It’s been clear to me over the last week or so that my hands are just too old for fighting games. Contorting my fingers into a claw to pull off a special move or combo has been a painful reminder of my age — and yet, I can’t stop playing Street Fighter 6.
Part of that has to do with the classic gameplay, with so much tactical variety depending on which fighter you master. Part of it has to do with how slick this game is, with stylish effects punctuating each big move, and a cast of characters that are eclectic, lively, and full of personality. But mostly, it’s because of a new single-player mode that turns Street Fighter into Yakuza. It’s extremely weird, but also the perfect introduction to this often daunting world of fireballs and hurricane kicks.
At its very core, Street Fighter 6 doesn’t change much about the minute-to-minute action of a Street Fighter game. It’s still a 2D fighter with a big cast of characters (18 at launch), including mainstays like (hot) Ryu, Dhalsim, and Chun-Li, who are joined by some great newcomers like the colorful hacker Kimberly, the drunken Jamie, and the towering Marisa (who feels like a direct response to the, uh, response to Lady Dimitrescu). As always, each has their own pros and cons; Kimberly is fast but weak, while Marisa is strong and has range, but moves slowly. There are special moves to master, power gauges to understand, and the realization that, yes, you eventually have to master blocking if you want to get anywhere.
In that way, Street Fighter 6 feels like a refined version of its predecessors, but one that is much more approachable thanks to a new “modern” control scheme. Essentially, it streamlines the number of inputs required to, say, toss a fireball as Ryu. It’s probably the closest a fighting game could have to an easy mode, and it works really well. The nice thing is it doesn’t supplant the classic control scheme at all; you can play with a traditional set-up, and using the more fine-grain controls means you have greater control over your character’s movements. Modern, though, is both a button masher’s dream and a gateway to what’s so fun about Street Fighter.
All of that is to say, the fundamentals of Street Fighter 6 are sound. But the most interesting thing about this game isn’t how it plays — it’s how it’s structured. Street Fighter 6 is divided into three modes. Fighting Ground is basically a traditional Street Fighter game. You can play matches with friends, go through ranked online battles, and experience an arcade mode as each of the characters, learning more about them through comic book-style vignettes. This one mode is what you’d expect from a regular fighting game. If this were all Street Fighter 6 was, that wouldn’t be terrible.
On top of that is the Battle Hub, which I haven’t been able to test much ahead of launch but appears to be a robust online experience. It looks like a futuristic arcade, filled with back-to-back cabinets, and you can start a match when you see another player sitting down waiting. There are planned tournaments and other special events that could turn this into a lively place, an important thing, given the sad state of modern arcades. But we’ll have to wait and see how that plays out once a wider audience jumps into the game.
What really hooked me, though, is the new World Tour mode. It’s a full-fledged single-player story campaign where you build your own fighter and go on a quest to discover what strength is, or some such nonsense. You start out in Metro City — the New York-adjacent setting of Capcom’s Final Fight series — under the tutelage of the lovable meathead Luke. The idea is that you start out as a fledgling, wannabe street fighter and work your way up the ranks.
The mode really does feel a lot like the Yakuza series. Metro City is a large location, but not quite an open world, and you run around taking on missions from various people and getting into lots of fistfights. The Street Fighter universe is a bit like Pokémon, where every single person seems obsessed with the idea of battling. In fact, you can walk up to anyone — from a breakdancer to a cop to the guy that sells bagels and coffee on the street — and challenge them to a fight. There are also thugs running around who, for some reason, wear boxes and TVs on their heads, and will immediately attack you.
It’s basically an RPG, but, you know, with bare knuckle brawling. Your character will gain skills and experience as you battle, and you can buy new gear along the way. The thing that surprised me the most — and it’s the reason I keep bringing up the word Yakuza — is the way World Tour straddles the line between sincerity and goofiness. On the one hand, it’s incredibly silly; an early mission has you flying to Italy to get a single clasp so that you can make a counterfeit bag, and at various points you‘ll fight angry accountants and smartfridges. On your quest to learn from the masters and compete in tournaments, you can also take on side jobs making pizza and, obviously, helping to destroy scrap vehicles. But there’s also a real heart to the story, which — for all of its silliness — is really about finding yourself and experiencing different ways of life.
As you progress through the story, you’ll open up new locations where you can meet up with the main cast of Street Fighter 6, most of whom will take you under their wing as a student. These scenes are often hilarious. They can show a whole new side of characters that have been around forever, so you can see Blanka as a tourist attraction or help teach Ryu how to text. (He’s one of those types who signs all of his messages.)
It’s also a sneaky way of slowly teaching you each of the different fighters. Once you become a student, your avatar can utilize that fighter’s style, and you’ll steadily unlock more of their special moves as you progress. This lets you play around and find out what fighting style works best for you, and you can also mix-and-match moves from different teachers to customize your own character. (You’ll be able to take your avatar into online matches in the Battle Hub.)
Similarly, many of the missions in the game center around learning a specific technique, like blocking, parrying, or figuring out how to actually use your drive gauge. I’ve played Street Fighter for decades, but I still found myself learning some intricacies of combat that I either didn’t know, or had previously ignored for one reason or another. But interspersing these lessons as brief missions in a story mode made me much more likely to pay attention to them. It’s certainly a lot more fun than sparring against a bot in a training mode.
There are two problems that have long plagued fighting games: how to tell a story and how to onboard new players. It’s not a style of gameplay that lends itself naturally to narrative, and it’s tough to be approachable without sacrificing the depth that existing fans are looking for. Street Fighter 6 manages to solve both of these with ease. Its single-player mode is one part tutorial, one part wacky story that’s absolutely bursting with personality. Seriously, this is a game that made me care about Guile, which I did not think possible. The best part is that the mode is entirely additive — if you still want a traditional Street Fighter experience it’s right there in Fighting Ground. All of the new stuff is built on the solid foundation of a classic fighter.
But World Tour adds something completely new. It both gives long-time fans a new way to experience these characters and newcomers an introduction to the franchise, and really the genre as a whole. But there’s still one thing even Street Fighter 6 can’t solve — this cramping in my hands.
Street Fighter 6 launches on June 2nd on the PC, PS4, PS5, and Xbox.