Street Fighter found itself in a rather odd place circa 1994/5. Although 1991 showed the success of the fighting game formula with actual balance, time showed a heap of competitors and look-alikes invading the market, not the least of which came from SNK’s innumerable copy franchises. Even then, SNK continued to develop and create competitors AND unique franchises like Samurai Shodown, changing the pace and the depth of the combat. Capcom wasn’t too happy with this scenario; Mortal Kombat already took the United States by storm at this point, and the fatalities made that game unique in itself even versus the original. Street Fighter needed something – anything – to stay viable in the market, and arcade goers wouldn’t settle for yet another update of the same game, no matter how good Street Fighter II was. On that note, having four updates in four years was great business sense at one point, but started to anger console owners and arcade operators alike; who can even tell the difference apart from the hardcore?
Thus did Street Fighter Alpha come into being. Literally a remake of the original game, albeit with huge changes to story line canon and mechanics, it represented an evolution of the series. The sprites gained a whole new look, reminiscent of Japanese anime at the time. New character came into the fray as well as old ones from the original Street Fighter (Birdie being the most notable, and most changed). Alpha retained the combos and super meter from the previous game, but also added chain combos (a feature soon removed and added into Darkstalkers, yet another series from Capcom that arrived in the same period) and alpha counters which provided defensive options for every character, and recovery rolls allowed character to escape certain situations. This was, in all ways, a step-up from the previous iteration (even if it was meant to be a prequel).
Alpha proved popular enough to gain three sequels, eventually bringing the original roster of SFII back to the game. They heaped complications onto the existing systems for the hardcore market; it’s not an overstatement to say that Alpha 2’s Custom Combo system completely changed the meta-game of competitive Street Fighter for a time (that it remains the only competitive Alpha game at this point should speak to its uniqueness, at the very least). Furthermore, Alpha 3 complicated the systems within to the point of garbled confusion; telling the difference between X-ism, A-ism, and V-ism became quite a mechanical paradise, but also a huge barrier to entry for any new players.
Still, that doesn’t mean the music of Alpha 3 isn’t worthy of attention; it shows us a specific style, that of the advanced Capcom CPS2 arcade board. Consider that Super Street Fighter II Turbo ran on the same hardware four years before, and you’ll see a world of difference in the quality of the composition as well as its overall feel. Anyone who’s played on these machines knows the feel of the music comes from its weirdly industrialized, yet obviously synthesized structure that can’t just be emulated anywhere. Heck, people even create music on YouTube using this chip. High praise?
Well, Alpha 3’s soundtrack isn’t my favorite in the series. Not by a long shot. Yet, it’s a unique piece in itself given the context of a whole series. Take Ryu’s theme in this game, “The Road”:
Certainly, it’s a far cry from Ryu’s original theme. It’s neither as catchy nor as emblematic as the first. But Capcom’s had a tough act to follow (as the future entries will show), and these still become exemplary video game music if they’re not attached to preconceived notions. They’re not as unique, but they strike their own chord that fits with the game’s vibe. Although the first two Alpha games tried to recreate the sound of the old, Alpha 3 takes a different path. Take Chun-Li’s theme, “Resolution”:
It still retains the “Chinese” feel of the original theme, yet goes for a more relaxed and more industrial sound that, fitting the title, attempts to convey the idea of Chun-Li’s resolve to find M.Bison, her father’s killer. In that sense do I find the themes more “thematic” then they’ve ever been before. They provide a driving beat for combat to commence without distraction, but SFA provides many more story elements than previous games in the series. Thus, I’m completely fine with the tonal shift to a more stylized music theme. The music, still, remains an acquired taste; if you’re not here for a concentrated listen, many of the tracks sound the same with similar instrumentation. It’s a flaw of the CPS2 chip and the limited QSound program. You may like it; you may not. I do, but I can see why SFII’s music gets a better rap; in the same way as you can identify the Simpsons family by silhouette, Street Fighter characters were defined, in a sense, by their theme as well as their look. Alpha just doesn’t strive for that direction at all.
When we think of Alpha’s reception (which, as you might notice, wasn’t the greatest), it comes down to two factors: nostalgia and lack of familiarity. People liked SFII, but couldn’t imagine changes and complexities added onto a successful formula. They, thus, rejected the whole project outright, preferring other franchises so that the original memories wouldn’t be blemished. That seems a false impression from my perspective. You can’t expect perfection from a sequel, but you can certainly expect improvements. The Alpha series provided this in spades, yet it never received proper home ports (except in Japan, surprise to all) or a big audience – this would all but doom the inevitable Street Fighter III, which made further changes and further insulated the series through added complexities (this is a new article).
I could trot out the traditional “judge not…” verse, but it’s a entertainment media series; I think everyone has the right to judge the games by the merits of those that came before. Alpha, even if it was a superior game in some sense, wasn’t as good as its predecessors. Even the less-loved games, though, deserve some serious thought and consideration. All games, even the ones we love, have their own flaws. So do we, too, have our own flaws. As Titus 3 says:
3 For we also once were foolish ourselves,disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. 4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration andrenewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
How can we judge a game outright, on that basis? Certainly there’s something of redeeming value in everything, even if we don’t particularly like it. Me? I don’t like the whole “indie game” vibe that the West began a few years ago. It seem pretentious, banal, and horribly elitist in the worst way, taking a label to denigrate the “mainstream” and declare themselves as “art”. Yet, I can’t judge them without playing the final product.
As many gamers would say “how can you make a judgment until you play it?” And so we can’t, with games or people.