5 – Street Fighter Alpha 3
I loved the art style of the Street Fighter Alpha games from the beginning (which were inspired by the anime Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie, one of the best video game movies ever made), but for some reason I never had more than a passing interest in the first two entries in the series. The lack of a decent home version of either of them on any platforms that I owned probably played a large part in that. So when Alpha 3 hit the PS1, and it actually looked and played almost arcade-perfect (2D fighters were never the PS1’s strong suit), the planets had finally aligned for me to properly enjoy an Alpha game, and enjoy it I did. Having an almost-complete roster of SF2 characters offered a nice bit of familiarity for me to ease into, and the fantastic World Tour mode had me playing it solo for far longer than the bare-bones “arcade mode” offered in most home fighting games up to that point. The two-on-one matches were also a blast and offered up a nice little change from the norm. The selectable “isms” were great for me, as I was able to start off with a play style that was easy for a rookie scrub like me to get into while also easing me into the more complicated ones as I got comfortable enough to try them. Best of all, Alpha 3 was just silly and over-the-top enough for my tastes without crossing over into the all-out lunacy of Capcom’s later Vs. games. Marvel Vs Capcom 2, fan favorite though it may be, is just way too nuts for me. In addition, surprising as it may be, there is actually a fantastic version of Alpha 3 available for the PSP, which helped me to fall in love with the game all over again nearly a decade later.
4 – Mortal Kombat II
All due respect to the rest of the MK franchise, especially the phenomenal MK9 – which is arguably the true best overall MK game ever made – but my nostalgia just can’t be silenced, nor can the fact that I just haven’t really clicked as much with the fighting game genre as a whole in my adult years as I did as a teenager. All that said, MK2 remains my personal favorite entry in the series. While the MK games have always seemed to have a little trouble deciding between how tongue-in-cheek they were and how legitimately serious we were supposed to be taking the proceedings, I felt that with MK2 they had struck the best balance between the two, with just enough humor to keep the bloody action and gruesome fatalities from feeling too gratuitous. Speaking of fatalities, MK2 is also when they were at their best, ridiculous but still cool in that teenage boy revenge fantasy kind of way, before they ventured into almost parody territory in MK3. While big hits were the order of the day, there was a lot of finesse to be had, namely from the then-novel “dial-a-combos” before that mechanic had seen the (I would say unfair) backlash it would receive in later years – and it wasn’t nearly as ridiculous in MK2 as it was in Killer Instinct. When talking about a game like Mortal Kombat II, some smart ass will always pipe in with “Yeah, well try playing it now and tell me it’s still good”. Truthfully, I haven’t touched MK2 in at least a decade, but so what? Every game doesn’t have to be timeless. Some games are just products of their time, and of the person you were when you played them. My 12-year-old self loved the hell out of Mortal Kombat II, and not even I get to take that away from him. Nor would I want to.
3 – Virtua Fighter 2
I never really liked Tekken 1 or 2 all that much, but my God did I love me some Virtua Fighter. VF2 is of particular note in its inclusion in this list because I didn’t own my own copy of it until about 9 years ago, making it the only fighting game on this list that I played almost exclusively in the arcades (barring the weekend I rented it and a Saturn not long after it was released). That’s how much I liked it, that I didn’t have to have the home version to really get into it. The visuals looked unbelievable to me at the time, especially in the fluidity of the way the characters moved. What I really liked about the game, and about the VF series in general, was the way it was rooted in reality. Sure, the characters jumped a little high, but for the most part, they performed “real” moves, things that could all conceivably be done by martial arts experts in real life. It was also high on technique, and while later VF games got a little too complex and deep for my abilities – and patience – VF2 was when it was still accessible enough for me to be decent at right away but deep enough to keep me coming back. If only it didn’t have to settle for the doomed Sega Saturn as its home console, Virtua Fighter 2 could’ve (and should’ve) been every bit the blockbuster that my #2 pick was. In some ways I actually think it’s a better game, but a few superficial victories gave the current #2 the edge. Virtua Fighter 2 is still a game very near and dear to me, though, and for reasons I don’t understand it doesn’t seem to be mentioned amongst the other all-time great 3D fighters, which is an absolute tragedy.
2 – Tekken 3
As I said before, I never got into the first two Tekkens and was a Virtua Fighter fan through-and-through, but Tekken 3 changed everything. That game completely owned my life for about 6 months, which isn’t a long time for a hardcore fighting game aficionado but it’s an eternity for a casual fan like myself. Tekken 3, primarily the version for PS1 with its extra modes and characters, it is an incredible overall fighting game package. Just taking the time to beat the game with every character to see their endings and unlock new characters kept me plenty busy as it was; after that, it was picking my go-to stable of 2 or 3 fighters and learning them inside and out that carried me through the following months. Tekken Force mode wasn’t mind-blowing, but having a rudimentary beat-em-up within a fighting game was really cool at the time, and Tekken Ball was good for a few laughs. Like I said, a complete package through-and-through, with the added bonus of an incredible fighting game itself at the core. The Tekken series has been pretty hit-or-miss since part 3, and while a few of them have been good, they’ve just never recaptured the magic of Tekken 3. Even today I’d just assume play the HD remake than ANY of the subsequent games in the series.
1 – Street Fighter II: Championship Edition
What else could possibly be #1? Street Fighter II is essentially a perfect game, fighting or otherwise. I still remember the day that I first played Street Fighter II the way people remember the first time they saw Star Wars or the first time they got to second base. But it was Championship Edition, with the added playable boss characters and ability to have mirror matches that the game really took shape into the masterpiece that people are still having tournaments for almost 20 years later. The gameplay is tuned flawlessly, and the three different strengths each for punches and kicks lent just enough extra depth and complexity without resorting to an endless list of arbitrary moves to memorize. In fact, each character only had 2 or 3 special moves, and that’s all you ever needed. Combos weren’t pre-programmed – they just came organically out of the basic fighting engine because it was just that well-designed. You did combos simply by stringing the standard attacks together in a logical way, not memorizing a specific pre-determind string of button presses. The hardcore SF players have their own special “versions” that they prefer for some obscure technical reason or another, and there are more variations on the core game of Street Fighter II than I’m even going to attempt to count. I know that Super Turbo is the “fan favorite”, and it’s an amazing game to be sure, but for me nothing is ever going to top the basic, original Championship Edition (and I’m especially partial to the Genesis version, where the bulk of my lifetime of SF2 playing was done).
[Author’s Note: No, the absence of a Soul Calibur game on this list wasn’t an oversight. But by all means, feel free to take me to task over it in the comments – along with a picture of Ivy if you absolutely must go that route. Might as well make the debate visually pleasant.]