If you’d have told us a mere couple of years ago that there would be a fighting game where Zangief could wrestle a bear, or where Ryu and Ken could lob fireballs at Nina Williams, we’d have laughed you into the middle of next week. Quite simply, it should never have happened – when Metallica’s James Hetfield growled about The Thing That Should Not Be, there’s a 73 percent chance that this game was the very thing he was talking about. The two franchises are worlds apart, one built on command motions and range battles while the other prioritises lengthy combos and ridiculous juggles. But either blind to the gaping chasm of differences between the two fighters or confident that it can be traversed, Yoshinori Ono and the Capcom guys have seen fit to marry the classic franchises in search of a new and interesting fusion of the two universes, and you know what? They’ve only gone and bloody done it.
While the underlying system isn’t all that far removed from that of Street Fighter IV, those elements that do stray from the comeback fighter feel more in line with the Namco Bandai series and indeed other, wackier crossover fighters. Each character now has access to a universal launcher (activated by hitting HP and HK simultaneously) with which to start juggle combos easily, plus the launcher can be added onto the end of a magic string of light, mid and heavy to both pop the opponent into the air and call in your partner. If it hits, that is – these are massively unsafe when blocked although they’re really not that hard to work into combos for a safe tag. The single KO win condition is ripped straight out of Tekken Tag Tournament too, but it works surprisingly well in this environment even if it does take some serious getting used to – those used to sacrificing weak characters in tag fighters like MVC or just more accustomed to seeing these characters in one-on-one rucks can easily forget their partner in the heat of the moment and throw a round as a result.
Elsewhere, though, it’s all very Street Fighter and as such, it’s no real surprise that series natives play almost exactly as you’d expect, to the point where many of them can still use identical combos to ones possible in IV. Super attacks, EX specials and an Alpha Counter equivalent represent the Capcom corner brilliantly, though sadly there’s no advanced defensive technique in line with SFIII’s Parry or IV’s Focus Attack. Similarities to IV end as soon as you hit the opponent into the air, mind – while there most normal attacks would reset an airborne opponent, here there’s a far greater degree of freedom to the juggling mechanics and pretty much any air-to-air exchange or anti-air normal can be developed into a respectable combo. Most Tekken characters don’t do an awful lot of jumping around in their natural habitat, so perhaps this is an attempt to screw over Street Fighter players that fight as if on a trampoline. Knowing Ono, though, it’s probably nowhere near that well reasoned and we’ll have read far more into it than we should but either way, the potential of this juggle-centric system makes it easy to waste hours in the lab working on impressive new strings for all occasions.
It also completely changes the game for some of the roster and while most commands are familiar on the Street Fighter side, the new system means that the tier list won’t look anything like IV’s did. Take Vega, for instance. With the Focus Attack rendering his off-the-wall stunts all but obsolete and so much of his game based on tricky links and perfect charge timings, the masked loon pretty much ended up propping up IV’s tier list. Here, though, it’s a whole different story. His obscene range gives him a huge advantage, Flying Barcelona Attack is finally a threat again and the ease with which you can turn a jab into a healthy chunk of damage under this system means his poking game is pretty much second to none. He, like many others, is also capable of far more crazy juggles than in IV too, the potential for extra hits after Scarlet Terror or EX Sky High Claw and far simpler links leading to all kinds of potential. And with countless new ways into Bloody High Claw, expect this guy to be a real menace.
Only half of the cast can really be compared to their former selves in such meticulous detail, though – things have changed so much for the majority of the Tekken fighters that they bear little more than a passing relation to their original guises. In some cases, Capcom has picked out some really odd moves as specials, though it’s actually quite nice to see formerly useless moves given a chance to shine some times. Even if some are still rubbish after all. EX versions are often cleverly handled too, sometime offering common follow-ups that could be used in the 3D game and sometimes just activating extended versions of the relevant moves or mimicking their Tekken counter hit properties. There are also a fair amount of concessions to helping players not used to fireball motions and charge characters get to grips with the dimensionally-challenged versions of their favourite Tekken fighters – most have heaps of Target Combo-esque canned chains that can usually be linked into specials and supers (and often mimic their Tekken inputs, albeit as slightly confused six-button variants), so it’s not too hard to make most of them far outdo their usual ten-hit show reels.
