The Top 5 Gateway Characters for New Players in Street Fighter 4

One of the hardest parts about picking up a fighting game is the beginning.  Many players linger in the beginning stages of their competitive understanding of a game for months, even years.  Some players spend their entire competitive gaming experiences jumping from title to title looking for a game that fits them, while never truly transitioning beyond a beginner’s level of understanding in any of the games that they try out.  A lack of intelligence or comprehension isn’t what holds these players back, but rather, direction.

Despite its popularity, Street Fighter 4 is no exception; even though the game has been out since 2008, many players are still stuck in a rut and struggling to understand the basics of the game.  With any matured competitive game, the wealth of information available and the average level of understanding in the community can actually be a hindrance to many new players at first; they are literally overwhelmed by all of the information that gets thrown at them and they become bewildered and unsure of which information is practical for them at their current level of understanding.  Without being certain of which direction to pursue, players often end up in an endless loop of trying new techniques or characters and quickly dropping them when they don’t work out, moving on to the next character or strategy in hopes that it will make more sense.  

The way out of this rut is to find the most basic and fundamental aspects of a game and stick with them.  Once a basic understanding of a game’s fundamentals has been established, players can graduate and branch out into more diverse territories.  The most basic and fundamental aspects of a game generally boil down to one thing: defense. Despite this, it’s safe to say that most players prefer offense to defense.  Offense is usually very visually flashy, which understandably makes it more appealing. But to make offense work, a player must know how to open the opponent up and expose weaknesses, which requires an intricate understanding of defense.  Thus, a player cannot properly aggress if they don’t first know how to defend. Simple, defensive play is often thought of as “boring” or “unskilled”, which causes many new players to overlook it and gravitate towards flashier, more offensive characters.  While desiring to play a complex and aggressive character is a fine goal, it’s a very poor starting point. Nonetheless, many new players don’t want to spend the time to learn a basic character first, and would rather jump right into the character that they think is coolest or most interesting.

This thought process is something akin to trying to learn to ride a bike without first using training wheels.  While training wheels aren’t very cool and may seem to limit what the bike can do, trying to learn to ride a bike without them would take far longer and the experience would be a discouraging trip filled with numerous and painful falls along the way.  Wouldn’t it be easier to just use the training wheels for a short time? That way, a person could establish a basic level of understanding and context for what to expect in the future. In much the same way, beginner players can more quickly and easily establish an overall understanding of the game through defensive characters than through offensive characters.

With all of that in mind, The Top 5 Gateway Characters for New Players in Street Fighter 4 will lean towards defensive and fundamental characters.  While there are some input-style characters that strongly showcase these ideals, charge-style characters are the embodiment of composed play*.  They’re a great way to train a new player’s defense and composure while ensuring that they gain an active understanding of what’s going on.  Charge characters pull the focus away from “doing special moves and combos” and shift it towards a more intuitive view of what the player needs to do to succeed and improve.  

*Input-style Character: a character whose special moves are performed by pressing a sequence of directions on the d-pad or joystick, then pressing an attack button.  For example, Ryu’s “Hadouken” or “Fireball” is performed with the following input sequence: Down, Down-Forward, Forward, Punch.
*Charge-style Character: a character whose special moves are performed by holding a given direction for ~2 seconds, then pressing another direction and an attack button simultaneously.  For example, Guile’s “Sonic Boom” or “Fireball” is performed the following way: hold Back for ~2 seconds, then press Forward and Punch simultaneously.

#1 – Guile

Guile is perhaps the most basic character of all.  With only two special moves to remember, the player can focus almost entirely on studying the opponent and reacting appropriately. 

Holding back to charge for a Sonic Boom automatically trains the player to default to a neutral state of blocking, which is one of the most basic and important elements of Street Fighter.  The Sonic Boom itself is a simple and visually intuitive projectile; its quick recovery means that players will be able to focus more on utilizing the projectile to take up space and less on worrying about being jumped-in on after shooting it out.  This confidence boost is important as it gives the player freedom to experiment and learn other things with a comfort zone to fall back on.

Guile’s Sonic Boom projectile spam quickly and naturally leads to establishing an anti-air game, which is another pillar of Street Fighter.  Once a player familiarizes themselves with Guile’s Crouching Hard Punch, they will quickly learn the basics of anti-airs to stop would-be jumpers from getting in on them.

Flash Kick (Light Kick or EX Version) is a solid reversal with good invincibility.  The move’s down-charge requirement, coupled with the fact that players will already be holding down-back to block, trains them to attempt blocking first and assess the situation before recklessly “spamming” a punishable reversal such as Shoryuken—a poor habit that many players pick up from starting out with a traditional “Shoto” such as Ryu or Ken.

