a review of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike : Fight for the Future
a videogame developed by Capcom
and published by Capcom
for the arcades, the microsoft xbox, the microsoft xbox 360, the sega dreamcast, the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by David Cabrera
As this goes to press, Street Fighter IV will be sitting in my local arcade, inside of a cabinet the owner is building himself. The community is small here, but it is alive and well. Soon, like old times, there will be lines to play Street Fighter. There were two-hour lines for SvC Chaos when it came out, and that was bad Street Fighter. There will be fire-hazard crowds for good Street Fighter: they will choke that little building. I predict that in a dubious triumph, the Street Fighter body-odor gas cloud is going to rise up and overpower the Pocky-and-sweat DDR stench for the first time in years. But even with the new game in front of them on a Friday, there are going to be people who just stick to the Third Strike machine. You see, in fighting games, the new game does not necessarily kill the old game. Street Fighter Alpha didn’t kill Street Fighter II, and Street Fighter III didn’t kill Street Fighter Alpha, and Street Fighter IV won’t kill Street Fighter III. All the way up to the bulldozer death of whichever niche arcade has the privilege of being called America’s last, there will be two Ken players standing at a Third Strike machine, standing across the screen from one another, holding down and pressing Strong punch. When the building is demolished, they will crawl out from under the bulldozer and go home to play Third Strike on their PS2s. The game is simply an evergreen.
A few weeks ago, on the ferry home, my friend and I were bitching about the state of the Capcom fighting game. We find the new games promising, yes, but we love so much that we nitpick, and when we nitpick we always find a reason to bitch anyway. Please, make no mistake: it comes from love. We bitched about Tatsunoko vs. Capcom because we don’t want to play Ryu and Chun-Li and Morrigan yet again: we bitched about Street Fighter IV because the new character designs are all so uninspired. We bitched about Street Fighter II HD because they harnessed the power of current technology just to make it ugly, and we bitched about Guilty Gear because the animation is so choppy. All our complaints came right back to “Why isn’t this game more like Third Strike?” He plays Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and I play Virtua Fighter, but we’re both intimately familiar with Third Strike and agree on one thing: now that was a game. We now regard this game– which, remember, bombed at the time of its release– as a genre landmark. Why do we look back on Third Strike so fondly? Easy: it had balls.
Street Fighter III was, on the whole, an amazingly bold move. It was a departure: after the story-heavy Alpha games, Street Fighter had become a mythology, an overblown web of friendships, rivalries and deaths that had little to do with the essential business of people hitting each other. Street Fighter III wiped the board and started over. It’s the future, says SFIII. Here are Ryu, Ken and a bunch of people you have never met before. Enjoy. When the first SFIII game released to US arcades, Capcom USA didn’t even want to call it Street Fighter anymore. The marquee just says Three. You’re supposed to know the name already, and you’re supposed to be over it. The game wanted people to move on, make new friends.
And our new friends had such character and presence that they were impossible to ignore. You could ignore the game because of them (a lot of people did), but that was your loss. Street Fighter II‘s characters were immediately effective because they’re simple ethnic stereotypes. Like it or not, you take a look at big, Russian, battle-scarred Zangief and the collective unconscious fills in the rest for you. Street Fighter II hit the jackpot on stereotypes and gave us one of the most memorable videogame casts of all time. Street Fighter III‘s cast is half simple type– the cute ninja girl Ibuki, Ken’s young student Sean– and half unique, frequently leaning into the bizarre: the half-naked one-armed hermit Oro, the clay shape-shifter Twelve. The new main character, Alex, acts as a particularly bold statement of intent: he’s a close-range grappler of exactly the sort that people tend not to play, but he is the hero nonetheless. He represents a new artistic direction, a new gameplay direction, a new fighting style. He never caught on.
These characters are all stunningly realized in what remains the finest 2D animation in videogames. Third Strike is not a game that lends itself well to screenshots: it looks fine in stills, but the look is incomplete until you see the way that clothes ripple and hair blows. From full-body transformations to slow, agonized falls, these characters live, breathe, and shake with an unmatched level of detail in every frame. They have presence, impact, character. It is the graphical inverse of Guilty Gear and its high-resolution brethren, which are exceptionally detailed in single screenshots but jerky in motion.
