This review originally appeared in E17, February.
Not since the market-shaking Sonic has Sega had so much depending on the success of one game. The launches of the Mega CD and the 32X were both just sideshows compared to the launch of the Saturn – the first next-generation machine from one of the big players in the videogames field. As the lukewarm receptions faced by the 3DO, CD-i, CD32 and Jaguar have proved, new hardware needs great software to sell it, so it’s no exaggeration to say that Virtua Fighter is Sega’s most important release for years.
Sega entrusted the Saturn conversion of Virtua Fighter to the game’s original developers, AM2 (Sega’s biggest arcade division). It’s easy to see why. Saturn Virtua Fighter has all the pulling power of the arcade version, including the swooping, gliding game camera, the stylish polygon characters, the totally convincing animation and the compulsive gameplay.
The first thing that strikes you about Virtua Fighter is its graphics. They were impressive enough in the original, but on the Saturn, under the kind of intense scrutiny you can never give a game in the arcades, they emerge as simply astounding.
Although the characters (which are all made up of around 1200 polygons) look good in static screenshots, it’s the superb animation that brings them to life. The full roster of arcade moves is included in the Saturn version, and every movement is realistically animated and weighted. For instance, Pai, the fastest character, flicks out quick punches that make the heads of opponents snap back. Her ‘lightweight’ close attacks are also delightfully choreographed – she grabs an opponent and trips them over her outstretched leg or twists their wrist and forces them to the floor.
Conversely, wrestler Jeffrey has several lumbering holds and throws. He moves in, grapples with a character, struggles to hoist them onto his shoulders and then slams them to the ground. It all takes a satisfying few seconds to execute and, in a real show-off touch, Jeffrey even takes time to adjust his hold on an opponent in his arms.
Virtua Fighter’s 3D characters have a presence that 2D sprites just can’t match. The characters really do seem ‘alive’, whether they’re throwing a punch, unleashing a special move or reeling from a blow.
Of course, the action wouldn’t be the same without the fluid game camera, which pans about the two fighters, zooming in and out as they move around the arena and occasionally cutting to a new angle. The camera always maintains a position which doesn’t disadvantage either player. Only in replays does it switch to more unusual angles (which, annoyingly, often prevent you seeing your finishing moves again).
For all the game’s technical innovations, there’s an elegant simplicity about Virtua Fighter. Unlike Takara’s PlayStation title Toshinden, Virtua Fighter is basically a 2D beat ’em up with 3D graphics. The characters move on a single axis, with only throws and falls sending them to different parts of the arena. Just like in sprite-based games, they can’t circle about each other or attack from the sides (taking them from behind, however, is encouraged).
All the moves are instinctive and the characters are a well-balanced bunch, offering a choice of power, speed or agility, plenty of possible combos and rewarding special attacks. And if you beat the game in oneplayer mode, you face a bonus character, Dural, and bring up a new play option – Ranking mode.
However, in stark contrast to, say, Street Fighter II, everything is controlled with just three buttons: punch: kick and guard. This doesn’t compromise the gameplay, though. In fact, it amplifies it. Mastering all the characters’ moves – all have at least ten and most have close to 20 – requires less thumb pad dexterity and more button work. The combat is swift, giving the game a steep learning curve which makes it a significant longterm challenge.
The game has just one minor failing – the fact that polygons (which are effectively distorted sprites on the Saturn) occasionally disappear and characters break up in certain action replay views. On the other hand, CD access time is commendably quick and difficulty levels, time limits and controls are all adjustable to suit personal taste.
The Saturn version of Virtua Fighter is an exceptional game in many respects. It’s arguably the first true ‘next generation’ console game, fusing the best aspects of combat gameplay with groundbreaking animation and gorgeous sound (CD music and clear samples). In the arcades, Virtua Fighter made people stop and look. On the Saturn, it will make many people stop, look at their bank balance and then fork out for Sega’s new machine. Over to you, Sony.