So I was watching the Evo 2k9 finals for Street Fighter IV today, and I started thinking about what I like and dislike in fighters, and I came to what in retrospect was a fairly obvious conclusion about what I dislike about SFIV. Simply put, there’s too much turtling. All of the top level playing seems more concerned with defense than offense, you can tell that they have practiced teching, combo recovery and baiting more than actual approaches. In fact, it seems approaching is the least important element at high level play. In the matches I saw, it seemed that most of the combos and other major attacks either started from successful baiting or unsuccessful approaches. Spacing and pokes were much more effective, with the only real offensive gambits being Daigo occasionally being able to jump in on Justin’s standing fierce, but even that failed more often than not.
Compare that to high level Street Figher III play. A character like Makoto, who is primarily based on rushing and approaches, is top tier, while the most defensively oriented characters sit underused. Two reasons for this I think are the parrying system and the faster pace. Firstly, parrying reduces the risk on offensive players and thereby alleviates the need to play defensively. While SF4 requires you to respace yourself and stop approaching to block against assault, SF3 players can parry while on the offensive and continue, if not strengthen, their approach. Second, it seems like the slower pace of SF4 allows players to be more reactive. You can more easily foresee opponents attacks coming and take countermeasures. In SF3, moves come out faster and characters approach quicker, leaving you no chance to adapt your defensive stance. It is only natural for turtling to be more prevalent in a game where it is easier. Simply put, SFIII is active, whereas SFIV is reactive.
I don’t disagree with turtling in all forms, though, I just don’t think it should be the easiest or most common way to fight. Turtling is indeed feasible in SFIII, but it takes much more effort to play than the combo-happy aggressive Akuma or Yun. Look at Q, for example. For him to compete, he has to know the game at an expert level, knowing exactly when and where to counter attack, not to mention being able to be fast enough to block all the advances on him. But when the player is skilled enough to successfully turtle with Q, the results are often excellent, thanks in no small part to how uncommon the strategy is within the metagame. This is a sort of “active defense”.
I feel that a good competitive game shouldn’t be scared to include a defense-oriented character, but I think that the only feasible way that the character should be played is actively. In fighters, this means that the player on the defensive shouldn’t be able to just play keep away with projectiles or be able to simply sit and block, he should be constantly assessing what moves his opponent is likely to do and preparing and adjusting for them. In RTSes, a player shouldn’t be able to succeed simply by sitting in his corner of the map and building cannon after cannon – they should be actively scouting to see how to deal with enemy threats. Players should never be punished for not rushing, but should never be rewarded for not doing so out of laziness. Defensive strategies should always require as much thought and effort as offensive ones, and should have similar levels of success.
Two of the many successful games that got this right were Pokemon and Melee, two absolute masterpieces of competitive play, in my opinion. Defensive teams on Pokemon are not as common as offensive ones, possibly because they simply aren’t as “cool”, but are often just as effective. A defensive team in Pokemon is difficult; while a Pokemon can have up two four types while attacking, a defending Pokemon can be at the most two, three in some ways if you count levitate. Not only this, but defending moves usually require foresight and deep strategizing while the right offensive move is usually obvious. There are exceptions to this rule, obviously – one generation ago, Blissey was almost on every team, a defensive-oriented Pokemon that a chimp could usually play just as well as a pro and Wobbuffet has always been the most simple and broken Pokemon due to its unbeatable defensive and retaliatory powers – but the general idea of an active defense is there. Melee has this too, with so many ways of approaching available to each character, each of them feasible at the same time, a player who wishes to play defensively must always be assessing and reassessing which approach to expect. Examples of a more constant, turtling type of defense – seen in Jigglypuff’s Wall of Pain – are sometimes effective, but unless executed with a lot of skill, can be torn up by a better player. Defensive measures are not the equalizer here.
So, looking back at SF4, I find that I can apply my same love for an “active defense” with Daigo’s win. Both of them played very defensively and rarely took risks – the few games where Justin rushed and played aggressively, he paid dearly – but Daigo took a more active defense. You can see how he completely changed his style after Justin switched to Boxer, at first taking the traditional defensive equalizer of spamming fireballs (actually, he kept this up pretty much the whole time, much to my dismay) and then beginning to change his style to counter the unfamiliar character. You could see his growth over the matches, as he learns to actively defend himself against what he began seeing. Justin, on the other hand, seemed to be more than content to defend himself the same way against Daigo in the first match and the last, which is why he was punished so badly by Daigo’s baits and mixups. He can hardly be blamed, though, because in an environment where the defensive player is the norm and the offensive player is the game-breaker, taking an active defense where the defensive measures are constantly changing is secondary to having good spacing, tech skill and reactions in every situation.