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Feature: The Making Of Street Fighter Alpha 3: Upper

Posted by Damien McFerran

How the GBA’s best fighter doomed the company that made it

We’d be willing to bet that if you quizzed any games developer, they’d admit that pushing a system to its absolute limit is one of the most satisfying parts of the job. Taking a piece of hardware and making it do things it really shouldn't be capable of shows incredible talent and skill, and no doubt comes with a massive helping of pride on the part of the individual — or studio — responsible.

The history of gaming has seen many titles which have successfully wrung every last drop of performance from their host platform: Gunstar Heroes on the Mega Drive, Star Fox on the SNES, Donkey Kong Land on the monochrome Game Boy, to name but three examples. Another is Street Fighter Alpha 3 (or Street Fighter Alpha 3: Upper, depending on how pedantic you wish to be about the title) on the Game Boy Advance; a remarkable technical achievement by a small, UK-based developer by the name of Crawfish Interactive. Crawfish is sadly no longer with us, and ironically the blame can partially be laid at the feet of the studio’s crowning glory.

"We did a great job which obviously went down well with Capcom"

Crawfish Interactive was founded in 1997 by Australian programmer Cameron Sheppard. Sheppard had previously worked for Aussie studio Beam Software (responsible for the legendary SNES RPG Shadowrun and now known as Krome Software) before moving to the UK to work with Probe on the Game Boy conversion of Mortal Kombat II. Allied closely with the now-defunct publisher Acclaim, Crawfish specialised in portable titles for the Game Boy and Game Boy Color systems. The company’s talent in this field allowed it to gain a considerable selection of clients, including Virgin Interactive, which at the time was the UK publisher for all of Capcom’s titles.

“We developed Street Fighter Alpha on the Game Boy Color for Virgin, who were handling the license for the handheld format,” remembers Sheppard today. “I think they approached us after seeing Crawfish in the press all the time. We did a great job, which obviously went down well with Capcom.”

At the time, Nintendo was close to releasing the Game Boy Color's successor, and Crawfish wanted to make as big a splash as possible on this new console. Given the positive relationship with Capcom, it made sense to focus on porting Street Fighter Alpha 3 — the company’s latest coin-op smash hit — to the new machine. It was a bold proposal, but Crawfish’s success with Street Fighter Alpha on the Game Boy Color had given it an understandable boost of confidence. “We produced some mocked-up screenshots of what we thought we could achieve on the Game Boy Advance for Street Fighter Alpha 3, plus a few videos of a couple of characters fighting in front of a background,” explains Sheppard. “Capcom obviously liked what they saw and gave us the contract.”

Crawfish had previously been successful in carving out a solid reputation for creating playable licensed titles, but there was a feeling within the company’s Croydon offices that Street Fighter Alpha 3 could be the project which took the studio to the next level. “It’s a hugely successful game franchise and our conversion had a release date coinciding with the Game Boy Advance’s release date, which was right before Christmas 2001,” states Sheppard. “The royalty deal was very good, coupled with a decent exchange rate at the time. Seven figures at least seemed very likely — plus the prestige of being responsible for what would have been the Game Boy Advance’s star title for that Christmas.”

Crawfish didn't take the job lightly and threw considerable manpower behind the conversion. “The programmer of the Game Boy Color port of Street Fighter Alpha was the lead, and we also hired an additional programmer to solely write the run-time data compression which was crucial for quality graphics and sound,” recalls Sheppard. “We also had the same artists from the Game Boy Color version of Street Fighter Alpha working on it. The lead artist was very passionate about the franchise, and was also responsible for the mocked-up screenshots and videos we used to help land the deal.” Even so, Crawfish’s then Director of Development Mike Merren feels that more could have been done at the time. “We certainly put the best people for the job on the game," he says. "But in hindsight we didn't put enough people on what should have been our golden egg, and in the end we spread ourselves too thinly. We were signing a lot of projects and in the end things were missed regarding the way the product was slipping, and we didn't plug the gap.”

