Street Fighter V Season Five: Ryu is Back
I’ve played Ryu in Street Fighter since an old friend of mine told me that I had no fighting game fundamentals, six or seven years ago. My burgeoning Smash player ego didn’t like that one bit, and so I set out to learn Ultra Street Fighter IV, the most popular 2D fighting game that was out at the time. There seemed no better place to learn about spacing, timing, and adaptation. And the skills I learned by playing as the Street Fighter series mascot have transferred over to not just all fighting games, but most games in general. Ryu taught me how to learn, how to adapt, how to space, and how to continually improve.
To most, he’s the face of Street Fighter. As a balanced, well-rounded character with the options that define the fundamentals of 2D fighters, Ryu is a keystone of expression through fighting games. That’s a big part of why SFV was a disappointment to so many after the post-release honeymoon phase wore off. Without the flagship character in the meta, and with so many changes to the core Street Fighter formula, it just didn’t feel like the same series anymore. Capcom kept nerfing poor Ryu, over and over, and he just didn’t seem able to compete with the new kids on the block… until now.
There’s been a lot of Valorant stuff on my plate with all the big tournaments and roster shakeups and new characters that Riot’s tactical shooter has seen recently, but I’ve been playing the new SFV season in my downtime… after not even so much as thinking about the game for months. Here, I want to sing Ryu’s praises as a sterling work of fighting game art, touch on why he’s been so bad for so long in the most recent Street Fighter, and analyze the excellent changes that have been made in Season 5, the changes which brought me back to the game.
The Wandering, Wise, All-Around Street Fighter
From a lore perspective, Ryu is a reflection of the competitors who have poured their time and energy into mastering his games. His quotes in Street Fighter IV speak to that vibe. In particular, “Each time I fight, I learn something new” is a great summation of fighting game improvement. The age-old adage, “Learn something new every day,” applies very well to fighting games. Every match is an opportunity to expose yourself to new situations, to maybe do a new combo you’ve been labbing, or to execute a new punish, or to learn something about the neutral game of that matchup. Maybe there is something you can do when X character does Y move from Z range. Ryu, were he a real man who plays fighting games rather than a Street Fighter character (Umehara Daigo is as close as it gets in real life), would never fear experimenting in-game, would never be afraid of losing in exchange for learning something new.
In Daigo’s book, The Will to Keep Winning, he laments, “Society tends to evaluate us based solely on visible results. At times, I even sense an air of intolerance toward failure.” But there will always be a winner and loser. Every competitor knows the sting of loss. We cannot allow a fear of failure to stop us from trying at all. If we stick to only what we can already win with, never seeking harder challenges, we stagnate and never grow or change. As Ryu’s Street Fighter 3: Third Strike win quotes put it, “To try something new, is to explore your true potential” and “A defeat learned from is more important than an empty victory.”
The cutscene hasn’t exactly aged well… but I still get chills when I re-watch his Street Fighter II arcade mode ending. “Already seeking the next challenge, ceremony means nothing to him. The fight is all.” Absolutely perfect. This ending reminds all the World Warriors out there to not get bogged down in the result. Instead, focus on the fight. Focus on the pure expression of manipulated hitboxes and hurtboxes, buttons and stick motions transcribing your intent onto the screen, mind dueling with each opponent, staying grounded in the present round.
And in 2021, it’s easier than ever to listen to Ryu’s advice, again from a Third Strike win quote: “Range… Speed… Priority… Know and master all of your attacks!” We have that information at our fingertips now, and for every character in every Street Fighter. A simple Google search will turn up the hitboxes and frame data you need to know and understand to get better.
Ryu is the beating heart of Capcom’s flagship fighting game, a stand-in for the real-life world warriors who compete in the series’ storied tournaments, constantly walking the road of improvement. Now, I won’t pretend that this personal blogpost of mine from a different time aged well; I speak in it a lot more adamantly and arrogantly than I would nowadays. But it does speak to all you Smash fans out there about the connections that can be brought to other games by learning how to play Street Fighter, and what Street Fighter fans may find fun about Smash. Ryu has had myriad influences throughout the world of fighting games. That includes the platform fighters, a genre that owes its existence to Masahiro Sakurai, a man who was once a beast at SFII in the arcades of Japan.
See, it just makes sense that the balanced, well-rounded, “shoto” character would be the first character that the devs work on. And that’s just what Sakurai confirmed on the Smash Dojo leading up to Melee’s release: Mario is the first character they start working on in every Smash game. This fundamentals-based, well-rounded fighter is the baseline for every other aspect of the games’ character design. I can’t find a source that Ryu is the first character to be designed in each Street Fighter, but it’s a pretty safe bet, since they play a very similar role in the two series.
