Thursday, 24 September 2015

Fighting in the streets!

Retroactive review: The Street Fighter Zero series

I never was into street fighting. 

It was just too brutal. 

Especially for a newbie like me to Capcom's famous fighting game series at least! To be honest I was never really struck on this genre until it went 3D with Virtua Fighter, and even then it took me until the first Dead or Alive on the PS1 to get me interested. Although I loved beat 'em ups like Streets of Rage and Final Fight, the 2D fighters never really caught my interest in any noteworthy degreee.

Back story

I remember a close friend introduced me to the genre and the series in general with Street Fighter II on the Super Nintendo. I completely sucked at it, and gave up quickly on trying to compete in versus matches against him. I did however watch him play the game to controller wrecking annoyance, desperately trying to beat the bosses on the harder difficulty settings. I even remember him getting his hands on Super Street Fighter II (if my memory serves me right), where some of the bosses now were playable characters. The rest just looked the same to me. The young me was not impressed.

Since those long gone 16-bit days I never really followed the Street Fighter franchise. I vaguely remember actually seeing an arcade cabinet of the ill-fated first SF game on a car ferry some summer holiday long ago. SF2 probably serves as one of those games where the sequel changed everything into a far better and enjoyable experience, surpassing everything the original had done badly. SF2 moulded it's genre, and would influence it in years and years to come.

So SF1 did nothing. SF2 revolutionised a genre and influenced a generation. SF Zero (confusingly called Alpha in the West) was a prequel storywise and continued to set the SF series at the top of the 2D fighter scene, with a younger looking roster of it's famous fighters. SF Ex series dabbled early in 3D. Then followed a lukewarm welcomed SFIII series, which would prove it's perfection in the competitive environments like tournaments.

A long hiatus later and the more recent cel-shaded SFIV arrived, which once again jumped to 3D, albeit still 2D gameplay, much like Ex had done years before with varied success. Nowadays we have an Unreal Engine 4 powered SFV under development. A long series of games, that is famous for the many revisions released. Today though, I'm focusing on the SF Zero/Alpha trilogy.

Why Zero?

SF Zero made me open my eyes for this series and actually enjoy it, and it didn't happen back in the mid-nineties but in 2015(!). I jumped in at the deep end and purchased the third in the series, on my PS Vita (originally a PSP game). I was pleased with the fantastic 2D art and colourful look of the game. However, it proved to be extremely hard and overwhelming. So I decided to start at the beginning; with the first Zero game, using my Sega Saturn.

Before we look at each game, why go with the Saturn versions? Well because until the much later re-releases the Saturn versions were the best arcade conversions for home use. Much thanks to the consoles large video memory and excellent 2D capabilities. As such, Zero 1 & 2 have more frames and smoother movement for character animation than their PlayStation counterparts. Zero 3's Saturn version, believe or not, even outperforms the Dreamcast version(!). A statement on how well Sega's 32-bit console performed with 2D sprites and a way to be pleased that the console ended up to be what it was, even though it commercially failed outside of Japan.

Let me not forget to mention the superior Saturn controller for 2D games, the d-pad is miles above anything the PlayStation controllers have given us through the years. Feel insulted as much as you like for that statement, but the PlayStation d-pads are simply four buttons inside it's controller shell. Making rolling inputs on the d-pad way more cumbersome than on the Saturn pad.

Any how, that was the why. Now let us look at my thoughts on each Zero game. Thoughts from a true newbie and a terrible Fighter on the Street.

Street Fighter Zero

From the first fight, it's clear the Zero games have a visually different appearance than the Street Fighter II series. The characters are larger, more detailed and have lots of tiny animations like clothes moving etc. The colour palette is just more colourful and diverse, but the overall contrast in them are more subtle than the harsher colours of SFII. I'ts got a distinct soft toned colour scheme going on, for lack of better words. For console-only players the upgrade from the 16-bit versions of SFII on the SNES and Mega Drive are obvious, finally the series gets a home version running on the benefits of 32-bit hardware. It's closer to it's arcade brother, than the home versions of SFII were. 

Zero has a fairly small roster of characters, and when comparing to some of the later alterations of SFII, it feels a little lacking and disappointing. Sure, there are new characters, as well as old favourites like Ryu, Ken and Chun-Li, but there's a feeling there should have been more. I do understand though, the close race in releasing games for the arcade and at home at the time. Understandably, Capcom thought it could release sequels down the line in the same series. Perhaps a rather devious plan to sell lots of versions of basically the same game, but keep in mind this is way before anything could be updated with online patches. Fighting games need fine tuning and balancing.

