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Jun122017

« A brief history of Arika and its fighters by Josh "funkdoc" Ballard, part 1 »

Part 1: Introduction and Street Fighter EX Plus (Alpha)

The recent reveal of a new fighting game from Street Fighter EX & Fighting Layer developer Arika drew a great deal of interest from the core scene, which is less surprising than it may seem at first glance. Though the EX series was widely derided by SF fans during the '90s, it has gained a lot of love and respect in recent years. A lot of this phenomenon is likely due to Arika’s anime-esque character designs and soundtracks, which play much better to '09ers than to Generation X. Fans weaned on Street Fighter II felt that Skullomania made a mockery of the series, but he has become a beloved character among the modern audience.  Hardcore SF players back in the day also hated EX's focus on extending combos with mechanics like super cancels, but that now seems quaint compared to today's anime fighters.

Though many online beg Capcom to add EX characters to modern Street Fighter, very few are familiar with these games at a competitive level. In these articles I aim to provide a high-level overview of Arika’s most well-known fighters: Street Fighter EX Plus (Alpha), Street Fighter EX2 Plus, Fighting Layer and Street Fighter EX3. I will also discuss the earlier revisions for EX1 & 2 and provide more historical context on the games' reception, along with some match videos to illustrate the various design concepts. These articles will assume a familiarity with competitive fighting-game terminology like "DPs" and "okizeme."

Note that there is one final Arika fighting game I won't cover here: 2005's Super Dragon Ball Z. It plays like a traditional fighter, but has many extra mechanics that make it less relevant to understanding Arika's new game. No decent match videos seem to exist, either.

 

Street Fighter EX Plus (Alpha)

The original arcade version of Street Fighter EX came out in late 1996. The Street Fighter franchise was still hot enough then to generate prerelease buzz, and being the first 3-D Street Fighter game was a major help in that regard. The game's poor graphics killed its hype before long, though, and the factors mentioned in the introduction meant it never had a chance to catch on with the U.S. tournament scene. It was more successful in Japan, but was still not among the bigger fighters there. The console version still sold well enough that it's decently well-remembered by casual fans.

As mentioned earlier, one of EX's signature mechanics is the super cancel. Players can cancel special moves into super moves and even supers into different supers. The other unique feature introduced in EX1 is the Guard Break, a slowish unblockable attack that costs meter and stuns the opponent for an extremely long time if it connects. The whole EX series is pretty barebones aside from these and some other mechanics specific to 2 & 3; there are no guard cancels, guard crushes, tech rolling, or even dashing! EX doesn't even have dizzies aside from one Zangief move later on. Beneath the veneer of wacky combos, though, these games are still clearly rooted in SF2. That's only fitting since Arika hired multiple members of the original SF2 design team!

That said, the game has a whole different feel compared to classic Street Fighter. EX is slower in every way from walk speed to frame data.  The difference is starkest with projectiles, all of which recover much more slowly compared to their SF2 counterparts. Many standard sweeps even go under fireballs in this series!

Another issue is that many characters share some normal attack animations (crouching MK being the most obvious culprit), which homogenizes the footsie game to some degree and is one of the series' most substantial weaknesses. Blockstun on light and medium attacks is also very short in EX, though this will feel normal to SF4 players. One final point is that many Shoryuken-type moves have a small invincibility window in EX1, and the common anti-air normals are decent but will get stuffed by certain jump-ins.

The result is that traditional projectile zoning won't get you very far in this game. EX1 tends to consist of playing the footsie game with safe blockstrings that lead to super cancels on hit, though Zangief is a significant exception. Guard Breaks vary in speed from character to character, and the fastest ones can catch any player off guard for a massive reward. Due to the weak blockstun of many moves in the EX series, seemingly safe blockstrings may have gaps that can be punished with a DP or super. Recognizing and reacting to those gaps is a key skill throughout this series!

There are multiple versions of this game. The original arcade EX received an update called EX Plus which added a few new characters. Most intriguing among these are the Cycloids (Beta & Gamma) which are strange-looking cyborgs who use a mishmash of moves from other characters. EX+ also made a couple balance changes (e.g. fixing an Akuma infinite juggle from the original EX). Finally, the Playstation port is called EX Plus Alpha (or EX+@) and it brought some significant extras. Sakura and Dhalsim were added to the cast, and the Expert Mode was years ahead of its time. Expert was a series of trials for each character which ranged from special moves to performing complex combos with multiple super cancels. You could easily say that EX+@ was the first fighting game to directly teach its combo system!

Strong Characters: Zangief, Blair, Hokuto, Cycloid Beta (arcade EX+ only)

This game arguably has the most overpowered version of Zangief ever. The general nerfing of fireballs and defensive characters' footsies plays hugely to his favor. He has a safe, comboable super and his command grabs have enormous range & damage with no whiff animation at all. His Level 1 & 3 grab supers don't come out at all unless they connect, so you don't even lose the meter if you guess wrong! Lariat is also the most reliable anti-crossup move in the game. That's a pretty huge deal since most wakeup specials whiff against crossups in the EX series.

Gotta show some love for SK—he’s been an EX fiend for ages!

Blair epitomizes the general footsie style described earlier, with great walk speed and some of the highest damage from crouching MK. She has the best Guard Break in the game: fast, a non-obvious animation and no audio cue at all. Her anti-air Lightning Knee also has much more invincibility than it should—it can even go through fireballs! Gief eats her alive but that’s her only weakness.

 Here’s a casual match featuring a big Round 1 comeback from her Guard Break!

Hokuto is mentioned here because she has the best matchup with Gief. She has the best overall set of mid-range and anti-air normals for keeping him out. Her ability to cancel her QCB specials essentially gives her a backdash as well! These tools and her many anti-fireball options make her powerful against the rest of the cast, though her lower damage potential can give her problems with Blair.

Cycloid Beta is the product of an oversight: it can combo its crouching HP into Hienshu (a similar move to SF3 and SF4 Chun-Li’s Hazanshu but with far more frame advantage). This gives Beta the easiest infinite combo in the entire EX series. The designers must have figured this out before too long, because in EX+@ you can only cancel cr.HP into supers.

Final Verdict: EX1 still has its charm, and there are people who prefer some of the characters' movesets that were changed in the sequels. However, I would argue it doesn't fill a special niche the way Arika's other games do. It handles the fundamentals worse than SF2 and Alpha 2 do, and its character balance is the worst of the series. There's a reason you can't find any Japanese match videos of this game! The issues with fireballs and footsies meant that EX needed something extra to give it an identity, and Arika clearly realized this…

Josh Ballard is a longtime veteran of competitive games, ranging from speedruns to the card game Dominion. The fighting game scene was his first love, and he remains a fan of old & obscure fighters. You can find his Twitch stream at twitch.tv/srkfunkdoc, and follow him on Twitter @SRKfunkdoc.

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