"It was an amazing technical feat by the coder to actually get everything into the cartridge"

Fitting an entire arcade game into a handheld system was quite an achievement, and required some technical tricks. “We hired an industry veteran programmer to devise and write the data compressor and de-compressor so we could squeeze as many frames of animation onto the cartridge as possible,” reveals Sheppard. “This also allowed space for fantastic backgrounds and loads of music and sound effects.” Merren is still amazed at the volume of data shoehorned into that tiny Game Boy Advance cartridge. “From what I recall we agreed to get everything in the game that was in the PlayStation version, but then on top of that Capcom wanted three additional characters — Eagle, Maki and Yun,” he says. “When we started there were estimates of how much room we would need on the cartridge and it was wildly wrong. It was an amazing technical feat by the coder to actually get everything into the cartridge — we just wouldn't have had a product without it.” As it stands, Street Fighter Alpha 3 on the Game Boy Advance wasn't quite a perfect port — it lacked some backgrounds and sounds — but it did include every fighter, as well as the additional three requested by Capcom.

Despite its demands, Capcom was quite happy to give Crawfish plenty of space during the vast majority of the development period, but it wasn't plain sailing by any means. “They were very hands-off, until we got to bug testing stage and then they provided us with extensive bug reports — which were in Japanese, so we then needed to get them translated,” says Merren. “It was a tough process at the end that extended things even further — we probably took three times longer from the Beta stage to completion than we did on any of the other projects we did. Looking back, I think we gave Capcom too much respect and didn't push back on areas of the development that we should have.”

Indeed, the challenge of porting a leading arcade fighter to a device small enough to fit in your pocket was perhaps underestimated; Street Fighter Alpha 3 missed its proposed launch date, giving the team at Crawfish a considerable headache. So what happened? “A combination of many things,” admits Merren. “Over-promising what was possible and then not trying to push back on the publisher, not recognising the slippage that was occurring early on, spreading ourselves thinly over many other projects, an over-extended Beta period due in part to language barrier and also down to the fact that what we were trying to achieve by fitting such a big game onto a small handheld led to a large period of bug fixing.”

Capcom’s reaction to the delay was predictably negative. Sheppard and Merren were hauled in front of Capcom’s top brass and were told that their fee would be cut and the promised royalties would be cancelled. “They were up in arms to say the least, and rightly so,” admits Sheppard. “They entrusted us with their prestigious title — not only to develop the best version possible for the Game Boy Advance, but to be released in time for the Christmas 2001 sales. I was extremely frustrated, not only for the obvious reasons but also personally, as I had personal guarantees with the bank for Crawfish’s debts which began to grow for other reasons, especially during 2002. Losing the final payments from the advance — plus the royalties — was a deep blow at a bad time.”

The timing couldn't have been worse. "Crawfish was in a delicate position due to a lull in signing new titles which can happen after new hardware is announced," explains Sheppard. "In this case, it was the Game Boy Advance. Publishers can drop support for the existing hardware when new hardware is announced, and delay signing titles for the new hardware until they are sure that the new hardware could be successful." It got to the point where it became obvious to Sheppard that the company could only survive if it was acquired by a larger firm, and in November 2002 that goal was almost achieved — but sadly, the deal fell through at the last minute. Crawfish Interactive ceased trading the next day, bringing to a close one of the most underrated UK development studios of recent memory.

"At the time the company went under we had released around fifteen GBA titles and had another six in development, one of which was Grand Theft Auto"

What makes the whole sorry situation even more ironic is that when Street fighter Alpha 3 did eventually hit store shelves, it was hailed as a classic by press and gamers alike. How did it feel to see the positive reviews after such a tumultuous development period? “Bittersweet,” states Sheppard. “Since we had lost the final payments of the advance and all the royalties — and since I knew then that Crawfish was likely to go under — I couldn't care less how it was received, really. Sounds harsh, but it was an extremely bad time and I obviously had loads on my mind. I had the ramifications of a collapsing company to deal with.” Merren is in agreement. “I don't think I looked at a review of the game when it came out,” he admits. “We knew how good it was, but by then there were a lot of other things to worry about.”

