Okay, I had originally started working on this as a basic beginner’s primer of “I’ve spent 2 weeks playing Ryu, now what” as to how to understand and pick a character based on what you wanted to do, but it wasn’t done so I’m going to use it as a skeleton to expand to character archetypes as a whole.
So this is a dual axis system; X and Y. The X axis is where you want to be and the Y axis is your ability to stay there vs how threatening you are in it. There’s a third axis which is basically defensive tools vs offensive tools, but I can’t figure out a good way to do it without stepping on the toes of the other two.
So the first is pretty simple; where do you want to be on the screen relative to your opponent. I put forth 3 basic areas moving from -10 to 10 on the axis; long, medium, and short. The long range is pretty much where you start a round going up; it’s where a character such as Dhalsim wants to hang out and chuck plasma from while taunting his opponent to try and stop him. These characters are often known as “zoners” as they want to keep you in the other end zone (or however it came about). The next area, medium, is generally associated with footsies; it’s about the range of a Ryu cr.mk. Characters who want to play here generally have some sort of far reaching normal that they can stick out. They don’t want to be too close where their reach advantage is lost nor too far where they can no longer tap you with their limbs. The final range is short, which is basically right on top of each other. These characters want to be in your face making you guess.
The other axis can probably be best summarized as your ability to get into your preferred zone vs what you do when you get into it. How easy is it for your to evade your opponent’s defensive measures and how nasty are you after you’ve done so? On the far right of the X axis, those characters that want to get in, we have two character archetypes: the Grappler and the Divekick. The basic idea is that the Divekick character has a far easier time making his way into the opponent’s face, but the Grappler is quite a bit scarier once he’s there. Now this doesn’t always work out in practice (See: Cammy and T.Hawk), but it’s the general principal. A character like Dhalsim where they get in on you once and you’re done will be pretty high up on the axis; he has a tremendous benefit to being full screen but dies up close Sagat on the other hand wants to be at the same distance as Dhalsim but has a far easier time resetting the situation due to a legitimate reversal so he’s pretty low on the axis. A character such as Yun with a great divekick has an easy time getting to where they want to be, but getting hit by Yun should not be as scary as getting knocked for a loop by Zangief.
Here’s a chart with every extreme point filled in; it’s definitely not 100% accurate but it should give you an idea
Dhalsim is hell to get in on but is food once you’re in while you really have to worry about Sagat up close to to TU FADC and Guile’s somewhere in the middle. Evil Ryu has to make sure every damn hit counts while Fei gets free damage and positioning off any poke into (or straight up) Rekka with Ryu in the middle. You don’t want Zangief looming over you and you know that Yun’s going to get in but it shouldn’t hurt as bad with Guy’s whole movement shenanigans and threat level… in the middle.
One other principle I wanted to speak of was the method with which you open up your opponent’s defense. This basically ties into the Y axis. People say “mix up” to basically mean any time your opponent has to guess right vs left, standing vs crouching, strike vs throw, that sort of thing and I wanted to expand upon it. So SFIV is primarily a frametrap game; it’s about getting your opponent to press buttons and then punishing them for it. Frame traps are when you do an attack that generally leaves you at + frames (so you can act before the opponent) but with a window during which if they hit a button they’ll get hit instead. You make them want to hit a button by threatening to throw them if they don’t. So you hit them with a Jab that leaves you at +5 frames on block and then they have to guess if you’ll throw out a heavy attack immediately (let’s say it’s 7 frames so there’s a 2 frame window), try and throw them, or just block. The basic idea is that they have the option of reversal, tech, or block. If you try and frametrap, a reversal beats it and a block resets the situation while a tech loses. If you throw, a reversal beats it, a tech resets the situation, and a block loses. If you block, a reversal loses horribly, a tech resets the situation, and a block resets the situation. This is the absolute bare basics of frametraps, not bringing into the equation a multitude of defensive options such as backdashes, jumps, focus attacks, etc nor looking at option selects or whatnot.
Okay, so there’s really 4 kinds of close range mixup in the game: frametraps, high/low, strike/throw, and vortex. I’ve already explained frametrap, but there’s two basic kinds of it; the + frames type and the hopkick. The former is as above, and the latter takes advantage of a move that is either low invincible or airborne as to dodge low attacks to make your opponent not only guess if it’s strike or throw, but to make it so that a low attack from a crouch tech will entirely whiff while just blocking keeps the offensive character in and on even frames (a non-hopkick frametrap tends to either leave you close or on even frames, not both). Moves such as Sakura’s LK Tatsu, Rufus’ low divekick, or Dan’s Dan Kick all fall into this category, of a mixup that keeps you at advantage on block and beats the tech.
Okay, now the high/low game is pretty obvious; you have to guess to block high or block low. It’s probably the rarest sort of mixup in SFIV; most characters have some sort of overhead but you generally can’t get great damage out of it. Dudley’s probably got the most legitimate high/low game, but Genei Jin and Feng Shui Engine make Yun and Juri’s very scary as well.
Strike/throw is also pretty obvious, basically an amped up version of a frametrap. Tech isn’t an option here, so it’s either go airborne or hit them first. In addition a failed command throw is far, far more punishable than a failed normal throw. There’s also EX cmd throws which tell you go airborne or go home (in a bodybag).
Vortex is the final type, which is really a subtype of one of the other three. Effectively the idea is that you don’t have a very strong high/low or frametrap or strike/throw game, but once you manage to get a hit you force the opponent to guess a 50/50 or be put back into the same position, minus a chunk of health, along with the idea that even if they guess right they’re at disadvantage.
The other ways of getting damage are generally pokes from footsies (establishing a pressure area and slowly pushing your opponent into the corner with your do not enter normals to make it so they can’t counter attack effectively) and defensive zoning (tossing fireballs and getting your opponent to make mistakes while trying to avoid them). Most characters primarily operate on one main source of damage with a secondary backup. Ryu for instance, is primarily a footsies character, but has a strong defensive zoning game to back it up. Sakura has a great frametrap game backed up by solid footsies. Ibuki has a vortex game backed up by footsies, Juri is defensive zoning with high/low, Makoto being strike/throw and frametraps, or Hakan being strike/throw and footsies. You end up seeing a lot of footsies because it’s easier to design a character who is great at one range, good at the next, and bad at the worst than great bad good (although Viper managed it, being great at full screen and close while having no footsies). Some characters, such as Dhalsim or Zangief, really only have one primary, which is what leads to such lopsided matchups.
That’s all that’s on my mind for tonight, mainly just getting words on paper here. I feel like I could definitely work the axis a bit better and make this feel smoother, but I’m up for any criticism people have; I honestly enjoy the basics of game design as much as I do playing the game, so talking about it is fun for me.