Street Fighter’s narrative thread has never been the reason to pick up the game. It is the seminal competitive fighting experience, where we draw the terms “fireball motion” and “dragon punch” from. Characters like Ryu, Chun-Li and Zangief have become iconic, but though their lore is deep, it isn’t always consistent or even coherent.
Many fighters seem out-of-place, shoehorned in as part of the cast with lore as an afterthought. The issue was never “does this character fit,” but “do we want to play as them?” Despite having some of my favorite characters in fighting games, many members of the roster have little to no reason for being a part of the Street Fighter lore, and the characters’ backstories reflects that.
It’s fitting that Street Fighter V’s Story Mode highlights that disparity, as it’s the greatest attempt the series has made at constructing a fully fledged narrative. In what would be considered the largest update since the game’s launch, Balrog and Ibuki make their SFV debut alongside the much-awaited Cinematic Story Mode.
Set between Street Fighter IV and III in the continuity, there’s some burning questions that only those insane enough to delve deep into Street Fighter lore (read: me) need answered in V. The fall of Bison and Shadaloo is the backdrop for the story, as the World Warriors (the apparently canonized term for the Good Guys in Street Fighter) come together to stop Bison one last time.
In some aspects, this plays out perfectly. It was difficult to imagine Street Fighter ever reaching the surprising storytelling depth of games like Mortal Kombat X, but the writers seem to have bought fully into the idea of Saturday morning cartoon, GI Joe-esque characterizations. Guile and Chun-Li act as solid heroes, and Ken plays the role of the “family man” getting pulled into conflict well. Bison fits right in as the domineering, unstoppable villain. Fang, a newcomer and one of Bison’s generals, is literally Starscream from Transformers. Even the scheme that Shadaloo hatches seems ripped directly from the pages of a discarded GI Joe script, as floating moons threaten to knock out the power of major international cities, in order to make their citizens panic, which makes Bison’s signature Psycho Power even more powerful.
There are shades of good writing, though most of it happens in Cammy’s side-story. As a former Doll (brainwashed female bodyguards forced to serve Bison), her quest to rescue her “sisters” and fighting against Vega is a better story thread than most of the plot. Series newcomer Rashid has nice beats as well, though contrasting that with some hit-or-miss comedy bits.
But this is where the inherent weirdness of Street Fighter starts to trip itself up, as it seems like Capcom is struggling to find rhyme or reason to have characters in the story. Necalli, for instance, serves as a recurring monster to fight, akin to Jason Voorhees, and having little reason to be around other than to provide another few fights for some characters. Nash’s redemption quest could have been interesting, but feels scattered and uninspired, ultimately resulting in the reborn fighter using magic green energy that has no tangible origin or explanation to fight Bison. Random cameos occur, but not in the fun, “hey look it’s this character” way; it’s more like they’re being trotted out for you to admire, with the promise of potentially being able to buy them in the future as DLC.
It all culminates in the fact that this story still has to take place within the confines of Street Fighter. At some point, these fighters will face each other on a 2D plane, and hit each other until someone is knocked out. Street Fighter operates solely within the bounds of punches and kicks, and the breadth of the story reflects that, as fighting segments range from exciting to completely unnecessary, including an extremely odd fistfight with an armed police officer named Peter.
Most of the Cinematic Story Mode ends up feeling superfluous, added to quench a ravenous desire for deeper story in fighting games that’s been growing for years now. It casts light on Street Fighter’s rougher edges, highlighting the absurdity of many characters and the lack of cohesion and interactivity between them. Most of these fighters existed as singular entities prior, with individual plot threads passing like ships in the night in Arcade Modes. Now that they have to interact in a manner greater than just combat, the pieces don’t always fit together.
But maybe this isn’t what Street Fighter V ever needed. This has never been a series desperately in need of deeper lore or plot, and though the absence of this mode was lamented in February, the game has grown without it. Players are signing bigger sponsorships, tournaments are growing to greater numbers and more organizations are sprouting from the ground each day. This year’s EVO will host over 5000 Street Fighter V participants, almost twice the amount of the next highest pool for any other game.
There are problems with the Cinematic Story Mode, questions of writing, pacing and general quality. These will likely remain unaddressed because, for the broad majority of Street Fighter players, these concerns don’t matter. For those who still spin up the disc every night, they don’t care about the struggle of Cammy to save her sisters, or the motivations of organizations like Shadaloo.
What matters is the three rounds of each match, and the hours spent practicing, improving, honing each skill and overcoming each obstacle. It’s a shame this story mode doesn’t live up to the quality of the game it houses, but this was never the focal point. It’s a sideshow, an aside to the greater piece. The real stories are the players and the competitions, the 5000 entrants at EVO and their hopes to take the title. Maybe one day Street Fighter will produce a more compelling narrative for its characters, but until then, my and many others’ journeys in this game will continue to be a personal one.
Eric Van Allen is a Texas-based writer. You can follow his e-sports and games rumblings @seamoosi on Twitter.