Finally, Guile has virtually no requirement for combos at all.  At most, the player will want to learn a basic 2-hit combo; a special cancel such as Crouching Medium Punch into Flash Kick or Sonic Boom will cover that.  Beyond that, the most complicated thing that they will need is a basic string. Luckily, Guile players can simply use Crouching Light Kick (or Crouching Light Punch) in sequence, as it is a chain or “rapid fire” attack that requires virtually no mastery of timing to complete.  

Perhaps the only minor issue that Guile can give new players is differentiating between his “command normals” or “unique attacks”.  There can be some confusion over buttons changing depending on whether back or forward is held while they are pressed. Generally this isn’t an issue at all, but if this causes the new player a significant hassle they can of course try a different starting character.

Similar Alternatives: Chun Li, DeeJay

#2 – M. Bison (Dictator)

While M. Bison’s various special moves can be slightly daunting to keep track of for a new player, a respectable strategy can be made out of only a few small elements of the character’s gameplay.  Bison’s walk speed is very good, which means that the character will be able to effortlessly position themselves and develop a good sense of spacing without thinking about it. His walk speed also means that his throws are easier to implement, and throwing is something that many new players overlook.  

His normal attacks have excellent range (in particular Standing Hard Kick, Standing Medium Kick, and Crouching Light Kick) and many of them serve multiple purposes.  This is particularly evident in Standing Hard Kick being a good anti-air and spacing tool all at once, which simplifies and combines two core-concepts for a new player, boiling the neutral game down to one button at certain ranges.

The Light Kick version of Bison’s Scissor Kick (also known as Knee Press) is really the only special move that a new player will have to learn initially.  The move is safe on block and a great pressure tool. While learning to special cancel into it is very useful, the move is also effective when used on its own, which keeps things simple.  From there, the player just needs to learn to utilize M. Bison’s various reversals/escapes (Teleport, EX Devil’s Reverse, EX Psycho Crusher) and they will find themselves out of pressure situations and back on their feet in the neutral game where they are comfortable. 

Bison’s jump-arc and jump-height are exaggerated and floaty, making him very vulnerable to anti-airs.  This is actually a good thing, though, as it trains the player not to jump at an early stage. Jumping haphazardly is a flaw that many new players exhibit, so Bison’s odd jump arc/height can actually help train the player to have a more solid, ground-based play style at an early stage in their development. 

Perhaps the biggest negative effect of a new player picking up M. Bison is that they can become reliant upon the character’s numerous escapes—most of which are not sufficiently countered until higher levels of play.  If they try to transition to a different character, they may find themselves overwhelmed when knocked down or aggressed by their opponent, as they are used to having the familiar safety blanket of M. Bison’s escapes.

There’s also the issue of M. Bison’s lack of a close-range crouching anti air; where most characters have a solid Crouching Hard Punch attack that works well as an anti-air, M. Bison’s Crouching Hard Punch is too slow to be used practically.  Thankfully, this hole in the character’s gameplay isn’t a huge issue as M. Bison’s excellent mobility lets the player keep opponents just out of reach where they can comfortably anti-air with Standing Round House.

Similar Alternatives: Balrog (Boxer), Blanka, Vega

#3 – Balrog (Boxer)

Balrog is only slightly more complicated than M. Bison (Dictator), and mostly only because of the numerous variations of his basic Dash Straight or Dash Upper attacks.  Luckily, new players don’t need to concern themselves with the existence of those variations. As long as the player gets familiar with Balrog’s Dash Straight and Headbutt special attacks, they’ll have a solid basis to work from and can build around Balrog’s amazing normal attack game from there.  

Balrog’s Crouching Light Punch is arguably the best in the game and it will train players to use a fast attack that applies pressure, furthermore, it can combo into itself as a chain or “rapid fire” attack, which is very easy.  The Light Punches also set up a good throw game for Balrog, as he can decide to walk forward and throw at any point. His Crouching Hard Kick has excellent range and speed, and it teaches the player to low-block-check his opponent, preventing them from easily walking forward or backwards. 

Using little more than Balrog’s Standing/Crouching Light Punch, Dash Punch special move, Crouching Hard Kick, and throws will create a very effective game plan that will allow players to harass their opponents with attacks while still maintaining a relatively safe distance; an important lesson in spacing.

Balrog also has two very solid anti-air normals, in Standing Medium Punch and Crouching Hard Punch.  Both attacks easily hit opponents out of the air and can be done on reaction without too much guesswork.

Finally, Balrog’s lack of a crossup jumping attack may be seen as a hindrance at first, but it will teach players not to rampantly and randomly jump over their opponents.  This forces the player to learn how to maintain and abuse good positioning, which is a much more solid strategy than randomly jumping and hoping for the best.

