I'm going through another "Street Fighter" phase. I use Street Fighter loosely; I really mean the entire genre of Japanese, anime-inspired, super-hero, cartoon-like two-dimensional fighting games. I'm not really a fan of anything anime (despite having tried plenty) but for some reason, this little niche subgenre appeals to me. Capcom's Street Fighter is probably the best known representative series of video games that I consider topical here, but there are others, including Street Fighter's rivals King of Fighters and Fatal Fury by SNK.
Here's what I consider the best the genre has to offer... minus the newest offerings, because I don't have either an Xbox 360 or a Playstation 3, so I can't play the very newest games. I had actually thought that it wouldn't matter because the entire genre was peetering out, but some new life has shown up in the form of hi-def Street Fighter IV and King of Fighters XII. I'll get around to those. Eventually. When I get a system from the current generation. Anyway, yeah. Best in the genre. The ones you really want to make sure and sample. There's a lot of other good games out there, but I'm going on the assumption that most people who are interested in this genre aren't going to be obsessive collectors, and are instead curious about what I think the best ones are. Because my opinion matters so much to everyone out there, right? Right? Ahem... Anyway, as it turns out, my picks seem to cover about one per major series, which works out really well, although the fact that it does so is actually coincidental.
Street Fighter Alpha 3. As far as I'm concerned this is the epitome of Street Fighter design. It had all the characters from every version of Street Fighter 2, a lot of characters from Street Fighter 1, a lot of characters from the Final Fight side-scrolling beat-em-up (firmly establishing that the two series take place in the same continuity, among other things) and had the best gameplay, most options, and yet still pretty intuitive and easy to pick up play. The graphics weren't literally the best technically (Street Fighter 3 had a higher frame rate, and some of the sprites were kinda clunky looking compared to those that were on other Capcom fighters from more or less the same vintage) but they were still quite nice and pleasing aesthetically. This game, quite frankly, has it all. It even has one of my favorite BGM soundtracks from the genre.
There's a few nitpicky complaints I could make about it; there are too many characters that are too similar, for instance. Ryu, Evil Ryu, Ken, Akuma and Shin Akuma are all at best slight variations on the same theme. For that matter they were variations on the same sprite. You could maybe add Dan to that list too. Maybe. But there was enough selection otherwise that that didn't matter too much. The announcer could use a Ritalin. And although he was clearly a native English speaker, whoever wrote the script for him wasn't; there's a few things he shouts out that are clearly mistranslated. "What a terrible fighter!" either means terrific or terrifying, for instance, but not terrible. That's an understandable mistake, I suppose. In regular play, some of the characters almost never come up as antagonists, while others almost always do. I wish the opponent select was a bit more truly random. But all in all, this game delivers for both single player and competitive play.
How best to get it: Probably the easiest way to get a hold of this game today is through the Playstation 2 collection Street Fighter Alpha Anthology. Not only do you get this game, but you also get the rest of the Alpha titles as well as the Puzzle Fighter game, which is good for a laugh.
Capcom vs. SNK 2. This gem of a game also has it all. Not only does it have most of the Street Fighter characters, but it's also got tons of your favorite Fatal Fury and King of Fighters characters thrown in to boot, drawn by the Capcom artists in a more or less Street Fighter style. The sheer size of the character roster is a big draw, the gameplay is phenomenal, and the most exciting part of the whole affair, of course, is putting the rival Capcom and SNK characters together in the same game so they can fight against each other. There's a lot of gameplay options; you can set it up as a single player type game, a la Street Fighter or Fatal Fury, or you can create teams that fight against other teams, not too unlike King of Fighters (in fact, there's specifically a 3 on 3 option that is almost exactly like classic King of Fighters play.) You can change other settings that make the game play like various other games in terms of super meters and other ancillary features like rolls, dodges, etc. In practice, I find that this is less of a draw than it sounds, because I found which system I like best and tend to stick with it, but at least I have enough choices to get the system I like.
