Thoughts on STREET FIGHTER 6, art direction, and Capcom’s continued failure to acknowledge its artistic legacy

At the end of this year’s Capcom Pro Tour Finals, after a long period of leaks, rumours and speculation, Capcom finally unveiled STREET FIGHTER 6. As a lifelong fan of Capcom and Street Fighter, not to mention as someone with more than their fair share of opinions on the artistic direction of the series over the last decade or two, you can bet I have some thoughts.

Needless to say, we still don’t know much about STREET FIGHTER 6. All we really have to go on is a 40-second teaser which doesn’t really tell us anything concrete, as well as whatever we can extrapolate and predict from the series’ trajectory across the last couple of instalments. That said, I still find it interesting to dissect and analyse what Capcom has chosen to present as the world’s introduction to the next chapter of STREET FIGHTER.

To sum up my overall impressions of the reveal, I guess you could say I’m equal parts disappointed, frustrated, and… unsurprised. If you’ll indulge me, allow me to go into more depth and explain why.

Street Fighter IV

My frustrations with the art and visual presentation of the STREET FIGHTER series is nothing new. When STREET FIGHTER IV was first announced with a similarly uninformative teaser trailer back in 2007, there was of course a sense of elation – Capcom had shut down their arcade game development division, and their last handful of arcade fighting games before that had been pretty dire compared to the golden age of the ’90s. There was simply a palpable doubt whether Capcom would ever make a new fighting game, so to see STREET FIGHTER return after almost a decade of radio silence was genuinely exciting!

But almost right off the bat – at least for my part – that excitement was tempered by questions about the game’s aesthetics. Although that first teaser ultimately did not end up being all that representative of how the final game looked, it did (deliberately or not) signal a shift in how the STREET FIGHTER brand would be presented and marketed going forward.

In simple terms – 2D was out, and 3D was in.

I’m not going to bemoan the transition from pixel art to 3D models for the in-game graphics – as 2D art was falling out of favour in mainstream game art over the course of the late ’90s and 2000s, I think this was inevitable for a marquee title like STREET FIGHTER. Not to mention, Capcom had proven themselves perfectly capable of producing artistically and technically compelling 3D art over the past decade. Would a new STREET FIGHTER in high-fidelity 2D look cool? Of course! I just can’t see it happening, so I see no point in wasting energy getting upset at not getting it. What I will get riled up over however, are some of the choices Capcom has made, that I wish they had – and realistically could have – avoided.

More soulless CG promoting the STREET FIGHTER IV series

What I’m lamenting isn’t specifically the move away from pixel art and 2D graphics in-game, but more so the move away from the kind of industry-leading, medium-defining aesthetics that had cemented Capcom as an absolute powerhouse in video game art in the late ’80s and ’90s.

STREET FIGHTER II became a global cultural phenomenon not just because of its technical achievements or simply being a “good game”; it also took the world by storm because it was astonishing to look at. The game featured a diverse roster of huge, detailed, and endlessly expressive on-screen characters, and as world-class artists like Akiman, Bengus, Kinu Nishimura, Shoei, Ikeno, Harumaru, Edayan and others kept evolving and fleshing out these characters over the years, it really cannot be overstated how much the appeal of Capcom games, and STREET FIGHTER especially, owes to the absolutely phenomenal work of these artists.

As multiple generations of illustrators, character designers, comic book artists, and other creators continue to credit the ’90s era Capcom design staff as a formative inspiration (myself included), it ought to be self-evident that not only is the art of STREET FIGHTER massively influential and beloved throughout the world, it is – or at least should be – fundamental to the series’ identity.

It is a massive shame then, that starting from STREET FIGHTER IV, the series has gradually but continuously been moving away from not just incorporating that world-class art in its in-game graphics, but also in marketing, promotion, and just general visual identity of the games.

