A beginner’s guide to Street Fighter IV

There’s just no place for a street fighting man.

Well, that may have been true in 1968, but anyone who’s old enough to remember the Clinton era remembers Street Fighter II. Its unprecedented console game sales numbers, the lines of wannabe world warriors amassing at the local arcade machine, the combos, chains and cancels — they put Capcom on the map and gave birth to a brilliant new game genre, but the phenomenon faded with time. An obscure series of sequels and offshoots largely served to refine the game’s brilliant core mechanics, but did so at the cost of accessibility.

Fortunately, that ends with Street Fighter IV. The game’s back with the entire original cast of fighters from Super Street Fighter II Turbo (minus T. Hawk and Dee Jay, but nobody misses them) along with some fresh and inspired new faces. It’s endlessly replayable, packed to the brim with style and tempered with disciplined balance — a hallmark of the series and the result of months of in-depth public testing with the arcade version. But if you’re like me,  you can barely remember how to throw a Hadoken or block Sagat’s knee attack. That’s where this guide comes in! I’ve taken my thirty hours’ experience of getting my ass handed to me by tweens named xXDeathstrykeXx and yourgonnalose (sic) on Xbox Live and coupled it with the best advice I’ve found for learning the ropes in Street Fighter in the hopes that new players can get the hang of a game whose only real flaw is the lack of a beginner’s mode. So dust off your gloves, dry-clean your most fashionable gi and get ready to throw hands with the best of ’em.

1. Play Online

This is the single most important piece of advice I can provide. One thing to bear in mind:  You’re going to get your ass kicked — a lot. But it’s a fighting game, so any different sort of preconceived notions you might’ve had should be thrown out the door.

Street Fighter’s enduring value has always come from its player-versus-player component, and thanks to Xbox Live/PSN and some pretty impressive netcode, thousands of players are waiting at the floodgates to duke it out with you. I’ve fought around 150 online battles, and only a half dozen were plagued by any noticeable lag; fortunately, no games ended in a total disconnection. Players from around the world ranging from fragile beginners to arcade-hardened masters contend in the online arena, so it’s a bit of a grab bag to say the least. But the quickest way to learn is to fight real people who are making real risk-versus-reward decisions at the same time as you.

2. Listen to Capcom

Straight from the horse’s mouth comes a bevy of information that helps shed some light on the intricacies of SFIV. Capcom’s Unity blog features tips on unlocking characters, insights into the game’s design choices, and all sorts of useful information and snippets of trivia. Seth Killian, in particular, has been the voice of wisdom when it comes to Street Fighter IV — and it doesn’t hurt that he’s the namesake for SFIV’s bald, blue, glowing final boss, Dr. Manhattan Seth. Check out the latest Kotaku podcast, which features Killian, here.

3. Try Every Character

We’ve all been there: a character selection screen full of bizarre fighters, each with dozens of moves to memorize. It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?

Actually, not really. While each character plays slightly different from any other one, many share the same basic framework. Characters usually depend on rotational movements on the directional buttons or analog stick followed by a button push or two, e.g. Ryu’s fireball, Zangief’s piledriver, Ken’s shoryuken. Other characters are called charge characters because they require the player to hold one direction, then quickly move to the opposite direction while pushing a button. Super moves are (almost) all the same as basic special moves except you input the movement twice before pushing an attack button, and Ultra moves are just super moves with all three punch or kick buttons at the same time.

It probably still sounds daunting, but trust me: with a few hours under your belt, you’ll start to pick up on the similarities. You’ll find that Ken is like Ryu but with a stronger uppercut; E. Honda is a slower but stronger Blanka; Guile is a less frenzied M. Bison. Admittedly, those are all generalizations, but the concept works. Before long, you’ll find that you’re more than competent with any character after just a few minutes of practice.

4. Play Trial Mode

The trial mode is not for everyone, but players who invest the time to learn each character’s intricacies will find themselves with a significant advantage over almost every opponent they encounter online. Trial mode consists of several rounds of training for each character. While the first round is a relatively simplistic walkthrough of each character’s unique maneuvers and throws, the difficulty quickly ramps up by forcing the player to learn which special moves cancel into others. It’s challenging and often frustrating, but the sense of satisfaction attained by laying into Dan with a devastating combo is immeasurable.

5. Stay Focused

Make no mistake: Street Fighter is not a button-masher. It’s an immensely strategic game about controlling space, pure and simple. Through a combination of pressing the offensive and defending when necessary, you and your opponent each try to deal the most damage to the opponent and be the last fighter standing. It’s easy to get frustrated when an opponent locks you into a corner and tears you apart in seconds, but almost every dire situation can be transformed into you gaining the upper hand. Be patient, be persistent, and be alert — an eleventh-hour victory, and an opponent’s subsequent angry tirade, is a reward unto itself.