The brawlers and fighters that dominated arcades beginning in the late '80s and well into the '90s shared a closely bound heritage. The two genres frequently overlapped, and even seminal brawlers like Double Dragon made occasional forays into one-on-one arena fighting.
Nowhere is that relationship more evident than in the history of the Final Fight series, which for all intents and purposes exists as a sibling to Street Fighter. In fact, in the days before Street Fighter II codified both the franchise and the genre -- in the days when Capcom would happily slap the name "Street Fighter" onto, say, a totally unrelated sci-fi action game -- the original Final Fight was initially solicited to arcade owners as "Street Fighter '89." The company changed the title before launch, but the connection was established right then and there. When Final Fight characters began making their way into the Street Fighter Alpha games several years later, no one was particularly surprised.
Where Final Fight's ventures into Street Fighter's turf made a certain sort of sense, the larger trend of brawlers going one-on-one was borne more of desperation to shore up the crucial weaknesses of the older genre. Namely, brawlers quickly became repetitive. Double Dragon and Final Fight may have wowed us, but hundreds of similar games followed in the ensuing years, and few offered much of merit besides visual flash. Cool graphics only go so far, though, and eventually the public moved along to fighting games that replaced shallow cooperative play with nuanced competitive design.
Capcom didn't give up on brawlers, though, continuing to mine the genre with both the cutting edge of arcade animation and a number of excellent licenses. Konami may have made a huge splash with four- and six-player combat (six!) via The Simpsons and X-Men, but the likes of Aliens Vs. Predator and Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara offered excellent variety and replayability otherwise lacking in the genre. Heck, Mystara remains extremely entertaining nearly 20 years later.
Sadly, though, the game that arguably launched the brawler to stardom -- Final Fight -- was lost amidst these changes. Its sequels skipped the arcade altogether and ended up as Super NES exclusives, which undoubtedly did them a disservice given how lackluster the Super NES version of the original Final Fight proved to be -- fool me once, and all that. Its cast became mainstays of the Street Fighter Alpha and Street Fighter III titles, but Final Fight itself went quiet into that good night. (We do not talk about Final Fight Revenge.)
More's the pity, because Final Fight 3 makes a good contender for best 16-bit console brawler ever. It may not quite have hit the golden heights of Streets of Rage 2, but it certainly put in a respectable bid for the top slot.
Final Fight 3 debuted right around the same time as both Street Fighter Alpha and Shadow Over Mystara, and it shows. The game clearly wasn't designed in a vacuum, and all the great ideas that Capcom made famous in those better-known titles put in an appearance here as well. It's both the deepest and best-looking game about walking to the right and punching thugs ever to appear on Super NES.
The visual appeal is easy to explain; Final Fight 3 reflected Capcom's mid-'90s shift away from semi-realistic design to more stylized anime-inspired graphics. The carefully shaded (but often stiff) look of Street Fighter II gave way to flatter but far more fluidly animated designs that properly gelled in Street Fighter Alpha. Final Fight 3 marks a transitional point, with a number of characters in the more naturalistic style of the older games existing alongside new additions to the roster that adopted the Alpha look. It can be a little awkward in places, but on the whole it makes for a game that moves a lot more smoothly than the older Super NES Final Fights.
The playable roster is the richest in the series, with four potential characters to choose from. Fan-favorites Haggar and Guy return (the former with a strange new ponytailed look, the latter redrawn to fall more in line with his contemporary Street Fighter Alpha appearance), while Cody is presumably off in prison already for being a lowlife. Replacing him we have two newcomers, Dean and Lucia. Dean is easily the most Alpha-looking character in the entire game, with a Bengus-illustrated character portrait drawn with standard, angular Alpha features. Lucia, on the other hand, seems like Capcom's answer to Streets of Rage favorite Blaze, wearing her short shorts and a tiny vest over a crop-top as she leaps and kicks foes. Final Fight 3 matched this visual upgrade with improved play mechanics, such as double-tapping into a run and an extremely welcome (albeit limited) ability to team up with an AI companion in the event a second player wasn't available to join in.
Where the game really shines, however, is in its branching paths and multiple plot lines. Just like Shadow Over Mystara, Final Fight 3 allows players to pursue multiple routes through the game, encountering bosses in different settings and situations depending on their choices. Their choice of characters affects the plot appropriately; Dean, for example, was a reformed member of the villain's gang, so his personal connection to the story results in a story very different from, say, Haggar's.
Granted, Final Fight 3 is still a brawler, which means you're still a long way from plumbing the deepest depths of video game design. In the end, you're still fighting armies of palette-swapped goons who grow ever more tedious as their hit points increase but their smarts don't. As home-based examples of the genre go, however, it's miles beyond the fare it competed against -- and until Streets of Rage 2 makes it to Wii U's Virtual Console, it ranks right alongside Chronicles of Mystara as the best brawler on the system.
Final Fight 3's late arrival and low production numbers doomed it obscurity in the days of physical media, but anyone looking for a great '90s brawler today could do far worse than dropping eight bucks on this entertaining classic.