Although it's not exactly full of content, I felt the move from going straight onto Zero 3 and then moving down to this version, helped me understand the series more. I actually could beat the game on easy, and get a feeling on how the max bar works. Basically it's a bar that fills when performing moves, taking damage or defending yourself, thus allowing you to pull off some powerful super moves.

Compared to Zero 3, Zero 1 felt a little slower, less overwhelming amount of options, characters and fighting styles, thus letting me really enjoy what the Zero games are really about.

Street Fighter Zero 2

Zero 2 is probably my favourite in the series. Where the first lacked in new characters, options and animation details, Zero 2 delivers more of everything in a more finished package. In a way it's what the first game should have been at release.

Even better is if you buy the Street Fighter Collection on the Saturn, basically it's a 2CD compilation of SF games. CD1 has arcade perfect conversions of two SFII variants (forget the slow animated SNES games) for those who never played the "proper" arcade versions. CD2 has SF Zero 2 Gold, confused? Well Gold fixes a few balancing issues, and adds Cammy as a training character. It's really just for the very interested, and yes the ordinary Zero 2 is just fine to play!

Of all the SF games I've tried recently, this game just stood out and "clicked" for me. It balances detailed, beautiful 2D visuals, with a clean and simple design and easy to grasp gameplay to dig yourself into. For anyone looking to test out the Zero series, this is the place to be. 

I love the smooth and nice paced fighting, complete with the varied and really cool looking characters. The backgrounds all look fantastic and truly show how pretty the 2D art of it's time used to be. It's probably one of the most fun fighting games I've played and truly enjoyed!

Street Fighter Zero 3

At times I feel Zero 3 maybe went a bit overboard on new characters, the amount of added stuff from Zero 2 is jarring. For newcomers it feels slightly overwhelming, and I felt it wasn't the best version to use as a entry to the Zero games. The X,Y and V-ism bars open up countless ways to combat with super moves, but they seem unexplained and more hardcore for newcomers like me. The game's default setup is with the power bar maxed up for each fight and the game running in Turbo 2 speed, which kind says enough. It's about speed, action and kind of going over the top.

Technically Zero 3 is probably one of the best looking 2D games made and a true statement on how much more the 32-bit consoles could deliver than the 16-bit consoles even for sprite based graphics. Something the arcades proved again and again. The backgrounds look incredible, and the animations for each character never seizes to amaze when you consider it all being hand drawn.

So while I do like some of the character additions; like bad-ass Cody in his black and white striped jail outfit, hand cuffed in each fight from Final Fight fame or double ponytailed bubbly-blonde wrestler R. Mika, of recent Street Fighter V reveal fame, I found it very overwhelming playing with all these characters. It's like it's blending out the uniqueness of each character by having so many. So play at least Zero 2 before dabbling in this game, and even then it might not suit you. It feels more like a standalone SF entry.

Other versions

Are there any other ways to play the Zero/Alpha games today? Without investing in a whole Sega Saturn, especially considering the Japan-only Zero 3 is insanely expensive? 

Luckily there's a arcade perfect port of Zero 3 on the PSP/Vita! Titled with a Max at the end. This version retains all the frames and animation from the arcade version and has much improved loading times. It also includes a World Tour mode, which actually is quite good. You can dig yourself into levelling and fighting through a long tournament with increasing difficulty, small challenges along the way and options to choose which fights you will join.

Another fairly easy option to play the series is the PlayStation 2 game, SF Alpha Anthology. It's cheap and wildly available on ebay, even factory sealed. It contains all the arcade games, each version, in perfect conversion. The only thing missing really is the singleplayer World Tour mode from Zero 3 Max on the PSP/Vita.  Anthology is a perfect collection if you just want the arcade modes of each game though.

The only problem I have with versions outside the Saturn, unless you have a arcade stick, is the six button and d-pad superiority on the Saturn pad. SF games have six buttons and using SNES/PlayStation/Vita etc. pads always feels wonky as you have to have two of the fighting buttons on the shoulder buttons. It feels off, and doesn't give the same precision of the six buttons layout on the Saturn pad. The Saturn d-pad is also much easier to do rolling moves with, which are often needed to perform special moves like a Hadouken for Ryu, Ken and Sakura.

Fight Over

Well that's an insight into Street Fighter's sub-series; Alpha/Zero from a SF beginner like myself. Although this old series is strong even today with new iterations, I highly recommend you to check out at least SF Alpha/Zero 2. It really is an amazing 2D fighter almost 20 years after release!

They don't make 'em like this anymore!

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