Street Fighter II, and indeed, the 2D fighting game as a genre, is about controlling space on a two-dimensional plane– the ageless battle of dueling rectangles disguised as human beings. When you look at a 2D fighting game, think not of the characters, but of their outstretched limbs and the objects that they throw at each other. I’ve been watching tournament videos of Super SFII Turbo lately, and what the expert players all have in common is an ability to lock space down and thus keep their opponent from acting. Think of the intimidation factor of the fireball thrown over your downed body: in Street Fighter II there is no recourse but to stand and block it. With some characters the fireballs keep coming, and fast. Some characters can, with some effort, go through the fireballs, but others are simply locked down. That flying box isn’t omnipotent, but it’s damned strong.
Street Fighter III decided to open up the game by making it easier for the player to break those rectangles. This is what parrying is about. Tap forward, and you’re committed for a split second– a split second is enough to get your face kicked in, I assure you– but you will simply stop any incoming high attacks, including that fireball we were just talking about. You can be hit low into a big combo, you can be thrown for some damage, but if you guess correctly what is coming, you can break it. If you guess that they’re going to try to hit you low, you can parry that, too. If you think they’re going to throw you, attack. Many attacks take long enough to recover from that a successful parry actually guarantees a high-damage combo. This is huge, and it completely changes how Street Fighter works. Suddenly, distance is a little less relevant, the poor fireball is a shadow of himself, and the game revolves around a high-stakes, up-close guessing game.
It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was a bold step: initially, a lot of players dismissed parrying as the worst, most game-breaking mechanic ever, and SFIII was shunned all the way up to Third Strike. (It, of course, did not help matters that Capcom rushed Three to market incomplete and totally broken, with, for example, a hilarious one-button infinite combo.) Years later, a small, vocal group of players insisted that Third Strike was in fact really great, and that everybody had missed out on something amazing. They were right, God bless them, and as the Western arcade scene simply ran out of games to play, Third Strike ended up under the limelight for perhaps the first time since its release. As well-loved as Third Strike is now, long after the point, we have to remember that at release, and at the grocery store by my house, Street Fighter III bombed once, bombed twice, and then bombed again. That gorgeous animation probably cost Capcom a big ol’ pile of money too.
But market failures are market failures, even if they’re awesome, so it makes sense that Street Fighter is regressing now. After a long silence, Capcom is returning to a flagship franchise by remaking Street Fighter II twice at the same time: the jokes write themselves. Where SFIII pushed ahead, Street Fighter IV says “oh god, we’re in the future, we can’t stay here we gotta go back.” So all our old friends are back, because last time people got mad when they were gone and there were a bunch of weird people standing in the room instead. Now the cast is a pack of old friends, and I love the whole damned lot of them, but they’re getting tired. They’ve been trotted out so many times that save fuzzy, fifteen-year nostalgia, they’ve lost much of their impact. I just can’t get too excited about playing as them again.
And our new friends aren’t weird at all: they’re focus-grouped and boring. Something is wrong when your most interesting character is the Stock Fat Guy. And then there’s Chick With A Tie! Another Goddamn Guy in a Gi! Rey Mysterio Jr.! These latter two are especially appalling character design choices: they tell me that somebody, somewhere, is not even trying. Seriously. Street Fighter. Your last game had an English gentleman boxer who threw roses and a giant nearly-naked two-tone final boss who actually uttered the words “THE MARK OF MY DIGNITY WILL SCAR THY DNA”. And now the mighty have fallen far enough to rip off a character Virtua Fighter already ripped off real life? Seriously, Street Fighter? I know that blandness is in vogue now: I know that the market wants every videogame to star Marcus Fenix, and I know they’re scared that if they see a rainbow in a videogame, their balls are going to escape from their scrotum in search of a real man to host them. But Capcom, can’t we have crazy back? Just a little bit? You were so good at it!
On a bare technical level, you know, I must conceded that both of the SFII remakes actually look pretty good. The HD remake of Super Street Fighter II Turbo looks like an excellent reworking of the character balance, even though the look is so pasted-on and awkward. And if Street Fighter IV is good enough for psychic dragon-punch genius Daigo Umehara, it’s probably good enough for me. I’ll certainly be among the long line waiting to play at Chinatown Fair when the time comes. When the console version comes, I’ll likely play a lot of Street Fighter IV and have a great time with it. But Third Strike is the game I’m going to remember fondly. It’s a game I respect and admire: it’s a strong iconoclast where Street Fighter IV is a simple crowdpleaser. It’s not that my buddy on the ferry and I want all Street Fighter games to be the exact same game as Third Strike: that would be as redundant as every Street Fighter game trying to be Street Fighter II. We just want them to be adventurous again. I bet nobody even raps in Street Fighter IV.