Street Fighter Alpha 3 MAX Review
Street Fighter Alpha 3 is no stranger to the living room, having been released previously for the PlayStation, Saturn, and Dreamcast consoles, as well as the Game Boy Advance handheld. The PSP version of this 2-D masterpiece, however, is the definitive version, as it incorporates all of the characters and features from the previous releases, along with exclusive new characters and play modes. There are 39 unique characters to pick from, compared to 35 on the Dreamcast and 25 in the original arcade game. Single player modes include arcade, training, kumite (vs. 100 opponents), survival, dramatic battle (2-against-1), reverse dramatic battle (1-against-2), variable battle (2-against-1 tag style), team battle (1-against-1 with 3 fighters per side), final battle (go straight to the boss), and world tour. Owners of the earlier PlayStation and Dreamcast releases will recognize the RPG-style world tour mode, which lets players create custom characters using the experience and status items gained by beating fighters in various cities. For whatever reason, Capcom has also included a stand-alone edit mode in the PSP game, which enables players to create custom characters without having to play through the world tour mode. The kumite, variable battle, and team battle modes are likewise brand-new additions to the PSP game.
Local WiFi allows multiple players to link their copies of the game together to participate in stand-alone matches and tournaments involving all of the various match types (1-on-1, dramatic battle, variable battle, team battle). On the tournament setting, as many as 8 systems can be joined together in a local area network of sorts, with the CPU managing match-ups, brackets, and results. It even awards trophies for first, second, and third places. No, there's no online play. Yes, that does suck. The sheer number of different single-player and offline multiplayer modes, however, does at least soften the sting of Capcom's failure to include Internet play.
When the game was first announced back in May of 2005, people wondered why Capcom chose to bring Street Fighter Alpha 3 to the PSP instead of a classic, like Super Street Fighter II Turbo, or newer games, such as Street Fighter III or Capcom Fighting Evolution. The reason, simply put, is popularity, which stems from Capcom's triple threat of making Street Fighter Alpha 3 the most accessible, most fun, and most varied out of all of the Street Fighter games. The large character roster and colorful, cartoon quality graphics continue to grab the attention of newcomers. Right off, a neophyte can go in, pick any of the 39 characters, and hold their own within minutes of getting a quick feel for the game's trademark quarter-circle and two-second-charge special move motions. Those welcoming controls, coupled with the flashy graphics, allow gamers to quickly relax and focus on the cathartic thrills that result from trading punches, rolling behind opponents, and dishing out devastating super attacks.
In addition to being accessible and fun, Alpha 3 also provides a level of variety and depth that's unmatched by other games in the genre. Once you become an expert, there's still quite a lot to learn and master. Each character has its own unique fighting style, with a dozen or so basic moves, multiple special moves, and two or three super attacks. Over time, you'll figure out how these moves can be put together to create multi-hit juggles and combinations. On defense, every character can block on the ground or in the air, and also perform multiple recovery moves that allow players to soften the impact of throws and recover more quickly from knockdowns. Street Fighter Alpha 3 incorporates every essential fighting game nuance--throw softening, which lets you land on your feet after you're thrown; mid-air recovery, which lets you lets you land on your feet, attack, or roll behind the opponent immediately after taking a hit while airborne; alpha counters, which let you reverse an incoming attack; and aerial blocking, which lets you guard against attacks while jumping. SFA3 was also one of the first fighting games to incorporate a guard meter, basically a feature that punishes turtle behavior by stunning players that block too many attacks without making an effort to reciprocate.
As if all of that wasn't enough to learn, you can also pick from three different rule sets, called "ISMs," that switch-up characters' super attacks and change how their guard and super combo meters function. X-ISM gives you one level of super, a slight attack upgrade, and makes it so that you can block without fear of being stunned by a "guard crush," but it takes away the very useful ability to block in mid-air. A-ISM tones down attack damage and makes you vulnerable to a "guard crush" stun, but it counters those downgrades by giving characters multiple super attacks, three levels of super meter, and the ability to block in mid-air. The final style, V-ISM, is the choice of experts, because, even though it again tones down attack damage and only provides two levels of super meter, it allows players to use that super meter to perform custom combos that can dole out more damage than pre-programmed super attacks. You won't get bored with or master this game in a weekend; that's for sure.
Supporting all of that wonderful gameplay is some of the very best 2-D artwork ever seen in a home video game (especially on the PSP), as well as music and sound effects that practically define the term "attitude."
Backdrops and characters are drawn in a warm style that's reminiscent of Manga style comic books. The pastel-hued scenery provides a balanced contrast to the solidly-colored character sprites. When SFA3 first came to arcades, people complained that the backdrops were too static. In response, Capcom added new backgrounds to the subsequent home versions. With regards to the PSP game, roughly half of the 40-or-so backgrounds are static paintings with only a hint of detail here and there (lighting effects, mainly), whereas the rest are multi-layered and lively. Highlights include the windmills surrounding Cammy's stage, the neon lights and prancing bikini babes decorating Balrog's stage, and the military trains and helicopters that go by during bouts on Guile's stage.
