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One Christmas a decade ago, my brother opened a box-shaped gift hoping that it was Street Fighter Alpha 3 for the Sega Dreamcast. It turned out he got Street Fighter 3: Third Strike by mistake. He was disappointed, but I wanted to keep it because I read great things about it, and Yang looked like one of the characters from the anime Gundam Wing.
I never felt, however, that I played Third Strike “for real." While I enjoyed the exotic warriors and underground atmosphere, I rarely had a chance to play with others, and the bulky Dreamcast controller was uncomfortable. I also knew squat about competitive play until a few years ago. Now, with several Street Fighter 4 tournaments under my belt, an arcade stick on my lap, and Street Fighter 3: Third Strike Online Edition on my Xbox 360, it was time to find out what I was missing.
But Third Strike is both one of the most celebrated games in the genre as well as one of the most difficult to learn, and even with just going through the game’s Trial Mode combos and parry training I found out why.
The first thing I noticed was how sloppy my combo execution was. I don’t mean the timing-specific juggle combos that are new to me or the "for fun" tricks like Ryu’s throw into Shin Shoryuken that works only on Dudley. When I noticed I had trouble pulling off special moves and super combos reliably, I went back to Street Fighter 4’s training mode and checked my directional inputs (for some reason Third Strike doesn’t have an input display).
I activated my super combo every time, but I wasn’t swinging the joystick far enough to complete the move — a habit from playing fighting games on a control pad for decades. For all the complaints about SF4’s complex special-attack motions, the actual execution is very lenient. For example:
While I always tried to input my attacks correctly, I did get lazy whenever I comboed certain specials while crouching. Third Strike's stricter execution will surprise newcomers.
I also have to learn how to use parries, which are Third Strike’s defining mechanic. The concept is simple: Players can negate attacks by tapping the joystick forward or down at the moment of impact. They can parry fireballs. They can jump at their foes and parry their Shoryuken without losing any health. They can block a flurry of kicks, parry the last blow, and immediately counterattack. Only throws and a handful of other moves can beat parries, and the technique completely changed how people played Street Fighter.
One gains greater advantage with every multi-hit attack he or she successfully stops, but learning the mechanic is like punching rocks in a forest for a month to figure out a secret technique. I took a lot of two-hit fireballs to the face in the second trial, and they’re one of the easier things to counter. With close-range super combos like Chun-Li's dreaded Houyku-Sen, you have to start before you even see the attack activate. While the game offers trials for parrying, the only advice it gives you is to learn the “timing,” and even the online guides I’ve found describe that it’s difficult to teach.
While my friends mocked me for having trouble stopping Ken's EX Shoryuken in one trial, it's more important to know how to apply this tool in actual matches. Using parries to cancel out one-hit moves is easy, but it requires understanding what your opponent wants to do and predicting when they’ll do it. Tapping your way through your opponent’s assault is a wonderful feeling and opens another level of mind games, but parrying is a technique mastered with equal parts dedication and intuition.
I don't want to scare anyone away from playing Third Strike, as I enjoyed the game for a decade without being a grandmaster (or even decent). I can't pull off "EVO Moment #37" — the legendary Daigo Umehara comeback victory that the game devotes two challenges to — for the life of me, but learning is a part of the genre's appeal, and this game is definitely a master's-level course.