There’s one word that sums up Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown: economy. In the literal sense, it’s great value for money, with the roster, modes, and online features of a full-price game for less than £10. More to the point, though, it flies in the face of modern fighting game conventions – there are no comeback mechanics to deploy, no super meters to manage and no teammate assists here. It uses half as many buttons as Capcom’s recent brawlers, and is easy to understand at a basic level, but despite all that Final Showdown is a fighting game of staggering, endless depth.
If Street Fighter is an action game, Virtua Fighter is a simulation, and while Capcom has tweaked and iterated its signature series across two decades to the point where only its iconic cast and their special moves are recognisable, Virtua Fighter is much the same as it was when it debuted in 1993. Across its 19-character roster you’ll find interpretations of almost every fighting style in the world, and there’s a genuine difference between each character in terms of how they feel in the hands and in the ring. That’s not to say it’s even slightly realistic – like Tekken, its 3D brawler peer, there’s a heavy emphasis on juggles, with mastery of gravity-defying combos key to maximising openings – but its mechanics are largely grounded in fact. There are no projectiles, no gravity-defying spin kicks. It looks real.
At least, it looks as real as a six-year-old game can. VF5 hit arcades in 2006 and consoles the following year, and Final Showdown is its second revision, released in Japanese arcades in 2010. Visually, then, it’s showing its age, but the bulk of the changes are to its mechanics. Aside from myriad tweaks to movesets and frame data – which make a world of difference to high-level players, but are barely noticeable to mere mortals – the principal change is to the throw escape system. In other fighting games, escaping (or ‘teching’) a throw means inputting a throw command when your opponent tries to grab you. That’s not technical enough for Sega AM2, though, so in the original VF5 you had to know which throw your foe was using, and input the correct joystick direction (from a choice of five) at the same time as the throw command. That, mercifully, has been simplified, and there are now just three directions – left, right, and neutral – to pick from, plus you can hold the punch and guard buttons down well in advance, tapping the appropriate direction when a throw comes in.
The series’ three-button setup – one each for punch, kick, and guard – means that, despite its high technical bar, it’s easy to pick up and play. But even with such a meagre allowance of inputs, each character has a hundred-odd moves, and combo timings are pleasingly relaxed. Pre-canned combos such as PPPK can be easily modified with taps in a single direction, so you can make the kick at the end of the combo low instead of high, for instance, to keep an opponent guessing.
This is perhaps best exemplified by Jean Kujo, one of the two ‘new’ characters (only Jean is brand new, hulking Sumo wrestler Taka-Arashi having first appeared in Virtua Fighter 3). He’s a karate fighter seemingly modelled on Devil May Cry’s Dante, and can charge certain moves by holding a button down. When fully charged, a move does more damage or keeps opponents in blockstun for longer, but a canny foe will soon learn to spot him charging up, and either dodge out of the way or launch an attack of their own. How handy, then, that Jean can cancel his charge, tricking his opponent into expecting a slow, high kick and preempting his opponent’s response with a backdash or quick, low jab.
There are little nuances like this that add a dash of extra character to all the fighters. Shun Di, the drunken master, swigs from a flask over the course of a match, growing more powerful as he becomes tipsy. Taka-Arashi is tough to knock down, while his heft dictates that your juggle combos won’t work. Vanessa Lewis picked up a wide range of damaging counter-holds during her time as a security guard, meaning mixing up your attacks against her is a necessity.
Until the recent Skullgirls, PS2’s Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution was unchallenged in having the best tutorial in fighting game history. Sadly, Final Showdown doesn’t quite go to the same lengths, but it explains the various mechanics and has you try them out. License mode, the meat of the singleplayer component, also sets specific win conditions to ensure you understand what you’re doing. And In Training mode, there’s an option to display frame data, showing your advantage after certain moves so you can work out combos of your own with a little mental arithmetic rather than guesswork.
That Final Showdown offers all of the above using just three buttons is a vindication of AM2’s decision to adhere to the original game’s template. Fans will readily decry the adverse effects of Capcom’s endless tinkering, and Final Showdown shows that there’s something to be said for economy of design, for an almost minimalist approach to making a fighting game. It should be noted that VF5 came out two years before Capcom reinvented, and repopularised, fighting games with its focus on giving beginner players a chance against old hands with Street Fighter IV’s Ultra Combos and later Marvel Vs Capcom’s X-Factor. Others have followed suit, too: witness Soul Calibur V’s Critical Edge meter, and Mortal Kombat’s violent X-Rays.
We suspect that Sega might have been tempted to join in if work on VF5 had started a little later. But it didn’t – and, if anything, modern context casts Final Showdown in an even better light. Its prudence, that veil of simplicity masking a system of astonishing possibility and depth, makes it one of the purest fighting games on the market today.