The year is 1993, and Sega is at the top of its game. Just one year earlier, the Genesis had successfully broken the dominance Nintendo held over the U.S. video game market, managing to gain a lead in video game sales. At the same time of this height of the home market, the arcades experienced a short-lived renaissance, as a certain fighting game released by Capcom led to a renewed popularity of video game centers that had been in decline during the eighties. Vs. brawlers drew players back into the arcades. At this point, a prodigy at Sega created a game series that would revolutionize the genre and set the mark for years to come. Even though many other Sega franchises have fallen in grace over time, this one still remains at the top of its league even today. That man was Yu Suzuki, and the game was called Virtua Fighter.
Birth of a Hit Franchise
Suzuki wasn’t an unknown at that time, as he had already created some of Sega’s most important arcade hits (games like After Burner II, OutRun, Space Harrier or Super Hang-On). Some even refer to him as Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto. In the early nineties, he was heading Sega’s Amusement Machine Research and Development Department 2 (better known as AM-2). In this position. Suzuki began dabbling in bringing 3D-technology into the arcades using polygons. His first – and highly successful – venture would be Virtua Racing based on Sega’s new “Model 1″ hardware board that had been developed in cooperation with the multinational aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Though Atari’s Hard Drivin‘ had already brought a polygonal 3D experience into the arcades four years earlier, Sega’s new technology allowed a more realistic sense of motion and fluidity for gameplay. The Model 1 was able to render 180.000 polygons per second, highly improving the standards set to date. The technology was groundbreaking and was even recognized as such outside the industry. In 1998, the Virtua Fighter series was recognized by the Smithsonian Institute for its groundbreaking contributions in the fields of arts and entertainment, and some of their arcade cabinets became part of the permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Virtua Fighter itself was an instant hit. Even though hardware limitations meant that each of the eight player characters (and one boss) had top be created with less than 1200 polygons each, and even though these blocky characters didn’t sport the good looks of the 2D fighters, players had never before seen such fluid body movements in an interactive game, let alone in a faux 3D environment. As an arcade title, Virtua Fighter became one of Sega’s most successful games in Japan. For this reason, the decision was made to make it one of the launch titles of Sega’s next generation platforms, the Saturn. Even though it was not a pack-in in Japan and was sold separately, sales of the Saturn port of Virtua Fighter were almost on an 1:1 ratio to Saturns sold. In the U.S. and in Europe, the game’s fame was more moderate.
Final Glory for a Failed Add-On: The 32X Port
Due to the amount of rendering necessary for the character sprites, cartridge or CD space wasn’t actually that much of an issue for this game. The limiting factor was raw processing power. The Genesis’ Motorola 68000 couldn’t handle the efforts necessary to create and move the polygons at a bearable speed. The 32X, however, DID provide two SH2-32bit RISC processors, and even though these were tacted at a slower speed, there was a certain relationship to the boards used in the arcades. Wishing to cash in on the fame of its newly created franchise, Sega therefore decided in 1995 to port the game to the 32X as well, a decision that many gamers at the time thought laughable. How could the much maligned Genesis add-on recreate a launch title of a next generation console? Critics were in for a major surprise, though. While the 32X fighters had to be created with even fewer polygons (making for a even blockier look) and most of the bitmaps used to cover the created area were cut out (they were mostly used for backgrounds anyway), the result was a very faithful representation of the arcade hit, on a 16-bit console no less. Electronic Gaming Monthly declared the port to be “32X game of the year.” It would be one of the very few true accolades for the black mushroom, which would soon be discontinued.
However, by the time Virtua Fighter was ported to the 32X, the arcades were already running the sequel. In further cooperation with Lockheed Martin, Sega had improved its chipset and came up with the Model 2 arcade board. Though groundbreaking, the blocky characters of Virtua Fighter simply looked ugly compared to those running on the second generation hardware. With the new technology, not only were the character models more detailed (Model 2 could render 300.000 polygons per second and display them at 60fps), but an extra layer of bitmaps also greatly improved their looks. Also, Virtua Fighter 2 sort of started a tradition within the series: With every new installment, two new characters would be added to the game (In this case French teenager Leon Rafale and the drunkard Shun Di). As a consequence, the 32X version, though released only a year earlier, already looked and felt dated upon arrival.
A Success Runs Wild
The new game raised the bar on how 3D fighters had to look and became an even greater success than its predecessor. The effect could only be described as a Virtua Fighter craze. A “2.1″ version of the game, released only in Japan, tweaked the gameplay and graphics and fixed a few minor bugs (like an elbow attack by character Jackie hitting his opponents from across the screen). An updated version of the original using the new Model 2 technology, called Virtua Fighter Remix, hit the arcade, followed later by a strange SD version of Virtua Fighter 2, the odd Virtua Fighter Kids. Here, child-like variations of the known characters face off against each other. All these games were ported to the Saturn, which, despite lacking in performance power, made a good job of capturing the arcade experience, though at a slightly slower speed. Japan then saw the release of the Virtua Fighter Portrait Series, which had no gameplay value but simply portrayed each of the eight characters in different poses and demonstrated their movements. Also of note is the Saturn game Fighters Megamix, a mashup of the arcade games Fighting Vipers and Virtua Fighter 2 with an abundance of hidden characters thrown in as well (e.g. two characters from the arcade brawler Sonic the Fighters, Bean and Bark).
