I enter the ring of headlights with the authentic swagger of a worldwide legend. As Ryu, I've been starring in the Street Fighter franchise for twenty years now. My arms, as massive as gnarled tree trunks, burst out of the ripped shoulders of my karategi. My feet are bare and bigger than my head.
My opponent, however, is new to the game. Named Rufus, he is an obscenely fat American topped with a bright yellow braid of hair. His belly roils like water in a bag, and his breasts wiggle violently as he kung-fus himself across the arena.
My greatest weapon is still my low-kick. As Rufus approaches I crouch and thrust with one of my massive feet. My movements are easy and unconscious thanks to perfect synchronicity between the act of pressing a button and the response in the game. Rufus lands in a jiggling heap and I'm rewarded with a gain in my Combo Meter, which is a gauge that allows me to launch supreme beat-downs as the meter fills up.
With a heave of his bulk, Rufus leaps to his feet and shouts "Messiah kick!" Fortunately, Street Fighter IV has one of the cleanest methods of blocking attacks-a swerve of the joystick in the opposite direction. Even though each character is modeled in three dimensions, all the action takes place in two-dimensions, limiting movements to left and right, up and down.
Thanks to my quick defense, Rufus's foot connects with nothing more than a barrier of blue light. As soon as he has both feet on the ground again, I pull back and prepare a punch for his head. An inky blackness swarms around my fist, and smears across the screen as I release the buttons and swipe through the air. Rufus grunts and the girls on the Hummer cheer.
THE GOOD: In the arcade, if players were defeated too quickly, Street Fighter wasn't worth the quarter it cost to play. But on home consoles, where players can retry battles without paying extra, the franchise has evolved its difficulty to extraordinary levels. Opponents are immediately wily, and each character's journey through the roster of opponents is a heroic undertaking worth the game's 240-quarter price tag.
THE BAD: After Virtua Fighter 5 and Soulcalibur IV fine-tuned the way that differences in size can influence a battle, it feels a bit monotonous to go back to an arena where everyone is in the same weight class. And one of Street Figher's biggest flaws still persists: Powerful moves can still be overused, and the game doesn't penalize the rate at which the Combo Meter fills as each move is repeated.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Street Fighter IV is a clean and classy cartoon brawler that sports an epic degree of difficulty.