “turn-based” in that each player takes a turn to apply pressure and then react to being on the receiving end. A successful 3D strategy then is to try and stay in control of applying pressure for a longer period of time, whilst minimising the amount of time one is on the receiving end. Yes these are gross over-simplifications of both game designs, but it gives you the gist.
 
Impressively, SFxT does manage to maintain the essence of both of these gameplay designs. Classic SF characters such as Ryu and Ken still have fireballs and Dragon Punches and have the ability to zone out the opponent, whereas Tekken characters such as Heihachi and Kazuya have lots of long block strings and chain sequences that put the opponent into eons of blockstun that also force the opponent to guess between mid and low attacks. Unsurprisingly, the SF characters are better at zoning and the Tekken characters are better at applying up-close pressure. So all is well in this regard right? Well not quite. You see fundamentally these two styles of fighting clash. It’s all well and good being great at applying pressure and mixups, but in order to do this, one needs to get in in the first place. Thus in order to prevent the SF characters being overly dominant, characters anti-air normal and special moves feel notably nerfed compared to their equivalents in other SF games such as the IV and II series. Thus whereas traditionally jumping in against Ryu would be an absolute no-no, in this game doing so is not the end of the world, as the Dragon Punch often trades, loses or even misses completely a jump-in attempt, such is the change of the vertical arc this move now has.
 
An anti-air attempt works! This time at least…
 
From a design standpoint, I can completely understand this gameplay decision. It enables the Tekken characters to take more risks to get in, so they can get up close and apply pressure so that they can be competitive in the system. However, this has the drawback of often deeply frustrating the defending player. Sometimes one can feel utterly helpless as an opponent jumps in repeatedly, often punishing the defending player when they try to challenge the aggressor. This has the negative impact of punishing a player for trying to implement a “smart” strategy, in this case the defender for trying to defend the space around their character. Now such decisions have been present in Street Fighter games before, the SF III series (with 3S being my personal favourite ever fighting game) featured the parry mechanic which allowed the aggressor to negate completely an anti-air attempt, and the Alpha series featured air blocking, allowing the aggressor to retain some defence in exchange of offence when trying to get in via the air. However, both of these titles offered a fair balance of risk / reward, whereas in SFxT, it often feels semi-random as to whether the aggressor or defender will win an anti-air battle. Whilst this does mean that there is the argument of “jumps are good in this game, deal with it,” it does also mean that some characters feel excessively strong because of great aerial prowess, whereas some characters feel rather weak as they seem absolutely powerless to defend themselves from such tactics. Dimps has tried to address this by adding various other subsystems into the game, such as the Alpha Counter, an ability to break out of block pressure at the expense of one bar. However, it ultimately means that in successful team composition, one must have at least one character on their team that can either deal with or apply aerial pressure. Choosing two out and out rushdown Tekken characters just isn’t going to work, no matter how good the player in control is.
 
A boost combo is performed with a chain series, starting from a light attack, through a medium attack to a hard attack. Upon pressing the hard attack again afterwards, the camera zooms in close the to current player and tags in the current player’s secondary character.
This leads nicely into the team tagging / switch cancelling mechanic found at the core of the game. The game features “boost” combos that lead into exchange launchers that allow the attacker to bring in their secondary character for free. However, a player can also spend one bar of meter to “switch-cancel” their current move to bring in their secondary character, and this can be done even if an attack is blocked. This leads to all sorts of interesting strategic decisions and tactics. A simple but powerful strategy is to combine a character who as aforementioned is strong in the air with a character that deal lots of damage once in up close. Use your first character to get in, free boost combo to bring in your secondary and deal lots of damage. Another good strategy is to use a character with a lockdown move that keeps your opponent in blockstun, then bring in another character whilst this is going on at the expense of one meter to apply a deadly high / low / left / right mixup to confuse your opponent and break their guard. There are of course, even more ways to use these mechanics and this is probably the area where SFxT shines strongest, offering interesting and fun possibilities to the core gameplay. There is an awful lot more that could be discussed with regards to the specifics and nuances of this subject, but as it works so well, I’ll move on.
 
