Do you like Street Fighter III? If you already have an opinion on the game, then all you really need to know about Capcom's new Online Edition release for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network is that the elements surrounding the game are nicely done, intelligently designed versions of the modes and options we've come to expect from a modern fighting game. It also uses GGPO, the netcode that's often hailed as the great savior for online fighting games. It's certainly capable of playing a perfect-feeling game online. But it's probably important for you to know that Third Strike Online Edition is not going to magically turn a bad connection into a good one or anything like that.
As for the game itself, it's a more technical fighting game than most, with a parry system that puts a greater emphasis on timing. Third Strike also has plenty of things that carried right over into Street Fighter IV, like EX moves and using the two light attack buttons to throw. So if you played a lot of the SFIV series, plenty of those skills will carry over. But you'll have to brush up on a lot of characters that didn't make it into other Capcom fighters, like the robot-in-a-trench-coat, Q, or the weird, slightly gelatinous mutant, Twelve. Back when it was all new, the roster of Street Fighter III was just disappointing. Where were all the characters that people actually enjoyed using? Your Guiles, your Hondas, your Sagats? Removed from that context, though, the characters are just fine, and it's actually sort of exciting to have a "new" cast of characters and new sets of attacks to learn and protect against.
The emulated arcade game feels just fine, when compared to the arcade version. It's a standard six-button fighter, and it's best played with a proper joystick, though it has some of the most flexible and easily edited control options around, so even if you're playing with filthy animals who like their buttons in weird spots, it's easy to swap those around on the fly. Like plenty of other emulated arcade games, Third Strike has several display options, like scan lines and smoothing options to iron out some of the rough pixels of the original artwork. Personally, I like that rough, pixelated look, even if it starts to look a little too blocky when it zooms in on the game's super attacks. It has the standard sort of training modes, letting you practice your best stuff against dummies or even record inputs with one character and then try to parry the playback of those inputs with the other. A set of challenges gives you combos to learn and a set of parry challenges further drive home the importance of learning the timing on every other move in the entire game. There's also a robust replay system and a ton of additional dipswitches that essentially let you rebalance the game yourself, if you feel like you're up to the challenge.
Online, you can get up to eight players together and either play tournament style or in a simple round robin style. When building an unranked player match lobby, you can even ban up to three characters, just in case you're sick of seeing Ken everywhere you go. Ranked games are limited to two players and are played with the default settings. Winning ranked games earn you rank points, which funnel into an overall rank that gives you a basic indication, at least, of how many fights a player has won. Some of the menu flow could have been better throughout the online modes. Ranked games dump you back out to the menu instead of offering an easy "next match" option. In unranked lobbies, readying up is done as a toggle with one button, so if you don't realize that you're already ready already and tap that button, it'll automatically send you to the back of the line. Minor stuff, overall.
The performance online is totally fine, provided you're matched up with a player to begin with. Like many other Capcom games, Third Strike seems to have trouble getting people connected, and plenty of my attempts to join ranked games have been met with a "Join Failed" error, which sends you back to the menu instead of just rolling along and trying to find another opponent. It displays a ping icon when you're matched with another player, but this doesn't always mean that you'll find a smooth game. When you're fighting on a poor connection, the game begins to behave erratically. That shouldn't shock you. But the way it responds can be a little jarring. Instead of limiting you on the input side, the game quickly "rewinds" a few frames whenever it gets out of sync. This keeps the game feeling as it should at all times, but the glitchy look of these rewinds can be really crazy. It can also change the course of a fight right before your eyes.
In one especially close online fight, I landed a killing blow, and the sound effect for a KO started playing. Then it rewound a bit back into the fight and showed me what really happened: the other guy smoked me, and I lost the fight. From a latency and network perspective, this is a more accurate take on the fight that makes sense. But in the moment, I think I would have preferred a game that lied about that stuff and got latent the way other fighting games do. Either way, it looks and sounds really crazy when it starts happening and it'll take some getting used to.Every mode is tied together via an in-game achievement system that gives you unlock points for completing specific tasks. Some of these are multilevel challenges, too, so you'll get some points for throwing, like, 10 projectiles, but you'll get more once you throw 500 of them. Some of these are designed to get you into the different modes, and others are character-specific. The points you earn can be used to unlock music and concept art from a separate menu, which isn't a terrific reward, but the points system and the way they're displayed in-game give you some interesting extras to strive for along the way.
It comes from a weird spot in history, but now might just be the right time for Street Fighter III. With SFIV out there satisfying players who want to use that classic cast, there's plenty of room for a game that uses some similar ideas but gives you plenty of new characters to learn and master. And the features that live around the edges of the game are really well-done. It's unfortunate that it isn't easier to get into online matches, but overall, if you're looking for some more characters to beat around, play Third Strike. It's a good game.