Virtua Cop (1995, Sega AM2 for Sega Saturn)

Virtua Cop is the third of Sega’s blockbuster trilogy that revitalized the Sega Saturn in Christmas 1995, giving the troubled system a second chance at life. Such an idea must sound strange, considering the machine was launched in May that year, but Sega found themselves reeling from Sony Playstation’s successful launch in September, as well as a solid year of negative press and foul rumors. Saturn was widely seen as a mistake, if not an outright failure, before it even arrived on store shelves. They needed a miracle to win back the public. Here is one of those three miracles.

AM2 was Sega’s marquee arcade game division, responsible for the company’s most beloved classics including Outrun, Space Harrier, Afterburner, Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. Virtua Cop was released to arcades in 1994 and became another smash success. The Saturn conversion began the following year, utilizing the studio’s internally-developed Saturn Graphics Library to take full advantage of the hardware. The result is a practically flawless translation that far exceeded anybody’s expectations.

Shooting games have been a staple of arcades and amusement parks for decades, even before the arrival of the computer age. I remember seeing several very large and very old target-practice games at the Minnesota State Fair as a child, such as Keeney Air Raider, a gun game created in 1940 where you shoot down enemy aircraft. With the arrival of videogames, we saw many classic video target games such as Duck Hunt, Operation Wolf and Terminator 2. The technology was becoming ever more advanced, but the basic gameplay had never changed. A target moves along a screen, you shoot it and score points.

Sega’s Virtua Cop represents the first real evolution of this genre. Its 3D polygon graphics bring you into an immersive, interactive world, where you traverse waterfront docks, warehouses, construction zones, and modern office buildings. You walk down passageways, pass through gates, hide behind large crates, attempt to dodge moving vehicles, climb stairs, explore garages and offices. Your opponents are also rendered in 3D polygons and they pop out from every conceivable angle, running in front of you, hiding behind metal barrels, sniping from rooftops, jumping off the back of trucks, climbing down escalators, darting through doors. Many will also attack at close range with axes or hurl grenades from a distance.

Shots on criminals are context-sensitive, meaning that they will respond to where they were hit, whether it be an arm, leg, chest of head. Bonus points are awarded for a “justice shot” that knocks the guns from your opponents’ hands (which I presume means they’re arrested and not killed). In addition, you can strike with a three-shot combo that raises your score multiplier and awards bonus points. This feature is balanced by the low number of bullets in your gun, as you must shoot off-screen to reload. Do you play carefully and aim for single-kill or justice shots, or do you reach for the high score with three-shot combos?

There is a fair amount of interactivity in this world, including exploding red barrels that can wipe out a group of criminals at once, windows that can be shattered and wooden crates that hide power-up weapons such as machine guns, shotguns and the Eastwood-approved Magnum (you will lose these if you get shot). In one scene, you can collapse a metal observation tower by detonating a red barrel. It doesn’t achieve anything, but it looks super cool and adds to the realism. It all adds to a very convincing sense of fighting through a fully realized virtual world, and it was absolutely sensational to experience when it was new.

Heck, it remains exciting today. Rare’s programmers famously cited Virtua Cop as a primary influence on Goldeneye, and it’s easy to understand, especially when you’re blasting your way through the computer office, black-suited agents hiding behind the desks, camouflaged soldiers running past the front gates. You can understand why first-person shooters took over this genre and became so massively successful. They’re all just VC without the rails.

As always, there are civilians and hostages who keep wandering into the middle of the firefight; you’re penalized for shooting them by “accident,” but let’s be honest. There are a lot of times where these idiots are just asking to be shot. Are you sure there isn’t a cheat code that rewards me for killing civilians? Check up on that.

One especially nice feature are the timing circles that surround enemies, which serves as a warning when baddies will open fire. As you progress through the game’s three stages, enemies will jump out at greater angles and distances, giving you less time to react to threats. Not all criminals will be marked with the circle, which means they won’t shoot you, but you can still shoot them for extra points.

Virtua Cop is a sensational roller coaster thrill ride. The action blazes by at a relentless rush, and the enemy syndicate puts up a challenging fight. It’s probably the best early demonstration of Saturn’s 3D powers, as the environments are fairly immersive and complex. I suspect that some slight-of-hand trickery is at play, where some backdrops that appear to be polygons are in fact 2D bitmaps. But the illusions are so convincing that I cannot discover the secret to these tricks. I would love to learn just how Sega AM2 squeezed a $15,000 arcade machine into a $300 home console, and one that couldn’t “doo three-dee,” no less. No Saturn library is complete without this classic. Fantastic, marvelous job. Everybody gets a free cookie.

P.S. One final note about the controls. Virtua Cop is meant to be played with Sega’s Stunner, but light guns will only work on CRT displays. If you wish to play on a modern HDTV, you will be forced to use a joypad or a mouse. As compromises go, it’s less than ideal but does work after some practice. That said, you’re going to want to find a picture tube television to play this classic as Sega and God intended.

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