It's amazing what the PSP's bright, colorful screen can do to make an old game look fresh again. Street Fighter Alpha 3 Max is more or less a perfect translation of what's presumably the last game in Capcom's Street Fighter II spin-off series. It's a tried-and-true 2D fighting game, featuring a ton of different modes and a ton of different playable characters, and this particular version adds a few extra fighters and options not found in previous versions. Pulling off certain special moves and combos using the PSP's controls can be difficult, but that's really the only reason you couldn't wholeheartedly recommend this game to PSP-carrying Street Fighter fans.
There's a good chance you've already played Street Fighter Alpha 3 before if you're interested in this version. Regardless, it's worth going over some of the gameplay differences that distinguish this installment from other Street Fighter games and other fighting games in general. For starters, this is the biggest selection of characters the series has ever seen, clocking in at around 40 different faces. You've got every last fighter from the Street Fighter II era on the lineup, as well as most of the cast of the original Street Fighter game, not to mention a whole mess of other characters. It's a diverse and likable cast, especially since each fighter has his or her own story, profile, and unique lines of dialogue. Alpha 3 Max even goes as far as to throw several extra fighters into the mix, including stick-fighter Eagle and kung fu expert Yun, though these characters hail from other Capcom fighting games. On top of that, you've got three different play styles to choose from for each fighter, oddly referred to as "isms." X-ism is a simple but powerful style reminiscent of Street Fighter II. A-ism is derived from the earlier Alpha games, letting you use multiple levels of super moves when you've got enough energy. And V-ism lets you dish out powerful custom combos by stringing together all the moves and special moves in your repertoire. Some moves and tactics are only possible when using one form or another, and though the style you choose doesn't completely change the way your fighter plays, the options still add variety.
As for the action once you're in the thick of a fight, it's mostly the traditional one-on-one fighting game battle you'd expect, but with a few twists. You've got three types of punches and kicks, plus throws and a handful of special moves and super moves to use against your opponent. However, Alpha 3 introduces some new tweaks to the combat that make it feel quite different from other Street Fighter games. You've got recovery moves for use when on the receiving end of an opponent's attacks, which let you escape additional damage. There's also a guard meter that prevents overly defensive players from doing nothing but block while pecking away at their opponents with light attacks. Defend too much and your guard will be shattered, leaving you completely vulnerable for a dangerous instant. This is a welcome addition, but on the flip side, Alpha 3 makes throws unnecessarily awkward to use by forcing you to press two buttons to perform them.
In fact, a bunch of different types of moves are now performed by pressing multiple buttons simultaneously, but these can be a little frustrating to pull off on the PSP. You'd think it would be easy just pressing two or three buttons at once, but it's oddly tougher than it sounds. You have the option to map a single button on the PSP to multiple punches and kicks. However, since there are six main buttons on the PSP and six different types of normal attacks in this game, you don't really have room. Also, neither the PSP's D pad nor analog stick offers quite the level of precision you'd ideally want for such a game. As if in recognition of this, Capcom created limited supplies of an adhesive D pad attachment, which gives your thumb more leverage and simply makes special moves easier to pull off. Diehard fans of this game and Capcom's first PSP fighter, Darkstalkers Chronicle, should seek this new D pad attachment out. For most everyone else, it's really not that bad tolerating the PSP controls with this game. But since it's such an exact translation of the original, you can't help but wish for perfectly precise controls to go with it. Thankfully, you can fiddle with the speed and timing of the action in order to best suit your preferences. You've also got a gang of different modes to mess around with.
The main menu is practically bursting at the seams with ways to play the game, though some of the options are a little thin. If anything, the gameplay of Alpha 3 Max is surprisingly unstructured, between all the different modes, options, and characters. Of course you've got the standard stuff like an arcade mode, a versus mode, and a practice mode. But there are also some cool two-on-one variants such as dramatic battle, which lets you and a computer-controlled partner beat up on a single foe, and reverse dramatic battle, which lets you take on two opponents at once. Variable battle is new to Alpha 3 Max, but its promise of tag-team matches goes somewhat unfulfilled, since you're still stuck fighting two against one like in dramatic battle. There's also a team battle mode, a survival mode, a final battle mode in which you cut straight to the last fight so you can quickly see all the character endings, and more.
Then there's the world tour mode, which puts you through a series of successively tougher mission-style matches, where you'll often face opponents with specific strengths or weaknesses. This is an interesting mode, since you gain experience and level up as you win matches, and you can eventually build up a ridiculously overpowered custom fighter. Since world tour mode keeps you guessing and offers a sense of progression as you win battles, you might well find yourself spending a lot of time with it.
Sure enough, Street Fighter Alpha 3 Max also supports ad hoc multiplayer, so you and a friend can play the versus mode, variable mode, team battle, and dramatic battle (would true online multiplayer have been too much to ask for?). In theory, you can even get a bunch of PSP owners together and have yourself a tournament. The wireless multiplayer works great--the action is just as fast and responsive as if you were playing solo against the computer. Speaking of which, the computer puts up a good, solid fight. It gets tougher and tougher as you fight further into most of the modes, and various difficulty options are available for customizing the challenge.
The game is loaded with beautifully drawn background scenery that's rich with little details and cameo appearances by other Capcom characters, and the crisp look of the PSP screen helps bring the visuals to life. This original artwork does a lot to make up for the fact that most of the character graphics, excluding the new fighters, are recycled from older games in the series. The main cast of fighters still looks good on the whole, though there isn't really a cohesive art style across all of them, and some of the animation is a bit choppy. Even so, there's a lot of personality on display in the 2D artwork, and it makes you wonder why there aren't more 2D games on the PSP, if even older ones can look this good. Also, for what it's worth, since Alpha 3 wasn't originally designed for a widescreen aspect ratio like the PSP's screen, you can optionally set the graphics to display in letterbox for the intended look. Also, the audio is just as intact as the graphics. There are plenty of solid sound effects and lots of speech in Alpha 3 Max, and all the voice work stands out in particular...except for the bonehead announcer, who sounds like a gameshow host rather than an emcee of a martial arts tournament. A peppy soundtrack blares away as you fight. It fits, but isn't memorable. Also, loading times throughout the game are slight, but just long enough to be noticeable.
A few years ago, the thought of having a perfect translation of Street Fighter Alpha 3 on a portable game system, complete with wireless multiplayer, would have been practically unthinkable, like some kind of fighting-game promised land. But here it is in all its glory, and the only reason it isn't even more impressive is that the underlying game itself is pretty well worn. Nevertheless, if you want a rock-solid fighting game for your PSP, look no farther.