Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Rings of Saturn Review #3: Virtua Fighter

History: Only going through the history of the Saturn version would be an injustice seeing as this helped kickstart the revolutionary 3D fighter back in the mid-90s.
Originally released in arcades in arcades in 1993 this game followed in the footsteps of other 3D Sega games like Virtua Racing (released a year earlier also in arcades.) It was a massive success, guaranteeing sequels in the near future. Only problem was this game was released when the Sega Genesis was Sega's home console. A little later when the Saturn was released it was still not considered a powerful enough machine to do an arcade perfect port, or at least there wasn't the ability to at the time. Because of this there is no true home version of the original game. Only lesser ports. I don't know how true this is for the game's sequels but apparently it's true here.
Virtua Fighter was a launch game for the Saturn. Like I stated in my Dancing Across the Rings of Saturn post it was because of this game the console did so well at first. Nearly every single Saturn owner had a copy of this game day one in Japan. Despite it's popularity it was seen as a rushed port. And by the time it hit the states months later it especially looked poor since games like Battle Arena Toshinden had seen the light of day since. In response Sega released Virtua Fighter Remix. An enhanced version of the original that addressed many of the complaints of the home version.
Anything else said about the franchise right now would tread on the territory of the sequels. Something I'll save for those reviews.

Availability: While it kick started a big franchise, this version of the game received limited ports. The most popular being the Sega Saturn port. The only other port would be to the 32X, the failed Genesis 32 bit add on hardware. The sequel Virtua Fighter 2 is on modern consoles for digital download. But alas the original, original has very, very few ports and can only be played a limited number of ways. Not that you'd want to.

Personal History: I played the sequel Virtua Fighter 2 way more than the original. I did have this version back then as well but I definitely played more of the 'Remix' version. So this original, original I have little experience with compared to the sequels.

Version I Played: American release for the Sega Saturn.

Review: Like plenty of other Saturn owners back in the day I played a ton of Virtua Fighter. More so Virtua Fighter 2, though. It was easily the more popular title in the long run since the American launch of the Saturn poo-pooed all over itself whereas almost literally every single Saturn owner had Virtua Fighter at launch in Japan. I did pick up the original and the Remix version of the original in time, but my head was solidified with the mechanics of Virtua Fighter 2.
Just like another one of my favorite fighting franchises, Tekken, I started with a sequel and backtracked to the original. In a way I'm doing that again with rebuilding my Saturn collection. The most recent Virtua Fighter I played before this was the most recent one. VF5 for PS3. While I found it lacking and too easy (on standard difficulties, not counting insane options) it was still a fun experience and am glad I have it. But it made me desire the originals. It made me think the franchise had not grown too far from it's roots which is both a good and bad thing.

Games these days are so massive and offer so much I can't believe we once went through times when games didn't offer 40-80 hours of gameplay each (slight exaggeration.) Even many fighting games now have this feature. Mortal Kombat 2011 has so much to offer it's incredible. I wanted to like VF5 more because of my love of the franchise, but in context of the modern era it didn't have enough going for it. Which is a good way to look at the review for the original game, with context. Without context the original would look like a game in it's pre-pre-alpha stages from the Dreamcast or Playstation 2 era at best and not a complete game. I would love to talk to a game obsessed kid half my age and say, "You know that fighting game you like so much? Well here's how some of them used to look."

Kids these days just don't get it do they?

They would probably be horrified or assume it was a patch to Minecraft. Strange when you think about it. How in 1993 this is something people had shit their pants over. They couldn't believe how games were going into this new dimension of 3D and this was at the forefront. People didn't care that their games went from vibrant and detailed 2D to blocky and dull 3D for a while in order to embrace this innovation. Besides, while there were a fair chunk of games that looked like this (some worse) it didn't last long. Especially since the reworked 'Remix' version came out less than two years after the original arcade release where it looked like this...

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's not as nice as Virtua Fighter 2 but at least it's an improvement.

I don't like being the type who is close minded about older things. When I see something older that may be considered laughable these days I try to think of the context of the time. Unfortunately context can only go so far. At some point poor aging comes into play which makes certain art, opinions,  ans whatever else unbearable to many modern eyes. Sadly I feel the first Virtua Fighter is one of those cases. Playing it today is not as fun as it could be. It has not aged well at all.

Just to get it out of the way let's talk about the visuals.
I already pointed out how weird the characters look to modern eyes. It was the early 3D so it was pretty apparent Sega wanted to get the mechanics down before the visuals. Hence why everyone looks like they're made out of Lego pieces. In a way I like it and it has stood the test of time in a way Sega likely didn't intend. I like their blocky look because it lends itself to it's name of Virtua. Derived from virtual (duh), or virtual reality. It's got that old school VR look to it making it feel more like a scene from The Lawnmower Man instead of Enter the Dragon. Know what I mean? What if I said the holodeck from Star Trek, would that work better for you?
However that's just one man's opinion. I can't possibly see the rest of the world look at it that way unless they went with the "it's so retro!" approach but not take it seriously in context of it's time.