Kinu Nishimura still produces wonderful new artwork for Capcom from time to time – it just never gets to inform how the games actually look

It’s not exclusively a STREET FIGHTER thing, of course. Sad as it is, it’s hard to deny that there is a kind of stigma around the use of 2D art in mainstream video games, and has been for a long time. Whether it’s real or not (though I don’t doubt the amount of market research gone into this), there’s definitely a perception that 2D art is less appealing or marketable; with few exceptions only certain kinds of niche games ever market or promote themselves using drawings or illustrations nowadays. The wider an audience you try to reach, the more generically ‘realistic’ CG you have to employ to not risk rubbing anyone the wrong way, it would seem.

STREET FIGHTER just happens to be a casualty of this wider trend, as even when more modern SF games do commission gorgeous new art from talented illustrators – including many of their former art staff – it’s never used in a prominent capacity, either only used for highly limited collector’s editions, tucked away in some in-game gallery, or otherwise kept out of sight – while retail covers, digital key art, in-game splash screens and portraits continue to focus on 3D models and CG that have little if any of the appeal of the classic Capcom art.

There is evidence to suggest that at some point, Capcom were experimenting with a more stylized 2D look for the in-game graphics of STREET FIGHTER IV. While we can only speculate on why this direction didn’t pan out, I have zero hesitation about resenting that it didn’t. To be perfectly blunt, this is exactly what I want from a new STREET FIGHTER game, and this opinion really has not changed since 2007.

It does bear mentioning that SFIV’s visuals are heavily influenced by Daigo Ikeno – main illustrator of STREET FIGHTER III: 3RD STRIKE, and one of few big name Capcom artists still on the company payroll at the time. Ikeno served as art director for the game, and credit where it’s due: especially when comparing to a lot of the concept art he produced, you really can see a lot of it in the final game. Still, there are two issues I can’t quite get over:

  1. Though character proportions, silhouettes, facial features etc in the 3D models are a pretty good match to Ikeno’s artwork, there is not a ton of effort going into rendering them in any kind of painterly vibe. It really does just look 3D, and doesn’t particularly evoke the feel of a classic Capcom illustration as a whole.
  2. I really hate to be a dick, but Ikeno’s style in the mid-2000s was just… pretty ugly? Ikeno’s work on SF EX, 3RD STRIKE, even going back to SUPER STREET FIGHTER II is absolutely gorgeous, but a lot of the work he did in the era SFIV was conceived just had an odd vibe to it. Though every bit as technically proficient as his earlier work, He just started drawing a lot of the characters in a way that was… well, for lack of a better word, uglier.

When STREET FIGHTER V finally came around in 2016, I had very mixed feelings on it, much as I’d had with its predecessor almost a decade prior. While a lot of technical aspects of its in-game art were a distinct step up from SFIV, and a few strides were made here and there in pushing artistic aspects (I’m a big fan of the game’s extensive use of tone mapping to give each of its stages distinct colour palettes, for instance), I still feel that on the whole, SFV represents a further step in the wrong direction. For its technical achievements, I think artistically, the game kind of doubles down on the aspects of SFIV’s art that I didn’t like, while failing to meaningfully replicate (let alone evolve) what I think it did well – which is to say, at least attempting at bringing Ikeno’s artwork to life in 3D.

“Two steps forward, one step back” is a phrase that I’ve felt can kind of sum up many aspects of STREET FIGHTER V, and its art really is no exception. There have been tons of legitimately awesome illustrations produced for the game, be it for cross-brand promotions, april fools jokes or the in-game gallery – many of them by former Capcom staff no less – but of course, this never really feels reflected in the game. SFV’s art director KIKI is a wonderful artist, and I’m a big fan of their work, even if it’s a notable departure from the classic Capcom art of the ’90s – not that it makes any difference, because the in-game graphics bears zero resemblance to it anyway.

I can’t claim to have any deep insights into the development of SFV, but just from looking at credits and seeing artists’ porfolios, it’s clear that the game had a significantly decentralised development with a lot of art – concepts as well as in-game assets – outsourced to many different studios and artists around the world. With that in mind it’s honestly somewhat of a triumph that SFV’s graphics ended up as consistent and high quality as they have, but I still feel the visuals in the game lack a strong coherent vision, even compared to STREET FIGHTER IV.

