Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha - (PlayStation)
So as I wind down my first “season” of this blog, it dawns on me that I have done a great disservice to not only a large genre of videogames, but a genre I have always been a big fan of. I remember fighting games being among the first games I truly enjoyed. On the day I got my Sega Genesis (the first console that was ever exclusively my own), I received “Mortal Kombat” and played it and “Sonic 2” pretty equally. I would rent Street Fighter II all the time from the local Hometown Video and run through it...on the 1-star difficulty...I hated losing. The Dreamcast was a fighting game fan's paradise, with many arcade fighters being ported to it, many of which were 1:1 with their arcade counterparts with additional features to boot.
It could be argued that the Sony Playstation didn't have the same amount of truly great fighters. Many of the ports to both Playstation and Saturn gave the advantage to the Saturn, its more 2D-friendly architecture, and its more fighter friendly controller. This would continue once the Dreamcast hit, as the Playstation would receive some of the same ports the Dreamcast had; “Street Fighter Alpha 3”, “Marvel vs. Capcom”, “Capcom vs. SNK”, but the resolution and animation stuttered in order for them to run on the Playstation and it also included more and longer load times, whereas the Dreamcast versions ran with little/no consolation, faster and fewer loading screens, and in some cases the sound quality was noticeably better.
This isn't to say the Playstation was a slouch for fighting games. In fact, in the grand scheme of the history of videogames, I'd say the original Playstation has a claim for being one of the better systems for fighting games. The obvious example is the Tekken series. Hell, I'll just put it out there, “Tekken 3” makes a strong case for the bar-none best game on the entire Playstation console. “Soul Blade” didn't receive as much attention, but provided a strong foundation for what would eventually become the legendary “Soul Caliber” series. And Capcom did give the Playstation plenty of fighting game love. The “Street Fighter Alpha” series might have played better on Sega's console, but the fact it's much easier to find a copy of the Alpha games on Playstation than Sega's system shows which system had the advantage when it came to the bottom line. Capcom also had not one, but two “Street Fighter Collection” compilations for the Playstation (hint: first one is worth a spin, not so much the second).
But the piece of Street Fighter history we're discussing today is “Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha”. This was the first time a Street Fighter game went beyond 2D sprites and moved into 3D polygonal models for their fighters. They would explore this again for two more sequels, but wouldn't return to this style for Street Fighter until “Street Fighter IV”. And as it turns out, that highly-regarded entry in the Street Fighter franchise would carry some extra innovations as well. And while it is heavily flawed, it's definitely worth a spin for fighting game fans if you can find it at a decent price.
The 3D character models are what Capcom and Arika most wanted to stand out in this game. And while they are impressive by 1997 PS1 standards, their jagged flaws are plain to see.
So let's stay on the graphics as, on the surface, that's what sets this game apart from the other games in the Street Fighter franchise. Of course, in late 2017, such blocky models look outdated and jagged. But compared to other 3D fighters on the system, they look around the same level as the early Tekken games. “Tekken 3” looks unquestionably better, but “Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha” is no slouch. Capcom seemed really proud of this effort, as the game includes a “watch” option with multiple camera angles to view a fight. Some of these camera angles include first-person perspectives and an ariel view which, for some reason, reveals how far the stage barrier actually stretches out before it just fades into the static backdrops (each stage stretches out infinitely, with no walls or barriers). The backgrounds are varied, with some actually looking pretty neat. Noteworthy are the carnival, Japanese shrine, and forest (seen above) stages. The only stage that I would say includes any special elements is the sewer stage, with a layer of water that doesn't affect the action, but provides more visual effect than a floor and a backdrop.
I feel it's fair at this point that I mention that I'm about as hardcore a fighting game player can be while still being just a casual player. I've never had it in me to try to execute complex combos, know frame data, and have exact match-up charts figured out (though I can often theorize when I can dominate someone with my main character and when I'll need to change my ballgame around). There's an old YouTube video of a “hardcore Smash Bros. fan” that had played casually on-and-off vs. a professional Melee player, with the professional thrashing the fan from the word “go”. I stand in the light of the former. If someone doesn't have a clue about a fighting game I'm playing, I'll make quick work of them. If I go up against someone who knows the complexities of the specific fighter I'm playing, I'll look like a joke. I can watch the stuff at the EVO fighting game tournaments and know what's going on, but not how to execute that myself.
I feel this needs to be mentioned before I get into the gameplay of SFEX+A (sheesh, even the acronym is tedious to type out). The base gameplay is pretty on-point on the surface. Jumps feel somewhat floaty, but all 3D fighters were struggling with this aspect at the time, and to Capcom's credit, it's nothing near what Virtua Fighter and early Tekken games were doing (Tekken 3 would eventually get this right by my standards). Hadokens and Shoryukens can be performed with similar controls to the 2D editions, but in a strange move, the Shoto (fighters like Ryu and Ken that use a form of projectile and an anti-air uppercut) staple “Hurricane Kick” has been modified. This strongly affects how those characters are used, as the modified kick's slower speed and less points of contact change the utility of a move once relied upon to close distance in a relatively safe manner. There are other similar tweaks to familiar fighters, such as Chun-Li and Guile. Some fighters, like Sakura and Zangief, actually receive new abilities that improve upon how they fight compared to their 2D editions.
Even characters like final boss M. Bison have been tweaked from their 2D renditions, with original Arika-made characters bringing a unique (though not always welcome) approach.
