Video game review: Ultra Street Fighter II

August 31st, 2017

Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers, the latest in a long line of revisions to the all-time classic fighting game, was released for the Nintendo Switch earlier this year. Like 2008’s Super Street Fighter II Turbo: HD Remix, Ultra SF2 is based on Super Street Fighter II Turbo, the fifth and final version of Street Fighter II released in 1994 before Capcom finally moved on to Street Fighter III three years later.

Each version of Street Fighter II introduced various gameplay tweaks compared to their predecessors. In additional to general balance adjustments, Super SF2 Turbo specifically added Super Combos, especially powerful special attacks that could be performed only after filling a gauge by performing attacks and receiving damage. Super combos would go on to become a crucial part of subsequent Street Fighter games. It also introduced the secret final boss Akuma, who would become an important recurring character in the franchise.

Capcom brought Street Fighter II into the modern age by hiring Backbone Entertainment to program an updated version of Super SF2 Turbo for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, and UDON Entertainment to completely redraw all the game’s graphics in high definition. The game included the option to play in the original 4:3 aspect ratio, or in 16:9 widescreen mode, mainly by cropping the screen vertically but in such a way that the original gameplay is preserved. It included the options to play with the original character sprites instead of UDON’s new artwork, although the backgrounds, HUD, and other graphical assets remain in their updated versions. It includes both the original soundtrack and a remixed version provided by a variety of artists through Overclocked Remix. And of course it includes online play, via the GGPO netcode.

It also included two different versions of the game. The first is completely faithful to the original arcade release of Super SF2 Turbo in terms of gameplay, although it includes certain interface improvements, such as allowing the player to select the alternate version of a character (as they appeared in Super Street Fighter II, the version which immediately preceded Super SF2 Turbo) via a straightforward menu option rather than having to enter a code. The second has been completely rebalanced, with tons of gameplay changes, some minor, some relatively significant. Lead HD Remix designer David Sirlin even wrote a series of articles thoroughly describing the changes and explaining the reasoning behind them.

Ultra Street Fighter II screenshot

I am not a competitive Street Fighter player, and I understand that the fighting game community has largely forgotten about HD Remix, but for my money, the gameplay tweaks it introduced were almost uniformly an improvement. In particular, I was a huge fan of the easier inputs for most of the difficult-to-perform special attacks. Street Fighter is kind of know for its complicated button inputs, but as Sirlin explained:

Inside Street Fighter, there is a wonderful battle of wits, but many potential players are locked out of experiencing it because they can’t dragon punch or do Fei Long’s flying kicks, or whatever other joystick gymnastics. I’m reversing the trend. There’s only so far I can go with this and still call it SF2, but wherever I could, I turned the knob towards easy execution of moves. Let’s emphasize good decision making—the true core of competitive games—and get rid of artificially difficult commands.

That brings us to Ultra SF2. Again, like HD Remix, it is based on Super SF2 Turbo specifically. But notably, while it repurposes UDON’s HD graphics, it otherwise goes back to the drawing board, and retains none of the other HD Remix updates or changes. Since I mostly liked those changes, I consider Ultra SF2 a downgrade in many respects. Whereas HD Remix segregated its changes in a separate mode, with the original gameplay version selectable from the main menu, Ultra SF2 includes only one main gameplay mode, and while it is mostly faithful to the original incarnation of Super SF2 Turbo, it still includes at least one tweak: the addition of the ability to “tech” throws and avoid the attack. In Super SF2 Turbo, you could “soften” a throw, receiving less damage from the attack and recovering more quickly, but in Ultra SF2 it’s possible to avoid the throw altogether. In practice, I’m finding that this change actually makes throws, traditionally a very powerful attack in Street Fighter II, harder to deal with, not easier, because the window to perform the tech is very small and not as forgiving as Super SF2 Turbo’s softening window.

