Being the geeky Street Fighter fanatic that I am, I imported the Japanese version of Street Fighter Alpha 3 MAX when it came out in the land of the rising sun last week. It's called
over there, and there's a bit of Japanese text during dialogue scenes, but, otherwise, it's identical to the game that Capcom is going to ship to North America in a few weeks.
That got me to thinking. I should post my impressions of the Japanese version of the game to give people an idea of what to look forward to when the English versions come out! Yeah!
Anyway… Those of you unfamiliar with the game mainly need to know that it's a 2D arcade style fighting game with an extremely large character roster populated with familiar names like Ryu, Ken, Blanka, and M. Bison. Those of you that are already very familiar with Street Fighter Alpha 3 need only know that this is the best and most feature-packed version of the game ever released.
In all, there are 39 different characters to pick from. Every character from the Arcade, PlayStation, and Dreamcast versions is present, along with four extra characters taken from Street Fighter III, Capcom Vs. SNK 2, and Capcom Fighting Evolution. The list of play modes is absolutely ridiculous, in a good way. There are 11 in all. Old-timers will recognize the arcade, survival, multiplayer, and world tour modes (the latter of which lets players build up a custom character through an RPG style quest). New to the PSP is a stand-alone edit mode that provides an alternative method of creating custom characters, this time by allowing players to toggle specific rules and stat-upgrades. Also new to the PSP game is the variable battle mode, which lets players control two characters tag-team style against the CPU or live opponents in the multiplayer mode. If you've played games like X-Men Vs. Street Fighter or Marvel Vs. Capcom, you already know how character-swapping in the variable battle mode works.
Graphically, there's not much I can say about the game except that you should visit our screenshot archive to view the images we have of the game, and then try to imagine the characters and background objects in those shots moving with the fluid grace of animated cartoon characters. Perhaps the animation isn't quite that fluid, but you catch my drift. Since the PSP screen is rather small, the pixels aren't stretched to double or quadruple their size like they are when the Dreamcast or arcade versions are displayed on a TV screen or arcade monitor. That single-pixel width makes it easier to notice fine details in the background and to appreciate how colorful and cartoon-like the characters are, because the graphics aren't distorted and the outlines defining the characters are subtle and smooth rather than obvious and jagged. Also, after playing through arcade mode with Eagle and Ingrid, I was pleased to see that Capcom has put together complete ending sequences for the four bonus characters in the PSP game, instead of the generic screen that was used for them in the Dreamcast game.
Originally, Capcom told everybody that they were going to re-draw the backgrounds and characters so that they'd fill the PSP's screen dimensions. They didn't do that. Instead, they carried over the Dreamcast version's visual assets to the PSP game. Just as Capcom did with their previous PSP fighting game, Darkstalkers Chronicle, players have the option of playing the game "wide," which fills the screen and fattens everything up slightly, or "normal," which leaves the graphics their original size, but also puts black bars at the sides of the screen. Honestly, you can hardly tell that the characters and backgrounds are stretched in the wide mode. Nevertheless, I like how crisp and pixel-perfect the graphics look on the normal setting, and I don't mind the black bars, so that's the setting I've been sticking with.
The audio surprised me. I wasn't surprised to realize that the sound effects, music, and voice samples are identical to what was in the Dreamcast version. What surprised me is that the music and voices coming out of the PSP speakers are so loud and clear. A lot of PSP games are too quiet or muffled, even with the volume cranked. Street Fighter Alpha 3 MAX hits the ears loud-and-clear. They also somehow managed to make surround sound happen using the standard speakers. While playing, I noticed that sound effects were coming from the left, right, middle, top-left, and top-right with respect to the character's position on the screen. My only complaint here is that the thumping bass seems to have been sucked out of the music. That's at least true of the system's speakers and headphone jack. I haven't tried external speakers yet.
Load times are fine. It takes about a minute to initially boot up the game (boo!), but the remaining load times are very quick. The game loads for about five seconds before the first match and for two, maybe three seconds before each subsequent match. Cleverly, Capcom disguised the game's loading periods by making them occur during the dialogue and splash screens that appear between matches. By the time I've noticed that data is loading off the UMD, the announcer is already telling me I "have fists of God" and the screen is in the process of shifting into the next fight.