I have a few nitpicks from this game too. There's a few characters that just don't fit, but they were thrown in there anyway. In some cases, this is because they come from games that are too dissimilar (like Samurai Shodown or Last Blade) and in other cases its because the sprites are so antiquated and clunky looking that they just look terrible (Morrigan, I'm lookin' at you.) The music and backgrounds are pretty forgettable, making the presentation of the game as a whole feel subpar. Luckily, it makes up for that with great gameplay.
How best to get it. This game was released for the original Xbox, the Playstation 2 and even the Nintendo Gamecube. I have it for the Xbox, and most folks will tell you that that release along with the Gamecube are the best ones. I don't think that there's sufficient differences to go out of your way to buy a new system, though, if you've already got a PS2. You can do most of what you need to in this genre with a PS2 these days.
Real Bout Fatal Fury 2. Arguably, this is where the Fatal Fury series made it's best showing. Some folks would instead claim Mark of the Wolves and while I'll certainly admit that that's a good game, this one is much more iconic. All of the Fatal Fury characters (to date) appear in this game. It's got the best graphics of the series, and the best sprites, and the best movelist. The two-plane fighting system feels much less gimmicky in this game; in some Fatal Fury games you spend so much time jumping from plane to plane that you don't actually bother with any regular attacks it feels like. Here the 2-plane system is handy and fun, but it doesn't overpower other options tactically. I find this game the most fun to play of all the Fatal Fury games, and like the characters' presentation best of all the Fatal Fury games.
Of course, it comes with a few nitpicks too. The button layout is different for a lot of the Fatal Fury games than it is for the other series, whereas with the other series, they feel more familiar. This is a very minor nitpick, but it serves to cause the game to stand out a bit, and not necessarily in a good way. There are some minor presentation issues; the game doesn't really have any endings to speak of except for a handful of images for each character. Some people will hotly argue that Real Bout 2 is a "canon" game, whereas the Wikipedia entry said for a long time that it was a "dream match." I don't think it really matters, since nothing of import happens anyway. The game also reuses a lot of its backgrounds instead of giving every character a unique one, which is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.
How best to get it. The easiest way to get a hold of this game today is to get the Playstation 2 collection Fatal Fury Battle Archive 2 which comes with all three Real Bout titles. Despite the 2 in the title of this one, it's really the third and final in the subseries, and the best of the Fatal Fury greater series overall.
King of Fighters '98. This is a perennial fan favorite. King of Fighters was a great idea; combining characters from a whole bunch of different video games that SNK made (including, obviously, fighters like Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury, but also including others as well.) By the time '98 came out, it had been chugging along for five years, and '98 was technically the 5th entry. It was also meant to be a "greatest hits" within the already greatest hits framework of King of Fighters; it had the most refined gameplay and largest character roster of any of the games to date, and purposefully brought back a lot of fan favorites that had otherwise quietly never made another appearance. And frankly, five years of polishing had made the series excellent by this point. The characters are a joy to play and experiment with, and there's a lot of them to play around with. The gameplay is spot on; one of the best and most responsive in the entire genre, and very varied and tight. With only a few exceptions, the characters are very well balanced as well. This game is in many respects, a great answer to Capcom's Street Fighter Alpha 3; a game about which I said it has it all. This one definately does as well.
A few minor nitpicks, as I did with the others so far. Presentation-wise, this game could use a bit more polish. In fact, in the most recent release, it finally got it, but for years I played the Dreamcast version, and the menus and a few other items were surprisingly ugly and clunky looking. Other than that... well, I guess there were a few notable misses in the roster; folks who didn't show up despite having appeared in King of Fighters games before and being reasonably popular characters. That's since been addressed too. So... really, not much here on the nitpicks side at all, is there? Hmmm... I might have to bump this up to most polished game in the entire genre. It deserves it, if I do make that move. It's arguably SNK's best fighter.
How best to get it. Lately, it's been relatively easy to get this for the PS2. The Orochi Saga collection has it, in its original arcade version. The best option, though, is the PS2 King of Fighters '98: Ultimate Match version, which went ahead and added all the missing characters into the roster, made some very slight tweaks to gameplay and balance, added a few new stages and gameplay elements, and which also includes the original arcade mode as well.
Next up! The runners up, and the notable not-runners up. By which I mean games that I didn't pick that you may have expected that I should and why.