Can’t speak to the early series as I was nearly half my age when they released, so have less memory of the games and (an even less understanding of the games at the time), but at least in U/MvC3, Ryu was never projectile based. His normals and tatsu mix ups were his main tools. And assists helped him in neutral more than any utility he could get from his fireballs, even when they were upgraded in Ultimate.
If anything, his fireballs are more viable now as assists are no longer in the game; neutral is based solely around point characters actions. There are fewer things reducing the effectiveness of fireballs in Infinite.
Still, if Ryu’s projectiles are not of use to you, you can still take advantage of the games mechanics such as the more flexible tag system and gems to give him extra dimensions.