Street Fighter II casts an indelibly long shadow over the rest of Capcom's fighting games from the 1990s. First launched in 1991, SFII in all its Super and Turbo varieties has become synonymous with the Street Fighter franchise, a cultural touchstone the series wasn't truly able to move past until the launch of the successful Street Fighter IV in 2008. In that seventeen-year interval, Capcom put out a smörgåsbord of updates and spin-offs: six different versions of Street Fighter II, three different editions of Street Fighter III, three entries in the polygonal Street Fighter EX series, and a trilogy of iterations of today's topic: Street Fighter Alpha. The middle entry in the Alpha trilogy, 1996's Street Fighter Alpha 2, came a year after the first and is the only one of the three to see a Nintendo home console release.
If for some reason you've never heard of Street Fighter, here's the lowdown: you choose from a motley crew of combatants to duke it out in a one-on-one, best-of-three battle. You've got three different punches and three different kicks assigned to the face buttons and shoulder buttons, along with the ability to string together all sorts of nifty combo attacks – you can pore over the character-by-character combo overviews in the instruction manual to learn the more advanced moves, although waiting for the Wii U's digital manual to load breaks the flow of play slightly more than in the good ol' days when you could just take a gander at your fun physical booklet for reference. As you wade deeper into the experience, there are fancy techniques like "super combos" and "alpha counters," but you don't need to worry about that right away; the longer you play Street Fighter, the more tricks and tactics you'll uncover.
The Alpha series serves as a prequel to the wildly popular SFII, set after the events of the oft-forgotten original Street Fighter from 1987. As a result, Alpha's biggest hook is that we get to see younger versions of everyone's favourite martial artists like Chun-Li and Zangief – this prequel mindset carries over to every aspect of the game, from the stages to the colour palette to the musical selection. Alpha 2's tunes aren't quite as memorable as the legendary SFII soundtrack, but it's still a pleasure to listen to as you punch people in the face with a few remixes of familiar themes. Launching so late in the Super Nintendo's lifespan, Capcom put the pedal to the SNES hardware's metal, as Alpha 2 features gloriously high production values with drop-dead gorgeous cinematics and intricately detailed character sprites. Each character (and the announcer) has their own voiceover work, sometimes in Japanese and other times in awkward English – the sound quality is tinny, but this cheesy voice work adds to the cartoonish charm of Street Fighter. There seems to be a slight hiccup at the beginning of each battle as the game freezes for a second after displaying the "FIGHT!" text, but aside from that the frame rate runs as smooth as marmalade.
Street Fighter is famous for its over-the-top colourful characters (taken to an extreme with SFIV), but Alpha 2 gives us a glimpse of the other side of the franchise's artistic coin; the anime-style artwork takes an ever-so-slightly more realistic, mature tone than SFII, without veering too far into grimdark Mortal Kombat territory. Character models are as bright and colourful as ever, but the stages often take on a more subdued, desaturated look than we're used to seeing in Street Fighter, with lots of pastels and pale tints. There aren't quite as many gawking onlookers in the backgrounds of the stages, as the whole game has an almost dystopian outlook with levels set in grimy public restrooms and graffiti-covered back alleys. Dhalsim still has his elephants, but instead of standing regally like in his SFII stage, they're lounging on their smoke break; Ken still has his yacht stage, but rather than a sunny dockside view, it's a sleazy nighttime cruise party.
Street Fighter Alpha 2 features 18 playable characters – 13 returning from the first Street Fighter Alpha plus five additional fighters, a collection of mostly familiar Street Fighter faces with a few Final Fight combatants thrown in for good measure. Rolento from Final Fight makes his Street Fighter début, and the only entirely new character is Sakura, a Japanese schoolgirl obsessed with Ryu. Some Street Fighter veterans like Guile and Blanka are notably absent, but it's a nicely varied roster with a few curveballs thrown in. Characters all fight differently from one another, so no matter your play style, you'll find someone in Alpha 2 who clicks with you.
This is the beauty of Street Fighter: it appeals to everyone. Unlike many hardcore fighting games, Street Fighter is approachable for newbies as you can be mildly successful by simply button mashing, but its fighting mechanics are deep and rewarding enough to cater to the grizzled veterans. Alpha 2 features only the classic single-player Arcade Mode (in which you enter a series of one-on-one matches en route to a final showdown with M. Bison) and two-player Versus Mode, but its shining accomplishment, strangely enough, is the Option Mode. It's hugely customisable, with eight different difficulty settings to choose from, a variety of time limits, round limits, four degrees of damage level, three different game speeds, and the ability to turn automatic blocking on or off. Even in Versus Mode, each player can choose their own speed and auto-blocking switch independently of one another. Regardless of your experience level with fighting games, Alpha 2 has a way to suit you.
Street Fighter Alpha 2 is an expertly-crafted game with high production values that manages to be both approachable and satisfyingly deep at the same time; the real question is whether it's worth purchasing instead of (or in addition to) the iconic Street Fighter II. The Wii U Virtual Console is already home to three different SNES versions of SFII, and as the benchmark of the franchise, Alpha 2 can't avoid living in its shadow. Ultimately, if you're looking for your first 16-bit Street Fighter, SFII towers over Alpha 2 as a masterpiece full of characters that have become household names and songs that go with everything. If you're a casual Street Fighter fan who already owns SFII, Alpha 2 isn't different enough to warrant a purchase, as it's largely the same game with some tweaks and a slightly different aesthetic. If you're a SFII veteran looking for something new, though, Alpha 2 provides a fresh perspective on the series with a more realistic, mature look at a younger version of the Street Fighter world.