The newer characters also add a unique spin to the game. Arika (a company probably best known today as the developers of a speed-running staple in the “Tetris; The Grand Master” series) had free reign to create some characters of their own for this project. Because of this, many characters in this game became fan favorites, but due to Arika owning the rights to them (and actually making more fighting games of their own starring them in Japan), many of these will likely never be seen in an American release again unless Arika wants to port their original fighters over themselves (which is strongly being hinted at with their upcoming untitled fighter for PS4). Some of these original characters come off as clones of more traditional characters; Allen Snyder and Kairi seem like Arika's answer to a Shoto character with their own fireballs and uppercuts that serve similar functions (in the EX sequels, Kairi would also receive an Akuma-esque demon form). Darun Mister is a pro wrestler that has some unique moves of his own, but the Zangief inspiration is totally undeniable. Some characters feel right at home while being one-of-a-kind; fan favorite Skullomania flies all over the stage while often showboating and grandstanding during and after his moves, while Garuda's spiked-armor gives him a unique set of moves unlike anything from a Street Fighter game. Unfortunately, a few fighters feel out of place; D. Dark throws bombs and uses a tripwire that can send an electric bolt or reel in a fighter when an opponent is trapped, but the pace of doing so is slow to the point that if you're using him and haven't learned him inside and out, the pace of a fight slows to a crawl. Two hidden characters include Cycloid Beta and Gamma, who simply rob select moves from other characters. While Capcom would cash in on this again with Street Fighter IV antagonist Seth, the movelists of the Cycloids seem a lot more haphazard and don't flow as well as Seth does in SF IV.
Another feature that echos something that would eventually be seen in Street Fighter IV is the “guard break” system. By hitting the two “medium attack” buttons (default is triangle and circle, though you can set it as a one-button command in the options), your character will execute an attack that will not only break through a character's block (done by holding back when a character is attacking), but it will leave the opponent in a stunned state, allowing an excellent opportunity to follow-up with a special attack, a super move, or a combo. This would eventually evolve into the “focus attack” of Street Fighter IV. However, after playing a good bunch of Street Fighter IV, where the focus attack could be done without using a segment of the “super meter” (a three-tier meter that builds during the match, allowing for use of “super moves”) as well as adding an “armor” aspect where the attack would go through even when attacked, the Guard Break requires a super bar segment to even attempt the move, and one attack will knock you out of it. That's a ton of cost for getting that free shot.
There are a few other weird design choices. As mentioned before, there are hidden characters in this game. But, there are only 4 of them (and while they are hidden away in the arcade mode's selection screen, they can be seen though not selected in any other mode). On top of that, two of them are simply revised versions of other characters (“Bloody Hakuto” and “Evil Ryu”), while the other two are strangely-textured droids that have no original moves of their own (the previously mentioned “Cycloids”). But it gets even stranger. A player would naturally think these characters are unlocked by playing through the arcade mode with enough characters, or someone specific, or doing well enough in a run to face a hidden opponent (which is present in the game, but offers no more a reward than bragging rights). Instead, you must enter the game's training mode, select the “expert mode” which gives you a set of trials for each character based on landing special moves and combos to fill an “unlock bar”. As progress continues, you will eventually unlock these characters. And I would understand this if it was unlocked by 100% completing this list. But in my experience, I was able to unlock all 4 characters by just doing the basic special moves of each character and the crudest two/three hit combo trials. It just feels like a timesink. I'm a guy who prefers unlocking hidden characters by playing through the main game, so having them only unlockable by a training mode feature is pretty lame. And yes, they can be unlocked with a cheat code, but that doesn't save.
The idea of hiding the proper method of unlocking hidden characters behind a training mode feature is rather questionable as well.
Lastly, the sound design is another aspect of the game that's all over the place. On the positive, I am convinced the soundtrack is dynamite. It is kinda outdated, with some synth-y aspects that haven't aged the best, but I have a soft spot for tracks like that. “Precious Heart” is a standout commonly cited by fighting game fans, but “Cold Pipe” and “Spinning Bird” are among some of the best tracks in any Street Fighter game as well. Some of the other tracks are more jazz inspired, and while I love me some good jazz music, some of them are to the point I don't feel like they fit in well with the action. Songs like “Under Tube” and most of “Strange Sunset” (which takes so long to kick in that there's a decent chance the fight'll be over before it does, and then it cools off shortly after anyway) sound great, but seem like they were cut from a Pilotwings game or something more relaxing and less intense. On top of that, some of the voices of familiar characters sound a little strange here. Guile is easily the most jarring, with his “Sonic Boom” proclamation sounding much different than any version of him before or since. Some sound on the money though, Akuma and Sakura are almost 1:1 from their 2D editions, making me wonder if Capcom only brought in certain VAs for this game.
In the end, Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha is an entertaining side-venture for fighting game fans that tried a lot of different things while keeping many staples intact. And while I think some of those risks paid off, the ones that miss, especially with the roster and the fighting system, prevent me from recommending it to anyone as their first Street Fighter game (that distinction would belong to Super SF II, Alpha 3, or 3rd Strike) or something for them to use to learn the finer elements of a fighting game. And unfortunately, at its current going rate in stores, it's hard to recommend to anyone that isn't already a big Street Fighter fan and wants to add an interesting piece of trivia to their collection. Now, by all means, if you see it at a garage sale for a couple bucks or at a thrift store for around $10, I'd easily recommend it at that price. And if you're willing/able to import the game, the going rate on the Japanese edition is dirt cheap. It's unique enough and has enough going for it to be plenty of fun. But when things like the Anniversary Collection exist on PS2 (which includes the aforementioned 3rd Strike) as well as plenty of ways to play Alpha 3, $30-40 CiB for something that isn't the quintessential Street Fighter experience is pretty steep.
And that's not getting into the even rarer SF EX2, or the strangely dirt-common EX3, two more entries that would also try new things to varying degrees of success. But we'll cross those bridges when we get to them.
RATING – 3 out of 5