Ken is a nasty little bastard at the best of times. He has formidable footsie options, an infuriating mixup game and huge combo potential while still retaining much of Ryu's zoning game. Yet the oft-heralded tier lists frequently place Ryu ahead of Ken. This is understandable; on paper, Ryu is superior to Ken. Conventional wisdom dictates that v2012 Ryu is superior due to the many buffs he received to restore his appeal as a character following AE (Ken, in comparison, was tuned with a number of nerfs). If we break down both characters across a number of categories (assuming each category is assigned equal weighting), we can start to paint a picture of the competitiveness of each character:
|Ryu vs. Ken Comparison Table (a green highlight denotes a win)|
On paper, Ryu would appear to be the superior shoto; he has a shorter learning curve and higher damage output. Fortunately, there exists a compelling argument here that wouldn't have been relevant in Vanilla or Super.
Arcade Edition bought with it a significant change to the dynamics Street Fighter 4. It signalled that Capcom intended to produce a more offense-oriented game, with less dominance by fireball characters and more reward for players willing to take risks in close to medium-range combat. The effect was quite apparent to existing players, with one particularly well-known Japanese Ryu famously declaring "it's over for projectile characters [in Arcade Edition]". It perhaps didn't help that two non-shoto S-tier characters were introduced (much to the bemoaning of existing players, writer included) that are notoriously adept at shutting down fireball characters.
Given the above, it could be argued that Ken represents a finely-tuned Ryu more suited to the offence-oriented reality of Arcade Edition and v2012. His close to medium-range game is far more capable in achieving a knockdown and is complemented by superior mixup options to effectively capitalise on each knockdown. Above all however, Ken's inherent superiority as a shoto boils down to a single move:
F + MK
The effectiveness of this normal lies in its ability to set the tempo of the match, as well as exert pressure in situations where Ryu can't. It's extremely hard for Ryu to exert pressure in a footsie situation without taking on significant risk; he has to physically move forward and attack or 'bulldoze' with cr.mp and cr.mk, all while exposed to counter-attacks from more able-bodied characters. In comparison, Ken's step kick can be initiated safely out of range of most normals, is safe on block from mid-range and pushes him into attack range. When executed up close, it has frame-advantage on block (+1) meaning he can often follow-up with a counter-hit. This provides for an almost fail-safe U1 setup against unsuspecting opponents; players can step kick at close range then immediately input hp srk > fadc > U1. It is the author's experience that opponents will often instinctively throw tech after blocking a close step kick (due to ken's proximity) allowing one to immediately follow up with hp srk (counter-hit or otherwise). Arguably, the step kick is Ken's greatest tool.
While the author is loathe to assign 'grades' to characters (player ability is far more influential) there does exist a need in the community to understand the potential of any given character. Ultimately, however, players should strive to adopt a character that suits their style of play.