Street Fighter fans can rest easy. Capcom has found the perfect way of ensuring the premiere fighting series’ legacy for the next decade: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate features a cavalcade of characters from the far reaches of gaming history. The cast is sprawling, its inclusions diverse and zany. Among them are Street Fighter de facto protagonist Ryu, joined for the first time by best friend and rival Ken Masters. On the surface, this seems like no-brainer for Capcom. Nintendo is making an all-star fighting game, as Nintendo does, and nobody knows fighting games like the developer that helped codify the genre’s vocabulary. But it’s telling that Capcom continues to add Street Fighter icons to Smash. Loaning out one playable character to another company’s mash up is one thing, adding a second is entirely another.
This is indicative of the curious state Street Fighter finds itself in right now. After lackluster sales of its most current numbered sequel — which has struggled to hit 2.2 million copies sold over two and a half years compared to 2.5 million sales in the first month for Street Fighter IV — and the tragic performance of its sibling franchise Marvel Vs. Capcom Infinite, you wouldn’t be wrong to think that Shoryukens are on the precipice of another Dark Age that could put the series in stasis like it was for most of the ‘00s.
On the flip side, re-releases and updates of classics like Ultra Street Fighter II for the Nintendo Switch in 2017 and this year’s multiplatform Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection have sold beyond publisher expectations, indicating that brand recognition alone is strong. Street Fighter seems as if it will always be at war with its own legacy. The series struggles with satisfying both casual fans and hardcore tournament players. How Capcom addresses those audiences and their desires could make or break it for good.
Based on the sales performance of Capcom’s archival titles, a casual observer may wonder why new Street Fighter games are made at all. Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers, a barely tweaked readjustment of a decades-old game, sold 450,000 copies within just three months of its release date in 2017 according to the Wall Street Journal. While Capcom hasn’t reported exact results for 2018’s Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, it did say that it “outperform[ed] expectations.” Compared to Street Fighter V, which received a boost from the recent Arcade Edition update, it appears that cashing in on repackaged goods at $40 apiece produces a higher yield than developing a whole new $60 game.
Street Fighter V’s initial release did it no favors. Often called thin at best and unreasonably incomplete at worst, its lack of key modes and small (though unique) roster made it easy for longtime competitors to cry foul and casual fans to wonder where their $60 was going. Many believe that the publisher released the game in such a state specifically to cater to the growing esports scene — its debut marketing backs up those claims — rushing it out the door for the impending Capcom Cup.
This left a mostly hardcore tournament crowd to keep up with the game’s various updates, giving Capcom time and opportunity to guinea pig them for Street Fighter V’s other mandate as a self-sustaining cash factory. By implementing service features such as streams of purchasable new characters and cosmetic goodies, the full price of Street Fighter V’s fallow launch package felt mercenary. The publisher has done admirable work pleasing hardcore players by routinely adjusting character balance and fixing under-the-hood flaws — perhaps the most important being obnoxious input lag — over several patches and the Arcade Edition overhaul. More than two years after its release, Street Fighter V has finally found its feet, but for some, it seems too little, too late.
Since the competitive scene began, numbered Street Fighters have always been the main attractions. However, the 2018 Evolution Fighting Series, the world’s largest fighting game community tournament, saw more entrants for Arc System Works’ 2018 release Dragon Ball FighterZ than Street Fighter V. Though the difference may seem minimal, players for numbered Street Fighter games at EVO typically overshadow other games on the roster by a wide margin. This has sparked speculation that the king is dead, and that the FGC no longer needs the franchise as it once had. As of this writing, announcements for the 2019 EVO Japan game lineup have begun their rollout, there is no mention of Street Fighter V. Patch fixes and roster updates notwithstanding, a dwindling crop of tournament players signals a thinning overall player base. Even the whales are finding bluer waters.
Like Ryu, though, Street Fighter learns and adjusts from its changing audience, which brings us back to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. As a franchise, Smash found its competitive scene slowly and organically, having boomed with 2001’s Super Smash Bros. Melee, a game that endures even now. Its cast of lovable characters endears it to both young players slamming buttons with friends and hardcore brand loyalists turned tournament gods. Smash became something of a kingmaker as the success of series like Nintendo’s own Fire Emblem can be traced to characters included in Smash Bros. games. It also sells. A lot. Capcom, and other third parties that collaborate with Nintendo, know that the more young eyes you can get on your characters the better. The only other non-Nintendo franchise to have two playable characters for Smash Ultimate is Konami’s Castlevania, which has been resurgent despite not releasing a new game since 2014 . Capcom has noticed.
Deep within the laboratories of Capcom, the battle for Street Fighter’s soul rages on. Street Fighter V, to its credit, took great strides to demystify the series’ more arcane mechanics in favor of the casual set while retaining complexity under the hood for the hardcore. Certainly, this philosophy can — and should — continue. The balance is difficult to strike, as Capcom certainly knows by now, but learning from the mistakes of Street Fighter V will be its most important challenge going forward.
Will Ryu and Ken’s fate be that of the whole Street Fighter franchise? Perhaps not, but it’s hard to fault Capcom for thinking laterally about injecting some interest into what was up to very recently the leading fighting game franchise. What will solve their casual versus hardcore problems coupled with their need to make money? Maybe the answer will be Street Fighter VI.