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Press Start: June 2007 -- Top Five Arcade Fighters

For the June 2007 "Press Start" column, Peter "The Rizk" Rizkalla takes a historical look at the top five arcade fighter games of all time.

How did all this start? What was the first videogame that you ever played? Do you remember? Well if you're like myself, you're part of a large and not-so-exclusive group of people who I like to call "old school." If you really consider yourself old school, then whether you remember the first game you ever played or not, most likely you remember this -- you played your first ever videogame in an arcade!

Of course, what need is there for an arcade anymore? I mean, we got the most advanced videogame technology right in our living rooms in the form of home videogame consoles. But did you ever stop and think, "What the heck happened to the arcades?"

You've probably said to yourself, "They must have died out a long time ago." But surprisingly, the fact is arcades are actually alive and thriving. So what's maintaining this steady stream of arcade success? Sure there are games like Dance Dance Revolution, Initial D and Time Crisis, but what the majority of arcade hoppers keep coming back for are the fighting games.

First of all, let me define an arcade fighter. An arcade fighter is not a four-player brawler like Urban Reign or Def Jam: Vendetta. Arcade fighters, over the course of history, have been strictly two players, maximum. In brawlers, every character has different attacks, but they are all performed the same way and they are all defended against the same way. For instance, in a brawler, punching and kicking is often designated to only one or two buttons with varying attacks if the button is held, pressed rapidly or with a direction. The same goes with grabs and reversals. This is actually essential to how a brawler is played. You need the simple button commands so that fighting against three different opponents is intuitive.

But with a true fighting game, players are offered much more intricacy. Fighting games have anywhere from three to eight specific buttons for punching, kicking and slashing all ranging from weak to strong, right to left or high to low. Every character in the game has different special and super attacks and all are performed in different ways with different effects on the opposition in a two out of three round match. It's almost as if every character is an entire game system in himself... herself... itself.

These fighting games are so popular that arcade owners and a few low-pro gaming groups often hold tournaments with these games for big cash prizes. There are even videos of tournament footage on popular Internet video sites. This month we will be looking at the top five fighting games still being played in arcades in this very special edition of "Press Start!"

Guilty Gear XX Slash is a 2D fighter that takes fighting to the sky. All the character and background art is very anime-esque and the frame rate of the animation is exceptionally smooth. © Sega/Arc System Works.

#5. Guilty Gear XX Slash Publisher: SEGA; Developer: ARC System Works; Release Date: 2005

Now, this is an interesting piece of work. Guilty Gear XX Slash is a 2D fighter that takes fighting to the sky, literally. All the character and background art is very anime-esque, and the frame rate of the animation is exceptionally smooth. GGXXS allows players to select their character from a roster of more than 20 characters. Basic attacks are punches, kicks and slashes. Also, like in any fighting game, every character has an arsenal of special moves, which they can perform at anytime and super moves that require the super meter to be filled at certain levels to perform.

The combo system in GGXXS is much more fluid and less restrictive than in other fighters. Players can whip out huge combos just by tapping the attack buttons in succession and linking them to specials and/or supers. Players can also choose to launch an opponent into the air to further pummel them and make their combos even longer. Another feature is that players that are on the receiving end of a ridiculously huge combo can execute a combo breaker called a "Burst," provided that their Burst meter is full.

As if the combo system wasn't huge enough, players can also execute what's called "Roman Cancels." At the cost of a portion of the super meter this maneuver allows players to interrupt a move half way through leaving their opponent helpless to allow players to continue into an even longer combo. For example, Potemkin in GGXXS performs a move where he grabs and holds an airborne opponent, then causes them to explode, sending the opponent flying across the screen, which ends the combo. However, if halfway through the grab, players perform a Roman Cancel their opponent will be left defenseless in the air for the player to deal more damage.

Now this part is really fun. Players can activate an instant destruction move that if connects will totally obliterate their opponent in one shot, regardless of how much energy the opponent still has left. However, there are drawbacks to using this maneuver. Most players actually choose not to use this feature, because you sacrifice using the super meter for the rest of the round. So if the instant destruction does not connect, you're left to play the rest of the round without supers.

The gameplay in GGXXS is extremely fast with the levels being as tall as they are wide in order to contain the wild battles. Gamers are drawn to GGXXS because of the combo system. It's almost like an art; guys are still creating some of the most insane combos ever conceived. It's actually quite common to walk into an arcade and find a group of guys just watching two others go at it, because of how well players are handling their characters in matches.