Street Fighter V

The one thing that does feel consistent though, is the continued move towards even more generic-looking rendered CG and 3D models as the primary means of showing off the game’s characters. The key art for STREET FIGHTER V (pictured above) is certainly not the ugliest key art for a STREET FIGHTER game, or the worst official depiction of Ryu (and I’m talking about art made or sanctioned by Capcom Japan – the myriad shitty artwork brought into the world by Capcom USA is a can of worms I don’t want to open)… but it feels incredibly divorced from the artistic sensibilities of that amazing team of Capcom artists in the ’90s, and the iconic style they established for the brand.

STREET FIGHTER IV started development with attempts at realising a traditional Capcom look in 3D, but compromised that idea quite a bit; ending up with fairly standard looking 3D that at least had some vestiges of Ikeno’s art style. STREET FIGHTER V, conversely, seems to have begun development targeting a much more realistic visual style – even more so than the very western-style digital illustrations used for much of more recent SF series key art – but thankfully had that greatly dialed back to the broadly and indistinctly “stylized” look we know today.

Of course, I can’t know what other attempts, experiments or ideas were explored during SFV’s development, but of what Capcom has chosen to share publicly, there is little to suggest that serious efforts were ever made towards trying to achieve that original vision of SFIV again. Regardless of what the journey there looked like, SFV’s visuals ultimately feel mostly iterative from the foundation laid by SFIV, and even if I’d probably say I prefer SFV’s visuals, they both feel pretty far removed from what I’d really want a modern STREET FIGHTER to look like.

So this finally brings us all the way back to STREET FIGHTER 6.

Looking at the teaser trailer through the lens of how Capcom has presented and marketed STREET FIGHTER over the last decade or two, my first impression is similar to that of SFV – continuing the trend of iteration over revolution; once again refining some aspects, but fundamentally failing to embrace the style that put Capcom and STREET FIGHTER on the map in the first place.

Obviously we don’t know what the game will look like in action, but with Capcom having put this into the world as our introduction to STREET FIGHTER 6, I feel critiquing it is fair game. I’d also expect that, even if gameplay will of course come across differently than a cinematic trailer, what we see here is in some way representative of what they are looking to achieve with the game itself. Details will change, lighting/animation/VFX/etc will recontextualise just about everything, and hell, even if this is a fully pre-rendered CG video 100% divorced from the actual in-game art (which I don’t really believe), I feel fairly safe in assuming Capcom didn’t put out this video to advertise a game that’ll ultimately look like a Kinu Nishimura painting coming to life.

So more than any specifics, it’s really the entire approach to the visual presentation that bums me out. The level of fidelity and realism to the simulation of skin, muscles, hair etc are all increased, but little of it feels like it’s in service of any kind of interesting or distinctive artistic vision. I’m not really interested in seeing a “real life” Ryu, even less so a Ryu who feels like he could be stepping right out of any number of AAA video games with similarly generic “realistic” visuals.

In other words, the SF6 teaser is kind of everything I was hoping it wouldn’t be, yet everything I feared it might. There are hundreds if not thousands of big and small examples I could bring up of modern STREET FIGHTER games making questionable artistic decisions (and/or concessions to modern mainstream sensibilities), pushing the brand’s visual identity further from that of its (and arguably Capcom’s) golden age in the ’90s. I still like STREET FIGHTER, and there are a lot of aspects, visual or otherwise, that I really enjoy about both SFIV and SFV – but I can’t pretend they don’t also represent an artistic evolution going in a less than promising direction. From what little we can see so far, SF6 unfortunately appears to be continuing this trend.

Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars

So if the SF6 teaser isn’t doing it for me, what am I looking for exactly?

