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

Like many Western gamers, I discovered Virtua Fighter in the arcades but struggled to understand its mechanics, which were far closer to true martial arts than the antics of Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat. When I bought a Sega Saturn in the summer of 1995, I sat down and tried to teach myself the game, which was always intriguing but slightly puzzling, out of reach. It took a fair amount of time to fully comprehend its depths, but once it finally clicked for me, I was hooked for life.

Virtua Fighter plays out like a very fast and precise contest of rock-paper-scissors. Two combatants face off in an arena and battle with an arsenal of punches, kicks, throws and blocks. Blocking beats attacking. Attacking beats throwing. Throwing beats blocking. Fireballs and over-the-top cartoon maneuvers were out. Fatalities were out. What remained was the pure essence of the sport, like a finely cut steak. Here, offense and defense are fairly balanced. Timing and patience are essential assets. Simply mashing buttons — the way most kids played fighting videogames — would get you killed. Precision and strategy would yield victories.

Gamers who grew up on the arcade games of the 1980s would recognize this gameplay, for it was the direct descendant of Karate Champ, which was created by Technos and published by Data East. I was personally more familiar with Archer Maclean’s World Karate Championship on Atari 800, published by Epyx and featured a single-joystick control scheme that was surprisingly deep and intuitive. These titles were pure martial arts, focusing on bone-crunching punches and kicks, requiring strategy and good timing to win. Again, just wriggling the joystick or bashing buttons as fast as possible would never work. You’d just become a sitting duck.

Because of this, I suspect, Sega’s Virtua Fighter series has remained more of a cult hit than its peers, and certainly compared to Japan where it became a blockbuster hit and almost single-handedly made Saturn a success in 1994 and 1995. Its sequels would become ever more complex, adding more layers to its strategic core, things like throw escapes, staggers, stumbles, sideways dodging and elevated floors. Most players, and this certainly includes the videogame magazines, could never get passed the “mashing” phase, and dismissed the series as little more than “punch-punch-punch-kick.” In the hands of rookie players, yes, that is true. But for those who study the characters’ moves and understood the timing of attacks and block recoveries, it’s not “PPPK.” It’s “punch, then high- or mid-level kick, then dodge their counter-kick if they block and respond with a foot sweep.”

What’s great about the Virtua Fighter cast is the diversity. The father-daugher duo of Lau and Pai Chan employ Kung Fu lightning punches, but the father relies on powerful strikes while the daughter relies upon speed and balance, even reversing an opponent’s attack. Siblings Jacky and Sarah Bryant employ Jeet Kun Do in different ways, with spinning punches or angled kicks. Jeffrey and Wolf use their sheer strength to overpower foes with many powerful and impressive throws. Kage Maru employs Ninjitsu acrobatics, including the deadly “ten foot toss”. And Akira, the expert’s character, utilizes fast strikes and brutal throws that are almost entirely his own. In the hands of a VF master, Akira is simply unstoppable.

The key to mastering Virtua Fighter lies in knowing not only your character’s abilities, but your opponents as well. You have to know what attacks are best blocked or avoided, and what maneuvers are “punch countered” or “throw countered.” You must be able to read your opponent’s mind and anticipate their next move, so that you can duck that roundhouse kick, block that uppercut punch, or hop over that foot sweep. In this sense, Sega has given us the closest thing to a true martial arts simulation, while staying within the arcade tradition of speed and finesse.

The original arcade game was rendered entirely with flat-shaded polygons, which was an amazing technical feat in 1993. There was an almost cubist abstraction to the character designs, but the animation was so astonishingly fluid and natural, far beyond the hand-drawn sprites of Street Fighter 2 or the digitized graphics of Mortal Kombat. You could tell that you were seeing the future of videogames in front of your eyes. Meanwhile, Sony paid very close attention to Virtua Fighter’s success, taking careful notes as they made careful plans, waiting for Sega and Nintendo to become intoxicated with their own arrogant laziness.

Virtua Fighter on the Sega Saturn has aged pretty terribly, with its notoriously glitchy graphics, particularly the arenas, which seemed to crumble or disappear at random. Back in 1995, most of us rarely noticed as we were too busy fighting one another, and, besides, this was a vast improvement over the 3DO and Atari Jaguar, to say nothing of the ancient Genesis and Super NES. Of course, once the Playstation dropped with Toshinden, the jig was up. But that was September, and this was May or June, and Sega had all the time in the world. In this one instance, Sega Japan was absolutely correct to launch their system early. They held the weaker cards and everybody knew it.

Thankfully, Sega AM2 had one ace up their sleeve, and it arrived in the mailbox just as Sony Playstation was set to launch: Virtua Fighter Remix. This game was freely given to all those who had sent in their Saturn registration cards. And what a gift! The classic martial arts gameplay was still fully intact, with over 700 moves and nine characters, but now the graphics were given a complete overhaul. The polygon characters were now fully texture mapped and boldly splashed with color. The arenas were also overhauled, the jagged glitches entirely removed. The floors were now sharper, cleaner, smoother.

Toshinden may have dazzled in 1995 with its gouraud shading and transparent polygons, but its character models are crude, its frame rate sluggish, its game mechanics cliched and sloppy. Virtua Fighter Remix looks cleaner, sharper, runs much faster and more precise, and — most importantly — plays significantly better. Its combat is far deeper and more strategic, rewarding practice and patience. These were the hallmarks we all associate with Sega in the 1990s.

Much of this is academic, of course. By Christmas, Virtua Fighter 2 had dropped and exploded, giving Saturn its greatest blockbuster smash hit and rendering all previous fighting games “obsolete.” Of course, no videogame that is enjoyable is ever obsolete, but it has been a bit harder to go back to VF Remix after playing VF2, Fighting Vipers and Fighters Megamix, which are all significantly smoother and more evolved expressions of the original idea. Such is the way of things. Sgt. Pepper is more “evolved” than “Please Please Me. Blonde on Blonde is more “advanced” than The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. True fans will endlessly debate whether forward progress is good or bad or merely a cultural myth. The world goes on.

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