Players love Capcom vs SNK 2 because they get better by trying different characters and different grooves, and by experimenting to see what punches and kicks link up to what special moves and super moves. Courtesy of Capcom USA Inc.

# 4. Capcom vs SNK 2 Publisher: Capcom; Developer: Capcom; Release Date: 2001

This game is actually a joint venture of rival fighting game producers Capcom and SNK Playmore (ironic, isn't it?). Capcom is famous for introducing the well-known fighting franchise Street Fighter, while SNK is known for other popular franchises, such as King of Fighters and Fatal Fury. Capcom vs SNK 2 is a 2D fighter that brings together all of the best fighting systems from past fighting games, and has a roster of more than 45 characters.

In CvS2, players can choose from one to three characters to fight with in a match and choose which order the characters fight in. If players choose to fight with only one character, then that character's defense, power and vitality will be extremely high. If players choose to select two or three characters then each character's defense, power and vitality will be dispersed accordingly. There are no rounds in CvsS2, the match ends when all of a player's characters are defeated.

Players must also select a fighting system or "groove" as it's called; this is where it gets fun. There are six different fighting systems to choose from -- three from previous Capcom games like Street Fighter Alpha and three from previous SNK games like Samurai Shodown. Different grooves determine how characters will fill up their super meters to perform super moves. In some cases, the super meter will fill automatically as the game progresses. In other cases, players will have to fill the meter manually by holding down certain buttons. This method fills the meter a lot faster than the first. Also, the different grooves grant different defensive and offensive abilities such as rolling safely past certain attacks, absorbing attacks to fill up the super meter faster and "custom combos" where all the character's attacks link together and the character moves ultra fast. As you can tell by now the combinations can be endless.

When asked, players admit that what they love about playing this game is that, "you never get bored. You get better by trying different characters and different [grooves]." Players are always experimenting with CvS2 to see what punches and kicks link up to what special moves and what specials moves link up with what super moves. By chaining these attacks players have invented attack combinations that even the developers of the game never knew were possible.

CvS2 has been released on home systems, such as PlayStation 2 and the Nintendo GameCube, but without online capability these versions don't present much of a challenge. An Xbox version was also released that included online play, but gamers have often complained that the lag is too much to bear and significantly deters the gameplay. Hence, why CvS2 in the arcades still provides arcade gamers with good competition. Heck, it's more fun to go head to head against a real live person anyway instead some guy over the Internet. Although CvS2 is a great fighter and tons of people play the game, it leaves one to wonder if Capcom and Midway will ever join forces to bring gamers the ultimate match-up they've been waiting years for. I speak, of course, of (dare I say it) Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat.

Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection is probably one of the most balanced fighting games ever. It is a 3D fighter featuring close to 40 playable characters. Courtesy of Namco Bandai Games.

#3. Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection Publisher: Namco Bandai; Developer: Namco Bandai; Release Date: 2006

This is probably one of the most balanced fighting games ever. Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection is a 3D fighter featuring close to 40 playable characters. What makes T5DR so different from other fighters is that there are no super moves. Instead each character boasts a huge arsenal of punches, kicks and combos; and I mean huge! The amount of attacks and throws each character has are ridiculous.

In every Tekken game ever made each character has one or more "10-hit combos" in their move list and T5DR is no exception. By executing a complex string of punches and kicks each character can pull off an incredible and damage heavy combo. These combos are actually placed in the game by the developers. It's kinda like a tradition to have 10-hit combos in a Tekken game; brings a joyful tear to my eye.

When it comes to defense, it really depends on the character you select. For instance when choosing a character that is a wrestler, like King or Craig Marduk, these grapplers will have specific moves that are meant to catch an opponent's limbs when they punch or kick and then throw them across the screen dealing some serious hurt. But let's just say you've selected Steve Fox who is a boxer. Now a boxer can't very well grab arms and legs like a wrestler can, but one thing a boxer can do is dodge better than anyone. Using Steve, players can bait opponents into a punch or kick then duck and jive away from the attack leaving the opponent open for nice little combo.

The fact that T5DR is a 3D fighter means that the characters can move in three-dimensional directions. Characters can move towards or away from their opponent (like in a 2D fighter) as well as sidestepping to the left or the right of their opponent. This makes for added defense; instead of just blocking an attack players can sidestep an attack leaving their opponent open for some beat down.