Although Crawfish’s demise can’t be blamed solely on the delay of Street Fighter Alpha 3, Sheppard maintains that had things gone according to plan, his company might still be operating today. “Put it this way,” he says. “If it was completed and released in time for Christmas – the Game Boy Advance's first with a limited number of other titles vying for the shopper’s cash — we would have reaped considerable royalties, solidifying Crawfish’s financials for the foreseeable future. We would also have received much attention and would have had tons more work offered to us by not just Capcom themselves, but other publishers as well. We could have even become the target for a buyout, which would have been nice. If we had pulled it off, it would have been fantastic for Crawfish and we would have been propelled onwards and upwards towards something brilliant. So Street Fighter Alpha 3 didn't take us down per se, but it failed to not only save us, but also make us huge in some way. I certainly don’t regret taking the job on. If I have any regrets, they would be to do with my decisions I made at the time, just over 12 years ago.”

Merren concurs with Sheppard's assessment. “It would have propelled us forward in a big way," he says, but is keen to point out that other elements were equally responsible. "At the time the company went under we had released around fifteen Game Boy Advance titles and had another six in development, one of which was Grand Theft Auto. But we also had other titles cancelled. Margins were very tight as publishers were squeezing budgets hard on Game Boy Advance titles, and a one month slip on some of the smaller ones meant the profit was gone. Working on so many titles at a time spread us thinly and slippage become inevitable. We were a small Croydon handheld developer punching well above its weight — with global publishers wanting us to work on their titles, it was hard to turn a title down. In many ways, we were a casualty of our own success.”

Cameron Sheppard now resides in his native Australia, and currently works in the TV and movie industries. He has recently completed a course in electronics.

Mike Merren is development director at Big Ant Studios, which is based in Melbourne, Australia and produces titles for a variety of platforms.

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User Comments (50)

Squashie

#1

Squashie said:

I never actually played this one, because I didn't really get into the series until later one, still, maybe I should track it down and give it a go!

Shiryu

#5

Shiryu said:

Crawfish did some excellent work back then. Although not perfect, I was really happy with their conversion of "Speedball 2" on the GBA.

Phantom_R

#6

Phantom_R said:

... Wow. Capcom was absolutely over-the-top brutal with what they did to Crawfish. "A delayed game is eventually good--a rushed game is bad forever." Even worse considering that much of the delay was due to Capcom's negligence and the final product was still a classic.

Tasuki

#7

Tasuki said:

@Phantom_R: I dont think it was over the top honestly. You have to look at it from Capcom's eyes because of Crawfish their product missed the Holiday Season one the biggest shopping time of the year. No telling how much money they missed out on cause their product wasn't there for people to scoop up for presensts. For all we know that bonus that was offered to Crawfish originally could have come from all the extra profit that Capcom would have received during the season. Because they missed out on that who are they going to blame?

Still its sad to hear a company go under especially in this day and age. I owned a GBA but I never did play this version.

Stark_Nebula

#8

Stark_Nebula said:

@NintendoLife Heads up! In the 7th paragraph, 2nd-to-last sentence: "in the end we spread ourselves [ to ] thinly" - I do believe you meant [ too ]. ;)

Nice article. Shows that Capcom has been a brash company for quite some time. It's not entirely their fault, but geez, give people some slack.

retro_player_22

#10

retro_player_22 said:

This game is an instant classic. To be able to crammed in all the characters (over 35 by far) in the game plus three more as well as all the moves, -ism style, many modes of play, frames of animations, stages, unlockables, and sounds makes this the definite portable fighters. It's even better than the crap that was Mortal Kombat Advance. The only two other fighting games on the GBA that came close to rivaling it was Mortal Kombat: Tournament Edition and The King of Fighters EX2: Howling Blood however in terms of good control, quality gameplay, and sheer size roster, SFA3 on GBA beats all. I got this game and had spent over 90 hours into the game simply to master all the fighters in the game.

Eventually this game was ported to the PSP with one more characters and more modes of play. Both are awesome titles imo but the GBA one would awesome be a classic no matter how pissed Capcom was at Crawfish for delaying it.

Rockman

#11

Rockman said:

Starfox pushed the SNES limit? meh.. more like Megaman X3, Donkey kong country or Super Mario RPG. Nice article never the less..