Putting visuals aside I want to jump straight past control, variety, and everything to get to the main point. This game is tough.
Going back to the Tekken comparison. I remember picking up Tekken 1 after playing tons of Tekken 2. Imagine my surprise when I went from an approachable but not too easy fighter to one that would beat me into next week. I was shocked at how difficult Tekken 1 was on the easiest difficulty, infinite time, and one round wins. I experienced something similar when revisiting Virtua Fighter. I don't know if it's because it's been so long, if I was a lot better back then, or if it's just so old and outdated I can't even approach it anymore. Whatever it may be I found myself getting my ass kicked left and right just a few stages in. Getting so angry I turned it off.
It wasn't for a lack of trying. I was putting my all into it. I even adjusted the difficulty settings just so I could get to the final boss and see the credits. Knowing there's basically no ending I don't feel the need to put myself through the annoyance of that. This isn't like Tekken where each character has a short ending unique to their story.
While I'm not saying there has to be a reward at the end of the tunnel it would be a nice incentive. Even if it was the ten to fifteen second endings other fighting games have that would be something. Otherwise this game is more about the journey, of which I did not enjoy as much now as I once did.

A part of it definitely is the controls. An element that has always held me back from calling this my favorite fighting franchise, leaving Tekken to reign. If you've ever played the first couple Virtua Fighters you're pretty familiar with the 'moon jump.' While in many fighting games characters jump much higher than they ever should. In Virtua Fighter they jump super high but then hang in the air for a couple seconds like they're bouncing around the moon. It's not a game breaking mechanic but it can be annoying and difficult to handle. Not that that's the only negative aspect of the controls. Just an obvious example.
The deep rooted issue in the controls in this first installment is that floating transfers to the controls overall. When I'm moving, grooving, punching and kicking with the... greatest of ease? I feel like nothing is solid and floats around way more than it should. Because of this I never feel like I'm in full control. I feel like I'm trying to fight underwater.
The approach to the fighting in this franchise has always been realism. Again, hence 'Virtua.' While I feel it succeeds to a point all the problems I just stated with the controls are what held this first game back.

Not that it's all bad. Despite the complaints the game is still very well put together all things considered. For being one of the first games in it's genre (3D fighters) the game has a lot of variety. There are eight characters to choose from with one hidden character accessed through a code. All of which have very unique fighting styles that even the most casual player will notice. In comparison the first Mortal Kombat came out in arcades the year before Virtua Fighter did, had seven characters that all played very samey, and it was in an already established genre (2D fighters.) So Virtua Fighter did do a great job of standing out and not just in visuals but technique.
That being said, when you do get used to the controls and are actually able to stand up against the unfair difficulty it can be a blast. Having the 3D movement adds another element games like Street Fighter just don't have. While still in it's infancy here it at least did do it pretty well on it's first try.
Going even further into that. If you're looking at one on one against a friend this may be a better title to start with regardless of skill set. This game only has a three button set up of punch, kick, block. For comparison games like Street Fighter have a six button setup to make way for high punch, low punch, high kick, etc. So in Virtua Fighter your moves are limited. Even in the manual there's only a handful of special moves and most of them require very short combinations. This certainly isn't a competition level fighter. So even if you're playing against a friend who has a higher fighting game skill set you've got a better chance against them than otherwise.

Fighting games are something I've always been interested in but was never that great at. I love their pickup and play approach. I love their variety. I love how every franchise is really unique when other genres can't lay claim to that. I love about every aspect except the time, attention, and dedication it takes to be any good at them. If I were to spend as much time perfecting my skill in a fighting game as others do I'd probably consider it a waste of time and wished I became a real fighter in real life instead.
But that's the nature of the beast. Fighting games are competitive. As they should be. That's why Street Fighter IV is one of the hardest games to Platinum on PS3 (and I'm sure for achievements for on 360 as well.) The genre knows it's audience and they know it well. I'm just thankful not all franchises are like that. Which is why I've always enjoyed Virtua Fighter. They are competitive but far more approachable for the most part.
Despite it's challenges and outdated controls I still enjoy these games. I just wish I was better at them. Although, to be honest, I don't know how much I'll be playing this version from here on out. It was a rough and tough experience that I didn't enjoy as much as I once did. I look forward to picking up Virtua Fighter 2 and Fighters Megamix again. And once that time comes I can pretty much guarantee this disc will be collecting dust for a while. Until I pull it out to show a curious friend or to see if I can actually play through it after playing the improved sequels more.

Seriously. If you're interested in the Saturn get one of the sequels. Even the 'Remix' version of this is better. Don't feel the need to chase this one down unless you're a completionist collector. That's about the only reason.

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