Virtua Fighter 2 (1995, Sega AM2 for Sega Saturn)

Virtua Fighter 2 is the greatest videogame ever made for Sega Saturn. It is the system’s greatest critical and commercial success, especially in Japan, where Sega was most successful, competing evenly against Sony for several years and even beating Nintendo. The arcade game was an enormous success that defined a standard in 3D martial arts games, and is probably Sega’s most successful franchise in its home country. This is their Led Zeppelin IV.

In the West, the Virtua Fighter series was less successful and never achieved more than cult status. Gamers were more accustomed to Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, which were far easier for beginners and casual players. Here’s the dirty little secret: most kids play fighting games by mashing buttons. If you mash buttons enough, the character on screen does something cool and interesting, and if you win and you’ll win. If you mash buttons and nothing interesting happens, then the game sucks and play something else. Tekken 3 was a huge hit because you could play Eddie Gordo and perform his amazing gymnastics routine by just mashing the kick buttons. Why do you think wrestling videogames have always been so popular? Because all you do is smash the controller with one hand while holding pizza with the other.

The Virtua Fighter series actively punishes button mashers. Instead, it introduces a new world of martial arts theory, including movement, timing, offense and defense. It has a steep learning curve. The game should probably come packaged with a textbook for studying movelists, frame data and flow charts. At its core, the game is rock-paper-scissors played at five times normal speed. Block beats Attack. Attack beats Throw. Throw beats Block. Added to this mix is something called “recovery time,” which is the time it takes your fighter to recover from a move. Now the eternal question: what will happen if my attack is blocked? Can my opponent attack or throw me during my recovery phase?

We are talking about fractions of a second in game time, and tournament players will obsess over frame rate charts to know just what attacks to use at which times, and when to never use those super-flashy moves that leave you gasping for air if missed. One of the most crucial lessons of Virtua Fighter is to learn how to punish mistakes. Here, reckless attacks will get you killed. You need to know how to read your opponent, predict their next move and beat them to the next punch. Once you can get inside their head and disrupt their thinking, you’ve won the match.

True mastery lies not only in knowing your abilities, but the abilities of your opponent as well. In this regard, VF2 is closer to a martial arts simulation than anything. It’s a contest between competing schools: Chinese kung fu, jeet kun do, drunken boxing, praying mantis, American wrestling, the dreaded “five-point fist.” Most people will choose one fighter as their main character and then study them endlessly. Sarah Bryant is my character. Her attacks are balanced between high, mid and low regions, she has fast strikes, and there are several moves that launch an opponent into the air, leading to “rolled” or improvised float combos.

Advanced techniques include guard cancels (the ability to “cancel” a canned combo); exploiting minor and major counters (attacking during an opponent’s recovery phase or during movement, respectively); ring positioning and knowing where fighters will move if a basic throw is escaped (an innovation introduced in VF2); double-dashing for faster movement; and even observing feet position, either “closed” or “open” stance, which can result in additional combo hits under the right conditions. Players must also factor in the weight of the fighters, which affects how high they will float when knocked down, and the possibility of an “on the bounce” attack at the moment they hit the floor (a technique that was greatly expanded in Virtua Fighter 3).

Finally, a ProTip for all players: never use the long “floaty” jumps. Those will get you killed. Always tap the joystick or joypad, never hold. Tappa-tappa-tappa (“I got yer tappa-tappa-tappa”). That said, there are some impressive combo videos that feature the floaty jumps if you are willing to study them.

Have I mentioned there’s a lot of study in this game?

Thankfully, you can learn the ropes with a little practice, and nearly all characters have an assortment of “canned” combo attacks, usually variants of punch-punch-kick. Lau Chan is notorious for his relentless punch rushes. Jacky Bryant has some great spinning attacks that are effective. I always abuse Sarah’s elbow-knee combo whenever possible. If you prefer powerful throws, Jeffry and Wolf are your go-to guys. If you prefer speed and defense, Pai Chan is best. If you just want to confuse everybody, Shun Di’s drunken boxing will deliver the goods.

The expert character in the game is Akira Yuki, who only has a two-punch canned combo and a series of powerful strikes that all require complex joystick movements, back-back-forward-punch+kick, that sort of thing. His most devastating attack is known as the “Stun Palm of Doom,” three powerful strikes that hit an opponent at all angles and drains nearly their entire life bar. It requires three movements to be performed in under a second. If you see it in action, it is a sight of beauty. If it happens to you in a match, just hand the other player your lunch money. You’re screwed.

Virtua Fighter 2 is a spectacular showcase for Sega Saturn. It was the first title to utilize the system’s famous 704×480 high resolution mode, higher than VGA resolution and double the resolution of all its contemporaries. Combined with a rock-solid 60 frames per second, a sensational use of color and set design, and superb animation, and the result is a visual masterpiece. The 3D character models are brilliantly conceived, clean and sharp. AM2 uses a little slight-of-hand trickery with the backgrounds, using 2D bitmaps via the Saturn’s VDP2 chip. It’s a fascinating compromise in an era where all home videogames must make compromises with limited technology (the polygon era probably should have been pushed back to the Sixth Generation). As in all great art, the trick lies in knowing what to cut out. Music lies in the spaces between the notes.

I had recently read that VF2 is the first videogame to incorporate motion capture animation, and I think that was one key reason for it’s astonishing character animation. Fighters move with a graceful beauty that was inconceivable with 2D hand-drawn or digitized sprites; they sway, stumble, spin, punch and kick with an amazing lifelike fluidity. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. For comparison’s sake, go watch Battle Arena Toshinden on Playstation, which was released three months prior in September 1995. The difference between the two titles is astonishing. Such were the rapid advances of the Fifth Generation, where today’s hot star became tomorrow’s has-been.

Playing in 2018, I am amazed at how clean and crisp VF2 looks on a Sony HDTV with composite cables, at how rich and detailed the spectacular synth-rock music sounds through the speakers, how clean and clear the voice samples echo in the room. Sega AM2 exceeded their best expectations. If anything, they were a little too good, setting a standard that Sega Saturn could barely reach again. I think Dead or Alive does a better job with its backgrounds in faking a 3D environment, but this game has stronger animation and art design. And it has that legendary gameplay, almost limitless depth. My head tells me that Virtua Fighter 3 was the series’ peak, but my heart tells me it’s really Virtua Fighter 2. Cue the Bonham drums.

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