A Farewell to Focus
With The Evolution Championship Series (EVO for short) dropping Street Fighter IV from its main event lineup, the game’s time as the world’s premier fighting game is over. Unlike most fighting games, it had a proper send-off; last year’s Capcom Cup tournament gave the game a six-figure prize pool and featured some of highest level of play the game had yet seen.
Still, there’s a reason EVO dropped it; the upcoming Street Fighter V, for all its differences, seems similar enough to its predecessor that having both games on the main stage would be overkill. But in looking towards Street Fighter V, many are less excited about what the game introduces than what it lacks: the Focus Attack.
It might be passé at this point, but we shouldn't forget what role The Focus Attack played in establishing Street Fighter IV’s legacy as the harbinger of the fighting game renaissance. The Focus Attack was what it needed to be at every stage of Street Fighter IV’s competitive life cycle; it gave new players a new toy to mess with while giving veterans one of the most intricate and adaptable techniques fighting games have ever seen.
At first glance, the Focus Attack was a more accessible version of Street Fighter III’s parry technique. In III, you could parry and deflect any attack by pressing forward at the right time, as long as you weren’t already getting hit by another. In 1997, it gave III something to separate it from all the Street Fighter Alphas, Street Fighter EXes, and crossover games saturating the genre. But for the average player, the risk-reward of the parry (if you failed to parry, you’d take a Hurricane Kick to the face) felt daunting, especially at a time when fighting game dilettantes could flee to flashier games like Marvel vs. Capcom or Tekken.
Street Fighter IV’s Focus Attack let you nullify attacks in much the same way, but gave the average player the wiggle room they needed to actually use it in regular play. By mapping to a simultaneous press of the medium punch and kick buttons instead of a forward movement, The Focus Attack felt far less risky to newcomers. You could also hold the buttons down to charge the attack, giving it an offensive edge as well as making timing much less of a factor. It balanced this by preventing multiple Focus Attacks in a row, and allowing certain special moves to “break through” them.
Basically, almost anyone could use Focus Attacks to anticipate an attack and, with proper timing, mount a counteroffensive. It allowed players who were just getting into fighting games to explore new options without feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of exact timing.
It also acted as a way to give players who hadn’t played Street Fighter since Street Fighter II something new to latch onto. Street Fighter IV seemed like a return to basics; its initial arcade cast was comprised of thirteen characters from II and six new characters. It didn’t include any of the stranger characters from the III or Alpha series until it hit home consoles. The two most prominent things it borrowed from III were the ability to cancel an opponent’s throw with your own (a move called a “technical”) and the segmented Super meter, which allowed for powered-up EX versions of special moves like the Hadouken or Guile’s Sonic Boom.
There were many other minor changes under the hood, but for the casual player, revisiting the Street Fighter II days while having a new trick to play with was a large part of Street Fighter IV’s appeal. It was easy to forget the Focus Attack even existed and play a match as you would have in the arcades, then use it whenever it came to mind. The Focus Attack also had a flourish parries didn’t: the windup and fury of a Focus Attack had some weight behind it, and the paintbrush visual effect that emanated from your character whenever you unleashed one gave it extra oomph. Landing a Focus Attack made you feel powerful, which made you want to use it more often.
This larger appeal was exactly what Street Fighter IV needed if it was going to bring fighting games back to a mainstream audience. Fighting games as a genre never died (you could still watch high-level replays of Dead or Alive 4 and Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus if you sought them out), but they never reached the highs they deserved until Street Fighter IV rekindled interest in the genre. To be fair, a lot of that rekindling had to do with the game being the first numbered Street Fighter game in almost ten years. But if IV had added layers to the already-intricate III, I’m not sure it would have been as popular. It needed to have a simpler appeal if it was going to make a new generation of fighters aspire to be the best.
But while the Focus Attack had that appeal at first, the game’s huge competitive scene didn’t have to push it far to realize it could do much more than act as more accessible parry. For starters, you could cancel the Focus Attack mid-animation by dashing forward or back. Even better, you could use half your super meter to cancel any other move into a Focus Attack, whether it landed or was blocked.
These two facets opened up a wealth of uses: combos became longer by Focus-canceling moves and dashing after they landed (a technique known as the Focus Attack Dash-Cancel, or FADC). This gave some characters more potency than they otherwise would have, and made for some entertaining matches over the years. High level players also ended up using Focus Attacks like they would parries, “eating” an attack then using a dash to get close to their opponent. This made for the kind of a riveting, mind-bending plays that left eyes wide and mouths agape during the game’s eight-year life cycle, but it also made for combos that many players wouldn't bother learning. This, on top of Street Fighter IV’s meticulous combo timings, made the game more intricate than many thought it would end up becoming.
FADCs allowed players to take the cover up otherwise risky decisions. They could, for example, throw out a Shoryuken punch as soon as they recovered from a knockdown then us an FADC back out of the move if their opponent blocked it. This was often a good way to alleviate an opponent's pressure, which went toward earning Street Fighter IV its reputation as a much slower one than its predecessors (though this wasn't the only reason). At the game's highest level, the option involving fewer inputs was usually the better one*.
Before long, The Focus Attack went from being a way for the casual crowd to implement something new into their game plan to one of the most technical aspects of the game. And in 2014, Ultra Street Fighter IV added an even more intricate version of the Focus Attack, the Red Focus. It felt like exactly the kind of thing the competitive scene needed to keep the scene vibrant, but was indicative of the direction the game had gone. Street Fighter IV had become the technical beast it had initially feared becoming.
That’s why it’s so significant that Street Fighter V has jettisoned the Focus Attack. Without it, there’s no more backing out of unsafe moves, or combos that go on for longer than they otherwise would have. In its stead we have the V-System, which gives every character in the game their own unique sub-ability, ranging from Ryu’s ability to (ironically enough) parry attacks, to Karin’s ability to augment all of her moves for a limited time, to Rainbow Mika’s ability to call in Marvel Vs. Capcom-style assist character. Without the Focus Attack, Street Fighter V looks to play at a faster pace than its predecessor, more closely resembling the tense back-and-forths of earlier titles. But for all its intricacy, I’m going to miss everything the Focus Attack -- and Street Fighter IV -- did for fighting games.
*This of course ignores the high-pressure guessing games characters like Crimson Viper, El Fuerte, and Ibuki created, but that’s another story altogether.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who’s slowly getting better at doing standing 720 motions, and hopes to one day land a Final Atomic Buster in a real online match. He’s written for ZAM, Paste, Playboy, and many others. You can follow him on Twitter.