Insert Coin: Street Fighter’s Forgotten 3D Roots

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flyer_sfex2pNowadays it’s pretty easy to hate on Capcom. They’ve become an awful company that ignores the wishes of their various series’ fanbases, then proceeds to milk those same long-suffering fans with shallow merch for the same franchises they’ve openly said they will no longer support. It only frustrates people because once upon a time Capcom used to be so damn good at making their fans happy.

One of the few fanbases that Capcom still manages to stay in good graces with is the Street Fighter community. But even that relationship  was rocky over a decade ago. The trip downward from the peaks of the early ’90s fighting revolution started as 3D fighting games took over the arcade scene. Capcom was seemingly slow to adapt to changing tides in the eyes of the media. Critics demanded Street Fighter go 3D, even though that went against the entire concept of a projectile based fighting system.

But the truth of the matter is, Capcom actually did make an attempt to bring the franchise into the 3D realm in 1996 with the debut of Street Fighter EX. Borrowing the visual style of the first two Tekken games, Street Fighter EX played essentially like a hybrid of Street Fighter II and Street Fighter Alpha, but with full 3D polygonal graphics and a rotating perspective, ala Tekken, but without the side-stepping. To be sure, the visuals were far from impressive when compared to the graphics of other 3D fighters of the time, most notably Sega and Namco’s work with Virtua Fighter and Soul Blade respectively, but it was more than adequate. Street Fighter EX was published by Capcom, but developed by Arika, likely due to Capcom’s lack of experience and success with 3D fighting games at the time.

street-fighter-ex-2-plus-playstation-screenshot-chun-li-sSpeaking purely of the gameplay, EX was a legit Street Fighter game, much to the chagrin of people who seem to enjoy retroactively bashing it with only vague memories of the game. Yet Capcom was so unsure of the series’ place in the overall franchise hierarchy that they refused to place them in the main line of games, which at the time was inhabited by the Alpha and “Three” series. Technically, EX’s storyline takes place within an alternate timeline during the period of the Street Fighter Alpha series.

It seemed that critics and players alike loved to bash on Street Fighter EX for various reasons. Maybe because it wasn’t Street Fighter III and didn’t benefit from the brand recognition of Capcom finally learning to count to three after six years? Maybe it was because of strange character additions to the roster such as Skullomania. Perhaps it was the simplistic yet adequate 3D visuals. Street Fighter EX ran on the Capcom/Sony ZN-1 hardware, which was essentially an arcade version of the PlayStation with Q-Sound instead of the PlayStaton audio chip. Basically that meant the graphics were anything but cutting-edge.

Arcades had a far rougher transition to 3D visuals than consoles did thanks to the varying quality and inconsistencies between various arcade boards, and fighting games were one of the last genres to make the leap. Unlike racing games where the leap seemed almost natural, the entire concept of fighting games had to be completely rethought from the ground up, and while EX’s gameplay took place entirely on a 2D plane, the rotating perspective could have put off veteran Street Fighter players who were born and bred within the confines of a 2D environment. Funny that a decade later, Street Fighter IV would eventually do the same thing and be praised for it, seeing as by then 2D graphics were the exception to the norm.

Street Fighter EX would later get a sequel with more characters and the introduction of guard breaks, as well as a whopping three different types of Super Combos. There would be an enhanced re-release titled Street Fighter EX 2 Plus, then eventually a full-blown final sequel for the PlayStation 2′s launch in the form of Street Fighter EX3. Gameplay-wise, this was the most refined of the three and considered one of the most polished fighting games of the time, though the presentation was very outside of Street Fighter’s norm. It was also the last original Street Fighter entry that wasn’t a mash-up or versus game that fans would see until 2009.

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In retrospect, the Street Fighter EX is series Capcom’s forgotten first foray into bringing the very 2D Street Fighter series into 3D. At the time, opinions were mixed, but most could appreciate the high quality of the gameplay, even if the presentation was fairly simple and limited. Looking back, most seem to enjoy bashing the series as simplistic and archaic-looking, but the same can be said of anything from the early 3D era. Go back and play anything from the PlayStation era and you’ll see the same awful blocky polygonal models and pixelated flat backgrounds. The fact is that Street Fighter EX was a perfectly respectable series and deserves more credit for attempting to modernize Street Fighter in a respectful and approachable way — something that Capcom wouldn’t be able to get right again for a full decade until Street Fighter IV.

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Insert Coin is Games Are Evil’s weekly exploration of arcade culture and classic arcade games, hosted by our own Lucas DeWoody. You can follow Lucas on Twitter here.

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