One major addition is the introduction of two new characters to the roster: Evil Ryu and Violent Ken. These are alternate incarnations of the existing Ryu and Ken characters, borrowed from later Street Fighter games. In Ultra SF2, they are basically palette-swaps of Ken and Ryu, with a few additional moves borrowed from Akuma. Interestingly, Ryu and Ken were palette-swaps of one another in early Street Fighter games, becoming increasingly distinct from one another over time, particularly with each new updated version of Street Fighter II. By Super SF2 Turbo, they were appreciably different. Ultra SF2 also adds Akuma, a hidden character Super SF2 Turbo, to the character select screen as a freely-selectable player character. Strangely, the character select screen is one place that does not use UDON’s redrawn art from HD Remix, instead reverting to the original character profile images from Super SF2 Turbo.

Like HD Remix, Ultra SF2 allows you to toggle between the original graphics and the redrawn HD art. Unlike HD Remix, this includes not only the character sprites but the backgrounds as well. However, it still does not include the HUD or other interface elements like the character select screen. Additionally, the aspect ratio changes with the graphic setting but is not independently selectable: the aspect ratio is 4:3 when playing with the original graphics, and 16:9 when playing with the HD art. In practice I don’t find this particularly bothersome, as players who select the original graphics presumably want a more faithful experience, while those using the HD graphics are probably okay with the more modern widescreen ratio, and the aspect ratio change has no perceptible affect on gameplay. Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason Capcom couldn’t have simply given us the option, and the inability to play with the HD graphics in 4:3 mode means that some of the HD background art goes unseen, cropped from the top of the screen. More bothersome, 4:3 mode is framed on the side by borders which say “Ultra Street Fighter II,” and they cannot be removed. While graphical borders are pretty common in modern releases of older games, they are almost always optional, and I generally disable them, preferring to play with plain black borders.

Also like HD Remix, Ultra SF2 includes both the original and a remixed version of the soundtrack, but it includes a completely new set of remixed tracks instead of the OC Remix ones. I prefer the OC Remix tracks, which sound more “intense” and seem more fitting for a fast-paced fighting game. Still, the new soundtrack is serviceable, and of course the original version is still available as an option. Another change from HD Remix is that Ultra SF2 also includes updated character voices borrowed from more recent Street Fighter games. As with the graphic style and aspect ratio, the music and voices are not independently selectable. You can have remixed music and new voices, or original music and original voices, but you can’t mix-and-match the two.

There are several new features and modes of play. “Buddy battle” allows you and a friend to take on a computer-controlled opponent in two-on-one match. There’s also a gallery containing over a thousand images from a Japanese Street Fighter art book. The gallery’s interface is decent and you can listen to any song from the game while browsing the illustrations.

Ultra Street Fighter II cover art

One welcome new options is a character color editor. Early versions of Street Fighter II included only two different color palettes for each character (to distinguish between them when both players selected the same character), but Super SF2 introduced many color options per character. Ultra SF2 retains all of the existing palettes, but also allows you to completely customize them. It’s a lot of fun to play with. The color editor allows you to assign virtually any color to each of three or four major areas per character. For example, when customizing Ken’s color scheme, you can independently recolor his hair, skin, and gi. The custom colors work with both the classic and HD graphics, although I’ve noticed a small amount of miscolorization on the edges of characters and between differently-colored areas when using the HD graphics. The classic sprites look just fine with custom colors. The character profile images on the character select screen and pre-fight “vs.” screen reflect the chosen colors only for game’s built-in color schemes, and use a psychedelic-looking rainbow-colored version for all custom palettes.

One completely new feature is “Way of the Hado,” a first-person 3D mini-game in which you control Ryu, using the Switch’s motion controls to perform special attacks and fight through waves of enemies. I think this was intended to be a pretty big selling point for Ultra SF2, but I didn’t find it to be anything more than an interesting diversion. The motion controls don’t seem to work particularly well, making it difficult to perform the intended attack (to be fair, you could say the same about Street Fighter II’s complex button inputs). It comes across as a kind of half-baked proof-of-concept for a more fully-featured 3D Street Fighter game, though “Way of the Hado” does nothing to make me particular anticipate such a game. It’s neat that Ultra SF2 includes an additional bonus game, but I wouldn’t consider it a major selling point.