Dolphinsquared

#12

Dolphinsquared said:

Deadlines are the true killers of developers. and publishers alike. If kept realistic, a game would have to be made a success. But there are times where there is too many lioness and too little times. Games are not supposed to have a "release window", they are to be made on its own pace to reach perfection.

DarkCoolEdge

#13

DarkCoolEdge said:

Sounds like another story of mismanagement. They seem to be an everyday situation in the industry. It's too bad.

SethNintendo

#14

SethNintendo said:

Loved this game and I still have my copy. It was a mighty fine port and I don't think they could have done a better job with hardware limitations of GBA. Shame that it was one of many factors that led to the collapse of Crawfish.

KnightRider666

#17

KnightRider666 said:

It's because of things like this we get lots of shovelware today. It just goes to show that you can't rush perfection. I applaud Cameron for not selling out. He could've made a botched port to appease Capcom's deadline to cash in. Instead he did the most selfless and noble thing, he took a major loss and made the game right. You sir, have all my respect for doing so. I thank you for a great game!

Linkuini

#20

Linkuini said:

Nice article! Sounds like even the best developers have trouble keeping things in scope sometimes.

DarkEdi

#21

DarkEdi said:

One of my favorites GBA. I have it and i love it. I´m very impressed how they did the battles 2x1 without lag.

Nico07

#23

Nico07 said:

@Rockman Star Fox was a 3d shooter compared the 2d side scroller games you mentioned, all of which are great. Star Fox also employs use of the FX chip which is very difficult to emulate.

Eisenbolan

#24

Eisenbolan said:

SFA3 was my favorite PS1 game. Sorry I hated the GBA version. Controls were shoddy. It solidified for me that fighters need to be on consoles with a control that allows good movement like half circles etc and a TV for the detail.

Rafie

#26

Rafie said:

I have SFA3 on the Dreamcast and it is absolutely the best out of the Alpha series. I have all SF titles across the 16 bit to recent consoles. I got REALLY excited when I saw "Street Fighter Alpha"! I didn't read anything else. I thought it was coming to the Wii U and 3DS. I would have paid for both! Hahahaha

Rockman

#27

Rockman said:

@Nico07 I know.. Super Mario RPG features the super FX chip 2.. even harder to emulate.. Super mario RPG is more like a 2.5D sidescorller. :D

CanisWolfred

#28

CanisWolfred said:

This was quite the interesting story. Wish more people were actually reading it...

...but on the topic of the game itself, I prefer the PSP version above all.

Tetris911

#29

Tetris911 said:

Fantastic article! I really love these type of articles because these kind of articles rarely show up every now and then. I am not saying that I approve of the company going under but just reading articles about how games like this were made and such is really interesting and unique to read. I hope NintendoLife post more articles like these in the future :)

MeWario

#30

MeWario said:

Great article, always interesting reading about gaming history like this.

Bass_X0

#31

Bass_X0 said:

Havimg played the PS1 and Dreamcast versions first, I didn't like the GBA version. Of course I didn't expect PS1 quality but the GBA was too small to fit such a large game. I preferred King of Fighters on GBA which had less characters and options but just looked and played better IMO.

nilcam

#32

nilcam said:

This is a sad and fascinating story. I remember being so excited for this game and being crushed when it was pushed back. The wait was worth it, though.

I wouldn't consider it the best GBA fighter though; that honor goes to King of Fighters EX2. That game is amazing and I often wish I could mod a GBA to have 4 face buttons for proper KOF play.

RR529

#33

RR529 said:

Sad to hear, but that's business for you. Entrepreneurship is one of the biggest gambles out there.

Mikau94

#35

Mikau94 said:

Capcom is an interesting company to say the least. They have been the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Games like Megaman, Portable Zeldas, Street Fighter and Okami have shown Capcom's potential but they have reared their ugly head on quite a few occasions.

MikeDanger

#36

MikeDanger said:

I have this game, never knew it was a classic, guess its because i never played it vs somebody.

ecco6t9

#37

ecco6t9 said:

It is a true classic, I can remember hoping got this to come out and then being shocked when developer went under. It has for the most part always been a part of my collection.