SFXT uses a three-stock super meter called the Cross Gauge to power its myriad advanced techniques – EX specials cost one stock, super arts cost two and tag supers and Cross Assaults (where both your characters fight at the same time, one under AI control) need a full bar. But there are so many other ways to use meter too – Alpha Counter-style reversals and mid-string tags cost a chunk each, while you can even shortcut a pair of your own combos with LP and HK or LK and HP and spend one stock to guarantee perfect execution thereof. Great for beginning players and those that struggle with some of the links, but the meter cost means that experienced players still have an advantage to show for their hours of constant practicing. Some of the Assist Gems consume gauge too, offering automatic throw escapes and blocking or more lenient move inputs, though again these are more aimed at less capable players as experts will clearly want to put both the meter and the Gem slots to better use.
While they could easily have been a game-breaking nuisance, Gems generally offer such minor buffs that they serve only to gently augment particular play styles for a while. Each has an activation criteria to meet (anything from landing a launcher to blocking a number of attacks) and a fixed active time, and the more potent variants are more demanding in their requirements and sometimes even feature a negative effect to offset the enhanced positives. The most common types buff speed, defence or power and with three slots to fill, there are some decisions to be made in setting up your load-outs, a little like Garou’s T.O.P. system – do you aim to make a set of Gems that all activate together for a brief burst of noticeably improved performance or try to employ lesser buffs spread out over the course of the match? Despite generally not being all that much of a game-changer, stacked gems can be dangerous, making any character with a glowing aura seem more daunting than they likely are. It’s hard not to let this affect your approach to a fight, though a good knowledge of all of the available Gems is recommended – combos and game plans can be altered in order to try and activate the opponent’s Gems in a controlled manner.
What remains to be seen, however is how much Capcom’s greed will taint the metagame when paid DLC invariably introduces new and more powerful Gems. It’d be all too easy for online play to be torn asunder should the Gem market get out of control, dividing the player base into those willing to fork out extra cash for buffs and those playing with the on-disc selection – it’s something you see all the time in freemium titles but really not something you want to see mirrored in a full-price console release, least of all one so inherently competitive. We can only hope this won’t be the case, though given the furore surrounding the pre-order Gem sets (not to mention Capcom’s track record when it comes to DLC), it’s hard not to fear the worst.
And SFXT could really do without making enemies. It might draw from two of the most popular brands in the genre but as a 2D fighter, it remains to be seen how many Tekken players it will actually attract – there’s a huge divide between 2D and 3D fighters as discussed earlier and for some, this simply won’t click. For Street Fighter players, the new challenges and potential mean that most people will end up making changes to their game or even running with entirely new characters, while Tekken fans have a whole lot of relearning to do. Trials are back, Street Fighter IV’s template followed to the letter with 20 increasingly demanding combo lessons per character giving a rough idea of what that fighter is capable of and how their basic combo options work out. As ever, it’s the perfect starting point when trying to decide on a team, even if having the first bunch as just single special moves without explanations of properties or anything is a bit of a wasted opportunity. Capcom could really do with taking a look at BlazBlue in this respect.
While not without its problems and questionable design decisions, Street Fighter X Tekken is miraculous in that it even works at all. It simply shouldn’t. Namco has the tougher job when it comes to filling out the fireballs and crazy mix-up games of characters designed to operate on a 2D plane, sure, but you can’t take anything away from Capcom’s efforts simply because some mountains are bigger than others. Like so many modern fighters, there’s a decent argument to be made that SFXT could use some more single player content – it offers little beyond the nonsensical narrative of Arcade mode and various missions and trials – but as we’ve said of other fighters before, it’s a multiplayer-focused game. AI will never truly match the nuances, habits and mistakes of a human player, so why would anyone buy a fighter exclusively to play it single player? That’s like buying a Frisbee to chuck around in the park on your own. Get some friends together (or recruit some surrogate ones online) and SFXT is, to continue that odd analogy, an awesome Frisbee – the rich and complex system offers depth for hardcore players and accessibility to newcomers, while the roster is about as diverse as they come. If you plan on going it alone, though, just do the sensible thing and don’t buy a bloody Frisbee in the first place.