Gameplay seems to be spot-on. It's Street Fighter Alpha 3 on the PSP, a 2D one-on-one fighting game full of attacks, combos, special moves, and super-special attacks. If you haven't played a 2D fighting game since the old Street Fighter 2, just imagine that game with better graphics, better audio, more characters, and loads more attacks. Each character has multiple special moves and super-special attacks, as well as three different super meter styles, which you can pick from based on your needs. X-ISM gives you one level of super and an attack upgrade. A-ISM gives you three levels of super. Lastly, V-ISM gives you two levels of supercharged custom combos. All of the specials and combos I learned while playing the arcade and Dreamcast versions work. The CPU puts up a good fight on higher settings and the A.I. appears to have been altered, especially on the two toughest settings, to make the A.I. more dynamic and challenging. The new characters fit-in fairly well with the returning cast. Maki and Eagle have already appeared in Capcom Vs. SNK 2 and Yun was in Street Fighter III, so they've only gained a couple of minor moves to bring them up to speed with the other characters. Ingrid, the fourth new character, first appeared in Capcom Fighting Evolution, a train wreck of a fighting game reviled by critics and casuals alike. Her attacks and play style have more in common with SNK's King of Fighters games than the Street Fighter universe, but she's interesting enough and versatile enough to earn her place on the roster.
Those of you that bought Darkstalkers Chronicle probably vowed to never play another fighting game on the PSP again, due to how unresponsive the digital pad was in that game when trying to perform moves requiring quarter-circle or half-circle inputs. I know I personally took the game back to the rental shop the next day after a few hours of trying in vain to perform any of Morrigan's and Talbain's special moves. I'm happy to report that the same isn't true of the PSP version of Street Fighter Alpha 3. Capcom tweaked their code and has greatly improved the responsiveness of the controls. The d-pad will still miss a command input on rare occasions, but "rarely" is the key word here, not "often" (as was the case with Darkstalkers). Fireball motions are much easier to perform now.
Not content to simply improve the control response by fixing their own code, Capcom also set out to correct some flaws in the PSP hardware. They assert that players can't easily perform fireball motions and other necessary actions in fighting games because the digital pad on the PSP (a) lacks a true center, and (b) is too recessed to allow players to completely depress each directional button.
To remedy those flaws, Capcom of Japan has packaged what they're calling the "PSP Support Pad" with every copy of the game. I'd call it a d-pad topper myself. To use it, you first peel the backing off the adhesive on the bottom of it, and then stick it directly on top of the PSP's directional arrows. If you align it right, and press hard enough, it'll stay affixed permanently and turn the "center-less" d-pad into a traditional cross style d-pad. The design of the topper gives players a true center to slide their thumbs across and ensures that each directional button is fully pressed when you tilt the d-pad. It does add about two quarters worth (that's two 25-cent coins in Canada and the US) of height to the d-pad, but the added height doesn't make using it difficult or uncomfortable. In fact, if you're familiar with the old Sega Saturn or ASCII Dreamcast controllers, the topper-attached d-pad is nearly identical to those.
Going in, I wrote the topper off as voodoo, a silly gimmick. The game controlled just fine without it, or so I thought. As it turns out, I was wrong and Capcom was right. So very right. With the topper attached, fireballs and other special moves are significantly easier to perform than they are when using the plain PSP d-pad. In my experience, I've been nailing specials 100 percent of the time with the topper attached, whereas I was running about 90 percent without it.
Hopefully, Capcom USA will make the topper available in North America somehow, either in stores or from its website. My experience with it has convinced me that it is an essential accessory for anyone that wants to squeeze the most enjoyment out of Street Fighter Alpha 3 MAX (and perhaps even the company's previous 2D beat 'em up, Darkstalkers Chronicle).
As you can see, I'm personally very pleased with how the PSP version of Street Fighter Alpha 3 has turned out. I still need to dig deeper into all of the various play modes and pay closer attention the A.I. to see how it compares to the arcade and Dreamcast games, but, for the time being, my opinion is that this is the best version of SFA3 ever produced and easily the PSP's best fighting game.