23/12/2011

STREET FIGHTER EX PLUS ALPHA (PS1)

The one-on-one fighting game seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance in recent years, and as usual Capcom are leading the way with games such as Street Fighter IV, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and the upcoming Street Fighter X Tekken. Of course, these things move in cycles and after the boom years of the post-Street Fighter II beat-em-up era, the late nineties and early two-thousands weren't the greatest period for the genre. There were still excellent 2D fighting games being released - the Capcom vs. SNK and Marvel vs. Capcom series' spring to mind - but on the whole the gaming public seemed fatigued by the deluge of SFII clones, which is fair enough because most of them were shit (and I'm saving my distaste for Mortal Kombat for another day). It was into this situation that, in 1997, Capcom released one of the most overlooked entries into the Street Fighter series: Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha.

The Street Fighter EX series began as a 1996 arcade release. This received an upgrade titled Street Fighter EX Plus the following year and a few months later it was ported to the Playstation under the title Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha, a title I will be shortening to SFEX from now on because there's no way I'm writing all that out every time. This is the version I'll be rambling on about today.
SFEX’s big deal, its main gimmick, the thing that was meant to wow fighting game aficionados the world over was polygon graphics. No more for us the childish 2D sprites of previous SF games! This is a bold new world of characters so boxy you could use them as shipping crates!

Yes, almost a full twelve years before the release of Street Fighter IV, Capcom made a Street Fighter game which retained the beloved single-plane versus fighting of the SF series but replaced the flat sprites with chunky polygon models that look like the Duplo to SFIV's Lego Technic. I say Capcom made it, but here's the thing: it was actually developed by a separate company called Arika. One of the things that Arika brought to the games (aside from the move to 3D models) was the other thing that SFEX is most remembered for, and that's the significant number of brand-new characters that were added. Can they be as memorable as a green beastman raised by electric eels or a heavyweight boxer who is in no way related to Mike Tyson? Let's meet them and find out!

Of course, there are some of the classic fighters included in SFEX - after all, a SF game without Ryu would be like the Beatles without whichever Beatle was best at karate (my money's on Ringo). The returning SF characters consisted of Ryu, Ken, Chun Li, Guile, M. Bison, Sakura, Dhalsim, Zangief and Akuma (and Evil Ryu, if that counts). All the others are fresh to the SF canon and you know what? Some of them are pretty cool.

Allen Snider

Okay, we're not off to a great start here. Allen is, to be blunt, a shotoclone. He's got a fireball, a dragon punch and a really stupid voice that renders him about as threatening as a Huey, Dewey and Louie. He once dreamed of becoming the American Karate Champion, but after getting his ass kicked by Ken he decides to aim higher and be the best in the world. A bit of ambition is a good thing here, I think: in a world where all the other Street Fighters are battling global terrorist masterminds and demonic martial-arts masters who can punch people's souls to death, becoming the karate champion of a country that's hardly renowned for its love for the way of the empty hand seems a little... small-minded.
Despite all his backstory, Allen's main distinguishing features are his bright orange sideburns.

Kairi

Another shotoclone. This one's the emo sort, but he makes up for it by having a super move where he punches right through his opponent's torso. He also suffers from Plot-Convenient Amnesia, which I suppose is fair enough. You'd think more of the World Warriors would have neurological problems after years of severe head trauma. Apparently, he was intended to be the series' main character, but that's an accolade for one man and one man alone. We'll get to him in a bit.

Hokuto

You wa SHOCK! No, sadly not a master of Hokuto Shinken but some kind of dour shrine-maiden type. She's Kairi's sister, but happily she's not another shotoclone. If anything, she feels a little like Karin from SFA3. Also, she has no nose.