There are a couple of other missteps. The game has a lot of modes, features, and options, which is good in itself, but its menu system is not well organized. The main menu alone has eleven items to choose from. And while of course the game allows you to customize the button configuration, it does so “the wrong way.” Here’s Sirlin again, talking about the button configuration screen in Street Fighter IV:

The right way is for the screen to list functions, then you press the buttons you want to assign. The wrong way is to list buttons, then you scroll through lists of functions to assign. The reason that one way is right and the other way is wrong is pretty clear when you watch people try to configure buttons. I’ve had to watch what must be thousands of people do this over the years in all the tournaments I’ve helped run (not to mention local gatherings). When the config screen says “Jab” and requires you to press the button you want, you just press the upper left button on your stick (or whatever button on your gamepad). This is a one-step process. But if the screen lists “X” and then requires you to scroll through functions until you find jab, it requires a two step process. You have to know which button on your controller is labeled “X.” When this screen is the right way, no one has to know if the upper left button happens to be X or A or B or whatever else.

If you think this is negligible, you have never seen people set buttons. The wrong way turns what should be a 3 second task into a fairly confusing affair.

It’s one of those things that doesn’t really affect gameplay once you’ve got everything set up the way you like, but it suggests a lack of thoughtfulness on the part of the developer. There’s also an option to use “lite” controls, which allows special movies to be assigned to buttons, so they can be performed with a single button press rather than the complex input normally required. When using the standard dual-Joy-con setup, or the Pro Controller, the Switch has eight action buttons (four face buttons and two shoulder buttons). Street Fighter II uses a six-button control scheme, so you can assign up to two special moves without having to give up one of the standard attack buttons.

Ultra Street Fighter II buddy battle screenshot

The Switch’s Joy-con controllers are novel, and they help make the switch a hybrid portable/console system, but they are small, and I find them less than ideal for most games. I don’t like having four separate directional buttons instead of a single pad, and while the analog stick is serviceable, I don’t like using it to play games that lack analog controls, like Street Fighter II. So the Pro Controller, which is more traditional, is a far superior choice for playing Ultra SF2. Of course, the ideal way to play a Street Fighter game is with a full-sized arcade stick, and to that end, Hori has released a Switch version of their Real Arcade Pro V Hayabusa stick. I imported the Japanese version as soon as it was released, and it immediately made Ultra SF2 easier and more fun to play. In fact, I refused to play “ranked” matches online before I was able to do so with the Hayabusa, sticking “casual” matches only. At $150, it’s a bit pricey, especially for a platform that doesn’t seem likely to be a popular choice for competitive fighting games (though it is also compatible with PCs). 8Bitdo is soon releasing their own N30 arcade stick for the Switch, and at $80, it’s only a little more than half the price of the Hayabusa. I have not tried the N30 myself, but it seems like a good option at a more affordable price.

Speaking of price, Ultra SF2’s $40 price tag has been the target of ire in most of the reviews I’ve seen. And perhaps that’s fair; while it’s been dolled up with plenty of bells and whistles, it’s still basically a 23-year-old game (even older if you count its earlier iterations), and games of this vintage are usually sold much more cheaply, or as part of a collection. For me, I like Street Fighter II enough that I’m willing to pay a premium for it, and I was always going to splurge on the arcade stick to go along with it, anyway. Additionally, Ultra SF2 got a physical release, which is by no means a given these days, especially for what could probably be considered a niche title. So while I understand the concerns about its price, I still thought Ultra SF2 was worth it in the end.

Despite some flaws, Ultra SF2 is still the same Street Fighter II we’ve been playing since the early ’90s. It’s an important, seminal game, and it’s as fun and exciting to play as it ever was, especially with online play against opponents around the world. It’s a little expensive for what you get, and the most enthusiastic players will have to invest in an even more expensive arcade stick to get the most out of it. Those caveats notwithstanding, I recommend it.

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