February 01

Street Fighter 3: Third Strike

Everyone has at least one game that they absolutely adore. A game they can play over and over and which they never seem to tire of. I am no different, and although there are many games that I love, there is no doubt that there is one that stands on the pinnacle of glory, proud in it’s magnificence, and that game is Street Fighter 3: Third Strike.
Capcom are not the sort of company that is shy from milking a cash cow. There have literally been over 50 different Street Fighter iterations if you include all titles from series such as II, Alpha, EX, III and IV. Thus to many it may become difficult to really pry apart the difference between each of these versions and might also seem hard to contemplate why one specific version can (A) be considered so much better than the others and (B) one of the most fun to play games of all time. However, this title manages just that.
A veritable cast of misfits
As is customary in a Street Fighter game, combat is a 1 on 1 affair taking place on a 2D plane. There are 20 characters in the game, but just 4 are series regulars, the rest made their debut in the III series, giving the game a much fresher feel compared to most other Street Fighter titles. The game retains many of the core components from other successful SF titles, such as combos, dashing, throw breaking as well as EX moves and Super Combos. However, the III series has one killer card up it’s sleeve, a mechanic that literally makes all the difference in the world. One that elevates 3rd Strike from “just another fighter” to an absolute masterpiece. That mechanic is the “Parry” and it is one of the most fiendishly addictive, satisfying and fun mechanics ever put into any video game ever.
The essence of traditional Street Fighter games is to be in command of the space on screen, specifically the space around your character. If an opponent challenges the space around you, you want to punish them for doing so, so if an opponent jumps at you, you would Dragon Punch, or use another move to knock them out of the air. Similarly if they try to advance on the ground, you would try to stick out a move to push them back. Much of the strategy therefore comes with walking back and forth, trying to bait an opponent into sticking out a move so that you can punish the recovery / whiff animation of that move with your own. This is known to veteran SF players as “footsies” and those with better footsie skills are unsurprisingly the more successful players in tournaments and arcades.
The Parry mechanic throws a spanner in the works of this traditional style by offering all characters a universal option to avoid any attack and to counter that attack with their own. So for example, if you jump at your opponent, if they attempt a Dragon Punch, you can parry the Dragon Punch attempt and then as you land, punish the defending player for attempting the move in the first place with your own combo. Or, on the ground, you can walk up to an opponent and if you think a move is coming your way, parry the move they throw out, giving you enough time to then punish with the move or combo of choice. To many old-school / traditional SF fans this concept seems absolutely ludicrous. Older SF games usually had a “winning strategy.” If your strategy was sound, there was nothing an opponent could do, as you would have all angles and all possibilities covered with a counter strategy of your own. As long as you had the skill to execute your plan when needed, you would win and there wasn’t much an opponent could do about it. The smarter player always won. This was, and still is an excellent game design as it means there is little left to chance and a player is rewarded for being smarter as opposed to getting lucky. However, after revision after revision of Street Fighter, the truth is that this type of gameplay had become formulaic and repetitive. Playing Ryu vs Guile for 50 matches straight, working hard for every pixel of space on the game field to exert pressure and apply your strategy over your opponents is gripping in every way, but matches become very similar to each other and over time, and can become tiresome.
So if the Parry removes this key aspect to SF titles, how does it make the game better? It should theoretically make it worse as being random, and getting lucky will be rewarded as opposed to skills and “smarts.” Fortunately, this is far from the reality of the situation.