Now this feature I'm about to tell you right now is (as far as American mainstream goes) unique to the Tekken series. Certain arcades will allow you to purchase Tekken-Net ID cards. Once you have purchased a card you can insert the card into the arcade machine while playing the game and the card will record your win/loss record. Also, the game gives players the opportunity to customize their favorite characters with different clothes, accessories and hair. The card remembers these customizations, so that whenever you play the game using your favorite character, it will be dressed in the ever so fashionable garb of your creation. But of course, probably the most important feature is this -- if the arcade machine has a connection to the Internet, then the card ranks your progress among other T5DR players around the world so you can see just where you stand among the strongest Tekken players.

Every character in Marvel vs Capcom 2 has at least one super maneuver. Most have two, some have three. Courtesy of Capcom.

#2. Marvel vs Capcom 2 Publisher: Capcom; Developer: Capcom; Release Date: 2000

If you thought Guilty Gear was confusion, brother you ain't seen nothing yet. This fighter earns the number two spot for a reason. Back in 1996, Capcom created a new fighting system where players could not only string together massive combinations on the ground; they could also launch opponents into the air to perform "air combos." Also, players could select two characters instead of one and were able to switch characters right in the middle of the fight. This game featured many characters from Capcom's Street Fighter license and a bevy of characters from Marvel Comics' X-Men series and was called X-Men vs. Street Fighter. Soon Capcom decided to balance and revise a few things in this new creation (not to mention add a few more characters), but still keep the fighting system the way it was, which resulted in a new game; Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter.

Soon, other game developers started noticing a trend in the Capcom games and started releasing games with a similar fighting style as these games, hence the Guilty Gear series.

Later, Capcom decided to go for the goal. By adding even more characters and a few little extras such as using in-game helpers for a limited number of times (in addition to still being able to select two fighters) it seemed as if Capcom had created the ultimate arcade fighter with the introduction of Marvel vs. Capcom. The gameplay was confusing at first, but it didn't take long for arcade dwellers to cry out for more, and "more" is what they got. Behold Marvel vs. Capcom 2.

Like the previous iterations of this fighter, MvC2 still allowed gamers to switch between characters on the fly and still perform massive combos with even more massive supers. What they did differently was that they did away with the helper and allowed players to fight with a full-on additional third character. Players could now switch between their first, second or third character at anytime during the fight.

Still, helpers were a really good idea in the first Mv, so in MvC2, players can call out there other two characters at any time and as many times as they want to come out and perform a quick attack, then leave just as quickly. This helps a lot in starting off and continuing the huge combos that can be performed. Although players can call out their other two other characters as helpers an infinite amount of times, your opponent can deal severe amounts of damage to your helpers in the short amount of time that they are on screen.

Speaking of the combos, in previous games such as X-Men vs. Street Fighter a numerical counter would appear on screen to tell you how many hits your last combo was. However, this counter only reached up to 99. In MvC2 the counter reaches 999! That's right; the amount of hits in a combo register in the triple digits... it's ridiculous!

Now let's talk supers. Every character in the game has at least one super maneuver. Most have two, some have three. Players can dish out these supers to deal heavy damage, but it doesn't end there. If a player's super meter is filled to at least level three, then they can actually chain supers. Players can pull off a super, then interrupt it with their next characters super and then call out their last character to finish off with his super. If a player is just really frustrated and doesn't want to go through all that trouble, then they have the ability to just call out all three characters at the same time to perform their respective supers all at once. Like I said... it's ridiculous.

Capcom also added a move in the game that'll fry your last nerve. Say you're playing and your character begins to run low on energy. So you switch out to your second character who has a full bar of energy. If you don't defend against this move, your opponent will knock your character off the screen and bring back the character with low energy that you just switched out.

Defending is actually the simplest part of the game. Holding in the direction away from your opponent will defend against any attack except throws. If it seems like your opponent just won't stop with the relentless barrage of attacks, even though you're blocking, you can push him away to give yourself some room.

Some of the most competitive tournaments are still being held with Marvel vs. Capcom 2 here in America and across the globe in Japan.

Street Fighter 3: Third Strike is as close to fighting perfection as you can get. All Street Fighter 3: Third Strike images courtesy of Capcom.

