Akuma is so powerful in Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo (ST) that he's banned in all US tournaments. I’ve noticed that when players of other games read about this, they think that is some kind of hypocrisy to the general theory that we should ban as little as we possibly can. But Akuma is not like whoever the best character is in whatever other game you play. He’s not just the best, but he’s miles and miles and miles above the rest of the cast. He was never intended to be fairly balanced in ST, and it shows.
In HD Remix, Akuma was our chance to get a 17th playable character. By taking him down several notches to make him fair for tournament play, we get 17 new matchups in the game. I even put him on the character select screen so you don’t have to do a code to pick him. In a nod to his fake-secrecy though, he’s “hidden” above Honda’s selection box.
Bugs That Ruined Akuma
Unfortunately, things didn't work out. It's true that HD Remix Akuma is WAY WAY weaker than ST Akuma, but he's still too good. He has a game-breaking bug and must be banned for that reason alone. The bug is that he makes an opponent block an air fireball, if he lands and does his Raging Demon super while they're still in blockstun, the opponent has only a 25% chance to jump out. Yes, it's really a random chance and it's really that exact chance. This is very easy to setup and it was never intended. We specifically coded it so that you CAN jump out if you're in hitstun, but we didn't catch the blockstun bug before release.
There are a few other bugs as well. ST Akuma's red fireball has completely invulnerable, unthrowable startup. ST Akuma's dragon punches have 0 frames of startup (hit on the first frame so they can't be safe jumped against). HD Remix Akuma retains both of those powerful properties, but he wasn't supposed to. Finally, the hit box on his air fireball, though the same as ST Akuma's, is accidentally too big in the zone behind the fireball. This makes it more difficult for characters like Honda to torpedo under it than it should.
All these bugs are very easy to fix and really unfortunate we never got the chance. The tournament players who tested him did not know of or abuse those bugs, they knew of plenty other properties about him and did not even rate him as top tier during or even shortly after release. The point being that he would have been a fair character if not for those bugs.
What follows is a description of all the work that went into balancing him before release.
Akuma has a lot of completely unfair things, but the air fireball is the main one. Most characters just can’t deal with it at all. My first idea was kind of an experiment. What if the air fireball was the only non-super move in the game that used up super meter, rather than gave super meter? Let him keep the unfairness of the move, but limit its use. The idea is sort of like an EX move from other Capcom fighting games.
I thought of this version of the move kind of like Millia’s hairpin in the fighting game Guilty Gear. In that game, Millia wants to rush you down. She has a hairpin move that has a similar trajectory to ST Akuma’s air fireball. Hers travels insanely fast though, and forces the opponent to block while she uses that time to get in. The catch is that she then has to pick up the Hairpin to do it again, so she can’t keep doing it over and over in a row. ST Akuma’s fireball is so hard to deal with that I thought allowing even a few of them would be pretty powerful because it would allow him to teleport or crossup or whatever other tricks he felt like. I tried making the move cost 25% super meter, but the air fireball itself was just as strong as ever.
Odds and Ends
There was a bunch of other stuff to fix up:
- Akuma’s ducking kicks no longer have invulnerable legs(!)
- Akuma can now be dizzied like any other character
- Akuma’s Hurricane Kicks don’t have invulnerable startup and can’t hit on the way up
- Raging Demon super tuned to go slower than the secret version of him on Dreamcast, but travel farther
- Teleport no longer has random input window and can be done with 2 punches or 2 kicks rather than 3 punches and 3 kicks (drawback: can't use "piano method" for Dragon Punch)
- Teleport has vulnerability in the head so he can’t run away forever with it, and it builds no super meter.
- Stray hitbox that was floating in the air on his medium kick is fixed
- Akuma takes more damage than other characters
- Red fireball recovery made way worse so it can’t do inescapable lockdown
- Blue fireball startup and recovery made closer to Ryu’s
- Knockback effect on his fierce blue fireball only happens from very close range
- Timing on Raging Demon command much more lenient
All of this definitely brought him down to Earth. He wasn’t overpowered anymore, but all the fun was balanced out of him too. More testing revealed that he was probably the worst character in the game.
Air Fireball, Take 2
The air fireball is Akuma’s signature special move, yet he could hardly even do it because of the meter restriction. That was a failed experiment. Next, we tried to make an air fireball that he could use as much as he wanted, like any special move, but that was somehow fair. It needed a much more downward angle for starters. The problem is that even when the angle was right, he could do really nasty lockdowns with repeated air fireballs. Making the fireballs travel faster or slower didn’t help at all. All it did was change the way he did the nasty lockdown.