Third Strike has a few key concepts at the heart of it’s gameplay, that make ALL the difference in making it such a superb game to play. The first is the concept of “risk versus reward” that is key to almost every button press, every joystick tap and any action that takes place in the game. Let’s look at the parrying a Dragon Punch example once more. The Attacking Player decides to jump at his opponent in an effort to get in and begin some offensive pressure. The defensive player reacts to the jump-in attempt and decides to attempt to “anti-air” the opponent by using a Dragon Punch to beat out the opponent. The attacker anticipates this action and taps forward at the right time to parry the Dragon Punch and allows them a counter attack opportunity. But this is just one possible outcome in this situation. Let’s say the Attacker jumps in and the defending player does not attempt an anti-air. Instead, the defending player anticipated that the attacking player is going to stick out a move to hit them whilst still in the air. So he attempts a parry and parries the attacker’s jumping attack, and now has time themselves to counter attack and hit the opponent with a large punishment combo of their own choice.
Hugo is low on health, so Dudley goes for the jump-in to finish him off. The Hugo player parries this move, no doubt to follow up into a 360 or Super Art combo. In this instance, both players make smart decisions. Dudley jumps in as he can probably assume that Hugo does not want to take undue risks with so little health left. Hugo on the other hand, does not have much to lose. He might as well parry to give himself any chance to win this fight.
Almost any given situation / action in Third Strike has some some sort of counter action that will beat it. Thus, any action you take always possesses some sort of risk as well as some sort of reward. When the attacking player jumps at the opponent, there are all sorts of risks. The opponent could anti-air with a single move. The opponent could anti-air with a move that hits multiple times, such as Ken’s 3 hit Hard Dragon Punch, requiring multiple parries. They could go for their anti-air attempt early or late, to mess up the attacker’s parry timing. They could use a low move to avoid the hitbox of the aerial attack and tag the opponent when they are vulnerable as they land. They could dash underneath the opponent and hit them from behind as the attacker lands, forcing them to block from the opposite direction. They could block the jump-in attempt and then attempt to throw the attacker as they land. Decisions, decisions, decisions, continuously and repeatedly when playing any game of Third Strike. So in this example given the absolute multitude of options the defender has, is it wise for the attacker to jump in at all? Well the beauty of the game is that there is no crystal clear answer. It all depends.
Perhaps the attacking player is using a character with massive damage output such as Dudley. Dudley can take 35% of the opponent’s life bar from one jump in combo, without using any meter. Furthermore, he has a really low jump arc making it tough to react to his jump-in with an anti-air attempt. So jumping in as  Dudley player is a reasonable decision to make. Conversely if you are using Remy, jumping in might not be such a good option. Remy has low damage output and low health and defence values. His strengths lie in good tools that apply pressure from far away and controlling space with a variety of projectiles and moves that hit from far away. Jump-in with Remy and get it wrong and you could easily eat a third of your life bar and give up any positional advantage you might have earned previously in the round.
However, with Remy, as his strengths lie in keep-away and pressuring from afar, occasionally jumping in on the opponent might be a good idea. It has the “shock-factor” and makes your play unpredictable. If you successfully jump-in and land a combo or throw, you score damage and position, and you mess with your opponent’s mind as they will be unsure as to whether you will stick to a ranged game, or if you like to mix it up. So perhaps the risk of eating damage is worth the rewards on offer in this case?
Speaking of predictability, this is another core element to Third Strike. Every action in Third Strike has a counterable reaction to it. Thus if you keep doing similar things over and over, your actions are easy to predict and a smart opponent will punish you every time. Let’s say the attacker is playing Ryu and the defender is playing Ken. The attacker walks up and notices that when he gets into Ken’s Sweep range, the defender likes to use the sweep to knock Ryu down and preventing him from advancing any further. Knowing this the Ryu player walks forward into this range, taps down for a low parry and punishes the sweep with a combo of his own. The defender’s strategy was reasonably sound, trying to defend their space so that the attacker cannot get in, but by being predictable, they were punished. A smart player will therefore mix his options up and evolve their play during a match.