I would of loved to have seen what their GTA Advance would of turned out like considering the game not only jumped publishers(Destination Software Inc to Rockstar) but developers as well(Crawfish to Digital Eclipse),

The team also did a real good version of Space Invaders on the Game Boy Color for Activision.

smashbrolink

#38

smashbrolink said:

It would be awesome if Nintendo extended a hand to this guy again at some point. After all that effort, I think giving him that opportunity would be a small dose of justice in a truly unfair world.

ICHIkatakuri

#39

ICHIkatakuri said:

@Mikau94 Like with the on disk DLC fiasco surrounding resi 5, and the constant need to update street fighters to new versions not compatible with earlier releases unless you pay premium DLC or buy a new disk.
There's one other thing that would have been great if this game made the GBA Christmas release, Vicarious Visions wouldn't have been so big making strange isometric Tony hawk games.

Blue-Thunder

#40

Blue-Thunder said:

I'm not anti capitalism because what other options have we? But this is a reflection of what is going on every day in our world. The man who actually does the work and makes the product is the one who makes the least money. The people who make the money are not the people who make the product but the people who sell the product to the consumer. Unfortunately this is capitalism and yes it sucks.

Mikau94

#42

Mikau94 said:

@ICHIkatakuri And don't forget their cancellation of Megaman Legends 3 and Maverick Hunter because they weren't meeting their expectations.

Araknie

#44

Araknie said:

Such a tragic story, knowin their demise still i was feeling what they felt at the time, they can speak really well and transmit their emotions good.
I'm glad at least one of them works with TV, he can transmit emotions there, a pity it's in Australia.

ToxieDogg

#45

ToxieDogg said:

Makes you realise just how greedy some publishers are and how badly they treat developers. Even if GBA Street Fighter Alpha 3 had sold trillions, it'd wouldn't have been any good for Crawfish as Capcom had cancelled their royalties. That's why I never feel like I'm screwing developers out of much money if I buy preowned these days, and I can't see the new DRM measures being introduced in the Xbox One being much good for developers in the long run.

Blue-Thunder

#46

Blue-Thunder said:

@KnightRider666
Good point about the shovel ware.
It's all well and good making a good game but at the end of the day if you don't get paid what are you going to live on? I've lost respect for Capcom.
The contract devs have to sign to get work are probably all in the publishers favour, so you either sign it and work or don't sign and don't work.

unrandomsam

#47

unrandomsam said:

Not sure whether all the contracts are like that.

If there is something that is really good (Or even might be good) and a niche title. (Don't like how people decide things are going to be niche before they are even released fairly sure that never used to happen to the same extent in the 8 and 16 bit days).

I hate shovelware (And hate the shops that only stock it (And preowned for £5 more than the Amazon new price) like Game).

There is many good fighting games for the Neo Geo Pocket colour and they feel right which is the most important thing.

Capcom annoys me they don't put enough effort into Nintendo consoles generally.

I still think the best streetfighter is the Arcade version of 2 turbo hyper fighting. It is well balanced.

I am only bothered from Capcom arcade perfect (With or without updated graphics) stuff on VC Arcade.

Don't think they deserve anything for stuff like Super Ghouls and Ghosts which I do like but the flicker and slow down annoys me. (Even more so because they fixed it for the PS/PS2 version).

The other new games they only seem to release for the PSP.

(If they put some effort and it is a game I like then I might get it. If they made a 3d classic out of the arcade version of ghouls and ghosts or ghosts and goblins I would get it but there is no way I want the NES version which is a waste of time for me.)

unrandomsam

#48

unrandomsam said:

@Mikau94 They should just be content with making money on every game. Instead they want to do as little as possible to make the money only release the stuff they think they can guarantee will make tons of money. But it is not so simple and there are not as good at it as they think they are. The 3DS Streetfighter 4 is a good example. I would have bought it full price no problems but I wasn't going to get a 3DS until the XL was released because I am getting older and I don't like a small screen. If they had been patient or done a smaller price drop they would have made more money. I will also avoid games all together if I think they have stupid DLC policies.

Capt_N

#49

Capt_N said:

I, too, wish NintendoLife posted these kinds of article, & stories much more often. It is disheartening to learn about a fallen studio(dev/pub), even if it happened about 12yr.s ago. Still, these kinds of article, & interviews are awesome reads.

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