Sounds of Play: Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike’s musical identity

Preamble: I’m trying something new here; I’ve wanted to talk at length about video game music for a long while, but could never quite find the inspiration to do so. I may come back to this format, I may not, I guess I’ll see.

Two weeks ago, I finished my university degree. Following a rather anticlimactic final exam, I found myself spending most the week playing an obscene amount of fighting games in my flat with a visiting friend, one of which was Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, the final incarnation of Street Fighter III releasing originally in arcades in 1999. Besides the tight, fluid animation and intricate combat system, one thing we both couldn’t help but comment on was just how solid the music of 3rd Strike is. With an apparent embracing of contemporary 90’s musical styles, combined with a new “urban” aesthetic, make it a truly unique entry in the series stylistically. Where Yoko Shimomura’s iconic Street Fighter II score prides itself on catchy melodies – the very score that birthed the iconic ‘Guile’s Theme’ and the near-comparable ‘Ken’s Theme’ – 3rd Strike composer Hideki Okugawa employs the use of samples (thanks to technological advancements in video game hardware) and contemporary musical styles, and the result feels so far removed from Street Fighter‘s previous musical legacy (All music in this article is taken from the ‘Arranged’ CD release of the Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike soundtrack for its superior sound quality to the arcade original).

Street Fighter III has always, to me, been something of an oddity in the Street Fighter series. Its original incarnation[1] dropped almost every recognisable character from Street Fighter II in favour of an all-new cast, led by a new main character. It’s this lack of familiarity that makes the stylistic choices around Street Fighter III all the more jarring, though nonetheless interesting. With this new setting came a new tone, ultimately darker and bleaker than Street Fighter II or the Street Fighter Alpha series that took place between the two main entries. Perhaps the best encapsulation of Street Fighter III’s new identity comes in the theme for the character Alex, ‘Jazzy NYC ‘99’; shuffling drum machine patterns and jazzy trumpet samples remind us that 3rd Strike’s music is very much of its time, piggybacking off the success of hip-hop in the 1990’s. ‘Jazzy NYC ‘99’ is just as distinctive and punchy as any other Street Fighter character theme, however, so much as earning a faithful remix in Street Fighter V last year.

Street Fighter began as a martial arts story; much of the series’ past took us to old temples, dojos and far-off wilderness, to the point of giving the series an almost fantastical quality. The theme of the character Ibuki, ‘Twilight’, perfectly embodies the contrast between Street Fighter’s old and new identities; a story of nomadic, globe-trotting martial artists now clashing with a world of concrete jungles and underground subways (not that Street Fighter has never explored urban settings before). Set against a smooth ensemble of sampled drums, echoing guitar and subdued piano chords is a sharp shakuhachi[2] sample, known from Japanese folk music. A clash between the Japanese martial arts roots of the series and its new ‘modern’ identity, it’s the soundtrack to one of the most atmospheric stages in the game; a quiet road in rural Japan, the sun setting in the distance, casting a golden light onto the dirt road. Despite Street Fighter’s intense, reflex-driven combat, ‘Twilight’ creates an incredibly peaceful scene in a stage built for battle. Other moments in 3rd Strike are less peaceful.

With Street Fighter III’s embracing of 1990’s musical sensibilities, the use of the famous ‘Amen Break’ sample should come as no surprise. Providing the basis of the primary villain of the title, Gill (above), and recurring villain Akuma, the drum & bass sound of the themes especially accentuates the urgency in fighting against some of the most powerful characters in the series. The intense battle with Gill at the finale of 3rd Strike’s arcade mode feels all the more climactic when accompanied by a track like ‘Psyche Out’, particularly after his notorious ‘Resurrection’, the player feels that intensity more than ever. 3rd Strike’s music is no doubt fantastic, though at certain times, the music feels almost too keen in its use of samples; moments like the aforementioned Akuma’s Theme and the notorious Elena’s Theme are both times where the use of samples is a little too enthusiastic. There are some tracks that fall short, with bizarre or even grating lead melodies, but I still can’t help but wish that Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike‘s music gained the same iconic status than that of Street Fighter II. Nonetheless, the legacy of the Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike soundtrack lives on in more recent titles like Street Fighter V, gaining their own faithful re-arrangements with the return of old characters, and that much makes me glad.

For those interested, the entire Street Fighter III soundtrack has been uploaded in numerous formats and from various sources onto YouTube, and the best possible way to play the video game in question nowadays is via the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 online versions (I whole-heartedly recommend it if you have an interest in fighting games).

[1] Street Fighter games have been known to consist of multiple iterations, undergoing numerous changes between each subsequent release. For instance, Super Street Fighter IV includes minor character balancing changes and more characters compared to Street Fighter IV.

[1] Shakuhachi (尺八); Japanese woodwind instrument, often used in traditional Japanese music.

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