Monday, February 23, 2009

A peripheral concern

Above: Just how peripheral is it, anyway?

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?


Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, I don't play fighting games so I won't have to wrestle with particular this issue, but I do play a lot of driving games and have wrestled with the whole wheel and pedal issue before.

My brother, for example, cannot play a racing game without such a setup, whereas I am so used to racing with a gamepad that I never do. I don't think a review of racing games where the reviewer has to use a wheel and pedals to get by is valid. Most people aren't going to fork out $150 for such a setup.

Long and short of it is a simple mention that such a device is available and supported should be sufficient.

Anonymous said...

I think it's one of those things were you just have to be straight with your audience.

Let's be frank; if you're not willing to shell out for a stick, SF4 might not be your kind of game, at least for online. I don't mean to sound like an ass or anything, but it's true. You're simply not playing the same game as a guy with a pad. You need to tell people that, straight outta the box.

This is one topic that I hear so very little about, and while I'm pleased it has come up, it's kinda surprising to me that it came up in this context. I would have thought that this would have come up in relation to the Wii before anything else, what with 5 different controllers, each one working only with certain games.

Gary A. Lucero said...

To go back to the wheel/pedal analogy: If I read about a new racer that was basically unplayable with a gamepad, I would know that it requires a sizable investment and might not be for me.

But if I read a review that says "yeah, you can use a wheel/pedals and the game supports them well", that tells me that it might be better/easier with it, but they aren't required.

Ed Borden said...

I'm actually happy to hear that a developer would still be comfortable enough to build games that require "extra" commitment from its players. I absolutely hate the fact that companies have to try to make their games as accessible as possible to as many people so that they sell better. It sucks.

I think it's cool that hardcore flight-sims need to have good joysticks, and hardcore driving games need to have wheels.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Ed, I agree with you that those options should be available (wheels, flightsticks, etc.) and as long as they are optional, that's fine with me.

As someone with limited space, time and money, I won't get them. I don't even have the Rock Band drum kit because it just takes up too much room!

Mitch Krpata said...

Pi, you're right about that. It's got to be mentioned, at least. I'm still not sure how much weight to give it. In the case of Wii games, at least most of the controllers are included. You get the remote and nunchuk with the system, and with games like Wii Fit or Mario Kart, you get the peripheral with the software. The classic controller is roughly equivalent to this, where I guess the only real difference is that it's much cheaper than the arcade sticks for Street Fighter. The principle is the same, though, which is probably why I don't have one of those yet, either.

Just following the train of thought where it's leading me, another difference is that the classic controller is the preferable way to play many games, whereas the fight stick is the preferable way to play one game. (You could charitably say it's the preferable way to play all fighting games, I suppose.) It's a matter of specialization. For fighting game fans, it's probably silly not not get the stick. For non-fans, it's probably silly to get the game. But you could apply that line of logic to any game, and then what would be the use of game reviews at all?

Let's not answer that.

Gary, I thought of the steering wheel issue as well. It makes playing a racing game so much different that you may as well be talking about two separate games. (Maybe I would have liked Gran Turismo a little better with one of those!)

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, I think the game is probably still relavent to people without the stick. Hard core fighter fans may buy the stick, but many people will pick up the game and play it and never even know a stick exists.

Shouldn't a review mention it and tell readers that a stick can give players a huge advantage but they are very expensive? If I don't have the space or money for a wheel and pedals, even if it gives me an advantage, then I at least need to know the game is good/awful without it.

For Gran Turismo 4, I never owned a wheel and loved the game. Same thing with a myriad of Xbox and 360racing games. I have tried wheels and didn't like them, and couldn't justify the cost/space.

You can't play the drums in Rock Band without the kit, but you can fight in SF4 without a stick. That's a big difference. If the game is unplayable with a gamepad, though, that seems like a huge issue.

Anonymous said...

Capcom gets the best of both worlds here. The reviews all seem to mention how smooth the controls are, which means they're probably playing on a stick, getting the Full Game Experience. Meanwhile, the game is put on shelves for retail price, not the Rock Band-level price it attains once you add the stick - so people don't feel bad about buying it. Now that's marketing genius!

I personally enjoy both Rock Band and Street Fighter enough to make the purchase of specialty peripherals worthwhile. If a review took issue with the game because they used the Xbox d-pad, I would be forced to agree - much as Eurogamer panned Rock Band for costing so much money before it became fun.

Anonymous said...

A SFIV bundle that included a 6-button controller would have been a smart move on Capcom's/MadCatz's part. Wii Fit, Guitar Hero and Rock Band all show the market will bear $100 controller-game bundles... Had they known how popular the game and the controllers were going to be, they might've done it.

Anyway, I think you raise a good point with this post. That being said: I DO play a lot of fighting games, and the challenge mode in SFIV is, in my opinion, ridiculous. It gets way too complex way too early, and it really doesn't help the player understand how to do the shit it's asking at all.

Nate P. said...

