Ryu has always been Street Fighter’s poster boy, but his starring role is more than just a legacy position. Ryu is Street Fighter. At a fundamental level, the series is built around his combat capabilities. It’s why anyone who’s starting on the journey to play and understand Street Fighter is encouraged to try Ryu first. He’s a basic character, and all the concepts you need to grasp before you can grow—patience, pulling off the joystick motions that launch the game’s special moves, controlling your opponent’s movement, and punishing them for falling into your traps—are the keys to making his arsenal work. If you can understand how to succeed as Ryu, chances are you can understand the properties Street Fighter is built upon.
But Street Fighter V taps into another dimension of Ryu’s centrality, one that cements his status as the total embodiment of what it is to play Street Fighter. Ryu is and always has been the archetypal martial artist: stoic, righteous, and constantly seeking to improve himself through combat. Those looking to come into Street Fighter V as relative novices and stick with the game until they find some measure of success will be following the same credo. As of right now, there’s little to do in the game besides venture onto the internet and take on as many other players as you can. That’s an intimidating prospect, but if like Ryu, you’re willing to put in the work and accept the fact that failure, painful as it can be, is what leads to growth, than Street Fighter V’s extraordinary rewards are yours for the taking.
Plenty of mud has been slung Capcom’s way for its decision to release Street Fighter V in an incomplete state. Unless you’re looking to play multiplayer matches, whether online or with real live friends, there’s nothing for you here. The “Story Mode” that’s included in this initial release is insultingly shallow. Each character is given between two and four fights against near-comatose computer-controlled opponents, broken up with some banal storylines. That’s it. (Capcom promises a more comprehensive “cinematic story mode” is coming as a free update, but not until June.) There’s also Survival Mode, where you’ll take on a set number of increasingly difficult fights armed only with a single health bar and power ups you can buy in between rounds. It’s currently the only way to earn alternate colors for your characters. For completing the various Survival and Story challenges, you’ll earn Fight Money, an in-game currency that can be used to buy new costumes and characters—once Capcom gets around to giving players access to the shop where such things will be available.
The dismissal of any meaningful single-player modes is disappointing and, ultimately, a wrongheaded decision. They are an invaluable training ground for players who don’t care about cutthroat competition or are looking to familiarize themselves with the game’s basics, and their absence is another blow to the series’ already-low accessibility. Survival is the ostensible stand-in for the more traditional modes SF5 lacks, but its difficulty is so poorly paced and its AI opponents so inhuman that it’s nowhere near an equally effective replacement.
The lack of those modes is not necessarily a total contradiction to Capcom’s crowing about how Street Fighter V is an attempt to reform the series into a more welcoming shape, though. It’s a matter of expectations and intentions, and it’s clear now that Capcom’s intent was to create a sleek, modern Street Fighter that values competition and the series’ underlying chess-match-like nature above all else. The precision and skill it takes to pull off special moves and damaging combination attacks has been reduced. Instead, the focus is more on your ability to recognize the role of each move in your character’s arsenal and when you should use them. This has always been the basic game at Street Fighter’s core, but when you strip away the arcana that is usually piled on top, as SF5 has done, that brainier, more measured foundation is able to shine through even brighter. Suddenly, success isn’t as reliant upon dexterity and muscle memory as it once was.
While the obstacles in your path to becoming a competent combatant might be fewer, the journey to get there is still daunting. You can practice your combos in Training Mode for hours and unlock as many colors in Survival as you want, but nothing can prepare you for the walloping that awaits inexperienced fighters the first time they wade into the shark-infested waters of online competition. Those first several hours are a psyche-crushing test of will. You will lose, and you will lose a lot. How you react to that adversity is what will determine whether you get anything out of Street Fighter V. It’s easy to throw your hands up and wash yourself of the endeavor entirely, designating the game as something to only be played when likeminded and like-skilled friends are around for some casual brawling. Given SF5’s more accessible approach and diverse cast of characters, each unique in their fighting styles and winning strategies, it’s perfect for that. But what would Ryu do?
The only way to get better is to keep trying. Each loss is an opportunity to learn something new. Maybe you’re playing as R. Mika, the embarrassingly scantily clad pro wrestler, and you keep trying to hit opponents with her sliding kick, only for them to block that powerful yet slow strike and nail you with a counterattack. The lesson there is simple: That is not a move you can throw out willy nilly, and if you do, you’re going to pay for it. So stop it. Maybe you just encountered a Zangief player who’s willing to take the occasional hit because it means he’s getting close enough to piledrive you into the dirt. For you, those bursts of successful offense might be enticing, but you’re better off resisting the temptation and backing out of harm’s way before the Russian grappler puts a hurting on you. With enough careful consideration of each match and internalization of what worked and what failed, you build up the knowledge it takes to win. When that starts to happen consistently, it feels like a tremendous accomplishment. All that failure and disappointment is a necessary step on the road toward success, and the destination is worth every fit of rage along the way.
However, as Ryu would attest, a world warrior’s training never ends. There are always techniques to master and hurdles to overcome, but the only way you’ll gain what it takes to make it is if you keep fighting and learning. There are plenty of places online where players of all skill levels share tips and answer questions, but unless you have a dedicated training partner—a Ken to your Ryu—you’re alone in this quest. In truth, Street Fighter V is a lonely and impersonal game. You can’t chat with your opponents, nor can you request a rematch once the initial fight is done. All you can do is take a deep breath and charge back into the endless horde of faceless opponents. We’re all Ryu, standing alone under a waterfall, silently uppercutting at the pounding deluge in search of enlightenment. The answer, as always, lies in the heart of battle.
[As of publication, Capcom is still working out significant kinks in Street Fighter V’s online functionality. I’ve experienced huge improvement in my ability to find and complete matches to the point of total reliability yesterday, but players are still reporting all kinds of problems—from the inability to find opponents in a timely fashion, to difficulty finding and connecting to fights set up by a friend, to being disconnected from the game’s servers and losing unsaved progress in both single and multiplayer modes.]