TL;DR: Virtua Fighter is a cup of French press to Tekken’s Venti Quad White Mocha with whip cream & caramel drizzle on top.
Virtua Fighter 5 is my most played game of the last 7 or so years, covering the whole “HD consoles” generation. To be more accurate, I meant all 3 forms of Virtua Fighter 5, with the PS3 version in early 2007, Virtua Fighter 5 Online on Xbox 360 in late 2007, and Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown on PS3 again in 2012. Now it’s no secret that I like fighting games (just read the url on top). But since the first version of Virtua Fighter 5 came out, plenty of sequels, remakes, rereleases, and brand new fighting game series came out. And I would usually jump on the new hotness. But I still came back to VF5 throughout the generation, partially because I’ve been a big fan of Virtua Fighter since the 2nd one (VF2+Daytona USA+SEGA Rally sold me a Saturn). But even so, there’s just something appealing to how Virtua Fighter progressed in one direction while every other series went the other and kept adding more “stuff” into their games. And this is just crystallized so well with Final Showdown. I play Virtua Fighter not because it’s a deep game, but because it’s a simple one.
Virtua Fighter has always been a simple game, relying only on 3 buttons (aside from VF3). It has no super moves, no meters to fill, and no tag-teams (though there was team-battle in the Saturn version of VF2 and in VF3. Wish they’d bring that back). Yet seemingly, a lot of people hail Virtua Fighter 5 as “the deepest fighter of them all” and that it “takes a life-time to master one character” (I think that last one is way overblown). True or not, that isn’t necessarily a description of whether it is complex or not. And I think Virtua Fighter is not.
This is not just the case with Virtua Fighter. A lot of other fighting game series started out as quite simple. But then the pressure of “upping the ante” and the need to add “new features” that could be used to sell the sequel steered a lot of these games to just add more “stuff” into them. And now the newest iteration of each of these long-running series just has so much stuff. Street Fighter 4 introduced Ultras and Focus Attacks, and now Ultra Street Fighter 4 has Red Focus Attack. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 has, well, tagging from the first Tekken Tag Tournament back and also Rage mode brought from Tekken 6. And Tekken Revolution is…the less said, the better. Dead Or Alive 5 has Power Blows and now Power Launchers introduced with Dead Or Alive 5 Ultimate. SoulCalibur V has super moves and EX moves, working just like in Street Fighter 4 and Mortal Kombat 2011 (though I guess that Mortal Kombat will retroactively be called Mortal Kombat 9). And King Of Fighters XIII also got EX moves, drive-canceling (which is somewhat borrowed and expanded on from KOF 2002’s canceling system), and NeoMAX. And that’s just their latest iteration, which is just an accumulation of so many sub-systems and mechanics and features over years and years of games.
Virtua Fighter, on the other hand, has simple refinements with each new iteration. VF3 introduced an evade button and realistic stages with uneven ground. VF4 took out the evade button and made it a directional input, while the uneven stages introduced a bit of randomness (such as moves missing because the characters were not on even level etc.). So the stages were reverted back to being flat. Virtua Fighter 5 may as well be a remake of VF4 Evolution (feature-wise, at least. I don’t know much about the game balance side of things).
Final Showdown, however, may have the biggest changes since going from VF3 to VF4. Jumps are now universally more snappier, and more useful overall. Throw-escapes were also simplified, making it easier to execute, and shifting it to be more based on prediction and anticipation without relying too much on timing and execution. For example, since I play a lot against my brother who plays Wolf, I know that he tries to go for a Burning Hammer (Wolf’s most damaging grab) or Giant Swing (which throws the opponent so far ahead, making it useful for ring outs). And both end with the same directional input (front) so I can just hold front P+G while guarding and it’ll take care of that (while still being in a guard-state, so I can also defend against strikes). And as long as I’m holding that input, I will cancel both throws. It’s a great simplification that extenuates the less interesting part of competitive fighting game (execution) and highlights the more enjoyable part of it (strategy).
This is just one simple strategic decision you can make in Final Showdown. Virtua Fighter is filled with these beautiful rock-paper-scissor moments. I know other competitive fighting games at a certain level do become about reading the opponents moves, predicting their upcoming moves, and then planning accordingly (Just like chess, which is a popular analogy with fighters), but they’re also based on executing very long combos with 1-frame links, or resource management based on however many meters you (and your opponent) have at the time & what options do these open up. And yes, Virtua Fighter does have combos but they are nowhere near as long as in Tekken or Dead or Alive (especially with the whole critical stun system the new one has) or any 2D fighter, really. And they require less move inputs.
But what Virtua Fighter lacks in complexity, it gains in the amount of detail AM2 puts into it. Probably more than any other major 3D fighter, the move animations in Virtua Fighter are done in a fairly realistic fashion, with no crazy flying kicks or contorting limbs like a ragdoll (aside from Kage’s few high-flying moves. Then again, he is a Ninja). But more importantly, the animations for the normal, grounded moves convey their properties so clearly. And in Final Showdown specifically, nearly all the moves from vanilla VF5 were reanimated to convey their properties even more clearly. So a high attack will look high enough that it would leave some space to crouch under. A roundhouse kick (which is a circular strike that cannot be evaded) looks like it would not be possible to evade into or out of the screen. A half-circular attack that is only coming from the right side & stopping ahead of the player, leaving the left side clear, would look as such, and opponents can see that and learn that it’s possible to dodge that move from the left side. A launcher attack has to have the believable momentum to hit the opponent from under with the considerable force needed to launch them. Thus they tend to be slow & have a long recovery. This makes learning the moves of your opponent character, what their properties are, and therefore how to react to them, much more intuitive.
I’m not saying that other fighting games don’t have all of these features in them, that they don’t have quality animation or are based on reading the opponent or frame-counting and such. They all do to a certain extent. But with Virtua Fighter, and especially Final Showdown, it’s just much more pronounced. And I think it’s because AM2 disregarded cramming the series with subsystems and meters and tagging and whatever flashy features they could put in. And they just focused on improving the core fighting game mechanics, making them more potent, more pure. Even when talking about Virtua Fighter as a franchise, the Virtua Fighter IP is just the games, and not much else. It never got a live-action movie or a CG one (there was a Virtua Fighter anime all the way back in 1996. But not much beyond that). It never got its Death By Degrees, or its rhythm mobile game, or a real-time strategy action game, or a prequel visual novel. The series never had a story mode, it doesn’t even have CG endings. Although there is a backstory, funny enough, but it’s all just based on the blurbs written in the instruction manuals and ancillary text on official sites and whatnot.
(yes, there was Virtua Quest but that was barely about the VF characters, who only appeared as bosses that teach their fighting skills to the main character. I mean, they are not even alive. They’re all dead by the future time that Virtua Quest takes place in. And only data about their fighting styles remains, stored as some sort of chips that you collect throughout the game. I’m not sure if Virtua Quest is even canon.)
The problem, though, is that this kind of makes the Virtua Fighter series feel a little bit cold in a surgical way. That it’s all completely about the fighting game aspect and absolutely nothing else past that. And that all these characters only exist in their fighting game forms, with no life beyond the fighting ring. Bad as they generally tend to be, movies based on fighting games do at least flesh out the character’s personality.
This, combined with the modest, non-flashy nature of Virtua Fighter’s combat style, may be reasons why Virtua Fighter is just not the most popular fighting game series in the market. But theres something to be said for a developer that knows their priorates and commits to them so much, sometimes to the detriment of the games salability. And I honestly admire that. if nothing, Virtua Fighter, and especially Final Showdown is, in my opinion, the ultimate expression of the fighting game genre presented in the simplest of forms.