This is what people mean when they talk about balance. The hero and saviour of the Japanese arcade scene, Virtua Fighter 5 is the latest in a long line of thoughtful, measured and complex fighting games from Sega’s AM2 division. Long considered the thinking man’s scrapper, idle comparisons to high-speed chess are nonetheless remarkably accurate.
The Virtua Fighter series is possibly the best argument in favour of sequels ever made. Each and every iteration takes the insanely complex yet magnificently poised fighting system and adds new twists and new characters, all without losing that immaculate balance. Admittedly, those coming to the franchise at this point in its evolution will face a steep learning curve, but that learning, that process of discovery, refinement and perfection of the vast library of possibilities and potential is at the centre of what makes Virtua Fighter so endlessly rewarding. The same 30 seconds repeated time and time again, with each bout a new story unfolds and a new lesson is imparted.
This is not a game that’s easy to enjoy. To begin with, it’s not a game that’s easy to play. Compared to its more bombastic competition, the raw beginner is unlikely to find much to like when they first pick up the joystick. Random button mashing and stick twiddling will result in similarly uncoordinated jigglings from your onscreen avatar. Virtua Fighter 5 demands that you learn to play by its rules, train your hands to dance to its beat, if you want to understand what makes it so special. Simply completing the move list for some of the more advanced characters is a game in itself, with Akira’s famous knee move requiring an input of just 1/60th of a second. This is not a casual or friendly game. But it’s not just a test of dexterity; an agile mind is far more important than a quick wrist.
Every move has a counter, every technique a foil and every tactic a rebuff. It’s not just the variety of attacks that make the game so engaging, it’s the huge array of defensive possibilities that make Virtua Fighter 5 sing. You can dodge, block, counter, evade, reverse, interrupt, escape throws or just skip artfully out of the way. There’s no situation that a smart opponent can’t theoretically avoid. And with this number of options at your disposal, the urge and the ability to be creative and stylish is ever present. You don’t learn to play Virtua Fighter so much as learn to speak it. This is jazz gaming – improvised, but with a structure of its own, and endlessly inventive. And, with the vast range of styles and techniques used by the various characters, even when mastery of one is achieved there are 16 more waiting to demonstrate their skills.
These are characters worth getting to know. With the series now some 21 years old, Akira, Kage and Lau have long since burned themselves into the retina of gaming, designs iconic enough to last, but simple enough to allow you to project yourself on to them. With the ever-growing customisation options now stretching to four outfits per character and thousands of items, it’s possible to make your warrior look as old, young, flamboyant, restrained, creepy or flat-out bizarre as you wish. Sega has been clever here, also: by making some of the most desirable items available only for the completion of torturously difficult tasks, it has ensured that poor players always have something to aspire to, and that the elite can make known their abilities with a bare chest or particularly flamboyant hat. How better?
While the design of the characters is more outlandish in Virtua Fighter 5 than in earlier versions, with an almost absurd difference in scale between the biggest and smallest characters, there’s little attempt to make proceedings look real. It’s more fully poseable action figure than kung-fu film. But while the fighters may look like dolls, their movement is anything but artificial. The feedback given by the animation is nothing short of remarkable, with every tiny nuance of both players’ status transmitted by subtle variations in the ever-believable reactions. While Virtua Fighter 5 may lack some of its rivals’ eye-popping explosive effects, screen-filling special attacks and achingly grandiose combatants, it has a solidity and believability that raises it far above its peers. The graphics are there to serve the mechanics of the game and they do so with elegance and style.
Virtua Fighter 5 is the ultimate fighting game, no doubt. It asks a very high price of its players, but those who heed the call are rewarded with a potential lifetime of ever more engaging, engrossing and rewarding play.