As 3-D found its footing, Capcom’s 2-D games reached new heights

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As 3-D found its footing, Capcom’s 2-D games reached new heights

Dan Hibiki from Street Fighter Alpha 2
Dan Hibiki from Street Fighter Alpha 2

In 1996, 3-D video games made good. Super Mario 64 and Tomb Raider weren’t alone in the land of three-dimensional games. Sega, Namco, Nintendo, and others had been releasing games made of polygons—the triangular graphical objects that are molded together to make your myriad racing cars or bug-eyed anthropomorphs—for years by that point, but none had the grace or freedom suddenly found in the class of ’96. This was the year the PlayStation truly hit its stride, the year Nintendo 64 walked away from the Super Nintendo into the great unknown, and free-roaming games unshackled from fixed perspectives would arrive to dominate design for 20 years.

Not for Capcom, though. As Mario was whooping through Princess Peach’s castle, Capcom was perfecting the craft it had been honing since the early ’80s. This was the year Capcom produced the lushest hand-drawn 2-D games it ever had, games hiding pleasures that 3-D games wouldn’t achieve for years to come.

Arcade games were still thriving in 1996 almost exclusively because of Capcom. Street Fighter II rejuvenated the arcade business in 1991, paving the way for Japan’s most prolific and profitable cabinet makers to thrive and most of them were working in 3-D. In the years after Street Fighter II, Sega’s Yu Suzuki had a second renaissance, pioneering with Virtua Fighter, Virtua Racing, and Daytona USA, which took old game types, like Street Fighter and Suzuki’s own driving game Outrun, and transformed them with polygonal graphics. Namco followed suit with fighter Tekken and driving delight Ridge Racer.

Screenshot: Virtua Fighter 2

Capcom, meanwhile, remained primarily invested in the Street Fighter business and the hardware that sustained it, the CP System (CPS) arcade boards. The original CP System 1 from 1988 was like an enormously expensive, technologically advanced NES—a custom computer that you could slot different games into. While half of Capcom was finding ways to use the aging NES itself to move away from its arcade roots, the other half was elevating that old arcade design sensibility into vivid, densely detailed 2-D fantasias full of enormous characters and bizarre style. Strider, Final Fight, and Street Fighter II itself were among the CPS-1 games blending late ’80s anime flair with the obsessions of early ’80s American movies and comics: dystopian science fiction, vigilantism couched in urban decay, and cathartic exaggerated violence. Nothing else looked or sounded like CPS-1 games. It was also easy to pirate games for the system, which led to its 1993 revision, the CPS-2. By 1996, powered by this capable new tech, Capcom’s 2-D arcade games would crest at an evolutionary peak, mixing visual splendor and mechanical experimentation while not becoming prohibitively difficult to make.

Seven CPS-2 games came out in 1996, and while six of them are sequels, all of them tweaked established arcade norms, including Capcom’s own. 19XX: The War Against Destiny (completed in December 1995 but not distributed to arcades until January ’96) got rid of the military dogfights of the foundational but staid airplane shooters 1942 and 1943. Instead, 19XX leaned into anime bombastics. Gone were the period accurate World War II planes—and the somewhat disturbing subtext of playing a Japanese game where you controlled U.S. ships sent to destroy Japan’s fleet—and in their place were absurd facsimiles, tiny twin-engine planes that could fire a literal wave of flames.

On top of the retro-futuristic fictional war setting, 19XX balanced the straightforward dodge-the-bullets action of its predecessors and invigorated it with speed and brilliant tunes that benefited from the CPS-2’s new implementation of QSound 3-D sound technology. It walked a stylized line between the frenetic “bullet hell” shooters like DonPachi that were driving the genre further into an inaccessible niche and the slower, methodical style of 3-D shooters like Panzer Dragoon and Star Fox. All the while, it offered a level of visual clarity fully polygonal shmups wouldn’t attain for another few years. Even excellent peers from the era, like Einhander, suffered thanks to their blocky, jagged-edged ships when compared to the finesse of the CPS-2’s sprites.

Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara, another sequel, also took an established Capcom mold and blew it out on the new hardware. The company always had a fixation with the fixtures of Dungeons & Dragons, like most Japanese game makers in the ’80s and ’90s, but Capcom were one of the only ones making games based on it. Its earlier CPS-2 D&D: Tower Of Doom, was functionally identical to every other Capcom arcade game about punching dudes repeatedly. Whether Final Fight, Knights Of The Round, or Tower Of Doom, the name of the game was the same: guide big, detailed character sprites and walk from left to right on a wide field until the game bilked you out of another quarter.

In ’96, though, Shadow Over Mystara poured new ideas onto Capcom’s brawler mold. There were more characters, Street Fighter-style special moves, more items to find in the environment to augment your fighter, and more paths through the game to emulate the spirit of adventure in an actual D&D session. It gave the artful but mindless quarter-swallowing melee a sense of depth and growth absent from the genre in arcades. It also filled the screen with hyper-detailed owlbears, goblins, dragons, and dark elves while running silky smooth. Sega’s Die Hard Arcade and its 3-D skyscraper full of terrorists, also released in 1996, could match its speed but never its sheer quantity.

