Rewind Review: An elegant fighter, from a more... civilized age
Fifteen years ago, Capcom single-handedly brought one on one fighting games into the mindset of gamers with one single fighting game - Street Fighter II. On the other hand, you could say Capcom single-handedly caused the downfall of fighting games as well, with constant updates to this one Street Fighter game. From SFII Champion Edition, to SFII Turbo, Super Street Fighter II and SSF2 Turbo, they pretty much set the standard for rehashing (something they've done for years with all their major franchises, really) and beating a living horse and then continually beating it after it's dead. By this time, fighting fans were clamoring for the sequel - Street Fighter III. While it did come around and get ported to the Dreamcast at the turn of the century (to little fanfare, compared to the insane hype surrounding the SNES port of SFII), Capcom instead went backwards and offered a prequel to SF1 (the obscure original game that had little fanfare because it pretty much sucked) and SFII in the form of Street Fighter Zero, better known as Street Fighter Alpha on this side of the Pacific.
You could imagine this annoying the Street Fighter die-hards, but once the game released, there was little to whine about - SFA was an excellent, intelligent fighting game that is sadly passe nowadays. While Alpha 2 and 3 are much more complete and deep fighting games, the original Saturn conversion (and the pretty decent PlayStation port) is still a great playing fighter that has aged very little in the past 8 years or so. There's a reason why the Saturn is the original king of 2D fighting games (a throne the Dreamcast took away), and a port like SFA is just that reason.
While many fighting games nowadays come with numerous features to expand single player replay, Street Fighter Alpha (and most fighters of the day) comes with just 3 - single player, multiplayer and training. There's a "story" mode that lets you choose one of the 12 fighters and play through to an ending (if you have the difficulty set high enough, that is), and versus mode to play against friends. The training mode is just that, teaching you the moves and how to play the game.
Because of this lack of features (by today's standards, anyway), a game like SFA needs to have strong enough gameplay to keep you at it once you've played hours with friends or beaten the story modes with all characters and even unlocked the few hidden warriors. And the game certainly does. While many characters that were in other SF games (Ryu, Ken, Bison, Sagat, plus a few others who were in the original Street Fighter) control pretty much the same as the past with the same movesets, the added new characters to the SF universe (except Charlie who's more like Guile with a different haircut) are loaded up with moves and nuances to learn. New to the series and in every SF installment since is the Super Combo, a devastating special move that can wipe a load of energy from your opponent. You can't use it all the time though - you have to power up the meter on the bottom of the screen before you can pull it off. There's also the alpha counter that will counter one of these super moves if you hit it at the right time.
Unlike so many of the 3D fighters of today, the pace of SFA is methodical and strategic. This really isn't a game where you can win rounds in 10 seconds - instead, you have to pick spots and find the weakness in your opponent, especially human opponents. Highly skilled players are just that, and button mashers tend to get obliterated and humiliated when facing a skilled player who knows the moves and tricks. Just hammering buttons will pretty much get you nowhere, aside from on your back after getting your tail kicked. Even many 2D fighters of today are a bit too easy for button mashing (Guilty Gear X, Marvel vs. Capcom, even C vs SNK 2 can be a bit too forgiving), but Street Fighter games have really always been about skill and elegance when doing it (like a Soul Calibur 2 in terms of graceful results when you know exactly what you're doing), and SFA is a shining example of this kind of gameplay.
This is all helped by solid controls using either the Sega Virtua Fighting Stick or the Saturn controller (version 2, not the awful original). SF games have pretty much always had tight controls that made it easy to learn the moves, and this is the case here as well. It especially works well on Saturn, as the 6 face button layout allows for the 3 kick and 3 punch buttons to line up as they would in the arcade (unlike the SNES pad which was unorthodox with the R&L triggers). The outstanding Saturn d-pad works wonders here as well, giving you pinpoint control over your fighter - essential for such a 2D fighting game.
The strongest asset of this game though, is how well its held up. The gameplay isn't as deep as newer SF games, sure, but it's still got plenty to give, and the great controls and easy to learn, tough to master moves can make a game that's playable even if the Saturn has been out of date for 5 years now. While so many 3D games tend to lose their luster as better technology comes along, a plain old 2D fighter seems to never age as quickly.
This is especially true in the graphical aspect. Many of my own Saturn games, such as Fighting Vipers or Panzer Dragoon II seem dated visually, looking blocky and generic compared to today's games in similar genres. On the other hand, Street Fighter Alpha still looks great today. The hand-drawn 2D characters and backgrounds are sharp and detailed, and the animations are as fluid as you'd see in 2D fighters today. Of course, there is only so much you can do with 2D games these days (which is why so many are 3D), and while SFA isn't as pretty as GGX or something like that, it looks great on the Saturn. Furthermore, this is a truly arcade perfect port, one of the first arcade perfect conversions to Saturn. While the PS versions had to be slightly adjusted due to its 3D nature (wasn't as strong handling 2D games), the Saturn conversions were pixel-perfect. SFA is a fine example of this.
The sounds are good enough to satisfy Capcom and SFII fans, but for the most part they are recycled from past games. Many of the classic themes are intact, which is good, but much of the original music is a bit bland, as are the recycled grunts and groans of combat. Still, it ain't like you play fighting games for the music and sound effects, so its competent enough that you won't want to mute the game just to enjoy it. It just fades off into the background while you duke it out.