The next time Ryu walks forward, the defender instead chooses to use Ken’s standing hard kick. This move covers the same space horizontally as the sweep, but hits high. Thus the Ryu player who went for a low parry gets tagged and takes some damage. Now when Ryu approaches again, does he parry high or low? Is it worth taking damage in order to forge an opening to create some damage opportunities for himself? Let’s say that this time, Ryu decides to walk into this range and block low, which prevents Ken’s Sweep and standing hard kick from damaging him at this range. A good decision because it keeps him safe and potentially offers him the chance to retaliate after blocking either move. Anticipating this however, the defender instead dashes forward and throws Ryu instead, thinking that he was going to block. But what if the Ryu player had good reactions, or anticipated this decision from the defender? As Ken dashes forward, Ryu sticks out a crouching medium kick and hit confirms it into a Super, as he had one whole of meter ready. Ken now easts 40% life and loses position for attempting this risky move. But what if Ken thought of this possibility and waits for Ryu to stick out a whiffed kick before punishing Ryu himself with his own super? We are now firmly entrenched in mind-game city, with actions having counter-actions and counter-actions themselves having counter-counter-actions against them. And this is why Street Fighter 3: Third Strike is more addictive than crack, or so I’m told.

Possibly one of the highest level matches of Third Strike ever captured onto film. It’s hard to explain what’s going on to someone not familiar with the game engine, but this match drew veritable gasps when first becoming public.
At it’s best, 3S is a very organic, ever evolving game. Just as Bruce Lee said that the best fighter is like water, always changing shape and form to deal with the conditions and container it was in, so are the best 3S players. During a set of games against an opponent, you may first go for a series of throws, trying to condition the opponent to try and tech your throw attempts. Once they start to do so, you then evolve your strategy and use meaty attacks and anti-throw tactics such as quickly dashing back and then forwards to punish whiffed throws. Now your opponent has to evolve their defence to watch out for these anti-throw attempts. But of course whilst you are trying to apply your own strategy and decisions to dictate the flow of the match, so is your opponent and thus you must have one eye on what he is trying to do whilst at the same time keeping in mind what decisions you will make. You can play 50 matches against the same opponent in this game and never have the same match twice. Instead of matches becoming formulaic and repetitive, each player is continuously making micro-adjustments to their playstyle and strategy to try and keep ahead and achieve the win. it’s a true battle of wits and deviously brilliant in it’s execution.
Clever chap, that Bruce Lee fellow. Reasonably good martial artist too.
Though the concepts of risk / reward and being unpredictable / organic in your play are two key strategies in the game, there are lots of other small details that add up to make this game so good. Parrying itself is incredibly simple to do, just tap forward for a high parry or low for a low parry. Although many people often think that parrying is hard to do, it really isn’t at all. The difficulty in parrying is not performing the parry, but rather anticipating the right move so that the parry can be attempted in the first place. Thus it is a fantastic example of a gameplay mechanic that is simple to learn but hard to master. The decision to have two types of parry is also a brilliant one. As parrying can open up strong offensive opportunities, it is not as straightforward as having one option that covers all attacks. You must anticipate the timing of an incoming attack as well as the direction it will hit in order to parry. And this assumes that an attack is on it’s way in the first place! Furthermore, Capcom knew that parrying was a powerful and fun mechanic in this game. As such the actual effect of parrying was brilliantly designed in terms of look and feel. The screen momentarily flashes blue (or red if you perform a red parry), your character performs a parry animation and makes an energetic sound effect. It’s hard to explain in words, but parrying not only looks impressive, it “feels” incredibly satisfying too. Even after years of playing, there is still an amazing feeling of successfully anticipating an opponent’s action and seeing your character parry the incoming attack. It literally never gets old. This is so hard to achieve in game design but it’s always something that elevates a game from good to great.