The franchise even spun off into an anime series which lasted two seasons (thirty-five episodes, 1995-1996) and ran in several countries, including italy, Chile, and Mexico. The TV show took quite a few liberties with the way it interpreted the characters. For example, instead of being a disciplined Karateka, the animated Akira Yuki is a bumbling slacker who greets us for the very first time by stuffing his face with noodles in a Chinese restaurant. Despite the obvious differences between the show and its source material, the series had a certain degree of popularity nevertheless, and was the inspiration for an 8-bit version of the game.
Genesis of Bit Parts: 16- and 8-Bit Installments
The Genesis was already on its way out by this point in time (and the 32X was as good as discontinued). In a last ditch effort to milk as much money as possible out of the newly created franchise, Sega still went ahead and gave the Genesis an installment of its own. In 1996, North America and Europe saw their own Genesis releases of Virtua Fighter 2 (Japan had already abandoned the console altogether by that point). A Virtua Fighter in name only, the Genesis version omits the two new characters added and thus just sports the cast of the first game with their outfits from part two. Also, since the Genesis was unable to pull off the 3D graphics, it was made into a standard 2D brawler instead. While sporting incredibly good looks for a 16-bit fighting game, the Genesis port couldn’t stand its ground against other fighters on the platform. The original’s appeal was mainly in its fluid, realistic motions, so the creators had dropped the flashy special moves prevalent in 2D fighters and instead concentrated on combos and various, more realistic attacks. This fluidity of motion was lost in the 2D version for Sega’s 16-bit machine, and without flashy special moves the Genesis Virtua Fighter 2 had virtually nothing with which to distinguish itself from the other fighters available on the platform, and it failed to have much of an impact.
Even the old 8-bit machines received a piece of the cake: Virtua Fighter Animation, also known as Virtua Fighter Mini, was a 2D fighter similar to the Genesis installment and one of the last official releases for the Game Gear in 1996 (and with a size of 8MBit, it’s one of the biggest games ever made for the system). The game was developed by Aspect, a small company that created a number of titles for Sega’s 8-bit machines. With this wave of the franchise’s popularity, the handheld was re-released in Japan as the “Kid’s Gear,” sporting a casing in Virtua Fighter-style finishing and a price label of 14.800 Yen. Tectoy, Sega’s Brazilian partner, also ported the title from the Game Gear to the Master System.
A Beacon of Light During Sega’s Waning Years
1997 would for many years be the last time Sega’s net income wouldn’t be in the red. A big part of this last successful year would be Virtua Fighter 3, Sega’s biggest arcade hit to date, even though arcades worldwide were in decline again (aside from Japan). Again, the game raised the bar from a technological standpoint: over 1.000.000 polygons, Anti-aliasing and goraud shading made it an optical feast, most notable in the shining, T1000 like appearance of boss character Dural, in whose surface surrounding objects were mirrored. It was also the first 3D fighting game to allow competitions on uneven grounds, such as staircases or rooftops. The addition of a dodge button finally allowed implementation of actual 3D movement as well, instead of being just an optical gimmick. Also, jumps were less floaty than before, where characters could leap incredible distances and regularly sail through the air.
An updated version, Virtua Fighter 3tb, also included a Team Battle mode somewhat reminiscent of the King of Fighters series. This game would also become one of the launch titles for Sega’s Dreamcast. The port, despite being one of the Dreamcast’s more successful titles, came in rather choppy and fell way behind the console’s capabilities and the arcade’s example. This was partly due to the rushed nature of the port and the fact that the job had been given to the software house Genki instead of being developed by AM2. Even though the undulated stages were an interesting innovation, it seems that gamers didn’t quite come to like this new addition, which is perhaps the reason why Sega chose to omit that feature in later installments.
With both arcades and Sega in decline, Virtua Fighter 4 first hit the scene in 2001 to little fanfare: Unlike its predecessor, the game wasn’t graphically and technologically ahead of the curve this time around (franchises like Namco’s Soul Calibur now dominated the scene). While again two characters were added, the large sumo wrestler Taka-Arashi, introduced in Virtua Fighter 3, was cut from the roster. Also, instead of the usual bright demeanor of the previous games, Virtua Fighter 4 now sported a decidedly grittier feel. As with the previous game, Virtua Fighter 4 also served to introduce Sega’s new arcade board, this time named NAOMI 2.
With Sega splitting the hardware scene in 2001, the home versions of the game wouldn’t be released on a console developed in-house. Instead, it was released on the Playstation 2, where it became an incredible success. The updated version Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, with better graphics and two additional characters, even outsold the direct rival Tekken 5 on Sony’s powerhouse and is considered by many to be one of the best games available for the platform.