Another interesting design choice found in SFxTekken is the inclusion of a totally invincible forward roll, universal to all characters for use on wake-up. Whilst not new to either Capcom or Namco fighting games, the way it has been implemented in SFxT is unique for a Capcom game. Effectively, after knocking down an opponent, the defending player has a choice of staying put, backdashing (retaining invincibility as per SF IV) or rolling forwards. This means that pressure on wake-up for the aggressor is severely nerfed. Gone are the safe-jump / “vortex” / loop setups from SF IV (and to a lesser extend SF2) and instead the emphasis on knock-down is to retain position and respond to the choice the defender makes whilst getting up. This means that a large amount of the game is focused around “footsie” battles, as opposed to one knock-down leading to a series of deadly guessing games that many of the stronger characters in SF IV possess. In a game where many of the Tekken characters have insane mid / low rushdown pressure and strings, this is a sound decision, and does add to the gameplay after initially feeling like an overly strong defensive weapon. Unfortunately it also results in the game taking even longer to play itself out than it already does. This is not a fault of this one mechanic, but rather a combination of it allied to other questionable design choices.
 
This brings me on to another hot topic of fighting game discussion – damage scaling. This is a feature that finds itself in pretty much all fighting games these days, acting as a way to balance the lengthy and more complicated combo systems found in modern day fighters. The decision to add such scaling into fighters makes a lot of sense, it aids newer and intermediate players to keep even with more experienced opponents as they are not completely destroyed by one massively damaging combo due to making one mistake. However, in adding this layer of scaling it also causes other problems. One principal problem is that longer, tougher to execute combos are no longer worth using. The risk in “dropping” the said combo and the meter usage is often not worth adding an extra 50-100 damage, and is better kept in reserve for another opportunity to use. This means that one of the strongest points of SFxT, it’s fantastically creative and fun combo system is actually rather pointless, as simpler and more basic combos lead to as much practical damage. Again, this decision is understandable and does have a lot of merit, allowing newer players to fight on a more even standpoint to experienced players. However the scaling in this game does feel excessive at times. As many combos start from a sequence of chained normals, it is really hard to perform combos that deal over 50% damage, even with multiple switch cancels and / or EX moves. Whilst 50% sounds like a lot of damage, one must bear in mind that each player effectively has two lifebars and each character can recover health whilst not in play, thus making a 50% combo more like a 25% combo. This in culmination with the invincible roll / backdash / reversal / quick-stand on wakeup defense game means that this game suffers from a LOT of timeouts, even amongst experienced players. Though early into the game’s evolution, many veteran players are already arguing that the damage scaling should be cut back quite some way, to make the game more interesting to play by adding more reward for taking risks in game.
 
The damage scaling also leads to another problem, inevitable loss syndrome. As dealing massive damage is not really possible in this game, if a player finds themselves down by a large amount of health with 25 or so seconds to go, they have effectively already lost the game. No matter how much meter they have, it’s simply not possible to makeup the difference in health with this much time to go. This actually harks back to the days of SF2, where the lack of Super and EX moves meant that players had to grind out wins and that losing by even 1 pixel of health was a bad situation to be in. However, in a game that takes a long time to play, with 50% of the characters seemingly built on being offensive and with a core gameplay system of encouraging players to attack and utilize both characters, this leads to a many frustrating and plainly “unfun” experiences. I feel that because the game offers a 2 on 2 mode, allowing 4 players to compete at once in teams, this decision means that it is more likely that both players will get to contribute to each round in some meaningful way at least once. However as a one-on-one game, this decision definitely detracts from the fun and enjoyability of the game. Another bizzare decision is that Supers and Cross-Arts do not stop the timer. Thus when attempting a comeback, a player can play fantastically well, land a super / cross-art to try and maximise their damage output and be punished for doing so by losing to a time-out because their super animation took so long to finish!
 
