This review originally appeared in E67, January 1998.
In the age of 8bit videogaming, there was one word that could snare a potential game purchaser’s attention: arcade. ‘Arcade-style gameplay’ and ‘arcade-quality graphics’ were often promised (though rarely delivered), along with the killer claim of an ‘arcade-perfect conversion’. Often these assurances were accompanied by coin-op screenshots, rather than those from the far more crude home version.
That so many innocent gamers gave credence to such outrageous statements is now hard to comprehend, (although EA’s recent Moto Racer 2 television adverts, which used PC visuals to sell the PlayStation version, indicate that the trend of dishonest marketing hasn’t entirely passed). It’s true that many titles have appeared to come close to delivering a coin-op experience in the home, including the likes of Ridge Racer and Tekken, but none have really replicated their original incarnation. Even now, 120bits on from the Spectrum and C64, a state of true equilibrium between arcade and home has yet to be reached. Sega’s conversion of its respected beat ’em up Virtua Fighter 3tb is a well engineered translation from the Model 3 coin-op to its newborn console, Dreamcast. But while it’s not a perfect replication, the similarities are many.
Running at an unbroken 60 frames per second in the console’s standard 640×480 resolution, VF3tb is – if nothing else – testament to the power of its host platform. While gameplay continues to reign supreme over all else, the astounding clarity and finesse of VF3tb’s visuals is the facet of the game that strikes you first. The ex-generation fighting games for the PlayStation and Saturn may have offered reasonably detailed character models, but they inhabited stark arenas devoid of features. Virtua Fighter 3tb changes everything.
Bouts take place atop sloping downtown rooftops and on flights of steps, in the lapping waters of a desert island and on the Great Wall of China. Initially this appears to be a graphical gimmick, simply a new trick in the videogaming book. But Virtua Fighter has grown into a highly technical game since the inception of the series in 1993, resulting in the uneven floors of the third game affecting the movement and attacks of the characters. Among coin-op cognoscenti such details may seem like old news, but it’s a relatively new polygonal achievement in the home console market.
In gameplay terms, the Dreamcast version of VF3tb confirms what only dedicated, cash-rich arcade frequenters must have known all along – that the AM2-developed fighting game had matured into the leading title of its genre. It may not have the instant, eye-popping explosive appeal of Tekken 3, but extended play reveals that there is a deeper, more satisfying complexity to the third Virtua Fighter title. Each of the protagonists is armed with a vast selection of attacks, utilising simple hits and complex manoeuvres to outwit and overpower opponents.
In some respects, the greater depth is due to a different approach being taken in the design of the game’s control method. Where once Tekken’s approachable ‘one button for each limb’ system seemed the way forward for the genre, it limits interaction in a true three-dimensional space. VF’s alternative, with buttons for punch, kick, defend and dodge, while perhaps not offering the same scope for multiple attack movements, allows you to control the characters with unrivalled grace. The virtual fighters can be made to weave, dance and turn around one another – once the player has attained a reasonable level of aptitude. On the topic of control, it’s worth noting that Dreamcast’s arcade sticks are constructed to just about the same standard as those of Sega’s arcade cabinets, and add significantly to the playing experience.
The ‘tb’ addition to VF3’s title indicates that this is a conversion of the special edition Team Battle version of the coin-op, which has the option to preselect a rounded team of three fighters. While this makes for a fine extension to the basic game, there is a noticeable lack of the other play modes which made Tekken 3 such a worthwhile purchase for the home. There is the option of a training mode and a menu system which allows you to play back the various characters’ ending movies once unlocked through completing the game, yet the omission of a proper ‘versus’ selection is unforgivable, forcing twoplayer fights to be organised via the singleplayer mode. Purists may well argue that the arcade original lacked said option, but in Edge’s view, buyers of modern coin-op conversions have the right to expect more from their investments than unenhanced facsimiles.
Play the game and it cannot be denied that VF3tb is smooth, intricate and classy. But that’s as a result of running on Dreamcast, for which it is the key title among the first generation of software. Only in the long term will it be possible to judge whether it is utilising the console to best effect. And the lack of serious contempory software, such as the delayed Sega Rally 2, makes appraising its true power yet more difficult.
Early impressions of forthcoming Sonic Adventure are very good, and more performance will certainly be wrung from Dreamcast in the future, as with all hardware. However, Virtua Fighter 3tb is an addictive and attractive piece of software, which gets close to replicating the output of a high-end coin-op board with seemingly little trouble. Every new console needs a killer app for its launch, and in the face of little opposition, this is Dreamcast’s.