To be honest, I think TATSUNOKO VS. CAPCOM is probably about the closest there currently is to my ideal vision of STREET FIGHTER characters represented in 3D. While clearly simplistic on a technical level compared to even SFIV, TVC’s character models don’t ever get lost in the weeds in terms of realistic material rendering or hyper-detailed 3D geometry – but can instead focus on the fundamentals: silhouette, proportion, colour, animation.

This isn’t to say I think SF6 would necessarily be better off with painted textures with very limited realtime lighting, but there really is a beauty to the simplicity of lower end 3D graphics. When you break it down, once you take fancy shaders and rendering out of the equation, what you’re left with is basically paintings – just applied to a 3D canvas instead of a 2D one. You could argue that I appreciate TATSUNOKO VS. CAPCOM if only because the limited technology didn’t allow the developers to make the specific kind of missteps I feel were made in the modern STREET FIGHTER games.

To be clear, I don’t think TVC’s delightful visuals came together through sheer happenstance – it’s a good looking game, and it was obviously crafted with love and effort! I just think there is something really intriguing about PS2/Wii era 3D art and how much of 2D/traditional art sensibilities tended to find its way into the final product, whether that’s born from technical limitation, artistic intention – or some combination of both.

What I think has really changed in 3D game art over the last twenty years is how technical advancements have created a much broader range of possible visual expressions, but at the same time has also led to a much more narrowly defined ‘standard’ look – as modern shaders and 3D engines generally default to a simulation of realistic material and light behaviour.

DNF Duel

You can of course look to any of Arc Systems Works’ recent output (GUILTY GEAR STRIVE, DRAGONBALL FIGHTERZ, DNF DUEL, etc) as evidence of how striking visuals you can create using modern 3D game engine technology, but don’t worry, I won’t be ranting about “ASW SHOULD MAKE THE NEXT DARKSTALKERS” or whatever – I think that’s an even more tired talking point than “3rd Strike was the best looking SF, the next one should look like that”, if such a thing is even possible – but I wanted to bring it up as an example of what is essentially leveraging modern tech to deliberately achieve the kind of look that TVC had – or more to the point, the look of 2D art.

People love going on about how great 3RD STRIKE and KOF XIII look, especially in the context of disappointing visuals in modern SF and KOF games, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen people loudly wishing that GUILTY GEAR STRIVE looked like GGXX… and that makes sense – it already does!

My point with that isn’t that I want SF6 to look like GG, DNF DUEL or TVC – but that I really wish similar efforts would be made in a new STREET FIGHTER game to achieve something truly distinctive, and truly faithful to Capcom’s legacy of best-in-class artwork. ASW’s modern games aren’t just noteworthy for their technical innovation, but also for being unwaveringly faithful to their source material – none of that technical innovation is happening at the cost the visual style that fans know and love, and that more than anything is what I would love to see from Capcom. Having any aspects of SF6’s visuals lean on realism – body proportions, skin shaders, lighting, animation or anything else really – feels like a compromise at best, and directly contradictory to that goal at worst.

Having said that, even in my writing thousands of words to basically dunk on the SF6 teaser trailer, I remain optimistic about the game in some regards. In the spirit of my previous comment on not wasting energy bemoaning new STREET FIGHTER games using 3D instead of pixel art, SF6 being what it is I can at least try to appreciate what I can, and keep an open mind about the ways in which it could still positively surprise.

Stylistic issues of the trailer aside, I’m actually really excited about Ryu’s design! With SFV’s loosely sketched plot bridging the gap to SFIII (and sort of happening concurrently with it), SF6 is poised to be the first new STREET FIGHTER game in 20+ years to actually move the SF timeline forward. I know better than to expect (or even want) a cohesive timeline or continuity, but SFV already took a few steps towards visually and mechanically evolving some characters who had remained largely the same since 1991 – and I don’t know what could signal the intention to continue this more clearly than to show a brand new design for Ryu as the first visual for the new game. Ever since Ryu’s 3RD STRIKE ending showed him training with Oro, fans have been eager to see what an older Ryu would look and play like – and while SFV teased us with an alternate costume or occasional story snippet, SF6 looks like it might actually deliver.

