Monday, February 23, 2009
A peripheral concern
I'm having one of my sporadic crises of conscience while trying to review a game. In this case, it's Street Fighter IV. Let me just say up front that I am awful at this game. I played a fair bit of Street Fighter 2 for the Genesis back in the day, but I never progressed beyond Ryu's triple fierce combo, which was at least sufficient to be competitive among the other kids who also sucked at it. I was always more of a Mortal Kombat guy, anyway.
This game, though, is like trying to take an advanced physics course. I tried some of the challenges just to get a handle on the mechanics, so I could stop simply throwing hadokens over and over, and it's mind-boggling that anybody masters this stuff. What really stymied me was the EX Focus Attack trial, in which you simply need to cancel a heavy kick into a focus attack which in turn you cancel by double-dashing. Total time elapsed: .001 seconds. It's crazy. And I don't doubt that there are people who can do this every time. They are the people I play online.
But that's not the real issue. I can learn to do that stuff. I won't, but I can. No, my real concern is that, on a standard gamepad, Street Fighter IV is exceedingly difficult to play. I feel for you poor bastards who are trying to play on the Xbox 360. The directional buttons on the PlayStation 3 are all right at first for doing quarter-circles, charging, and even that tricky Z-shape for the shoryuken, but when you do them over and over it starts to feel like you're ripping the skin off your thumb. Even the breakup of the traditional six-button configuration is confusing. Heavy punch and heavy kick are on the right shoulder buttons, which breaks up the logical flow of the attack intensity, in my mind.
I've seen a lot of people get around this by using a six-button arcade-style joystick. Some are reviewers who were sent promos. Others are people who take their fighting seriously, and are willing to drop more on the controller than on the game. I don't fall into either of these groups. Neither, I suspect, do the vast majority of people who want to play the game. Yet there's no doubt that playing with a joystick is preferable -- almost mandatory, if you want to get the most out of the game.
But it's not mandatory, obviously, or else Street Fighter would come bundled with a stick. Imagine if Guitar Hero had most easily been available without the guitar controller. You certainly can play it with the gamepad if you want to, but you don't have to do that to understand why it wouldn't be any fun. The hardware, in the case of Guitar Hero, is integral to the game. That's why, for a long time, you couldn't buy the software without it.
So here's my question: How do we factor in the peripheral experience when talking about this game? Someone playing with a stick is probably having a qualitatively better time than someone using a gamepad. In the case of a reviewer who used the stick to play the game, what's he really reviewing: the hardware or the software? On the flip side, is it fair to handicap the game -- to downplay its undeniable virtues -- simply because it may be so difficult or costly to reap the full benefits of them? Is the stick a luxury, or a necessity?