More something of a curiosity is the spin-off Virtua Quest, an action-RPG for the Playstation 2 and Nintendo Gamecube. In this game the player follows a young character named Sei, who travels through cyberspace exploring and collecting so-called Virtua Souls – dataspheres that contain information about and the martial arts abilities of the Virtua Fighter-characters (based off the roster of Virtua Fighter 4). This RPG, also developed by AM2 and published by Sega, was met with only mediocre reviews and failed to gain much recognition.
The latest installment of the series Virtua Fighter 5, continues the high standards set by the series today. First released into Japanese Arcades in 2006 (also known as “Version A,” the game saw highly successful and slightly updated conversions to the Playstation 3 (“Version B”) and even the XBOX 360 (“Version C”), the latter introducing an online vs. mode into the series for the first time. The laurels for this game remain high, and as of 2009 it still is considered to be one of the best fighting games ever created among video game reviewers (in the 200th issue of EDGE magazine, Virtua Fighter 5 was considered to be #24 in its “100 Best Games to Play Today” list, in terms of fighting games second only to Street Fighter IV).
Standing Tall into the Future
It wasn’t born on the Genesis, but Virtua Fighter saw its birth during the height of Sega’s popularity in Arcades and in the home market. Its successes even touched upon the aging home consoles and gave a last influx of quality games to soon-to-be-outdated platforms, be it Game Gear, Master System, the 32X or even the good old Genesis itself.
So, what does the future hold for the franchise? As it stands today, the outlook is promising. Arcades currently run another update of the latest installment called Virtua Fighter 5R, reintroducing the omitted character Taka-Arashi as well as again sporting an entirely new character, enlarging the roster now to twenty characters (contrary to the nine of the first game). Sega still hasn’t announced whether there will be a home port of that incarnation as well.
If anything, the series has a long-standing tradition of quality. From the birth of the 3D fighting genre onwards, the series has delivered a string of top quality titles, aside from the 2D endeavors and the somewhat lackluster Dreamcast port. Born at the height of Sega’s success, the series managed to stand tall even through the darkest of times. Chances are that this franchise will still last well into the future.
The complete release chronology is as follows:
- Virtua Fighter, arcade (November 1993)
- Virtua Fighter 2, Arcade (November 1994)
- Virtua Fighter, Saturn (November 1994 Japan, May 1995 US)
- Virtua Fighter, Tiger R-Zone (1995)
- Virtua Fighter 32X, (October/November 1995)
- Virtua Fighter 2.1, arcade (1995)
- Virtua Fighter Remix, arcade (1995)
- Virtua Fighter Remix, Saturn (July 1995 Japan, October 1995 US)
- Virtua Fighter, PC (August 1995)
- Virtua Fighter 2, Saturn (December 1995 Japan, January 1996 US)
- Virtua Fighter Kids, Arcade (1996)
- Virtua Fighter 2, Genesis (1996)
- Virtua Fighter Portrait Series, Saturn (1996)
- Virtua Fighter Mini (also known as Virtua Fighter Animation), Game Gear (March 1996)
- Virtua Fighter Kids, Saturn (July 1996)
- Fighters Megamix, Saturn (December 1996 Japan, January 1997 US)
- Virtua Fighter Animation, Master System (1997, Brazil only)
- Virtua Fighter 2, PC (September 1997)
- Virtua Fighter 3, arcade (November 1997)
- Virtua Fighter 3tb, arcade (1998)
- Virtua Fighter, Tiger Game.com (1998)
- Fighters Megamix, Tiger Game.com (1998)
- Virtua Fighter 3tb, Dreamcast (November 1998 Japan, October 1999 US)
- Virtua Fighter 4, arcade (2001)
- Virtua Fighter 4, Playstation 2 (January 2002 Japan, March 2002 US)
- Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, arcade (November 2002)
- Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, Playstation 2 (March 2003 Japan, August 2003 US)
- Virtua Fighter 10th Anniversary, Playstation 2 (November 2003)
- Virtua Fighter 4: Final Tuned, Arcade (2004)
- Virtua Quest, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Gamecube (August 2004 Japan, January 2005 US)
- Virtua Fighter 5 (Version A), arcade (July 2006)
- Virtua Fighter 5 (Version B), Playstation 3 (February 2007)
- Virtua Fighter 2 (Genesis Version), Wii Virtual Console (March 2007 Japan, April 2007 US)
- Virtua Fighter 5 (Version C), XBOX 360 (October 2007 US, December 2007 Japan)
- Virtua Fighter 5R, arcade (February 2008)
- Edge Magazine Staff. The 100 Best Games to Play Today. Edge Magazine. April 2009.
- Forster, Winnie: Spielkonsolen und Heimcomputer: 1972-2009 (3rd ed, Germany 2009).
- Gamespy Staff. Top 25 PS2 Games (uk.ps2.gamespy.com. March 2006.
- Kent, Steven L. The Ultimate History of Videogames. 2001.
- Nutt, Christian. The History of Virtua Fighter. Gamespy.com. August 2003.
- The Killer List of Videogames, http://www.klov.com