I'd be more willing to shell out for an arcade stick if I knew I could use it in an additional capacity as a controller for old emulated arcade games on PC and some XBLA titles that would benefit from more precise controls than the 360's woeful D-pad. Unfortunately, the one 360 arcade stick I saw on Amazon that looked affordable was said to be inadequate for controlling anything that wasn't a fighting game, so it seems like too extravagant an investment for me. (If anybody knows of a cheap, useful arcade stick that'll work for, say, Bionic Commando Rearmed as well as SFIV, I'd love to hear about it.)

Daniel Purvis said...

If you're reviewing it:

The game is fantastic, the best SF ever. Mention controller frustrations, recommend solutions or not. Leave as comment for reader to decide.

/end dilemma

Also, you can always play using the analog sticks, which in my experience is a great quick fix.

Michael Miller said...

Doesn't this apply to a lot of genres anyway - a favourite controller that gives makes the experience more enjoyable or simply easier? Arcade controller for the fighting games (Soulcalibur is another good example), a wheel for a driving sim, a mouse and WSAD for a FPS, mouse and keyboard for a complex RTS - that kind of thing.

For me, the most extreme case is the FPS. When I use a keyboard and mouse, I can just aim at things without thinking about it - there is very little disconnect between where I want to aim and where the aiming reticule ends up on screen. However, even after two years of using a standard controller, FPSs still feel like I am trying to play wearing particularly thick woollen mittens. Helpfully, the games make sure that I feel even more embarrassed by my ineptitude and give me auto-aiming or lock-on systems...

Mitch Krpata said...

I'm better with the keyboard and mouse combo too, but you have to admit that modern-day gamepads are far more conducive to playing FPSes than they used to be. Gamepads have evolved toward FPS and analog movement, and away from the unique requirements of head-to-head fighting. And the games make concessions to the controllers' shortcomings with things like auto-aim, which I think is probably a good thing. Street Fighter IV does that a little bit, too, by mapping the "all punches" and "all kicks" functions to the shoulder buttons, but the gap between your standard controller and a dedicated stick is probably still pretty big. But that's coming from someone who's played plenty of console FPSes in recent years, and barely any fighters. I always forget that it takes practice to learn how to play games.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, isn't practice in some respects the difference between how some of us played games on earlier platforms (for me it was Amiga and PC), where we had to look arcane keyboard commands and painstakingly remember details in strategy games and RPGs, and how we play console games now? At 48 I personally don't miss those days, though I do relish them, and I play almost zero games on PC nowadays.

Mitch Krpata said...

Geez, back in the day it took practice just to learn how to run games! Playing games in DOS was like trying to crack a combination lock sometimes.

Anonymous said...

The flight / racing sim analogy is problematic because the audience knows, or should, that these games are simply worthless without the proper equipment. That you can theoretically play SimBin's RACE 07 with a keyboard and mouse doesn't change the fact that the experience will be so damaged as to make it pointless.

Fighting games are different, not least because almost everyone that's interested in this genre has been able to enjoy these games using a gamepad. Thing is, anyone that's passionate about the genre has also been aware that the arcade-stick was the ideal control scheme for the genre.

So what would be an out of bounds criticism for Il-2 becomes a major issue for something like SFIV and you have to make a judgment call. The console fighting genre has always been ideal under arcade conditions, but still eminently playable with a gamepad (although SFII posed a similar problem, if I recall correctly).

Does SFIV fail to hold up its end of the deal? Or does it, as many games in this genre have, make the best of the gamepad without allowing the gamepad to define and constrain what is possible in this game?

Kylie said...

I see two different ways to argue for or against a joystick's "necessity". One is whether the first time player can enjoy the game without it. Can they learn how to do basic special moves (not the difficult challenge trial combos, but the basic moves) with a joypad without getting frustrated and giving up? If not does the stick make this easier, or is there just as much frustration there as well? I can't answer that question. I've instructed numerous people how to do a fireball or dragon punch on a joypad - most successfully, some not - but never had a joystick around to see if it made it easier for them.

The other which seems to be more the gist of this conversation is whether you need the joystick to enjoyably compete online (viz. feel like you at least have a shot at winning). I may be an anomaly but I've been using a joypad and the same button configuration (don't forget you can remap the buttons) since 1992, and I compete just fine. I actively reject the thought of buying a stick simply because it would feel like learning to drive all over again. Would it make me a better player in the end? Hard to say. Maybe. But my goal isn't to rival top players - if it were I'd consider it and I'm sure anyone with said goal would as well. What about repeated thumb-on-d-pad friction? Honestly, players of any game have put up with similar (carpal tunnel and backache from pc gaming, anyone?). I don't think that's really going to stop someone who genuinely likes the game. They'll work through it or pick up a stick. Will it stop some people from liking it? Perhaps, but that cross section might be fairly small.

I will say one thing with if you're thinking about accessibility w/r/t reviewing the game. Capcom seems to have lowered the overall damage on devastating combos. This means that you can be a better tactical player than your opponent even if you're a worse technical/finesse player (don't have the timing and combos down to EVO tournament levels) and still win. It may mean that you have to outwit them 5 times per match to their 3 (because when they outwit you they do more damage), but you still have a fighting chance, pardon the pun.

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