Another great decision from the design team is the overall health of all characters, the damage they do and the “pace” of the game itself. Super Turbo, considered one of the finest fighters of all time too, is brutally quick, with rounds often over after just one or two mistakes. The SF IV series is often criticised for being too far the other way. Matches can be slow and ponderous as characters do small damage and have high health. 3S is literally bang on the money in terms of damage and game speed. Like the little bear in the story of Goldilocks, this porridge is juuuuust right. On average, it takes 3 successful mixup attempts to win a round from the opponent. This has a lot of positive outcomes for the game. Matches do not last too long, nor do they feel too short. You almost always feel like you can make a comeback, even against an opponent who has a large life lead against you. Potentially at any time, one parry, or correct read gives you the opportunity to land good damage and seize control of momentum in the match, allowing you to win. This is one of the hardest things to achieve in fighting games, but 3S just absolutely nails it.
Another interesting mechanic in 3S is that characters have multiple super arts they can select from. This means that certain characters can play very differently dependent on which super art is chosen.  Ryu’s 3 super arts all have a big impact on the way he plays. Shinkuu Hadoken is a versatile option, that does good damage, holds two stocks and can be confirmed from many moves. Shin Shoryuken has only one stock and takes a while to fill up. However, it deals monster damage and literally puts the fear of god in the opponent once available. It allows you to land many, many throws as eating a throw is far preferable to losing 60% health! Finally he has his Denjin Hadoken which is tricky to land but stuns the opponent. It favours a high-risk, ultra aggressive style of play as the reward for landing it is so high. Perhaps one of the few criticisms I have with 3S is that only a few characters have a good choice of super arts to select from. Many characters tend to one super art that is dominant and a far “better” choice than the others on offer. However, there is more than enough gameplay on offer in 3S to account for this small issue.

Sadly this sums up most people’s experience with this game.
 I could literally write about why this game is so well designed, so fun to play and so great to watch for days on end, but instead I’ll focus on a few of the criticisms the game often draws. The first is that the game is very harsh on new players. Given the nature of the system, an experienced player can absolutely destroy a new player because they can read their every move, parry their every attack and almost humiliate them an incredible beating. This is 100% true and I have seen many, many players give up playing the game for this very reason. However, one must understand that 3S arrived at the every end of Capcom’s “uber hardcore” era. This was a time when Capcom’s fanbase was made up of predominantly action game lovers. In order to cater for this niche audience, Capcom made gameplay systems and experiences that became more and more technical and more and more challenging. Game like 3S, DMC3 and Viewtiful Joe are testament to this design ethos, with each game being famously difficult to play and get into, but absolutely fantastic in terms of the gameplay on offer. All are exactly the type of game that rewards the player for putting more and more effort and learning the systems held within. The more you play, the more you seem to enjoy these games, giving them immense re-playability and offering a really satisfying gameplay experience. It’s no surprise to find that this strategy led to Capcom’s sales numbers dropping from sequel to sequel as games got harder and more technical, but at the same time it’s probably also why so many masterpieces were made during this era. 3S is a fighting games player’s fighter, one designed and intended for players that are veterans of the fighting game genre and who want something substantial and meaty to sink their teeth into. And on this promise, it unequivocally delivers.
The second main criticism thrown at the game is it’s overall balance, with Chun Li and Yun being identified as two over-powered characters who can dominate the game via super-arts that are incredibly strong. Bad match-ups always exist in fighting games, as they are so hard to balance. However, even with that as a given, these two do appear to be particularly strong. The parry mechanic means that you still always have a chance against these two, and although it is a losing battle, it’s never impossible, even if it can be an unlikely victory depending on the character you use. This is grievance I also have with the game, but it’s a forgivable sin. Had a 4th iteration of the game ever been released, I have no doubt these issues would be resolved. Furthermore, 3S is a game where the stronger player almost always wins. If you are better than the opponent, then even if they use one of these two characters, you should win. Yes, you might have to be quite a lot better than the player in question, but they do not automatically win a match just for being selected.
An all too familiar sight in the world of competitive Third Strike.

So overall, what a game. Beautifully designed from a mechanical view, it looks gorgeous visually, even to this day with some of the finest 2D animation ever to grace a video game. It also has a belter of a sound track with it’s own unique style and flair. A true-classic then, and a game that I will always play.