Once upon a time in 1996, in the corner of a local arcade stood a conversion kit machine with Art of Fighting 3: Path of the Warrior inside. The owner of the arcade loved to change his kits in sequence. Next to the aforementioned kit was a Street Fighter Alpha 2 conversion kit machine, which previously housed its prequel. Prior to Art of Fighting 3, Art of Fighting 2 was there; when it ran its course of popularity, it was replaced by its sequel.
Art of Fighting 3 ran for quite a while at the arcade. I always suspected that the owner had a soft spot for Neo-Geo fighting games, as he had dedicated cabinets for those; there was one for the World Heroes series, one for King of Fighters, one for Fatal Fury (which carried over to the Real Bout series), one for Art of Fighting, one for Samurai Shodown, and one for Neo-Geo fighting games without sequels (there were definitely some of them). Among these, my favorite remained the Art of Fighting 3.
Make no mistake, I was not actually good at playing the game. I think I only managed to finish the game twice, both with additional credits because the boss was so cheap (most SNK fighting game bosses are cheap). It was certainly comparable to Street Fighter III (although Art of Fighting 3 was released slightly before Street Fighter III) in the sense that it introduces mostly new characters, keeping only Ryo and Robert (the “Ryu and Ken” of the series) in the roster. Sadly, most of these characters are not memorable and enjoyable to play as even though some of them can be quite fun once their moves are mostly figured out. The story of the game itself is a departure from the conflict with the top mobsters of Southtown (Mr. Big and Geese Howards). This is understandable as the main plot of the series is considered wrapped up and segues into the Fatal Fury series. This third game tries to answer the question “what happens to Ryo, Robert, and Yuri after they are no longer the main fighters in Southtown?” Well, the answer is they travel to Mexico on a side quest to help Robert’s old friend Freia tie some loose ends. This side quest is reflected in the game’s original Japanese title, Ryuuko no Ken Gaiden, which translates to Fist of Dragon and Tiger: Side Story. It is probable that the series never continued after this installment because the side story concept never actually caught on with fans of the series. Despite these shortcomings, the game was a joy to play even if I lost often, marvelous to look at, and enjoyable to listen to.
The fighting engine of Art of Fighting 3 certainly possesses a certain depth into it, and it is much deeper than that of its prequel. Many elements return from the prequel, such as the taunt button and the spirit gauge. The speed of the game also does not change much and it does encourage players to be more tactical and methodical with their offense and defense. It certainly does not offer a turbo experience like the Street Fighter series or a fast-paced, offense-heavy system of the King of Fighters.
The first thing I noticed upon playing the game for the first time was the removal of stronger attacks executed by holding the button. The punch and kick buttons now do normal attacks with normal damage; the way you combine these buttons with the directions of the joystick now determines also the strength of the attacks (for instance, pressing away and kick will execute a strong roundhouse kick for most characters). The third button is reserved for throws (although you can also throw with the punch button) and character-specific strong attacks.
As polygonal 3D fighting games became more popular at that time, the series actually borrowed some gameplay elements from them. The most noticeable element is the ability to land one more hit after your opponent falls to the ground. However, one immense element that most reviews do not mention is the introduction of the rushing chain combo system, which can be found in most 3D fighting games at the time, in which a character rushes forward accompanied by certain button combinations that can also be improvised, but for most characters the easiest way to do this is to rush forward a little bit (don’t let your character run too far) and press punch button twice for a one-two jab combo, followed by pressing the kick button twice. For Ryo, for example, this combo translates to two alternating jabs and two alternating roundhouse kicks. Art of Fighting 3 does this very fluidly and it can be very fun to do, catching your opponent standing off-guard with one punch and juggle that opponent with some other attacks. The only thing that lessens your enjoyment of this is the fact that AoF3 is not a flashy game, so there is no audio or visual announcements of your success in chaining seven attacks, for instance. This rushing combo system has a certain depth into it, in which you can cancel your attacks and execute special moves amidst the chain to further the damage you do to your opponent. It is also important to note that not many 2D fighting games actually do this. Most of the games that can do this are actually later SNK fighting games, such as the later sequels of Samurai Shodown and Last Blade series.
Art of Fighting 3 is a stunningly beautiful game to look at. The trademark sprite and background scaling and zooming return from the prequel, but the graphics have been completely redone. The quality of the graphics is perhaps the best that the old Neo-Geo MVS could eke out at that time. The animation is fluid and the movement realistic, yet they do not sacrifice the details in character design and the use of vibrant colors. Watching someone else play AoF3 is like watching an animated movie in which the level of interactivity is very high, unlike the interactive movie “games” released for early CD-based consoles at that time. Just see for yourself (video courtesy YouTube channel Old School Gamer – Jogatina Clássica).
I have to admit that what drew me first to this game is the music. Not many arcade games at the time had jazz fusion music for their soundtracks, and at first I couldn’t believe that the music came from an Art of Fighting game. Although the music is based largely only around a couple of themes (Ryo and Robert’s themes), it is very well composed and presented in richly arranged movements with great jam tracks. It might be strange to find a fighting game soundtrack with a lengthy, seemingly improvised jazzy solos, but it really works for the AoF3’s visual style and atmosphere. Since the game is set in Mexico around Cinco de Mayo, there is also certain influence from Mexican carnival and mariachi music, which adds richness to the audio presentation of the game. The original soundtrack is amazing as it is, but the arranged soundtrack takes the jazz fusion concept even further.
Art of Fighting 3 is the last of a short-lived SNK fighting game series. It is not as fondly remembered as its sisters franchises, Fatal Fury and King of Fighters. Due to gameplay and story departure, it is even not as fondly remembered as its prequels. However, its audio and visual presentation is also the only and the last of its kind, and it is for this reason that this game is highly recommended for any gamer looking to find a break from the usual fighting game fares of speedy gameplay systems and loud, banging rock soundtrack.