See, it just makes sense to ground the game’s design from day one with a well-balanced fighter like Ryu. As the only playable character in the original Street Fighter (unless you count Ken, who then had the exact same moves), his three special moves went on to influence every aspect of the future games’ designs. Shoryuken, the invincible anti-air reversal. Hadoken, the fireball that made the 2D fighting genre possible. And Tatsumaki Senpukyaku, a movement option and attack all at once. This kit, in addition to his normal attacks that combine average speed, range, priority, and damage, put Ryu squarely in the middle of just about every Street Fighter’s tier list. Most other special moves can trace their lineage back to his, and even series weirdos like El Fuerte follow most of the same rules that Ryu does, in terms of hitboxes, hurtboxes, special canceling, priority, move speed, etc. That’s why it was so depressing to see Ryu a shadow of his former self for so many seasons of SFV.
He is a masterpiece of video game design. Ryu isn’t just a fighting game character; he’s one side of the coin for the fundamental archetype of all fighting game characters. The slightly more defensive reflection of Ken’s balanced offense, these two “shotos” (so named for the Shotokan style of karate that American translators erroneously credited for contributing to their design) form the basis of all 2D fighting games today. Ky Kiske and Sol Badguy of Guilty Gear, Hyde and Linne of UNIEL, Sub-Zero and Skorpion of Mortal Kombat, Goku and Vegeta in DBFZ, and as I said in that blogpost, even Mario and Luigi in Smash – all of these characters follow in Ryu and Ken’s footsteps, respectively. These well-rounded characters form the backbone of their games’ design principles, with defensive and offensive flavor, and they all taxonomically owe a lot of their video game DNA to Street Fighter.
The massive respect borne of creating the 2D fighting game genre and defining the character archetypes within it is a big part of why Street Fighter VI would still have a huge sales draw even if it came out to bigger disdain than the mountain of bad reviews SFV accrued in its early days. The very name of Ryu, which literally translates as “Dragon,” draws mythical respect. He is, in my mind, the centerpiece of the fighting game genre, a beautiful piece of video game design that any fighting game afficionado should familiarize themself with, especially now that he’s been buffed in Season Five of SFV.
Ryu’s Low-Tier Status was a Huge Reason Why I Disliked SFV
Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s not the only reason. The game still doesn’t feel great, even after all the polish Capcom’s given it over the years. “Game feel” is that indescribable part of any game review that leaves us without words. It’s just… the way a game feels to play. I highly doubt that Capcom will ever make another game like Third Strike, in which the parry sound effect is like an injection of dopamine straight to the brain, as is just about every animation, song, and other sound coded into it. And even Ultra Street Fighter IV had an excellent engine that SFV hasn’t yet been able to match in terms of general feel. But I can confirm that my time playing as SFV Season 5 Ryu has been a vast improvement over my experiences in past seasons of the most recent Street Fighter.
Shortly after the game’s release, players like Tokido and Daigo were dominating with Ryu. He was “godlike,” as the saying goes. But a big part of SFV’s design centered around leveling the playing field between those with decades of experience and those with days of experience. And so, as has been discussed by many, including Sanford Kelly, they nerfed their flagship character into the ground. Sanford needed not “think” that Ryu was at his all-time low for the series; the character just was at his nadir. Absolute trash. Essentially unplayable. Universal changes like the removal of invincibility from non-EX reversals like Shoryuken didn’t help matters.
Even in Third Strike, where Ryu has often been considered below average, players like Vanao have put in work at the top level, and the flagship shoto was absolutely viable in casual matches. Not so in SFV’s earlier patches. Sure, if you were miles better than your opponent, you could still beat them with Ryu. But his most interesting tools, his place as the flagship character, his role as a well-rounded character who rewards strong fundamentals more than anyone else… these were all just gone. Ryu was a shadow of his former self, and I’m not talking about Kage. Very few people stuck with the character through this low point. Tokido, after rolling people for a while upon release with Ryu, moved on to other characters, like his old SFIV main Akuma, after the string of nerfs. Even Daigo, famous for his world-class shoto play, abandoned the series mascot in favor of Guile.
That’s about when I lost interest in Street Fighter V. I’d still click on the odd SFV video here and there, check in on the meta, see if things had gotten any better. But I never felt compelled to come back, until Capcom released the Season Five balance patch that gave Ryu the depth and strengths that he needed to compete in SFV.
The Nitty Gritty of the Season 5 Patch Notes
I won’t just recycle the exact patch notes here. The strength of the Internet is community, its massive web of people from around the globe. Bafael is my favorite Street Fighter content creator for his clear-cut videos with solid analysis and no pointlessly flashy editing. His video on SFV Ryu’s recent patch is well worth a watch. If you prefer getting just the frame data and such, HiFight’s video on the subject is pretty good, as well… provided that you don’t mind seeing a picture of Fortnite Ryu after each patch note.
I won’t go through every single change the SFV dev team made to Ryu in Season 5, but I’ll mention some of my favorites. The one that seemed to have the biggest impact on my matches is one of the first ones mentioned in both videos, that of the buff to standing medium punch, now making it +2 on block. This makes two standing MPs in a row a great trap against moves that come out on frame 3, which is tied among many SFV characters for the fastest speed of a light attack (Ryu himself has a three-frame standing jab). His standing medium punch, once rather underwhelming for how often he used it anyway, is now a beast of a normal, capable of going into either high-damage combos or this effective frame trap, depending on whether it hits or gets blocked.