Doctrine Dark

Leon Kennedy and Hunk had a baby! No, of course not. One of the more interesting new characters, D. Dark was a former member of Guile's unit. Military unit, I mean. They got into a scuffle with a unit led by Rolento, presumably in the manner of some rambunctious schoolboys, except everyone apart from Dark wound up dead. Oops. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this caused him to go straight-up bananas and now he seeks revenge on Guile, blaming him for not training him properly. That's... that's a pretty crappy reason for revenge, man. I should know, I swore vengeance on my high school for not teaching me maths properly and all I got out of it was a restraining order.
Still, Dark's fighting style is interesting - he fights with knives, capture wires and explosives, and his dirty-bastard trickery makes him feel rather unique.

Blair Dame

Not realising the position of "long-legged Street Fighter characters who wear leotards and long boots and fight primarily with kicks" was already filled by Cammy, Blair enters the fray! Okay, so that's not really fair: her fighting style isn't much like Cammy's at all, and leotards offer a freedom of movement that comes in very handy in the world of competitive ass-kicking.
Blair is another fun character, with lots of multi-hit kick moves, an unusual sliding throw and even more unintelligible voice acting than Allen. She's also the game's "sexy" character. Given the primitive nature of the game's graphics, Blair has been handed a rather thankless task, but she tries her best.

Cracker Jack

Yes, he's called Cracker Jack, because his name is Jack and he's a cracker. He's SFEX’s equivalent of Balrog, and he's equipped with dashing punches and a huge punch that can be charged up by holding all three punch buttons. So, like I say, he's Balrog. Except he can clobber people (and projectiles) with a baseball bat, too. And he has a hat.
He's also Blair's bodyguard, and you'd think that his aristocratic employer would have told him that's not how ties work by now.

Pullum Purna

A middle-Eastern princess, Pullum is all about the kicking as well as being one of the few characters who doesn't look really grumpy in their portrait. There's really not that much to say about her, to be honest, except that her trousers are all ploofy. Oh, and apparently she knows Blair through something called the "International Debutante Club". I imagine the elegant world of sickeningly opulent aristocracy seems rather dull after you've travelled with globe to face the strongest opponents you can find, revelling in the sound of their snapping limbs and seeing the world through a red haze as blood drips into your eyes. Still, think of all that Ferrero Rocher.

Darun Mister

Pullum also gets a bodyguard because apparently the women of the SFEX universe can't look after themselves despite being elite martial arts masters. Darun is a wrestler, and to their credit Arika did a good job of not making him feel too much like Zangief despite their similar movesets. This sense of individuality is helped by the fact Darun has a move where he fires his opponent into the sky by thrusting his groin at them.
Also, he seems to be based on the near-legendary Indian wrestler The Great Gama, who also appeared in Shadow Hearts 2 and possessed a moustache that gave him magical powers.

Skullomania

The true hero of SFEX and probably the best thing about the game, I wrote about Skullomania before in the Halloween-y Fighting Game Characters article, but here's a quick recap: he used to be a normal salaryman, struggling with the crushing monotony of his everyday life, until one day he was asked to dress as a superhero for a work event. Then he went crazy, and now he acts like he's an actual superhero. His fighting style matches up very nicely with his weird persona, as most of his moves revolve around him hurling himself at his opponents with no regard for his own safety. He's heavily influenced by tokusatsu heroes such as Kamen Rider, but he's dressed in a lycra Hallowe'en costume so he's obviously much, much cooler than that description can convey. Say what you like about SFEX, but it gave us Skullomania and for that I will always be grateful.

Garuda

Finally there's Garuda. He's SFEX’s version of Akuma, or at least he would be if Akuma wasn't in the game. He's the super-secret boss that you can only face by winning all your battles with super combos and not losing a round. His main deal, aside from looking like some unreleased "Japanese Armour Skeletor" toy, is spikes. He can shoot spikes out of his body at will and from a variety of places including what an immature person might describe as "the boobular region". I'm sure he and Akuma would get on like a house on fire.
One final thing while we're talking about characters - poor Ken Masters did not receive a flattering portrait.

That's not the face of someone looking forward to a fight. That's the face of someone who's thinking about what they're going to do to your body after they've knocked you out.

