The Best Game in an Excellent Series
Tekken 3 holds water as one of the greatest fighting games of all time, whether in the Arcade or in the excellent PS1 port that I'm reviewing right now, standing as the culmination of the late-90's generation of 3d fighting games.
We remember the game fom its solid single-player modes, its large cast of characters (including two absolutely crazy comedic entries), its good soundtrack, its well thought-out character-specific endings, its nice semblance of a story (compelling enough for a fighting game), its comprehensive tracking of your stats and gaming progress and, more than anything, from its perfect mixture of skill-based combat and immediate accessibility: the fighting is both complex and fun. The game, in a word, has very few unpolished sides to it.
Although the series has arguably grown and improved in certain respects since the third instalment, I think it would be fair to say that it was only until Tekken 5 was released in 2005 that the series received another entry that could compete with the third for the title of the best game in the series. Tekken 2 and 4 can be seen as minor entries in the series, introducing only minor improvements to the series, while Tekken Tag is largely a "best of" of Tekken with hardly any single-player content beyond the nice roster of characters. The first game, having introduced us to the world of Tekken, deserves special mention, of course, and the two new characters of Tekken 2 are among the best in the series, but it was only in Tekken 3 that everything fit together on a whole new level. Not only were there more characters than ever before in the series, but all the new characters (including the ones that were only "versions" of older favourites) bring something new to the equation.
I think Tekken 3 is one of the best looking games on the Playstation. Its backdrops, while not exactly 3-D, contain hints of depth and suave expanse reminiscent of the better-looking Arcade version. The characters are beautifully animated and their movements are nimble. The polygon-content of the characters has noticeably been increased from 2 and 1. The last bosses, in particular, look huge and menacing, although slightly cumbersome - and this is how they feel, too, as playable characters. But cumbersome is not the word to describe the movement of the main body of characters. Lei is back, and although Jun from Tekken 2 is gone, she is replaced by Jin who takes her moves and mixes them up with something new (still, Jun was my favourite character in the series and I'm sad she's gone even if the replacements are good). Many of the old characters appear as "enhanced" versions, thanks to a time-lag between the tournaments in the storyline, or simply as older versions of themselves, including Heihachi, Paul and the Williams sisters (who still look fine thank you). Law, Jack, King and "the Indian chick" are back, but as different incarnations. Yoshimitsu looks a bit different, but not as crazy as in 4 and 5, thank god! Kuma is back, thankfully, but this time he (she?) is complemented by his (her?) cuter cousin, Panda! Absolutely adorable.
This brings me to the new characters. The variety of styles has been increased from the more basic beat'em up styles introduced in the first game. This time they do spins, somersaults and other crazy and unexpected things - well, not all of them, but many of them. But it's not Soul Calibur-crazy and it's not just random stuff like Toshinden or Bloody Roar or one of those lesser 3d fighters. In Tekken all of it CAN be mastered, and the rewards are high for doing this, since the game will open up to totally new dimensions of gameplay as soon as you master all the crazy Tekken moves from the old to the new. I should say, before mentioning the really new characters, that all of the old characters have learnt new tricks in their absence - and who said that unkind thing about old dogs and tricks? Well, it's not true. The move list for even the old characters has been improved and streamlined to the point of perfection. It was only in Tekken 5 did I realize that some things COULD be still improved, but Tekken 3's move list is probably the best move list in any fighting game for the first 10 years of 3d fighting games. Here preferences come into play, and someone might prefer the gritty "realism" of Virtua Fighter or the stylish swordplay of Soul Edge/Calibur, but it seems that Tekken 3 is an easy game to like for any fan of the genre, because it introduces such a wide list of moves, characters, fighting styles and ways of playing. Now, finally, onto the new characters. Panda can fart. Amazing! ... And, ooh, Gon is so cute! Gon is a little manga dinosaur transported from the comic to the television screen. He can shoot flames, roll around and wag his tail. He has the greatest ending of all the characters in the game as well. Sometimes he's annoying to fight against because of his height, but this is a minor qualm. Doctor Bosconovich is another console-only addition, and equally unique and twisted. Sure, someone might say his fighting style is almost TOO trippy and weird. In fact, it's impossible to describe in words, but he plays something like an epileptic breakdancer with a propensity for spontaneous backflips and fainting fits. He is something of a joke character, and a hidden one at that, but I think he brings something fun and unexpected to the game, simply by being so outrageously random yet at the same time being somehow intervowen into the story of the other characters. His inclusion somehow makes sense, don't ask me how they pulled it off! But the more "serious" new characters are where the game really excels. Most of Tekken fans have by now fallen in love with Ling Xiaoyu, and for good reason. This fun-loving girl (nothing is intended by this!) plays a unique brand of martial arts that is difficult to master but which is lenient enough even for newcomers. Once mastered, she is one of the most fun characters in the series. Eddy Gordo (or Tiger, his afro'ed alter ego) plays capoeira, and plays really uniquely. I think the animations and playing mechanics for Eddy Gordo are still unsurpassed in any fighting game since. I mean, he introduced a whole new way of thinking about fighting games as involving ground-level, knee-level and torso-level moves and strategies. Sometimes he's hard to fight against - for the same reason as Gon is - but he fits perfectly as one of the most unique characters in the series.