Another huge change is the added knockdown pressure given by landing a forward throw. The Season 5 balance patch leaves Ryu closer to his opponent after performing this throw, and it makes all the difference, much more heavily rewarding this low-risk option.
There’s also the change to standing heavy punch, which can now cancel into Ryu’s special moves, even outside of V-Trigger I, which was formerly the only state in which he could cancel out of the move. Forward + heavy punch, a unique normal commonly called “Solar Plexus,” also received a range buff to the second hit if the first connects, making it drop less often. His formerly borderline useless target combo is now beastly. It features his Season 1 crouching heavy punch, which can now chain into the TC, with the tradeoff of reduced range compared to the standing version. With the target combo being able to combo into either V-Skill 2 (crucially giving Ryu a way to build V Meter safely) or a V-Trigger activation, it’s now a fantastic combo route for Ryu, and a low-execution one at that. Heavy Shoryuken is now capable of juggling opponents (for example, out of a cornered EX Tatsu) which gives him better combo options in the corner. These changes, along with Tatsumaki Senpukyaku now hitting crouching opponents for the first time in a Street Fighter title that I’ve played, now make Ryu’s combos much more devastating in the fifth season of the fifth title.
The changes to his V-Skills deserve some special attention. Ryu’s parry, V-Skill 1, now gives V-Trigger time back. Landing the parry also now allows Ryu to instantly do an EX move or Critical Art, allowing for more guaranteed anti-airs out of it. I didn’t use the parry much in my time, opting for VS2 in most matchups now that it works as a fantastic combo ender and is even decent on block, and since the VS1 parry makes me want to just play Third Strike instead. In that game, whiffing a parry just makes you walk forward instead of getting Crush Countered for free. Still, I’m glad to see both of Ryu’s V-Skills get buffed, because they were… subpar, to say the least.
Speaking of being wistful for Third Strike, the animation for Joudan Sokutogeri, or “Donkey Kick,” still isn’t nearly as good as it once was. But hey, it’s at least been buffed in terms of damage, giving Ryu an incentive to use it as a combo ender over Tatsu, which still has better corner carry and knockdown pressure. Tradeoffs like this make his combo game complex and dynamic, something that often feels lacking in SFV. The EX version of Joudan Sokutogeri also now allows for corner combos into Shoryuken, another welcome change.
An interesting patch that has no effect on gameplay is that EX Shoryuken now zooms the camera in when it lands, if Ryu is in V-Trigger I. As Bafael says, it’s great to see the devs still adding layers of polish this late in the game. This makes it feel less soulless and corporate, a common criticism of the game in its early days. No longer does it feel like every change is made based on committee debate and how to cater to market trends or whatever. This change in particular feels like a group of proud, creative minds finding ways to make their game look cooler, and adds to that crucial game feel I was talking about earlier.
His V-Triggers also deserve a mention. Almost in the style of Chun-Li’s VT1, albeit without the extra hits, Ryu’s VT1 punches now have an extra 2 frames of hitstun each, allowing for some awesome, SFIV-style links that I only landed once or twice in real online matches because my brain is way ahead of my fingers in terms of Street Fighter skill. I think it’s cool that they’re still thinking of ways to make each V-Trigger more satisfying and fun to use, and the lightning bolts on his hands make this change to VT1 feel natural.
Though I usually opted for VT1 because I like Denjin Hadoken (this is the last time I put on my Third Strike nostalgia goggles, I promise) and pretending that I can do advanced combos like the aforementioned new links, VT2 saw great buffs too. At the cost of half his trigger time, Ryu can now do a unique version of the trigger attack out of all grounded special moves. This extra 100ish damage can make all the difference, and give Hadoken pressure better returns when the fireball lands. This new trigger attack is usually more useful than the VT2 parry, since the latter now costs half of Ryu’s V Meter on whiff and ends the Trigger entirely on hit.
Ryu now has a great tradeoff at the section of character select where you pick your V-Skill and -Trigger. As Bafael puts it, “VT2 is for the Ryus who like to carefully look for their openings, while VT1 lets you mount a brief but effective offense.” This statement points to excellent tradeoffs that promote careful consideration upon seeing the upcoming matchup, as well as experimentation to confirm or reject those theories, not to mention one’s general playstyle.
All of the changes Ryu received in SFV’s Season 5 make him a significantly deeper, more interesting character. Move selections, especially in the character’s combo routes, now require more careful, conscious planning to perform in situations where only the subconscious has time to react. Flowing from one move to the next with confidence and precision now feels so satisfying, where he had no potential to do so before.
And now, rather than being pushed into the background while the new kids on the block got to play, the old man has brushed off the dust that had collected on him over the past few seasons, ready to show them what veteran Street Fighters look like.
I’m happy to be one of these vets, happy to finally be playing a competitive and satisfying Shoto in Street Fighter again.