'Street Fighter IV' uppercuts way to top of fighting genre

Video game franchise Street Fighter is over 20 years old, yet it still has plenty of fight left.

The proof lies in Street Fighter IV, a sequel for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles that feels fresh yet retains the soul of the renowned fighting series.

Street Fighter IV's premise remains the same: Guide one of 25 brawlers through a one-on-one fighting tournament. Each character has their own motives for entering, such as Japanese sumo wrestler E. Honda, who wants to use the tournament to promote his sport.

For those new to the franchise, fighting breaks down to six buttons: three punches and three kicks. Players execute special moves by combining button presses with deliberate analog stick motions. For example, martial arts expert Ryu can throw fireballs. To toss one, a player would move the left stick in a quarter-circle motion starting from the down position and press a punch button simultaneously.

Punches and kicks vary in power and recovery time. Players can string together punches, kicks and special moves to create combinations that deliver tons of damage. As you beat down opponents, a Super meter fills up that allows players to execute a more powerful Super combo. If you're on the wrong end of a thrashing, a similar meter fills to let you perform a Revenge combo and make a comeback.

Right away, players should notice the overhauled visuals. Street Fighter IV abandons the two-dimensional graphics of its precedessors for a 3-D animation style resembling a cartoon. As a result, the game looks more vibrant, the environments you fight in are more active, and special attacks pack a stronger punch.

The combat remains signature Street Fighter. For the sequel, characters move more naturally, while the special attacks feel more gratifying. Fighters react more violently when walloped with a powerful strike. Kicks to the gut send them buckling forward, while clouds of dust kick up as a fighter gets slammed to the ground.

The controls feel very precise and offer plenty of depth. Mastering just one character can require hours of study on ideal combinations and attacks. The roster includes a strong balance of styles, ranging from karate experts to wrestlers.

Street Fighter IV is also accessible for novices. Players can practice and learn the controls in Training Mode. For more detailed instruction, Challenge Mode includes trials that test a player's ability to execute special moves and combos. Also, the easier difficulty settings in Arcade Mode allow for a less demanding transition to combat.

The online multiplayer is where Street Fighter IV shows long-term promise. In Arcade Mode, players can change their status so opponents online can challenge them through Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. They can also unlock titles and icons to customize your profile. Fights online played seamlessly, suffering from little slowdown. However, wait times between matches and during opponent searches were sometimes lengthy.

To many gamers, Street Fighter is the fighting genre's champion. With Street Fighter IV, don't expect the series to relinquish its title.