Beyond the conceptual implications and overall design, I think Ryu’s physicality and presence is something they got right – his waistline may have gained an inch or two, but despite the more realistic rendering style, Ryu’s general proportions and body shape feel completely in line with classic SF artwork – it’s the one aspect of the trailer that I think manages to connect SF6 to the Capcom of yore.

Ryu’s face looks great too – the chiseled look and focused eyes may not be a 1:1 match for any one Capcom artist’s depiction of him, but it’s easy to see Kinu Nishimura, Akiman and Ikeno in there. In my mind, SF6 Ryu might just be the closest anyone – let alone Capcom – has gotten to capturing a quintessential Ryu in 3D.

Luke I have less to say about – I don’t have particularly strong feelings toward the character either way, even if I seem to like him more than some people do. Although his weird spaghetti hair is easily the part of his SFV design I dislike the most, I don’t know that I find his new more generic hairstyle much of an improvement. I don’t know what to make of his new excessive scars or bulging arm veins either, really.

I am however glad to see SF6 marketing kicking things off by bringing in a returning newcomer from SFV – it’s always interesting to see what’s new about familiar faces in new instalments of a series, and by extension, it’s always a bummer when a character debuts in one game only to be absent in the next. SFV brought an impressive amount of newcomers into the fold over its lifespan, and I really hope to see a good number of them return in 6 – not to mention the return of characters like Abel and Crimson Viper who sat out the last game!

Of course I hope we get some brand new characters as well. Funnily enough I suppose Luke would have been the first; given what we know of SF6’s development timeline and the late decision to develop season 5 of SFV, it would seem entirely plausible to me that Luke was conceived as a SF6 character first. In any case, I’ll leave roster speculation and wish lists for another time – I just kind of appreciate seeing Luke over yet another announce teaser showing Ryu facing off against Ken or Chun-Li. (Or maybe I’m just relieved to not fret over how they portray more classic characters…)

Is there anything to be gleaned from the VFX-smothered shots of Luke and Ryu powering up? I dunno. Some people have speculated that this might represent a system of optional ‘SFIV’ and ‘SFV’ gameplay styles or something along those lines. It’s possible I suppose, though I would personally really hope that SF6 will carve its own path with new system mechanics rather than repurposing ones from previous games. Either way, I don’t think the trailer really gives us enough info to meaningfully extrapolate anything beyond pure speculation. I do look forward to finding out more, but I’m happy to leave the gameplay significance of these shots – if there is any – a mystery for now.

From a purely visual standpoint, I honestly feel similarly. None of the CG trailers for SFIV, SF X TEKKEN, MARVEL VS CAPCOM 3 or SFV truly represented what the actual games looked like, and even where you could connect the dots between the look of a trailer and the look of the game, the former certainly wouldn’t be grounds for judging the latter.

I do have my misgivings about SF6’s visual style, and based on what we’ve seen I don’t expect them to change drastically once we see the game in action – but I am eager to find out for sure. Even though I’m not really clamoring for a new STREET FIGHTER at this moment in time, and would’ve loved for Capcom to hold off for another year or two – SF6 is now officially on the way… and you know, I’d rather it be good than not. I’d rather it excite me than not. So despite my misgivings I’m looking forward with some degree of excitement – as well as trepidation – to learning more about STREET FIGHTER 6.

I expect there are things we haven’t seen yet that are going to really excite me, as well as things that will disappoint me. In other words, not too dissimilar from both STREET FIGHTER IV and STREET FIGHTER V. I also fully expect that even in the face of frustrations over art direction and creative choices, there’s going to be a game in there that I’ll be excited enough for to at the very least give it a shot.

But as far as the dream of a STREET FIGHTER game that looks like a Kinu Nishimura painting brought to life? Well, I guess there’s always STREET FIGHTER VII. ✌

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