So far, I have made a great deal out of the uniqueness of the new characters, and their crazy way with fists and kicks, but I should say that none of this is simply novelty value or superficial charm. No; all of these characters are deep, well-balanced and difficult to master but a joy to play. Only the last bosses (the two metamorphoses of Ogre) are slightly unbalanced and not so fun to play, either. This is a problem for many fighting games, including Devil and Angel from Tekken 2. However, as A.I. opponents, they are really not that hard and they are easily skippable as versus-mode characters. But I still consider them the only weak entries into the characters roster.
There are many characters to play, including some new ones that I haven't mentioned. The old characters have arguably the best versions of themselves in the whole series (including Law, Heihachi, King and Nina) while the new dudes raised the bar for innovative and well-balanced fighting game characters. In fact, I don't think these characters have yet been surpassed even in the third generation of 3d fighters... Maybe it's nostalgia, but I truly think that the new entries in the Tekken universe, for example the dudes in Tekken 4, 5 and Dark Resurrection, are nowhere near as ground-breaking or engaging as the crazy, fun, superb characters in Tekken 3. Even if Tekken 5 is a really solid game in the series, it doesn't feature Doctor Bosconovich or Gon - what more do I need to say?
A final word on the PS1 modes that really make this game a fantastic single-player experience in addition to being a fantastic two-player experience. Arcade mode, with its various difficulties, is short as ever, but playing it repeatedly is rewarded (as is customary to the series) by new characters, endings and other goodies. There are other modes like Survival that are fun to play because of the stat-system that keeps track of your highest scores and basically logs everything you do to the memory card. This is really nice and you feel like evolving with the game as you go along. But there are also some really off-the-wall modes that you wouldn't expect. Tekken Force is a surprisingly lengthy and engaging single-player mode with scrolling beat'em up mechanics. It's not a replacment to the other modes, but it's a really neat extra to the series, and shows what kind of effort the developers were willing to put into making the home port of Tekken 3 truly worth its money. Secondly, Tekken Ball is a wacky volley ball (!!) mode that is surprisingly fun to play, and doesn't get old after repeated plays. I think that playing Tekken Ball with Gon and Dr. Bosconovich is one of the most fun things you can do with your Tekken 3, just because it shows how far into the realms of the imagination the series can take us.
Overall, despite all its quirks and novelties, Tekken 3 would be nothing if it weren't a really well-balanced, traditional fighting game with the guaranteed Tekken four-button mechanic. The move list is improved, characters feel even and varied, the new modes and characters are overwhelming at first and satisfying to the end, and everything else about this package just feels right. It is quite probably the best game in the series overall, and perhaps the greatest arcace-to-console port of all time, showing how it's possible to improve even upon excellence. Would I still go and back Tekken 3 instead of Dark Ressurection on the PS3? Probably not. But that's just because ten years have taken a toll on its graphics. But these gripes do not topple Tekken 3 from its pedestal as the king of fighting games. It totally beat its competition to a pulp in the 1990's, and left a void in its wake.