Perhaps the only negative to learning Balrog is his poor focus attack and his susceptibility to focus attacks.  The character’s armor breaking attacks are underpowered compared to most and he also lacks multi-hit attacks. This leads to Balrog being susceptible to the opponent harassing him by focusing and counter-attacking, so players who stick with Balrog may develop an understanding of the focus system slower than they would if they used other characters.

Similar Alternatives: M. Bison (Dictator), E. Honda, Vega

#4 –Ryu 

Perhaps the most influential and important character to learn is Ryu; the archetype of every character, the original basis by which nearly every character in every fighting game was built upon.  Ryu has all of the tools a player could ever want in a character, with the ability to be molded to the player’s own style and excel at just about anything. Ryu can be played defensively, offensively, low risk, high risk, patiently, aggressively, or any combination of all of the above, at will. 

Though input-style characters are generally a bit more difficult for a new player than charge-style, Ryu’s special move inputs remain relatively simple for the most part.  Players should become competent with the Hadouken (Fireball) and Tatsumaki Senpukyaku (Hurricane Kick) motions relatively easily, while the Shoryuken (Dragon Punch) motion usually proves to be somewhat difficult for newcomers.  

Ryu’s fireball game is excellent and allows the player to do much of what Guile does with Sonic Booms, but without having to worry about charge.  The downside is that the fireballs take a bit longer to animate, which means that Ryu is slightly more vulnerable to characters jumping in, so Ryu players need to be more cautious with their fireballs than they would with Guile’s Sonic Booms.  Still, many players will likely find the freedom of input more than worthwhile.

As with any projectile-based character, throwing fireballs will cause the opponent to want to jump over them.  Luckily, Ryu has a fantastic anti-air normal in Crouching Hard Punch (only slightly worse than Guile’s). More importantly, Ryu has the most powerful and feared anti-air in the game: his momentarily invincible special attack, “Shoryuken (Dragon Punch)”.  Still, it can be difficult for a new player to pull off the input for a Shoryuken on reaction to an opponent jumping, so they may need to fall back on Crouching Hard Punch for a time.

Like the characters mentioned previously in this guide, Ryu can be played with only a minor emphasis on combos.  His Crouching Medium Kick is an excellent move for a variety of purposes, most notably that it has great range and priority while also being special cancellable; new players will get a lot of mileage out of sing the simple combo of Crouching Medium Kick into Fireball.  Crouching Jab is fast and can effortlessly combo into itself as it is a chain/”rapid fire” attack. Ryu can use Standing or Crouching Hard Punch to special cancel into Hurricane Kick or Dragon Punch for a simple, high-damage punish after blocking an opponent’s punishable reversal (Flash Kick, for example).

Besides the relatively higher difficulty of being an input character, the main downside to a new player learning Ryu is that players will quickly notice how powerful his Shoryuken can be and they will almost certainly develop a propensity to use it haphazardly.  While the Shoryuken is very powerful (in fact, invincible) when the attack comes out, if the opponent blocks the attack it leaves the player extremely vulnerable. Players may find themselves paying less attention to their decision-making process and instead just doing Shoryuken when they are under pressure.  This will cause them to pay less attention to their opponent and what’s going on in the match and can hamper the knowledge that they absorb in the long-term.

Similar Alternatives: see below…

#5 – Ken, Akuma, Evil Ryu, Oni, Sagat, Dan, Seth… and more!

Perhaps the biggest positive to learning Ryu is that a player will almost automatically be able to pick up and explore several other characters that are based on Ryu’s design.  While none of these characters are as straight-forward as the others on this list, most of them aren’t terribly difficult and can be easily transitioned to once a player has Ryu as a foundation.  While Ryu may or may not be the best first choice for a new player, there’s no debating that everyone should learn the basics of how to play him as soon as possible.

Once a player learns Ryu, they can decide to stick with him or to venture out and try a character that more prominently emphasizes one of the many potential play styles that Ryu embodies.

  • Ken and Oni are both relatively simple characters to play, with Ken being a more aggressive take on Ryu and Oni being a more tool-based and hit-confirm-oriented variant of the general Shoto archetype.
  • Akuma has a fantastic runaway game and his air fireballs are a great spacing utility.  Though the character is generally considered very difficult to play at a high level, he’s not too much harder than Ryu to pick up and go to at an entry level.
  • Evil Ryu is essentially a merger of Ryu and Akuma with a diminished hit-confirm game but a highly explosive damage potential rooted in Ryu’s solid fundamentals. 
  • Sagat trades Ryu’s more versatile normal moves for higher damaging attacks, a stronger fireball game via two types of fireballs (a high and a low), and farther reaching normals such as his commanding Standing Hard Kick.

That does it for The Top 5 Gateway Characters for New Players in Street Fighter 4.  Who did you start out with? Who are you going to be recommending to your new friends when they decide to get into Street Fighter 4?