2D beat 'em ups have long since felt left out on the three chief gaming platforms, with only Capcom, Sammy and a couple of others still delivering them from time to time, but the Game Boy Advance is relatively unexplored territory for the genre. Past successes are thin on the ground, mainly thanks to the prohibitive D-pad and control layout.
But in the hands of the late Crawfish Interactive, this relatively unexciting port of Street Fighter Alpha 3 has become something quite remarkable - a beat 'em up which is almost brilliant on the diminutive handheld. When we spoke to associate producer Dave Murphy recently, he told us that thoughtful changes to the control scheme might surprise us, and they have.
The only question is whether the UK-based developer has done enough, or whether it was a lost cause to begin with.
Class of port?
And it starts off well. Fans of Alpha 3 will feel instantly at home, diving into this SFII-style concoction with its more than 30 fighters, individual styles and trio of -Isms. As with its big brother, the GBA version of Alpha 3 lets you pick from two turbo modes before entering battle, and special power bar-based -Isms (X, A and V), which allow you to use Super Combo moves, wield smaller combos regularly or even create unique combinations.
It looks beautiful too. Instead of stretching the image to fit the GBA screen, Crawfish has given us a wider view of each stage and reasonably sized characters, each endowed with more frames of animation than your average Pixar creation. Everything looks right, from Chun Li's spinning bird kick to Edmond Honda's blurry hand-slap, and dragon punching is still emphatic.
Sadly though the audio doesn't live up to the visuals. Digitised audio has been a standard fixture of SF titles for years, but the infamous "Hadoken!" and "Shoryuken!" are both scratchily rendered for SFA3, and the music isn't much better. We're not saying that SF's musicians have ever done anything to worry the likes of John Williams, but familiar tunes sound weedy and misplaced here, and when coupled with the lack of an announcer to call rounds or victory, we quickly muted and stuck on our own tunes.
Picking an appropriate speed and -Ism is important to success, but your efforts with Ryu won't simply translate to Chun Li. Each of SFA3's 30 plus characters has his or her own arsenal of offensive moves and it all takes learning. And thanks to the changes in the control system and particularly the way you execute signature moves, you'll probably pull off close to nothing until you glance through the manual.
However, armed with a bit more knowledge of each character's repertoire, you'll quickly slip into the rhythm. The changes to controls are obviously quite drastic, because the GBA only has four action buttons to the traditional six, but the compromise is quite endearing - jabs and heavy blows can be administered simply at a single button press, by hand and foot, with medium attacks available by pressing R and B or L and A in tandem. It's a little awkward and hard to adapt to, but we managed it eventually.
Overcoming the D-pad's shortfalls seems to have been a step too far for Crawfish though, as we had one hell of a time achieving anything approaching a fireball for a good half an hour. Traditionally, quarter and half-circle motions on the D-pad plus an action button initiate the more basic Street Fighter moves. This remains the same, but we'd challenge anyone to pull off a fireball at their first attempt here. In reality, although Crawfish has simplified the scheme so that specials like Ken's Shoryu-reppa are easier (quarter-circle forward plus A and B as opposed to two quarter-circles followed by punch), pulling off moves on demand is still much too difficult.
And ultimately that's all it takes to floor a good fighter. SFA3 Upper is fully furnished with all of the game's modes (including the hidden ones), secret characters (including the hidden ones) and the various other perks of the 32-bit versions, but the controls are too much of a pitfall. The game's saving grace is perhaps its excellent two-player link cable mode, but even this is thwarted by a need for two cartridges.
At the beginning of this review, we questioned whether this was a lost cause. Well. Hum. Street Fighter fans in need of a Game Boy beater have nowhere else to turn, and SFA3 is by far and away the finest 2D beat 'em up on the system. Sadly though, a fabulous port cannot make up for the GBA's own inadequacies, and as we learnt with Castlevania back in the day, if it's enough to put us off it's enough to put you off.
7 / 10