#1. Street Fighter 3: Third Strike Publisher: Capcom; Developer: Capcom; Release Date: 2000

Street Fighter 3: Third Strike is as close to fighting perfection as you can get. The reason why it's called Street Fighter 3: Third Strike is because it is the third revision of the third installment in the Street Fighter series. At this point, you're probably ready to take an aspirin and go to bed from all this confusion. But to be honest with you, Third Strike is the simplest game on this list.

This game deserves the number one spot for a reason. A California arcade owner is quoted saying, "More [people] play Street Fighter 3: Third Strike than any other arcade game." The work that was involved in creating this game was no short of a gargantuan triumph.

First of all, the game's 2D graphics are so well animated that you would think the characters were pulled from an animated feature film. The backgrounds are superbly done with color schemes ranging from bright outdoors to dark caves with little bits of light just barely peaking to sunsets behind a sacred temple.

The music has a kind of orchestrated, 1970s, underground hip-hop feel to it. In fact, Underground rapper INFINITE was brought in to create the theme song and other tracks for Third Strike. Voice actors like Len Carlson and Lawrence Bayne, along with a group of other American and Japanese voice actors, supplied an awesome composition of appropriate and believable voice acting.

Third Strike is all about strategy and the most significant feature is

Ok, so you know the game looks and sounds beautiful, but what about the gameplay? Players first select only one character from a list of 19 playable characters. Then a list of supers appears -- each character has three unique super maneuvers. Players choose one of the three to use for the rest of the game. Now, for every match, players are given the option to choose which opponent they would like to fight. Only two opponent options are given each match and the player must choose only one. Decisions, decisions.

The fighting system in Third Strike is nowhere near as free and loose as the fighting systems in other games -- punches and kicks don't just automatically string together as in other fighters. A combo with 15 to 20 hits in Third Strike is actually very impressive, considering how restrictive the system is. However, regular punches and kicks can link into a special, which can then link into a super.

But, to be honest, Third Strike is not about combos; it's about strategy. There are many ways to bait an opponent into doing what you want in order to take him apart. One nice little maneuver is that every character has an anti-crouch attack. By blocking low, your opponent will prevent himself from being hit by low attacks and be completely missed by high attacks. The anti-crouch attack is an overhead shot that puts a stop to this cheesy tactic.

In addition to special maneuvers, players can sacrifice a small portion of their super meter to perform an ex special. An ex special is just a slightly different, and often much faster variation of the character's special moves. This mixes things up a bit to catch your opponent off guard. For example, while using Alex, if you're lucky enough to connect his slashing chop, your opponent will be hit once and will be turned around so that you can now grab him for a suplex. However, the slashing chop is slow and, therefore, cannot be used in a combo unless performed with the weakest punch button. If you were to ex the slashing chop, then the chop will come out a lot faster allowing you to use it in a combo and strike your opponent with two hits instead of one.

Like I said before, Third Strike is all about strategy and the most significant feature about Third Strike is "parrying." Any attack in the game can be parried, except for throws. When your opponent is on the offensive, quickly pressing forward at the precise moment the attack strikes will cause your character to swat away the attack leaving your opponent wide open. This also works with crouching attacks by pressing down, instead of forward. Parrying requires very skillful timing. If you miss-time the parry, you will be damaged by the attack. One of the most impressive displays of parrying was done by a player named Daigo at the 2004 Evolution videogame tournament. A video clip of the match can be found almost anywhere on the Internet.

This is where the excellent animation of Third Strike directly affects gameplay. Parrying requires good timing; good timing requires that you are able to see the move coming and react accordingly. You can't see a move coming if the move is only two frames of animation, i.e., you can parry the move!

So why is it that a game with so many restrictions and less dramatic action beats out all these other games where players can be fluid and creative in a match? Probably, because Street Fighter 3: Third Strike leaves no room for luck. All too many times there have been fighting games where guys play a fighter for one hour and develop a cheesy tactic that beats out guys who have been playing the game for years. It's frustrating. You can't be a "turtle" or a "button masher" in Third Strike. Either you're good, or you lose. So go out and find an arcade, fill your pocket with a grip of quarters, find the Street Fighter 3: Third Strike machine and keep that joystick smoking!

Peter Rizkalla is a life long fan of videogames and the videogame industry. He has worked in videogame companies, such as THQ and Namco and has won several awards for his animated short films, such as his videogame-themed Flash film, Toadstool Funk. Peter can be reached at PRizkalla@gmail.com.

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