Of course, it's all well and good having these fresh new faces to pummel, but it doesn't mean anything if the game's no good. So how does SFEX play? It plays like Street Fighter II, funnily enough. It shares the same control system you all know and love, with three punch and three kick buttons, special moves activated with the time-honoured inputs and a three-stage super bar system. The only major gameplay additions are a generic unblockable attack, performed by pressing two buttons of the same strength and rather reminiscent of the Focus Attacks from SFIV, and the fact that while fighters can get trapped in a corner, a strong hit will push them backward and expand the playfield.

There's a certain emphasis on cancelling moves, particularly cancelling supers into each other, and a few of the old characters received tweaks - for example, Ken and Ryu's usual Hurricane Kick has been replaced with a three-stage kick attack more like Dan's Dankukyaku. Overall, it's the same Street Fighter action you're used to, except with new characters and not quite as fast. That's SFEX’s only glaring gameplay flaw, really: it feels quite slow, particularly if you're used to playing something like MvC3. Everything just has a hint of slow-motion about it, particularly the aerial attacks. Once you've jumped up, you're going to be staying there for a while, floating around like a karate zeppelin. It certainly doesn't ruin the game or anything, it just takes a little getting used to, and some more methodical thinking when you're planning your attacks.

Any slight issues with the gameplay are compensated for by the sheer amount of gameplay modes the game throws at you with a big grin on it's face, saying "hell, I know you love to kick people in the face: here's a whole bunch of different ways to do it!". Aside from the regular arcade mode (which features not one but two secret bosses), there's a team battle mode, survival mode, time attack mode and a watch mode if you essentially want a screensaver of nothing but Skullomania fighting Skullomania. It may not be the only use for the watch mode, but by God it's the best use. There's even a mission mode: much like Capcom's recent fighters you can face a series of trials, starting with things like chucking out hadokens but quickly progressing to ridiculously difficult combos that my enfeebled hands cannot master. Bloody Guile and his charge supers. By completing the trials, you can also unlock the game's hidden characters, who frankly are a bit disappointing: evil versions of Ryu and Hokuto and the two training dummies.

Content-wise SFEX has plenty to go at, but in terms of presentation it's... mixed. Starting with the graphics, and let's be honest here: they're bad. The low-poly models are covered in corners sharp enough to shave on and everyone's hair looks like it's been carved from wood. Well, apart from Akuma - he appears to be wearing the magical Ruby Crown of the Elven-Folk.

Things get particularly bad when the action gets up-close and personal, especially during throws when the fighters become an amorphous cuboid mélange of body-parts.

I hope that's meant to be dust floating out of Guile's groin and not some kind of crotch-ghost.
At least the fighters are well animated and move around fluidly, but it's not just the fighters that are graphically challenged. The menus and HUDs are all very bland and basic, with simple gradients for health bars and poorly-rendered CG backgrounds. Perhaps most disappointingly, there are no post-match win-quotes. I'm pissed off about this because I'm sure Skullomania had some very important things to say, assuming he hasn't gone completely insane underneath that mask and can now only communicate using puppets made of human hair or something.

Speaking of noise, the sound design is even more variable quality than the graphics. A big fat tick goes in the "YES" column for SFEX’s music, because it's all really excellent. Composed and arranged by Shinji Hosoe, Ayako Saso and Takayuki Aihara, I don't really know what genre you'd describe it as - electro-jazz, possibly - but that's not important. You don't need labels when it's this much fun. Standout tracks include Sakura's theme, an impossibly cheerful saxophone explosion called Precious Heart:



I'd be quite happy if this was Sakura's theme in every videogame she ever appeared in. Hell, I'd be happy if it was my theme tune. Also very good is Garuda's theme, "Stronger".