Rolento activating Pandora mode, giving the player controlling Rolento approximately 7 seconds to win the round.
 
One way Dimps has tried to implement a comeback mechanic is via the “Pandora” mechanic. This allows a player to sacrifice one of their characters in order to offer their secondary character a damage boost and refillable EX meter. Unfortunately this idea is rather convoluted as the player only has 7 or so game seconds in which to make their comeback before their character dies. Pandora also does not grant any invincibility or guard canceling ability and can only really be used effectively as part of an ongoing combo when a prior move generates a wall bounce, ground bounce or crumple. Thus Pandora KO’s and comebacks are seldom seen and are very risky to perform. Perhaps this is decisions is as a result of seeing how over-powered and unpopular the X-Factor mechanic was in Marvel vs Capcom 3, and so the ability to make a comeback has been effectively nerfed so that it is only really seen once in a blue moon. This is not necessarily a bad idea, but given how stringent the conditions are to achieve, how hard it is to land damage via a Pandora combo and the unlikely circumstances that need to arise in order to even be able to activate it in the first place, this has the classic “one mechanic too many” feel all over it.


Yes, this is as confusing as it looks.

 

 

Finally, it’s worth talking about a massively controversial sub-system added to SFxT, gems. Perhaps this title’s most unique feature is that each character in the game can be semi-customised with a set of “gems” that provide small stat boosts such as speed increases and damage gains mid-game when certain pre-conditions are met. For example, if your character has four of their normal moves blocked, they will do 10% more damage for the next 15 seconds. From a game design standpoint, this is a really unique and interesting twist to the fighting game genre. Perhaps from seeing countless mirror matches online, gems allow one Ryu user to be slightly different to another Ryu user, optimising their gem loadout for the style of play they prefer. For example, if they are an attacking, aggressive player, they might load up attack gems, whereas if they are naturally more cautious, they might load out defence gems instead. The whole idea feels very much like a traditional CCG such as Magic: The Gathering, whereby a lot of the strategic element of the game can be spent before the match even begins.

 

Unfortunately, I feel this is an idea that had massive potential on paper but that fails miserably in execution. By having pre-conditions required to trigger gems, it means their effects are not immediately noticeable, meaning that their strategic use is heavily dependent on what happens in a game. Gems also usually only last for a finite amount of time, meaning that even when gems are triggered, you may not be in the best position to actually use them. Even worse, the way that the gems are triggered during a match are extremely distracting to the player, and often detract from the overall game experience as both players look at each other with a bug “HUH?!” expression on their face.


I feel the idea behind gems is actually a very good one and that the idea may see some mileage again in future fighting game titles. However, with the poor implementation of selecting, equipping and triggering gems during a fight, only the most hardcore players will really get any enjoyment out of them. Further, amongst the multitude of other game mechanics and sub-systems found in the title, it seems to be lost in translation and detrimental to the overall game feel rather than adding something new. Perhaps the gem system would have been more effective in a game that had a core experience that was much more simple at heart, such as classic SF2: Hyper Fighting which lacked Supers / EX Moves, comeback mechanics, etc?

 

Overall I feel SFxT is a very interesting fusion of styles blended into one fighting game. I feel this title struggles overall because of an unfocused game design. Rather than concentrating on or two core mechanics and building the game around that, this game has systems and subsystems pouring out of it’s sides. In fact despite this lengthy post, there are still many other design decisions and sub-systems that I have not mentioned! The result is a title that promises much but ultimately feels messy in it’s execution. Some ideas are definitely very interesting, unique and fun to use, whereas others feel tacked on, confusing and pointless. I feel that this is a classic example of the “less is more” principle being skimped over for more of a “design by committee” approach. I think that had this title just focused on the tag team mechanic and it’s Tekken style counter hit / juggle system, the title would have plenty to offer and with careful attention to game balance and character design could been a classic. Instead it feels like a bit like the a hangover the morning after a heavy night out. Some fun was almost certainly had, but ultimately you’re left with a sore head and feeling worse for wear.

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