After some thought, I've decided that for the time being, these are is my last complaints about Street Fighter IV. I had complained about the character design some time ago, but on a gameplay level they all turned out great and I really no longer have a problem with them.
Getting the characters is another thing. One of the things I hate about arcade game ports is that the goodies are always hidden behind a wall of drudgery. This problem is especially apparent with fighting games, because access to the full multiplayer game with all of the characters is usually blocked by some amount of mucking about in single player. A really painful example was Super Smash Brothers Brawl: in order to start playing the game proper, with all the characters, you had to first play through an entirely different game, which was ten hours long and rather poor. Thankfully, you aren't sentenced to anything so terrible in SF4: you just have to beat the single-player arcade mode over and over again. You aren't told (and thus must go online to figure out) who you need to beat the game with and how to unlock the last couple characters, and if you want to play as the final boss you're going to have to beat the game 24 times.
Why are we still doing this? Having to beat up the computer this many times to have access to the whole game is particularly embarassing in our current age of online-enabled consoles, where a sea of human competition (that only plays Ken) is just a few button presses away. Why force me to play a bunch of boring fights against the computer when that's available? At the very least, these characters should have been as easily unlockable by playing online as they are by playing offline. Of course, it would be best to get rid of the unlocking BS altogether and make everything immediately available: it's just that unlocks keep boring people from returning their games to Gamestop quite so quickly, so the videogame industry loves them.
Less important unlockables-- alternate colors for characters and customizable titles and avatars for online play-- are hidden in Challenge mode, which is two thirds really bad drudgery (the stunningly dull Time Attack and Survival modes, where you beat up dummy computer opponents for what feels like a thousand years) and one third really hard (the combo-practice Trial mode).
Meanwhile, online ranking systems for fighting games have always been problematic and ultimately meaningless. In theory it sounds like a good idea to see who the strongest player is, but in the end, the guy at the top of the rankings is a guy who figured out how to game the system.
The first such case I saw was in the Dead or Alive games, in the earlier days of Xbox Live. In theory, the DOA online setup was a great idea: you could set up a room with all your buddies, the first two would fight, and the winner would stay to be challenged by the rest of the room. Very arcade-style, and a setup that everybody seems to really like when it's used. But it's no good for ranked matches, and here's the reason: players would simply invite willing accomplices or dummy accounts into private rooms with them and beat up their motionless opponent over and over again. Doing this moved you up the rankings slowly and steadily with no chance of loss. The leaderboards became useless, as they were littered with people with insane, undefeated records who had obviously used this exploit.
Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix (oh god that name) had a better system than usual for ranked online matches: you couldn't directly choose who you fought-- unless you count picking out people by their ping number, which was possible but unlikely-- and you couldn't see what character they were going to pick, either. This ultimately led to the most reliable online rankings possible (as these things go), until hundreds of people, yours truly included, lost their records to some weird leaderboard bug, and none of it mattered at all anymore. Street Fighter IV is not quite so strict, and in so doing illustrates why all this double-blind stuff was a good idea after all.
In SFIV, you can pick who you fight in a ranked match, which creates a big problem. If you think you're outmatched against a certain player, you never have to play him. If you know you can beat a certain other player, you can play against him over and over again for easy wins. If you're losing, you can really puss out and pull the cord out of your system, disconnecting, taking a loss on your record, and-- for some stupid, stupid reason-- keeping your ranking score intact. Getting and maintaining a high ranking has as much to do with match selection as it does your actual skill at the game itself. Obviously, it doesn't represent player skill at all at this point. Ultimately, this system will just give rise to a slightly more difficult variant on the trick I described from Dead Or Alive: the top ranker is just going to fight his own dummy account over and over again, winning every time and gaining points for nothing. As such, it's as though the ranking system doesn't really exist at all, and my record shows that I disregard it.
Despite this series of articles, though, SF4-- the core game that I have barely addressed-- is a great job on Dimps' part and I'd recommend it to anyone who's ever cared about Street Fighter or the genre at all.