The real trick to making that move work is the slight upward hop we added as he releases the fireball. This increases the time between two consecutive air fireballs, and it’s what lets opponents actually get out of any traps he might do. It took about 5 or 6 tries of tuning this move, but suddenly it clicked and seemed right.
At this point, I also added back in his hurricane kick’s ability to hit on the way up, so that it can hit ducking opponents and lead to a juggle. I also toned down his damage penalty so he didn’t take quite as much as before.
This version of Akuma was pretty good. It was definitely more fun to be able to do the air fireball more and try to set up tricks with it. A few months past and I started to think that Akuma was still the worst in the game, though. He has no super fireball like Ryu, no overhead, and no fake fireball. Akuma had some advantages, but just not enough to really justify picking him.
Version 3 Akuma
Then I made one small change that made a world of difference. I allowed his air fireball to be performed very low to the ground. In the original game, it has a minimum jump distance before it can come out, but I removed this. Now it became possible to do a “tiger knee” air fireball, meaning you roll the joystick from down to forward to up/forward (for a jump), then wait a moment for Akuma to barely leave the ground, then press punch to get an immediate air fireball. This turned out to be way more fun and versatile than I realized it would be.
Akuma can attempt many, many traps and setups with this. An example is immediate air fireball (I’ll call it TK air fireball, referencing the tiger knee motion), then land right next to the opponent with the cover of the air fireball. Then do, say, low strong, TK air fireball and land right next to them again. Then do low strong, low strong (pushes you farther away), and TK air fireball to reset the trap. This time, after you do a normal move or two, jump straight up and do an air fireball.
I just listed three different air fireball situations there: one TK from close, one TK from farther, and one where you jump straight up and don't do the tiger knee technique. Many characters have to do a different move or act at a different time in order to deal with each of those situations. Against new players, I can create what looks like an inescapable lockdown, but really it’s a mixup that gives the opponent several chances to get out. It’s all an illusion.
I tested this trap against all 17 characters and every single one can get out. Ken can do a medium dragon punch (invulnerable on the way up) to ignore the entire situation. Zangief can use his green hand. Bison can just jump strong. Everyone can do something. Also remember that if these air fireballs hit, they deal only a couple pixels of damage. If they hit as Akuma lands, he can attempt to go into a damaging combo, but due to the way the game intentionally slows down when fireballs hit, this combo will fail about 50% of the time no matter how good you are.
The air fireball was a hit with playtesters because it’s so fun and feels so powerful, yet is actually beatable in many ways.
Somewhere in the middle of development, we discovered that it was possible to make the Raging Demon super a guaranteed throw in many situations, such after a jump roundhouse. By adding some startup time (9 frames, same as CvS2), we thought we fixed this. Toward the end of development, we realized that we really didn’t and the Raging Demon was still guaranteed in lots of ways, most dangerously after any blocked air fireball! This made it the most powerful thing in the entire game and we had to do something. Unfortunately, the technical limitations surrounding this are big because it’s very difficult to mess with things like throw timing in the circuitous assembly code.
The solution we were able to implement is not quite ideal, but it’s definitely workable. In general in the SF2 series, when you hold up on the joystick, your character does not leave the ground immediately. Instead, he goes into a “pre-jump” state that lasts 2 to 5 frames, depending on the character. You can be thrown during pre-jump frames. The only change we made is that pre-jump frames are now invulnerable to the Raging Demon specifically.
That means if you hold up and you aren’t locked into doing a move or recovering from a move, you will always be able to jump out of Raging Demon, even from close on reaction. This makes the move a little weaker than intended, but it’s a preferable situation to being the best move in the game. This means the best time to use the super is when the opponent has committed to doing a move, such as a fireball or sweep. To help you land it, the Raging Demon is completely invulnerable and unthrowable. Even though opponents can jump out on reaction, it’s still possible to land this super by baiting their attacks first. [Note: there is a bug in that code and you can only jump out 25% of the time if you were in blockstun.]
Akuma has a solid ground game with fireballs that stand up to Ryu’s, juggling special moves, an incredibly versatile air fireball, and a tricky super. He does take more damage than any other character, though. Even though a lot went right with him and I personally think he's one of the most fun characters in the game, he must be banned because of a few bugs. We didn't quite get our 17th character.