Saturday, October 22, 2011

XBLA review: Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition

As a genre, fighting games are relatively foreign territory to me. I played a ton of Super Smash Bros. when it first hit the N64, and the same story carried through to Melee and Brawl. The thing I appreciated most about those fighting games was the fact that they were so accessible. True, it would take anyone time and patience to master each and every character, but newcomers could still compete decent enough in a throw-down of Nintendo’s best. Besides that, I only had a few cracks at the arcade version of Mortal Kombat at a local roller skating rink during elementary school field trips. In my early years of gaming (as well as today) my forte was in adventure and platforming games. I was all-too aware of the fact that arcade-style fighting games were largely dependent on players memorizing a list of moves and combos, which differed from one character to the next. That factor probably played the largest influence over my lack of interest in the genre for years to come.

However, in recent years I have rediscovered the genre as something of a beacon for old-school gamers amidst the onslaught of mainstreamed and over-hyped titles (the majority of which happen to be first-person-shooters). These arcade fighters stick with a classic formula, and – while they may provide tutorials of sorts – are not going to hold your hand the entire time. They will dish out one beating after another, and it is up to each individual player to find his or her own unique style of play to combat this. And that is one of the aspects of this genre that I truly admire – the flexibility players are granted through the variety of characters.

Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition is a game from the golden era of fighting games. The characters are varied but still very well-balanced, a result of years of trial-and-error on the part of Capcom and other companies. There is a myriad of different subgroupings to each fighting style. While Elena and Ibuki both focus on fighting from a range, the former does so with kicks and acrobatics, while the latter relies on swift kicks and throwing Kunai. Though Ryu and Akuma might seem like polar opposites skinned over the same move set, it is apparent that Akuma’s energy blasts are not as potent as Ryu’s, while his kicks and supercombos trump those of the series’ posterboy. Despite the fact that there are some striking similarities that can be drawn between some of the characters, it is impossible to find any two that are direct copies of each other.

The arcade mode lasts through nine standard fights, with two minigames thrown in the mix, and a boss fight at the conclusion of all this. Before each fight, players are presented with two opponents to choose from. While these are characters that will have difficulty playing both offense and defense to the player-controlled character, the last couple of choices narrow down to a “lesser of two evils” scenario. Beating the ‘final boss’ Gill as each individual character will prompt a cutscene that explores their story in more specific context.

The combat itself is very fluid. Combos and supercombos are a bit easier to chain than in the likes of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, primarily due to the fact that Third Strike is a past-gen game ported over to a current-gen console with a very different controller than that of the Dreamcast. Players can tweak the difficulty setting at the main menu as they see fit, as well as access training modes to hone their skills both offensively and defensively. The CPU does an impressive job responding to players. Only on rare occasions will it feel a bit cheap. For example, opponents that use blast attacks (most notably Ryu, Akuma, and Urien) do have a tendency to spam these when low on health. Also, players should be aware of how much space they have to work with on any given level, as some of the more physical combat-oriented characters (Yun, Yang, Dudley) may corner them and proceed to mercilessly launch-kick and punch them until their health meter is depleted.

The graphics maintain the traditional look and feel of the side-view and character sprites, but the level of detail presented in each character model and level backdrop is simply gorgeous. This makes a perfect marriage to the soundtrack, which is a combination of hip-hop, techno, and ethnic music. Players can earn points by completing various challenges in game – defeating opponents with 20 supercombo finishes, beating Yang as Yun (and vice versa), etc. – as well as completing the arcade mode each time through. They can then spend these points however they see fit on soundtrack pieces, concept art, and short videos to revisit whenever they wish. There is also an option to upload fights to YouTube, though this seems more of an afterthought with the video quality of these replays set at a 240p default. It would have been a better idea to let players save a handful of their favorite fights to their system's hard drive, retaining the HD quality playback.

Street Fighter III: Third Strike is a great fighting game all around. The final fight against Gill is brutal, and frankly the most uneven aspect of the experience. But the fact that players can jump in and play online is a great addition, and the unlockables are nice for nostalgia’s sake. Players can adjust the difficulty setting as they see fit within a pretty specific skill range, accommodating for both veterans and newcomers to the franchise. The faces may not all be familiar to those who played the previous titles, but every playable character in Third Strike: Online Edition is balanced to perfection.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

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