Character sprites are large, colorful, and interesting. Fan-favorites Ryu and Ken caress the screen with their confident smiles and color coordinated karate uniforms. Hot babes, such as Cammy and R.Mika, in their nipple-enhancing spandex outfits, not to mention Sakura in her tasty schoolgirl outfit, give horny guys and flamboyant girls some fan service to gawk at, while less pervy players can make do with conservative femmes like Chun Li, Karin, and Rose, who tend toward lengthy dresses and unflattering undergarments. Then there are the freaky characters, such as the animalistic Blanka and the stretchy Dhalsim, which are always a hoot to play, and the muscle-bound hulks (Guile, from the military; Balrog, the boxer; and Zangief, the russian bear), which simply demand attention thanks to their giant bodies and brutish good looks. Every single attack, footfall, recovery, and special move is fluidly animated. Perhaps the animation isn't as seamless as we've seen in Capcom's more recent effort, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, but it's still very smooth, especially considering how many characters and moves are in this game.
Also sweet is that every character has a number of different opening and victory animations that occur before and after a match. The victory animations are the typical kind of braggadocio you'd expect, but some of the openers are honest-to-goodness laughers. Blanka joins the fray by jumping out of the back of a fruit truck, Vega showers himself with rose petals, R.Mika jumps off the top rope of a portable wrestling ring, and Karin's portly butler will sometimes stand-in for her before the match starts--just to name a few. Some match-ups have their own unique openers too, such as Sagat and Adon greeting one another with Muay Thai kicks before they do battle. Eagle-eyed fans of the original arcade game will notice that every single one of the characters' various opening and victory animations are all present and accounted for in the PSP version. That means that poor Cody gets chased by Edi.E, the cop from Final Fight, after every match. Ha ha! The Dreamcast game, despite its undeniable greatness, was missing a few of the more elaborate sequences. Though these sorts of details are fluff, it is fluff like this that helps give the game its unique personality and endears players to the characters.
Speaking of personality, or attitude, everyone remembers the "hadouken" voice sample from Street Fighter II. Likewise, anybody that stepped into an arcade or owned a Super Nintendo back in the day can probably still hum Chun Li or Ryu's stage music note for note. Capcom established a reputation early on for memorable tunes and quotable voice effects, and that pedigree continues strong in Street Fighter Alpha 3. Every stage has its own music, composed in Q Sound virtual surround sound. Not all of the compositions are memorable, but there are definitely a few that'll stick in your head after you turn the game off. The various slap-happy sound effects for moves and falls fit the on-screen action perfectly. More importantly, all of the characters have a bunch of accompanying vocal outbursts for their key moves. Ryu and Ken each call out their "hadouken" and "shoryuken" attacks in their own distinct voices, Dhalsim's "Yoga Fire" reflects the throaty timbre of an old man's voice now, and Zangief's "Final...Atomic...Buster" is the perfect accompaniment for the three piledrivers he performs during his super attack. Tying everything together is the game's boisterous announcer. Not content to just call out the typical "round one, fight" and "you win," this confident fellow also cheers players on before and after matches with comments like "you have fists of God" and "beat 'em up guy, go for broke!" He injects so much attitude into the proceedings. He's arguably the best announcer the franchise has ever had.
Capcom's visceral delights haven't lost anything in the transition to the PSP hardware either. The backgrounds and characters look crisp and clean on the PSP's screen. LCD "ghosting" isn't a problem, despite the game's relatively speedy pace. By default, the graphics are stretched to fill the entire screen. The text for menu items and dialogue boxes is somewhat distorted in this "wide" view, but the characters and backgrounds look just fine. You can select a "normal" 4:3 display setting in the options menu, which will return the graphics to their normal dimensions, although you'll end up with small black borders at the left and right sides of the screen. Surprisingly, the game's audio comes through loud and clear from the PSP's much-maligned speakers. Character and announcer voices are well-defined, as they should be, and the music pipes through at a loud volume with all of its surround-sound nuances intact. Somehow, Capcom's audio gurus have managed to push music out of the PSP at a loud volume, and in surround-sound no less. Other developers, take note.
Compared to the all of the earlier versions of the game, the PSP version of Street Fighter Alpha 3 has the most in common with the Dreamcast game. Played side-by-side, it's obvious that Capcom used the Dreamcast assets to lay the groundwork for the PSP game. All of the combos and strategies that work on the Dreamcast also work on the PSP, most of the play modes are the same, and the backgrounds and animations are all pretty much identical too. Not long after the Dreamcast game was released, Capcom produced a version of SFA3 for the Sega Saturn that made use of the company's 4MB RAM cart. That version had extra animations, opening scenes, and victory poses that weren't in the Dreamcast version. Capcom must like PSP owners, because all of those extra "fluff" animations made it into the PSP game.