An excellent mix up-tempo synths and traditional Japanese instrumentation, it's a fittingly dramatic track for a hidden boss who fights like an angry samurai hedgehog. Who knew that the one thing more powerful than Akuma's Dark Hadou would be spikes? Apart from Megaman, I mean. Anyway, the whole soundtrack is very good and readily available on Youtube, so do go and have a listen.

On the flipside of the sound design, nearly all the sampled speech is strangely-enunciated to the point of being unrecognisable. I know the Street Fighter games have long been associated with misheard attack names, but in SFEX they're a particularly garbled bunch of battlecries. Here, I made a video to demonstrate:



Is it wrong to make fun of the work of these voice actors, these honest people who are just doing their best in a language they do not speak? Probably, but I'm not above a cheap laugh, and "Juice Kick!" has been making me laugh ever since my younger brother pointed it out when we were kids. Speaking of voices, if SFEX’s announcer - the guy who sounds almost offended by having to say "Plus Alpha" at the end of the title - sounds familiar, that's probably because you know him better as Chris Redfield from the original Resident Evil, AKA voice actor Scott McCulloch.

I'm not really sure where Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha stands in people's estimation of the Street Fighter series as a whole. While it seems quite fondly remembered these days, and the review scores at the time were above average, when I was younger I remember getting the feeling that the general opinion of the game was largely negative. This was due partly to the poor graphics but mostly because it wasn't considered a "real" SF game (probably because so many of the established SF characters were left out) and that the move to 3D models was seen as some kind of cop-out in the face of emerging series like Tekken.

Maybe it's just my personal little bubble of youthful experience happened to contain people who didn't rate SFEX, but all I can think these days is that anyone who thought that SFEX was a bad game simply hadn't played it. It's most definitely not a bad game; at its core I'd say it's a very good game. Admittedly the graphics hold it back slightly, and it might be a little too similar to earlier SF games to make a lasting impact, but it's a well-crafted title with interesting new characters that's still fun to play today. And for anyone who still thinks it's not a "real" SF game, the founder of Arika and executive producer of this game was one Akira Nishitani. He was also a designer on Street Fighter II, so I guess he knows what he's doing when it comes to digital violence.

Sadly, we'll probably never get to see another SFEX game, or even have the new characters appear in other Capcom games. While Arika did make SFEX2 and 3, they had a falling-out with Capcom and because they own the rights to the original characters, Capcom can't use them in any future games. That's a real shame, because I think Skullomania, Blair and D. Dark in particular would have been fun additions to the overall SF family. Sadly it was not to be, and Skullomania will have to live on only in our hopes, dreams and a series of erotic thrillers that I'm writing for the silver screen. Nicholas Cage has been pencilled in for the main role.

If you're a Street Fighter fan and you've never played SFEX, then I can definitely recommend tracking it down if for no other reason than to play as the new characters. If you're not a full-on SF obsessive, then I can't recommend that you go out of your way to hunt it out, not when there are so many better and more readily-available SF games out there, but if you happen across it in the wild then pick it up and give it a go.
I'll leave you with one last bit of madness: Guile's ending.



The thing that gets me about this is the way he holds his arms perfectly still in that weird robotic pose as he somersaults. Oh yeah, and surfing on the F-15. And the fact he didn't notice D. Dark up there with him. I guess the whole thing gets me, really.

5 comments:

  1. Surely Blair is referencing hit Mega Drive game by saying "Arnold Palmer kick". I think she may be missing the point of golf though...

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  2. Loved this game back when it was released. You pretty much nailed it in the review: bad graphics, bad endings, bad sound effects. Great control (all links/chains/combos from normal SF2 are intact + more), great music, and that training/mission mode was unprecedented. Somewhere in a storage box in the basement I still have a PS1 memory card with all but 4 of those missions complete.

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  3. Richey Lacey: Haha, I can buy that she's saying "Arnold Palmer Kick", although I wouldn't have taken her for the golfing type...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Vega: Yeah, it does feel like a strong refinement of the SF2 system - it rather makes me wonder how well it would have done if it'd been a real graphical tour de force.

    ReplyDelete

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