Street Fighter III 3rd Strike: Fight for the Future
Based on: The Illuminati meets Chun-Li versus Akane Tendo M.U.G.E.N. matches.
Article by Johnny Driggs | October 17, 2007
Fighting games, more so than most other genres, need to work. I don't mean work in the "Wind Waker?'s nautical trappings didn't work for me" sense or the "Kojima's latest attempt at post-modern storytelling didn't work" sense. I mean in the "This dishwasher doesn't work" sense. Like most games, fighters are meant as simple entertainment to be enjoyed by its players for whatever combination of gameplay, music, visuals, or text most appeals to them. If a game can accomplish that, everything's gravy.
Fighting games, though, have another standard to live up to: They need to facilitate competition. Of course, every developer attempts to balance the multiplayer component of their games, but not all multiplayer games are created equal. And fans of series and genres featured in hardcore gaming competitions are extremely demanding when it comes to a game's balance -- few so much as fighting game aficionados.
It's really a tall order for designers, when you think about it. They're responsible for inventing a play system and a set of rules from the ground up that will appeal to players. If the underlying mechanics aren't satisfying, the game won't be accepted. That's a lot to accomplish when you consider all the traditional games (like chess) that have developed over the course of decades or even centuries. Then, the creators must enforce these rules. Competitive gaming lacks judges or referees to keep order, and fair play is whatever you can get away with. Ideally, if something is possible within a game, it's not illegal. If a single errant line of code produces a game-breaking glitch, either the game is abandoned, or clumsy, community-based limitations on what's not allowed are laid on top of the game's innate rules. True, Marvel Vs. Capcom 2? is notoriously glitchy and remains popular, but that's an exception -- and far from ideal.
You'll notice we haven't gotten to anything like "presentation" and "aesthetics" and all that touchy-feely crap that can get pushed to the wayside in this super-competitive culture. Even the most hardcore probably wouldn't accept NetHack-caliber graphics at the sake of superb balance, but there is a dōjin game by the name of Melty Blood currently making the rounds in Japanese arcades that epitomizes the hyper-technical fighting game and features character design and graphics that are aggressively generic. Art design's a slave to game design, as witnessed by something like Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix?. (I for one am holding out final judgment until the game is released, but you can't deny the new artwork is being shoehorned pretty roughly into established gameplay.)
Honestly, fighting fans like pretty graphics just as much as anyone else, and developers like to take a little bit of pride in their creations beyond ephemeral aspects, like the fact they matched up the hit-detection boxes just so. Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that one of the best examples of deep, precise gameplay is also one of the best-looking fighters ever made. Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike was the third and final installment to the Street Fighter III "series," Capcom's antithesis to their hyper-spastic, super-move-saturated Vs. games. Players have access to only one super move at a time, and cautious parries reward patient play. It's the pre-eminent modern 2D fighting game in the slower-paced, technical mold -- not that it has tons of competition for that designation. On top of that, 3rd Strike is visually satisfying, and not just by 1999's standards. You'll always see it next to Art of Fighting 3 at the top of the list of best animated fighters -- and it features some fantastic character designs.
Makoto, whose 40-frame walk animation is scattered throughout this article, encapsulates this balance between the technical and artistic rather nicely. At first glance, Makoto seems a poor choice to illustrate the game's art direction -- you couldn't come up with a outfit more generic than her white gi. In reality, her superficial blandness demonstrates just how much more goes into effective character design than simply what they're wearing. Through a combination of animation and sound, she has what is probably the most concrete personality of any of the III-era fighters. Put simply, Makoto wants nothing more in life than to make you hurt as much as is physically possible. She realizes winning matches is usually the best method for achieving this goal, but really that's secondary to making sure you'll be on meds for a while.
When attempts to grab an opponent find only air, she grimaces in fury at a missed opportunity to injure an opponent -- a grimace that keeps appearing in her animations. Her voice -- far harsher and more guttural than your average video game female by a long shot -- only reinforces her desire to hurt you. Her vaguely masculine features and unisex name don't exactly hurt this perception. Most importantly for a fighting game, of course, is her fighting style. Attacks are the result of Makoto collecting all the energy in her (relatively) small frame and unleashing it all at once. Gradual build-up is followed by sharp bursts of motion. It's all potential energy and rubber band follow-through.
One problem: Such a fighting style doesn't lend itself to fighting game mechanics. It's naturally predisposed to telegraphing: Emphasize the preparation of an attack and you simply tip off your opponent to what you're about to do. The attacks need to move quick enough to be effective, yet they still need to imply her fighting style. Capcom accomplishes this in two ways: By speeding up the conclusions of attacks (or at least suggesting more speed) in order to counter the build-up, and by emphasizing where Makoto was.
The first method is simple enough: Since you can't squeeze more animation frames into a second you simply combine frames. Most characters feature moves where limbs are blended into arcs to represent simultaneously what might have otherwise been divided into several different frames, but the technique is utilized liberally for Makoto. Though primarily reserved for Super Arts for other characters, this technique is employed in the animations for Makoto's most basic attacks. Her quarter-circle and dragon-punch special moves demonstrate particularly exaggerated examples. By squishing the last few frames together, the attack remains as quick as any other while still depicting the two phases of Makoto's attacks.
The second method is more subtle and directly tied to Makoto's design. Her long neck scarf, baggy clothes, and even the little spit of hair on the crown of her head are extremely susceptible to whiplash. Instead of expending a few more frames on her charge-up and preparation, the animators instead imply where she used to be as her clothing catches up with her.
It's a perfect example of function and aesthetics complementing and informing one another. A character is created, and an appropriate personality attached to it. The gameplay incorporates its unique style, but requires that it still fall within certain parameters. The animation accommodates these practical needs while still serving the purpose of defining the character.
How did it work out? Well, Makoto's a top-tier character by most definitions, appearing in the final seven in results in the most recent national championship. She's not as common as Chun-Li, Yun, or Ken, but she's more than capable of holding her own in an able player's hands. Perhaps more importantly, she's another piece of the puzzle in the game's balance between mechanics and artistry. It's a tough line to walk, and few fighting games have done it as well as 3rd Strike.
Images courtesy of Zweifuss.ca, where you can find the animations, backgrounds, and voice for every 3rd Strike Character.