EXCEED Finds a Home in Street Fighter
I’ve been championing EXCEED for a while as the best card-driven implementation of the two-dimensional fighting game. It’s fast, it’s punchy, and it prizes smarts over speed — which means I can play it at all, since I have the reflexes of a loris. Unfortunately, the roster for EXCEED’s first two seasons was as unknowable as it was unique, borrowing or inventing characters with plenty of pizzazz but no recognizability. What’s the difference between Nehtali and Kikurage? Here’s a hint: one is a character from EXCEED and the other is a mushroom that’s delicious in ramen.
But let’s try this again: what’s the difference between Ryu and M. Bison? Or Chun-Li and Zangief? None of them are mushrooms, I’ll tell you that. Even someone like me, who as a child was kept far away from arcade cabinets for fear of demonic contamination, can tell you with some degree of accuracy what everyone from Street Fighter is capable of. That’s the value of a solid license, draping a familiar framework around something new. A context. A reason to care.
That license is also why this is the best time to give EXCEED a shot, because this fighting system has never been stronger.
By way of introducing EXCEED, I’m going to say something that might sound stupidly obvious: most of the time, you and your opponent alternate taking turns.
I know, I know. But for anyone who’s played BattleCON, Brad Talton’s previous fighting system, that’s a loaded statement. In many ways, the systems are mirror images. They’re both fighting games about bemuscled (or beboobed) brawlers duking it out for supremacy. Both take place on two-dimensional boards consisting of seven to nine spaces. Both settle their scores with cards scrawled with important stats such as range and speed and power. Even some of BattleCON’s best strategies are on display, ported faithfully from one system to the next.
The big difference is that BattleCON was a brain-burner while EXCEED is a fighting game, which isn’t to say that both don’t contain brain-burning moments and both aren’t about improbable figures bopping each other in the face. Rather, the distinction is one of tempo. In BattleCON, every move was made simultaneously, which functionally required you to parse two moves at once — both yours and your opponent’s, which is an entire ocean of possibility when you’re holding a half-dozen cards apiece. EXCEED, on the other hand, lets you swap back and forth, cutting down on each move’s considerations by roughly half while upping the tempo by a solid sixty beats per minute.
Keep in mind that this is only most of the time. But we’ll circle back around to that.
For now, let’s content ourselves with the general procedure. On your turn, you do something with the cards in your hand and then draw one from your deck. Sometimes you’ll want to move, which costs cards from your hand. Other times you’ll want to deploy a boost, a onetime bonus to your fighting prowess that alters your position or speed or pretty much anything else; this often also costs a card. Every so often you’ll probably be low on cards and resigned to draw extra, which the game generously calls “preparing” rather than “desperately trying to recover from crummy planning.” After a while, you might spend gauge, EXCEED’s fancy-pants word for the blows you’ve successfully landed in the past, to transform yourself into a stronger, more sexually potent version of yourself. Rawr.
The reason I tend to belabor EXCEED’s connection to BattleCON is because this is done so quickly and so smoothly that it crystallizes the swift moves and counter-moves of a fighting game. Where Talton’s previous system was marked by a series of pregnant pauses in which both players glared at their cards and played a mental game of he-knows-that-I-know-that-he-knows, followed by thirty seconds of puzzling out initiative and movement triggers, EXCEED is nearly always in motion, and certainly always forcing tough but bite-sized decisions. I want to move into non-melee range for a particular attack, so I backpedal across the table; now you’re prompted to decide between using a card (and which card) to close the distance, or settle for an attack that might be preempted by my own, or draw more cards in the hope that you’ll find something that can deflect a ranged shot. Plenty to think about, but all in the moment rather than a grand-scheme guessing game.
Again, that’s most of the time. When someone chooses to strike, the game shifts briefly into simultaneous mode. Now both players pick a card, check to see who’s faster, and then — well, it’s a fighting game. People punch each other. More than simply losing a few hit points, though, you’re also transforming what comes next. Sometimes a fighter will be stunned by an overwhelming attack and left unable to retaliate, or thrown out of counterattack range. Other times a shot will be blocked or “guarded” against, in which case a fighter still takes damage but is able to hit back. Positions are swapped, bodies are thrown, cards are discarded; for such compact decks, the possibilities are both expansive and tightly controlled.
In effect, this provides the best of both worlds. The speed of swapping turns, but also those pregnant moments when both players stare at the possibilities arrayed in their hand, guess at what their opponent is planning based on range and abilities and previously played boosts, and squirm with the uncertainty of picking simultaneous attacks. It’s the work of a master designer who’s assembled multiple fighting systems and emerged with a keener sense for what works and what doesn’t. All the lessons of BattleCON, none of its baggage.
And thanks to Street Fighter, this is the first time it makes natural sense.
EXCEED was always a smart system, but it was also a rudderless one. This time around, the cast of Street Fighter slips into position with practiced ease, and in turn provides the game with much-needed grounding. These characters are so distinct and so familiar, each one practically the living embodiment of a fighting archetype, that even my limited contact with Street Fighter is enough to communicate via cultural osmosis who excels at what. Here’s the plucky fast one. Here’s the wrestler who blocks attack after attack until he muscles you into a corner. Here’s the lanky dude with reach. Here’s the one who occasionally erupts into damaging flames. Here’s the little bastard who spams “Hadoken!” from across the arena unless you deprive him of his range advantage. Roughly half of every deck is generic moves, but these are the prods and sweeps that pave the way to grander signature moves. Each character is given their chance to shine.
It also helps that this is the best EXCEED has ever been, both in terms of components and additional mechanics. In the first case, the cards are perfectly readable, with crisp color-coded numbers and snappy artwork. The best development is that ultimate cards are no longer glossy. In previous seasons, their foil made them stand out from the deck even after multiple shuffles; now they’re an unmistakable violent red, announcing their presence without sitting sawtoothed among their lesser brethren.
The more significant change comes in the form of critical attacks. Each season has contained a “twist,” most notably season two’s transformation cards. This time around, criticals are perks found on many attacks that don’t trigger unless you spend a gauge. This provides a new way to leverage your previously successful attacks, a worthy consideration alongside upgrading your character or splurging for an ultimate attack. Rather than waiting to draw an ultimate or amass enough smaller hits, deploying a critical every so often can provide a significant advantage. In other words, they’re small bonuses you’re likely to deploy multiple times in a match rather than a big deal that only happens once in a blue moon. That makes them all the more worthwhile.
In other words it’s the same system, but graphically streamlined, given new ways to punch people, and provided a cast of characters that have been around since the late ’80s.
Like I said, I’ve been a fan of EXCEED for a long time. But I was at times a begrudging fan, irritated at the artwork or the weird choice of card foils or the sheer barrier to entry posed by a game that not many people would likely be enticed by. Hopefully the Street Fighter license brings broader appeal, because this system is more rewarding than ever, offering distinct characters, a refined look, and cooler combat options. In its third season, EXCEED has finally found its home.
A complimentary copy was provided.