We've been conditioned to believe that home games should strive to emulate the original arcade game as closely as possible. In the case of SFA3 though, the home versions have continually expanded and improved upon what Capcom originally let into to the arcades. The PSP game benefits from all of the upgrades that the Dreamcast and Saturn games received (more characters, more backgrounds, better CPU A.I., and fewer game breaking exploits), and then tacks on a few extra characters and modes just for good measure. A vocal minority of "arcade snobs" decry the home versions, because Capcom toned down certain characters and removed exploits that allow some characters to perform unblockable or infinite combos, but it's that re-balancing that has actually helped the home versions of Street Fighter Alpha 3 remain sought after, whereas the arcade game has all but disappeared from the world's game centers. A few characters in SFA 3 MAX are still overpowered, and a couple are still grossly underpowered, but, by and large, the character balance is pretty fair (especially considering the size of the game's roster).
Owners of earlier versions of the game will appreciate that the PSP version includes additional characters and modes not found in the PlayStation and Dreamcast releases (and, to some extent, the Game Boy Advance game). Eagle and Maki, from Capcom VS SNK 2, and Yun, from Street Fighter III, were first introduced in the Game Boy Advance version and have been carried forward onto the PSP game's roster. Joining them is Ingrid, a spiritual waif that made her debut in the much-hated Capcom Fighting Evolution. Her speedy attacks and SNK-style special moves make her an interesting addition to the cast. People that enjoy playing characters that keep the pressure on will fall in love with her. Sadly, Chuck Norris still hasn't found his way onto the roster, despite numerous write-in campaigns calling for the bearded legend's inclusion. For whatever reason, Capcom didn't conjure up any new backgrounds for the latest additions to the cast, but they all do at least have their own dialogue scenes, ending sequences, and funny match-openers when facing certain opponents. A couple years ago, Capcom added characters to the GBA version without giving 'em dialogue or endings. Thankfully, that isn't the case with the PSP game.
The new team play option, along with the three different 2-on-1 modes, also inject a bit of freshness into the game. If you have any experience with SNK's King of Fighters games, you already know how team play works. Both players pick a team of three characters. When one character is KO'd, a fresh character comes in to replace the fallen one. The winner is the player that manages to KO all three of his opponents. The three 2-on-1 modes, on the other hand, are setup like handicap matches. Dramatic Battle and Reverse Dramatic Battle have three fighters on the play field simultaneously. The difference in naming refers to whether it's you and another character ganging up on a lone enemy, or it's you that's on the receiving end of the double-team. Variable battle, on the other hand, is setup like a handicap tag team match in wrestling. One player gets to pick two characters, while the other has to make do with one (albeit with double the health). Play happens just like it does during a normal 1-on-1 match, except that the player with two characters can swap one for the other at anytime. When one fighter gets low on health, you simply need to push two buttons at the same time to instantly replace the tired fighter with the fresh one. In WiFi matches, two players can team up against the CPU in a Dramatic Battle or Variable Battle, or one player can join up with a CPU-controlled opponent to gang up on the other. Obviously, it would've been nicer if Capcom had implemented a true 2-on-2 tag mode, similar to Marvel Vs. Capcom, but these 2-on-1 options do at least provide a sufficient diversion from the standard 1-on-1 setup.
Lastly, anyone that rented, bought, or otherwise tolerated Capcom's first fighting game on the PSP, Darkstalkers Chronicle, should take note: Capcom reduced the load times and fixed the controls in Street Fighter Alpha 3 MAX. Load times clock in at a very reasonable six seconds between each match, but they're practically "invisible" since they occur during the animated match-up screens that appear between each fight. Best of all, the controls aren't stiff and unresponsive, as was the case with Darkstalkers. Special moves that require quarter-circle, half-circle, and "charge" inputs are relatively easy to pull off in SFA3.
Loyal PSX Extreme readers will recall from our write-up of the Japanese version of the game that Capcom included an adhesive control pad attachment with every copy in that territory's initial shipment. Thanks to numerous fan inquiries, Capcom USA is also making the d-pad attachment available to customers in North America. Anyone that orders Street Fighter Alpha 3 MAX from the Capcom's website will receive the d-pad free, while supplies last. The controls are fairly responsive without the "d-pad topper," but there's no denying that it does indeed increase the overall comfort and responsiveness by an extra little bit; enough to make it impossible to live without once you've played the game with it attached. Just for kicks, we also tested the topper with Darkstalkers Chronicle, and were surprised to discover that it actually improves the responsiveness of the controls in that game by a significant margin. Formerly-impossibly attacks, such as Demitri's demon cradle and Donovan's lightning sword, were effortless to perform with the new d-pad. We sincerely hope that Capcom USA will continue to make the control pad attachment available for as long as possible, because it truly is a wonderful accessory.
Regardless of whether or not you can get your hands on Capcom's sticky d-pad attachment, you owe it to yourself to get Street Fighter Alpha 3 MAX if you enjoyed any of the previous versions, are a fan of 2-D fighting games, or happen to be the least bit curious as to what the genre is all about. Capcom once again failed to include Chuck Norris as a playable character, but they did manage to take what was already a fun and slickly produced game and make it even better, by making it portable and by incorporating characters and features that previous versions of the game didn't have.
2/6/2006 Frank Provo