And then there were the Street Fighter games. The CPS-2 hardware debuted with Super Street Fighter II in ’93, the ’94 Turbo version of which has been the SF2 tournament standard to this day. In 1995, the CPS-2 also hosted the first Street Fighter spin-off. Street Fighter Alpha added new characters and revisited some from the series’ 1987 original while trying to appeal to new players with a softer, primary-colored art style compared to the chunkier, darker look of Street Fighter II. Between ’93 and ’96, Capcom also started toying with its one-on-one fighting game mold with experiments and licenses. Games like Cyberbots replaced martial artists with giant mechs, and X-Men: Children Of The Atom let people use their Street Fighter joystick skills to make Wolverine claw Magneto in the face. All of this work came together in two ’96 fighters: Street Fighter Alpha 2 and X-Men Vs. Street Fighter.

Outside of the omnipresent Street Fighter II, Alpha 2 was the game that helped establish Street Fighter as a series. It was a fighter with competitive meat on its bones but was more concerned with presentation and flair. While Alpha felt visually distinct from Street Fighter II, it also felt meager thanks to a smaller character roster and a limited art style that was meant to ease the process of bringing the game to PlayStation and Sega Saturn. Alpha 2, meanwhile, significantly expanded the roster to include all kinds of fighters—the Final Fight boss Rolento, SF1’s Gen, and Sakura, the enduring Ryu fangirl.

The diversified cast was bolstered by a number of additional visual tweaks. New health and combo-meter displays popped off the screen. Arenas like the suburban house in Sakura’s stage and the billboard hanging in the background of Rolento’s arena brimmed with new energy thanks to the sequel’s brighter color palette. Alpha 2 also continued the series’ emphasis on story: The U.S. version marked the first playable appearance of Evil Ryu, the corrupted form Street Fighter’s stoic star he was in constant danger of turning into.

While Street Fighter Alpha 2 was gorgeously rethinking Street Fighter for its most earnest fans, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter recast the series as a venue for rhapsodic visual feats. Following the success of its Marvel Comics fighting games and the Alpha series, Capcom made the economical but inspired decision to mix the two. Character sprites from X-Men and Alpha were reused alongside new characters like Rogue and Cammy in new, multi-tiered backgrounds. Rather than just a one-on-one fighter, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter let you pick two characters and tag them in and out. The stylistic result was like a Street Fighter-obsessed fourth grader’s wild rant after pounding a bottle of Surge. The calculated, chess-like games of space in Street Fighter turned into bananas combo fests. Dhalsim could jump 20 feet into the air only to come back down and slam Gambit through a city street into the sewer below. It translated the way people talked about fighting game matches into literal action where the presentation skirted the border between discernible grace and incoherent chaos. Not even its hugely popular successors like Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, which itself abandoned a fully 2-D presentation just a few years later, matched that balance.

Peerless in 1996, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter represented the place where Capcom’s 2-D wave broke and began to pull back. It would continue to use the CPS-2 hardware until 1998 (and other developers continued to toy with it through 2001), but Capcom’s succeeding games were just iterations on the achievements of 1996. Some even muddied the waters. Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter and Marvel Vs. Capcom traded the clarity of X-Men Vs. Street Fighter for more and more insanity on screen. Street Fighter Alpha 3 added more and more characters, but its further tinkering with the series’ combo system also left the game feeling bloated.

Sprites illustrating the complex animation of Street Fighter III’s Makoto. (Sprites: Telebunny.net)

Before 1996 ended, Capcom actually released the CPS-2’s impressive but doomed successor. The CPS-3 debuted November with the D&D-inflected fighting game Red Earth. It was a lot like the monster-themed CPS-2 staple Darkstalkers, but with dragons and witches punching each other. Not until 1997 did the CPS-3 get its real showcase, the masterpiece Street Fighter III. To this day, Street Fighter III is considered by many to be the pinnacle of 2-D animation in a fighting game. It was also monumentally time-consuming and expensive to produce. When the highly technical game failed to connect with players, CPS-3 game development and Capcom’s 2-D ventures ceased to be a priority. In addition to two further versions of Street Fighter III, Capcom only made one more 2-D fighter for the platform, an adaptation of the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure manga. By the end of 1997, it had already started developing 3-D fighters like Rival Schools.

Capcom’s 1996 was never going to list. 3-D game development was maturing at the same time it was becoming cheaper and more popular with players. Sprite-based Capcom games weren’t going away, either, but it was more efficient to make them directly for the more profitable home market. Making Mega Man X4 look amazing on PlayStation was a safer bet than trying to make a third Dungeons & Dragons brawler on CPS-3 that looked amazing but would never recoup its cost. As an end of an era, a final flare up that delivered on the promise of what preceded it while proving what 2-D art could do over 3-D, 1996 remains an unequaled year in Capcom’s history.