“What I dream of is an art of balance” – Henri Matisse

Today I thought a game or two of Street Fighter IV after work would be a nice way to dispel the gloom that eventually accumulates when I review other people’s work for too long. I’ve played Street Fighter since it had no Roman numerals, but the variations after Street Fighter III: Third Strike weren’t very good, so I was more than a little excited when SFIV came out. I haven’t been disappointed – it’s a lovely game, with a fresh visual style and excellent gameplay. So I ambled up to an arcade (yes, they do still exist * ) and waited my turn.

The fellow I was watching was playing with an unusual choice – Zangief.

As far as I know, in previous versions of SF, Zangief was a long way down the list of favoured characters. He was for me, anyway – he was slow, had no long-range attacks, and his special moves require a 270- or 360-degree joystick swivel with a precisely timed punch or kick. Sure, if you got a hold of anyone with his big, strong moves, they took a beating, but for me at least that was a rare occasion. Perhaps if I’d stuck with him and gained some skill…

Anyway, the guy playing Zangief dispatched the other guy twice in quick succession, and I got my chance. I chose Ryu, because he’s my favourite, has long-range attacks that I thought would keep Zangief at bay, and along with Ken is the original and the best. ** What I didn’t count on was a very strange decision by Capcom, the makers of the SF series, to augment Zangief’s abilities. Most likely this was in the interests of game balance – after all, if people don’t play a character much, the game might be biased against that character. So what did they do? Destroyed all semblance of game balance by giving Zangief an unblockable normal move!

One or two unblockable (but dodgeable) special moves is to be expected, and I think Zangief has had a fair share of those, in keeping with his slow-but-strong style. But to my surprise, Zangief advanced on me with a flurry of light jabs that were completely and totally unblockable once they had started. To add injury to insult, he would finish the sequence with a special attack that could not be avoided because I was still reeling from the jabs. When I did manage to block the first jab in the sequence, Zangief simply picked me up and body-slammed me. It was a no-win situation. Any attempt by me to jump around and avoid the sequence or body-slams meant running up against his lariat move, which went through any normal attack of mine and rendered air attacks futile. It was a massacre.

Now, I don’t mind losing, and this guy was way out of my league and could probably have beaten me with any character at all. That’s not the problem. It’s the manner of my loss – a cheap trick that he’s stumbled upon and used relentlessly. I would like to think that it’s the 2D fighting game equivalent of glitching in 3D shooters, where a programming flaw allows someone to attack while invulnerable, but I doubt it. 2D fighting games are far simpler, and it’s not like Capcom have no experience in making them! In all probability, in trying to restore some balance to the roster of fighters, and in the various tweaks that the game went through in testing, a little loophole emerged that people could exploit. That’s a shame, because SFIV is stellar in many respects.

I guess I will just have to avoid people using Zangief in future :-)

* Video arcades have been in a long, slow decline for a decade or two. Today, even flagship places are resorting to what is basically gambling-lite – prize-dispensing machines – and endless Dance Dance Revolution spin-offs. Here’s a patchy but interesting take on that process.

** For the uber-nerds among you, check out this more-than-thorough look back at the dynamic duo in every game they’ve been in. I bet you didn’t know them all!

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